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The Mike Toole Show
Yo, Yoshiura!

by Mike Toole,

As 2015 draws to a close, let's all look back and reflect on Star Wars, and how good that new Star Wars movie was. But wait a second, what does Star Wars have to do with anime, manga, and Japanese culture? Well, if you squint and tilt your head, Kylo Ren kinda looks like Sonny Chiba's portrayal of Hattori Hanzo from the Shadow Warriors TV series.

See what I mean? To further drive the point home, one of the movie's stars, John Boyega, tweeted earlier this week about wanting to become Hokage. But Star Wars really did link up with anime during its opening week in Japan, in that it spent its second and third days of release being handily beaten at the box office by the Yo-kai Watch movie, which edged it out in pure ticket sales numbers during its opening two days. Of course, Star Wars still prevailed on the week, and its higher ticket cost means it also pulled in substantially more money than the plucky, energetic kids' franchise, but “Yo-kai Watch Beats Star Wars” was still true, and still made for a hilarious and astounding headline.

I've had movies on the brain lately, because it's been a good year for going to watch anime at the movies in the west. Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F generated some serious heat at the box office despite a fairly limited release, Ghibli's swan song When Marnie Was There landed earlier in the year, and we've seen all manner of roadshows and festival screenings, from Love Live! to Boruto to Anthem of the Heart to Ghost in the Shell: New Movie to The Boy and The Beast. This is also the time of the year to take stock of other good stuff, like shorts and the usual list of best TV shows I come up with for ANN, so I spent this week re-watching the latest big chunk of Japan Animator Expo, Dwango and Studio Khara's high-powered series of animated shorts. One short in particular jumped out at me—well actually, two did, but I'll be talking about The Ultraman (and Ultraman anime and manga in general) next time. This time, I fixated on Bureau of Proto Society, Yasuhiro Yoshiura's examination of a human society driven underground by apocalyptic visions. It drove me to take a look back at his earlier films.

Specifically, Bureau of Proto Society struck me as intensely evocative of Mr Yoshiura's breakout hit, the short feature Pale Cocoon. This was probably calculated, but it prompted me to watch Pale Cocoon again, so mission accomplished, Mr Director. I'd originally checked out Pale Cocoon after being witnessed to by a Yoshiura fan at Anime Boston about six or seven years ago—I realize that comparing movie recommendations to proselytizing is a bit clumsy, but that's really what it felt like at the time, with the fan exhorting me to check out a wonderful film that was surely like nothing else I'd seen. That fan was right—Pale Cocoon is thrilling in its ambition and intelligence, but it also drives home the distinct rhythm of Yoshiura's work—he doesn't use the camera eye the same way as most anime directors.

Like the Animator Expo short, Pale Cocoon depicts a human society buried underground, underneath endless spiraling stairways and catwalks. Riko works for humankind's Analysis department, poring over old, corrupted digital records to find information about the surface, a place abandoned after human society found it uninhabitable. His colleague, Ura, is overwhelmed by both apathy and melancholy—the recovered images of a bright, explosively alive surface that's long since vanished just leave her listless and sad. An unseen coworker on the other end of Riko's work correspondence (voiced by the director, no less) also talks despondently of ceasing his work. But the protagonist is driven by the allure of discovery, of the way each tiny revelation of the old world leads to a new one. Yoshiura communicates this urgency with ticking progress bars, pixelated images, and the vast, dusty, subterranean world the characters live in. The climax involves a song and a big twist—it's a good one.

Like I said, the star of this short isn't really Riko, but the way the director depicts his hidden world in stages, with the camera swooping and lurching around. These tiny revelations are what make Riko and his struggle interesting, and they're what make the film so worthwhile. Yoshiura's next film, a six-part ONA called Time of Eve, would prove to be even more ambitious.

I still trip over that term—“ONA.” Is the newly-released Gundam Thunderbolt an Original Net Animation? Is Ninja Slayer: from Animation an ONA? How about Sailor Moon Crystal, which debuted online before going to TV? Anyhow, Yahoo (in Japan) and Crunchyroll (here in North America) is what initially delivered Time of Eve to viewers, so it's an ONA. This project's overarching motif is Asimov's Laws of Robotics. As a result, its story is a better I, Robot movie than the I, Robot movie was. (I maintain that the Hollywood I, Robot was perfectly OK, it just needed to be called something else. Also, it really needed a Will Smith rap tune about fighting against robots playing over the ending credits.)

A high school student named Rikuo welcomes back his older sister over breakfast. She was out late partying, but it's OK—the household robot, Sammy, helped her get home. Sammy, who looks like an ordinary adult woman except for the prominent computerized halo above her head, dutifully serves Rikuo's family—but under her master's casual inquiries, she appears slightly ill at ease. Her speech is littered with tiny, halting pauses. A check of her activity logs reveals that she's regularly visiting a place called Time of Eve, so Rikuo and his school buddy Masaki investigate.

What do they find? Is it a secret enclave of robots, grimly plotting to throw off the chains of their oppressors? Is it a nefarious maintenance facility, where household helpers are issued secret, evil orders along with their more routine firmware updates? No, it's a charming little café where those big robot halos automatically switch off. A sign advises visitors to not inquire or discriminate between human and robot visitors. The ingratiatingly salty hostess, Nagi, confirms that robots visit the coffee bar to socialize, but won't say who, and openly discourages Rikuo and Masaki from speculating on the subject. So who are the robots? Is it the bubbly and outgoing Akiko, or the incorrigible little kid Chie, or the affectionate lovers, Koji and Rina? One of them has to be—at least one of them! Intrigued, Rikuo becomes a regular. It's only a matter of time before he bumps into Sammy.

Time of Eve is a lovely little film that's at its best when depicting the extremes of its human-robot relationships—either the regulars who are utterly indistinguishable from humans, or the older robots, who are clanky and obvious but still really charming and vulnerable characters. My favorite segment involves the human characters trying to make smalltalk with Katoran, a decade-old relic who staggers in noisily, interrupts everyone constantly with his sluggish AI queries, introduces himself with a blast of static instead of his name, and seems about to short-circuit himself with his own coffee. His story is unexpectedly sad and poignant—his old owners replaced him but didn't want to pay his hefty disposal fee, so they inexpertly wiped his memory and turned him out to the streets. His sense of relief and finding Time of Eve—a rare place where he's welcome—is palpable.

Time of Eve's only real mistake is in Yoshiura's need to create a villain. (Just like his other works, Yoshiura both wrote and directed this.) There's an anti-robot faction that echoes Astro Boy (which, itself, owes a bit to Asimov's Laws of Robotics), but they seem completely toothless and unthreatening, background noise for the movie's real antagonist—the lingering senses of alienation and otherless that separates Rikuo and his human cohorts from their increasingly curious, talented, and empathetic creations.

Time of Eve, aside from being a successful and satisfying film, also succeeded in growing Yoshiura's international profile. A global release of the ONAs on blu-ray did modestly well, and a 2013 Kickstarter to bring the theatrical cut of the film to blu-ray raised an impressive $200,000—enough to get the movie dubbed in English, no less. Yoshiura's next movie, Patema Inverted, would go straight to theatres.

Patema Inverted is one of the few anime movies you can dig up at Target and Wal-Mart, though its initial release has probably vanished from their shelves by now. It's a bit more light and fanciful than his earlier works, as if he'd been shyly asked by the movie's financiers to make something a bit Ghibli-esuqe, and he duly obliged. In this film, a botched experiment with gravity has left many thousands of people “inverted,” with their own personal gravity sucking them up into the boundless skies. The survivors retreat underground. A young man, Age, wants to meet and study these “inverts” to aid his own research into flight, but in his society, which was so devastated by the earlier experiments, it's forbidden. When he finds an invert girl named Patema in one of the tunnels, he sympathizes with her fear of the open sky, and tries to find a way to help her and her underground neighbors.

Standing in Age and Patema's way is the most cartoonish of bad guys, Izamura, who's only lacking a mustache to twirl. He hates inverts with almost religious fervor, though he's so absurd that it seems unlikely he'd carry out any of his numerous threats against them. On the whole, Patema Inverted feels like one of those old Neo Tokyo or Memories anthology shorts, only blown up to feature-film size. Its opening, with chilling visions of thousands of helpless new inverts sucked into the sky, is compelling, and the director really knows where to hide the twists and keep the story interesting.

Both of Yoshiura's feature films also feel like improvements on ideas I'd noticed earlier in western films—Time of Eve feels a bit like a leaner, more logical take on Greg Pak's 2003 anthology film Robot Stories, and Patema Inverted starts off with a similar idea to 2012's Upside Down, which had the same ‘inverted people’ dynamic, only using it as a strict metaphor for class struggle instead of a forceful, tangible physical separation. (It's also a terrible movie, and Patema Inverted is not!) This is obviously just coincidence, but it's gratifying to see a relatively young director take these common ideas and make them better.

I say “relatively young” because we live in a world where Mamoru Hosoda was tipped as a “hot young director” when he was just over 40, and Yoshiura's still only 35. That's still much older than Shoji Kawamori was when he directed Macross: Do You Remember Love? , but it's good to see a director bringing both fresh ideas and a distinctive style to the table, helping prevent anime from turning into an old man's game. Yasuhiro Yoshiura is also a few years younger than me, which really highlights how much of my life has been a preposterous waste of time. But hey-- I can only sit back and take comfort in my complete lack of artistic talent. I may not be any good at writing stories or drawing pictures, but someone's got to dig these here ditches! While I do my digging, I'll continue digging the films of Yasuhiro Yoshiura.

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