From Book to Film: Perfect Blue

If you’re an anime fan (or a fan of animation in general) you’ve probably seen or at least heard of the anime film Perfect Blue, directed by the late Satoshi Kon.

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What you probably didn’t know was that the anime is actually an adaptation of a book: Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi.

Originally published in 1991 (the anime came out in 1997), the book was only picked up for an English translation and release this winter. It’s pretty short and simple to read, but man, what a read!

Recently I’ve had trouble reading actual books (that weren’t comics); I would pick up one book with interest only to abandon it later. But with this book, I could not put it down. It kept me hooked from start to finish. It was a genuine thriller, with a lot of twists and a smashing ending.

It is worth noting, however, that the book is actually quite different from the anime.

In the book, Mima does not switch careers from a pop idol to an actress; she stays an idol but decides to revamp her image. An unnamed male stalker does not like the idea of his seemingly pure, perfect, virginal idol becoming sexier and ‘tarnished’. He’ll go to any lengths to keep her the way she is. It’s a really chillingly accurate and scary depiction of an obsessed, misogynistic fan who views female celebrities as icons and not as real people, feeling entitled to them and not taking it well when they no longer fit his image, but takes it to a very, very, VERY extreme.

The book is actually pretty simple and straightforward. This is an instance of a film adaptation that actually adds MORE detail and layers rather than simplifying it. The film focuses less on the stalker and more on Mima and how the pressures of changing careers and how the world views her takes a toll on her mental health, blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not. It’s not just a stalker she has to worry about; someone she thought she could trust turns on her as well.

I can definitely understand why the adaptation is not totally faithful to the book though. If it was, the film would be too short (probably only about an hour long) and WAAAY too gross (flaying is involved. That’s all I’m going to spoil). It also explores the messed up world of pop idols in further detail from the pop idol’s point of view.

While the movie is a definite work of art, there were a few things I actually did like better in the book. Mainly, the characters. While Mima has a bigger role in the movie, I find her more confident and assertive in the book. And I like how the people she works with genuinely care about her and want her to succeed, rather than exploit her. The movie also isn’t exactly the best depiction of mental health, either.

That said, I can absolutely enjoy both versions of the story. They serve as great companion pieces for each other. They both share the same premise: what happens when a seemingly ‘pure’ girl tries to sex up her image, and how people react to that.

If you like the premise but find the movie too hard to follow (I admit I got a little annoyed at parts), I recommend the book. If you’re interested in a scary, intense thriller, I also recommend the book. If you’re interested in exploring the mind of a stalker and predator that also humanizes the women he preys on, I recommend the book. Actually, I recommend the book to everyone. It helped reinvigorate my love of reading.

Just a few warnings: the book is suggested for ‘older teens’, but I think a mature rating is more appropriate. There’s a lot of graphic violence and sexuality. A child is killed at one point in the story, and another female character is raped and murdered (the rape is censored though). It’s not necessarily exploitative or meant to titillate readers, but it can be upsetting.

If you can get past that, the book is amazing and a great way to explore the world of Japanese storytelling beyond anime and manga. I hope to find more Japanese novels and short stories translated into English; maybe the success of this book can help.

 

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The World of Anime Directors

At the risk of sounding controversial, I must say this: I think that motion picture anime is significantly better than most television anime. I say this because the latter often relies too much on filler and fanservice. A lot of the most popular anime shows don’t hold up over time (it becomes very obvious that they were made only for specific audiences; I may have loved InuYasha and Sailor Moon as a teenager but now I can only see the flaws). Not to say all anime shows are bad (Hunter x Hunter 2011 is fantastic and the original Death Note anime is considered a masterpiece), but I feel like a lot of anime’s negative reputation comes from the abundance of low quality anime churned out at a higher pace than the shows with actual effort and meaning.

Film anime, on the other hand, is able to put more effort into the production and writing, creating some real works of art that have an almost timeless feel to them. So let’s take a look at some of them today.

First off is arguably the most famous anime director outside of Japan, Hayao Miyazaki.

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Often called the Walt Disney of Japan (though I think maybe calling him the Steven Spielberg of Japan is more appropriate), Miyazaki is famous for creating many classics, most notably the Academy Award winning Spirited Away. His works range from family friendly slice of life films (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Ponyo) to tightly-plotted action films with lots of themes and lore (Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke). Growing up now,  I think I enjoy the latter more, but that doesn’t mean the former are still good, even great, in their own right. His films have their own distinct style: cute, simplistic looking characters against gorgeously detailed settings. Most of his films take place in European inspired fantasy lands (allowing him a chance to show off his love of stylized aircraft) or ancient and contemporary Japan. I recently re-watched some of his films and was blown away by them again, and was able to notice his themes more. In most of his films, he makes one thing perfectly clear: War is Not Good. He is highly critical of the military, depicting them as overly violent and corrupt in a lot of his works. In Princess Mononoke, there’s a big battle between the boar gods and the humans that is not shown, save for a brief moment to depict the actual horror (rather than the thrill or action). Some of his earlier works have more black and white view of the world, while his later works start to show more nuance and grey morality for both the protagonists and antagonists. Another thing he makes very clear is the importance of preserving the environment, as in a lot of his films he takes a moment to reflect on the beauty and value of nature. A lot of his films deal with heavy themes; Princess Mononoke, which I have recently bestowed the honor of being the best animated film of all time, explores industrialism vs environmentalism, peace in times of conflict, greed vs survival, dying Indigenous groups, social structures, and so much more. But he usually ends his movies on a positive, optimistic note.

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Isao Takahata, the other major director of Studio Ghibli, takes a slightly more pessimistic approach. Whereas Miyazaki puts a lot of emphasis on the wonders of the world, Takahata tends to look more at the struggles. In a lot of his films, characters have to make serious sacrifices at the end of their movies. All his films are strictly rooted in Japan, and they have varying art styles. I think in some respects, Takahata might actually be a better director than Miyazaki; while Miyazaki definitely makes you feel things, Takahata actually got me to bawl my eyes out not once, but TWICE, with The Tale of Princess Kaguya. These two have made Studio Ghibli a master class of animation companies. While Disney is certainly the most prolific animation company, Studio Ghibli is arguably the greatest.

Not to say they’re the only anime legends out there.

Satoshi Kon

The late Satoshi Kon only made four films, but they all have gotten lots of praise. His films are set in modern Japan and tend to deal with the psychological and the blending of fantasy and reality. Perfect Blue almost feels like a live action film, extremely grounded in reality and looks at the objectification of women by fans and by executives. Mima starts her career as a pop idol dressed in childlike attire meant to appeal to older men; when she tries to switch to a more serious career as a drama actor, she faces backlash by her former fans (including a dangerous stalker) and is disrespected by her higher ups (being forced into filming a rape scene and later having to take naked photographs). Mima’s agent feels ugly and worthless in her older age and tries to “replace” Mima (that’s about as much as I’ll spoil). Kon is known for a masterful editing style, with rapid cuts and transitions to fool the audience into thinking we’re witnessing one thing and reveal it’s something else altogether (you can learn more about it in the video “Satoshi Kon – Editing Space and Time”. Satoshi Kon’s films are character studies, exploring their psychological states, their dreams, and their fears. You can get a brief glimpse of his themes HERE.

To close the post off for now, let’s give a quick mention to Katsuhiro Otomo’s cult classic Akira.

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This film is basically the polar opposite of anything Miyazaki makes. It’s extremely violent, very male-dominated, almost Kubrickian in style, and has a colder, harsher point of view and animation style set in futuristic Japan. I couldn’t watch the whole thing (it was very hard to follow, some of the visuals crossed the line from gorgeous to grotesque, and had too much stuff going on at once for me) but I did find the climax meaningful. It’s basically about a friendship torn apart by power and corruption. Put-upon Tetsuo is bestowed with psychic powers and ends up deteriorating both physically and mentally, losing everyone in the process. It’s a cynical look at the dangers of playing god, and an exploration of post-WWII paranoia.

Directors like these prove that anime doesn’t have to be just harem or long winded manga adaptations. They can be artistically stunning, thoughtful, and unique, and still be a success. I know the anime industry has a lot of problems plaguing it (lack of audience appeal, overworked and underpaid workers, lack of affordability and accessibility of merchandise), but I think (hope) that its future lies in something like this. If television anime proves to be a bust, maybe film anime can be saved. Allow artists to take enough time to make their vision come to life and promote it. Let it pick up traction overseas. Make it available on all streaming services. Show the world that anime is capable of interesting and even amazing art.

(While you are here, please read the updated version of a previous post on how the anime and manga industry is in trouble).

The Many Versions of Beauty and the Beast

With all the hubbub over Disney’s live action movie, I thought now would be a good time to look back at some of the other adaptations of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.

There are, of course, numerous versions. Some are genuine attempts at art, others just cheap knockoffs of the Disney version. Perhaps a knockoff most people are familiar with is the version by Good Times Entertainment, released a year after Disney’s.

This is…not the best version of the story. Mainly because the more problematic and creepy parts of the story are emphasized. In this version, Beauty comes to the castle under the expectation that she will die. When the Beast spares her (and she thanks him by getting down on her knees and behaving submissively, not a good image), she immediately takes a liking to him. She ignores any warning that he might be dangerous, dreamily talking about how ‘kind’ he is, and dances with him once before he begs her not to leave because he’ll ‘die of loneliness’. Still, better than the Golden Films version, where the Beast is really and truly abusive to Beauty (he yells at her frequently and actually causes her to fall down a flight of stairs in one of his fits).

The worst version is the Bevanfield one; a grotesque, hideously ugly, dreary and cheap as hell adaptation where Beauty’s COUSIN (voiced somehow by Christopher Lee) seeks her hand in marriage. Because that’s totally appropriate for kids!

Thankfully, genuinely good versions of the story do exist. They may not have the extravagance of the Disney version, but they still work.

There is a version by HBO’s Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child which takes place in Africa, but unfortunately I’m not sure if a good quality copy of it exists online. On YouTube it’s only available through poor quality VHS rips in small sections. Thankfully, good quality copies of other versions can be found.

This is from the anime series Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It starts off problematic, but gradually gets better as you see the couple actually bond. It’s silly, but it’s nice to see the titular characters get cute together.

This incarnation, by Britannica’s Tales Around the World, is rich in atmosphere. It is visually unique from other versions of the story, creating a moody and original setting and tone. I like some of the added details to the story (such as the Beast slowly losing his humanity) and it’s just overall a haunting and beautiful rendition.

Another visually stunning version by Stories to Remember. Mia Farrow’s narration makes the story warm and comforting. You really feel for the Beast here. It’s like a painting come to life.

But I got to say, I think my fave is probably the version from the Simsala Grimm series.

Why? Because the relationship between Beauty and the Beast is just so POSITIVE. There is no abuse between them whatsoever. The Beast threatens to hold her father prisoner (and you understand why later), but doesn’t demand his daughters in exchange. He lets him go home to say goodbye, and Beauty voluntarily goes. Soon the two of them are happy together, enjoying the castle’s wonders and smiling and laughing. When she rejects his marriage proposal (and calls him out for keeping her hostage) the Beast lets her go. No deadline, no guilt trip (even though he will die). But she comes back, and actually kisses him in the lips! And it’s happily ever after. I just found this version so cute and refreshing.

There are many, many others, so check them out! It’s a tale as old as time, and chances are you’ll find more than one told well.

 

Post War Trauma and Psychological Drama: The World of Japanese Horror

Does this look terrifying to you?

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(Source)

There’s definitely something fascinating about a spiral shape, the way it draws you in, how it can play optical illusions on you, and how it’s been used in media as a way of hypnotizing people. Yet you wouldn’t think of using it as an antagonist in horror. In typical American horror, there’s a clear monster/ghost/serial killer to chase the hapless young hero (and a lot of gore and sexual violence tends to ensue).

Yet to Japanese manga artist Junji Ito, the mysterious yet not quite right appeal of the spiral shape was enough to make it into his horror masterpiece, Uzumaki (literally means spiral/vortex).

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(Source)

Imagine you’re living in an isolated town, and slowly, strange things start to happen that somehow all involve spirals. A man becomes so obsessed with spirals he tries to use his body to create the shapes. His wife develops a morbid fear of spirals that lead her to go nuts. A girl who moves into town in order to pursue a boy notices a scar on her forehead turns into a spiral shape. Slowly but surely it becomes apparent that the town is haunted by the spiral, but when the townspeople realize something is extremely wrong, it’s too late. It made for a creepy, creative thrill that I read in one night.

Junji Ito first broke into the manga scene with Tomie, a series about an evil protean entity who cannot die and is constantly being reborn and multiplying, who takes the form of a beautiful teenage girl who manipulates and tricks others. He would go on to create several short stories and have two other noteworthy works: Gyo and The Enigma of Amigara Fault.

Gyo begins with a rather ridiculous premise: schools of fish crawl out of the ocean on mechanical, insect-like legs, and are accompanied by a horrible smell. But soon it develops into a truly nightmarish story, when people and other land animals are infected by the smell (carried by a powerful germ transferred through bodily gases) and become the replacements for the mechanical legs.

In The Enigma of Amigara Fault, after a devastating earthquake, a new fault appears from the ground, sporting human shaped holes.

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(Yes, this was referenced in Steven Universe.)

People quickly discover that each hole is perfectly suited for each individual, and they feel compelled to enter the hole. They disappear for months at a time, and when they come out on the other side…well, they’re not quite the same.

What makes all three of these works chilling is that they take seemingly mundane, innocuous parts of life and morph them into something creatively horrifying. Ghosts and monsters and serial killers are scary enough, but what about a spiral that is seemingly everywhere that you can’t run away from? Now that strikes you on a psychological level.

Gyo has the extra horror of post WWII paranoia. In the manga, it was revealed that during WWII the protagonist’s grandfather helped conducted horrific experiments and created a toxic germ that could be used as a weapon. When the animals carrying the germ and emitting the gas would die or pass out, mechanical legs were created to carry them. Before they could be used on the front, they were lost at sea…and decades later, the disaster emerged. You can tell how horrifying that would be to a country nearly destroyed by war. The Enigma of Amigara Fault features a prefecture that was ravaged by a devastating earthquake. While I think that story has more nuances that resonates more with Japanese readers (in regards to things like conformity and finding your place in society), you can see how that would strike a particular unnerving cord to a country that is known for devastating earthquakes.

As you can tell, a lot of (good) Japanese horror is rooted in the country’s cultural fears. Panorama of Hell by Hideshi Hino is about a family destroyed by the Yakuza and WWII, based on the author’s own life (his grandfather was a Yakuza member and his own family fled Manchuria after Japan surrendered). Perfect Blue is about how the role of a (childlike but made to appeal to men) pop idol drives not one but two women mad when they dare to move on. And the original Godzilla is about the fear of a nuclear fallout. This is probably one reason why a lot of horror franchises that are originally Japanese don’t do as well when they become Americanized since a lot of what makes them truly scary is left out.

If you’re tired of American horror, I suggest you give Japanese horror a try. I strongly recommend reading Junji Ito’s work. He is extremely imaginative and effectively creepy, with absolutely gorgeous art. (He also wrote a genuinely cute and funny manga based on his life with two adopted cats, so you know he’s talented.) I don’t fully recommend Hideshi Hino because his work lacks subtlety and relies a bit too much on shock value and animal cruelty, but you should at least read his work Hell Baby because it’s a genuinely tragic, moving story about what it means to be human. There’s a litany of other horror (including Kazuo Umezuo, the original horror mangaka) that you can read up on. You can start HERE and HERE.

Feel free to share your experience with Japanese horror in the comments below!

“Excuse me, who are you?” Perfect Blue/Legend of Korra Parallels

Perfect Blue is widely hailed as one of the greatest and most influential anime films of all time. You can actually read about the influence it (and other Satoshi Kon films) had in Hollywood HERE, but I think there’s another piece of media Perfect Blue had an impact on: The Legend of Korra.

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(Source: korra.avatarspirit.net)

PB is about a young woman, Mima, who decides to give up being a pop idol and instead become an actress in a rather seedy production. The stress and pressure of the new part (including a part where she has to film a rape scene and it feels TOO real) begins to wear on her, and the ghosts of her past eat away at her. Most notably, she keeps seeing a vision of her old self, who routinely taunts and haunts her. Mima begins to lose her grip on reality and then shit hits the fan. I can’t really explain the film because it’s so off the wall, but I think I got the basic gist of it.

I think something really similar happens in Korra; at the beginning of the fourth season, Korra is still reeling from a traumatic incident (also akin to a rape scene). She gives up being the Avatar (like Mima gave up on being a pop idol) and is trying to pursue her own path, but every time she tries to move on, she’s visited by the ghost of HER past; a dark version of herself, when she was poisoned and tried to kill her attacker.

This apparition (like in PB, it’s not clear if it’s real, or if it’s in the character’s head, or something else entirely) also taunts and haunts Korra, relentlessly following her and preventing her from getting better. It drives Korra over the edge and nearly kills her. Both Mima and Korra have to fight against this new apparition, even when it takes the form of someone they know who has a personal grudge against them.

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These women tell the main character that she is worthless and not needed anymore and essentially not REAL, and they can be replaced. Ultimately, the heroines decide to save/spare the lives of their enemies, stop hallucinating, and are very confident in their identities (at least for Korra; Mima’s case is a little more ambiguous).

It’s a little hard to make a written comparison since most of the parallels are more visual (and there are probably other parallels I missed), so I recommend watching the first few episodes of the fourth season of Legend of Korra and Perfect Blue to see for yourself.

Why the Anime Industry Is In Trouble

Revised on 2017/11/07 to reflect on new learning and to be less glib. Thank you to the people who commented on this post for giving me a better understanding of the situation.

So if you’re an aficionado of Japanese media, you probably know that the anime industry is in danger of dying. The manga industry is not faring so well either. You can look up ‘anime industry dying’ or ‘why good anime is hard to make’ or ‘manga industry dying’ to get more info, but basically, while anime and manga for niche markets (mainly the otaku fandom) is doing fine, anime and manga for a broader audience is not.

To be honest, I think there are a lot of reasons for this.

The major reason I feel that it’s not doing very well overseas is because anime, manga, and related merchandise is ungodly expensive. A lot of anime fans are college students and teenagers; in other words, people who aren’t exactly rolling around in money. Because of shipping costs a lot of products cost a lot more than a similarly boxed DVD set for a western cartoon. I also feel that anime is not properly released in DVD and Blu Ray format. I once saw a Blu Ray box set for the first half of Attack on Titan season one that cost almost $100, and a DVD set for the first few episodes of Kill La Kill that cost almost $90. Yes, really. You can see why not a lot of people are flocking to buy physical copies of anime like that.

A lot of anime (and manga) can be extremely long, which would deter a lot of more casual fans from watching or buying the whole thing. Sometimes people can’t get the entire series if the English language distributor loses the rights or goes bankrupt. (And, again, it’s expensive if a series go on for so long.)

The biggest reason why anime has trouble is the lack of audience appeal. Clash of culture and values, outlandish stories and visuals, and growing amount of anime fetishistic images and stories is contributing to a lack of worldwide interest. Anime is growing a negative reputation for its sexualized and bordering on pedophilic depictions of women and girls, a very serious problem that is affecting the industry. Aside from that, anime is seen more as a novelty, not as widely commercialized like Marvel or DC, so you usually end up with either the fetish anime or something that was based on a hit manga series.

There’s also the factor of creators and animators working in awful conditions. I know the Japanese manga industry is extremely cutthroat; creators are under strict deadlines and have to rush out a manga chapter once a week, and their stories can live or die depending on sales and editors. I can only imagine what it would be like for anime.

My main point of the original version of this post was that anime and manga needs to be more AFFORDABLE, ACCESSIBLE, and widely AVAILABLE. I would not be surprised if the future of anime ends up being solely online. But, as some of my commentators have pointed out to me (and I thank them for that), there also needs to be some serious reforms on how anime is commercialized, marketed, and made.

And with that, I think I sufficiently corrected this post. I originally wrote it out of frustration and confusion (I want to support good anime but can’t financially do so all the time), but after learning more about the problem and from some important comments, I had to rewrite this post because it was getting too many views.

As for how anime (and manga) can be saved? Well, I would say go out and find good quality anime (and completely boycott crappy fanservice anime) and support it however you can. Show the creators that we want to see (and support) anime that values quality and artistic freedom over anime that shows panty shots of girls or has a plot on a boy having the hots for his sister.

The Unique, Heartbreaking Tale of Princess Kaguya

For all the praise Studio Ghibli gets, I can’t help but notice that the praise mostly goes to Hayao Miyazaki. And while I do genuinely love Miyazaki’s work and have great respect for the man, it’s really unfair for him to be the only anime director that has gotten worldwide acclaim. In fact, it’s important to note that one of his greatest influences was another director at Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata. And he has done some truly great works. And his latest (and arguably greatest) work came out just a few years ago. This film is The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

If you think anime is nothing but creepy fetishization, gratuitous sexuality and violence, exaggeration, and general weirdness, I highly suggest you give this movie a look. It’s a much subtler, more down-to-earth movie, with very brief (and nonsexual) nudity and brief violence that isn’t glorified. The animation is stunning, and shifts at the appropriate times. When Kaguya is in the mountain, the animation is bright, colorful, and detailed, looking like something out of a child’s picture book. When she’s at the palace, the colours are more muted. THIS SCENE is one of the greatest pieces of animation I have ever seen (you can see a great breakdown of it HERE).

The story at times feels like a brutal satire of the western fairy tale. Kaguya is actually much happier living as a peasant girl and loathes the life of a princess (where she’s seen more as a prize rather than a person; her suitors can’t even see her when they propose to her), and refuses to belong to any man. She also has an extremely close bond with her mother (something quite rare to see in Western media) and doesn’t overly depend on animal sidekicks.

The film is over 2 hours long, and manages to work in a range of beautiful animation in addition to great characterization, allowing you to become really attached to Kaguya and her family. Watching it for the second time, it’s a story of a young girl learning the beauties and ugliness of life and how precious it all is, but I feel like it also serves as a cautionary tale. Had the father simply listened to his daughter and respected her wishes rather than assuming what would make her happy, things would’ve gone much differently for them all.

This movie is also extremely sad. While I do think the movie is simply a masterpiece, I can’t watch it because it always makes me cry. I’m not going to spoil the ending for anyone, but basically, it’s an emotional roller coaster at the end.

Despite being a Studio Ghibli movie, this film didn’t generate a lot of hype when it came overseas. I’m not sure if it was because GKIDS/Universal dubbed and distributed it instead of Disney, or because it wasn’t directed by Hayao Miyazaki, or if it’s because it got swallowed up by all the good western films that was released in 2014. I can sort of understand and accept it not winning the Oscar For Best Animated Film (well, then again, I do have a bias for the film that won that award), but I find it atrocious that it did not win any Annie Awards (you know, the awards ceremony that’s supposed to care about all animation) and only won a few obscure awards.

I’m not really sure if there’s much I can say. You just need to see it to believe it and take it all in. If you get a chance to see it, please do. You’ll probably cry, but it will be worth it.