April 2, 2006
(New York Times)
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
DAI SATO rarely wears suits, but he was in a good one last Saturday afternoon, a black salaryman special with a nice white shirt. On him, though, the get-up looked slept in, dusty and too tight — perfect, in other words, for the occasion: the Tokyo International Anime Fair, the sublimely dorky annual convention for Japanese animation. As the crown prince of anime screenwriting, Mr. Sato, at 36, is a consummate creator of the characters, busty schoolgirls and shaggy-haired heroes, that inspire Asian teenagers to devote their irreplaceable youth to the worship of cartoons. He hadn’t shaved. He was smoking American Spirits. He looked rumpled, and obscurely amused, as he almost always does.
The vast halls of Tokyo Big Sight — the Death Star-sized convention center that housed the fair, with its sprawling trade show, closed-door industry symposiums and awards ceremony — were decked with images of exuberant candy-colored anime figures. As they gazed down on the hundred thousand or so fans who ambled among the booths, their googly baby eyes (the centerpiece of the anime aesthetic), seemed to monitor the proceedings. Under this scrutiny, Mr. Sato worked up a peculiar merriment, hopping around in a boxer’s victory pose, and chanting, “Hai, hai, hai.” Yes, yes, yes — as if in assent to all that this trippy universe has offered him so far: money, girls, fans, fun, artistic credibility, international acclaim, superb pot and a working relationship with Radiohead.
What more could a guy want? And now Mr. Sato had arrived at Big Sight so that Shintaro Ishihara, the brash reactionary governor of Tokyo, could pronounce this slacker dude par excellence a credit to the great nation of Japan.
If an anime featured this meeting of Mr. Sato and Mr. Ishihara, the affable Mr. Sato, who is happy to share anime’s wealth with the rest of the world, would almost certainly have the voice of a lovable Smurf, at ease in the global village. By contrast, Mr. Ishihara, who is known for ferocious nationalism, would require a basso profundo, the kind reserved for giant warlike robots.
But life isn’t anime, or not always, and Mr. Ishihara may have more in common with the hip-nerd artists at Big Sight than it would initially seem. In 1955, at 23, Mr. Ishihara became the Jack Kerouac of Japan, publishing the scandalous novel, “Season of the Sun,” which depicted the debauchery of rich college students after the war. With his brother, Yujiro, a movie star in the Brando mode, Mr. Ishihara drew followers who dressed in Hawaiian shirts and called themselves the Sun Tribe. Sure, he later turned chauvinistic, both in the best-selling book he helped author, “The Japan That Can Say No,” and on the political stage, where he exhorts Japan to stand up to the United States and assert its intrinsic superiority. But Japanese pride, he believes, should be inclusive: business, technology and literature, and the nation’s indigenous postmodern art forms, too. As he said Saturday, of anime, “The Japanese are inherently skilled at visual expression and detailed work.”
Thus, the Tokyo International Anime Fair, of which Mr. Ishihara is chairman. Here, anime’s creators are enjoined to come up with inventive, culturally salutary and above all export-worthy cartoon concepts that will bring honor to Japan and, once and for all, unseat Mickey Mouse.
“I hate Mickey Mouse,” Mr. Ishihara pronounced acidly from the podium on Saturday afternoon. “He has nothing like the unique sensibility that Japan has.”
That Japanese-cool-is-the-new-Japanese-car ideology is fine with Mr. Sato, as most things are. If he sees the creative ascendancy of Korea and China as one day making Japanese anime obsolete, and if he moreover thinks that’s a good thing, he doesn’t emphasize those views here, where patriotism is as much the order of the day as satanic-looking bunnies and hip-hop bounty hunters.
He, and the like-minded colleagues he greets as he makes his way through the crowd, don’t see themselves as belonging particularly to their country; if they have an affiliation at all, it’s to the confederacy that the Japanese call otaku — the vast network of slovenly, asocial and diffident fanboys who spend their days watching anime on DVD; reading the heroic, erotic, cutesy or literary comic books known as manga; and surfing the Internet. The otaku are a proud group, in their way, but they’re not used to getting medals of honor from state officials.
Mr. Sato mused on the award he was there to receive: best screenplay, for “Eureka seveN,” which chronicles the adventures of a teenage boy, a pilot girl named Eureka and a traveling group of mercenaries. “Is it really that exciting to be appreciated by the regime?” he asked, through a translator. Triumphantly thrusting his arms in the air, he rendered his surprise answer: Hai, hai, hai.
AMONG the most dedicated fans of anime, it has become popular to dress up as favorite characters — not just in T-shirts and masks but in wigs, body makeup, wax prosthetics and lifelike elf ears. The spectacle of misfits turned out as sexpots and musclemen is a considerable part of the allure of most otaku conventions. But the practice, known as cosplay, for costume play, was prohibited at Big Sight. As a result, there were no giant Sailor Moons or Dark Elf Gatekeepers, and the fans seemed more obsessive than playful.
One young man sat trembling on the floor near the entrance to the trade-show arena, where he rocked rhythmically while clutching the pink DVD cover for a show called “Pretty Cure.” Someone had signed it: perhaps one of the voice actresses. The fan let a reporter hold the valuable insert for an instant, then snatched it back and continued his rocking.
Elsewhere, fans pressed in to see Mr. Sato, who was appearing with the actor Kouji Yusa to promote their latest television show, “Ergo Proxy.” Mr. Yusa, who resembles a young David Cassidy, lends his voice to the character of Vincent Row, a government worker from the provinces whose “listless” exterior, Mr. Sato explained, conceals internal reserves of “violent energy and wildness.” The fans, most of them female, were loving Vincent. Miwa Ishikawa, 23, and Fumiko Fujiwara, 27, had come to the fair just for him. “Vincent seemed weak at first,” Ms. Ishikawa said, giggling and blushing. “But the more we get to know him, the more we find he’s full of deep mysteries.”
“Ergo Proxy” is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story of humans and androids living together in the domed city of Romdo, “a paradise that doesn’t require emotions,” as the trailer puts it. But a murder, a virus and a monster all conspire to defile paradise, induce emotions and force a mayhem in which it’s unclear who is real and who is robot. This show, Mr. Sato explained, marks a departure from past projects because it’s openly about adults and “mature” themes, including what the English-language Web site Anime News Network calls “sex, drugs and extreme graphic violence.”
“My anime has grown up with me,” Mr. Sato explained. In the past, when he wrote for younger characters, he entertained himself with references for an older generation: the hero of “Eureka seveN,” for example, is Renton, named for a character in “Trainspotting”; his father, Adrock, is named for the Beastie Boy; and a helpful duo named Jobs and Woz are named for Steven P. Jobs and Stephen Wozniak of Apple.
All of this Mr. Sato is willing to explain, and patiently, but he does so somewhat by rote. It’s plainly no great pleasure anatomizing anime for people outside otaku culture; the plots and characters sound stupid when you spell them out, and it’s much more comfortable for fanboys to be around people who just get it. But Mr. Sato indulges the naïve questions because he is determined that his work find an audience outside Japan, among what he refers to as the “foreign otaku.” Already American audiences know his work from “Cowboy Bebop” and “Ghost in the Shell” on the Cartoon Network. Where Mr. Ishihara’s sloganeering concerns Japan’s primacy, Mr. Sato’s rallying cry comes closer to “Otaku of the world unite.”
That call would please Alex Stamoulis and Richard Anderson, two American college students who were making their way through the thick crowd. Mr. Stamoulis, a 20-year-old student at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., has been an anime fan since he was a child. A shy man with a convincingly otaku demeanor, he seemed kind but nervous, and in a rush to talk about his favorite shows.
In studied contrast, Mr. Anderson, the 24-year-old president of the anime club at Drexel University in Philadelphia, had a point to make. “American fans have made anime into our own,” he said. “We have totally assisted Japanese culture. American anime artists really know their stuff.” Moreover, he said: “Japanese anime fans never leave their houses. But I leave my house. I even came to Japan! American fans are more social. I see being into anime just as another normal thing I do, like belonging to a fraternity.”
As the presentation of “Ergo Proxy” wrapped up, the fans of Vincent the listless g-man gathered their things to leave. Had they found it disillusioning to see their hero in the flesh? “Nah,” said Ms. Ishikawa, newly blasé. “We know this is anime, you know. We don’t think it’s real.”
MR. SATO and a laid-back entourage from his production company, Frognation, filed into the auditorium for the final ceremony, which some had promised would be the Academy Awards of anime. At a glance, it was clear the event had been overbilled; most of the audience wore jeans, and the stage, with its amateurish lighting scheme, looked like the kind of place where an American charlatan might hold a self-improvement weekend.
The first awards went to animators whose work had appeared as far back as the 1920’s. Several bohemian-looking elders emerged from the wings as images from their work played on a monitor. Black-and-white woodland animals jumped around and spoke Japanese like children. A waiter went to pop a Champagne cork and his head popped off.
But no one laughed. As the animation got increasingly artsy and curious, that absence of laughter grew harder to understand. Tim Burton-style Claymation cats fell into puddles and a depressing pencil-sketched crow donned a top hat. Finally in an anime called “Odeki,” a doltish cartoon man sprouted a boil on his behind that grew longer and longer, and kept getting caught in places like the spokes of his bicycle wheel. It was gross-out humor of the best kind. But no one laughed, or winced, or made a sound. The artist who created the piece, an irrepressible Osakan named Naoki Yamaji, was given something called the special award. The crowd clapped politely.
Acceptance speeches for the awards ranged in tone from modest to downright self-abasing. Kenichi Yoshida, who won for best character design, told the audience, “I’ve always considered my design line to be rather lukewarm, neither low-key nor flashy, but receiving this award has installed in me some confidence.” Another winner, Sumito Sakakibara, sold out his own film, “Kamiya’s Correspondence,” in its very tagline: “This is the first memorable ‘Neo-Realist Moving Manga’ (though it’s not a very successful attempt. …).”
When Mr. Sato was called to the stage and given the award for best screenplay he took it, typically, in stride. He grinned. Like all the other winners, he shook hands with, and bowed to, a designated local captain of art or industry while he accepted a looped trophy of hand-blown glass, whose shape is meant to symbolize, among other things, a “ring of global expansion,” or so the program notes clarified. “Eureka seveN” received, in all, three awards — Mr. Sato’s, as well as best character design and best television anime. (The Cartoon Network promptly acquired the show for an April airdate.) The gang at Frognation seemed pleased. Everyone, in fact, seemed pleased, in an extremely understated way.
But then Governor Ishihara appeared. He looked tired. Perhaps it was the two days he had just spent talking about the anime industry. Still, he marshaled his dark charm. “This is a place for business,” he began. “I’ve been at the trade show booths, and met people who are doing anime alone. What they do begins as manga, then becomes anime, and each needs our support.”
“But too much anime looks alike,” he said. It really seemed to bother him. He cautioned anime creators to think about how they’re positioning their audience. “Can’t you guys work on a story a bit more?”
“I don’t play games or watch anime,” he continued, gathering momentum. “I saw one or two. Some are interesting, but I’m not going to quit my job to go be an anime creator.”
He paused to tell a fable about a sinking ship on which some passengers fed tainted food to a cat. It was a parable about the cold war, he said; anime, he believed, should tackle such important themes. He continued, “We’re so clever, so used to doing things the so-called correct way. But why don’t you really try to raise the level of this art form? Can’t you bring in some interesting thoughts? Practice some concision, as in haiku.”
With that, he hit his stride. “We can go further,” he urged the assembly. “We can make something that’s more revolutionary. You’re talented people. Let’s make something extraordinarily Japanese. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
No one talked back, but many looked uneasy. Later, Takayuki Matsutani, the president of the Association of Japanese Animations, told reporters to ignore the statements of Mr. Ishihara, but it was impossible. In the meantime, Mr. Sato let the speech roll off him. He lit up a cigarette, and headed back to the studio, where he would once again control his own animated universe.