The Mike Toole Show
Gothicmade in Japan

by Mike Toole,

There's a short list of anime movies, OVAs, and TV episodes that you can't watch. The majority of them are from the 1960s, and are episodes of fare like Perman and Robotan and Big X, which were either inadvertently destroyed or intentionally tossed out in an era before anyone thought they might be worth preserving. This is a common phenomenon; Dr. Who fans will gab your ear off about the multitude of missing Hartnell and Troughton-era episodes, and in America, an entire goddamn TV network's worth of programming was thrown in the river—the DuMont Network, to be specific. I sometimes hear fans complaining about how Fred Ladd butchered Tetsuwan Atom to create Astroboy, and this always makes me bristle, because Ladd hung on to the films that Mushi Production sent him for dubbing, and kept many of them safe when the Japanese company declined to take them back because return shipping would've been too expensive. Years later, Ladd's copies—as well as dozens of 16mm prints held by fans—would be instrumental in restoring the TV series for home video.

But some of these lost anime titles are more recent, and are being held back due to legal and creative squabbling. Naturally, I am very mad about this. That's right, let's throw aside the hundreds of thousands of hours of top-notch anime that is available, the decades of anime history that's literally at our fingertips, to fume quietly about how we can't watch the purportedly terrible 2007 Jojo's Bizarre Adventure movie because the creator has exercised his right to forbid a home video release. Listen, I don't care that Fujiko Fujio and TV Asahi decided that the 1973 version of Doraemon was low-quality and not worth preserving, I want to see it, dammit! Unfortunately, for the most part, we can't see these lost anime. But on November 5th, just a week and change prior to this column's publication date, fans gathered at the Toho Cinemas theater in Ueno to watch one of these most rare pieces of lost Japanese animation. It was the 2012 feature film Gothicmade.

Gothicmade is the creation of mecha designer, manga artist, essayist, raconteur, musician, and cosplayer Mamoru Nagano. If you're any sort of mecha anime fan, you've probably seen his work—he debuted with some design contributions to Vifam and Giant Gorg, but came into his own with 1984's Heavy Metal L-Gaim, a series that adroitly fuses writer/director Yoshiyuki Tomino's enjoyably idiosyncratic storytelling with Nagano's baroque, compelling visuals. Despite sometimes candidly describing Tomino as “scary,” Nagano returned to collaborate with the director on 1985's Zeta Gundam, contributing designs for a number of the weirder suits featured in that series, including fan-favorites like the Qubeley and Rick Dias. Nagano's work on Zeta was strong enough that he was picked to design the main mobile suit for ZZ Gundam. Then, his work was put aside.

This was one of those moments that would define Nagano's career. The show sponsor (Bandai, most likely) complained that Nagano's design just didn't look like a Gundam, and would be difficult to engineer as a toy or model kit. The frustrated artist, who also famously complained at Anime Expo 1993 that he'd felt disappointed by the final product of Heavy Metal L-Gaim, began work on his own manga series. In April of 1986, just a month after ZZ Gundam began airing, Nagano's Five Star Stories began its run in Newtype magazine, a run that continues, albeit irregularly, all the way to the present day. Five Star Stories' epic scope, large and colorful cast of characters, and utterly unique mecha design swiftly carried the series to popularity. The story, a labyrinthine affair concerning the wars and political maneuvering of a royal dynasty in a 4-star system called the Joker Cluster (the fifth star is a comet, whose appearance is said to predict great upheaval), is something that I'd perhaps compare to Frank Herbert's Dune, though Nagano is perhaps a bit less ambitious.

What really makes Five Star Stories stand out is Nagano's yen for both mecha and fashion design—you'll stick around for the epic story, but what attracts the eye is his colorful, gorgeous mecha pilots (headdliners), their willowy and alluring artificial copilots (fatima), the suits' bizarre and enigmatic designers and mechanics (meisters), and the towering, nigh-invincible mecha they pilot (mortar headds). Five Star Stories was popular enough that it received one of those “wait, is this a movie, or an OVA?” adaptations in 1989. The film works, despite the fact that it's sort of a rushed adaptation of what turns out to be a mere prologue—for my money, you have character designer Nobuteru Yuuki to thank, as well as composer Tomoyuki Asakawa, whose orchestral contributions are suitably epic.

1989 is also the year that Nagano himself went to Baycon, San Francisco's big-deal science fiction convention, and sat on a couple of panels with Animag magazine staffers Trish Ledoux and Toshi Yoshida, and, for some reason, Star Trek: The Next Generation designer Rick Sternbach. Actually, Sternbach was involved because he's an outspoken anime nerd, one of the many TNG staffers who sneaked anime references into the series. Nagano was eager for western fans to experience his work, and talked about his plans to release the Five Star Stories manga in hardcover. It never happened, but Nagano's meeting with the Animag people was fortuitous—a few years later, Five Star Stories would make its English-language debut in the pages of Animerica, under the auspices of the same staffers.

Meanwhile, the lavishly-animated movie, a great gateway drug for Nagano's work, seemed to languish. I heard for years that Nagano hated the film for a number of reasons. Maybe it was because the director Kazuo Yamazaki unwisely remarked, in an interview, that he didn't understand the source material very well. Or perhaps it was because Nagano disliked the music, and wished he'd been able to use his own. (Contemporaneously to the film, Nagano made his own Five Star Stories “image” album. It's musically sound, but pretty lousy. Asakawa's work is indubitably better.) Maybe it was because the movie does a great job adapting the first book, but abruptly stops right before the really cool part at the end when Amaterasu takes Lachesis to his mester shop. Perhaps it was simply because the film rights were locked up by Kadokawa Shoten, with the creator unable to directly control a lot of the proceedings himself. In any case, after its initial laserdisc release, Five Star Stories remained out of print for over a decade. When I went to Japan in 1999, a used disc, one that had some physical problems, was still proffered at the price of 40,000 yen at the Shibuya Mandarake. A mint-condition disc could fetch as much as 100,000 yen, almost a thousand bucks!

But here's the thing about that whole “Nagano doesn't like the movie and held it back” story. In sourcing the comment for this article, I couldn't find anywhere where the creator said it himself, on the record. I think it picked up steam on Usenet in the 1990s, which is where I first heard it. It's an interesting bit of apocrypha, because it's certainly something that Nagano would say. You could probably write an entire article about his refusal to work with Bandai, because he's still mad about the ZZ snub and the L-Gaim toys they made thirty years ago and doesn't think they're good enough to properly engineer his 2D creations for 3D playtime or model kit assembly; that's a big part of why the Five Star Stories model kits are made by Volks. But ultimately, I'm obliged to file “Nagano didn't want this to be re-released” in that same little niche where the old “Steven Spielberg says that the Castle of Cagliostro has the best chase scene ever made!” chestnut lives.

Five Star Stories came to DVD in 2002, and to Blu-Ray several years later, so if there was resentment on Nagano's part, it dissipated. Nagano also eventually achieved his hope of releasing Five Star Stories in English, by doing it himself. In 1998, right after I first launched my old Anime Jump website, a special preview copy of Five Star Stories volume 1 in English appeared, as if by magic, in my mailbox. A couple of things really made it stand out. First of all, it was full-size, not in a smaller “tankoban” size like how most manga is released. Secondly, it was unflipped. This is the standard now, but in 1998, when Viz was just starting to experiment with unflipped Evangelion floppy issues, it was kind of astounding. Nagano's publishing company, Toyspress, dutifully continued the run for several years, selling each issue (the Japanese volumes were broken up into about three English-language books apiece) through Previews and the Kinokuniya bookstore chain. Some years after the initial release, project translator John Wisnom gave an interview with some salient facts about the release. First of all, despite being the definition of a niche product, early volumes of Five Star Stories did alright, meriting multiple reprintings. Secondly, the release was not a commercial project—the only reason it existed was because Nagano felt that Five Star Stories ought to be available in English, and damn the details. I avidly followed the release until volume 20, when I lost track of it, thus dooming myself to never getting books 21-26. The books, especially later volumes, are still in demand; when I found a copy of volume 16 at Anime North for $5 a few years ago, I snapped it up and flipped it for $25 later that day. I like to think that Mamoru Nagano bought me lunch.

This brings us to Gothicmade, a film that Nagano started planning in the mid-2000s, and which was announced for its 2012 release in 2010. Gothicmade is interesting, because the artist essentially turned the Five Star Stories manga into Gothicmade by abruptly folding in new characters and radically revised designs, in a manner that confused and irritated a lot of the series' longtime fans. I'm not surprised or upset in the least by this—Nagano has long maintained that Five Star Stories largely exists as a vehicle for his design drawings, and this move is in keeping with that notion. But for the film, Nagano would direct himself—his first time doing so. He also storyboarded, provided character and mecha designs, and even drew some of the keyframe animation himself. Altogether, Gothicmade only had about a dozen main creative staff—a small crew for such an ambitious film.

But a small crew can make some pretty big work, and the scope of the story—concerning Berin, an important figure on a small colonial planet, befriending the angry and violent pilot of a powerful GTM mecha suit, a Gothicmade—sounded like it just might work out. After the film's release (I'd heard it was a very mixed bag—hard to follow and badly under-animated, but still plenty of fun hooks for Nagano fans), I patiently waited for news of a Blu-Ray release. And waited. And waited. I'm still waiting.

Now we can return to that theatre from a week ago. The only reason I learned about this screening is because, in the post-movie Q&A session, Nagano loudly proclaimed that Gothicmade would never, ever be released on disc. The tone of his remark, however, prompted a wave of laughter from the audience, so maybe he wasn't totally serious about it. But you can never really tell, and that's part of Nagano's appeal. I also dig his cosplay skills.

You probably recognize Utena and Yurikuma Arashi director Kunihiko Ikuhara on the right as Sailor Mars, but that's Nagano as Venus! This photo is from a promo event put on by Newtype back in 2000. The two artists struck up a friendship—I like to think that it's specifically because of this shoot—and created a little collaboration called Schell Bullet. But Mamoru Nagano was cosplaying all the way back in 1981, when he used his craftsmanship (and his skills as an artist, natch) to belly up to Yoshiyuki Tomino during the run-up to the release of the Gundam theatrical films. In Japan, his fantastically-designed characters remain popular cosplay subjects.

Will we ever get to see Gothicmade? Well, for years, I figured that there'd be no DVD release of Five Star Stories, and then there was. I then thought that the movie certainly wouldn't make the jump to Blu-Ray, but it did. (The special edition even comes with a Gothicmade preview disc! Hey, someone pick me up one of those…) There's a long chain of works that have seemed unlikely to be reissued—but then it happened. As for Gothicmade, we'll get the chance to see the movie if and when Mamoru Nagano decides we should. That's the way it should be.

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