As the country’s leviathan electronic firms struggle to keep their blowholes above the swell and the miasma from the Fukushima nuclear disaster refuses to dissipate, Japan is a nation longing for the stories of better days.
Adjust the focus slightly from the sharp economic realities, however, and hopeful scenes take shape. One field where Japan continues to set the global standard is manga and anime. Arguably its greatest modern cultural exports, Japan’s manga and anime remain the high water mark, a beacon to which the rest of the world looks for innovation and quality.
Yet no field is immune to the changing times; the past few years have been difficult as the industry battles online piracy, searches for a way to cut production costs and struggles to stay relevant.
At an FCCJ event in January, venture company Comic Animation Inc., headed by CEO Toshiyuki Tateishi, unveiled a new format for artistic expression that harnesses the power of our seemingly ubiquitous media devices. Through instantaneous distribution of content to tablets and smartphones via a free app available from Apple’s iTunes Store, Comic Animation is blurring the lines between reader and protagonist, and indeed, between the forms of manga and anime themselves.
To illustrate the kind of content Tateishi hopes to market, he was joined by two noted creators: Mamoru Oshii, manga artist and director of Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor 2, and Kamui Fujiwara, a manga artist of Dragon Quest fame. Both men agreed to showcase their original work in what was essentially the new format’s first test drive.
Oshii’s 12 episode story, Chimamire Mai Love, is about a boy who enjoys giving blood who meets a young female vampire, and his struggle to keep her lust for blood sated. Although the plotline is fixed, navigating the story feels like a role playing game or a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
“The reader, or rather the user, moves the story forward with the touchscreen. The main character doesn’t appear that often. We want the user to feel like the main protagonist,” Oshii explained, as tablets containing the work circulated. Soon the room was randomly punctuated by chimes and other sounds produced by journalists’ interaction with the devices.
Oshii said although Chimamire Mai Love is unique in that the user literally animates the story at their own pace, pausing to linger on and explore scenes they enjoy, it also relies on some staple manga techniques. “I believe one of the key features of Japanese manga is the use of symbols to express emotions. . . . I tried to keep the character more or less static, while manipulating the symbols around the character to demonstrate emotions.”
Fujiwara contributed his own 12 episode story inspired by a kind of traditional Japanese theater. Entitled Giniro no Usagi, its main character, a young boy, wakes to find himself in a fantastic world populated by ghosts and other mythical creatures.
Endowed with extraordinary vision, the boy uses it to help a silver rabbit who is attacked by the strange and horrible creatures. When viewed on a tablet or smartphone, the device senses small shifts in angle, causing characters and backgrounds to appear to slide against each other.
Fujiwara explained the inspiration for this novel mode of interaction: “Normal procedure involves drawing the background and the character separately and integrating them on a PC for final touches. I thought this so called layering process might be the key to creative expression.
“About a year ago, a traditional performance of nozoki karakuri came to the local shrine . . . it consisted of a wooden board with semi three dimensional fabric structures attached . . . so it was like a paper screen, but more 3D. People look through a small hole in the box to enjoy this semi 3D mini theater. I started to see the tablet as a hole through which the user can enjoy the shifting of the character and the background, albeit virtually.”
Since the launch of Oshii and Fujiwara’s novel content via the iTunes Store in both English and Japanese on January 20, Tateishi said interest from abroad has been promising, and predicted healthy growth at home. Although the app itself is free, the first episode of Chimamire Mai Love sells for ¥250, while the first Giniro no Usagi sells for ¥170.
As technological innovation pushes the bounds of our interactions with devices, Marshall McLuhan’s increasingly relevant maxim that ‘the medium is the message’ again comes to the fore. Tateishi said Comic Animation “expects many unimaginable new device capabilities, and we would like to keep pace with such developments to produce content.” Despite the possibilities, Oshii lamented a certain tendency in his industry toward the status quo.
“The animation world doesn’t like innovation very much. It’s a bunch of people who like to repeat the same thing over and over. . . . Viewers are also like that,” he said. “I don’t feel motivated if I don’t engage in new things. But if we do too many new things, we’ll dry up, both of us. So the idea is to dabble in new things and then go back to our conventional work as manga and anime creators. The shifting back and forth is the important part.”
Tyler Rothmar is a Tokyo-based freelance writer and editor.