Sunday, December 14

Soft Power Discussion no 5

SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / From anime to action

Michael Arias, the first and so far only American to direct a Japanese animated feature film, 2006's award-winning Tekkonkinkreet, once told me that animation, live action film and video game technologies were fast uniting, and that the remaining differences between the three would soon become imperceptible.

Arias' singular achievement is an exemplar of the cross-cultural phenomena about which I frequently write. Born in California, Arias has lived on both U.S. coasts, working primarily in film, computer-generated imagery (CGI) and software development. A trip to Japan to help develop a Back to the Future ride for Universal Studios Japan led to an eventual residency, and a devotion to the Japanese culture and its approach to movie making.

"There's not as much money to be made [in Japan]," he conceded to me years ago. "But there's a lot more freedom."

Among other prizes, Arias's animated version of Tekkonkinkreet, based on the original manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, won Japan's Academy Award for Animation, despite competing against domestic giants like Hideaki Anno, director of the revived Evangelion 1.0.

In the mid-1990s, Arias developed a software program known as "Toon Shaders," which integrates traditional hand-drawn images with CGI. It was used by no less than maestro Hayao Miyazaki in Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) and the Academy Award-winning Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away).

I caught up with Arias recently, while preparing to introduce and screen Tekkonkinkreet at universities and museums across the United States next year for the Anime Masterpieces ( project.

And what is he up to now? Live action.

Arias's new film, Heaven's Door, will be released in Japan on Feb. 7. At a screening in Roppongi, Tokyo, last week, I was struck by the parallels with Tekkonkinkreet. Like its predecessor, Heaven's Door features a pair of misfits attempting to survive in a crumbling world. One is older, presumably more experienced; the other is a naif. And in both films, they are attempting to reach resolution by the sea.

Also as in Tekkonkinkreet, 360-degree shots make the viewer move with the camera; brightly colored settings punctuate scenes of artful static; and a sense of apocalyptic dread adds urgency to every little act.

I asked Arias about these parallels earlier this week. "A lot of that stuff I only realized seeing the movie finished," he told me. "There's no doubt that Tekkonkinkreet and Heaven's Door share a lot of the same DNA. But a lot of it just kind of crept in."

What didn't just creep in are the big-name Japanese stars headlining the film, including TOKIO lead singer Tomoya Nagase and Japanese-Russian-American model, actress and singer Anna Tsuchiya. They and others should guarantee a big roll-out early next year.

Arias says he's drawn to emptiness and longing, exploring the "missing limb" in our interconnected lives. His younger brother died when Arias was 8 years old, he told me.

"I guess I'm drawn to these stories of some kind of perfectly matched partner who's gone. Some kind of strange sense of absence," he said.


Tekkon Kinkret is surreal and unusual anime experience, a fusion of 2 cultures can be felt here strongly. I highly recommend this movie to anyone who is looking beyond mainstream animes have to offer. Not as obtuse as Oishii's work but not that simplistic either.

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