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Brain Diving

by Brian Ruh,

There's a Japanese word that you've probably heard used a lot in anime and manga – gaman. It basically means willpower, perseverance, and the ability to tough it out through whatever may come your way. As a writer, I've been going through my own version of gaman, trying to hold out as long as I can. But sometimes even a person like me can't hold out any longer. So here I am, in my nineteenth Brain Diving column, writing about Mamoru Oshii.

For those who haven't ever heard of Oshii, I usually explain that he is the director of Ghost in the Shell. Even for people who aren't anime fans, this is often enough, since the film made quite a splash when it came out in the ‘90s and again following the success of the Matrix films. There's more to him than that single film, though; his long history of creating thought-provoking films is why he is my favorite creator working in the anime industry today. (And why I wrote an MA thesis on his films that I later turned into a book.) One of the things I admire most about him is his tendency to take artistic risks and do what he wants to do in spite of what both fans and critics might say. Unlike a number of anime directors, he doesn't confine himself to animation, or even to filmmaking for that matter. In the past couple of decades, Oshii has also been involved in writing novels, scripting manga, designing art installations, directing theatrical plays, and producing documentaries, just to name a few of his endeavors.

For this column, I'm going to focus on a book that Oshii wrote in 2000, shortly after the Blood: The Last Vampire film came out. Called Blood: The Last Vampire: Night of the Beasts, it delves into the back story of the world of Blood to explain how the vampires came about and why they are being hunted in contemporary society. Released in English in 2005 by DH Press (a division of Dark Horse Comics), I find this book fascinating not only for its content but because it can act as a litmus test for how you feel about Oshii as a creator.

As a bit of background, Blood: The Last Vampire was originally a short film that came out in 2000 and was a kind of testing ground for young creators working at Production I.G under the supervision of Oshii. Although the film is noteworthy as an early example of digital animation done well, it's not particularly involved or complex. Only the ending of the film, which contrasts the events of the film with U.S. actions in Vietnam, hints at any kind of depth below the surface.  It is this depth that Oshii explores in more detail in his book, although like many franchises Blood also got video game and manga tie-ins. More recent franchise connections include the Blood+ series of anime, manga, novels as well as a live-action Blood: The Last Vampire film in 2009 (which I tried to sit through once but stopped fifteen minutes in).

For this week's Read This! I'd like to direct your attention to the profile of Oshii that ran in Senses of Cinema (a self-described “online journal devoted to the serious and eclectic discussion of cinema”) a few years ago. It is a well-written and accessible introductory piece on why the films he makes are interesting and important within world cinema. The fact that the profile appears in the site's “Great Directors” section highlights the many reasons why I first became interested in Oshii in the first place – he is a unique talent not only within the animation community, but among “regular” filmmakers as well. He demonstrates that anime can be as artistic and profound (or pretentious and boring, depending on your perspective) as live-action cinema.

Blood: The Last Vampire: Night of the Beasts
by Mamoru Oshii

In Oshii's novel, Rei Miwa is a Japanese teenager in the late 1960s, deep in the throes of rebellion against family and society: he wears his hair long, disobeys his school and his parents, and feels compelled to participate in the student protests going on throughout the city of Tokyo. One evening while fleeing from the riot police, he ducks into an alleyway and encounters a ghastly sight – a young woman in a high school uniform wielding a Japanese sword standing in front of a massive spray of blood that covers the walls of the alley. He also catches a glimpse of the mangled corpse of a seemingly unreal creature before he is knocked unconscious.

Rei awakens to find himself in an ambulance. He had been found covered in blood that was not his own (and not human) and hauled in for questioning by the police because of his suspicious circumstances. Rei is questioned by the police, but he tells them nothing both because he has been taught not to talk by other student protesters and because he does not think anyone could possibly believe what he saw. When he is released from custody, he is temporarily suspended from school and essentially confined to his room. After a week, Rei ventures out to the library and when he returns he finds a detective named Gotouda waiting for him in his room. Gotouda tells Rei that he is investigating a string of homicide cases involving student activists at other area high schools. In all of the cases, the victims died of “excessive blood loss.” Gotouda also says that he believes an activist at Rei's school will be targeted next. Although hesitant to believe Gotouda at first, Rei is finally won over when there seems to be a connection between the investigation, Rei's mysterious incident, and the fierce girl named Saya that Rei saw that night. Rei enlists the help of his other activist compatriots and with Gotouda's help they begin trying to solve the mystery of what is really behind the rash of murders.

If you've seen either Blood: The Last Vampire or Blood+, there's probably not going to be much mystery in here for you. You'll pretty quickly figure out that vampires are behind the killings and that Saya has been sent to try to exterminate them. In fact, there really isn't much to this book in the way of plot. It's a very talky book, as most of the time the characters are sitting around having conversations with one another. These conversations don't always serve to advance the narrative, either, and the book likes to spend its time in a string of digressions on various topics. In fact, you could argue that the novel seems to be little more than a necessary skeleton on which to hang Oshii's varied flights of fancy.

Even from the beginning of the book, we can get an idea of Oshii's general writing style. He begins by placing his protagonist right in the middle of a mob just waiting for the chance to clash with riot police. This could have been an exciting way to start the story, but instead of diving right into the action, Oshii digresses into the details about tactics employed by student protesters against the police and how to successfully coordinate such a mass of people into a potential threat to the established order. Like with many things, though, I don't think that Oshii is doing this because he does not know how to successfully tell an action story. The jump to the short lesson on riot tactics is intentional, possibly subverting what the average reader would naturally expect from such a novel. Now, you could certainly argue that Oshii isn't entirely successful in what he's trying to do in the book, but it's not because he's ignorant about what he “should be” doing.

There are additional brief explanatory sections in the beginning of the book, such as detailing police procedures when a student activist is arrested, but the digressions really kick in once the investigation with Gotouda gets underway. After some initial intelligence gathering, which includes talking with some activists at other schools, Rei and his friends sit down with Goutouda to discuss what they know and the possible reasons for the crime. In the process, Gotouda brings up the subject of how to dispose of dead bodies, both by criminals and across various cultures, and how the idea of the vampire began to take shape. This continues through dialogue (with a lot of lecturing by Gotouda) for thirty pages or so. Toward the end of the book, after a particularly harrowing encounter with Saya and some other vampires, Rei and Goutouda are abducted by a mysterious old man. However, rather than leading to an exciting resolution, they talk for a while and are then released. Their encounter with the man consists mostly of a long series of dialogues on vampirism, human evolution, hunting, philosophy, the nature of suffering, the Rothschild family, and the inquisitors of the Vatican. I found it to be a highly engaging series of mini-lectures, but at around 75 pages the sequence certainly derails any kind of momentum the narrative may have had. The last two also threaten to send the book careening off into what I have seen described as Da Vinci Code territory (although, to be fair, Oshii's book came out three years before Dan Brown's book). There has long been a fascination with the idea that powerful forces are manipulating world history, and Blood: The Last Vampire: Night of the Beasts plays right into some of these clichéd ideas. Thankfully, this is a relatively minor part of the overall novel, although it is key to the motivations behind the murders.

One of the things that I enjoy about following Oshii's works is the references and common themes that keep cropping up. For example, the setting of the initial scenes of student protests and riots seem to be drawn straight from the film Jin-Roh, which Oshii scripted. (And which had been, in turn, based on the Kenroh Densetsu manga that Oshii had scripted.) The characters are often eating or discussing food throughout the book, and this is running theme in Oshii's works from his earliest days working on anime titles like Time Bokan. It crops up again in Urusei Yatsura (the episode “Sure Death! The Fast Food Wars!”), Patlabor (notably in the Oshii-scripted episode “The Destruction of the SV2”), and particularly in the film Tachigui: Lives of the Fast Food Grifters. (Tachigui was originally a “mockumentary” novel by Oshii about food and postwar Japanese history that was serialized in The Sneaker from 2000 to 2003.) One could also look to the names Oshii chose to use in the novel. The protagonist Rei Miwa is similar to the name “Rei Maruwa,” which Oshii had previously used as a pseudonym for some of his early anime work as well as a character name in some of his later films. (For example, this is the name of the mysterious director who disappeared in his film Talking Head.) This lends credence to the idea that Rei is Oshii's alter ego, as Oshii would have been Rei's age at the time when the book is set and was involved in the student protest movement. Another interesting connection is that the detective's name (Gotouda Hajime) is in Japanese just one character off from “Gotou Kiichi,” who is the captain of the SV2 division in Patlabor. These are all fun little details that tie things together, but that you don't necessarily need to know in order to be able to enjoy the novel.

Ultimately, what you get out of this book may depend a lot on how you feel about Oshii and his films. Personally, I love being able to poke around inside Oshii's head for a little bit to see what kinds of things are crawling about in there. Although his digressions could have been boring, they kept me riveted to the page. As I mentioned above, a lot of the things in this book fit in with Oshii's other anime, film, and manga works, and if you are aware of these connections you'll probably get more out of the book. However, if you already think Oshii is kind of a pretentious blowhard based on the other films you've seen, Blood: The Last Vampire: Night of the Beasts is unlikely to change your mind.

Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.

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