Anime Spotlight: Phoenix Volume 1: Persistence of Time Released by Anime Works
There is a weight and expectation associated with anime adaptations of Osamu Tezuka's manga, especially ones that the creator valued as highly as his work of layered ambitions, Phoenix. The "God of Manga" used it to experiment, both with the medium and with patterns of human behavior. An effort to thoughtfully transition Tezuka's stories is demonstrated in the Phoenix anime, and the results are solid, both ideologically, and in the elements of storytelling. Significant concerns are not simply invoked. It actually makes statements rather than just cast out a line, hoping to snag significance or mistake a poorly defined philosophy for ambiguity. It's not Bergman or Kurosawa, but it does mix accessible, compelling plot with a discussion of human fundamentals. Phoenix director Ryousuke Takahashi is best known for creating "real robot" anime series, in which the war machines on screen bow to the laws of physics and design constrains. Rather than the colorful "super robot" power-totems, "real robots" featured utilitarian, often boxy designs, and within the context of their anime, they were generally mass produced weapons Specifically, Takahashi's name is tied to Armored Trooper Votoms, a classic 1983 sci-fi anime where a veteran soldier continued to fight for his own survival. Following similar themes and modes of story telling, Takahashi preceded Votoms with Fang of Sun Dougram, and followed it with Gasaraki, Blue Gender, and recently the photojournalism framed Flag. Other looks at war in his volume of work include the adaptations of Leiji Matsumoto's The Cockpit and Kaiji Kawaguchi's Silent Service. Yet, he hasn't strictly been a torchbearer for "real robots" and war anime. He wrote super robot tribute GaoGaiGar, the magic girl meets Little Red Riding Hood girl's Akazukin Chacha, and samurai send-up Carried by the Wind: Tsukikage Ran. In the case of Phoenix, Takahashi produces a palpably reverent adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's self-described "life's work." The widely respected innovator of manga and anime labored on Phoenix between 1956 and 1989 before his death tragically curtailed his final vision of the opus. Its twelve entries alternated between working forward from the beginning of human history and backwards from the end. (There's a few more if you count short ancillaries like the stage-play on manga Robe of Feathers, and prototype/side steps like The Phoenix: "Egypt, Greece, and Rome" and the Manga Shonen version of Phoenix: Dawn.) Each entry functioned as an epic or an intricate story on its own. Themes were developed and enhanced between the self-contained works, but cast also passed between them, either revisiting characters in other stages of their lives, or, more frequently, through reincarnation. The spoke of this Buddhist wheal is the phoenix, the mythical bird who is eternally being reborn in fire, whose blood reputedly restores youth or grants immortality. The superficial irony of Phoenix is that its emblem is a quaintly cartoonish chicken/peacock. Divorced from Tezuka's history of injecting serious themes into cute, abstract designs or his specific intentions here, the fire-bird looks as not have quite the same cinematic echoes that the manga demonstrated. Phoenix radically shifts the nature of its narrative for Resurrection. The sprawling historical epic contracts into a high concept sci-fi, set in enclosed spaces. Its core premise remains unchanged in the adaptation: a young man is revived from the brink of death by advanced, experimental science. Like the manga, in his new lease on life, Leona's brain has been re-wired such that he sees humans as animated, inorganic masses and robots as living, near-human beings. Unlike the manga, rather than a young man killed in a traffic accident, Leona is a researcher, tracking the phoenix as Earth suffocates under the effects of war and pollution. While Tezuka utilized well formed storytelling in the historical captures of Phoenix, the future, sci-fi phased had a distinct tendency to be experimental. Tezuka appeared to allow the narratives to push further beyond the typical structure of manga. Many were either intentionally convoluted (Nostalgia) or reflected the internal perspective of the characters (Universe). As a result, they weren't as aesthetically tidy as the historical chapters. Resurrection has the difficulty that it is dealing with a protagonist who does not see objective reality. And, it is difficult the back its hero. Ostensibly, the anime seems to be setting the character in the mold of an amnesiac who is a better person than the one he was before losing his memory. However, if he was a flawed, possibly unprincipled before the critical incident, afterwards, he's strictly stressed, at whit's end. With an easily forecast tragic ending, Resurrection does not seem to be progressing in a direction that is as involving as Dawn's. Nor are the techniques employed to tell the story as intriguing in anime as they were in manga. Resurrection is essentially a "see beneath the skin" parable with Astro Boy like usage of robots as a metaphor for race or oppressed classes. A key factor in the manga's effectiveness was the severe turn its events took. Because the anime opens with humanity in apocalyptic dire straits, it doesn't seem like it has the same capacity to allow events to turn for the worse. As moving and sorrowful as some of the scenes are, it doesn't smooth out problems caused by its transparent agenda and under-justified lead. The design traits of modern anime in particular doesn't look like Tezuka's work, but Tezuka's work looks like anime. Tezuka famously compared his range of cartoonish design to a troupe of actors, and that sentiment rings true in how he utilized them. The composition and impression of motion in how he managed his pages demonstrated how he worked with the subjects like film director or in a few noticeable cases, a stage director. Takahashi pays tribute to Tezuka by animating a precisely crafted adaptation. Given the character design, Phoenix is unmistakably "Tezuka," but, even in its re-creation of the manga's iconic scenes, there is little to suggest that the anime studied the manga, then went about producing the exact same effect. The adaptation is faithful, but tailored to the new medium rather than simply moving the existing images. It adjusts for the rhythm and palette of digital animation. Yet, the anime recalls Tezuka's approach in establishing a sense of performance in the character animation. The characters breathe, they sweat, there's small, subtle details in their posture or motion. The Phoenix anime is not a work of invention like the manga. It isn't testing new ground for the medium. It isn't trying to work out ideas for the first time. However, it is a well crafted work. It pays tribute to a great storyteller, and in turn, painstakingly recreates his stories in anime. If you are looking for anime with substance, Phoenix is essential viewing.