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Monday, January 25, 2021

BOKU WA BIITORUZU [I AM A BEATLE] AGAIN

Boku wa Biitoruzu, written by Tetsuo Fujii and drawn by Kaiji Kawaguchi, is a ten-volume manga whose premise is that the Fab Four, a very successful Japanese Beatles tribute band, are inexplicably sent back in time to 1961, before the Beatles released their first record. Makoto, the bassist, had dreamed of making the Fab Four the twenty-first century Beatles; he now proposes that the band play and record Beatles songs before the Beatles record them, claiming them as their [the Fab Four’s] own original songs, and convinces the others to go along. He justifies this on the grounds that when the Beatles realize that the songs they were going to write have already been written, they will write new songs, thus increasing the number of Beatles songs in the world. The principal action of the series is the Fab Four’s quest for first domestic (that is, Japanese) and then International stardom.

As individuals, the Fab Four’s members resemble the sanitized public image of the early Beatles more than they do the actual Beatles; they don’t take drugs or get involved with groupies. (Shou, the lead guitarist, gets to know a girl fan, and they meet in a park for chaste conversation.) But that’s fine, since the whole point of the series, despite its title, is that the Fab Four are not the Beatles, but imitators of them. The series is very respectful of the Beatles throughout, despite its premise. If anything, it goes too far in the direction of Beatle-worship, especially in the final volume.

Aside from the Fab Four, the most important character is Uzuki Maki, the owner of a small production agency, who sees in the Fab Four an opportunity to break the grip of large talent agencies on the Japanese entertainment world. She fights tirelessly on their behalf, even as she gradually comes to realize that there’s something very strange about them, not least Makoto’s obsession with an unknown British group called the Beatles. Maki, not any of the Fab Four, is the series’s most developed and most sympathetic character.

The first time I tried to read Boku wa Biitoruzu, I quit in the middle of the second volume, and wrote a rather dismissive post based on what I had read. In retrospect, I gave up at precisely the wrong time. The vintage-instrument fetishism I wrote about in that post, in particular, disappears shortly after the point where I stopped. And while the series may initially hook readers by appealing to fantasies of being the Beatles, as I suggested, it also explores the dark side of wanting to be your idols. Makoto thinks of the Beatles as rivals, and looks forward to the Fab Four going head-to-head against the Beatles on the international charts, the Fab Four’s remembered Beatles’ songs against the new songs the Beatles will write; while Shou thinks that stealing from the Beatles will somehow create a link with them. And while the series sometimes seems to gloss over the morality of the Fab Four’s actions, in the end it faces up squarely to the fact that they’re plagiarists.

Rereading the series, it kept my attention to the end, except for a kidnapping subplot (taking up about half a volume) that felt like filler. Still, the series as a whole feels like a missed opportunity. (Mild spoilers ahead.) Initially Rei, one of the Fab Four, who is essentially John to Makoto’s Paul, wants nothing to do with Makoto’s scheme, both because he objects morally and because he has come to regard the Fab Four as an obstacle to his own efforts to express himself. About midway through the series, though, an external event causes him to change his mind. As a result, Rei’s individual story is abruptly cut off, and the conflict between Rei and Makoto disappears completely. But that conflict and that character arc were the most compelling aspects of the series for me. That Maki plays a larger role later in the series is some compensation, but not enough. The final volume is also a disappointment, as all conflicts are resolved through what is virtually a deus ex machina. Overall, the series would have been better had it spent less time on the mechanics of the Fab Four’s rise to stardom and more time on the effect this rise had on the Fab Four and those around them.

The series appears to be out of print, but used copies are available on amazon.com: volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. (Keep in mind that these volumes are all in Japanese.)

Note: “I am a Beatle” now seems to me the best translation of the title. Japanese generally doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, and in one place in the series, “Biitoruzu” is used as a singular noun. The echo of “I am the Walrus” would be stronger in Japanese, which lacks definite and indefinite articles.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

BELLADONNA OF SADNESS ONE MORE TIME

Last night, I watched Belladonna of Sadness at the Art Theater. It turns out that watching it on the big screen is quite a different experience than watching it on Youtube. The disturbing scenes are a lot more disturbing, and the erotic scenes (which are more prominent than I'd remembered)[1] are a lot more in-your-face. In fact, in the erotic scenes and elsewhere, the style itself is disturbingly grotesque: it somehow taps deeply into primal anxieties about bodies. And I have to admit the film's treatment of the heroine's body is exploitative at times. Still, and despite the apparently predominantly negative reaction of the audience, I maintain that the film is brilliant.

Another reason to watch the film is its psychedelic soundtrack by Masahiko Satoh, a major figure in Japanese underground psychedelic rock.

Incidentally, one of the trailers before the film was, to my astonishment, Funeral Parade of Roses. Has somebody been reading this blog? It's not on the schedule yet, but if you're a fan of the 1960s New Wave, don't miss it.

[1] As I was leaving the theater, I heard someone remark that the film was "all sex, sex, sex." He had a point.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

A HEADS-UP

Speaking of anime on the big screen, Belladonna of Sadness will be playing at the Art Theater on July 21 and 22 at 10:00 PM. If you live in the Champaign area, save the date. In fact, save both dates.

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Monday, June 05, 2017

ANIME CORNER: YOUR NAME

A few days ago I saw Makoto Shinkai’s latest film, Your Name [Kimi no Na wa], on the big screen. I was so affected by it that I decided to see it again two days later. I’ve seen all of Shinkai’s full-length movies as well as Voices of a Distant Star, the short anime which put him on the map, but Your Name is his best so far. You may see it described as a body-swap anime, but it’s much more than that, and it manages to be both heartbreaking and heartwarming. An important motif of the film is the braided cords which are a specialty of the small town in which one of its main characters lives; the movie itself is like these cords in its craftsmanship and its intricate construction (which can be appreciated better on a second viewing).

If you happen to live in the Champaign, IL area, the film is playing at the Art Theater through Thursday, June 8. If you’re at all interested in anime and somehow haven’t seen it yet, do so.

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

A FEW CAVILS ABOUT LITTLE, BIG

I recently reread John Crowley's masterwork of fantasy Little, Big, and was forced to the realization that it isn't perfect. The first part, set at Edgewood, is wonderful, and the ending is wonderful in a different way. But the middle part, dealing mainly with Auberon and Sylvie, while still very good, left me dissatisfied.

For one thing, Edgewood is an enchanted place, and New York City isn't, even though some magic takes place there. For another, the adult Auberon is less likable and less interesting than Smoky. And these weaknesses allowed me to notice other weaknesses that I might not have noticed had the fundamentals been stronger. The trope that the women of the Drinkwater clan understand the truth intuitively, while the men can't get it no matter how hard they try to understand it rationally, didn't bother me with Smoky or with John Drinkwater, but got a bit annoying when it was repeated with Auberon. (Ariel Hawksquill is an exception, but she's depicted as a "masculine" woman: rationalistic, aggressive, and power-hungry.) It really won't do to have a major character who's a demagogue with a huge popular following, and be as vague about his message and appeal as Crowley is with Eigenblick. And Fred Savage is, alas, a Magic Negro. (And he turns into a tree, which is really problematic and uncomfortable.)

But don't let any of this stop you from reading Little, Big, if you haven't already.

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Saturday, July 02, 2016

ANIMATION CORNER: BELLADONNA OF SADNESS [KANASHIMI NO BERADONA]

A long time ago, I raved about the Japanese animated feature Belladonna of Sadness [Kanashimi no Beradona]. (Note that the Youtube video of Belladonna linked to in that post has been taken down.) At the time, it wasn't available in the U.S. Soon it will be (only on Blu-Ray, unfortunately). In my last post I highly praised the Puella Magi Madoka Magica movie, and I stand by what I said there. But Belladonna is in a whole different class. It's one of the best animated features I've seen, perhaps the best. It's nothing like any anime you're likely to have seen, and is essential viewing for anyone interested in animation as an art.

It's also definitely not for kids. It's subject matter is unlikely to interest children, and there are a number of sex scenes, including a harrowing rape.

[Updated to correct my faulty memory.]

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Friday, April 08, 2016

THE PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA MOVIE

I recently had occasion to watch the Puella Magi Madoka Magica movie in Japanese without subtitles.[1] I had already watched it with subtitles, so I could broadly understand what was happening, but I could only understand snatches of the dialogue. Therefore I was compelled to focus on the visuals. From that perspective, the movie is one of the most amazing works of animation I've ever seen: a seemingly endless flow of inventive, surprising, frequently surreal, often dazzling images. The TV series was already known for its original and startling visuals, but the movie takes a huge leap beyond the series.

The movie seems to be out of print in the U.S., but it's still available (with subtitles) on Amazon, and no doubt elsewhere, under the title Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie - Rebellion.

[1] Technically, it's the third movie, but the first two "movies" are compilations of the TV series.

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