Review

by Theron Martin, Jul 26th 2005

The Notenki Memoirs

Review:
The Notenki Memoirs
Are you interested in the history and inner workings of GAINAX, the company behind landmark anime titles like Wings of Honneamise and Neon Genesis Evangelion? Then this recent translation and release by ADV Manga may well be for you. Though it is technically the autobiography of Yasuhiro Takeda, co-founder and General Manager for GAINAX, its in-depth look into the steps leading up to the formation of GAINAX and the company's inner operations makes it an interesting and worthwhile read for any true anime fan. While it may not tell the whole story – this is, after all, a work from one man's point of view, and Takeda was not present for the earliest days of the company's Tokyo production phase – a reader can glean from it a lot of insight about a company that had a major impact on more than just the anime industry in Japan but was so unconventionally structured that mismanagement (or, perhaps more accurately, inadequately skilled management) almost doomed it at more than one point. The book also provides extensive insight into the trials and tribulations of a man who has been one of the driving forces behind the company and an intrinsic part of the company's success.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first part Takeda describes his early involvement in college-based sci-fi clubs, which ultimately led tothe formation of a group that would staff and run two legendary editions of Japan's annual major sci-fi convention, DAICON 3 (in 1981) and DAICON 4 (in 1983). These two conventions not only completely redefined the way sci-fi conventions were put together in Japan but also became notable for their opening animation, which besides being a novel feature at the time also showcased the earliest animation work by Hideaki Anno. He also describes the formation and operation of General Products, a store/company which primarily specialized in producing and selling “garage kit” models at a time when such an entity simply didn't exist in Japan. (Garage kits are handmade model kits so named because they are made in limited runs, with cheaper materials, and were often originally made in a person's garage.) As a result, General Products was principally responsible for turning garage kit model production and sales into a significant industry in Japan, reforming licensing laws to account for garage kit sales at conventions, and forming Wonder Festival, the industry's annual trade show. Takeda also describes in some detail how professional computer game and animation production ultimately grew out of a combination of convention hosting and General Products and eventually led to the formation of GAINAX.

In the second part of the book Takeda describes the ins and outs of GAINAX business during his Tokyo period, which began when General Products moved to Tokyo from its original Osaka base in the summer of 1987. Included are descriptions of living and operating conditions for GAINAX staff and descriptions of various anime, computer game, and convention-organizing projects, of which only a handful—most notably Nadia: Secret of the Blue Water, the title which really put GAINAX on the map—are likely to be recognized by American fans. A bit is said about the production of Evangelion and how completely it bailed out a company that was, at that point, floundering badly, but Takeda goes into less detail on this because it's been talked about before in other books. He also brings up the tax evasion problems which plagued GAINAX in the late '90s.

Separating the two parts is a detailed third-person account of the 40th Annual Japan Sci-Fi Convention, held in Nippon in August 2001. While Takeda goes into great detail about organizing sci-fi conventions in the sections he wrote, this account gives a much clearer idea of exactly how much organizational and managerial effort he puts into these affairs. Fronting the volume is a timeline of events in Takeda's life and the business of GAINAX, while wrapping up the volume is “Trial In Absentia,” an insightful round-table interview of Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, and Hideaki Anno about Takeda, where they try define exactly why Takeda has been so important to the company over the years. (That the exact role he's played within the company is less than clear-cut but still considered critically important is a classic example of the company's unorthodox structure.) At the end of both sections is a substantial Glossary of Terms (read: end notes), which Takeda uses heavily to explain subjects and elaborate on points without disrupting the flow of the text. (I found the explanation of what Star Trek was to be amusingly unnecessary for American audiences, but this is a book originally written for a Japanese audience, after all.) The very end also has a Glossary of Names, which is quite helpful since 95% of the names he's throwing around, even those who might be famous in Japan, are not likely to be familiar even to diehard American fans.

The portions of the book written by Takeda are done in a very conversational style, which along with the larger print and short length—the entire book weighs in at a modest 192 pages—makes his sections a quick and easy read. He does not shy from talking about problems that existed and how, in retrospect, things could have been done much better, nor does he shy from taking the blame when he feels he was at fault—although in at least one case (the tax evasion issue) it seems like he is being much harder on himself than was warranted by circumstances. He also does not allow himself to stray too much into side points in the main text, instead reserving most such comments for the Glossaries. Sometimes these Glossary entries just repeat what is said in the main text, which is the one true flaw in Takeda's writing, but other times they provide valuable extra information and interesting side stories, so a reader is advised to have the Glossary sections bookmarked while reading the main text.

An American fan can take several key bits of insight away from this book. Among them are a definitive explanation of where GAINAX's name comes from (the Japanese word gaina with an X tacked on to make it sound more like a giant robot name), why the company was originally incorporated (it was intended to be only a temporary holding device for the funds used to create Wings of Honneamise), and how one of they key themes to Evangelion was actually a carryover from an uncompleted project Anno was working on immediately prior to Evangelion. Also described here is how GAINAX redefined Japanese computer games in the early '90s with key releases like Dragon Quest and Princess Maker and its involvement in various side projects, including music videos and live-action pieces, that GAINAX worked on during its earlier days. One of the key points that can be derived from the book is that GAINAX's oft-criticized practice of heavily merchandising its series is merely an outgrowth of the involvement of the garage kit business in the company's founding. Various key GAINAX personnel got their start producing merchandise for anime and sci-fi titles, so it's only natural that they would fully exploit that angle once they started producing their own highly marketable titles.

And where does the name of the book come from? Kaiketsu Notenki is a live-action parody of hero shows which DAICON FILM (the immediate ancestor of GAINAX) made in 1982 as a fun project while working on two more serious films. Takeda played the title role in the film, an “honor” which he never thereafter was able to live down.

My impression, from the look of the cover art, is that this book will be available in the same section of stores as manga titles. It is a relatively light read which is definitely work a look for diehard anime fans and anyone who is thinking about setting up their own sci-fi or anime convention.
Grade:
Production Info:
Story : B+

+ Good amount of insight into the history and inner workings of GAINAX and its origins.
Some glossary notes repeat the main text.

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