Asei Kobayashi, who died on 30th May from a heart attack, was an unlikely candidate for musical composer, or actor, or game-show champion…. Pushed by his parents into studying to be a doctor, he transferred without telling them to the department of economics at Keio University, where his classmates included another future composer, Isao Tomita. His parents did not discover the deception until his graduation ceremony, and were not amused.
Kobayashi continued to disappoint them by finding a job in a finance company and then quitting after only a few weeks to study music with Tadashi Hattori. Success eluded him at first, until he found a new and lucrative niche writing advertising jingles for literally hundreds of clients, in everything from shampoo commercials to Suntory whisky.
He also found multiple contracts awaiting him in the new field of animated TV cartoons, writing music for Wolf Guy Ken, Dartanius and Tekkaman, among many others. His most memorable compositions in his 1970s heyday were the two opening songs used in the anime show known abroad as Battle of the Planets. The first, “Down with Galactor”, featured a children’s choir hoping to smite cosmic enemies. The second, which began as an ending theme but was eventually moved to the front was “The Gatchaman Song”, a stirring anthem sung by Masato Shimon, with lyrics provided by the “Tatsunoko Production Committee”. It was much parodied among school-children of the day, but also fondly remembered – thirty years later, a Japanese film would feature two middle-aged ladies bonding over their attempt to remember the lyrics in a Helsinki bookstore.
The surprisingly poetic “Gatchaman Song” has since become a staple of anime karaoke:
Who’s that? Who’s that? Who’s that?
Shadows dancing at the edge of the sky.
White wings of the Gatchaman!
Flying out to risk their lives
Phoenix of the Science Ninja.
Although the songs were excised from the English-language release, Kobayashi’s music remained in multiple arrangements and reprises throughout the soundtrack.
In 1974, Kobayashi became a TV star, taking on the role of the titular portly stone mason in Kantaro Terauchi and Family, a drama notorious in its day for confronting burning social issues. He claimed that his already ballooning bodyweight was the clincher – few actors were obese at the time, ironically narrowing the field for him and beating thinner, better established actors to the role. The following year, he would win an award for his music for “From a Northern Inn”, a weepy tune about a girl knitting a sweater for a boy who will never wear it. The song twice entered the charts and also a later anime – in Isao Takahata’s film Chie the Brat (1981), the leading lady belts it out at her father, in a passive-aggressive way of accusing him of paternal neglect.
Behind the scenes, Kobayashi was also instrumental in the formation of a musicians’ union to fight corruption within the Japanese licensing industry, and would write a book about his struggles with his weight. In later years he became a multiple-winner on a Japanese game show not unlike Only Connect, where he developed a reputation for impossibly guessing the answer after seeing only a single clue. The memorable theme song to Turn-A Gundam, assumed by many fans to be the work of the series composer Yoko Kanno, was actually one of Kobayashi’s later career triumphs.
By Jeannette Ng.
Alice in Wonderland remains a towering influence on fantasy, both in English and in Japanese. Europe-inspired fantasy lands can take on new meaning in a Japanese media fascinated with the strange and exotic West, where even Paris and London can sometimes seem like alternate dimensions. Anime adaptations of English children’s classics, often with undertones of portal fantasy, are plentiful enough to be their own subgenre, including well-known works like Mary and the Witch’s Flower and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Alice’s effect on Japanese portal fantasy does not merely come through the popularity of its translations or adaptations. It, along with Mary Poppins and the Narnia books, has been cited as a huge influence on the works of the author Sachiko Kashiwaba, who packed her heroines off to parallel worlds in the 1970s and 1980s including the titular Birthday Wonderland (pictured above). Kashiwaba’s other-worldly adventures, which came to dominate the Japanese field, set the tone for much traditional fantasy… until a new generation reared on videogames and manga swarmed in to take over. And many of these younger writers didn’t get the memo about the need to come home again. They wanted to stay in their fantasy world for ever and ever.
By Andrew Osmond.
An anime cinema feature film of JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth has been announced, entitled The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim. At last, an anime film with a title that Japanese people will find as hard to pronounce as the rest of us! It’s directed by Kenji Kamiyama, the man who brought us Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Eden of the East, Napping Princess and many others. This blog has an in-depth profile of him here.
Kamiyama’s film will be the story of Helm Hammerhand, legendary King of Rohan – who, assuming the film is staying faithful to Tolkien’s timeline, reigned more than two centuries before the events of Lord of the Rings. But like that epic’s heroes, he underwent his own siege at the gorge that would be called Helm’s Deep – no prizes for guessing where it got that name. Helm’s Deep, you may recall, was the site of the massive siege battle at the climax of The Two Towers. Helm also featured in the 2017 game Middle Earth: Shadow of War (and had a fantastically dark new fate concocted for him there) which is how we ended up with a picture of him at the top of this article, even though there has yet to be any published anime art.
By Jeannette Ng.
An “Auto Memory Doll” was originally the name given to the typewriters of Telsis, invented by a man who wanted to help his novelist wife to continue writing after she became blind. But much as “computers” were once both the machines that computed and the women who operated them, Auto Memory Doll became the name for the women who typed out letters and took notes upon the machines.
In the Violet Evergarden video spin-off Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, however, it is not Violet’s skills as a typist or letter writer that takes centre stage. At the request of the Drossel Royal Family, Violet becomes a companion to Isabella York, a genteel young woman struggling with her studies at a girls’ boarding school.
By Andrew Osmond.
In Penguindrum, a dorky penguin hat – that’s a hat that looks like a penguin, not one made out of penguins – brings a beautiful girl back to life. This miracle starts an adventure that’s insanely odd even by the standards of anime. The girl is Himari Takakura, the angelic sister of brothers Shoma and Kanba, who are devoted to her with alarming intensity. They’re devastated by her death – she collapses at a Tokyo aquarium – elated by her miracle recovery, and dumbfounded by what happens next.