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The Project Itoh Anime Movies and Reading Foreign SF

This summer hasn’t been kind enough to leave me with as much time as I’d like to watch/read/write about anime – with the passing of Labor Day and the gathering momentum towards winter, I’m not complaining, just explaining why it’s taking me almost two months to respond to a piece one of my favorite blogs wrote. The blog – Medieval Otaku – wrote back on July 25 this post: “Interest in Project Itoh: Empire of Corpses, Harmony, and Genocidal Organ”.  In it, he links to a very enlightening Youtube video and asks if anyone was interested in the noitaminA produced animated movies of Project Itoh’s books.

To much belatedly answer the question: Yes, I am very much interested in the Project Itoh movies and have been since they were first announced. The reason for this is I’d already had the chance to read Project Itoh’s most excellent science fiction writings.

That I’ve have the chance to read Project Itoh’s work is still a bit of surprise to me (America’s preference for English-origin media being what it is) and is thanks to the raise in interest of anime and manga in America that I got the chance.

Several years ago Viz (yes, that Viz) started an imprint – Haikasoru – that was going to bring over science fiction, dark fantasy, and horror novels (real novels, not light novels). I was very interested in this venture that sat at the intersection of my love of science fiction books and my growing interest in Japan, it’s anime and other creative media forms. However, I’m very picky about what books to buy when I don’t know the authors and, at first, I couldn’t quite pick one. Then, Haikasoru published a short story anthology, The Future Is Japanese, containing a mix of translated Japanese works and American works about Japan. I eagerly snatched it up – I love, love, love short story anthologies – and devoured the book. Haikasoru has since come out with another two more short story anthologies: Phantasm Japan and Hanzai Japan. As an aside, I highly recommend all three.

phantasmjapanThe story I most remembered from the second collection – Phantasm Japan – was written by Project Itoh, called From the Nothing, With Love, and this SF tale set out to explain how a famous British spy agent has been able to switch bodies and faces to continue being a spy and what is the cost of this ability. So, when someone asked me for a gift idea for my next birthday, I suggested Project Itoh’s novel Genocidal Organ.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Genocidal Organ but I hoped for something that was interesting. I shouldn’t have worried; I got what I wanted and more. Genocidal Organ is dense with ideas and interesting characters but written with a blunt, unpretentious style that is easy to read and understand. It’s the type of science fiction that needs to be written more often nowadays. I loved it and this year, when asked by the same person for a birthday recommendation, I chose Project Itoh’s next novel, Harmony. And, shock of shocks, it was every bit of inspired science fiction storytelling that I figured it would be and went a fair distance past my expectations. Needless to say, I also recommend both of these books.

As another aside, getting into anime has destroyed any sort of lingering personal desire to consume only English original media, so when I see print SF that’s been translated into English I’m immediately very interested because, until there’s an over-saturation like during the mid-00’s anime glut, only the good stuff is generally worth the trouble bringing over. Case in point, The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu is the first work I read from China but it might end up being the novel I consider the best SF novel of the 2010’s. It’s definitely smoked all contenders so far.

The Movies

But let’s get back to the movies. Each movie was/is being handled by different studios and each one is a combination that is interesting enough that my attention would have been attracted even without knowing the source material.

  • Wit Studios (Attack on Titan and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress) is animating The Empire of Corpses and Takashi Nakamura (Fantastic Children) is directing.
  • Studio 4°C (Tweeny Witches, Berserk CG movies) is animating Harmony and Michael Arias (Tekkonkinkreet) is directing.
  • Manglobe Geno Studio is animating Genocidal Organ and Shukou Murase (Witch Hunter Robin and Gangsta) is directing. This movie is yet to be released, so, it’ll probably another year before us Americans will get the chance to see it.

Since it took so long to respond to Medieval Otaku’s original post I can go beyond merely saying I’m interested in the Project Itoh movies. I recently finished reading the book Harmony, which meant, I was able to watch the movie without worrying about spoiling my reading experience.

So, how was the Studio 4°C production of Harmony?

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In a word – disappointing.

For a slightly longer summation, I’d call it a movie that feels like it was created as a low budget Hollywood knock-off of Psycho-Pass.

And I’m surprised by this. One of the continued hooks anime has in me is that Japan seems to have figured out how to make actual, real science fiction that’s intelligent and compelling in the TV/movie format – a skill that seems largely illusive in America. If I hadn’t read Harmony beforehand then I probably wouldn’t have been able to so clearly pinpoint my problems with the movie. I might have been tempted to blame the source material but I know that’s not the problem here; Studio 4°C just flat out did a poor job adapting a great book and a poor job in creating this movie, in a general sense.

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Imagine the picture on the left is the book and the picture on the right is the movie and a person would have a pretty good approximation of the difference between the two.

I realize it’s impossible, nor desirable, to include everything from the source material when it’s adapted, but, golly gee, does the Harmony movie only vaguely match what’s in the book. There’s the stuff that got added like the romantic relationship between the two main characters, the running gun battle, and the much extended scene involving the downing of the drone. Then there’s the stuff that got changed like the existence of governments in this future, the exact motives that influenced how the ending happened, the visual makeover that made the main characters look way more attractive than they should have been, and so many other little things that I can’t decide if no one at Studio 4°C bothered to actually read the book or did they enjoy just changing things because they could. For example, the book said the buildings were painted in “inoffensive pastels … like tiny multiplying pixels of artificial life on a monitor” (p. 56) which lead me to picturing the housing development in the Edward Scissorhands movie. And then there’s the stuff they just left out like all the material that explains why a glorified health inspector (from the UN, no less) is traveling across the world with the power to potentially save the world as well as tons of character bits that made these characters much more interesting in the books.

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I also fault Studio 4°C for not making a good movie, in a general sense. The inconsistent CG that varies from boring to terrible was off-putting. The difference in quality found in the backgrounds among the different scenes is so noticeable that it was distracting. Decisions were made by the studio that weakened the end result, for instance, making all the buildings pink strayed from the book, but, more importantly, took something that could have visually shown the wrongness and underlying horror of the society in Harmony and made it merely amusing (just look at the above screenshot from Edward Scissorhands to see how creepy Studio 4°C could have made their movie). Then there were scenes that appeared to be constructed solely as a tech demo for future times when Studio 4°C  is trying to convince production committees to pick Studio 4°C for their animation needs. To name three examples of this: there was the rotating conversation scene in the restaurant, the scene where someone bumps a hanging lamp and the shadows move as the lamp sways back and forth, and the scene that involved the dozens of hanging carpets moving in the breeze. Further, adding action and romance scenes for their own sake is not the winning recipe to create a good movie, and, let’s not even get into what that says about how Studio 4°C views the audience.

Beyond a paycheck, I don’t see why Studio 4°C did this movie. They certainly didn’t find the book or it’s ideas interesting and the production is so uneven that it’s not like they wanted to stretch their creative muscles. I can’t believe this is the same studio that animated Tweeny Witches.

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This whole scene was just downright ugly to look at. Also, anything remotely interested was stripped from the conversation and no effort was made to make this scene visually interesting. Come on guys, Shaft’s been making conversations interesting to look at for years now.

And that’s not fair to Harmony. I mentioned Psycho-Pass earlier and the reason for this is because it’s really apparent now that I’ve read the book that Harmony influenced the people that created Psycho-Pass. And seeing the similarity between the two makes Studio 4°C’s effort look all that worse when compared to Production IG’s success with Psycho-Pass (at least in the first season🙂 ).

So, yes, if you enjoyed Psycho-Pass then I would definitely recommend reading Project Itoh’s Genocidal Organ and Harmony. I’d go so far to say that Project Itoh runs rings around Psycho-Pass.

To close, I’m still interested in seeing the other Project Itoh movies, but, I can’t think of anyone that I could recommend the Harmony movie to. It’s not well-animated nor is it a good place to get people interested in reading Project Itoh nor is it an interesting or good movie by itself, without consideration of how well it adapts it’s source material. … Wait, a minute … actually, I just thought of someone – if you like the color pink and I mean really like the color pink then this movie is for you.

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3 thoughts on “The Project Itoh Anime Movies and Reading Foreign SF”

  1. Thanks for explaining how deficient the Harmony film is compared to the original book. It sounds like I should watch the movie first or not bother with it at all. Some more positive reviews still have me intrigued, but those reviewers don’t have the vantage point of having read the book.

    Have you read the Crest of the Stars light novels? Those don’t quite put the anime to shame, but still move at a much better pace and have more interesting details.

    Like

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