By Andrew Osmond.
Vacationing in Washington DC, college grad Saki meets an extraordinary youth with no memories, killer rivals and a “magic” phone that can provide anything. Adopting the name Akira Takizawa, our unexpected hero slowly learns he’s in the middle of an incredible game. Its goal: to transform Japan forever…
Like much Japanese animation, Eden of the East animates what we’d normally think of as live-action material – in this case, a romantic comedy-action-thriller. It begins on a good-naturedly absurdist note. Saki is unwisely trying to throw a coin in the White House fountain. A run-in with security is interrupted by the appearance of Akira, who’s cheery, amnesiac and stark naked! He only has a gun and the aforementioned phone, connecting him to a chirpy mystery woman called Juiz, who can seemingly give him everything (and we mean everything) he needs. Meanwhile, Tokyo has been battered by missile attacks – though these have done surprisingly little damage – while our hero isn’t the only person with a special phone…
The original 11-part series is funny, exciting and beautifully made, with heavyweight ideas and political provocations if you want them. It’s a blend of Doctor Who daffiness and James Bond operatics. It also has a dissident ethos out of Catcher in the Rye, in which geeks and NEETs may be Japan’s salvation or downfall.
The Doctor Who element is strongest in the beguilingly charming relationship between Saki and Akira. There’s the spontaneous, confident, mysterious trickster hero; and then there’s the female companion who supplies our reactions. Saki is open to criticism, being designed and voiced cute and girly. To extend the Who comparison, she seems less Amy Pond than Jo Grant four decades ago. (Saki is voiced in Japanese by Saori Hayami, Musubi in Sekirei and Kiri in Towanoquon.)
Yet Saki reveals realistic vulnerabilities and frustrations that have nowt to do with first-love clichés. Indeed, we gradually realise they underpin the story. Saki’s cutesy trappings are brilliantly undercut by the image of a smiley greetings-card with the message, “Leave Me Alone!” Her ensemble of friends and acquaintances, introduced slowly, start off fun and end up loveable, even the manically obnoxious ones. Several of the characters, according to director Kenji Kamiyama, were modelled on members of the real Eden production team, which may explain why they ring true. The best is eternal gooseberry Osugi, a poor lad who never accepts that Saki has only eyes for Akira.
The characters were designed by Honey and Clover artist Chica Umino, and they sometimes look about half the age they’re supposed to be. Umino was chosen by Kamiyma, who said, “I decided to use a lighter character design to make the series easier to watch, and the match was very good.” Studio president Mitsuhisa Ishikawa acknowledged that Umino’s input was a ploy to attract female viewers.
Eden was screened in Fuji TV’s “Noitamina” anime block, targeted at women from their late 20s to their early 30s. Kamiyama said the audience influenced him in making Eden funnier. “I had this very serious story, but I wanted people to follow it without it getting too heavy.” Interestingly, though, Kamiyama wanted to make an anime with a strong male lead. In Kamiyama’s view, “When women advanced in society and took on more leadership roles, and also got more purchasing power, they were pushed more and more as the main characters in fiction. Even in anime, you have more female characters than male. It’s difficult to create likeable and fascinating male characters nowadays.”
Eden of the East is a comedy thriller that’s funny and thrilling, and about much more than thrills and laughs. If you’re interested in its political underpinnings, you can find the director’s comments here, though you may want to explore the ideas for yourself. Despite its often batty plotting, Eden of the East is grounded in the reality of modern living, in the manner of Isao Takahata or Satoshi Kon.
The film’s anti-establishment politics echo those of Patlabor 2, directed by Kamiyama’s mentor Mamoru Oshii. Kamiyama said, “In Eden, I wasn’t specifically inspired by Oshii, but after I made the series, there were people saying that it looked like my interpretation of some themes taken up by Oshii in Patlabor 2. So I realised there was probably something inside me. But it wasn’t a specific inspiration, I didn’t have it in mind.”
We also get the disconcerting attitudes of a country that hasn’t directly experienced terrorism since the Tokyo sarin attacks by the Aum cult, 22 years ago. At one point, Akira compares going NEET (the state of not being in Education, Employment or Training) to an act of terror. “Naw, I wasn’t doing anythin’ so cool!” simpers another character, in a moment more jaw-dropping for Westerners than any of the shock episode endings.
It feels like a real insight into a foreign mindset; though fear not, Eden’s makers like the same things we do, from tankers exploding on highways to punch-the-air action finales (and it’s hard to imagine even the grumpiest fans feeling short-changed by the showdown in episode 11). Even the moments arguably borrowed from Hollywood are revealing when they’re transposed to a Japanese setting. A few years ago, the Michael Mann thriller Collateral revolved round the image of a dead man sitting on a Los Angeles subway train, unnoticed by passers-by. Eden chillingly relocates this image to… the centre of Tokyo.
Eden of the East, Collector’s Edition, is released in the UK by Anime Limited.