Auteurist Critique of Katsuhiro Otomo

To general western audiences these days Japanese animation has grown to have a rather large reputation as primarily being a children’s form of entertainment. This global identity which has become familiar with most parents was most likely the result of this distinctive visual art form becoming popularised through children’s television on weekend mornings. While this belief that Japanese animation is mostly aimed at children is well known amongst parenting groups in the Americas and Europe, this is, for the most part, only half-true.
Japanese animation, or simply called anime, is in fact a lot more popular amongst teenage groups due to a majority of content having more adult appeal. As Susan J. Napier wrote in her book Anime: From Akira to Princess Monoke about Japanese animation’s popularity in both cultures “The “culture” to which anime belongs is at present a “popular” or “mass” culture in Japan, and in America it exists as a “sub” culture. However, as Treat’s point about the mercuriality of value suggests, this situation may well change. Indeed, in Japan over the last decade, anime has been increasingly seen as an intellectually challenging art form, as the number of scholarly writings on the subject attest.” (Pg. 4).
As the film making industry flourished in Japan during the years following World War II, so did its sister medium of animation and became both a “mass” culture and a “sub” culture as discussed above. And while this style of animation had entered markets foreign to Japan as early as the 1960’s it wasn’t until the 1980’s and 1990’s that it began to grow as a major cultural export. As Fred Patten wrote about Japanese animation’s first experience in North America during the 1960’s in his book Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews “Most viewers never realised these were not American cartoons. If they did, they must have concluded that animation was not popular in Japan since there seemed to be so few programs. In fact, these programs were the early efforts of an immensely successful Japanese cartoon industry.” (Pg. 219).
Although a lot of people today will still view anime to be a type of ‘limited’ animation aimed at children, a vast majority of its storylines and visuals involved postmodern settings and content which was seen as a welcome diversity in a country where Disney was mostly popular in the animation field. Today anime has become embedded in our culture almost as much as it has in Japan and continues to influence animators and illustrators worldwide.
With this ever growing fandom of anime it probably become easy to overlook how anime became a world-wide phenomenon in the first place. In the United States it seemed a lot of adult content had been focused primarily on live action film making, and example being the futuristic dystopian set Blade Runner (1982, USA). Although there were some film directors that have made animated films aimed at adults, a well-known example being Fritz the Cat (Ralph Bakshi, 1973), which to this day is the most financially successful independent animated film, most producers probably didn’t see adult content cartooning having a wider appeal outside of its underground roots and into the mainstream market, especially with the regaining popularity of Disney animation. But while live action film making was just as popular in Japan, animation had become equally mainstream (almost half of film releases in Japan from the 1970’s onwards were animated) so it seemed a lot of film makers saw their form of animation’s somewhat illustrative style would be a perfect suit for adult content and mature themes.
A notable Japanese film maker who not only used animation in such a way but also helped popularise Japanese animation in foreign countries is Katsuhiro Otomo. Otomo can be seen as an excellent example of an auteur for we can see how he repeats his visual style and treatment of genre throughout his films and even how he conveys his experiences and self imagery into the hand drawn line, which has been embedded in narrative structure, visuals, symbolism and just about any other aspect of film making. He really proves how flexible a stylistic medium such as animation can be in conveying his own self and experiences onto the screen. A great way to take an auteurist approach to Otomo’s film making is to compare and contrast a few of them. Akira, Cannon Fodder and Steamboy are all good films to explore.
The film that Katsuhiro Otomo is probably best known for is his animated epic Akira (1988). In any film the one thing that should become immediately obvious is the genre of the film. Otomo’s treatment of genre in his stories is consistent throughout his work in the way that he’ll set it in a particular time period and fantasise it in some way with a lot of postmodern elements. As Paul Wells writes in his book Animation: Genre and Authorship “At one level it is still easy to recognise a ‘horror’ film, a ‘western’, a ‘musical’ and so on, but such is the hybridity of generic elements in many films that there are many aspects of crossover and combination within established genres that in effect, new ‘sub-genres’ have been created. These intersections and adaptations means that any genre rarely operates in an exclusive way” (pg. 41).
Akira is one of the most notable examples of the ‘cyberpunk’ genre which derives mostly from science fiction. While many cyberpunk stories will involve computers and technology such as Ghost in the Shell (Mamuro Oshii, 1995, Japan), it is supernatural and psychic powers that play a more dominant role in this film. The film is set in Neo Tokyo forty years after World War III when an atomic explosion destroyed the old city. This atomic explosion is revealed to have been the result of the Akira experiment which becomes central to the plot.
Otomo’s visual style is quiet distinct in a number of ways. Although he displays Neo Tokyo as a dystopian metropolis ruled over by corrupt politicians he focuses just as much on the culturally diverse population. The established protagonists, including Kaneda and Tetsuo, are part of a group of delinquent bikers who spent some time fighting another biker gang across Neo-Tokyo. The night scenes make a stark use of luminous colour against hard shadows in the night scenes. But what’s notable about his treatment of colour is his use of red and green. His films can be easily recognized though the way he contrasts strong reds with cyan and green colours in an almost unorthodox way. Not only is this contrast abundant in the environments but he also uses complementaries when representing the different groups of people. The biker gangs are often dressed up in saturated red and grey green clothing while the authority figures are often shown dressed with blue and orange.
Backgrounds were meticulously thought out in just about every aspect to ensure depth and spatial relations were correct. The characters were also realistically proportioned rather than featuring the often exaggerated body features that Japanese animation is mostly known for commercially. The films soundtrack is also striking for its seemingly minimum use of instruments. A majority of the original score consists of bamboo drums. The vocals, however, are more dominant in the more important and dramatic scenes. There’s a great amount of contrast between youth culture and the authority figures. The established youths are shown as an almost retro biker gang, which is often called a Bōsōzoku gang in Japan. The older figures above them are either elderly men who consist mainly of the political figures in the film, or more strongly built compared to them such as the Colonel and the police officer that interviews the kids in the crowded building after Tetsuo was taken in by the army. There seems to be a subtle amount of satire towards both ends as each are shown to have major flaws of egotism and arrogance. As for gender, neither gender seems to be highly sexualized. However, there is one highly fetishised scene in which Kaori is attacked by one of the bike gangs when her shirt is torn off revealing her breasts. Since females aren’t fetishised in other scenes this choice was possibly done to raise excitement in the sequence.
There may be an amount of psychological influence coming from the environments. Just about every street scene is shown to have graffiti and other vandalised and abused objects scattered across. Even the school is shown to be just as unkempt as the bar hang-out and alleyways.
What drives the post modern narrative structure of the film is its themes, which consist of power, corruption and ego. All three themes are abundant in the back story in which the Akira experiment became too much for the government to handle, hence the atomic explosion at the opening scene of the film. The same cycle seems to repeat itself only with Tetsuo being given telekinetic powers after he crashed during the turf war against the clown gang. As his newly given power grows, so does his ego as he lashes out at Kaneda before having a nervous breakdown and being taken into custody again. The government’s actions to try and contain Tetsuo only prove to be futile as he becomes powerful enough to fight the oppressing army that seems to dominate the dystopian city.
Symbolism also plays a major role in the film’s narrative. There is a religious cult surrounding Akira demonstrating in the streets in one scene, in a dystopian city where there is hardly a place for religion. This religious cult is much more active in the later sequence where Tetsuo, with his fully fledged powers, is leading protesters across the bridge to the Olympic stadium in a revolt against the government believing that Tetsuo is the second coming of Akira. Humorously, this religious cult is put an end to very quickly when Tetsuo destroys the bridge leading to the stadium. This part of the film is a good example of where films soundtrack is striking for its seemingly minimum use of instruments. A majority of the original score consists of bamboo drums. The vocals, however, are more dominant in the more important and dramatic scenes such as here, where the vocals are orchestrated to increase the drama, and therefore heightening the demonstrator’s regard to Tetsuo as a sort of holy figure.
Symbolism is especially abundant in the dream and hallucination sequences. As Tetsuo’s powers develop he has a hallucinogenic vision of three monstrous toys bleeding and spewing milk, widely considered to symbolise not only growth and fertility but the gaining of knowledge. They are later scared away by the sight of Tetsuo’s blood, a symbol of adolescence. This is an important visual aspect to the film because it displays how Tetsuo’s growth of power is currently effecting him and also hints at his unhappy childhood Later in a flash back it is shown how Tetsuo and Kaneda befriended one another when Kaneda stole back a toy taken from Tetsuo by bigger kids. These dreams and flashbacks show the audiences the relationship between the two friends, even as their two egos grow in conflict. As Paul Wells writes in his book Understanding Animation “Symbolism, in any aesthetic system, complicates narrative structure because a symbol may be consciously used as part of the image vocabulary to suggest specific meanings, but equally, a symbol may be unconsciously deployed and therefore may be recognised as a bearer of meaning over and beyond the artist’s overt attention. In other words, an animated film may be interpreted through its symbolism, whether the symbols have been used deliberately to facilitate a meaning or not. This can, of course, radically alter the understanding of the film, arguably making it infinitely richer in its implications, or misrepresenting the project altogether” (pg. 83).
These symbols and metaphors that Otomo has included in the film are vital to the viewer’s understanding of the narrative and messages in the film, especially in a script that involves a lot of dialogue. Just as Tetsuo and Kaneda’s friendship is made clearer through the films symbolism, so too is the audiences understanding of the central plot, which is the character of Akira. It’s revealed that Tetsuo is experiencing the same victimisation of scientists using him to ‘play God’ in their experiments, and just like the atomic explosion at the start of the film which destroyed Tokyo, Tetsuo causes the same effect and impact when he loses control of himself and metamorphosises into an organic creature. Akira was called on by the Espier children to put an end to it by repeating the same process and creating another explosion which wipes out Neo-Tokyo, although Kaneda and a few other characters survive. This is followed by another muted black explosion which creates another universe. Tetsuo’s voice can be heard, implying that he has become a God like entity in another dimension.
Underneath the film’s post modern themes of power and corruption, one could interpret the atomic explosions shown in this film more like a ‘Big Bang’, which was said to be the beginning of the universe. In other words, with every apocalypse comes a new beginning and a new start for any person that should survive. Tokyo was able to rebuild itself and it could presumably rebuild itself again, just as it can be presumed men will attempt to achieve the power of a God again since they hadn’t learned from their mistakes the first time around and may not again.
Considering Akira proved to be a milestone in animation due to its incredible attention to detail in its art form, this makes one of Otomo’s later films entitled Cannon Fodder (1995, Japan) a very interesting contrast, the third and final epidoe of his Memories film. Cannon Fodder’s treatment of genre is similar to how Otomo will usually create a hybrid genre. It is primarily a steampunk story. It’s set in a walled city where giant cannons are built on top of the roofs of every building. The whole population’s livelihood depends on the working class citizens maintaining, loading and firing these cannons which launch missiles at the enemy city. The whole culture of the city is shown to be a working class population in a sort of socialist regime like communist Russia, so the look of the film mostly copies the iconography of European culture during wartime, including stone streets, steam locomotives in train stations and even the clothing the people wear, who all seem to dress with helmets on. The city is shown in clouds of smoke and dust from their attack on the ‘enemy city’, which seems to be the basis on the society’s entire economy. Even posters displayed on the walls parodies the Russian alphabet.
The whole narrative follows a school boy who aspires to serve in the war and his father who works on maintaining the cannons. The narrative structure uses a technique a lot like the film Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 19, USA) in which the entire film is one continuous shot panning and dollying across to different locations. As Gilberto Perez wrote in his book The Material Ghost “Telling is indeed like counting, not in content, of course, but in form: a story is told in succession, one thing and then another and then another, as things are counted.” (pg. 50).
Otomo may have seen this style of direction created by Hitchcock as appropriate to introducing the audience to the world in which the characters live in. The start of the film, for example, opens in the child’s bedroom, follows him out into the kitchen with is filled with pipes and mechanics producing steam showing the type of technology they have, pans across the kitchen and back, then follows the boy exiting his home with his father and follows them through the city brings us around their daily lives. Since the shots flow into one another (at least until the end of the second act) the audience will feel included in the world and a little less alienated as their point of view is following the characters.
What is the most unusual about the film is its choice of animation. Instead of the meticulously, realistically proportioned character design like we saw in Akira, the characters are more caricatured and stylized. Not only that but they are drawn in a rough brush pen technique, including the backgrounds. I find this interesting. Since this film’s single camera set-up follows through a culture where war is glorified and a child aspires to fight in future wars, this choice of style in its animation can be seen as being satirical of wartime propaganda that can be published in a children’s book. Even in Nazi Germany similar propaganda techniques have been used while Hitler was in power and at the end of the third act of the film the boy has drawn a picture of himself in crayons, which turns into an animated sequence in itself showing the boys fantasies about serving his home by leading an army into war, all in his crayon inspired imagination. What’s more striking about the visuals is how strong the usage of red and green is throughout, even more stark than what we’ve seen in Akira.
Through the films themes of war and socialism, Otomo seems to make a subtle comment on the way such a society is structured. Although the entire population is entirely accepting of their government’s commands, despite the ugly dystopia they live in, such a system seems to rely on such perfect behaviour from its people so much that it could easily prove to be its downfall. Towards the end of the second act of the film it is revealed that the father has been working on loading the missiles into the cannons. However, along the way he makes a mistake resulting in the missile not being loaded in time. The firing goes ahead as planned, with the father watching on nervously. It isn’t revealed whether or not the father has been punished for the blunder, but it was implied that the shot was unconfirmed to have actually hit the enemy city by the news reporter.
Strictly speaking, if one mistake is made in the governments established plan then the entire plan could fall apart simply because such plans are too perfectly idealistic. It may be seen as a representation of how a population can be programmed by its media into seeing their home as being glorious and not questioning anything about it. If none of the characters actually question anything about their society or seeing anything wrong with it then Otomo has certainly left his viewers questioning the very thing, not just in the surrealist world he created but also in our own world. Could this only be applied to a socialist government during a war or could one start questioning their own society? It is a subtle remark on war and culture but it’s there.
The themes in Cannon Fodder seem to lead into Otomo’s next (and to date last) animated feature Steamboy (2004, Japan). Its genre treatment is similar to Cannon Fodder, as the title implies, being another steampunk film.
Here it is set in an alternative England during the industrial revolution in 1863, and the working class culture has taken enormous developments on steampunk-themed technologies. Although Otomo has set the film in a nineteenth century Victorian setting while copying the iconography of Europe during this period, he took the liberty of mixing in steam powered locomotives and tractor devices with numerous contraptions and inventions such as clawed machines and even a type of ‘monowheel’, which is essentially a steam powered bicycle. These devices are a lot like the kinds of machines that Leonardo DaVinci is known to have illustrated at his time, only technological limitations prevented further development to him.
The devices become more fantasised as the story progresses showing an army of men wearing steam powered armoured suits, aviation devices and even a massive floating fortress powered by steam. The one device that’s central to the plot is the steam-ball, which was created by Dr. Lloyd Steam and his son Edward to make an ultimate source of steam power. The Steam Ball’s creation was established at the start of the film, which had shown the audience not only what the plot will centre around but also to introduce the type of technology that will be displayed in the film. As Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener stated in their book Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses about the establishment of a film “…a film’s beginning must lure the audience, i.e. it must prompt the necessary attention and suspense, it must plant important information, but also set the tone and atmosphere that prepares the film to come.” (Pg. 42).
Otomo repeats his usual representation of gender with some exceptions. Male characters are the most active throughout the film as either the protagonists and antagonist or simply the hard laboured citizens in society, and women being less active. Not only that but Otomo hasn’t made either gender sexualised at all, nor is there any fetishism. One exception to this would be the most active female protagonist, Scarlett. Being from a higher class family and the granddaughter of the chairman of the O’Hara foundation she is mostly dressed to look presentable and attractive to a point. Even though there is a hint at being a love interest to Ray, no such romance seems to develop between the two characters. Scarlett is also shown to be the most arrogant and spoilt of the characters and behaves in a much more self-important way to the other male characters.
The animation techniques shown are something of a step-forward compared to Akira. It uses highly detailed and realistically proportioned characters with meticulously worked-out backgrounds in which details and spatial relations are carefully planned out to accommodate the characters movements in a realistic manner. The hand drawn animation techniques are even mixed in with several CGI cuts in the backgrounds. The colour treatment in the visuals is similar in a few ways to Akira. Otomo still uses strong contrasts between saturated reds and green, especially in interior scenes where there’s furniture and pipe work. The reds and greens sometimes even act as a focal point in some shots. However, unlike Akira, which used a lot of bright and luminous neon style colours in its backgrounds, Steamboy used more desaturated browns and greys in its backgrounds and even dark blacks on machinery. This is more suiting to its nineteenth century setting and makes a strong contrast to the more futuristic appeal in Akira.
The narrative in the film can also be compared in a few ways to Akira in its themes of power. Ray meets continuous obstacles in the storyline all as a result of the conflict between both his father Edward and his grandfather Lloyd. The two men are in constant dispute over what to do with their Steam Ball invention, and Lloyd has even warned Ray not to allow the steam-ball to be acquired by Edward and the O’Hara foundation. After Ray was chased by members of the O’Hara foundation from Manchester to London, Ray comes to meet his father who has been building the Steam Tower in London, which he claims will end hard labour for men as it will produce energy to the entire world. Although Ray helps him in completing the tower initially, he meets his grandfather Lloyd again, who reveals that Edward actually wants to use the Steam Ball to create an arsenal of steam powered war machines. This is where Ray starts coming to terms with the morality and ethics of science and what its purpose should be.
Later, Ray steals back the Steam Ball from the core of the Steam Tower and flees, and the next day while international leaders are given a live demonstration of Edwards steam powered soldiers in what is explained to be ‘a war on Britain’, Edward is eager to demonstrate what the Steam Tower really is and uses his other two Steam Balls to launch the Steam Tower into its colossal flying fortress, dubbed the Steam Castle. Eventually, Ray confronts both his father and grandfather in the observation deck of the Steam Castle where the two dispute what their intentions as scientists should be.
Edward believes that he and the foundation are serving purpose to the entire world through their scientific experiments and weaponry should be a part of that while Lloyd believes that science should reveal universal principles and not to be used in absurd ways. A different character named Robert, who was an intended recipient of the Steam Ball, told Ray earlier that science should simply be used to ‘make people happy’. On moral grounds, Otomo has presented two extreme views on science in the form of the conflict between Edward and Lloyd while also giving a grey area for the protagonist to consider. Lloyd even attempts to shoot Edward in order to stop him from developing into a complete ‘monster’, just as the Steam Castle is about to explode over the whole of London. Lloyd then tells Ray that he must “..save science from the wicked and preserve the future”.
This can be seen as another comment on humanity and its desire for power just like with Akira, although here power is concerned with science and technology rather than the concept of ‘playing God’. As steam powered technology has rapidly advanced in this alternative universe during the industrial revolution it may be possible for such technology to advance beyond man’s comprehension or control. At the end of the film the pressure from the steam valves inside the Steam Castle’s core becomes too high to stabilise and as a result the fortress explodes over the river Thames. It’s almost like the same theme in Akira about every disaster offering a new beginning. At the end Ray says to Scarlett that “The age of science has just begun”. Could there be lessons learned from Edward’s mistakes and arrogance allowing scientific development to benefit mankind more, or could the same process of man becoming too confident in his developments repeat again? Otomo has left a multitude of philosophies, ideals and ethics, which were discussed throughout the story, about science and technology for the audience to think about, an equally open ended closure to Akira.
After studying three of Katsuhiro Otomo’s films, it has become even easier not only to identify his repeated signature visual style but also his repeated treatment of genre. Like any other director he attempts to convey self-image into his own films and embeds it into a highly post modern form of narrative structure with a focus on symbolism, visual imagery and other aspects. As wrote in his book Robert Stam in Film Theory: An Introduction “Post modernism is a discursive – stylistic grid that has enriched film theory and analysis by calling attention to a stylistic shift toward a media conscience cinema of multiple styles and ironic recyclage. Much of the work on postmodernism in film has involved the positing of a post modern aesthetic, exemplified in such influential films as Blue Velvet (1986), Blade Runner (1982) and Pulp Fiction (1994).” (Pg. 304)
Like the mentioned films in the above quotation some of Otomo’s work still continues to influence film making today. And while some would try to replicate what he has been able to do in Akira and his other films, his own visual identity will still remain his own whether it is his treatment of design, colour, lighting or even how he handles morality and symbolism in his narrative. It is no surprise that artists, animators and illustrators in both western and eastern cultures have cited Otomo as an influence as much as influences from American and European films can be seen in his work such as Blade Runner (1982). Its these western influences on Otomo’s work that may have become the reason behind Akira’s success outside of Japan since it still has a great amount of appeal to western audiences today.
It is known, of course, that film making in Japan started to truly develop after world war two, and even animation made in Japan prior to the war appeared to be derived from Disney style animation, and yet Japanese film makers were able to create an almost completely different culture based on another culture. And even though some Japanese television programs were shown in North America since the 1960’s it is interesting how its distinctive style didn’t actually begin to take hold on the rest of the world until the 1980’s. To quote again from Susan J. Napier’s book “…it appears that it is the “Otherness” of anime rather than its specific “Japanese-ness” that is one of its fundamental appeals to the fans. As discussed earlier, respondents consistently mentioned how different anime was from American or Western products.” (Pg. 255)
A handful of other Japanese animated films released outside of Japan during the 1980’s and 1990’s have had just as much an impact on western culture as Akira, such as Ghost in the Shell (Mamuro Oshii, 1995, Japan) and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984, Japan) Anime seems to have grown to have a different number of meanings outside of its home country but whatever one’s interpretation of this style of animation may be it has certainly offered a wealth of enrichment to artistic careers in both cultures.

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