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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008
Explosive new anime packed with surprises
By IAN MARTIN
Special to The Japan Times
'I was looking to do something different, but at the same time if it was too unique, it could fail," says Masayuki Miyaji, director of PlayStation Network's new anime series "Xam'd: Lost Memories." "But then if it fails, that might even be more fun."
Miyaji is talking about his choice to use electro-rock big-hitters Boom Boom Satellites' evocatively titled song "Shut Up and Explode," rather than a typically cutesy Akiba-kei pop confection, as the opening theme to his new series; and this urge to play with expectations permeates the project throughout.
"At first I thought, 'Using such a different kind of song is going to be hard,' and I was pretty nervous," he admits. "But I thought it would be a good challenge to make it work."
Taking their name from a song by British dance-rock pioneers Sigue Sigue Sputnik and known for the way they blend punk, dance and jazz styles, Boom Boom Satellites debuted on the Belgian label R&S Records in 1997, and their Japanese success came only following some glowing press in Britain brought them to the attention of Sony Music Entertainment in Japan around 1998.
The 2007 album "Exposed" saw the band developing the electro-punk elements of 2006's "On," and "Shut Up and Explode," alongside tracks such as "Easy Action" and "Intergalactic," is one of the most representative tracks of the 2007-vintage Boom Boom Satellites sound.
This isn't, however, the first time that Miyaji's studio, Bones, has subverted the traditional musical motifs of anime. Bones was also responsible for the 2005 series "Eureka Seven," on some episodes of which Miyaji also worked, which featured numerous references to 1990s Britpop and U.S. alt-rock culture, as well as heavily featuring Japanese indie-dance quartet Supercar on the soundtrack. Needless to say, the show was a cross-generational smash.
In this case, rather than commission the band to make a new song, Miyaji picked the already commercially available "Shut Up and Explode," so the challenge for the band was different from usual.
"We'd had songs used on anime movie soundtracks before, such as 'Appleseed' (2004) and 'Vexille' (2007)," explains Boom Boom Satellites' bassist/programmer Masayuki Nakano. "But this was the first time we'd been involved in a series. Since the credit sequence was strictly limited to 89 seconds, I had to edit the song down, which was actually really hard work."
The release of "Xam'd" is where it most clearly breaks new ground, with Bones eschewing the TV networks and delivering the 26-episode series directly to its audience through Sony's PlayStation Network VOD (video on demand) service, to which users can connect via a PlayStation 3 games console.
"With this," Miyaji states, "I want to be able to reach out to a different kind of audience — video game, movie or film audience rather than just anime fans."
The first episode was released in the United States in July, with each available to "rent" at $2.99 for Standard Definition and $3.99 for High Definition — a price that many fans have baulked at, given the show's running time of just over 20 minutes. The similarly priced Japanese release (¥300 and ¥400 respectively) followed on Sept. 24, and the studio is currently gearing up for a European release. While the studio is keen to stress that it originally intended a simultaneous worldwide release, it is perhaps symbolically important that the first place to see the show was America, home to the world's greatest movie industry.
Given the need for "Xam'd" to reach both a foreign and a Japanese audience, the choice of Boom Boom Satellites, one of only a few Japanese bands to have achieved popularity overseas, might have been more canny than Miyaji lets on. Indeed, both "Appleseed" and "Vexille" were plainly and unapologetically targeted at foreign markets. Nevertheless, the band are adamant that their roots remain planted in home soil.
"Of course we tour a lot of countries and listen to a lot of Western rock and dance music," says Nakano. "But whatever we create, we want it to have a basis in Japanese culture. Our music is all really about expressing what we feel living in Tokyo."
The significance of "Xam'd," however, is not just in its method of delivery but also in how it stands in relation to the rest of the anime world. Anime fan culture over the last decade or so has been defined by a shift away from traditional narrative- and character-based drama toward what Japanese cultural observer Hiroki Azuma calls "database-type culture." The process of "database" consumption involves viewing and creating work as a series of two-dimensional layers where situations, character types and visual signifiers are recycled and reassembled in almost endless permutations. The idea is closely linked to postmodern artist Takashi Murakami's concept of "superflat," and in the anime world perhaps reached its creative high-water mark with the 2006 series "Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu" ("The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya").
In contrast to this, "Xam'd" has a decidedly old-fashioned sweep to its narrative, reminiscent in many ways of the work of Studio Ghibli's Oscar-winning anime director Hayao Miyazaki, but also containing brief flashes of more realistic Western cinema auteurs such as Robert Altman, with characters behaving and firing dialogue back and forth in a way that's notable for its naturalism.
"When they asked us about the project," says Nakano, "we saw the proposal and a one-minute trailer, and even from that we thought, 'This looks big.' We felt it was more like cinema quality."
The theatrical dimension of the show was part of Miyaji's intention from the start. "I think of anime as part of the film industry," he states, and lists British director Ken Loach and French nouvelle vague director Jean-Luc Godard as filmmaking inspirations. "I wanted to use an almost documentary style for parts of it, where the camera follows one character until something happens."
There's a scene in the first episode of the series where a mysterious girl with silver hair tries to get onto lead character Akiyuki's school bus. She seems as if she's being chased by someone and Akiyuki assists her, as all good anime heroes would. What should happen next is that Akiyuki, the mysterious newcomer, and Haru, the pre-established girl next door, embark on an adventure together to protect the world from a clearly defined evil. That this kind of plotline is so deeply ingrained in anime culture makes what actually does occur a shock.
As the bus stops, the girl detonates what looks like a bomb and destroys the bus, along with anyone still on it. Soon after, bombs start raining down from above, shattering the fragile peace of the fictional but strikingly Japan-esque Sentan Island. Miyaji acknowledges the parallel between such imagery and the current world situation, but is keen to differentiate the events of "Xam'd" from the recent real-world proliferation of terrorist activity.
"Of course world events such as 9/11 had an effect on me," he says, referring to the attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. "But I think it's truer to say that they had an effect on everyone. It's not my intention to directly comment on that and I wouldn't want to be categorized as being influenced by it."
Instead, he posits the hypothetical situation of meeting a hijacker as you are boarding a plane, stating that, "Perhaps he wouldn't seem such a bad guy. Perhaps there would be some feelings we shared. But this person has something that they are willing to give up their life for."
For Miyaji, terms such as "terrorism" are used too easily and cheaply to describe far more complicated human motivations, and those complex webs of emotions are a fascinating ground on which to base a story.
The series' political backdrop, however, generally remains in the background, while the characters' personal dramas take the fore. The explosion on the bus turns out to be the catalyst for a painful transformation in Akiyuki, and from that point onward he shares his body with an entity called Xam'd (or perhaps "a Xam'd," since there appear to be others). When under control, Xam'd is confined within Akiyuki's right arm; but when unleashed, the arm transforms into something larger, more powerful and less human. Xam'd's true form, however, is a white biomechanical monster whose motivations and origin form part of the show's central mystery.
This theme of transformation dovetails neatly with the opening song.
"I started with the image of a closed place," explains Boom Boom Satellites' guitar/vocalist Michiyuki Kawashima of his lyrics. "It's really ourselves that explode and break out from that place. Like an egg, something hatches, and afterward we have become something else."
The repeated references to "running free" and the catchy image expressed in the line "My heart bursts like a bottle of wine" express a sense of urgency that accompanies the idea of breaking out from somewhere under pressure.
Nakano's image when creating the music echoes the theme of transformation. "My image was more of climbing up to a higher point and being reborn; as if by surmounting these many hurdles, you become a different person."
At this point, Miyaji nods his head furiously. "I totally understand. I listened, and two hours later I called them, asking, 'Please can I use this song?' " he enthuses. "The music, the lyrics, the message were already there. All I had to do was add images and hope, desperately, not to damage the song."
In praise of the show, Nakano notes "the interesting way the setting mixes old and new technology," but like all the best anime series, the story of "Xam'd" is at its heart a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale chronicling a boy's sometimes confused passage into adulthood. Akiyuki's transformation into Xam'd is a visual metaphor for his own internal transformation, but it is testament to the breadth of the show's focus that all the main characters are visibly and believably engaged in their own struggles and internal changes as well.
In the end, the universality of the show's themes is its best chance of success, and, in this, Miyaji takes inspiration from Boom Boom Satellites.
"I think we've had similar experiences, growing up in Japan at about the same time," he says. "I like the fact that they are making music about life in Tokyo but always reaching out to all audiences. I'd like to think that 'Xam'd' has a similar message."
"Xam'd" is available now on PlayStation Network. Boom Boom Satellites' "Japan Tour 2008" live DVD is out now.