Barefoot Gen (Keiji Nakazawa)

Contrary to popular belief, the horror of nuclear war is not the stuff of science fiction; humanity has already experienced a nuclear war, albeit a limited one; it was called World War II; a war in which nuclear weapons were dropped on cities full of people.

Those whose impression of the medium we call “comics” is based on American super-hero comics and the current milquetoast crop of newspaper comics may be amazed to learn of some of the topics that comics stories have dealt with. In a future post, I’ll cover Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel (fancy name for comics story) of his father’s account of imprisonment in a German concentration camp in WWII.

Spiegelman also contributed an introduction to the U.S. release of another chilling and powerful story presented in the medium of comics: the Japanese graphic novel Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen, pronounced with a hard “G”), an account of the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath told from the point of view of a six year old boy. Though the story is fiction, it is also true to life; author/artist Keiji Nakazawa was six years old and living in Hiroshima when the bomb fell.

Tonight (Monday, August 6) at 7:30pm (ET/PT), HBO will air White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a documentary on this often ignored and swept-under-the-rug chapter from World War II. It features profiles of several survivors of the event, along with profiles of the Americans that flew the mission. One of the survivors who will be profiled is Keiji Nakazawa.

You can read an interview with the documentary’s director, Steven Okazaki, on the HBO site; and an interview with Keiji Nakazawa in The Comics Journal.

Nakazawa’s initial manga story about Hiroshima, Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) was more directly autobiographical; Gen, however, is more ambitious and more compelling as a story. At first there was resistance to the publication of these stories among the major manga publishers in Japan, who considered them too political, but a smaller publisher of “adult” (erotic) comics supported the publication of Nakazawa’s I Saw It and encouraged him to expand on the idea, which resulted in the story of Barefoot Gen.

Serialized in the manga anthology Weekly Shonen Jump in the early 1970’s, Barefoot Gen was translated into other languages in the 1980’s, and a new translation has been published in the U.S. as a four volume “graphic novel” series (with an introduction by Speigelman): Barefoot Gen Volume One: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima, Barefoot Gen Volume Two: The Day After, Barefoot Gen Volume Three: Life After the Bomb and Barefoot Gen Volume Four: Out of the Ashes.

The Barefoot Gen manga story was made into an anime in 1983, directed by Mori Masaki, followed by Barefoot Gen 2 in 1986. (They are available on DVD as a set.)

The art for the original manga version of Barefoot Gen could be described as “cartoony” compared to what you might expect for such a theme; but the simple, spare drawings, almost iconic in their basic representation of people and environments, convey the story in a way that would actually be difficult with a more “realistic” drawing approach.

There is nothing simplistic about the story. It might have been easy to blame the “enemy”, the U.S., for the suffering imposed on their family by the war, but Gen’s father blames the greed of the ruling class and begins to resist the government’s propaganda. His pacifist beliefs brand the family as traitors. Gen is caught between the indoctrination he receives at school and his Father’s adamant anti-war stance. The already hard scrabble for food, made more imperative by his mother’s current pregnancy, becomes multiplied in the aftermath of the bomb, which leaves only Gen and his mother alive from his family. (Nakazawa himself lost his father, brother and two sisters.)

The story pulls no punches in it’s portrayal of the effect and immediate aftermath of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and the harsh realities of life for the survivors; but it is a story of personal struggle and survival in the face of the madness of war, and a story with humanity, nobility, sacrifice and compassion.

Nakazawa does not have a simplistic attitude toward the event either. Barefoot Gen is not an expression of bitterness toward the U.S. for dropping the bomb, which might be forgivable given his experience and circumstances; it rises above the kind of nationalism that permitted the events of WWII to happen in the first place; and, in its direct and honest description of the event, condems all war, and our insanity as a species in threatening ouselves with nuclear weapons, and in particular for actually using them on ourselves.

Reading Barefoot Gen should be mandatory for the presidents of the U.S. and Russia, the leaders of China, and every politician and minister in every nuclear power; as should a viewing of tonight’s HBO presentation of White Light, Black Rain.

The Web site for the documentary also includes a sldeshow of artwork created by survivors. While most of it was created by individuals without formal artistic training, the power of the images is undeniable. There are additional drawings by atomic bomb survivors on the site of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.


Chiho Aoshima

Chiho Aoshima
Working digitally in a vector art program (presumably Illustrator), and outputting her images on a large scale printer, Chiho Aoshima creates wall-size installations, “wallpapers” and environments.

Coming from a background that did not include any formal art training, Aoshima’s images are full of brightly colored, cartoon style landscapes, citiscapes and fantasy environments, populated with cheery-looking anime and manga inspired characters, usually young women, often engaged in vaguely horrific activities.

Aoshima can be associated with the “superflat” movement, popular among young Japanese artists, that emphasizes the two dimensionality and simplified forms that make up their visual vocabulary.

Aoshima’s work can have an interesting juxtaposition of images that at first have the appearance of colorful innocence, and on second glance can be disconcertingly morbid, producing a feeling of pop comics storybook illustrations gone horribly wrong.

I haven’t had a chance to see her work in person, but I get the feeling that scale makes a difference (as it usually does). Her images are often highly detailed and include small elements that may not be visible in reproductions, and are displayed at a size intended to have an immersive quality.

The galleries I list below often include photos of the large scale and wall size works printed and mounted in place, so you can get a idea of their size and presentation, which sometimes includes sculptural objects or printed floors.

Link via Ann Marshall


Paprika - Satoshi KonDespite the fact that mainstream American audiences associate anime (Japanese animation) with giant robots bashing each other about while they tramp hip deep in skyscrapers, Japanese directors have long been willing to tackle sophisticated subjects that producers of American full-length animated features would never even consider.

American studios are still under the impression (perhaps unfortunately correct) that feature length animation intended for theatrical release here must be “family fare” to have a broad enough appeal to make their box office.

While I often complain about the adherence to simplistic formulas in American animation, anime is certainly locked into its own formulas at times, particularly in the area of science fiction; but from a genre whose ventures into science fiction have been largely near future and post apocalyptic adventures populated with robots, gynoids and exoskeleton mecha, comes an eye-popping exploration of the unconscious.

Renowned anime director Satoshi Kon has adapted Paprika from the science fiction novel by Yasutaka Tsusui, about a device that allows psychiatrists to immerse themselves in the dreams of a patient. In the story a reserved psychiatrist/inventor uses a prototype of this device to venture into the dreams of patients, where she is represented by a fairy-like avatar, until the machine is stolen, leaving her trapped in the psychedelic landscape of the dream state, confronted by the nightmare imaginings of the inner mind.

You can see the groundwork for Paprika in Kon’s own work and in films like Otomo’s Akira, and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in which the borders of reality are flexed an rippled with the push and pull of events.

Kon is best known here for Tokyo Godfathers and Perfect Blue. He also directed the less-well known Millennium Actress and the Japanese animated television series Paranoia Agent.

Kon has said that he based the imagery in Paprika on his own dreams, and the trailer and preview images promise a cornucopia of fantastic and wildly imaginative scenes.

Kon studied at Musashino Art University, majoring in Visual Art Communication Design, but his original interested in manga (Japanese comics) increasingly gave way to a fascination with animated film. He was influenced by the traditional anime classics, and Gundam style fare, but also by the hallucinatory films of American director Terry Gilliam.

Many of Kon’s previous films have a tendency to wiggle the line between dream and reality. Kon also wrote the screenplay for the Magnetic Rose segment of Memories, which was directed and animated by Koji Morimoto.

There in an offical site for Paprika, that includes a trailer and a gallery of images.

The film opened in New York yesterday and opens in Los Angeles on June 1st. The hopes for a wider theatrical distribution, as usual for adult-themed anime, seem dim; and like most American anime fans, I’ll probably have to wait for the DVD release. American theaters, even on the art house circuit, seem clueless about the appeal and potential audience for films like this, despite the proliferation of bad, second-string anime on American television.

Link via Wired

the asia drawing portal the asia drawing portal
This is a tremendously rich source of articles and links to artists either working in Asia or of Asian descent living elsewhere.

Though the emphasis is a bit more focused on contemporary artists, the site is a bit like lines and colors in terms of the different genres covered: illustration, gallery art, comics, concept art and animation, in both traditional and digital media; but goes even further to include architecture and product and toy design.

There doesn’t seem to be a month-by month navigation, as common in many blogs, but you can navigate by category or by geographic region in the upper right or simply move through the pages with previous and next links at page bottom.

The blog has a wonderful variety of styles and approaches and, if you like the mix on lines and colors, and Drawn!, I think you’ll appreciate the nice stew of styles, genres, and approaches in contemporary Asian art that the blogs creators, josef lee and junming, are constantly cooking up.

Image above, clockwise from upper left: Aya Kato, Hoang Nguyen, MAC56 (Yorga) and Yanyan Ye.

Note: The site has been discontinued and is no longer available

Koji Morimoto

Koji Morimoto is one of my favorite animators and directors working in the field of “anime” (essentially just meaning Japanese animation).

Morimoto is well respected in Japan, but not well known in the U.S., possibly because he has directed mostly shorts and short segments of films rather than feature length animations.

I first noticed him as the director of a segment called “Franken’s Gears” in Robot Carnival, a collection of short anime devoted to the subject of robots. There was just something about his handling of light and detail that made his segment stand out above the rest. At the time I didn’t think to try to find more about his work, and didn’t notice him again until years later when I came across his work in another collection.

Contrary to popular belief, there actually was a good sequel to the original movie The Matrix , it just wasn’t one of the theatrical releases. In 2003, there was a DVD release called The Animatrix, a collection of short animations by various directors, mostly anime directors, dealing with subjects within the Matrix setting.

The best of these was a wonderful short called “Beyond”, about a girl who goes looking for her lost cat and finds a “haunted house” where the normal rules of physics are broken. It’s a terrific short piece that is well written, beautifully drawn, luminously colored and smartly directed. As soon as I saw it, I said “Wow! Who was that?”, immediately played it again and looked to see who had directed it — Koji Morimoto.

I then found out that in addition to directing several other shorts, Morimoto had, in fact, worked as an animator on a couple of of my favorite anime, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (see my post on Miyazaki).

Morimoto has directed a number of memorable, imaginative and very different short animations.

I don’t think he has an official site, but there is an extensive and professional level French site (that I assume is unofficial) at The English version isn’t online yet, but the French version isn’t too difficult for English speakers to navigate.

I found the version of the site not in a popup easier to deal with. Once you enter any of the interior pages, you will see a link at lower left for the site map (“plan du site”) that opens in a convenient little pop-up window. Go to any of the sections under “Panorama” to see images and information about many of his shorts.

Each section for an animation features a short video clip, preliminary drawings, scene backgrounds and screen caps; enough to get a feeling for the beauty and imaginative variety of his work. In particular, check out Beyond, Noiseman Sound Insect, Tekkon Kinkurito and Magnetic Rose (images above, top to bottom).

There is also a page on where you can download clips and trailers of Morimoto’s work.


The Castle of Cagliostro

The Castle of Cagliostro
Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no Shiro) was the first feature length animation by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki.

Released in 1979 and soon overshadowed by films like Nausicaa, Laputa and Totoro, The Castle of Cagliostro is often overlooked in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, but undeservedly so. It’s a terrific film and one of the most fun adventure movies I can recall, animated or otherwise.

It doesn’t have the extraordinary graphic sophistication of Miyazaki’s mature work, but the backgrounds are lush and beautiful, there are intimations of the wonderful landscapes that would grace his later features and the staging and “cinematography” are excellent. (I realize “cinematography” isn’t quite the right term for animation, but I don’t know what else to use to describe the elements of composition, “camera movement” and cutting that are the equivalent of photographed films.)

You’ll also see hints of Miyazaki themes to come: wonderful flying craft, mysterious castles, dramatic landscapes and a fascination with the architecture of European cities. Also Miyazaki’s beautiful drawing, rich color and striking use of night and twilight scenes are very much in play.

You won’t find the sophisticated and thought provoking themes of Miayazaki’s later works, but in their place we have a superb lighthearted adventure fantasy that has much of the feeling of those great 1960’s spy thrillers and thief caper movies.

Although it’s part of the Lupin the III series, the story works just fine on its own. Brash, goofy and adventurous Arséne Lupin III, professional thief and inveterate playboy, is equipped with enough gadgets, wisecracks and casually reckless daring-do to make James Bond jealous. In the course of the movie he encounters a beautiful princess, an evil count, secret passages, traps, guards, Interpol agents, former lovers, car chases and all manner of other great adventure movie fare. It’s all played out against beautifully realized settings and is artfully staged and timed.

A new print of the film that has been released by Manga Entertainment. (Unfortunately, Manga’s Flash-based site that doesn’t allow for a direct link to the info for this film.)

The new print is beautiful. The picture quality is excellent. The colors are rich and vibrant and the linework is crisp and clear. The subtitles and dub are quite good and much closer to the spirit of the original than the VHS version from the early 90’s.

The one gaff is that Manga has inexplicably cut the film’s beautiful original opening sequence and replaced it with a montage of stills for the opening credits. (What were they thinking?! Just play the English credits before the full, complete film!! Hello?!)

Anyway, don’t let that lapse in judgement, or the poor choice in DVD cover art, dissuade you from appreciating this version. It’s still the best English language release of this wonderful film. Manga released a version in 2000 that had some other problems, make sure you look for the new one.

If you think you don’t like anime, perhaps because your impression of it is limited to giant battle robots, senseless, herky-jerky fighting amid frenetic motion lines, incomprehensible magical creatures and triangular-faced characters with enormous eyes, you should let Hayao Miyazaki show you how limited and inaccurate those impressions are; and allow him give you a taste of what you’re missing. The Castle of Cagliostro can be a great place to start.