Monday, August 8, 2016

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS FOR AUGUST 9TH


Good day fellow lovers of the ninth art...

"An artist should make experimental work." --Osamu Tezuka to Eiichi Yamamoto.

Rather fittingly, given this week's focus on anime legends, last week I happened to finally watch Belladonna of Sadness. Cineliciouspics (great name) are behind the Blu-ray release of this "lost masterpiece" of animation, the final ever film to come from Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions. A frequently stunning and gorgeous piece of psycho-sexual melodrama, Belladonna's source material is an odd one: a French novel from 1862, Jules Michelet's La Sorciere. Ripping along in a beautiful kaleidoscopic swirl, the film centres on Jeanne, a beautiful young woman raped on her wedding night by the town's Lord. Desperate for power, Jeanne makes a deal with a devil who happens to be...well, let's just say it...he's totally dick-shaped. Phallic imagery abounds over numerous scenes of sexual encounters both real and symbolic, in fact it's safe to say you've never seen so many dicks disguised as other objects before in your life. The film pretty much rolled over me with a psychedelic barrage.

Belladonna is also notable for its lack of lip-synching. Director Eiichi Yamamoto, in a supplemental interview, says that the lack of lip-synching was due to budget constraints and so he turned to an old form of Japanese puppetry, in which emotion is expressed without the movement of the puppet's mouths, for inspiration. Oddly, Belladonna of Sadness actually resembles a proto-motion comic in this respect and the fact that it so often resembles Christian Ward's work on Ody-C only heightens the feeling of watching a particularly vibrant comic play out before your eyes. Yamamoto, again in his interview, does not use the word "anime" to describe his work; he explicitly calls his movies "manga films." I've been critical of motion comics in this space in the past, but if they all looked like Belladonna of Sadness, I'd take that opinion back in a heartbeat. I mean, just look at this:



For fans of the freakiest of films and animation buffs, Belladonna of Sadness really does have to be seen to be believed. Special mention to the freak out fuzz rock score by composer, Masahiko Satoh, who just knocks it out of the park.


COMIC OF THE WEEK : QUEEN EMERALDAS VOLUME ONE
By Leiji Matsumoto
Translated By Zack Davisson
Published By Kodansha Comics

If you love comics even half as much as I do, you surely have to agree that we are living in a golden age. Yes, the Big Two have their ups and downs, but forget about them for a moment, let's talk about comics as a whole and the utter wealth of untranslated material finally, *finally* upcoming and in many cases already available in English. What we are seeing, incredibly, is the arrival of International comics culture to our shores. The comics deemed museum-worthy by other countries are given the publishing treatment they deserve in our very own language at last. Sure, it's taken decades, but we're getting there. We really are. For a lifer like me it's really an amazing thing to see happen.

The manga "boom" may be considered over by many and that's probably true, but by opening this truly massive area of comics and opening it widely, the reading experiences of comics fans everywhere has changed. Forever. No longer is manga "flipped;" the Japanese right-to-left format is now not only standard but generally considered to be integral to the true manga reading experience. Alt-manga from the arty end of seinen (Planetes, 20th Century Boys) to the full-blown gekiga of the meatiest parts of Osamu Tezuka's career and the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, for example, fills the publishing slates of companies as diverse as Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Viz. The classics are coming. If they're not here already.

Case in point is this week's featured comic, the release of which had artists as diverse and distinct as Sarah Horrocks and Ian MacEwan tweeting about its arrival: Leiji Matsumoto's 1978 classic, Queen Emeraldas. Matsumoto has a frankly massive and terrifying body of work, having begun his manga in 1968 (at the rather ripe age of 30) with the last published credit I could find coming in 2014. There's a twenty-year gap in that comics lifetime as well, presumably due to Matsumoto's commitments in the anime world, where he shaped many a child's vision of the future with Space Battleship Yamato, better known in English as Star Blazers, and Space Pirate Captain Harlock. It's a massive anime career perhaps culminating with the celebrated collaboration with Daft Punk, Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (see this week's video) for which, thankfully, we have this photo, a photo that I believe should be shot into space for aliens to discover and learn about our culture:


Matsumoto's characters, although cartoonish against the realistic backdrops and settings, always appear to be in motion and from Queen Emeraldas' pages alone it’s unsurprising his career in anime is so revered. The strong profiles of Matsumoto's handsome, well-coiffed males and supermodel sleek females along with his vision of space as an impossibly vast blackness lit by the hopeful pinpricks of innumerable stars and supernovas exploding in violent and pink went a long way, with Battle of the Planets, in defining anime for me. Here, if you are curious, is Star Blazers in its entirety. The grungy naval vibe Matsumoto imbued his space operas with still resonates today - you can look no further than Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger's Southern Cross for that.

Emeraldas cruises the galaxy in her wondrous pirate ship turned interstellar war craft, The Queen Emeraldas, for reasons she keeps entirely to herself, and encounters all manner of human awfulness along the way. Ship and Captain are bonded in ways than go beyond having the same name - they are destined to be with one another. Emeraldas, this super model-lithe space warrior, cloaked in black, is physically marred only by a scar from a gravity-sabre strike across her cheek - a constant reminder to herself that all conflict must be fast and must be fatal. 

The diminutive Hiroshi Umino also seeks solitude amongst the stars, having travelled from Earth to Mars in a homemade space ship. Crashing on Mars, he must scratch and claw his way back to the stars, but he is seemingly cursed to remain grounded forever. Mars, like many planets in this series, is a backwater desert, as gritty as an Italian Spaghetti Western. Wanted posters and violent outlaws prowl the surfaces of Matsumoto's dustbowl environments, drinking in shabby saloons and ruminating on the immensity of their own notoriety. Matsumoto seems to love juxtaposing these arid environments, filled with criminals of all sorts, with his cool, black expanses of space. It's on Mars that Emeraldas and Umino first meet and, from this point, their fates become linked as the stars become the pathway their freedom.

Both Emeraldas and Umino are fascinating character studies, particularly as they were created in late 1970s Japan. "The nail that sticks out is hammered down," is a well-known old Japanese phrase and Emeraldas, in stature as well as attitude, is the tallest nail imaginable, as encapsulated perfectly here:


Self-reliant, strong-willed, empowered, suspicious of men (for good reason as her backstory proves) and quick to violent action, Emeraldas maintains a stylish but haunted quality which Matsumoto's art plays up at every opportunity - close ups on her large, long-lashed eyes, gazing far away, placed amongst a backdrop of star-littered space are frequent, such as this:


Umino embodies the datsusara spirit - the abandonment of the salaryman life - seeking his freedom in space, becoming eminently relatable to 99% of readers in the process as he crashes and crashes and crashes again. With gritted teeth, clenched fists and a powerful work ethic, Umino sets out to achieve his goal, with Emeraldas as something of an inspirational muse (and occasional patron), and he flagrantly breaks any and every rule he must to get what he needs.

Matsumoto's melodrama-dripping narration and dialogue works beautifully with the gravitas of his stories. His rubbery male figures and impossibly angular females inhabit a comics world of stark blacks juxtaposed with large areas of negative space. Space ship interiors are stark black save for the blinking of highly detailed dashboard equipment:


Splashes and double-page spreads are frequently used to give a sense of cosmic scope -- ships or characters are tiny things amongst the immensity of the cosmos, or the dusty swirling of a landmass. Matsumoto expertly uses the black and white trappings of the medium by soaking his panels in black and then opening them up with expanses of white with the flip of the page. 

On the publishing side, Kodansha has done a wonderful job with its English edition, treating the material with the respect it deserves. Over 400 pages fill this first of two hardback volumes with slick but not glossy paper maximising the crisp pop of white against the inky pitch black. I doubt Matsumoto's pages have ever looked so good - his wonderful clouds of explosions burst off the page. On the downside, for such a legendary comic, there's a distinct lack of supplemental material (outside of some bonus short stories) that another publisher, such as Vertical, would have an abundance of. Hopefully next time. All in all though, make a spot on your shelf for Queen Emeraldas and begin the count down to the concluding volume two.


WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : AKIRA ENDPAPERS
By Katsuhiro Otomo

Staying pretty much on theme this week comes is this stunning selection of colour montage images that ran in the Japanese editions of Akira. To this day one of the most influential and acclaimed pieces of SF comics and anime, news broke that Kodansha is prepping a new deluxe box set of Otomo's classic to celebrate its 35th anniversary. Due for release in 2017, the set will feature hardcover volumes, slipcased, reading right-to-left, and with the original Japanese sound effects intact. *Swoon*. If you've never read Akira and can't stomach the $200US price tag attached to this new edition, I expect the regular, "flipped" artwork paperback editions will still be available. I'll be selling my set to make shelf space for this monster for sure.




COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : INTERSTELLA 5555 - FULL MOVIE


And what could be more apropos than closing out with the stunning '70s anime aesthetic of Leiji Matsumoto turned into a fully-fetishised art object thanks to the pounding Euro house beats of those post-disco tricksters, Daft Punk? Nothing, that's what. "The Animated House Musical"? You’re damn right. There's even a precedent set for this kind of thing if you think it's a weird combo - witness this disco version of the classic theme to Matsumoto's Space Battleship Yamato for proof.

The story of an blue-skinned intergalactic dance music group (members: Shep, Arpagius, Drummer and Stella) whose beats are so mighty the band is are pilfered by us dirty humans and turned into corporate music-slaves, 2003's Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem is essentially one long music video for Daft Punk's second album, "Discovery", released in 2001. The Daft Punk boys have their fingers in every slice of the creative pie, however, along with Matsumoto who provided initial character designs and oversaw production. If you were unfortunate enough to grow up during a childhood without Star Blazers and even, conceivably I suppose, missed Interstella 5555's initial release I both pity and envy you. There is just so much to love about this that we could be here all day if I bang on any more about it. Argh, just embiggen as much as possible, turn those ad blockers on just in case and crank it, people, crank it up.

*begins awkward old white guy dancing*




See you next week. Love your comics.



Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.

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