Buried Treasure
Spring and Chaos

by Justin Sevakis,

Ihatov Fantasy: Kenji's Spring (A.K.A. Spring and Chaos)

Last year I wrote about Night on the Galactic Railroad, the legendary unfinished children's novel by Kenji Miyazawa, and the amazingly beautiful movie adaptation directed by Gisaboro Sugii. As I mentioned back then, Miyazawa was something of an enigma in his rural 1920's Iwate Prefecture. He was consumed with the beauty of the world around him, with helping the desperately poor farmers (his was one of a few wealthy families in the area) and with his writing -- which ranged from children's novels and fairy tales to strange surrealistic poetry. Completely unappreciated during his lifetime, his works were discovered posthumously, and today are some of Japan's most well-loved literature.

There are a number of Miyazawa anime adaptations from over the years (including a lovely rendering of Gauche the Cellist by none other than Isao Takahata, which I'll write about at some point). However, it wouldn't be until the festival commemorating what would of been Miyazawa's 100th birthday in 1996 that his life story would itself be animated. The result is interesting both as an intended follow-up to Sugii's Night on the Galactic Railroad, and as an example of that rarest of genres, the anime biography.

Now, there are other anime biographies, but I doubt you've heard of them, or even would bother watching one if given a chance. Often clumsy, simple affairs intended for classroom use, and therefore putting educational value well above any artistic or entertainment endeavors, these shows are treated like they don't exist by most anime fans. There may be one or two recognized pieces as well (such as Nitaboh, the life story of the inventor of the Shamisen), but still, among anime biographies, Ihatov Fantasy: Kenji's Spring (retitled Spring and Chaos for Tokyopop's release) stands alone as the one with obvious artistic endeavors.

Miyazawa's story is one of a creative visionary who, despite his passion for learning and his fellow man, was ultimately a very lonely and unloved man. Kenji's Spring follows his life from the time he was an aloof teenager, who marveled at the mysteries of the universe. Having decided to become a writer, he moves to Tokyo (but returns often to visit his beloved sister) and soon finds himself back at home, teaching a classroom-full of desperately poor farmer children. His appreciation of nature and outlandish acts of spontaneous weirdness earn him quite a reputation among his pupils.

They like him, but none of them understands his writing, and coming from such poverty, have their own problems. His father puts up the money to publish a book of poems, but doesn't manage to sell a single copy. Kenji quietly keeps writing to himself -- making "mental sketches", as he called them -- but he soon can't help but notice the suffering all around him, coming from those who toil endlessly in the fields. By researching new scientific breakthroughs, he attempts to teach modern agricultural techniques and fertilization to the farmers, but the attempt ends in disaster. His sister Toshi, suffering from chronic illness, passes away, and with her does Kenji's own will to go on. We see him driving himself to the breaking point, continuing to devote himself to farming out of guilt and loneliness as much as any devotion. At age 33, he passed away.

This is not a spoiler. Any Japanese viewer who would see Kenji's Spring would know how Miyazawa's life ended. In fact, this knowledge is nearly a prerequisite for interpretation of the ending, which only hints at what happens in real life and prefers to see the triumph of his spirit. The ending is one of the great artistic interpretations of death, simultaneously devastating and exhilarating.

Kenji described the driving force of life thusly: "In pursuit of true happiness... endlessly."

Written and directed by Shoji Kawamori (all of Macross except Macross II) and animated at Sugii's Group Tac studio, Kenji's Spring is an exercise in visual inventiveness. Rather than tell what could have been a very straight-laced story, the idea was to take Miyazawa's unique world view and examine his life through that prism. Taking a page from the earlier film, Kenji, his family and his students are all depicted as cats (though there are a few stray dogs and even a human nurse here and there). His stories are presented as an electrifying montage of experimental animation. As Miyazawa slowly descends into depression and illness, the associated self-deprecating hallucinations are beautifully meditative and poignant.

There is no denying the visual power of Kenji's Spring. As a die-hard Galactic Railroad fan, I insisted on importing the laserdisc when I was a teenager after seeing a throw-away review in Animerica. ("Good drugs!" one reviewer remarked lamely.) My sister and I, neither of us knowing much Japanese at all, sat barely stirring for the entire running time. The CG (by then-new CG studio Satelight) meshes beautifully with the surreal music from Shang Shang Typhoon (Pom Poko). The sharp colors and crisp imagery are bewitching.

Mind you, the use of CG in anime was in its infancy back in 1994, and some scenes haven't aged very well. Pans and zooms have that too-smooth shot-on-video feel. An early shot that moves the camera around Kenji's classroom reveals that all of the characters are flat cut-outs, like in those old music videos by The Cars. These aren't as noticeable as one might think. Other things, like the gears of time beneath the earth, and the visual depiction of Kenji's physical and emotional breakdown, are still breathtaking all these years later.

My viewing of Miyazawa-inspired film is woefully incomplete. I'm still desperate to see Mental Sketch: Every Man's Kenji Miyazawa, the TV documentary of his life directed by none other than Hirokazu Kore-eda (who later made the Cannes award-winner Nobody Knows, Maborosi, and one of my all-time favorite films After Life). Also high on my list is the (cat-free) anime TV special adaptation of The Biography of Budori Gusko by then up-and-coming director Ryutaro Nakamura (whom, despite a very bipolar filmography, I must worship for the beauty of Kino's Journey). Both of these projects were also spawned from the 1996 Miyazawa Centennial Celebration. Last year, Studio Ghibli released a half-hour OAV adaptation of Miyazawa's play, Night of Taneyamagahara.

Those that followed either my fansubs or ANN back in the late 90's know that the two got a little strangely involved in the difficulties TOKYOPOP (then, Mixx) was having. Long story short, some of Mixx's product decisions had pissed off a ton of fans in an epic way, and CEO Stu Levy was increasingly the target of fanboy scorn. Having just started ANN, I was doggedly pursuing the story as one of my first big scoops. A disgruntled ex-employee was feeding me information on all sorts of horrible things, some of it accurate, some of it not. One of the not-so-accurate things was that, despite announcing the title, Mixx didn't actually have the rights to Kenji's Spring. I didn't know who to believe (and, being young and naïve, I got a little too caught up in the story), so my fansub group continued distributing the title... That is, until we were served with a Cease and Desist from Tokyopop as well as a letter from the licensor.

I don't mind saying that the story is still a little embarrassing today. I've still never introduced myself to Mr. Levy in person, despite having myriad opportunities. As I hardly consider myself the same person I was back then, I suppose I should just get over it.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
Just because I feel bad about my fansub doesn't mean I can't rag on the proper release.

TOKYOPOP released Spring and Chaos as their first DVD back in May of 2001, and while the video market was never their top priority as a company, at that time they had no experience with the medium at all. This DVD was an absolute mess. The compression was outright wretched -- about on par with many Dollar Store DVDs of today -- and the disc had dubtitles -- that is, no proper straight-from-Japanese translations, but rather captions of its dub. A "proper" re-release was attempted a few months later, foregoing the original digipak cardboard sleeve and replacing it with a traditional DVD case. The disc still doesn't look great, but it's at least watchable. A Japanese-only Region 2 release is also available, which likely looks much better. Unfortunately, none of the DVD materials even approach the beauty of the laserdisc packaging, which is still in my collection.

The dub, directed by Stu "DJ Milky" Levy himself, was notorious when it was first showed around the convention scene in 1998. This wasn't entirely deserved -- there are much worse dubs out there -- but for such an introspective character piece, the flat tone and complete lack depth makes for a greatly diminished viewing experience. The acting is uniformly awful and amateur, and some casting choices are questionable at best, but the script stays pretty close to the raw translation. TOKYOPOP also commissioned a very short live action segment briefly explaining who Miyazawa was, the quality of which roughly equals that of the dub.

The TOKYOPOP DVD is now out of print, and as Funimation did not take over distribution with the rest of the catalog, I'm assuming the rights have now expired. I can't imagine it was ever a big seller. A few copies are floating around online, but they're getting hard to find. Worse, it's hard to tell what version they are.

Screenshots © TV Iwate, Group TAC.

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