Wednesday, April 26, 2006


I've been going on about theme for a while, so I thought I'd change things up a little and talk about the anime industry in America, specifically the dub aspect. I'm not quite a "sub" purist, but I do tend to lean towards Japanese seiyuu - and with good reason, as the worst seiyuu are for the most part better than the best American voice actors. There is a good reason why the industry has this problem of weak performances by American voice actors: money. AD Vision started it, from what I know, by buying series for dirt cheap (back before anime was a billion dollar export business) and then using in-house voice actors paid with tiny salaries to dub the series and pop them out onto VHS as fast as possible. People who never really knew the non-digital age of anime distribution will probably not be familiar with AD Vision's American voice cast, but such familiar faces as Hilary Haag and Laura Chapman might ring bells for those who were forced to buy those extremely poor quality voice-overs.

Sadly voice acting as an "occupation" has never really taken off in the US, due to the fact that anime is a niche market and does not have the money to pay high-end talent what they are accustomed to. For the most part good voice actors are, not surprisingly, good actors in general, which explains why big name actors typically mean that the dub version will have some feeling. Case in point is the release of Karas which was hyped partially on the fact that big-name Hollywood actors were taking part in the dub. All the Ghibli releases have received similar treatment, and with good effect - they are some of the best dubs in the industry.

What has surprised me the most about the state of dubs in the industry, however, is the fact that Cowboy Bebop still stands as one of the best, if not the best, dubs ever produced. The voice acting cast assembled for the project never ceases to amaze me with how exceptional their performances turned out. I prefer the voices of Steven Jay BLUM, Wendee Lee, and John Billingslea to their Japanese counterparts - they really just capture the characteristcs of Spike, Fay and Jet in a way that the Japanese can't. I think this has to do a great deal with the fact that Cowboy Bebop is set in such a multi-cultural environment, and Japan is such a homogenous nation. The US, on the other hand, is home to so many different, integrated ethnic groups, that it makes sense to have Americans voice the characters in Cowboy Bebop.

As a contrasting example, I prefer to bring to the forefront Crest of the Stars. Never before have I seen an anime butchered so mercilessly in the dub than in this case. Jessica Yow and Matthew Erickson, the voices of Lafiel and Jinto respectively, proved themselves incapable of conveying emotion to the viewer. In many cases their voices are either monotone or obscenely high-pitched. It seems throughout the whole series that both voice actors are actually reading directly off a piece of paper, rather than looking at the script for reference and having made a conscious decision of how to say their lines beforehand. Lafiel and Jinto's conversations are punctuated by a high degree of humor inherent in Lafiel's naive arrogance, and Jinto's unusual situation. The American voice actors fail to communicate either aspect, resulting in a completely underwhelming performance.

Much of this can be blamed on poor casting by directors. Being able to tell who should play what role is a major part of how good a dub turns out, and it is apparent from the state of dubs that this is still a major problem today. Luckily, it's getting better. All the Ghibli films have been well-produced, with good casting for the characters. In fact, most anime movie releases domestically have come with above-average voice talent on the dub side. However, things still need to improve as far as regular series go. Dub actors still don't understand how to connect with their character counterpart, something that they will need to learn in order for dubs to take the next step forward in quality.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

NANA: What is love...

I'll admit it - I'm a huge fan of Shoujo manga. Manga like Karekano and W-Juliet really hit the spot when it comes to my desire to see some good drama and romance. And recently, I've come upon the brilliance of Yaizawa Ai's NANA. It's actually funny, because I first read NANA a few years ago while checking out a scanlation group, but never really thought too much of it until I actually picked up Viz's two domestically released volumes about two or three weeks ago. Since then I've devoured the whole series up to volume 14, the latest point translated by Taoyoki Scanlations (link to their yahoo group is here). At first I shared the sentiments of quite a few people out there - that this was just another Shojo series with all the typical trappings offered by the genre: bishounen guys, beautiful girls, altogether too much drama, and very little point. However, you don't sell well over twenty-two million copies in your home country through dramatic presence takes something more, a strength of theme (in many ways comparable to Naruto, although that series obviously appeals to the male mind).

So...what theme? The problem is that there are so many in NANA. It's practically overflowing with real problems and questions, albeit crammed into the lives of about a dozen people. But at the core we find the question: "what is love?" Okay, so that's a really corny way of putting it, but just because NANA dresses the question up so beautifully doesn't make it any less apparent. That's the key to understanding NANA.

I admit that trying to delve into the "deeper meaning" of Shojo manga might seem like one of those overly intellectual, "I want people to think I'm smart," practices in arrogance. However, I think that even if the creator didn't intend for their work to send this sort of concentrated message, the mere fact that it does impart this sort of message helps me to understand the Japanese mindset better (which is one of the things I aim to do by watching anime, reading manga, listening to their music, reading their literature, etc.). And the mindset that I see here comes directly from the lack of focus and vision Japanese society is experiencing now, typified by Speed Tribes, the classic book by Taro Greenfeld. I don't claim to know how the Japanese have arrived at their current state of confusion - scholars can do that - but they have, and NANA addresses the confusion experienced by the ari-burei zoku, and other likewise stereotyped youth Taro Greenfeld writes about.
Having lost the foundational beliefs on which their purpose rests, the Japanese have tried to turn to the undeniably powerful force of love to overcome their problems. You see the same message of: "love and belief conquer all," in so many places throughout all of Japanese youth culture, and even intellectual culture. The only problem is, in their rush to return to normalcy, the youth of Japan have mistaken selfishness for individuality, and are in so deep in it that they've become confused about the concept of love.

You see it pop up frequently in NANA. "Hachi" (or pink Nana) continually struggles throughout the length of the series to reconcile her selfish desires with her practically insatiable appetite for love. However, and she even questions this herself, is what she is feeling for the men she falls for really love? Or is it infatuation, or something else? As Hachi slowly comes to realize over the fourteen volumes of NANA, love isn't something that just magically appears - it's something that you have to work at, and that you can't take for granted.
NANA presents the confusion between love and selfishness through all the characters, as each tries in turn to overcome their own selfish desires and make good decisions. Takumi tries to give up his mistresses so he can be a good husband to Hachi, even as Hachi promises herself that she will give up Nobu for the sake of Takumi and the future of her child. Shin knows that his prostitution with Reira has the potential to destroy her, and struggles with his desire to do what's best for her, and his own desire to stay with her. In all these instances, excxept for Hachi's, we see the failure of each character to live up to their desires born of love, and watch them give in to their own personal desires. Takumi continues to visit his mistresses, and Shin continues to see Reira. However, surprisingly, Hachi becomes a flagship of the difficulty and pain of truly loving someone as she sacrifices herself time and again for Takumi - emotionally as well as physically. What Hachi begins to recognize throughout all this is that love isn't all roses and candy - like all other human endeavors worth doing, it takes commitment and (surprise!) work. The characters in NANA rarely take the time to understand each other beyond proving their physical attachment to one another, but in Hachi Yaizawa Ai creates a character willing to go beyond the immediate and the physical, and push into the areas that really matter: the heart and the mind.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Anime magazines...

This post isn't going to be quite as organized and prolific in content as my past entries have been. For one thing, I'm pretty tired, and for another, my brain feels like it's been drained of most useful information for the time being. I have a lot of blog entries I want to add, on different anime series I've been watching or have watched, as well as some comments on the state of the anime industry in America and where it's heading. But most of that will have to wait, for now I'll content myself with the selected topic listed in this post's title.

So...anime magazines. Animerica is one that comes to mind (Newtype is a given), as it was the only anime magazine I read with any sort of consistency before Newtype appeared on the shelves. It's funny, actually, because now it's gone (for the most part, it still exists as a free giveaway at Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc.). Yet another forgotten product of a long forgotten era when upstarts like MixxZine tried to change the landscape by introducing monthly manga anthologies (and somehow that product turned into the anime and manga distributing giant known as Tokyopop).

The funny thing is, Viz published Animerica, and did so quite well. Articles in the magazine, while definitely in skewed in favor of Viz's titles, had a semblance of objectivity and actually provided meaningful information about the series they wrote on. The magazine's interviews also were conducted well, with interesting, insightful questions asked. In general the whole magazine had that Viz flavor to it - high production values and a competent, professional staff.

Now contrast this with AD Vision's Newtype magazine (which I have been an avid reader of since the first copy hit newstands). Like any typical AD Vision offering, it looks beautiful from cover to cover. However, and I stress this more than anything, there is nothing but fluff when it comes to the writing. I buy magazines for the articles - the pretty pictures are a bonus. Newtype seems to love the pretty pictures, but falls flat on its face with the articles. To a certain extent I can understand that the magazine, technically an "import" the legendary Japanese magazine of the same name, will retain some distinctly Japanese characteristics such as overly flowery language and a general dearth of information. I buy an anime magazine for what it can tell me about anime, yet - with the exception of the editorial columns in the center, and the names of new series coming out in Japan - Newtype lets me know nothing I couldn't figure out myself by looking at a DVD's cover art.

Newtype has so much it can possibly offer, yet it handicaps itself by writing summaries for series with little to no actual information on the series itself. Interviews can be just as bad (though I find this is a common problem with interviews in general, not just Newtype), with whole sections devoted to a person's favorite food and interests rather than anything worthwhile (what inspired you to make/do this? What is the most difficult part of the creative process? Do you try to infuse meaning in your work, or like Murakami do you just make what you feel like?).

Now, that's enough on the current state of the only anime magazine in the US worth buying. It's sad, because I picked up a British magazine called Neo, which actually has all the aspects of a quality magazine (good writing, actual reviews, and informative interviews). It made me wonder why we can't do that here.

I think I've gone on long enough - to keep from making this post too long, I'm going to cut it off here and let what I've said sink into my own mind before I write more.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Under the weather...

Well, I came down with the flu yesterday, and at the worst possible time, considering this week is my worst in terms of work.

I will post later in the week, probably on Thursday and Friday.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Samurai Champloo: In it for the long haul...

Wow. I just watched Samurai Champloo this past weekend, and the series left an impression on me. That's not surprising, really, considering that Shinichiro Watanabe, creator and director of Cowboy Bebop, directed it. If his status as a legendary director hadn't already been guaranteed by Cowboy Bebop's success, this show would definitely have propelled him to the front ranks. But in other ways, this show is only possible because of Cowboy Bebop's performance.

Entertaining anime is easy to find. They pop up all the time, and most of the worthwhile ones make it to American shores with relative haste. However, fun anime is not easy to find - anime that makes you feel like you're a kid again playing in the park. Samurai Champloo, for all of its drama and angst sprinkled through its twenty-six episode span, is undoubtedly the "most fun anime" that I've ever watched. Even more surprisingly, the series pulls off this feat almost without even trying. Everything about it, from the funky hip-hop intro to the DJ-spinning animation excite the viewer.

Another thing, Samurai Champloo is that rare anime that the manga format cannot live up to, in any category. This fact stems from the uniqueness of how Watanabe tackles the presentation. The funky hip-hop that I mentioned earlier, so prevalent throughout the series, cannot be captured by the still-frames of manga, and the manga version of Samurai Champloo, by Masaru Gotsubo, vividly illustrates this. Samurai Champloo must be watched - not just seen, but watched.

The first episode's opening sequence highlights this beautifully. After the intro, we are treated to the most innovative series of scene shifts in the history of Japanese Animation. Like a DJ spinning a record, the scene shifts take on a rhythmic look - with visual cues to match. It has to be seen to be believed. Artistically, there are few peers to this show's creativity.

Of course, amidst all this fun and banter lie hard-hitting messages and implications concerning pressing issues in Japan. These range from America-Japan relations, to the effects of religion and corruption. Of these numerous topics, the one thing that pops out the most frequently, and hit me the hardest, was the show's portrayal of prostitution in Tokugawa Japan.

A bit of history sheds some light on a very interesting, and melancholy, subject. Prostitution became especially prevalent in Japan as people congregated towards cities - resulting in a Bakufu order that prostitution take place only on the immediate outskirts of cities. Prostitutes, once they became so, were allowed few luxuries and little freedom. They were, in effect, slaves. Attempts at escape resulted in an intense manhunt that more often than not yielded particuarly violent returns on the attempted escapee. An interesting aside: ronin were not allowed to patronize such establishments.

The episode, "Fallen Angels ~ Gambling and Gallantry," takes this concept and runs with it. Jin, the ronin, falls in love with a young woman, Shion, just about to enter one of the many prostitute houses in town. Their love is obviously impossible, and Shion's useless husband makes things no easier. In fact, Shion must become a prostitute in order to satisfy her husband's compulsive gambling habit.

What we see in "Fallen Angels," is the primary conflict of Samurai Champloo - obligation vs. desire. Shion finds herself bound by the Japanese concept of duty to many things: her husband, as well as the prostitute house in which she finds herself working. Once she meets Jin, however, a Yukio Mishima-esque conflict takes place, and she suddenly finds herself unable to choose between the desire she feels for happiness and freedom, and the obligation she feels to her husband. This climaxes when Jin asks her to come with him, to run away, and she accepts.

Shion's acceptance of her desire and freedom over the traditional value of obligation is of immense importance. In fact, such a message prevails throughout Samurai Champloo, and it's not just for show. Watanabe's message is clear - he wants himself and others to break free of the traditional bonds of servititude that Japanese society places on its people. Throughout the show, we see evidence of the harmful effects of this shame culture everywhere, from the extreme prevalence of prostitutes to the corruption of the officials in charge. Through desire and freedom, as epitomized by the youth culture with its hip-hop and style, Watanabe appears to want to change that.

Samurai Champloo excites me in a way that few anime shows have managed - and I still want more.

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