Summary: I’ve been watching quite a bit of Japanese animation (anime) lately, both familiar and new. Unexpectedly, I’ve reconnected with themes and feelings that I’ve lost touch with, and am renewed![sid]:http://ceaserphotography.com
It was just a few weeks ago that [Sid][sid] and I were working in the studio, listening to cheesy eighties music and reminiscing about our favorite guilty pleasure music. While Sid has a truly brain-hurting medley of fizzy synth-pop and face-melting hair metal on tap, I didn’t have any examples of the genre that I would have proudly played with downturned, slightly-reddened face. That genre is the Japanese animation ending credit song. This is the music that plays at the end of the film or tv episode, while the credits are rolling. I don’t know what it is exactly about the ending credit music in Japanese anime that gets me…is it the tendency to use the wistful, yearning minor key? Is it the combination of text and music that captures the emotional tone of the moment, just as things are coming to an end? I suspect that my love for the ending credit music is largely contextual; I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t associate the music with the timbre of the characterization and plotting, I would think nothing more of it. But I really don’t know.
Anyway, when I got home I went through my library and scoured the Internet to find examples of ending credit music. First on the list was the ending credit song, Tenshi no Enogu from the 1984 film Macross: Do You Remember Love, which is so sappy that I am embarrassed to type it out loud. The Earth has pretty much been destroyed in a massive battle between the last holdouts of the human race and millions of fighting alien ships that, somehow, are brought together by a single love song performed in the dying embers of one relationship and the beginning of another. The last scene is of the singer, lost in her thoughts, doing a count before launching into the aforementioned song Tenshi no Enogu, which is a synthy-poppy-upbeat song that nevertheless has a kind of sadness to it.
It had been easily ten years since I had last seen Macross: Do You Remember Love, and I was curious to see if it held up. I watched the US version of the Macross TV series on Hulu, which is the first part of the Harmony Gold Robotech series that played here in the United States. Parts of it were quite painful to watch, but the 13-year old boy in me was drawn into the drama of a ship launched into space. And, I was again reminded of the brilliance of mecha designer Shoji Kawamori, who is the primary designer for the first transforming ship designs to grace our television screens:
The animation was crude by today’s standards, but the solidity and genius of these designs, lovingly referencing the lines of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat while defining a new mechanical vocabulary that struck me deeply. I’d forgotten what it was like to be entranced by these designs, and by the scope of the series. Macross is one of those series that imprinted me for life much like Star Wars with designers Joe Johnston and Nilo Rodis. It’s one of my primal design references.
And with that realization, I started watching other old animation that I knew had imprinted me. For example, the films of Hayao Miyazaki are among the finest pieces of animation and storytelling you’re likely to come across; he’s been called the “Walt Disney of Japan”. He’s better known here in the United States for his films Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, but back in the early 80s he directed three classics that amazed me: Lupin III: Cagliostro Castle, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Castle in the Sky Laputa. As the years went by he continued to release film after film that continued to amaze me with his action direction, delicacy of pacing, and a sense of motion that makes me gasp. Underpinning his films are the musical scores by composer Joe Hisaishi, who has provided most of Miyazaki’s films with lush orchestration and, I think, some wonderful ending credit music. I have a CD of his stuff somewhere in the house, but as I searched YouTube to grab it quickly, I came across various mentions of large scale concerts celebrating 25 years of Studio Ghibli’s (Miyazaki’s production company) films.
There is a concert DVD available in Japan of one of these concerts, and a few clips are also still available on YouTube. To get a taste of the DVD, you can watch the opening of the concert. What immediately struck me was just how serious Hisaishi is about conducting his music; you can watch the expression on his face and the movements of his body, and see how tightly controlled yet expressive he is. I’d never really understood what a conductor does, but as I watched elements of the DVD I started to gain an appreciation not only for what he was doing, but how amazing it is that a large group of people could get together to create such sound.
There’s a point in the video where he effortlessly glides from the conductor’s stand to the Steinway piano, and plays the haunting melody of the Nausicaa theme himself. That’s when I thought just how cool it was that this man gets to conduct an orchestra performing pieces that he himself composed. It’s absolutely mesmerizing. And this is the first time I’ve watched a video of an orchestra performing; the intense-yet-fluid and expressive motions everyone, from conductor to percussionist, reminded me of something else I’d forgotten: There is a real beauty and submersion of the self that happens when real experts perform. This is not limited to musicians either; you can find this motion and intensity in any person who has given themselves to their craft. The combination of technique and surrender is terrifyingly beautiful. I felt a bit of wistfulness…perhaps I should be training harder. And, I should not be embarrassed to give myself up to my craft, if the reward is to perform with beauty and creative expression. There’s another video where Hisaishi is performing a song from Porco Rosso (here’s a trailer) called Madness, with himself at the piano and nine cellos; part my brain marvels at the clarity of the theme and thinks that it’s within the realm of possibility to learn how to create something like this, and the other part trembles in fear. Someday, I hope to take some steps toward learning how to compose music that means something to me. I’m talking with my music teacher Angela about an alternative way to approach the lessons when I start them up again.
I next came across some old episodes of the TV series Yakitate! Japan, which is an action-packed anime about baking bread. No, really, it’s an AMAZING series. Imagine, if you will, if all the Rocky movies were not about boxing, but about bakers battling each other by trying to make the best possible bread in competition. Then combine the Japanese cultural appreciation for all food preparation technique and legendary ingredients, as you might see on Iron Chef. That’s Yakitate! Japan. The basic premise is that there’s a kind-hearted, somewhat gullible 15-yo kid named Azuma Kazuma, who has gotten it into his head that he needs to make a national bread worthy of Japan. “There is French Bread, German Bread, English Bread…yet there is no Japan bread!” Each episode centers around the competition he faces as he battles to get a job at a prestigious bakery chain, then to go on and win the “world bread cup” in Monaco…here’s an excerpt on YouTube to give you an idea of what it’s like. He’s innately talented but uneducated in the tradition of professional breadmaking–for the Croissant Battle, he has to actually ask what a Croissant is–but what ultimately carries him through is an intense love for his subject. He’s passionate, skilled, and has worked for it. It’s an intensely silly yet informative series that has me wanting to bake bread. After watching 69 episodes of this series, I started to remember what it was like to want to master something and be the best, to pick your comrades and compete, and really how important it was to remember key things about the creative process. There’s this great line from the series that I actually wrote down and emailed to a friend:
“Common sense, eh? You certainly need knowledge, but…as bakers…as creators…those of us who have the dreams and the passion to be able to OVERTURN common sense are the strongest.”
This phrase was uttered by the judge to the highly-technical and skilled baker who lost to Azuma during the final round. The series has its fair share of these moments. What is also incredibly valuable is the time they spend on describing the breads that are being judged. The strategies and techniques that the artisan bakers use are a catalog of design thinking applied in the context of baking. Ultimately, design is judged by its users; the creation of a winning bread also takes this into account. You can use the finest ingredients in the world and execute your bread with the highest level of skill, and you will end up with a great end-result. The game breaker is the heart, the hidden insights, the unexpected details and combinations, that set one design over another. It’s absolutely glorious. Why aren’t I asking myself the same thing when I design a website or storyboard an interactive? It is good to be reminded that there are people who will push the envelope with you.
And then, there’s the notion of standing apart from the rest of the world and operating on your principles. Such is the world of Ghost in the Shell, which is the highly philosophical world by manga creator Masamune Shirow. He’s well known for creating very complicated political back stories mixed with action and futuristic technology. I’m personally a fan of his manga (comic) version of Ghost in the Shell and did not enjoy the two movies that are better known here in the USA. Those movies were directed by morose Japanese director Mamoru Oshii, and I find them beautifully and perfectly tedious. The television series version Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is closer to the spirit of the original translated manga I read in college. The first season, in particular, has a remarkable storyline regarding the nature of convergent behavior in a population, the so-called “stand alone complex” referred to in the title. If I understand it right, this is when multiple individuals who have no connection to each other except through media channels and common social experiences will manifest similar motives and behaviors. Instead of a single origin point, a crisis can have multiple origins simultaneously, yet each origin point is unaware of the others. What this reminded me of was just how easy it is to pick a place to start and create actions that have subtler impacts on other people, and how one that is mindful of the reaction of those people to your wave making is something that can be anticipated. It’s not unlike throwing a pebble in a pond, and watching waves emanate from the point of impact. In a way, my own personal philosophy of making and showing is the equivalent of tossing that pebble into the pond; I hope to see something reflected back, or to see someone’s thoughts nudged in the right direction. My individual actions are also part of greater waves: the GTD movement, the back-to-paper movement, the DIY movement, and the solopreneur movement. Across the blogosphere I see people rise up and start sharing what they know, becoming leaders of their own collective groups. Change is well within our grasp. Yes, the net is vast…
On a somewhat lighter note, I started watching a series that my friend Mark Kern showed to me in California: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. This is a short animated series that is about a high school girl, Haruhi Suzumiya, who is quite bored of ordinary life. She joins every club in the school and tries out for every sports team in search of something that interests her, but drops out of them immediately because they suck. She wishes that there were aliens, espers, and time-travelers to liven things up, and decides that she needs to start her own club, the SOS Brigade, to investigate. She’s incredibly headstrong and stubborn, and drags handpicked classmates into the club. For example, she kidnaps one girl because she “looks like the type who would attract alien abductors in a movie”, blackmails the computer club into handing over a new computer, and co-opts the meeting room of a less-popular club despite the existence of one remaining member. And then…it gets interesting. I’ve only watched a few of the episodes so far, but I’m reminded that willpower and desire are all you need to start something up. After that, it’s perseverance, camaraderie, and a bit of luck.
The series itself is rather refreshing in its concept so far, and I am looking forward to seeing how they resolve the elements that have been put into place in the first half-dozen episodes. Because, you see (and this is a slight spoiler, so avert your eyes now): aliens, espers and time-travelers do exist, but they are here because Haruhi is possibly the key to their continued existence.
Finally, I thought that perhaps I might learn something about music if I found some kind of “music competition” anime to watch. While I didn’t find anything quite like Yakitate! Japan, I did come cross the light romantic comedy Nodame Cantabile, which is a story about two music conservatory students. Chiaki, the older student, is a stern-but-handsome piano student who has dreams of becoming a conductor. His piano teacher laughs at this, and in a huff Chiaki walks. He runs into Nodame, who’s also a piano student but quite the opposite. She’s messy, weird, forgets to bathe, and never plays the music the way it’s written. However, she plays as if she’s singing, and there is a raw expressiveness in her piano. She quickly falls in love with Chiaki after they play together during a lesson (here’s the nodametv) with Chiaki’s new piano teacher (who is also Nodame’s teacher, who specializes in “delinquent” students). Though Chiaki wants nothing to do with her, they still end up hanging out because she happens to live right next door to him and he ends up feeding her like a stray cat. And when they play music together, it’s amazing.
The lessons I’ve learned so far (I’m about a quarter of the way through it) have been unexpected. There is an episode when Chiaki is trying to conduct an orchestra that is comprised entirely of the “bad” students at the conservatory, and his superior understanding of the music combined with his perfect hearing makes him obviously qualified to point out the flaws of the practice. However, the sound gets smaller and smaller until the visiting Maestro takes the baton, and proceeds to nurture the musicians back to life. He gives them what they need to shine. It’s a humbling and important lesson for Chiaki, and it was also a good reminder for me; I can remember times in the past where my grasp of something seemingly put me in the position of being the director, and yet people around me shrank instead of bloomed. Ouch. There’s more to leadership than just yelling at people, after all. I’ve also started to get a feel for what it is like to be in a competitive music student’s shoes, to desire to play and grow to be their best. I never sought this kind of competition (in that sense, I identify more with Nodame, who wants to be a kindergarten teacher). However…what does that mean then if I don’t pursue whatever talents I have to the utmost? I don’t have an answer to that, but I am thinking that this anime will give me some ideas.
Oh, this series has a nice ending credit song too :-)