The Mike Toole Show Poke-Matic
by Michael Toole, Mar 25th 2012
It happened on Tuesday morning. On the way into work, I got a DM from a colleague, hinting at some bad news-- quite probably the passing of a mutual acquaintace-- and that the details were on Facebook. Over there, another friend over in Japan didn't name any names, but he asked for discretion. He said that the family just wanted a little time to cope with their loss, and that Artland would be posting an update soon, and that's how I learned that Noboru Ishiguro had died.
You know what? I don't have the energy to do a column-length obituary for Mr Ishiguro. My friend Jonathan Clements has already turned in a betterone than any I could come up with, no matter how inanely I list the animator's many stratospherically wonderful projects, and going into any great detail would entail tens of thousands of words. Instead, I'll share one brief story: in 2002, I was part of a group interview with Mr Ishiguro at Anime Expo New York. AXNY were strict with press requirements, insisting that reporters keep their questions brief and don't monopolize the guest. My favorite OVA of all time is Megazone 23 Part 1. I was keen to ask Mr Ishiguro for background about it, and whether we might see more of it someday-- so that's just what I asked him. Over the next fifteen minutes, he described the project's odd history (it was originally planned as a TV series with a radically different background story, but retooling and a sudden loss of funding led him and his team to cobble together an 85-minute featurette out of finished footage), pointed out that a DVD box set that JVC had released in 2000 sold unexpectedly well, making the idea of a continuation feasible, and mused on ideas for continuing the story. During these remarks, Mr Ishiguro lamented the double-edged nature of digital animation-- its speed and accuracy should, he thought, have led to much better quality anime, but instead, he found that it was leading to a greater number of anime of mediocre quality. It's a bit galling to see, a decade later, just how right he was. After he finished speaking, the AXNY handler needled me to keep my questions briefer, but I didn't mind - it's neat when you ask someone a question they've been waiting to answer, and learn so much in the process.
Mr Ishiguro was always generous with that kind of time and information. I would see him regularly for the next decade; he kept fairly busy even into his seventies, but he plainly and obviously loved hanging out with his western fans, and rarely went more than a year or two without an appearance. I saw him at Otakon last year, where I attend as a fan rather than press, and so I went to the autograph line to meet him, where I was delighted to see a large group of devotees of all ages, clutching Macross and Yamato and Megazone goodies. I myself brought along the film program to Phoenix 2772, Taku Sugiyama and Osamu Tezuka's weirdly compelling movie version of Tezuka's Phoenix myth, for which Mr Ishiguro had served as animation director. When I presented him with it, I couldn't help myself - I asked what it was like to work so closely with Dr Tezuka. He considered this, the barest hint of a smirk on his face, before settling on: "Difficult." Clearly, it was a question he'd been waiting to answer. He really was one of the nicest guys in anime; may he rest in peace.
Now that I've got that bit of remembrance out of the way, let me regale you with a story of tiny cartoon monsters, their alarmingly generic masters, and the teeming millions of children and adults who've been fascinated with them for over a decade. Here's the thing: back in December, I got the idea that I'd go to the movies to see the latest Pokemon feature, the fourteenth in the franchise's run, because it would be running in theatres on a single-day basis. See, I figured I could do two things: firstly, I'd trace the gradual decline of the film series from an $85-million grossing juggernaut to a one-day limited engagement, and secondly, I'd do what Pauline Kael loved to do in her film reviews: I'd go to the movie, and write about what happened to me. Unfortunately, fate intervened and I found myself in transit on the key day, but I still felt like there was a story in there somewhere. I'd never seen any of the Pokemon movies, so I pointed my browser at Amazon and prepared to purchase the first one. It was out of print. So was the second one. This didn't surprise me, because the second Pokemon movie had recently been at the center of some hilarious political theatre, courtesy of a businessman and presidential candidate named Herman Cain. The original movie poster for that second movie, before the title was changed to Pokemon 2000, remains one of the most hilariously confusing titles I've ever seen.
Ultimately, I settled for a 4-pack of Pokemon movies including the exciting hits Pokemon Heroes, Pokemon 4-Ever, Pokemon: Destiny Deoxys, and Pokemon: Jiraichi. This fine set cost me five American dollars. Interestingly, these films were released by Miramax, not Warner Bros, as the earlier films were. See, the first three Pokemon movies grossed a combined $145 million at the box office, so when the next batch of movies went on the block, the Weinstein Bros probably saw easy money, and snapped them up. They were wrong; Pokemon 4-Ever made less money than Pluto Nash, and Pokemon Heroes made even less than that. After that, there were no more theatrical runs for Pokemon, until the Black and White movie I mentioned above. I watched all of these films, and a few weeks later, I'm thunderstruck at how little I remember about them.
Actually, I remember the plot of each film pretty well, but they're kind of staggeringly formulaic, to the point that it's difficult to recall specifics for each movie. All films involve short Pikachu-themed flicks that are invariably more interesting than the longer features; the movies proper each start with Ash and his adorable little toy animal cockfighting pals having some sort of adventure, before introducing the movie's special new Pokemon and movie-only characters, not necessarily in that order. The related movie-only villain comes in, and invariably steals or enslaves the new Pokemon, using its fantastic powers for some nefarious purpose, and forcing our heroes to act. (I think the Deoxys movie involved the fancy Pokemon itself being the antagonist, but don't quote me on that.) At some point in the conflict, Ash, Pikachu, or one of the other good guys will be badly hurt or made to suffer, and this is the calculated moment where the pre-adolescent target audience is meant to get emotionally invested in the film. It seems to work remarkably well; when I quizzed a friend about his experience seing the first Pokemon movie at the theater, he described an entire theatre full of children weeping openly at the prospect of Ash being turned to stone. The Pokemon movies aren't movie theatre regulars here-- I am sure they do well on home video-- but the still make tens of millions of dollars in Japan, so somebody's watching!
After looking at these movies and enjoying the competent but rarely spectacular animation of OLM, I still hadn't figured out the angle for my story. Thing is, when I ordered the Pokemon films, Amazon suggested I also order the Digimon movie. Oh right, Digimon! Digimon was Bandai and Toei's answer to Pokemon, with the twist that the characters' monster pals fought digital battles in cyberspace instead of popping out of little red and white balls. Another twist is that the monsters themselves, unlike the sentient but largely inarticulate Pokemon (did it weird anyone else out that most Pokemon couldn't talk, but you'd occasionally come across a Meowth or a Mew Two who could? What the hell?!), actually had intelligence and speaking parts. Digimon gained a cult following pretty rapidly, due mainly to its surprisingly sophisticated ongoing story; over something like a hundred episodes, the first two seasons told a multi-generational story of "DigiDestined" kids who battled evil with their crazy evolving digital monster animal buddies in the digital world. Then in season 3, the story was turned over to Chiaki Konaka, one of anime screenwriting's mad geniuses, and he turned out Digimon Tamers, which kept the strong characterization of the first two shows and introduced even darker themes. The whole shebang was localized by a pair of writers and voice actors named Jeff Nimoy and Bob Buchholz; you know them as Trigun's Nicholas Wolfwood and Outlaw Star's Gene Starwind, but when they were hired to dub Digimon, the pair knew they had something special, and worked hard to avoid chopping it up too much - it retains a hell of a lot of its Japanese settings and names in spite of being retooled for American kids.
But the movie? Oh man, that's kind of a fiasco. The main reason I bought it is because I'd been told, over and over, that it was directed by the great Mamoru Hosoda, and it had an awful lot in common with his excellent Summer Wars. It turns out that both of these were true, but what Hosoda actually directed were a pair of short feature films, 1999's Digimon Adventure and 2000's Digimon: Our War Game. These little movies are fast-paced affairs that closely follow the Shonen Jump movie one-and-done standard. The first film reminds me an awful lot of the Dragon Ball Curse of the Blood Rubies movie, in that it essentially acts like a pilot for the rest of the series - the major characters are introduced, the world is established, and they have an adventure that you can't see on TV. The second movie made my jaw drop, because it is so similar to Summer Wars, it's damn near the same movie. The characters are very different, granted, but the story - of the good guys fighting a runaway computer virus as it attempts to aim a missile at them - is identical, and visually, Our War Game looks jarringly similar. I'll put it this way - I don't think that King Kazma, the sleek fighting avatar in Summer Wars, looks kinda Digimon-ish by accident. Anyway, these movies are really nice and entertaining, but the Digimon movie, as we received it in North America, kinda isn't. This is because 30-minute movies aren't long enough for American theatres, so Fox Kids just took three Digimon movies - the two mentioned above and the largely unrelated Digimon 02: Hurricane Touchdown, which is actually a beefy 65 minutes. Rather than subject kids (and their parents) to more than two hours of Digi-ventures, the studio trimmed the total package down to something like 85 minutes, leaving the good first two parts annoyingly abbreviated and rewriting the third one to make it seem related to the first two in the process. It's fascinating to watch, because it's really ineptly done - the characters and animation styles of all three movies vary noticably, and Fox Kids uses miserable 2000-era pop music to bridge the sequences, culminating in a snatch of Smash Mouth's odious "Rock Star" at the end. This shambling homunculus of a film still managed to bank almost ten million dollars, though. Hooray!
Digimon was definitely positioned to capitalize on Pokemon and its establishment of kids and their monsters who love to fight, but I'm not sure you could call it a ripoff - as a property, it was developed by the same big brains at Bandai who came up with the Tamagotchi electronic toy, and the series launched with a variety of action figures and electronic doo-dads before competing directly with Pokemon via video games and card games. And just like Pokemon, they're still making Digimon media today. The thing is, though, that Pokemon spawned several imitators, or at the very least, spurred some of them on to position existing media as competitors for Nintendo's hit-making franchise. Another interesting one is Tecmo's Monster Farm, which we know in the states as Monster Rancher. Monster Rancher actually predates Pokemon by a year or two; it launched as a series of console games. I vividly recall the first one, which allowed the user to generate relatively random monsters to raise and train by having them pop a regular music CD into the PlayStation and using bits of data from it to generate new beasties. But when Pokemon came along, Tecmo hitched themselves to the gravy train, quickly enlisting TBS to create three seasons of animated Monster Rancher action and spinning off toys and card games. The series looks awfully familiar, with its basball cap-wearing hero and weird rabbit/rodent sidekick, but the signature character is actually Suezo, a wisecracking floating eyeball. We got all of these goodies during the Pokemon craze; about two years ago, I visited local salvage chain Building 19, and was awed at the sight of hundreds and hundreds of sealed Monster Rancher VHS tapes: one dollar each. Wish I'd taken a picture. Tecmo still makes Monster Rancher games, of course.
Once Yu-Gi-Oh, or as I call it, Card Game Man in: How to Buy Card Games, made the relatively nascent collectible card game fad explode, there were even more also-rans. One of them was Duel Masters, which featured a slick tie-in game from Wizards of the Coast and entertainingly jocular dub rewrites for the first season of anime, which ran on the Cartoon Network. A few DVDs of these episodes came out, and I own them all, because they're cheap and hilarious. Sample title: Show Me the Mana! Disappointingly, the second season would feature not only a new cast, but a more restrained approach to localization. It's easy to get up in arms when anime is rewritten, but I'm convinced that the first season of Duel Masters helped the material more than it hurt. My favorite knockoff of the whole bunch gleefully bit both Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh's stype, and that one was called Mon Colle Knights. Based on the Monster Collection card game, Mon Colle featured surprisingly energetic storytelling, stewarded by the arguably great Satoru Akahori (is he great at screenwriting, or great at turning out mountains of crap on deadline?), and honestly nifty animation and character designs. The dub, produced by Saban as cheaply and quickly as possible, is entertainingly looney-- I'll always remember my first episode, which featured the monster Baseball Giant, a neat shout-out to Star of the Giants, facing off against a horned monster that the rewriters hastily dubbed "Bull Buckner." Groan! The whole series has only aired twice: once on Fox Kids in 2002, and again on Jetix. After that it slipped into the void; a lot of fans I've talked to don't really remember it. If you're the only one who watched a series, did it really happen? The 5,000-word Wikipedia article on Mon Colle Knights seems to suggest that yes, yes it did.
Just last week, I was still straining for a good angle on this column. I think I've managed to kinda skip that part and just talk about fun monster-based anime of the early 2000s, but I will leave you with two final thoughts. First of all, Pokemon is still going strong. Every year there's new video games, new card games, new toys, new Pokemon themselves, and of course, new animation. Kids love the toys and cartoons, and grown-up adult babies like me love the internet memes. (My favorite one is Bidoof is On Fire, pictured above.) When is this fad gonna end?! Second of all, a few weeks ago I visited my brother and was delighted to notice one of my nephews, aged six, watching the trailer for that same Pokemon movie I'd missed, on the family iPad. I thought he was a Star Wars kid, I had no idea he liked Pokemon! So I asked him how he'd found out about Pokemon, and he couldn't really tell me. He did not know. He didn't even guess, and tell me that he'd heard about it on the TV or from his friends at school. As far as he was concerned, Pokemon was a thing that has always been with him, like the need to eat and sleep.
Fifteen years later, are you still watching Pokemon? Did you like Digimon better? Did you go for one of the lesser-known shows like Monster Rancher or Duel Masters, or were you like me, and vaguely mystified by the entire affair? Sound off in the comments!
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