MCM Loves Anime – Part 1

On Saturday 24th October 2015 the first MCM Loves Anime took place, held by anime distributor Anime Limited to coincide with the MCM Comic Con. The event involved a marathon of five anime films (all theatrical English premieres): Miss Hokusai, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin parts 1 and 2, Love Live! The School Idol Movie, and The Empire of Corpses.

In this article I’ll be covering Miss Hokusai and the two episodes of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, with joshawott covering the Love Live! Movie and Empire of Corpses in the upcoming MCM Loves Anime – Parts 2 and 3. Just as a warning: given that Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin is a prequel to the original Gundam series, it will contain what some may consider spoilers.

Miss Hokusai

The story of Miss Hokusai focuses on O-Ei, the daughter of the famous woodblock painter Katsushika Hokusai. O-Ei is notable for being the subject of debate among Japanese academia, in that some credit her with being the real artist behind some of her father’s later works – this historical intrigue has been the subject of many pieces of fiction, both in Japan and elsewhere. As such, I expected Miss Hokusai to focus on the challenges of a woman in 1800s Japan, struggling to escape her father’s shadow as an artist, and eventually succeeding him but being forced to pretend her works are his after realising that it is not just talent which sells art, but the name attached to it. The film barely touches on any of these themes: O-Ei is strong and independent, and while it is shown that she paints under the name Hokusai, she is also clearly a respected artist in her own right. What’s stranger is that the film isn’t a continuous storyline following O-Ei through her life but just a series of vignettes (similar to Isao Takahata’s My Neighbours the Yamadas), giving the impression that the film would have been better suited to a TV series format. It was somewhat surprising to me, therefore, that Miss Hokusai turned out to be my favourite of the day’s screenings.

The film’s stories vary between the funny, the poignant, and the thought-provoking. It also on occasion steps into the fantastical realm, including one disturbing sequence where O-Ei and her father encounter what seems to be a Rokuro Kubi (I’ll admit, I had to whack out my Yokai guide for that one). CG is well-utilised in these more illusory scenes to create a very different art and animation style, which juxtapose nicely with the conventional artistry employed in the film’s depictions of everyday life. This combination of the mundane and the fantastical combine to ensure that the film always maintains the interest of the audience, and demonstrates the wide range of sources which Hokusai (and his daughter) might have received inspiration from. In terms of the comedy, Miss Hokusai is able to utilise both understated humour and the more over-the-top. A prime example of the former is when Hokusai is invited by a young artist to go and see a woman who will only show her ornate back tattoo to a man who is able to outdrink her; “What foolishness,” Hokusai scornfully says, before immediately grabbing his coat and heading for the door.

The film effectively recreates the sights and sounds of 1800s Edo, and manages to achieve the impressive feat of presenting a historical city that not only looks the part, but that actually feels busy and lived in. Something worth looking out for is the strange use of modern rock music in a couple of the film’s sequences, once at the very beginning and again towards the end. The rest of the film’s soundtrack is period-appropriate, traditional Japanese fare, which makes the use of rock initially jarring. For some reason, however, I found it to work very well in the scenes it was used in, and it highlights Miss Hokusai’s ambition to be more than just a film that gets by with saying, “Look at this old historical stuff, isn’t it quaint?”.

The extended cast really add to the film’s personal feel, and every one of them is lovingly animated and brought to life by their voice actors. A fan favourite was Zenjiro, the freeloading wannabe artist living in the Hokusai household, ostensibly to study under the master, but really just to have a place to crash after blowing his money drinking and visiting the red light district. Zenjiro provides a lot of the film’s comic relief, with the perfect balance of being annoying, and yet still amusing and endearing. Effective in an entirely different way was O-Ei’s blind little sister, O-Nao. O-Nao’s segments provide the bulk of the film’s dramatic moments, as O-Ei helps her to appreciate the beauty in life without the use of her sight, and Hokusai attempts to come to terms with having a disabled daughter. It helps too that she’s absolutely adorable, voiced by 12-year-old Shion Shimizu, so it’s not all tears when she’s on-screen.

The ending, or rather, the lack of one, is likely where Miss Hokusai will turn off many of its viewers. There is something of an emotional climax, but after that the film ends with O-Ei standing on a bridge providing a voiceover about what happens next, purely in historical terms: “I got married and then got divorced”, “My father died when he was 90”, etc. Given that there had been something of a possible love story building up to this point (two possible suitors for O-Ei had been introduced in the course of the film), the complete lack of any resolution on this front was quite unsatisfactory. The film did end with me feeling that I would have liked a lot more, but that wasn’t just because of the non-ending – rather, the film was so beautiful, and the characters so likeable and interesting, that I simply wanted to spend more time in Miss Hokusai’s world.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin – Episodes 1 and 2

After filing out of the cinema and re-queueing (and getting told off for leaving my coat on my chair), it was time for the Gundam Origin OVAs, beginning with the first episode, Blue-Eyed Casval. This had a worldwide physical and streaming release earlier in 2015, but this showing was its UK theatrical premiere. Following immediately after it was the second episode, Artesia’s Sorrow, the showing of which was a world premiere outside of Japan. There were far more people present for this screening than for the previous Miss Hokusai (though still not as many as materialised later for Love Live!), and there were even a few Chars and Amuros cosplaying in the audience. As we took our seats, the atmosphere of excitement was building, until the Anime Limited representative made an announcement to the effect of, “These films will be shown with the English dub, as unfortunately we weren’t able to get permission to show them in Japanese.” At this the audience, myself very much included, let out a collective sigh of disgruntlement. “Still,” I thought, “while it would have been nice to hear Shuuichi Ikeda reprise his most famous role, I love Gundam enough that a silly thing like an English dub isn’t going to dampen my spirits.” Unfortunately, what did irrevocably dampen my spirits was the films just not being very good.

The story of Origin takes place before that of the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam TV series, and is based on Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s (the character designer of the original Gundam) manga of the same name. Being a prequel of such a well-established and popular series means that any fan of Gundam should already know the gist of everything that happens in Origin: the Zabi family lead the Principality of Zeon to war against the Earth Federation, with Casval Deikun ending up on Zeon’s side under the alias Char Aznable, and his sister Artesia fighting for the Earth Federation as Sayla Mass. Unfortunately, this is one of the OVA’s problems: my imagination filled in the gaps far better than Origin does. Straight after the film’s initial action sequence, set in early 0079UC, we meet Zeon Zum Deikun. That’s right, the enlightened leader who inspired those living in space to seek freedom from the tyranny of the rich aristocrats and politicians of Earth. And what does he do? Scream at his wife like a maniac, burst into his children’s bedroom and madly embrace his daughter, and then promptly die in the next scene. Maybe the issue is that I’m suffering from Star Wars prequel syndrome: I’m having to see these amazing characters, who have been built up in my head over the years, in the same way that the world had to see Darth Vader as little Annie Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. You feel my pain now? 

While some of my issues with Origin can be seen as my own fault, stemming from unrealistic expectations that it should live up to what I imagined the backstory to be in my head, there are sadly other elements that cause it to be bad. Not to be too much of a subs over dubs snob, but the English dub really did turn out to be terrible. The kid sitting next to me actually covered his ears in an early scene where the young Artesia was screeching about something or other, so high-pitched and irritating was her voice. The problems with the dub were accentuated by the strange tone of the OVAs. Some terrible tragedy would occur, followed immediately by a ham-fisted attempt at comic relief. The over-the-top melodrama, admittedly a staple of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Gundam, was not served well by an English-speaking cast. When Artesia finds out that her mother has died, in what anyone would usually consider to be a deeply saddening scene, her reaction is so ridiculous that the audience burst out laughing. One almost feels that this is a deliberate attempt to evoke the original Gundam series – unfortunately, this was indeed a weakness of the original (I remember cracking up hard when Lalah died in the original series, after her giant disembodied face floats about on screen accompanied by trippy 70s graphics), and as such shouldn’t have been so slavishly imitated in a modern production such as this.

As far as art style goes, one of Origin’s strengths is actually its adherence to the style of the original, but while making use of its large budget to make everything consistent and shiny-looking (stick “Gundam QUALITY” into Google image search to get a glimpse of what a lack of budget did to the original’s animation). There are also good references for dedicated Gundam fans to catch; young Ramba Ral drives a dark blue jeep, the same colour as his famous Gouf mobile suit. Some of what’s presented is interesting history, and adds rather than detracts from the series’ lore, such as Ramba Ral’s involvement in the development of Zeon’s early mobile suits.

For a series with Gundam in the name, there is a distinct lack of mecha action. Admittedly, it’s hard to justify showing a bunch of battles in a story which takes place before the war has begun, but it’s still disappointing. The opening sequence of the first episode is about as much as we get, and sadly I found that to be disappointing; there was too much going on, and rather than an exciting battle I was left with the memory of a load of CG and flashing lights. But hey, if you’re a fan of Guntanks, then you’re in for a serious treat with the rest of the first episode.

The best part of episode two is when Casval is horse-riding in Texas (the space colony, not the American state, obviously) and happens to meet his doppelganger, Char Aznable. Firstly, I don’t care that it’s the canon set-up for how Casval comes to take on his famous false identity, it’s still incredibly stupid. Their first encounter itself is the worst bit though: what starts as a tense stand-off is ruined when the two high-five each other while still mounted on their respective horses; at this point, the audience all burst into laughter. We then hear multiple characters refer to Casval and Char as close friends, but only ever see one interaction between them aside from the ridiculous horse high-five. This goes against that most essential of visual storytelling mantras: show, don’t tell. Another mantra being, of course: don’t make characters high-five while horse-riding and expect the audience to be able to take it seriously.

I was at MCM Loves Anime with three people who had never seen a Gundam series in their lives (I was disgusted to hear that they called themselves anime fans, yet had never even heard of Char Aznable). They got even less out of the films than I did. At least I appreciated references and characters, but they had no idea why there were so many characters who were introduced for seemingly no purpose, and said they felt like nothing much had happened in the course of the two OVAs’ combined 2 hour run time. Overall then, Gundam Origin seemed to be a disappointment for fans and the uninitiated alike. We left the cinema with high hopes, however, as next was the much anticipated Love Live! Movie.

So, one amazing screening, and one pretty bad one. How did the scores stack up for the rest of the day? Check out MCM Loves Anime – Part 2 to find out…