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The Mike Toole Show
Rintaro vs. Rintaro

by Michael Toole,

As Otakon whizzes by in a blur of light and color, just one thing sticks with me: the Galaxy Express 999 DVDs I grabbed from the Discotek Media table. Even though I don't have a DVD player in my laptop, I unwrapped the discs. This was probably kind of stupid, since DVDs don't generally have physical liner notes anymore, but I wanted to look at the disc artwork, to make sure these things were real and I now owned them. The Galaxy Express films are a bit dated, but for a certain stripe of fans, there's not much better anime out there-- they're thunderous epics, filled with action, melancholy, and high adventure. Not bad for stories about a train that flies through space.

The films were both directed by a guy who I remember reading about in 1995, in one of those entertainment magazine articles that constantly and breathlessly reassures the reader that these Japanese cartoons are NOT kiddie fare and/or pornography. The article hyped the director, some dude named Taro Rin. I'd read about him frequently, sometimes as Taro Rin, other times as Rin Taro, and after about eight or ten years the English-speaking world figured out that his anime pen name is simply Rintarō. Yeah, Rintarō. That's who I'm talkin' about.

Rintarō is liable to direct anime anywhere, at any time. He directs TV shows, OVAs, and movies without regard to genre or other bothersome details. He's directed savagely violent tales of neo-nazis fighting shinto priests, TV commercials, and children's movies about adorable penguins. He directs frequently, and without warning-- and he might just be directing anime even as we speak. Basically, he can direct anime anytime he wants to.

The Galaxy Express 999 films are easily his most broadly popular works. They're really good, and the first one was Japan's top-grossing movie in 1980. Both the director and original creator Leiji Matsumoto were showered with acclaim and awards for this fine movie, a tale about growing up, valuing life, and Captain Harlock coming out of nowhere. A sequel was inevitable, though the efforts of B-movie maven Roger Corman to popularize the original film in the U.S. (his attention was attracted by its outsized box office performance in Japan) heavily edited and titled "Galaxy Express" flopped. The thing is, 1981's Adieu Galaxy Express 999 really underlines the interesting thing about Rintarō. Most directors have a certain style. If you're astute and love films, you'll soon learn to recognize the wrinkles, shooting and editing tricks, and pet actors that you'll always see in a Wes Anderson movie, say, or a Coen Brothers flick. Rintarō doesn't really roll that way, and that's evident in adieu, which is curiously inverted. Visually, it punches even harder than the sweeping, majestic first film, with eye-popping scenes of alien cityscapes and interstellar flights. Plot-wise, though, it's a weird rehash of the first film, only with "dad issues" replacing "mom issues" in the story's bullet-point list. Generally, the film works - it's just nowhere near as good as its predecessor.

The GE999 movies really pushed Rintarō into the limelight. After that, he would seem to go on a whirlwind tour of the anime biz, teaming up with the likes of CLAMP, Peter Chung, Osamu Tezuka, and Katsuhiro Ōtomo to create a stunning variety of films, TV shows, and OVAs. But the story starts way, way before that. Rintarō is one of those awesome older dudes who has literally been in the anime business for about as long as it's existed, working as an in-betweener on Toei's earliest animated feature films. Less than ten years in, he climbed into the director's chair to kick out the first anime adaptation of Moomin, Tove Jansson's awesomely charming comic story of trolls and magical creatures. It's hard to say if we got the good Rintarō or the bad one here - the cartoon show itself is easy to watch, an early forerunner of Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theatre, but serious Moomin fans - and the Jansson family, actually - aren't big on it because Moomin and his pals don't act like they're supposed to. The title character in particularly is pushy and bratty, standing in stark contrast to the almost infuriatingly mild-mannered comic version. Moomin would return a few years later in a more faithful incarnation, and Rintarō helped steer that boat, too.

The 1970s would be a riot of wildly divergent projects for the budding director. My favorite of the bunch has nothing to do with the sci-fi oevre that most people associate with Rintarō - in fact, it's a car racing anime. 1977's Arrow Emblem - Hawk of the Grand Prix stands out in a few notable ways. First of all, most of the car design is spot-on - the cars don't just look authentic, they even have the right engine sounds. Second, the writers actually used a real life Grand Prix champ as a major character - German ace Nikki Lauda acts as advisor to the show's protagonist, though apparently getting the rights to the driver's face was a bridge too far - he wears a mask when he's onscreen. Finally, Arrow Emblem's hero, Taka, absolutely sucks at racing at the beginning of the series. He has guts and experience, but his recklessness leads to crash after crash. In fact, his name in the weird English dub is Crash Corrigan, which is the kind of name you expect to see in 1940s movie serials about crime-busting rocket men, not 1970s cartoons about auto racing. Anyway, it's always easier to root for a hero when they have to take some lumps, and Arrow Emblem uses this to its advantage.

Rintarō's output was astoundingly high during this period. Usually, directors will have a major project every year or two, if that. Rintarō went straight from Arrow Emblem to Jetter Mars, a likeable joint based on Tezuka comics that looks, at first, to be a stark ripoff of Astro Boy, but grows into its own show in good time. From there, he started directing this show called Captain Harlock. People loved Captain Harlock. People around the world loved Captain Harlock, even people here in the states, who wouldn't get to see much of it for decades. This series cemented a long and happy relationship between the director and creator Leiji Matsumoto, who would tap Rintarō again and again, not just with the Galaxy Express 999 movies, but with weird little featurettes about Harlock and Emeraldas, and most recently, 2004's Captain Herlock: Endless Odyssey. The show isn't brilliant, especially considering it involves what should be an easy plot (Harlock vs. Astro-zombies!) and still meanders, but it has a certain charm.

Rintarō exploded in the 70s, and the flames kept on burning through the 80s, blazing high immediately with Galaxy Express 999's impact. Plenty of people have seen 1983's Harmagedon, with its psychics, alien robots, and alien robot psychics. It's one of those deals where it's not a good movie, but it's a crummy movie with several good parts, like a vividly realized plane crash, great fight scenes involving the hero (he levitates and screams people to death, kind of like Babel II), and crazy music by ELP founder Keith Emerson. It never comes together as a film, but you can't fault its ambition. Similarly ambitious was 1985's Dagger of Kamui, a 19th-century period ninja western featuring heavy, pulsing, psychedelic imagery that would seem excessive at a Grateful Dead show. The movie's bizarre visual delights help keep it moving along in spite of its beefy length, and it features one of the best weird historical figure cameos ever, as the title character actually meets Mark Twain at one point. Mark Twain can improve anything, except maybe for that one 2-part episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation.

At this point, Rintarō branched out a bit, assuming planning and production duties as well as the director's chair. He directed Kamui, but he also produced it. He also assembled an absolutely awesome short-program feature called Labyrinth Tales, which showcased the talents of Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Katsuhiro Ōtomo, and directed the film's interstitial segments. He experimented wildly with the OVA in general, helping execute the animation nerd ambrosia known as Bobby's Girl and directing longtime schlock favorite Doomed Megalopolis. A lot of his work during this decade was innovative and impressive, but that's OK - the bad Rintarō would surface in 1989, and give us an impressively boring, lengthy, and unnecessary retelling of Kimba the White Lion.

Another part of Rintarō's bridge to the 90s was Peacock King, a pair of OVA sets about a Japanese exorcist destined to become a supernatural heavyweight, and the Nazis who would threaten his destiny by trying to steal his powers. I like this one in spite of its flaws - it's weak in the storytelling department, but it has that great early 90s MADHOUSE animation sensibility, and the action scenes are always good. Later in the 1990s, Rintarō would direct what is one of the most incoherent anime movies I've ever seen, X/1999. Based on CLAMP's marginally more comprehensible manga, the film faced long delays in both its Japanese and foreign releases-- but while its script is slapdash and dumb, it's a breathtaking visual experience. If we got this film on blu-ray in North America, any complaints about the story would fade under the film's visual luster. I'll always enjoy seeing Kamui and Fuma's climactic Tokyo Tower fight scene, though I'm inclined to skip past the end credits, which feature X/Japan (the band, in a remarkable act of synergy) playing a song that's almost as long as the film. Late in the decade, Rintarō would help put together a Korean-Japanese retelling of the life of Alexander the Great, which we've seen under the title Reign: The Conqueror. Most people associate this series with Peter Chung because of the character designs, but Rintarō planned the series and ended up stitching together a feature-length cut of the series and claiming director credit on that.

It's important to point out that, all during the production of these great movies and TV shows and OVAs, Rintarō wasn't just hanging out on his porch, sipping lemonade. He took on a number of other duties with MADHOUSE, often storyboarding - we associate him with Galaxy Express 999 and Metropolis, but Rintarō storyboarded Record of Lodoss War, Paranoia Agent, and Tenjho Tenge, among others. He's definitely an artist who goes where the work is. The 2000s brought millennial madness, terrorist attacks, and Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis.

I love Metropolis. It's a huge, gaudy love letter to the look and feel of Tezuka's earliest work. There are echoes of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which Tezuka acknowledge as a visual influence when he made the comics in 1949. While it's retro, it's also impressively modern and fun to watch. Rintarō himself plays clarinet on the film's jazzy soundtrack. The thing is, the source material is not good at all, and the film suffers for using it as a guidepost. Tezuka didn't want to turn Metropolis into a film, and Rintarō has said in interviews that he basically waited for Tezuka to die to try doing the project. Keeping that fact in mind makes watching the film a little weird.

What else is there? There's the aforementioned Herlock. There's Yona Yona Penguin, a reportedly delightful film that rides the CG penguins bandwagon. My favorite recent work of Rintarō's is actually the 3-minute pilot episode of the Wolverine Anime. Much like Takeshi Koike's Iron Man pilot, Rintarō goes all out and really sells the show and character, despite giving poor Logan an absolutely massive mullet. I haven't seen the whole TV series yet, but the pilot is definitely better than the first episode.

I asked MADHOUSE producer and head honcho Masao Maruyama about Rintarō at Otakon this weekend. I love bothering Maruyama about his talented but tough staff - despite vast international success, Yoshiaki Kawajiri doesn't get that much work, which is odd. Rintarō's also slowing down a bit, but when I asked after him and wondered when he'd be directing again, Maruyama's eyes brightened. "He can work whenever he wants to," he said. I believe it. After all, mere months ago, Rintarō directed a Meiji candy TV commercial. Who knows when he'll strike again?

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