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The Mike Toole Show
It's Always Tsuneo

by Mike Toole,

It's getting to be that creepy time of year when I put “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett on repeat. Halloween and the Day of the Dead are closing in, so what better time to do a big list of spooky, scary anime—hey wait a minute, I hate making lists like that.

Sorry if I got your hopes up, there. I have recently finished up a TV series called Mononoke, which is pretty spooky business—it's a sequence of short period stories about weird, vengeful ghosts called mononoke, and the colorful, taciturn medicine man who hunts 'em down. The series' flashy visuals and sinister stories are good value from director Kenji Nakamura and scribe Chiaki Konaka, and I was particularly taken with how grimly hilarious it is at times—it's the kind of series where, when mere mortals are confronted with the idea of loss or death, they flip out in surprisingly imaginative ways.

I'm not here to put Mononoke under the microscope, though. Mononoke simply got me thinking about how tough it is for anime to pull off really good horror or suspense. There are some standouts—fare like Boogiepop Phantom and Requiem from the Darkness to name a couple—but I feel like we get maybe one show like that every year or two. One of them from a few years back was a low-key little affair called Shigofumi: Letters from the Departed. I kinda dug that show, which used as its premise the notion that supernatural mail carriers roam the land, delivering final messages from the deceased to their loved ones, business partners, pets, and/or murderers. As the series reaches its climax, with the story shifting focus to the mysterious, ghostly mail carrier rather than her delivery route, it gets surprisingly intense. We learn her story, one of trauma and abuse, and it wraps up with the girl handing another person a gun and entreating them to kill her. Upon seeing the credits, I was happy but not surprised to see that the particular episode was directed by Tsuneo Kobayashi. He's dead.

Mr. Kobayashi actually passed away this past spring, a passing that was not widely reported. I myself didn't hear about it until Shou Aikawa, the mercurial writer who worked with him on the great Twelve Kingdoms, tweeted about it in August. In a way, the low-key nature of the news is fitting—Kobayashi's gifts as a director were more subtle than his flashier colleagues. Whereas guys like Kazuya Tsurumaki and Hiroyuki Imaishi made their names on high-octane action and intense science fiction, Kobayashi's work tended to leave an impression for entirely different reasons—for example, I remember his Midori Days and Emma not for flashy animation sequences, but for color design, and the body language of the characters.

It was Midori Days that actually made Kobayashi's name stick in my head—it's a 2004 series based on a shonen manga about Seiji, a lonely high school tough guy who wakes up to find a girl his age in bed with him. Only she's shrunken down and grafted to his hand. Hey, it's kinda like Parasyte! I guess you could say that Midori Days is the original Parasyte, only that'd be stupid, because the Parasyte manga is way older. Despite the unsettling body-horror premise, the story is surprisingly sweet, concentrating not on the circumstances, but on the story of the shy, infatuated Midori (the hand-girl) and oblivious Seiji being forced into a weird situation where they can't get away from each other and have to learn to trust each other. Kobayashi focuses on their faces, using them to communicate each character's similar-yet-different sense of loneliness, and the damn series actually works pretty well.

For me, Tsuneo Kobayashi's magnum opus was a TV series that actually preceded Midori Days, an production entitled Twelve Kingdoms. This is an exciting, broadly entertaining tale based on a series of books by Fuyumi Ono, about a sullen teen girl who gets lost in a storm and is transported to a mysterious, magical world. A magical world that kinda seems a bit like ancient China. Oh no, not that old plot again! But unlike, say, Fushigi Yuugi's Miaka, the heroine of Twelve Kingdoms, Youko, isn't one to simply be rescued or aided or treated like a princess or priestess. She's destined to lead, the chosen monarch of one of this world's many kingdoms, and it's up to her to first seize and then shape her destiny.

Kobayashi and his screenwriter Aikawa do a great job adapting Ono's sprawling mythology in this TV series—whereas the books tell a long chain of loosely-connected stories of the twelve kingdoms, an otherdimensional land only vaguely connected to our own, the series focuses on Youko, the first story arc's heroine. She doesn't just have to win battles—she has to learn customs, curry political favor, and earn the trust of her people. One of my favorite aspects of Twelve Kingdoms' anime adaptation is the way Kobayashi and Aikawa take a minor character from the books, Yuka, and employ her as a nutty, aggressive Miniver Cheevy, a daydreamer who'd always wanted to be transported to a magical land, and who tries to seize Youko's destiny for herself, believing that she's the real heroine of the story. She makes a great foil for the real heroine, and a bracing answer to the kind of self-insert characters that show up in some of these stories.

In the end, Twelve Kingdoms is just a teeny bit frustrating, because Kobayashi and company made 45 episodes instead of 39. Over episodes 1 to 39, the main story comes to a crescendo, hits a brilliant high note, and the credits roll. The curtain falls. And then next week the show is back again, and the narrative skips around and kinda keeps going. This doesn't impact the excellence of the earlier episodes, but man—Twelve Kingdoms, when I first watched it, was one of the most complete shows I'd ever seen, so it felt awkward to tack an additional coda onto the end of it.

At first, I resisted what I saw of Emma, which was Kaoru Mori's manga. The artist's artwork was appealing, but I'm not much of an anglophile, and so Mori's meticulously researched late 19th-century England setting didn't hook me. I also wasn't reeled in by the title character herself—while charming, Emma just seemed to look and behave like a shy anime girl with glasses, only in a Victorian maid outfit. Kobayashi's two TV series do a better job of selling the character, and it all goes back to what I was saying earlier about body language. In TV form, I'm not swept away by Emma herself, but by the way she and William, her upper-class forbidden love interest, look at each other.

One Tsuneo Kobayashi project that I will champion is Kurokami: The Animation. You might remember this series for doing the Space Dandy dubbed simulcast thing several years before Space Dandy did it; in 2009, it aired in Japan, South Korea, and the US all within a day of each other. I've actually heard gripes about the show's story quality from both the Japanese and English sides of the production, but if you ask me, this is a series that is a bit unfairly maligned, possibly because it never got a good blu-ray release and been a huge pain in the ass to track down for the past several years. I hail Kobayashi for his story and character work, but Kurokami's an action cartoon loaded up with an interesting premise based on the old urban legend of the doppelganger, an exact double of you that will bring misfortune down on you should you meet them. It's got great fight scenes, and the premise only starts to teeter late in the series, largely because main character Keita is kind of a jerk. We're supposed to be getting this one back on DVD courtesy of Sentai Filmworks as part of the Great Sunrise License Rescue of 2013. But we don't have it quite yet, ostensibly because Sunrise takes approximately one million years to deliver and approve materials.

It was while watching Polar Bear's Café that I started to gripe to myself about Kobayashi's seeming lack of work and exposure. He was involved in this wonderfully funny little sitcom, about the working lives of a talking polar bear barista and his friends (trust me, it's really good!), but he only actually directed a couple of OP sequences. Honestly, the show's first OP is my favorite of 2012, and not just because of the catchy song, so his talent is still very much evident in the series. But rather than direct episodes, he worked on Polar Bear's Café as a production manager. At this point, I was looking at his CV, trying to figure out when this favorite talent of mine was going to direct again, never even considering that he might be having health problems. In the end, just like the rest of his career, the master director kept his head down and kept himself busy.

Like so many accomplished anime artists, Tsuneo Kobayashi has left us with a fantastic body of work. But he was only about 50 when he left, and just as with departed talents like Yoshifumi Kondo and Satoshi Kon, there's this oppressive sense of loss when I contemplate his absence. You have to think that there was good work in store ahead for the director, don't you? I just hope his legacy is noticed by a wider swath of anime fandom—after all, not every great anime director gets to be as famous as Oshii or Hosoda or Anno.

If you're looking to check out a one-and-done example of Tsuneo Kobayashi's talent, you can just bustle down to the Target or the Wal-Mart and pick up The Last: Naruto the Movie, because that's his swan song. I saw it this week (I simply can't resist grabbing a $15 anime DVD when I come across it in Target), and while I was a bit lost on some of the character relationships (Naruto dropped off my radar before Sasuke turned evil—that's how long ago I fell behind!), there's no denying the film's craftsmanship and intense visual appeal. It does stick to formula (Naruto and his companions, all of them on the cusp of adulthood and leadership, have to unite and defeat a movie-only bad guy), but it's still a thrilling and fun final testament.

At last week's Oktoberfest celebration in Harvard Square, I spied a group of people leaving the Brattle Theatre clutching posters of Boruto, the latest Naruto film about the heroic ninja's son, Bort. (Yes, I know the name's a play on “bolt.” Sorry, I'm calling him “Bort.”) I don't believe Kobayashi worked on this movie before his passing, but he's got a production credit in there, possibly because the movie was teased at the end of The Last. It's a sight I was happy to see—I'm hoping that, in a small way, fans like these will remember and appreciate Tsuneo Kobayashi. I hope you do, too.

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