The Mike Toole Show
noitaminA ekiL I
by Mike Toole,
About a month ago, I got to do something I'd been wanting to do since 2006: I got to watch the TV series Hataraki Man nice and legally. Way back around the time of its premiere, I'd taken in a couple of fansubbed episodes, and I liked what I saw: a smart, taut adaptation of Moyoco Anno's manga about a workaholic magazine editor and her romantic problems, with a bangin' Puffy theme tune. But I backed off of the then-ubiquitous digital fansubs, figuring that a commercial release would come sooner or later. Well, it turned out to be later, and “later” turned out to be 13 years in the making. It's OK, I can be patient.
I thought of Hataraki Man again a week or two later, when I was wandering the grocery store and heard the strains of the jazz standard “Moanin'.” It wasn't the Art Blakey version, the one that made the song famous; it was a more modern-sounding arrangement, one that Shazam would promptly tell me was by Phil Woods. But regardless of the artist or arrangement, “Moanin'” is one of those songs that always takes me back to a specific time and place, and that time and place is camped out in front of the TV in the spring of 2012, watching Kids on the Slope, which uses that song as a central motif. This time, as I thought of this old favorite, something hit me—both Kids on the Slope and Hataraki Man had something in common—they're both Noitamina shows.
Noitamina is Fuji TV's late-nite block for sharp, popular, and cutting-edge animation. If you're dialed in to the anime scene, you know that each and every Noitamina series is worth at least a look or two—it's a mark of quality. It's not that easy to get viewers to automatically associate quality with a specific programming block; after all, in the west, we only get sure hits like Toonami and Animation Domination and TGIF once in a while! The thing is, Noitamina didn't start with some grand plan or vision. The ball got rolling in 2003, when the folks at the entertainment production company Asmik Ace decided they wanted to pursue a live-action TV adaptation of Chica Umino's josei manga Honey and Clover. It had good fundamentals for a TV drama: a small group of lead characters, a good story, and constant, smoldering romantic tension. Publisher Shueisha were amenable, they just had one condition: there had to also be an anime version of Honey and Clover. No problem; Asmik Ace were savvy veterans of the anime production side, so they enlisted GENCO assist in managing the proceedings and started working on lining up a timeslot.
Entertainment is a fickle business, though. The two companies couldn't decide on a timeslot, so the project was tossed on the shelf. But a group of producers from Fuji TV caught wind of it and approached them—they were developing a new programming block—something novel, an anime timeslot for non-anime-fans-- and felt like a josei manga adaptation would be a good test case. And so, in April of 2005, Fuji TV rolled out Honey and Clover at 12:35am—or, as Japanese TV parlance refers to the timeslot, 25:35—under the banner of Noitamina. What was Noitamina, though? One of the timeslot's early taglines went: Anime no joushiki o kutsugae shitai, a bold statement that goes sorta like, “Reverse the common view of anime.” When I met Fuji TV's Kōji Yamamoto, one of the producers, a few years later at the New York Comicon, he explained that the whole idea of noitamiA was to expand anime viewership beyond the usual target audience of young men. In a magazine interview, Yamamoto's Fuji TV partner Yōko Matsuzaki was a little more direct: “We're targeting women,” she said.
In the block's early going, targeting women certainly seemed to be the name of the game. Honey and Clover, a romance about a quintet of college kids trying to figure themselves out, was the debut series. For me, what makes this show succeed isn't just the strength of its story, which always had an advantage—it's Chikako Shibata's art direction, full of earth tones and warm colors, that makes the series pop. H&C is also right up there with FLCL's symbiotic relationship with The Pillows, in that it has a sort of patron band—in this case, 90s rockers SPITZ. The series is run through with insert songs like few other anime, and SPITZ would also contribute pieces to the live-action movie. You remember the live-action thing, right? The thing that Asmik Ace originally wanted to do? Yeah, they got that done, as part of the deal. Interestingly, this good old ‘media mix’ approach to selling the series would recur again and again with Noitamina shows—sometimes as a carefully planned situation, and sometimes not. Honey and Clover was followed by fellow josei series Paradise Kiss, in which director Osamu Kobayashi does his best to keep his idiosyncrasies—a predilection for rough character animation and sledgehammer editing, for example—on a short leash, the better to let Ai Yazawa's terrific story and attractive characters lead the way. Unfortunately, the show's 13-episode runtime rather ruthlessly condenses Yazawa's already trim series, in which a reluctant fashion model falls hard for her seemingly worldly designer, before slowly discovering that his high-stepping attitude conceals deep anxiety and immaturity.
Noitamina wasn't a breakout hit—the new block generated some buzz, but still generally struggled to get more than a few points in the ratings. But 2007 would bring Nodame Cantabile, one of the 2000s great manga series in anime form, and that show would carry the ratings well north of 5%. Nodame's another romance, but this time the twist is that our couple are both talented musicians—Shinichi's a straight arrow, a multi-instrumentalist who practices relentlessly to keep the top spot at his music college, but Megumi “Nodame” Noda habitually ignores her sheet music in favor of playing by ear, and makes her first big impression by playing a song about farts. Shinichi is bewildered that someone so casual about their talent has come so far, while Megumi is immediately taken with Shinichi and starts prodding him to take a few risks. What follows is one of the great romance stories of the medium's recent times, told across three separate Noitamina TV seasons. This series was the block's first smash hit, and arguably remains its biggest one; it's no accident that the show's comfy 12:45-1:15 timeslot was expanded to 12:45-1:45 in the wake of its' success.
In between Nodame Cantabile seasons, Noitamina stuck to the plan at first, delivering a series of josei manga adaptations, and a couple based on literary works and folk tales. The very first original Noitamina project was a digression, and not just because it was created for the screen-- Eden of the East moved away from what Noitamina had staked as its target audience, presenting a series that both has a mainstream action/suspense story and a few hooks for anime dorks, like high-tech weapons and noticeably cuter characters. Much was made of Eden of the East at the time of its release—it's a solid action series by Ghost in the Shell: SAC and Moribito auteur Kenji Kamiyama. But if you ask me, the first original series in the block to really stand out was the next in line, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. I'd tip this series as one of the secret best Noitamina shows; it never got the notoriety that so many of its neighbors did. Like the title suggests, the series is a frank look at survival in the wake of a devastating earthquake, a widely shared anxiety that's always on the radar of Japanese society. But as the show progresses, it also becomes a story of survivor's guilt, and how one might process their grief in the midst of tragedy. It didn't get the movie sequels or the Oasis song, but I'd put Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 up against Eden of the East any old time.
A year later, in 2010, Noitamina gave the world The Tatami Galaxy, a show that was met with great enthusiasm and acclaim from... not enough people to bother with a physical release, according to Funimation. Back then, I was absolutely willing to believe this—the anime business was coming out of its DVD-crash-induced hangover, and Tatami Galaxy was a hard sell at the time, a narratively and visually unusual show filled with odd characters and dense, fast-talking dialogue. But Masaaki Yuasa's adaptation of Tomihiko Morimi's novel has aged like fine wine—it still looks great, and still presents a really good story of a college boy trying to work out his romantic frustrations by stumbling through a series of parallel universes, courtesy of his ancient, sketchy dorm and the weirdos who live there. Interestingly, the series is still streaming on Funimation's SVOD service, which suggests that they've renewed its license at least once. I'm hoping we'll get a Blu-Ray release at some point, so it's no longer only available in a format that does this when something really complicated happens onscreen.
Blargh!! Tatami Galaxy was followed not just by Shiki, a generally excellent story about the intersection of rural decay and vampires, but by another first—a live-action adaptation of Moyashimon, which had already been adapted as anime. This would prove to be the block's sole experiment with live-action programming, though the supply of live-action adaptations of Noitamina fare has never been in short supply. One series that got a live-action movie is 2011's anohana, another show about shock, alienation, and grief, concerning the efforts of a group of five teenagers to come to terms with the childhood loss of their sixth buddy, who died young in an accident. Taking a while to process grief is normal, but it's complicated when the dead girl, Menma, suddenly appears to her old friends as a ghost. In some ways, her presence is a relief; getting to talk to her again is cathartic. But in others it just compounds the friends' miseries, making for a wistful, emotionally poignant ride. anohana was another in the block's increasingly long list of original works, courtesy of breakout screenwriter Mari Okada and talented director Tatsuyuki Nagai. The series was so popular that it re-ran on the block, and spawned a compilation movie which proved so popular, pulling in a whopping $10 million, that it helped lead to the spike in anime compilation movies and sequels (Madoka Magica, Sound! Euphonium, Made in Abyss, etc) that continues to this day. I don't think that Kids on the Slope is as notable as anohana, but it's still notable. It served as Shinichiro Watanabe's triumphant return to the director's chair, after spending the preceding seven or eight years focusing on music production.
But this focus on music undoubtedly colors Kids on the Slope, a period romantic drama that's defined by its jazzy sound more than anything else. The character relationships of this series seem ordinary at first—intelligent and restrained Kaoru moves to a small town, and has trouble fitting in. Boisterous Sentaro's big frame and rough upbringing make him intimidating to the bookish Kaoru, but he's really a thoughtful music lover. The two are destined to jam together, even as they figure out both their own friendship and their romantic feelings for classmate Ritsuko, all over the backdrop of 1966, a period defined by political upheaval, an uncertain future, and hot-ass jazz music.
Some period shows have a hard time establishing their setting—I always point to Gate Keepers, a show that ostensibly takes place in the 60s but always, always feels unmistakably like 2002—but not this one. In addition to the music—Blakey's version of “Moanin'” is the definitive version, so it's good that they stick to the arrangement from it for this series!-- , this show feels like a story of the 1960s, but it somehow also feels ultra-modern. Even today, going back and watching a bit of it to refresh myself for this column, reeled me right back in. Hearing “Moanin'” always reminds me of this show, and it always will. Such is the power of a top director with an ear for music.
If Nodame Cantabile is Noitamina's first big hit, #2 has probably got to be Psycho-Pass. When it came out in 2014, it had been a while since an anime series had so brazenly and cheerfully stolen from not just Blade Runner, but from all over Philip K. Dick's oeuvre. Thank anime super-writer Gen Urobuchi for that; here, he paints a picture of a society where all citizens are constantly psychologically profiled by an AI that decides if their stress levels indicate that they're likely to engage in impulsive or even criminal actions. These latent offenders are subsequently flagged and chased down by enforcers wielding guns that only work on people judged mentally unsound by the system. A rookie officer, Akane Tsunemori, has to grapple with two unsettling aspects of her job: for one, her partner, Kogami, is himself a latent criminal, flagged by the system as unwell and restricted to violent pursuit work. Not only that, Tsunemori manages to calm down a cornered pre-crime subject, who subsequently is able to pass the AI's psychological profiling scan again. So what if the cornerstone of their society, the SIBYL system that tracks latent criminal tendencies, is a bunch of bullshit?
The result is excellent science fiction, fare that addresses memory, psychosis, stress, and Dick's old Minority Report idea of “pre-crime.” So many of the characters quietly yearn for a time before the stable but brutal SIBYL system, and the ever-present danger of coping badly with your problems and getting flagged by the system just results in this constant, low-grade unease shared by seemingly everyone… except the smug villains, whose sheer sociopathy lets them slip right through SIBYL's dragnet. Like many good tales of dystopia, Psycho Pass isn't about future cops with cool guns and moral confict; it's really about reckoning with a power structure that tends to punish the mentally unwell for having the very problems that led to their ailments, which is kind of like what we already do now, in far too many cases. Good, smart science fiction is always about the present day. Psycho-Pass was never quite as popular as Nodame Cantabile, but it has one big advantage—the latter eventually ran out of material, but not Psycho-Pass! A sequel movie and TV series, plus a forthcoming third season, means that Psycho-Pass is the de facto standard-bearer for the Noitamina block. To be fair, none of it has been as good as that first TV series, but they just keep on trying.
Noitamina started with adaptations of josei manga, then seinen manga, novels, and original works. The latest shift in source material comes with last season's installment, The Promised Neverland. The block has certainly harvested some stories from manga giant Shogakukan before, but usually from Big Comic or Shonen Sunday or the late, great Monthly Ikki. The Promised Neverland, however, is the first time we've gotten a Noitamina show straight out of the pages of Shonen Jump. It seems odd, at first glance—how is Noitamina sticking to their mission of subverting expectations and “reversing the flow of anime” by grabbing a series from one of the most popular comic magazines in the world? It makes more sense once you get a taste of the story, which is all about adorable children being raised in a bucolic orphanage that seems more like a gentle, friendly boarding school than a home for wayward little ones. A schoolmaster/mother figure sees to their every need, and carefully manages their educations. That first note of unease only creeps in when some of the kids, notably fire-haired, bright-eyed Emma, observe that the children who score lower on the academic proficiency tests seem to get adopted faster.
This single note of suspicion is all that's really needed for the inquisitive children to find out the truth: they're being raised as livestock for monsters. Promised Neverland has a particular strength to it—it's an adaptation of a current, popular series that manages to complement its counterpart extremely well. The TV version trims the fat of the manga, making for a super-lean, lithe, high-tempo affair that feels more like an action-suspense story than the manga's otherworldly, slow-burn survival horror. It also functions as a superb gateway drug to the manga, which will inexorably lead you right back to the anime if you haven't finished it yet. That's the mark of a truly good manga-to-anime adaptation: you know what's going to happen, but you still feel compelled to watch it anyway. Thanks to the smart folks at Toonami, Noitamina is now being beamed out to the masses in the US. I'm struck by the fortuitous timing; even a year ago, a deal like this would've been complicated by an onerous exclusivity contract held by Amazon, but that contract expired just in time for The Promised Neverland to hit a much wider audience than previous shows; it feels a little easier to seek out. Let's hope it stays that way for a while.
When I hit Japan in 2016, I happened upon the Noitamina café, located in the Diver-City Mall in Odaiba. If you've gone to see the big life-size Gundam, you've probably at least popped into this mall briefly, either to eat at the food court or to check out the Gundam-related exhibits it houses. The café is worth a stop—it's got an art exhibit featuring a recent Noitamina work (it was ERASED when I went), a battery of souvenirs and character goods that are a little less overwhelming than trying to dig up similar fare at Animate, and even a themed food menu. Currently, you can get food based on Sarazanmai, which means there are egg-themed dishes. (You're gonna have to watch Sarazanmai to get this joke, I am NOT explaining it here…!) Even at their souvenir stand, all these years later, Noitamina is still building something a little different.
In most recent years, I've picked up a personal favorite from Noitamina, be it Samurai Flamenco or Ping Pong. I've written about those shows elsewhere. In fact, there's only one single solitary Noitamina show that hasn't gotten some sort of official international release, streaming or otherwise, and that's Osamu Dezaki's swan song, The Tale of Genji. I'd like to see that one, wouldn't you? None of these shows should be neglected. I've said that my neglected Noitamina favorite is Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, but what's yours? Do you think that Noitamina is still fulfilling its original tagline, of taking our expectations for the medium and throwing them into reverse? Maybe ‘reverse’ isn't the right word, but they always seem to push the medium in a new direction. I hope they keep doing it, so nobody tell the folks at Fuji TV that they spelled ‘animation’ backwards!
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