Brain Diving The Konquistador
by Brian Ruh, May 3rd 2011
Disclosure: Andrew Osmond is the news editor for Anime News Network UK. He had no involvement with the planning, execution or editing of this article.
One little piece of info that I've been mulling over for the past week showcases how little attention most US fans pay to anime directors. The fine folks over at the Anime World Order podcast conducted a survey to find fans’ favorite anime directors. Not surprisingly, the top name was Hayao Miyazaki. Okay, I'm fine with that. He's not my favorite, but he did win the Oscar and has become a well-known name, even in English. However, once we get past first place the results begin to get a bit more disturbing. The response that came in second was that they simply didn't know any anime directors. Rounding out the top four were Eiichiro Oda and CLAMP. Although these last two responses display a valiant effort on the part of fans to come up with the name of any Japanese creator, they are in fact manga artists and not anime directors. So, in the end, the top responses consisted of the one guy whose name continues to dominate anime and then a demonstration that the majority of US fans don't really know any anime directors.
If we think back to the old-school 1980s Japanese fans fictionalized in Gainax's landmark Otaku no Video, such ignorance would have been unforgivable. I mean, otaku lived for the knowledge and accumulation of data, and would of course not only know who directed what film or television show, but quite often which animators worked on a particular scene. Now, I'll be the first to tell you that just because we use the word “otaku,” it doesn't mean that US and Japanese fans are the same. We've developed in very different cultural and economic environments, and that's certainly reflected in how we approach the objects of our obsession. Additionally, it could be argued that since the widespread adoption of the Internet, such specialized knowledge of show data isn't as important as it used to be. Why remember something when you can just whip out your phone and look it up at a moment's notice? It's like we've externalized our memories a la Ghost in the Shell. Or, as Professor Henry Jones says in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade about some important pieces of information, “I wrote them down in my diary so that I wouldn't have to remember.” (Is there irony in the fact that I couldn't remember the exact wording of that quote and had to look it up online?)
To be fair, I can completely understand the reasons why an anime fan may not be interested in directors, animators, or other creative staff involved in a show's production. Until you start getting into it, learning how anime and manga is made can seem like something of a chore, or extra homework on top of what you already have to do for school and work. I mean, aren't anime and manga supposed to be things that we watch and read for pleasure? Why would we want our entertainment to become another kind of drudgery? I totally get that way of thinking, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with popping in a DVD or picking up a volume of manga, relaxing, and just enjoying it at face value. But what I'm trying to say here is that you can enjoy the things you watch and read things on many levels.
One big fear I see coming up repeatedly is that learning to appreciate how such entertainment is made will somehow take away from its magic. To me, it's not an either / or situation. I think you can watch a film or television show and be engrossed in the story and characters while still thinking about how all of the pieces fit together. Sometimes it makes what you're watching seem even more impressive. And if the movie sucks, knowing how things should work on a more technical level will give you the ammunition you'll need to explain to your friends why that director should never be allowed behind a camera ever again.
As it stands, the literature out there in English on anime directors is pretty thin. I know, I've talked about this in previous columns, but to recap, there are a couple of books out there on Hayao Miyazaki, a couple on Mamoru Oshii, and, most recently, one on the late Satoshi Kon. If you're dedicated, you can also find academic articles and book chapters on anime directors here and there (some of which actually branch out from this triumvirate), but as far as actual books go, that's about it. Unfortunately, it's a vicious cycle – lack of interest in anime directors means that few books on such directors get published, but it helps to build interest if you can give people a book and say “read this.”
If you're looking for a volume that you can use to introduce someone to an anime director, though, I think Andrew Osmond's book Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist (published by Stone Bridge Press) is a great example of how to pull it off while being both smart and accessible. The book serves not only as an analysis of Kon and his work, but it draws you in and makes you want to watch more of his films. Osmond covers Kon's early days in manga through Paprika, Kon's final film made while he was alive. However, since it has now been eight months since Kon passed away, there unfortunately won't be much new material for a second edition.
There are six main chapters in The Illusionist. The first is a chronicle of Kon's development until he became an anime director, while the other five cover his major anime projects – Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, and Paprika. Other than the first chapter, each section follows the same general format – a one-paragraph “In Brief” section, the “Origins” of the anime, a description of the “Opening Scenes,” followed by a “Synopsis” of the action, concluding with an “Analysis.” Details that didn't quite fit into any of these categories are placed in a running sidebar as “Points to Note.” Additionally, each film features the script of a “Key Scene,” although it isn't clear whether these are translated directly from the Japanese script or if they are Osmond's own transcripts of the onscreen action as he saw it.
For those already familiar with Kon's films, the first chapter may contain the most new information. In it, Osmond describes the young Kon's childhood in Hokkaido and early interest in manga. Through junior high and high school, Kon continued to be interested in art and drawing, so he decided to go to an art school in Tokyo for college. From there, Kon's work in manga is fairly typical. He submitted one of his short comics to a magazine and won a prize, which gained him a bit of recognition. Once he decided to become a manga artist, he began by being a temporary assistant to more well-known artists, including Katsuhiro Otomo. At the same time, Kon was working on his own stories, and finally got a serial of his own in 1990. Throughout the 1990s, though, Kon worked on both manga and anime, including collaborations with both Katsuhiro Otomo and Mamoru Oshii. Although this introduction is of reasonable length for this kind of book, I found myself wishing Osmond would go into more detail regarding Kon's early work. Both World Apartment Horror (a live-action film written by Kon and directed by Otomo) and Memories (an anime omnibus that includes the segment “Magnetic Rose,” for which Kon wrote the script) are covered in this section. While I don't think they necessarily deserved their own chapters, I would have liked to have seen them get a bit more space than they did.
Starting with Perfect Blue in the second chapter, Osmond begin his coverage of Kon's major anime accomplishments. Each chapter does an excellent job connecting the films to one another and is solidly researched. Sometimes, books intended for a popular audience aren't as rigorous when it comes to citing sources as I would like them to be, but that's not a problem here – each quote is documented with endnotes that don't get in the way of the flow of the text. In fact, if there is one complaint I have with the book, it's that I would have liked to have seen more of Osmond's own analysis and less story synopsis. Although the synopses are well-written and do a good job of conveying the action, you're probably not going to get a lot out of them if you've already seen the films. Of course, with Perfect Blue out of print and DVD sets of the Paranoia Agent series currently going for ridiculous prices, such synopses may in fact be critical for newer fans.
The Postscript is probably the saddest part of the whole book, knowing as we do that Kon did not live to see his final film through to completion. It begins with a quote from Kon from 2008 in which he says, “Part of me thinks that I should retire or die peacefully now… It would be better for my reputation, but unfortunately there are a lot more things I want to do.” Reading such a statement makes you wonder if Kon had any kind of inkling of the pancreatic cancer that was to take his life in just a few years. Luckily for us, Mad House will be finishing Kon's final film, The Dream Machine, from the notes, script, and storyboards he left behind. But it's hard not to read the postscript to The Illusionist as an optimistic look forward toward all of the upcoming projects Kon had in mind but will now remain unfulfilled.
Kon was a comparatively young 46 when he died. To put this in terms of two other Japanese directors, Akira Kurosawa had already directed Seven Samurai, but had yet to do The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, or Sanjūrō, while Hayao Miyazaki had directed Nausicaä and Laputa, but had not yet done Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, or any of his other later films. As you can see, at 46 a director can still have some of his greatest works ahead of him, even for someone as accomplished as Kon. It makes me a little depressed every time I try to think of the films that Satoshi Kon could have directed if he had been given the time.
Altogether, Osmond's Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist is a wonderful introduction to the man and his films. I'd certainly encourage you to pick it up, if only to try to get a better grasp and appreciation for the work of anime directors. With the state of publishing as it is, I don't know how many more physical books like this we'll be able to get. I know firsthand that a book about a director like Mamoru Oshii (one of the biggest anime directors out there) published during the mid-2000s anime boom was far from a top seller. However, it seems like digital books could be the way to go for popular anime scholarship from here on out. I could see a lot of titles heading in this direction, which would be a good thing since it would give us a chance to see more people writing about more directors without needing to worry about things like printing and distribution. I hope things do go this way, and that we see many more quality books written on deserving directors.
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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