Anime’s late, late show

Japanese animators push the boundaries on Fuji TV's late-night Noitamina time slot

by Edan Corkill

A sea gull arcs through the clouds and swoops over a house perched high on a clifftop. The sound of waves can be heard breaking far below as a young boy sits down for breakfast across from two robots who, it turns out, are doppelgangers of his parents. In the future, he later informs us, “you can get by without really coming into contact with anyone.”

Welcome to the world of “Fractale,” one of two new series that have kicked off the 2011 season on Noitamina, Fuji Television’s late-night anime slot that in the six years since it was established has gained a reputation for producing some of the most inventive anime in Japan.

At the Noitamina 2011 season launch event, held recently in Tokyo, “Fractale” director Yutaka Yamamoto described his latest creation as “adventure, science-fiction, fantasy,” before adding that he can’t really speak for it. “You need to see it yourself,” the 36-year-old said.

If one thing can be said for “Fractale,” it’s that it is well suited to a late-night slot. The serial, which began Jan. 13 and continues through the end of March, depicts a quirky fantasy world sometime after the 22nd century; one in which people can upload their “life blogs” to a special network that, in exchange, provides them with everything they need. It might sound like every bleary-eyed blogger’s dream, but of course things are not that simple. The network is breaking down, and it soon becomes the job of Klein (the boy of the house) and a time-traveling princess, Nessa, to set things right.

“Fractale” continues a Noitamina tradition of experimenting with the animation medium. The producers took the unusual step of turning to well-known cultural critic Hiroki Azuma to develop the storyline, and the value of his contribution is felt in the way “Fractale” plays directly to present-day concerns that we might already be giving up too much of our lives to “the network.”

“When they approached me about (developing a new anime) it made sense to me that Noitamina would do something this experimental,” said Azuma, who had never worked on an anime before.

The term “Noitamina” is derived from the English word “animation,” written backward, and it signals Fuji TV’s intention of turning the genre on its head. The slot, or “block” as it’s known in the industry, started in 2005 with the aim of attracting a new, 20- and 30-something audience, both male and female, to anime.

Starting at 12:45 a.m., the idea was to attract viewers using the same techniques as a live-action drama might. As Noitamina’s then-producer, Yoko Matsuzaki, explained to Fuji Sankei Business back in 2008, “We were able to produce anime for the key male audience, and attract fans, so the plan was to add women, who had also been brought up on anime, by incorporating the kind of storylines you might see in a drama into the anime format.” In other words, instead of each episode’s storyline wrapping up neatly in 20 minutes, the plot would be continuous and hopefully draw viewers in every week over the course of three months.

The ploy worked, and a number of Noitamina anime have achieved surprisingly high ratings considering the late-night time slot.

Three of the most popular productions have been based on the manga series “Nodame Cantabile” by Tomoko Ninomiya. “Nodame Cantabile,” “Nodame Cantabile: Paris Chapter” and “Nodame Cantabile: Finale” aired for three months each in 2007, 2008 and 2010, following the travails of an idealistic but simple-minded piano student, Megumi Noda. One episode in “Paris Chapter” achieved an average rating of 6.6, which remains the record for Noitamina. Most Noitamina works average a respectable rating of around 4.

While “Fractale” is perhaps not quite as conscious of the female audience as “Nodame Cantabile” and other Noitamina hits such as “Honey and Clover” have been in the past, the second anime with which it is paired more than makes up for the shortfall. “Hourou Musuko” (“Wandering Son”), which airs immediately after “Fractale,” at 1:15 a.m., is almost uncomfortably ambiguous when it comes to gender, depicting in soft watercolorlike tones the tale of a group of cross-dressing junior high school students.

Director Ei Aoki, 38, explained at the launch event that he had originally been in talks to screen the anime elsewhere, but that when its risque theme became apparent, “it became clear that it was unique, and that it would probably only work as part of the Noitamina block.”

Looking further ahead in the 2011 lineup, the simply titled “C,” by director Kenji Nakamura promises more machismo in its plot — it’s all about power and money.

“When we sat down early last year to come up with a theme, we wondered what it was that people were troubled by these days,” he explained at the launch event. “We decided it was money.”

Nakamura,40, was responsible for two of Noitamina’s most surprisingly creative anime. His “Mononoke,” from 2007, was an Edo Period (1603-1867) tale of spirits and witch doctors that drew heavily on ukiyo-e for its visual style. Then in 2009, he adapted a Hideo Okuda novel, “Kuchu Buranko” (literally, “High Trapeze”) into an anime that jumped back and forth with the tempo of a circus and the psychological elasticity of the mysterious psychiatrist at its center.

Nakamura gained notoriety by incorporating real-life footage of actress Yumi Sugimoto — just a face, a leg, or an eye — into his otherwise flat-plane depiction of the psychiatrist’s sexy nurse Mayumi. The effect was startling.

“With that sort of thing, you just do it, and hope the reaction is OK,” Nakamura explained at the launch event. “If you end up getting hammered online, you’re just like, ‘sorry.’ ” The implication was that he could only have got away with it at Noitamina — although Fuji TV producer Koji Yamamoto jokingly added that, “By the time I found out about that it was too late to do anything!”

Nakamura wouldn’t let on if he’d revisit such hijinks in “C,” although his animation director, Takashi Hashimoto, who is a specialist in combat and action scenes, hinted at what to expect when he said, “There’s a big battle over money, I think.”

The other highlight in 2011 is “Usagi Drop,” which will air for three months from July. Based on Yumi Unita’s popular manga of the same title, it will tell the tale of Daikichi Kawachi, a single, 30-year-old man whose concern for a young girl fathered (out of wedlock) by his unscrupulous grandfather results in him volunteering to raise the child himself.

Fuji TV will also turn “Usagi Drop” into a live-action film, just as they have done with past Noitamina productions such as “Nodame Cantabile” and “Honey and Clover.” Starring heartthrob-of-the-moment Kenichi Matsuyama, the film will premiere around the same time the anime is broadcast.

News out of Japan’s anime fraternity tends to be tinged with gloom these days — as the market contracts with the nation’s population and more and more productions are outsourced overseas. Yet Noitamina, with its willingness to probe contemporary social issues and its innovative approach to the anime format, is a reminder that Japan’s animators are still creative forces to be reckoned with.

Noitamina airs from 12:45 a.m. each Thursday night on Fuji TV in Tokyo and on affiliated channels elsewhere. The two current anime, “Fractale” and “Hourou Musuko” continue till the end of March. “C” and “Ano Hana” will air from April through June and “Usagi Drop” and “No. 6″ will air from July through September. The programs are available at Fuji TV On Demand. For details, visit noitamina.tv.