Saturday, 30 November 2013

Gigantor…Alive and Well and Living in the Suburbs

If you were a television kid like me in Australia in the late 1960’s, you would well remember the introduction of the first animated cartoons that arrived from Japan. Of course we didn’t realise that they were from Japan at the time, only that the characters looked unusual (typically portrayed with large wide doe eyes) and the overall style of the animation was distinctively different from anything eminating from America. Little did we know that these animated shows would become the forerunner of what we now recognise as the ‘Japanese anima’ phenomenon. For me the standout series at the time was ‘Gigantor’ (debuting in Adelaide, South Australia on October 28 1968), which told of the adventures of a 12 year old boy who was able to control a somewhat portly looking 50 foot jet propelled robot in a fight against evil throughout the world. My friends and I just loved this series and couldn’t wait to catch each episode. Although the series only lasted for several months, there were plenty of re-runs to keep us entertained, until eventually the show disappeared from our screens.

I had almost totally forgotten about Gigantor until reading about the existence of a life size statue of the animated character somewhere in the suburbs of Kobe. It seems that Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the artist who had created ‘Gigantor’ (or ‘Tetsujin-28’ as he was originally known in Japan), had grown up in Kobe and had remained somewhat of a local hero due to his efforts in breaking into the American market and eventually worldwide with his popular animated cartoons. The statue had been built to honor him and his most famous animated character in 2009, and coincided with the 15th anniversary of the great Hanshin earthquake (1995). It was hoped that the Gigantor statue would act as a protector against such disasters in the future, while also providing a means of revitalizing interest in the local region.

So after Jules had done the necessary research, we headed out of central Kobe on the local train to the suburb of Nagata in a kind of pilgrimage to the TV memories of my childhood. When we arrived, we could see that while ‘Gigantor’ might be a very distant animated memory in other parts of the world, here he remained very much alive and a respected attraction to this region. Posters, stickers and billboards could be seen throughout the railway station with signage directing us to Wakamatsu Park where the metallic mega-hero could be found. He was in fact pretty hard to miss standing a full-scale 18 metres or 59 feet tall and in full action pose. Amazingly enough and despite his vintage as a super hero, he was still attracting some interest, with small groups of visitors keen to have their photo taken posing beneath his giant robotic legs…so of course, I had to as well!

While Jules had little recollection of the animated adventures of Gigantor, for me seeing him once again brought back plenty of happy childhood memories. It was good to see that the character was being appreciated within Japan as a significant aspect of their emerging post war culture. Television shows like Gigantor, The Samurai, Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Marine Boy certainly enabled generations of the 50’s and 60’s to gain a new appreciation for Japanese aesthetic through the medium of television and in some way, programs such as these possibly helped to heal some of the old wounds of the past. I was interested to read that Twentieth Century Fox had bought the rights to the Gigantor franchaise and that a script for a movie had been developed before Yokayama’s death in 2004. Since then the project has remained shelved, but maybe one day Gigantor will once again take to the skies and a new generation will be able to follow his exploits. If so, you can expect an avalanche of visitors to see the big metal man of Nagata and I guess that’s exactly what the local businesses are hoping for.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Exploring Himeji Castle Undercover

While enjoying an overnight stay in Kobe, Jules and I finally decided to visit famed Himeji Castle. We had been meaning to explore this historic landmark for quite some time but with the castle currently going through a massive five-year restoration project and covered in scaffolding, we weren’t quite sure what we might actually see. I had seen the castle from a distance in all its glory just a few months after our arrival in Japan while passing through on the bullet train and in hindsight we probably should have visited then before the work had begun. Still, the opportunity to view one of the truly great historic buildings of Japan could not be missed and so on a delightfully sunny autumn day, we took a comfortable 40 minute local train ride from Kobe to Himeji to see it close up.

Also known as ‘The White Heron Castle’ because of its distinctive white walls and a roofline that resembles the spreading wings of the heron bird, Himeji Castle remains quite a remarkable example of fourteenth century architecture. Although the building has undergone a number of major restorations during its long life, it has successfully managed to survive wars, fires, bombing and earthquakes and unlike other castles in Japan, remains almost perfectly preserved. Not surprisingly, the castle was designated a national treasure in 1931 and granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993 (the first landmark in the country to do so). It remains the most visited castle in Japan and has provided the setting for a number of major movies including the James Bond film 'You Only Live Twice' (1967) and 'The Last Samurai' (2003).

As Jules and I exited the train station, we could see a huge box like structure on a nearby hill, which we knew was Himeji Castle because of the painted representation on the outside of the scaffolding cover. Memories of our visit to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany flashed back, where we were also prevented from viewing an historic castle due to renovations. As we got closer, the sheer scale of the restoration work became increasingly evident although what also became clear was that the scale of the grounds would still provide plenty for us to see. Also there was the added bonus of tourist numbers having been greatly reduced, which would make our tour around the castle far more leisurely than what would normally be the case.

As it turned out, our Japanese hosts had also made every effort to compensate for all of the restoration work by providing a very unique perspective on the castle exterior. They had sensibly installed a glass sided exterior elevator to take visitors to the top of the building from which you could descend by stairs while viewing architectural details at close quarters as the restoration was continuing. This allowed us to see the meticulous work that was proceeding by artisans who were using traditional building methods to repair plaster walls, woodwork and thousands of ancient roof tiles. While much of the exterior work appeared to be coming to an end, there would still be at least two more years of work to be done as attention now turned to the interior.

While Jules and I would have loved to have seen Himeji Castle without the encumbrance of scaffolding and coverings, we certainly did not leave disappointed. We had been provided with a unique close-up perspective of the exterior of the main building that others would not normally experience. The grounds were magnificent and we were able to venture inside several outer buildings to gain an insight into the lifestyle of those who lived there during ancient times. We admired the sheer scale of the stonework that had been pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, on top of which ancient builders had created one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan. Likewise, we knew that with all of the work that is currently being undertaken, this piece of Japanese heritage would soon be uncovered to once again be admired by visitors for many centuries to come.