By Andrew Osmond.
When we think of anime, we tend to think of long stories: sprawling TV series running for tens or hundreds of hours, or feature films longer than Hollywood animations – just compare the run times of Ghibli and Pixar films. Short stories are harder to market in commercial anime, though they keep on bubbling up. Some TV series operate as strings of short stories with mostly changing casts, such as Mushishi and Paranoia Agent. There are anthologies composed of short stories; classic cases include Robot Carnival, Memories and Animatrix, while the Genius Party films have been acquired by Anime Limited. Not forgetting the online Japan Animator Expo films by Studio Khara; the later ones are here.
Anime Limited has already released two excellent short stories, Garden of Words and HAL. Both are standalones, running under an hour each, though they’re produced to a cinema level; and they’re both stories of young love between a man and a woman. The same is true of Anime Limited’s new offering, Tokyo Marble Chocolate, though it’s much more of a comedy and has a sly trick of its own. Animated by Production I.G, Tokyo Marble Chocolate is split into two parts, each of which tells basically the same tale, but from two different points of view; namely, those of the man and the woman.
The woman’s called Chizuru, the man Yudai, both living in present day Tokyo. Neither character is put on a pedestal; they’ve both been bitterly unlucky in love before, and they’re gauche, fumbling and bumbling. They want a successful relationship but they’re terribly afraid it’s just not going to work. In an interview on the Production I.G website, director Naoyoshi Shiotani described Tokyo Marble Chocolate as the story of “two very special but at the same time very ordinary youngsters: a clumsy, straightforward and subtle love.” For anyone wondering what the title means, the publicity described the anime as ‘colourful and sweet, yet a bit bitter, just like a piece of chocolate.”
It’s up to you which order you see the two halves of the story, though after you’ve seen them both you may want to go back to the part you saw first and check, “Ah, so that was why…’ Tokyo Marble Chocolate was made in 2007, predating the live-action The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, which has much the same structure.
As animation, Tokyo Marble Chocolate extends the ‘his and her’ viewpoints into the visual presentation. Shiotani explains, “I asked Kyoji Asano, a male creator, to supervise the animation for Full-Powered Boy [the half of the story from Yudai’s viewpoint.] On the opposite side, I asked a female creator, Reina Igawa, to supervise animation for See You Again [the half of the story from Chizuru’s side]. I didn’t mind if the two (halves) looked different. I wanted male and feminine tones to be revealed in each clip.”
This comment may raise readers’ hackles – plenty of male creators have produced feminine work and vice versa, especially in the manga field. But as the interview points out, it’s also about being familiar with everyday details, such as how a woman would take care of her hairdo while changing for a date (near the start of See You Again). And it’s not just the cute details. One of the funniest early moments is a flashback to the woman Chizuru in an ill-fated previous relationship, getting tipsy and bashing her swain in the face. According to the Production I.G, this moment was based (libellously?) on the inebriation of the colour designer, Idumi Hirose.
The character design in Tokyo Marble Chocolate is also balanced between female and male. The supporting cast was drawn by Asano, while the central characters were by a female manga artist, Fumiko Tanakawa. Shiotani describes her style as “natural and savoury” but “sophisticated and sharp.” Tokyo Marble Chocolate was released in 2007, and may have encouraged Production I.G to experiment more; in the following years, the studio used female designers in genres that might be otherwise stereotyped as ‘male.’ For example, the techno-thriller Eden of the East used designs by Chica Umino, who’d drawn Honey and Clover. The gory horror Blood-C used story and design concepts by CLAMP.
Actually, the cutest character in Tokyo Marble Chocolate came from a man – from the director Naoyoshi Shiotani, who many readers will know as the helmsman of the bloody Psycho-Pass. Did he throw in a psycho-killer in a hockey mask? Not exactly… Shiotani added a Mini Donkey. Yes, Tokyo Marble Chocolate is a romcom where the uncertain lovers must contend with a grinning pint-sized donkey in an oversized nappy (shades of the screwball Bringing Up Baby). This grinning hairy monster bounds through both Chizuru’s and Yudai’s sides of the story, a Dionysian agent of change and anarchy. His nappy looks less odd if you’ve been to Tokyo and checked out the canine fashions.
Animators worldwide know that donkeys are funny – think of a certain Hollywood ogre franchise – but Shiotani was inspired by a photo of a fashion model walking a donkey down a street. “Donkeys’ eyes look cocky, but with the long eyelashes and their tendency to look downward, I think they are somehow cute,” he said. He admitted, though, there was a terrible silence in the studio when he showed the character… and then someone agreed it was a cute donkey. Otherwise, says Shiotani, the project might have died there.
As a whimsical romcom, Tokyo Marble Chocolate might seem to have nothing to do with Production I.G’s science-fiction fare like Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell. And yet it was looking into the future when the anime was made. In the film, Chizuru is working on the Skytree, Tokyo’s tallest tower, which looks down on the 57 year-old Tokyo Tower where the climax takes place. However, the anime was released before the Skytree was built, when it was still in the planning stages. Shiotani: “By visualizing a new landmark no one (had seen), I thought I could present a world that’s out of touch with reality and could only be expressed with animation, that’s neither too real nor excessively fantastic.”
A world without spaceships or alien robots… Just a naughty Mini Donkey playing at being a hairy Cupid between people who, in Shiotani’s words, are in the same room while their thoughts are miles apart.
Tokyo Marble Chocolate is released on UK Blu-ray by Anime Limited.