The Genuine Article
A Dark and Scary Place
(An exclusive interview with Andy Frain, Managing Director of Manga Entertainment is incorporated in this feature).
Manga is big business in Japan. So much so that even high status executives in major electronics companies will purchase graphic novels the size of telephone directories. The rush hour trains are apparently full of such people, sitting hunched over the latest offering. This description will confirm the claim that these are not simplistic comics but serious and hard-hitting storylines, accompanied by sophisticated artistry. In fact, the Manga phenomenon has swamped the media outlets, and become a major part of normal Japanese life, with a considerable amount of popular merchandising made available. Only recently has it made its impact in Britain, in the form of a series of individual video animé releases, most having been adapted from a popular Japanese comic book.
The word Manga literally translates as "irresponsible pictures". It has a wide usage in Japan, covering the entire meaning of animation, including cartoon, caricature and graphic novel, but is most commonly used to describe the hugely popular weekly comics. The animation itself is known as Animé.
Initially, there were some serious releases during the 80's, but unused to the concept of adult animé, European society generally treated them as children's cartoons, and so they proved unsuccessful.
In October 1991, the 124 minute feature by leading animation director Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira, was released in Britain by Island World Video, suitably dubbed into English, having previously been screened at the 1990 Piccadilly Film Festival. In 2019 Neo-Tokyo, 38 years after the apocalypse that initiated World War III, the Akira experiment into childhood paranormal powers is awakened. Crowds riot in the streets and militia appear to kill indiscriminately. Keneda is the leader of a gang of cyberpunk bikers who attempts to stop Tetsuo, a friend and younger member of the gang - and the subject of genetic experimentation - as he achieves near Godlike powers. Hugely destructive powers that he cannot control.
The story was first realised in Japan's bi-monthly Young magazine, where it began as a comic strip in December 1982. It was later adapted and translated by America's Marvel Comics, and released in graphic novel form.
When Otomo was asked to adapt his story for the screen in 1988, he assembled a production team which at the project's height touched on nearly 70. Many of these individuals, based at the Akira offices in Mitaka, worked night and day to produce 150,000 drawings for the film.
Extremely detailed, full scale drawings, or Image Boards, allowed the production team to realise Otomo's concepts and expectations for the film. The first main step was the Story Boards, all of which were drawn by Otomo himself. This was the most time-consuming part of the project, because there were 783 scenes, split into 4 parts, with each made larger for 70mm film to incorporate the detail and precision involved. Only those Story Boards not absolutely necessary were later cut out. Unlike live action, the only purpose of editing is to overlap the scenes, of which there are many for each sequence. Checkers were utilised for fast action scenes, moving TV images and building advertisements, and the success of this is evident. Schematics were made out showing the layout of buildings, and Active Line Drawings showed the individual movements of each character in group scenes.
There was much use of perspective to show depth; for instance, buildings are often three deep, and the lighted windows were painted progressively smaller working to the background. In the colouring process, 327 colours were used for improved realism. Many of the subtle differences in hue are not visible on the TV screen, but were added for theatre effect. Each character had five separate colour schemes, needed for differing settings where shading would fluctuate. One of the many innovations was the use of reds and greens, as opposed to uniform blacks and blues, for the night scenes, which work well with the brightly lit city.
The Japanese dialogue was prerecorded and the animated mouth movements matched, in a more accurate but very expensive procedure. The synchronisation was then checked using a Quick Action Recorder, so that alterations could be made prior to photography. This skill is obviously not evident in the English language version. Asahi Productions transferred the cells to film, overlapping the drawings with each other and with the background to achieve the overall dim look requested. The High Tech Lab in Tokyo constructed the computer graphics.
The sounds effects track was created using the Synclavier Audio System, never before used in Japanese animation, and the Geinoh Yamashirogumi group was given a free reign and six months to record music to fit the mood.
There is no single hero in the film, but rather a handful. The storylines are intricate and exist on many levels, so to say they are about parapsychology would be greatly simplifying an extremely complex and innovative affair. No viewers of Akira I have spoken to entirely comprehend the complicated plot. However, one thing we all agree upon is that it's a damn fine film. I would recommend Akira to anyone; even if they despised the storyline, they could not help but marvel at the extraordinary animation.
So staggering was the critical acclaim of Akira that the Manga company was formed in March 1992, with the change to Manga Entertainment Limited made in early 1993. A steady stream of video releases has followed since 1992, one of which is the Akira double tape pack, containing the widescreen and subtitled version of the film, along with a production report.
Manga Entertainment has itself dubbed to English many releases, and had thus far used in excess of 500 actors. And what does 'Huh?' translate as? Why, 'Huh?' of course. Watch Akira - and a few other selective releases - for comprehension!
The majority of releases fall into the genre of Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Demonic Horror, although there are a few crossovers and a couple of exceptions. The Professional Golgo 13, for instance, is Mafia-style story about a virtually unstoppable hired assassin trailed by the C.I.A. and F.B.I. This was based on one of Japan's longest running comics. Manga Entertainment is targeting an audience of between 17 and 30 with their titles. The Manga Club membership has shown that the interested contingent is predominantly male and aged 17 to 27.
It was important that the first feature to follow Akira be a good one, and it was. Fist of the North Star, directed by Toyoo Ashida and produced by the Toei Animation Company of Japan, was based on the graphic novels by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara. Ken, the Fist of the North Star, attempts to restore peace in a post apocalyptic world of aspiring dictators and wandering mutants. There is a high level of action and graphic violence, and this is reflected in the 18 certificate rating. The 112 minute running time also makes you feel you are getting your money's worth. Ashida also directed Vampire Hunter D, an enjoyable but slow horror fantasy.
Another excellent early release was Venus Wars, set in 2089, wherein a monobike racer teams up with a female reporter from Earth and other individuals against the Ishtar warring faction which has Aphrodia surrounded and under marshall law. Many aspects of this are reminiscent of Akira, and the animation direction, by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, is professional throughout. There is also a lengthy conclusion to the story, featuring interlinked songs.
In the demonic horror stakes, there is Urotsukidoji - Legend of the Overfiend, an animé that in my book pulls out all the stops. Legend has it that every three thousand years the three worlds - those of the Humans, the Man-Beasts and the Monster Demons - will be brought together by the coming of a super-being known as the Chojin. Amano, a Man-Beast is trying to discover its identity. He thinks it is the shy human Nagumo, but Nagumo is the Overfiend, destined to destroy the world to prepare the way for the coming of the Chojin.
Surprisingly, there have been virtually no problems gaining the relevant rating certificates from the film board of classification for releases such as this. The Manga personnel know which animé films are likely to be censored - because of their content, some just cannot be released here - and this means that only three titles have so far been edited: between 2 and 3 minutes was cut from each Urotsukidoji, and two minutes from Wicked City. In this instance, I think it might have been wise to place a warning on the cover; there is bad language and much gratuitous sex and violence, all of which, however, is linked to the plot. It might only be fantasy animation, but Legend of the Overfiend, directed by Hideki Takayama, is at times too real. The rape scenes, for example, will undoubtedly upset some viewers.
Censorship has lately become a major issue in Britain. But in Japan, violence, sex and horror are looked at in a rather different context. They use these heavily in the fictional worlds of film, TV and books to keep these unsavoury events from the real world. The much lower crime rate compared to the west, proves the success of this stance to a certain extent. The level of sex and violence in Manga animé displays how the characters are changed or developed by the events around them. For instance, in Legend of the Overfiend, Nagumo is shy and aspiring until altered by the beast within him. He is then forced to fight for his own identity, before finally accepting his fate.
A sequel followed, subtitled Legend of the Demon Womb, adapted from episodes 4 and 5 of Takayama's OVA series, Urotsukidoji, which translates as 'The Wandering Kid.' The predecessor contained episodes 1 to 3. This release maintained the impact and quality of the first.
I preferred Wicked City, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, taken from the Tokuma Novels Monthly, in which a treaty exists between the human and demon worlds. Two Black Guards, one human, the other demon, are assigned to protect Dr Joseppe Maiyart, who is essential to the success of the treaty's renewal. This is made all the more difficult when the doctor slips out for a night on the town. Monster City, also by Kawajiri, is a similar adventure with original characters.
Dominion Tank Police, released over two tapes, is not so good. Although it does contain some striking imagery in places, this is let down by a wildly zipping mini-tank, foolish dialogue and exaggerated expressions of surprise, no doubt inherited from ancient Japanese folk lore. Borderline releases include: R G Veda, a mildly childish fantasy about a group of individuals who are each points of a star, which gives them magical powers; Project A-KO, a send-up of the genre; and Odin, a very average space adventure, with an American feel to the whole thing. Although the excellent music made the thing seem more enjoyable.
And talking of music, from the first few releases onwards, a compilation of split-second clips from many of the early films appears at the beginning of each video, backed by a Heavy Metal music track. Also at this point, Manga began to advertise forthcoming releases.
After establishing itself with contained films, Manga began to contemplate serial releases. The first of these was Crying Freeman, based on the best-selling comics by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami, split into the four chapters, 'Portrait of a Killer', 'The Enemy Within', 'Retribution', and 'The Hostages'. Freeman Yoh leads the elite martial artists, the 108 Dragons, against rival gangs, political mercenaries and terrorists. Each video hovers around the 50 minute mark, half the length of some stories. This makes me feel that this is a money-making enterprise, as these could have been doubled-up into only two releases. Similarly, Doomed Megalopolis, based on 'The Tale of the Capital' story by Hiroshi Aramata, comprising the four parts: 'The Demon City', 'Disaster', 'The Rise of the Dragon', and 'The Final Challenge', where the running times are even less. In this one, Kata, a demonic megalomaniac, awakens a 12th century legend. I find it curious that two of the parts are certificated 18, the other two 15. Strictly speaking, a 15 year old could only view parts 1 and 3!
Others series have followed: The Heroic Legend of Arislan; 3 X 3 Eyes; Devil Man; Tokyo Babylon; and Cyber City, with many more to come. The Guyver, a 12 part monthly release of around only 28 minutes each, was tried as a market experiment and has proved successful. Another 12 part series, Legend of the Four Kings, commences in January with an improved average running time of 40 minutes. The Guyver retails at around £5. Pricing is generally that of most film or music videos, ranging between £10 and £15, barring special releases. This is considerably less than some UK distributors who have charged almost double for only short serial releases. Personally, I dislike the split stories; aside from a restricted running time, and the time required to wait to view the entire thing, buying one virtually makes you obligated to purchasing the others.
The Rumik World titles such as, 'Fire Tripper' and 'Laughing Target', are based on stories by Japan's Takahashi Rumiko, probably their best known regular writer of animé and graphic novels, and who is reported to be the country's wealthiest woman.
With Gunhed, Manga moved for the first time into the realms of live action. They shouldn't have bothered, regarding this release. I know that is a rather trite and dismissive comment, but this Japanese third-rate Terminator movie failed to muster any excitement in me. In fact, after viewing the entire film, I found myself in a boredom-induced trance, and could not remember half of what had happened. Just to be certain, I began to watch it again, but soon gave it up as a bad job. I was surprised at my own reaction to what had been a successful outing in Japan. Its initial release was met with generally favourable reviews. Perhaps I'm the exception. The appropriate atmosphere had been attempted with dim lighting, but this meant that much of the action could not be seen too clearly. The dubbing became encroachingly Americanised; it was strange to see a Japanese man speaking with American terms. It just didn't fit. That is not to say that future live-action won't be a vast improvement.
The story follows a group of treasure hunters salvaging computer chips from an off-limits ex-war zone Pacific island. While they are there, a dormant super-computer, which had began a Machine versus Man war 13 years earlier reactivates itself.
This release was apparently inspired by letters to Manga requesting live-action films from Japan. Others in the pipeline include, Zeiram, and two of the latest Godzilla movies.
The widescreen, subtitled version of Akira has been screened on British TV, but it is most surprising that no others have been snapped up. Until now, that is. Discussions have taken place with ITV and BBC, both of which are interested in the possibility of screening selective titles. This is truly an exciting prospect, my only reservation being that they are certain to be cut to ribbons.
None can doubt the professionalism of each product's packaging, but quality of story and animation fluctuates from release to release, due in part to major financial obligations required by Manga Entertainment to obtain UK rights to high quality animé films. Thus, the reputation the company has earned is occasionally tarnished by what can only be called trash. For example, Dangaioh - Hyper Combat Unit, a glorified Transformers, is not even worthy of consideration. This is a definite shame, because anyone selecting this as a sample of Manga's work, would undoubtedly be bitterly disappointed, and might never purchase another release. Fortunately, few are actually below average viewing. Generally speaking, Manga Entertainment does a grand job, adapting, for the most part, exceptional Japanese animé for the British audience. Long may the trend continue.
*See below for additional Manga product pictures
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