Yo-kai Watch: A Clever Anime Mix of 2-D, 3-D and Live-Action

24 Jan

A movie shown in Japan in early 2020, MASHIN SENTAI KIRAMAGER EPISODE ZERO, introduced the year’s super sentai season (the basis for Power Rangers), “Mashin Sentai Kiramager” (still on the air in Japan as of this writing), and offers a closing song sequence in which an anime character from another Toei series, the idol anime “Healin’ Good Pretty Cure,” appears alongside the Red Ranger from Kiramager to do a song, with the 2-D cartoon character inserted into the live-action scene. Soon, other animated girls from the Pretty Cure series, a total of seven, gradually join them in the number, featuring three different sets of Power Rangers, all dancing together. In some shots, they’re all filmed on location in Tokyo, while in others the Power Rangers are inserted into 2-D anime backgrounds.

It occurred to me at the time that I hadn’t seen live-action mixed with 2-D cartoon animation in quite some time. The most recent examples that came to mind were the following Hollywood features, in descending chronological order, LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003), SPACE JAM (1996), COOL WORLD (1992) and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988). A little research turned up a more recent example, MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018).

My inquiries also led to a Japanese animated film from 2016 that offers quite an unusual variation on this technique. It’s called YO-KAI WATCH THE MOVIE: A WHALE OF TWO WORLDS, and it’s the third movie spin-off from the anime TV series, “Yo-kai Watch,” which originated in Japan in 2014 and has been airing in the U.S. dubbed in English on the Disney XD cable channel. It’s also apparently a game. The movie’s full Japanese title is: YÔ-KAI WATCH: SORA TOBU KUJIRA TO DOUBLE NO SEKAI NO DAIBÔKEN DA NYAN! and its alternate English title is: YÔKAI WATCH: THE MOVIE: THE FLYING WHALE AND THE GRAND ADVENTURE OF THE DOUBLE WORLDS, MEOW! Here is the poster for the movie, which was released in 2016 by Toho Pictures:

The movie offers 2-D cartoon anime human characters, their live-action counterparts, and anime yokai characters rendered in 2-D for the anime scenes and 3-D CGI for the live-action scenes. It never inserts the 2-D anime characters into live-action the way the earlier examples I cited do, but it does insert CGI anime characters into live-action and offers an instructive and unique demonstration of how Japanese animators translate anime into live-action in a single story. It’s not unusual to see live-action films based on manga that have also been adapted into anime, e.g. “Rurouni Kenshin,” so one can see the contrast between the designs of the anime characters and the look of the Japanese actors who play them in live-action in the different versions, usually created by different filmmakers. In this Yo-kai Watch movie, however, we get to see these differences within the same scenes and engineered by the same creators.

(The Disney film, ENCHANTED, 2007, did something similar with characters from a 2-D Disney “princess”-type cartoon turning up in live-action in modern-day New York City and played by actors Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey.)

For the record, the term yokai is described on Wikipedia this way:

Yōkai are a class of supernatural monsters and spirits in Japanese folklore. The word ‘yōkai’ is made up of the kanji for “bewitching; attractive; calamity” and “spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious.”

And from the movie:

The “Yo-kai Watch” TV series is described on Anime News Network this way:

When Keita frees Whisper, a ghost-like yōkai, from 190 years of imprisonment, Whisper pledges to protect Keita from supernatural dangers. Whisper also gives Keita a watch that allows Keita to see other yōkai. Together with the twin-tailed cat spirit Jibanyan, they encounter lots of yōkai-related problems and solve them.

Keita’s name has been changed to Nate in the English dub. Apparently, he’s the only one who can see and hear the yokai.

The movie I’m referring to is described on Wikipedia this way:

A whale flies over Springdale and makes a whale noise that engulfs the city in a rainbow light, suddenly turning everything, including Nate and his Yo-kai, live-action. While trying to solve this weird mystery, it is later revealed to be the work of a Yo-kai Nate decides to call “koala-nyan.”

And on IMDB this way:

When a giant flying whale suddenly appears over Sakura New Town and its sound is heard the Yo-Kai undergo a transformation. The characters soon realize that as a result they have become corporeal and exist in a material world. This is the third film in the Yo-Kai Watch series based on the hit game.

I only have the movie in a Japanese-language version with no translation. Apparently the series wasn’t successful enough in the U.S. for the distributor to dub more than one of the movie spin-offs into English. I located a more detailed plot synopsis on a fan site, although certain plot points weren’t made clear enough for me and I still don’t know how the characters who are affected explain the transformation to themselves. However, I’m most interested in the way 2-D animation, 3-D animation, and live-action interact in the film, since it’s something I’ve never seen in anime before and that’s what I’m focusing on here.

The plot revolves around a giant whale that appears in the sky over Sakura New Town and emits rainbow-hued sound waves that turn the animated world into live-action.

The first characters who experience this transformation, in the film’s opening scene, are three of Keita’s yokai friends, Jibanyan, Bushinyan, and Robonyan, who attend an outdoor pop concert by a group called NyaKB, a take-off on the J-pop group AKB48, with “nya” representing the Japanese equivalent of the cat sound “meow,” hence the cat ears on the girls.

Then everything turns live-action, with the three yokai, now seen in 3-D CGI animation, being the only characters to react.

There are no closeups of the performers in live-action, just a long shot of them on stage at a real venue called Hibiya Yaon, in Hibiya Park, Tokyo. where many J-pop events are staged. (I’ve actually been to Hibiya Park and would love to have visited this venue since I’ve seen J-pop concerts recorded there, but I didn’t find it!)

Two other yokai, Komasan and Komajiro, are in a nearby outdoor mall at the same time and are startled by their sudden transformation.

At his home, following the opening credits, Keita, accompanied by his chief yokai sidekick, Whisper, experiences the transformation, and looks at the mirror in shock.

I wish I knew what he was saying so I could understand his reactions. (“Hey, I’m no longer a cartoon. I’m an actor!”)

At one point he says, “Shikatanai,” a shortened form of “Shikata ga nai,” a common Japanese phrase that means “It can’t be helped.”

Keita’s parents, as he sees them in anime and their new form:

Fumi-chan, the neighbor girl Keita likes:

And Emi-chan, another girl Keita knows, seen only briefly:

Keita’s friends:

Keita’s house in anime:

And in live-action, which looks far more spacious:

Keita is surprised to realize that neither his parents nor his friends nor various passersby seem to think it strange that they’re suddenly in a live-action world.

Gradually, he explores the surrounding neighborhood, amazed at all the wonders in it, and soon confers with his other yokai friends, trying to figure out what’s going on.

What makes this all work is the fact that the actor who plays Keita, Ryoka Minamide, reacts so well to things that wouldn’t have been there when he was filming. This is not an easy thing for actors to do, although it may be easier for a child actor with a strong imagination, and Japanese child actors tend to be great at this. These days, however, it’s a quality that is required more and more as actors increasingly must perform in front of green screens with the backgrounds and special effects added later.

Keita and his yokai eventually meet a blue koala yokai who initially just makes a “nya” sound, so they call him “koalanyan,” but he’s later able to talk to them. They find that this bear also has the ability to turn the world into live-action and back to anime. It becomes clear that the koala has some connection to the flying whale.

Eventually, the narrative shifts to a live-action teenaged girl named Kanami (Minami Hamabe), whom Keita tracks down to the roof of a hospital. In flashback we see how she kept a blue koala teddy bear with her in the hospital and from her window was able to see a store sign of a whale.

In additional flashbacks, we learn she was a dancer headed for a great career when she was hit by a truck one night and injured so badly she was unable to pursue dancing anymore.

Her bitterness was so strong it resulted in a darkness that created the whale which is able to cross into the animated world and affect events there. The whale eventually turns monstrous in both worlds. I wish I could be more specific, since this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but this is all I’ve got without actual translations of the dialogue.

The whale’s presence in the sky allows her to rise up in the air and dance, both in live-action and animation.

In the course of it, Keita talks to Kanami’s dance teacher and eventually recruits other yokai to help fight the whale monster at a sprawling mall and amusement park in Sakura New Town.

Humans ordinarily can’t see the yokai, but they have no trouble seeing Kujirama, the whale monster, especially when its bubbles start turning random mall-goers into fish and other seafood.

Long story short: after much fighting, a required component of these films, everything gets straightened out and Kanami and Keita exchange last words and goodbyes as she goes back to her live-action world with new determination to dance again, while Keita and his yokai go back to their animated form.

…although Keita has one crucial keepsake from his live-action encounters:

I’m fascinated by some of the locations used in the live-action scenes and only wish I knew where they were. (Googling “Sakura Mall and Take Station” doesn’t help.)

During the course of my research for this, I was also steered to the 2019 movie, DETECTIVE PIKACHU, a U.S.-Japan co-production that merged the Pokemon world with the real world, making 3-D CGI Pokemon part of the fabric of a live-action universe. So we got a “realistic” Pikachu, speaking in a human voice, that of Ryan Reynolds issuing adult wisecracks and giving the young protagonist dating advice.

I’m sorry, but that’s not the Pikachu I know and love from the long-running Pokemon anime series, the one that basically just says “Pika pika” all the time. I’m not looking for verbiose or realistic Pokemon.

Now I should point out that the movie is based on a game and is aimed more at players of the game than at watchers of the anime series like me who have never played any Pokemon games. But it was still all quite disconcerting. I don’t want any hint of the “real world” in my Pokemon.

(Shades of Howard the Duck!)

These are scenes of Pokemon I’m much more comfortable with:

Finally, getting back to MASHIN SENTAI KIRAMAGER EPISODE ZERO, I’d like to point to scenes from that song-and-dance number that were shot on location at the Harumi Island Terminal in Tokyo Bay:

I visited that location during my 2018 trip to Tokyo, took lots of pictures there, and wrote about it here. The actual terminal was closed when I was there and I wondered if the site was going to be torn down to make way for the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for 2020 (but still pending, as of this date). On my way to the location, I passed the construction site for the massive Olympics Village underway and wondered if Harumi Island would either be demolished or upgraded. For now, based on the above images from a film released in early 2020, it looks like it’s still intact. Here are some of my pictures:

Despite this being a “Film and Anime Blog,” I feel remiss for neglecting anime for so long (since July 16, 2019, in fact), so I hope this piece offers some compensation.

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