22 CommentsAnime Analysis / By Scamp /

Katsuhiro Otomo’s dark sense of humour

Katsuhiro Otomo is best known for Akira. He wrote the original manga and directed the subsequent movie. It’s a rather divisive piece, being baffling and demented, but it totally blew my mind when I first saw it. When it comes to Akira, most people remember the dark and gritty stuff. The cyberpunk post-apocalyptic Neo Tokyo, the biker gangs, the giant mutant baby thing. What’s rarely commented on is it’s sense of humour. It can be rather difficult to spot under all the dementia, but it’s there. A dark, evil sense of humour that brings out more of a wry, knowing smile than belly-aching laughs.

But it’s not Akira I want to focus on here. It’s some of his other works, where his dark sense of humour is much more to the forefront of the piece.

Roujin Z is a criminally underrated movie (well, technically an OVA, but it’s an hour and a bit long episode, so it might as well be a movie). It isn’t directed by Otomo, but he did the script and mecha design. Not that it’s much of a mech. It’s a collection of strewn vehicles, molded together into an ugly yet unstoppable machine, intent on visiting the beach. The story is set in the future, where an ageing population has resulted in a great strain on healthcare and nurses. In order to take the strain off nurses, a company plan to introduce a new machine to take care of the old people’s needs. However the prototype machine goes out of control, and here you have your story. In massive contrast to Akira, the movie is incredibly light, fun, very accessible, but with enough depth and meaning to it that it sticks in your mind as something slightly more than mere throwaway entertainment. I really can’t recommend it enough.

But I’m here to talk about the dark sense of humour of Otomo, and there’s one brilliant scene in the movie that exemplifies that. While showing off their new prototype, the company get a senile old man and shove him in the machine. The machine is then wheeled in front of a crowd of journalists and fellow scientists in a lecture hall in order to show off its capabilities. The man is stripped by the machine to change him into his pajamas, helped to go to the toilet while lying in place, had a television shoved in front of his face, and basically treated like a part of the machine rather than a person, all while an adoring crowd ooh and aah at the machines prowess and take pictures. It’s such a gloriously dark commentary on societies attitude towards old people, all played through this upbeat filter.

Most of his other work have this dark sense of humour too. Stink Bomb is again not directed by him, but he writes the script. A It’s part of the Memories OVA, and often gets overlooked because the first piece of Memories, Magnetic Rose, is so damn good. Stink Bomb is a very similar piece to Roujin Z. Unaware weapon of mass destruction goes on the rampage while hapless army attempt to stop it. Again, it’s very light hearted , but there’s this great underlying message to it. How the gormless average salaryman is left so out of the loop of what he’s working on that he can sometimes cause unbelievable amounts of damage, simply because nobody told him what’s at stake.

If you want to know whether you’d like his work, check out the opening to Robot Carnival. It’s just 5 minutes long, and has that same great dark sense of humour hidden beneath this light hearted jolly exterior.

YouTube Preview Image

This feeds into a nice segway as to why I don’t like Steamboy. It was made in 2004, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and looks absolutely beautiful. It’s a steampunk fans wet dream. Clockworks and gears and steam set in 19th century England. There’s no doubt it looks glorious. But there’s absolutely no sign of Otomo in there. It’s played entirely straight faced the whole way through. None of that false joviality, hiding a darker truth. None of the tongue in cheek. It wears all its intentions on its chest. What’s worse, it comes off as stupid. The plot is really quite lame, with the message about science being used only for good being boldly stated outright by one of the characters. There’s no attempt at subtlety in there. With its pretty visuals but stupid idealism and boring characters, it comes off more as a bad attempt at a Ghibli film instead of Otomo.

Maybe I’m thrusting unfair pre-biased notions of what the film should be like on it. But it’s still a poorly written and rather stupid film. I just found it astounding and disappointing that it came from a guy I associated with usually such skilled writing.

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  1. luffyluffy
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, I enjoyed Steam Boy, but felt it was too fucking long.

    Patrick Stewart though.

    How often do you hear PATRICK STEWART in your chinese bigeyed cartoons?

    • Posted September 21, 2011 at 3:41 am | Permalink

      How often do you hear PATRICK STEWART in your chinese bigeyed cartoons?

      Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. About as important as Akira as far as 80s anime movies go. You really should see it if you haven’t already.

      • luffyluffy
        Posted September 21, 2011 at 4:35 am | Permalink

        I did

        It was terrible


  2. Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    The opening to Robot Carnival is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in anime. Just the idea of a It’s a Small World-type carnival attraction going berserk and rampaging across the world for hundreds of years is hilarious. For me, it really is an iconic moment of black humor in anime.

    • Scamp
      Posted September 21, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      Shame the rest of Robot Carnival was RUBBISH!!!

      (OK, it was more a ‘mixed bag’ than rubbish, but nothing else came even remotely close to that opening segment)

  3. Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Otomo did direct the third part of Memories, Cannon Fodder, which I felt wasn’t that good compared to Stink Bomb and most especially Magnetic Rose. Koji Morimoto’s directing and Satoshi Kon’s script totally made that film the great anime that it is, even today. It’s similar to Otomo’s other omnibus, Neo-Tokyo, in that way.

    Still, I think his best work was definitely Akira (the manga). It’s one of the very few manga that’s truly epic in scale, and it is just a compelling read throughout.

    • Scamp
      Posted September 21, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      I wasn’t that big on Cannon Fodder either. It started like a Kino’s Journey episode, introducing the scenario, but never got down to having anything happen or exploring the scenario the same way Kino’s Journey does.

      Still haven’t read that Akira manga. Gotta get going on that some day

      • romulus
        Posted September 22, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

        Doesn’t it have a message like ‘this is our world is like’ or poses us a question like ‘is YOUR daily cycle THIS monotonic? Still the least interesting part of Memories though.

        Akira manga really is good, synopsis above is correct.

  4. Posted September 20, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Yet another man tied up in live action for the foreseeable future.

    Has he had any manga works released recently? I heard that he much prefers live action film than manga/anime, and that his manga career has been stalled indefinitely.

    • Posted September 21, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      I think Akira was his last manga, wasn’t it?

    • Scamp
      Posted September 21, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

      Oh yeah, he did that Mushishi live action. I should get to watching that at some point too…

  5. Posted September 21, 2011 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    This sort of reminds me of the dark humour in REDLINE, which is also rather similar (I actually haven’t watched any of Otomo’s films, though – call me a newfag or whatever you want). Can you think of any more examples of recent (e.g. last year) anime that have this type of humour? None really immediately pop into my head.

    • Scamp
      Posted September 21, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      Satoshi Kon’s films to an extent have this, although they’re more upbeat in their messages than Otomo’s are. Also Yuasa’s stuff, like Kaiba and Tatami Galaxy.

      If you’re worried about the age of Otomo’s stuff, don’t be. They’re all OVA’s and movies and therefore have pretty awesome animation for the most part. They’ve aged well in that department

  6. mcm38
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Didn’t watch any of the noted anime, except for Steamboy. That’s why isntead of commenting on this subject I’m gonna go OOC and ask Scamp the best method to travel between London and Ireland (Srsly need the advise of a resident with experience with this).

    • luffyluffy
      Posted September 22, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

      Speaking as an American, couldn’t you just take a train to the cost, and catch a ferry?

      • mcm38
        Posted September 22, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        Nah, ferry’s are timeconsuming. The high-speed trains from Brussels to London is a better option, so I was wondering if there was also an underground passage for trains between Ireland and London.

      • V
        Posted September 22, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        No underground train passage as far as I know, this coming from a friend of mine who went on our school’s history trip to Ireland. They just drove to the northern coast of England, caught the ferry, and voila, they’re in N. Ireland for three days and S. Ireland for another four before driving back to the port and going home. :)

    • Scamp
      Posted September 22, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink


  7. Marow
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    That opening was crazy. In a good way.

    Also, plane is pretty much always the best way to travel if it’s longer distances.

  8. romulus
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Katsuhiro Otomo.
    Akira wins. But what else?

    Believe me, Roujin Z in not underrated by all means. Encouraged by the eulogies you sang i downloaded it but I’m still raging. Fuck humour, is that degenerated idea really came from the guy who did all those goodies? ***I deleted a looooong ragerant from here***

    OK the reasons i hate Roujin Z are mostly personal, but still… Gotta watch Steamboy now to counterbalace his failing reputation.

    Can I recommend another underrated movie? A wind named amnesia. No high concept I grasped, quite enjoyable though.

  9. luffyluffy
    Posted September 23, 2011 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    This is totally off topic but fuck the police.

    So, I downloaded G Gundam a while ago, and I finally just finished it earlier today. And just now, I got finished with the first UC movie. Scamp, what are your thoughts, not just on G Gundam(Because G Gundam might as well be TTGL Lite), but on Gundam in general.

    For those of you who care: Chibodee = Domon > George >>> Sai Saici = Argo

    Why do Chibodee and George have such a perfect friendship? It’s not fair ;3;

  10. ojisan
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    So with you on this. Steamboy was like Katsuhiro Otomo on meds – it’s him, but there’s no spark. Roujin-Z rocks, as did Stink Bomb. And even Freedom has its humour, Akira-style: there are dimwitted self-absorbed teenagers, crumbling geezers with overlooked secrets, cobbled-together gadgets that wildly overperform…

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