Live Action Anime? Only at MIT!

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When I heard several months ago that some of my MIT colleagues and students were helping to stage a performance of Live Action Anime, I knew I had to be there. I anticipated the experience with a kind of “only at MIT” amusement — not sure what to expect but knowing that the results would be dazzling.

The performance, Madness at Mokuba, opened with a spectacular battle between two giant robots (see the image above) staged against the backdrop of projected anime images and accompanied by an awe-inspiring soundtrack of metallic clanks and engine sounds which instantly reminded me of my first experience watching RoboTech and Star Blazers several decades ago. I didn’t know what live action would look like but as the performance continued, I was more and more impressed with the craft and research which went into this performance.

The show was staged by SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, and Technology, a collective of artists and researchers established in 2003, which seeks to explore “connections between acts of performance, formations of culture, and interventions of technology toward an end of

original theatrical storytelling.”

Madness was scripted by Ian Condry, an associate professor of Japanese cultural studies in the MIT Foreign Language Program. Condry is the author of the recently published Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization. Some readers will recall an interview with Condry I ran some months ago about his research into Japanese popular culture. Condry is now working on a new book, tentatively titled Global Anime: The Making of Japan’s Transnational Popular Culture, which emerges from field work spent in Tokyo animation studies. (I was lucky enough to tag along with Condry during one his trips to Japan, getting to visit Studio Ghibli, and getting some behind the scenes perspectives from the producer of Pokemon. I’ve described some of my impressions of seeing cosplayers in Yoyogi Park in a previous blog post.)

Condry runs the Cool Japan program, a joint efforts between Harvard and MIT, which regularly brings to Cambridge leading researchers, producers, writers, and others involved in the production and distribution of Japanese popular culture. In an e-mail interview, Condry shared some of the thinking which went into this production:

One of the things that interested me about the live action anime project is that it got me thinking about the many ways that anime crosses over from the “virtual” to the

“real.” The most obvious example is cosplay and the many forms of licensed merchandise,

such as toys and models, that in effect bring anime through the screen and into

people’s hands. When fans take anime and manga characters, and use them to create their

own fanzine manga (dôjinshi), a similar kind of translation effect is underway, that

is, taking imagined characters, re-imagining through our own minds, and the creating

something new in the world.

It shows how inaccurate in some ways the distinction between virtual and real is, and I

think that partly explains why debates about the division between the two worlds has

slackened in recent years.

During fieldwork research in Tokyo, I have also been struck by how often the term “real”

(riaru, in Japanese) comes up when anime creators talk about what makes particular works

distinctive. Anime creators always struggle with challenge of bringing the “real” into

the “virtual” space of animation.

The original Mobile Suits Gundam series, which began airing in 1979, is looked back on now as the moment when “super robot” anime, with its happy heroes, child audiences, and 30-minute resolutions, gave way to “real robot” anime, in which war was represented in a

more realistic manner. Real had other connotations in this context as well. In real

robot anime, so-called heroes are often despised for their violence and wanton

destruction, audiences were older, and the stories seldom had clean-cut endings, but

rather meandered through the gray zones of war’s ambiguities, hypocrisies, and senseless

violence. Gundam turned robots from heroes into mere weapons of war.

In the end, the notion of live action anime may be paradoxical, but it also reflects

some of the most fascinating aspects of anime as a medium.

Anime fans have long debated whether Anime is best understood as a genre (or perhaps a set of related genres), as an aesthetic style, as a mode of production, or as a transmedia phenomenon. Informed by Condry’s theories and research, the MIT show managed to cover all of these bases and then some.

The show’s characters (see below) each embody archtypes from the anime tradition, collectively taking us on a tour of its core genre elements and linking them to larger trends in Japanese society and culture, including “giant robots, a Japanese schoolgirl, a lovelorn otaku, a masterless samurai, a gamer woman, evil media magnates, and a vengeful deathgod who all battle for truth, justice, and the anime way.”

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As the story opens, the protagonists, including Schoolgirl and her sidekick, Sam Rye, and their arch rivals, Flux and Ota Ku, are preparing their robots for the Makuba Institute of Technology’s annual giant robot battle. Yet, something strange is going on. Their classmates are falling prey to VIRTIGO, a strange mental illness which involves altered states of consciousness. We learn that the illness has been manufactured by an evil media conglomerate (The Infinite Channel Network) in order to produce a state of constant consumption, transmitted through the use of flash rhythms similar to those that alarmists claimed caused epileptic seizures when Pokemon was first released. Falling prey to what is described as a “Neo-Postmodern Trans-subjectivity syndrome,” victims “fall from one reality into another.” As the corporate scientists spell out their plans to use anime to achieve global dominance, they become the vehicles for Condry and the show’s cast to explore the historical evolution of the anime movement. As scenes from Astro Boy, Gundrum, Neon Genesis: Evangelion, and Pokemon, among other defining texts in the anime tradition, are projected on the wall, the cast stages a gender-bending re-enactment of key moments, such as the creation of Astro-Boy. There’s a very funny re-enactment of Pong with actors moving a giant cardboard ball between two massive paddles. Cyberpunk has long been a vehicle for authors and animators to reflect upon the influence of media on contemporary culture and this high tech plot provides an ideal vehicle for Condry to express his own insights into the cultural and economic factors which have enable anime to straddle genres, to reach across multiple media platforms, and to shape youth culture world-wide.

The performance loving captured the anime aesthetic. While the performers are live, the voices are dubbed, capturing the slight mismatch between lips moving and spoken language which is part of most westerner’s experience of watching anime. (During the question and answer period, one anime saavy spectator asked when they might see the subtitled edition of this performance and offered to help launch a fan sub project!) The soundtrack wittily samples effects from classic games and anime which sparked some audience members to shout out the references — and trust me, at MIT, a high percentage of those attending the show were deeply immersed in games, anime, and other aspects of geek culture.

The acting style was designed to convey some of the limited animation techniques most closely associated with anime — even including repeated gestures which hint at the longstanding practice of recycling footage at certain generic moments — transformation scenes for example — in some series.

The show’s director, Thomas F. DeFrantz, who is a Professor of Theater Arts and the current head of the MIT Program in Women’s and Gender Studies, shared with me some reflections about the stage design and choreography for Madness:

To construct movement for the piece, I often had my dancers think of themselves as if ‘in camera.’ I asked, “if you were the animator, how would you draw this moment?” The piece is based on stillness, rather than on motion. In many anime, you don’t see every bit of a gesture, just the edges. This took a technique of ‘clenching’ the body, strangely enough, to reveal the edges of each silhouette that stood for a character emotion. More than anything, we had to work against the casualness of everyday gesture, in which there might be many silhouettes of little interest to an animator or someone watching anime. For this work, we had to focus on the silhouettes that could reveal character, attitude, and opinion all at once. The performers developed their ‘signature poses’ and we worked from those to generate a language of motion. In the end, it was much harder than I thought it might be, to go through the entire piece in this sort of ‘physical karaoke’ but without ever speaking a word. It helped us reconsider the importance of breath and sound as components of human expression, because in the live action anime, working with the pre-recorded soundtracks, the performers never got to make a sound.

The costume and make-up were equally iconic, designed to transform the student performers into cartoon characters. Here, for example, is a portrait drawn by castmember Ashley Micks of Ota Ku, one of the young people who helps overcome old school rivalries and work together to defeat the evil corporations.

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Milo Martinez, an undergraduate major in the Comparative Media Studies Program, describes the challenges he faced bringing this larger-than-life character to the stage:

I can honestly say that Live Action Anime was an experience worth having. As a Dancer, Cosplayer, and Anime-fan, I saw it as a perfect fit for me. The entire piece is gesture based, and a lot of focus was placed on creating phrases with our bodies. “How can our body say this sentence for us?” was a common question we asked ourselves while constructing the choreography. Since our voices were “dubbed over” we had to make sure that our movement could speak for us.

We were very particular in everything we did, each character had a walk, pose, attitude, and each needed to agree with the others. As an Anime fan, it was important to me to try and make my movements big and crazy, if it looks like it hurt, then it probably did. How fast can I run from this side of the stage to the other? How high can I jump? A lot of this show I pushed my body to its limits to try and create a character that had indeed walked out of a screen.

As his comments suggest, Milo came to the show with extensive experience in cosplay, a form of costuming and performance which thrives within the anime fan community. Indeed, Milo was interviewed on camera as part of a series of short documentaries on cosplay we have been producing for Project nml (New Media Literacies). Here’s a segment from this documentary, which is still in production, which features Milo talking about his cosplay experience and suggests the ways that these fans are, as Condry has suggested, already involved in finding ways to translate the look and feel of anime into physical reality.

Comments

  1. Madeline says:

    Henry, I’m so glad you posted this. To me this project is so deliciously ripe with analytic potential that I feel like St. Augustine in a pear orchard. I wish I could interview everyone involved, as some of the issues you mentioned here pertain directly to my thesis. Do you know when the next Cool Japan event is happening? I’d like to make it down from Toronto if possible.