Cartoon gets the real-life treatment in MIT production

Matt Dunning

MIT professor Ian Condry remembers 1995 like it was yesterday.

Twelve years ago, a small, yellow rodent by the name of Pikachu took the Western Hemisphere by storm. He and his 490 Pokemon brothers and sisters were suddenly the very definition of ubiquity: their faces plastered on everything from cereal boxes and candy wrappers to billboards and movie screens.

For Condry, it was more than just a toy commercial that lasted a decade. It signaled the beginning of anime’s infusion into the American lexicon. Twelve years later, Condry — an associate professor of Japanese cultural studies — found himself the author of a play that touted wide-eyed Japanese schoolgirls fighting giant robots.

Last week, the MIT Dance Theatre Ensemble did what few dare to do without a multimillion-dollar budget, as they performed “Madness at Mokuba,” a live-action love letter to Japanese animation, directed by Thomas Defrantz. In equal parts, Condry explains the show was a homage to the history of the genre and a commentary on the plight of undocumented workers in the United States, and ultimately a tribute to anime creators and fans worldwide.

“We thought it would be fun to do a live-action anime, and find out what that would even mean,” Condry said. “Given that anime is defined by that which is not live-action, how could you do it? That got us interested. So over the summer, I wrote a scripted that’s sort of inspired by a lot of the themes and a lot of the characters you see in a lot of anime.”

Simply put, the term “anime” refers to Japanese animation for television or movies. Trademark characteristics of the genre, at least in the teen-to-adult-oriented incarnations, include giant robots, quirky sexualities and fantastic plotlines. True to his word, Condry’s script integrated a Japanese schoolgirl, two giant robots, a roving Samurai warrior and a pair of soulless corporate magnates.

“It's a kind of thing that people have never seen before, and it's hard to imagine it happening anywhere but MIT,” Condry said.  “A large number of people collaborated to bring the show together.  The student performers did a terrific job, and we had fantastic support for music, costumes, set, video design, and more.”

Now that the show has run its course — it played three consecutive nights at MIT’s Kresge Little Theater last week — Condry said he’s had time to reflect on both the physical and philosophical elements of the production, and to what degree he and Defrantz were successful in bringing them to life.

“I was interested in how to make anime something that could happen live on stage,” Condry said. “What made the show interesting to me was the way it forced me to rethink that boundary between the anime world and the real world. Things are moving back and forth across that boundary all the time.”  

In a broad sense, Anime got its start in the 1950s, with feature films designed to compete with Western animation giants Disney and Warner Brothers. Through the 1960s and 1970s, beginning with “Astroboy” and “Giant Robot,” it began to pick up speed as a successful model of television animation, particularly where branding and merchandising were concerned. In the 1980s, a handful of children’s anime cartoons began seeping onto American television (check “Belle and Sebastian,” “The Noozles” and “Maya the Bee”).

Over the course of the 45-minute play, Condry said he hoped to entertain and educate, without doing either heavy-handedly.

“One of my goals was to think about how anime is popular not only because it provides a fantasy-scape, but also because it gives us a vision of a reality that can be more real than reality itself. There’s all sorts of ways anime comes through the screen and into the real world,” said Condry. “The key thing about anime for me is that it’s a media form that has a huge range, from innocuous children’s cartoons to deep, psychological drama.”

Indeed, the expansive umbrella of anime has come to hang over a host of mediums across the globe, from television and cinema to comics, toys, even clothes. Nur Shahir, 18, has been a fan of the genre for a little more than 10 years, more than half of her life, she points out. Waiting outside the Kresge Little Theater last Thursday for the premier performance of “Madness at Mokuba,” Shahir said she was drawn in to the world of anime as a young girl, by shows such as “Sailor Moon,” with its relatively simple “girls-save-Earth” premise. As she got older, and her attentions drifted to more complicated matters, Shahir said he was pleased to find a trove of anime shows and movies willing to make that transition with her.

“In Eastern countries, I’ve noticed that cartoons are a much more versatile medium, and a much more artistic medium, as opposed to being something geared towards children,” Shahir said.

“It’s growing,” Shahir said. “It’s more easily accessible. You really had to search around to find stuff, but now if you go into your local Borders or Barnes and Noble, and you go to the comic book section, you see rows and rows of graphic novels. Five years ago, that just was not there.”

“It’s not for everyone, but it’s really unique,” Shahir said.

Albert Chiou, a graduate student at MIT who includes “Cowboy Bebop” and “Samauri Champloo” among his favorite anime series, agreed that the genre’s versatility is one of its most attractive traits.

“It has something for everyone,” Chiou said, “every mood that you have.”

Next, Condry said he’s looking into the possibility of taking the show to Japan (Tokyo or Kyoto are his preferred destinations).

“I expect we'll do another live action anime performance,” Condry said. “It probably won't be a yearly installation by us, but who knows? It might catch on.”

Luckily for Condry, DeFrantz and the rest of the cast and crew of “Madness at Mokuba,” anime has caught on.

- Cambridge Chronicle