Not itself an anime, this is more of a bonus.
But it has so much to do with anime I would be remiss to not look back on it as part of these posts.
(Part six of a six part series featuring my favorite anime productions of 2014; consider reading the others!)
School is a funny place.
Nevermind that it can be an easy setting for having a wide mix of people in the same people for a narrative with complete justification, though that is also what is going on here. As far the industrial world goes, one on average spends an impressive number of years going through various such facilities, to prepare them for the rest of their lives. In all likelihood, the schools one goes to tend to dredge up some variety of hall of fame or otherwise notable alumni. In part to inspire pride, in other ways to position themselves better for resources or recruitment. A student may spend many cumulative hours going past such displays, depending on placement. In the moment, with assignments, friends, or other stressors of youth all jumbled up in their head, one may even outright stop thinking about who is being promoted on banners or in window cabinets. The famed predecessors they may join the ranks of one day for others becomes a far off concern. At the same time, the idea one or some of their fellow classmates may achieve such success can also be something far off in the distance of the mind. Particularly the people one may not like very much.
But what about if they… did?
To the point where their future achievements rocked the core of an industry you admire? How the years to come would have them helming one of the most expensive anime films of all time? That even their celebrated spouses would be writing manga based on their relationship? That they would in the future become inescapable fixtures of the entertainment media that surrounds you. But one does not know that in their day to day life of classes and projects.
Blue Blazes (Aoi Honō) is the situation and story of Moyuru Honō, whose last name works out to itself mean “blazes” for very particular reasons. An amped up and exaggerated version of manga author and artist Kazuhiko Shimamoto, who attended the Osaka University of Arts in the early 1980’s. The same period many future founders of Gainax, namely Hideaki Anno, Hiroyuki Yamaga, and Takami Akai, were enrolled in the same school.
And Moyuru Honō, rather than become an early admirer, sees them as a threat to everything he holds dear.
As a character, I feel it becomes easy to identify with the situation our lead finds himself in.
Moyuru is in a rather particular early university phase of life that I imagine many of us have been (or will be) in at one point or another. Convinced of his righteousness and the correct course of his actions, to the point of whipping up wide-eyed fantasizes is his own head that he is certain will come to pass. He has a firm grip on his selected hobbies, such and anime and manga here, accustomed to being more knowledgeable on the subjects than anyone else around him. Likewise with his more professional skills like drawing and animation. The big fish in a small pond scenario, though here moving into a larger body of water.
With the injection of a university populace into his life however, some folks sharply and vastly challenge the level which he used to surpass others and receive praise for. Someone like Hideaki Anno, who was and is such a monstrously knowledgeable otaku as well as able to pump out incredible feats of animation even by himself, becomes seen less as a potential friend and comrade. He is instead interpreted more as a direct threat to Moyuru’s way of processing his personal identity.
It is not an uncommon situation. That what on paper could seem like opportunities for fast friendship turn instead into jealousy and fear. It is also completely understandable, in a way that many may not ever learn until some distant school reunion, that Anno, Akai, Yamaga, and so on have no idea Moyuru views them with such internal venom. Our leading man has enough in the way of social graces where he never outright tries to chew them out. Instead he allow his frustrations at their accomplishments and skills to boil away at the back of his mind or in discussions with himself.
Going along with this, and indeed even fed all the more by it, are the lies Moyuru keeps to fluff himself and his social positions up. Again, many being the kind of lies we have perhaps all let fly. That we are much further along on a massive assignment than we may be in reality, so that others will be impressed with our dedication. How he will pull out references or justifications to things he does know, such as Mitsuru Adachi’s quirks for things like identical faces across characters in his manga. To use that to either paper over or redirect his deficiencies in some other areas of industry knowledge when pressed. He may oversell how a pitch meeting went with professional manga editors. Few back at university would be in a position to call him out on his bluff, and he could cash in for some quick “Wow!” back-patting. These too become strains in their own right, as he needs to keep his stories straight. Even the pressure to keep building on them. While at the same time, he is in an identity quagmire due to his immense jealousy for the early Gainax team as they work on their own projects.
Moyuru misses a whole lot through all this. Clear opportunities at professional and personal development. Love and relationships. Even just having a less stressed out time.
Yuya Yagira, a Cannes Film Festival award winning Best Actor via his role in the 2004 film Nobody Knows, plays the part of Moyuru Honō in the Blue Blazes television adaptation.
Granted, the entire cast is commendable. Ken Yasuda’s deadpanning his way through the sets as a hellbent committed anime minded Hideaki Anno. Jirō Satō’s chain smoking shark-like never sleeps portrayal of Mad Holy (a riff on Nobuhiko Horie, Shōnen Jump editor and co-creator of Fist of the North Star). But, Yagira is who we spend the most time seeing. Fitting for his portrayal of Moyuru, the character comes across as even more of an at times frustrated and depressed and at others completely childlike individual with petty grudges.
He deploys a ramped up to eleven chaingun of contorted faces of wild despair. Extreme body motions and positions as he practically aims to crawl up walls while upside down. Overblown sneering superiority and self assurance. Often flipping back and forth within seconds of each other. Moyuru is an anime and manga character, for all purposes both actual (as this show is an adapted work) and thematic. He is, despite being the lead of this series, a kind of side character to someone else’s looming mega success story.
And Yagira gives him all the reaction face bluster befitting such a situation.
For all the misplaced choices our lead character makes in Blue Blazes, and as much as we as viewers know or can predict some will detonate in his face well in advance, tonally I never felt the series was as reliant on cringe humor or laughing at the audience.
The series enjoys its references, such as the anime pose loaded intro credits. The intro has even inspired at least one person to reinterpret and animate it using Shimamoto’s actual manga art style and design sensibilities. By nature of the art school university setting and the kind of career tracks most characters are pursuing, individuals like Rumiko Takahashi, Leiji Matsumoto, and their associated series for an early 1980’s period piece pepper conversations here and there. Crucially, the series goes out of its way to make sure the viewer is never lost. Dialogue flows in a conversational manner that will clue one in on the joke in play. Or, even better, the series will make use of its ample supply of visual aids when a character is discussing art styles or the like. A Rumiko Takahashi design zinger hits a lot better and faster when some examples can pop on screen and one can have that immediate feedback. It keeps the series moving along and bouncy, so it never stagnates like it is waiting for the audience to get through a laugh track or such.
The series embraces being at this oddball nexus point of time and space. The kinds of 1980’s college dorm decor they can manage for the future Gainax staff, like Akai’s substantial miniature film sets or the posters they can slather the walls with. Every episode begins with bombastic text flashes of this being an era where the fashion and culture of young people are in full bloom, and the series aims to commit to that with full force. This was a time the anime and manga industry were right about to hit major boom periods.
Blue Blazes wants to laugh and celebrate those times with the audience as much as it also points out how really silly, misunderstood, if not outright insane some choices may have been for those coming into it during those years.
Something the series does which sells this feeling, the idea of laughing with the audience rather than at them, is its respect for the “source material.”
More than just the Blue Blazes manga. The end credits of every episode for instance provide ample white space to show off original materials. Such as Hideaki Anno and friends actual student films, to display bits on their own as well as cross compare to the recreations in the show. University dorm or other casual photographs provided by those who lived these times and wanted to have them used as reference materials. Small letters sent in by some of the famous people referenced, by name or via character. How they are reacting to the show, and even providing some fanart of their own. Several of the people central to the narrative of the series have their real life counterparts present for various bit roles, such as serving them while bartending.
The credits will not only point these instances out, but provide additional behind the scenes footage of them goofing off with the younger professionals portraying them. All this goes a long way to show the amount of passion and attention poured on. That Blue Blazes would firmly be an enjoyable show that, while it never forgets the trials of a conflicted youth on the doorstep to larger professional adulthood, also aims to capture, reflect, and to do justice towards various qualities of its era.
It remains planted as a hopeful story. For all the troubles, we do know that Moyuru Honō, and by extension the man he represents, will find a place in the world. Honō no Tenkōsei, the work being developed in this series and that many may better know as Blazing Transfer Student, would not only be a success. In time it too would be an eventual Gainax production in anime form.
There is a conversation early on in the first episode of Blue Blazes where Moyuru is speaking to one of his initial friends. It is pointed out to the shocking revelation of our lead that the portrayal of Kamen Rider in popular media has him in a green costume, and many think he always had one. But his very first outfit was blue. There is the consideration for how popular culture over time has a way of making folks think things began one way, when they were something else all along.
In the time since Blue Blazes ended its eleven episode television run, the original manga by Kazuhiko Shimamoto (which is still ongoing) has won the Best General Manga recognition at the 60th Shogakukan Manga Awards.
Of course, given how exaggerated some of the character reactions may (or may not) be, that conversation may prove true in more ways than one.
But Shimamoto’s story will shape part of this narrative for many decades to come.
Blue Blazes is not licensed for distribution in North America at the time of this writing, though fansub English translations are available.