Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Post 101: Extreme Makeover in Little Tokyo

The Linda Lea theatre, dubbed such by Black entrepreneurs during the wartime era when Little Tokyo was called "Bronzeville" and Black owned businesses kept things going while Japanese-Americans were in internment camps, has been vacant since the '80s. Then in a flurry of activity, the old Toei-run theatre was transformed into the sleek, dare I say sexy new space by The ImaginAsian Channel, a cable channel/film distributor based in New York. The ImaginAsian Center of Los Angeles is now running movies again, and promises to show plenty of first-run anime. With Anime Expo permanently homed at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and Little Tokyo a hotter place for the LA Otaku-zoku than ever, having a movie theatre committed to showing first-run anime and Japanese dorama (dramatic live-action) movies is a welcome thing.

Thanks to the good folks at ImaginAsian Channel, I got a pass to see Sword of the Stranger this past weekend. I wouldn't say that Stranger is a great moment in anime history, I would even rate Evangelion: 1.0 a bit above it in spite of my fondness for Samurai anime and drama. However, it's fun enough, with some really breathtaking fight sequences. Animation-wise and character design wise it reminds me of second-string Studio Ghibli. You'd be disappointed if Miyazaki-sensei's work descended to this level. But for Bones Animation, who played a major role in making Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' On Heaven's Door and the fan-fave series Fullmetal Alchemist, this is some solid work.

Stranger asks a question of its native Japanese audiences that it wouldn't dare ask of outsiders: "What makes a person Japanese?" This is something that is currently being wrestled with in Japanese society, as birth rates decline, the population greys, and the question of whether to open up immigration in one of the most closed and homogenous cultures is discussed. The eponymous hero is the classic "Man With No Name" trope which entered American film as a Japanese import, thanks to Mifune Toshiro, Kurosawa Akira, and Sergio Leone. However, he might or might not be Japanese. He speaks the language, and fights in the traditional Samurai style. But he is concealing something about himself, something which might be a mild spoiler if I reveal.

The main plotline has to do with an expedition of Ming Chinese who are in Japan to recover the most important ingredient in an alchemical recipe for the Elixir of Life. It seems that the Emperor is not content with his life's mortal splendor: he wants immortality. And those searching in Japan for the missing ingredient are more than willing to procure it. That it might be distasteful to almost any human being is an intriguing little element of the story, because the Chinese seem to not have any squeamishness about it. Do I detect a note of ambivalence about the Chinese, perhaps brought on by their current economic expansion in the face of economic stagnancy in Japan?

The Chinese expedition is guarded by a blond haired, blue eyed hulk of an Aryan uebermensch, in this case an uebermensch who can speak Chinese fluently and Japanese fairly fluently, and who also has superior Kung Fu. His ease amongst his Chinese companions is only matched by the hostility he raises among the Samurai assigned to assist (and watch) the party.

Anyway, our Stranger anti-hero finds himself having to deal with another icon of world fiction: the Boy and his Dog. The boy is a brat, the dog is a cute Shiba-inu with a singularly deadly ability to defend his companion. However, this movie does not descend into cute overload. This is a two-fisted tale of Kung Fu versus Kenjutsu, and much blood spills as the quest moves on.

Is the question answered, though? Who is Japanese? Not really. It's left open, something to chew on over an after-cinema meal and conversation. And it's really not a question meant for us: would we appreciate the question "Who is an American?" raised by Brits or Italians? It is interesting nonetheless to be a spectator at such a discussion.

One last thing: the last post, about the short "In Memory of Walt," was our 100th post. w00t. Oh yeah: we are recording tomorrow...too much has happened between when we recorded last and now to where we have to freshen up the podcast before releasing it. Hopefully we'll get it out soon. After all, we aren't going to be at Comic-Con this year....here's a little refresher about why. However, if you are going, there's lots of Animation-related panels this year just like always, and there's plenty to enjoy. Have a taco at the Tin Fish for us, please.

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