Anime Expo, the largest convocation of fans of Japanese animation and manga in the country, is now underway at the Los Angeles Convention Center — more than 125,000 are expected to attend. One of the guests of honor is Tatsuo Sato, the creator of an outrageous TV spoof of anime fan culture called “Martian Successor Nadesico,” which is a bit like inviting the Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” to speak at Comic-Con International.
The Nadesico is a state-of-the-art space battleship (complete with crew jackets, Ping-Pong tables and vending machines) run by a crew of teenage misfits. When he’s not fighting the invading Jovian Lizards, the series’ unlikely hero, fry cook-turned-combat-pilot Akito Tenkawa, watches reruns of “Gekigangar 3,” a hilarious sendup of early giant robot shows in the “Gigantor” mold.
Clips from the show-within-the-show feature a disco theme song, stilted animation, hammy voice acting and all the other hallmarks of anime. Sato was initially criticized in Japan for making fun of anime and the fan subculture in his TV series (which is available in the U.S. on DVD). But the good-natured nuttiness of “Nadesico” won over its critics — and large audiences on both sides of the Pacific following its launch in 1996.
“The fans of my generation and older probably thought I wasn’t taking things seriously enough,” Sato said in a recent interview conducted via email. But he noted that the show soon became a favorite of a younger generation of anime fans.
In one episode, the cast stages a “Geki Fest” that satirizes anime conventions, with costumes, screenings and booths selling special merchandise. A “solid metal casting limited edition collector’s Gekigangar 3” model becomes Akito’s most prized possession. In a case of reality mirroring fiction, the Anime Expo includes Nadesico screenings, pageants with elaborately costumed entrants, and dealers selling toys, books, DVDs and related merchandise — including plastic models of Gekigangar.
“When ‘Space Battleship Yamato’ and the early ‘Gundam’ series sparked the first anime boom, a lot of the ‘Nadesico’ artists were into fan activities,” Sato explained. “So instead of doing research for ‘Gekigangar,’ we dug into our memories. I happened to be one of the fans, so I thought I’d get it right.”
In addition to “Nadesico,” Sato has worked on numerous series, including Satoshi Kon’s unsettling “Paranoia Agent” and the dark period fantasy “Ninja Scroll.” He was one of the principle creators of the popular and innovative “Azumanga Daioh,” a girl’s series that focuses on the everyday life of seven relatively normal high school students.
With no monsters, giant robots or supernatural powers, “Azumanga Daioh” refutes the cliché that all anime involves “big eyes, big guns and big breasts.” Its understated, satiric tone suggests a mixture of “Seinfeld” and the juvenile novels of the ’50s and has been dubbed “anime verité.”
“For 10 years I asked myself, ‘What do I want to draw, depict,’” Sato said. “This was the first project I created answering that question. Basically, I like to depict every day life and its extraordinary elements.”
In recent years, America has become an increasingly important market for Japanese animation. Although he enjoys his widespread popularity, Sato seemed a bit ambivalent as he prepared to visit the U.S.
“An American fan told me, ‘We like Japanese animation, so you don’t have to try awkwardly to make it appeal to international audiences,’ which made sense,” he noted. “In recent years, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk from producers about ‘overseas expansion,’ but our work must be accepted by the fans in Japan first. I really want to know how overseas fans respond to my work. It’s very intriguing for me. On the other hand, I’m also a little scared.”
— Charles Solomon
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