Art Gallery For the Day


Rape the Environment, I-III (2003)
Digital Media

Another series of digital prints from my 2003 Digital series. These are similarly titled because they were created in short fashion, progressing from one to the next. I aimed to preserve everything while tinkering with Paint Shop Pro, and at the end, decided to keep each of these.

The titles, as well as many of the 2003 Digital titles, referred to the policies of the George W. Bush Presidency, which was a complete and utter disaster. Thankfully, this is now an opinion that nearly everyone agrees with, and so I don't feel quite as isolated as I did back in 2003, when the trauma of the September 11 terrorist attacks rallied the nation around Bush.

As for these digital prints, I wasn't aiming for a psychedelic look, and at the time, I had no idea what "psychedelic" even meant, other than as some Baby Boomer hippie thing (yuck, goes our Generation X). I only was interested in the form, the color and shape and texture. I also aimed for something that didn't look "digital" or pixelated, but painterly. The swirling patterns of "Part III" more closely resembled my Watercolor on Canvas paintings, and so I happy to recreate that on a computer screen.

Studio Ghibli's Next Movie - Isao Takahata Short Film?

While Hayao Miyazaki remains, for the moment, happily retired, Isao Takahata remains active, hot on the heels of an Academy Awards nomination for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. And so speculation is rife with questions over his future plans.

Speaking in France in promotion of Kaguya's theatrical release in that country, Paku-san has revealed some details over his possible future plans at Studio Ghibli:

"I have not started working on a new project" explained the director. "But I had a project on which I had started to prepare before The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and the producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura, asked me to make a short film. Osamu Tanabe, the central animator [animation director] on Princess Kaguya, is also interested in the project. Thus, most of the conditions for a production have been satisfied. However, for my part, I have not really even started to work on it.

"You will be kind enough to treat this information as conditional," the director concluded with a laugh.

I have often said that several conditions must be met before Takahata can direct another film. There must be a willing and supportive producer. There must be the necessary funding, perhaps even with a willingness to forgo turning a profit. There must be an animation director willing to undertake the task (Paku-san is not himself an animator). And Takahata himself must be committed with a compelling story and script.  As of now, most of those conditions have been met.

It's quite telling that Studio Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, who inherited the reins from Toshio Suzuki, wants another Takahata film. And he is more interested in long-term strategy, in crafting a movie that will be revered 20 years into the future, than turning a profit for the studio. It's safe to say that he isn't willing to make such a move for anyone else but Paku-san, the legend, the revolutionary.

Crafting a Takahata movie is much like dragging a stone up a mountain (an image visualized perfectly by Hayao Miyazaki during the Horus production of the 1960s). The final piece of the puzzle remains Takahata himself. Can he commit to the necessary preparation and planning? Can he create a story up to his standards? And can Nishimura keep him focused and on-track?

Given his recent comments, and given Kaguya's Oscar nomination, I do suspect that Paku-san wants to create another film. But what kind of film, which topic, and what format (short or feature length) remains up in the air. He seemed ready to accept retirement after his latest masterwork, and indeed, Kaguya has that same Abbey Road feel as Miyazaki's The Wind Rises. The Oscars have given him a new lease on life, a new currency. And he intends to spend it.

Watch this space. Studio Ghibli isn't finished yet.

Photo of the Day

The complete Studio Ghibli (JP) Blu-Ray feature film collection. The only title in the catalog not yet released on BD is the 1993 TV movie Umi ga Kikoeru ("I Can Hear the Sea," aka "Ocean Waves"). I'm honestly not sure why that title hasn't been released, or if it has been demoted in the official canon. That would be unfortunate, because it's an excellent movie, fitting perfectly within the studio's "neo-realist" animations, such as Omohide Poro Poro, Mimi wo Sumaseba, and The Wind Rises.

As always, the Japanese Blu-Ray titles have the best picture quality (video file sizes are regularly double that of the US Disney BDs), and the best packaging. They're also the most expensive, thanks to Japan's odd policy of high prices for home videos. Ya gets what ya pays for, kids.

(Photo: Studio Ghibli int'l forum)

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness Now on Netflix Instant

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, the 2014 Japanese documentary about Studio Ghibli and its founders Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and (occasionally) Isao Takahata, is now available on Netflix Instant. The film is already available on iTunes, Amazon Instant and DVD.

Hopefully, this could mean more Studio Ghibli movies could make the migration to digital streaming. I would expect that to happen, sooner or later, as that's the direction the movie industry is headed. The Blu-Ray format has already peaked a couple years ago, and it's doubtful that consumers are willing to dip their toes in the pool for yet another media format ("Ultra HD" 4K). There's only so many times one is willing to purchase the exact same movies, and we've already moved from VHS to DVD to BD, with a couple extra stops (Beta, LaserDisc, HD-DVD) along the way. We're tired of this scam. Just put everything up on Netflix and Hulu, please. Online is devouring cable, and there's no reason to think it won't devour physical formats, as well.

As for me, I'm holding out for the "Super Ultra HD Turbo Alpha 3: Third Strike" format to arrive. Then I'll have the perfect home movie library!

Spirited Away, The Cat Returns Blu-Ray in USA June 16

Following up on our recent post announcing the arrival of Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away and The Cat Returns on Blu-Ray, Disney has announced the release date is June 16, 2015. Pre-orders are now available at Amazon and most major retailers.

Be sure to get your orders in early, fans. While most so-called "fans" won't touch any of the recent Ghibli films (an unfortunate fact that irritates me to no end), they will turn out for this. Heck, for most Miyazaki fans, Spirited Away is Studio Ghibli, the only one that matters. It also helps that the film's only DVD was released a dozen years ago (no remastered reissues diluting the money pool).

I'm curious to see if The Cat Returns sells by virtue of hanging on Spirited Away's coat tails. It might be wise for retailers to stock up on their Ghibli DVDs and BDs, just so see what else can sell. You won't get such an opportunity again.

As for Isao Takahata's wonderfully funny, charming and inventive My Neighbors the Yamadas...I guess we'll have to import the Blu-Ray. It doesn't appear that Disney ever intends to release it. This is their final "contractural obligation" release for Studio Ghibli. After June 16, the Ghibli-Disney relationship in the US is finished. It will be left to GKids Films (and smaller publishers like Discotek Media and Sentai Filmworks) to carry the flame.

Overnight Thread ("Orford String Quartet, Beethoven String Quartet Op.130)

For the Sunday (weekend) overnight video, I wanted to pick something a little different, and so I chose one of my "needle drop" audio recordings available on my YouTube channel. A "needle drop" is a recording of a vinyl recording; years ago, one would record to cassette tape or create a mix, while today, most everything is recorded to digital, for transfer to smartphone or burning to CD.

This album is one of my favorite records, a 1976 LP by Canada's Orford String Quartet of Beethoven's String Quartet Op.130. This is one of Beethoven's very last pieces of written music, and shows the emotionally-turbulent master at his peak, full of sound and fury, but also a delicate beauty and clarity.  I found this LP for 50 cents, which is common for classical albums. It's very easy to build a record library of classical music for less than the price of a sandwich. Thankfully, the price inflation that has accompanied the Vinyl Revival has yet to extend to classical.

I recorded this LP in 2010 with a Sony PS-X5 direct drive turntable (1977-79), an Ortofon 2M Blue phono cartridge, Musical Fidelity V-LPS phono stage, and Harmon Kardon 330c stereo receiver. This was never my favorite audio line-up, but it was very effective and it got the job done.

My current setup: Sony PS-X600 Biotracer turntable, Shure M91ED cartridge, Pro-Ject Tube Box SE II phono stage, and Marantz 2235b stereo. I really love my stereo system, especially the Biotracer deck and the Tube Box. The humble Shure cartridge - one can easily be found for $20 these days - is the weak link in the chain, yet it has a musical, full-bodied sound that is quite effective. A Jico Super-Analog Stylus is available for $130, and dramatically improves the performance of the cartridge. Jico makes a similar stylus for Shure's M97XE cartridge, and is widely regarded as a killer combination for the budget minded music lover.  It is nice to know that one need not spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on their stereo systems.

Anyway, enjoy the LP recordings. I've often toyed with the idea of writing hi-fi audio reviews on Saturdays or Sundays here on the blog, but weekends tend to be my "down time." I'm also quite busy running around all the time. We'll see if I get around to that.  Back to work on Monday!

Art Gallery For the Day

St. Scholastica Blues (2003)
St. Scholastica Orange (2003)
Digital Media

These two pieces are part of a very large series of digital artworks created in 2003. Everything was done on Paint Shop Pro, utilizing the various filters and effects.

I chose the title because St. Scholastica was where I spent my first year of college. It's a private Catholic university on the hills of Duluth, Minnesota, across the street from the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus. It's a small school, one very old castle, one newer building for the science departments, and one building for the dorms, where I lived for a time. The Catholic nuns live in their own quarters on one wing of the main building. It was a fun little school, but focused mostly on medicine, so I later transferred to the U of M.

I also thought of St. Scholastica when creating the "orange" piece, which reminded me strongly of 1970s pop art. One would find these kind of rounded-curve patterns on walls everywhere in the late '70s, and so it had a certain nostalgic pull for me.  I also created these pieces as texture-map tiles for video games such as Quake III and Unreal Tournament; I would use those games to "test" the digital artwork, so ensure that no seams were present, and the tiles flowed smoothly.

I'm not sure, exactly, how to achieve that feat in the real world, since the resolution for the 2003 Digital series is all too low (my mistake). I suppose solutions could be worked around it somehow, if the funding were available. It would be cool to make wallpaper out of these patterns for an art gallery show, especially for Orange.

Overnight Thread ("3000 Leagues in Search of Mother")

Okay, somebody out there has to upload some Marco clips to YouTube. I could barely find anything at all. I was lucky enough to find this clip video.

3000 Leagues in Search of Mother was the 1976 follow-up to the enormously successful Heidi, Girl of the Alps. As before, the trio of Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki and Yoichi Kotabe were the creators, although Takahata was clearly the dominant player, whereas Heidi was very much a team effort. This dominance, however, strained relations with Kotabe and Miyazaki, who both left after the series conclusion. The old band, together since the Toei Doga days, had broken up.

Miyazaki broke out fully on his own, creating one of his iconic masterworks, Future Boy Conan. It's quintessential Miyazaki, perfectly fusing his love of cliffhanger adventure serials with the sense of social conscience learned from Paku-san. And his obsessive work ethic on Heidi and Marco resulted in absolute creative dominance on Conan. Everything was his vision, his direction, and one often gets the sense that if Miyazaki could have animated and painted every single drawing himself, he would have.

Fortunately, relations with Takahata remained on good terms, even asking him to guest-direct two episodes of Conan. Miyazaki would return one final time for Anne of Green Gables in 1979, before departing the series after episode 13 for the Telecom studio and Lupin the 3rd: Castle of Cagliostro.

For Kotabe, his career proved more difficult in the late 1970s, working freelance animation jobs. His greatest achievement during this period was as the animation director of Toei's 1979 animated feature, Taro the Dragon Boy (it's a very good movie, btw). In 1981, he joined with Takahata once again, serving as co-animation director with friend and fellow Toei alum Yasuo Otsuka. He contributed key animation to Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind in 1984, before retiring from animation completely to work at, of all places, Nintendo. All those Mario drawings over the years? Pikachu? Yeah, that's Kotabe-san.

Of those three World Masterpiece Theater series of the 1970s - Heidi, Marco, Anne - Marco/3000 Leagues has always been my favorite. I can understand why it doesn't hold the same universal appeal of Heidi, which exploded with such energy and vitality. Marco is pure emotional melodrama pushed to its absolute limits. Heidi might remind you of Studio Ghibli movies such as My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki's Delivery Service. Marco is Grave of the Fireflies. It's 52 episodes of that. It's also the best-written of the three series, with the best cast of characters, most interesting locations (spanning two continents and an ocean), and the most emotionally involving.

Imagine The Book of Job, starring James Dean, directed by John Ford, Frederico Fellini or Sergio Leone. That's 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. I'm sorry I couldn't find any complete episodes on YouTube, but this short clip video is a nice glimpse. We really ought to upload some episodes. Fortunately, a fansub translation has been available for some time, so it's easy to track down and download.

Discotek once asked me what new anime titles they should pursue. My answers? Heidi, Marco, Anne. These are the best animated films Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki or Yoichi Kotabe ever created. Ever.

Photo of the Day

Rendered drawing of the Portland Tower, a 17-story mixed-use building (retail and condos) in downtown Minneapolis, near the site of the Minnesota Vikings stadium, Wells Fargo headquarters, and "commons" park, all of which are currently under construction. The Portland site broke ground yesterday in a public ceremony, and is expected to be completed by Summer 2016.

Slowly but surely, the open sea of empty parking lots are being filled in, and the old city of Minneapolis returns to life. Like so many American cities, it was crippled by post-WWII suburban sprawl, urban renewal, and our obsession with cars. A booming economy and young Millennial Generation are fueling an urban renaissance.

Now if we could do something about the eight miles of hamster tubes ("Skyway") that keep people hidden inside of buildings and away from the streets.

Quote For the Day

“Rather than paintings that declare ‘I am the real thing, I prefer paintings that say ‘As you can see, I am not the real thing, but please use me as a means to imagine or remember in a vivid way the real thing that is behind me. My intent was to have the viewers be there at the moment when the sketches were being drawn and to have them share in the emotions. I want to make sure that we don't forget the great power of paintings drawn by lines on paper to stir our imaginations and memories.”

- Isao Takahata, on the iconic, symbolic power of visual art in animation.

Isao Takahata Discusses Winter Days and Princess Kaguya spoke to Isao Takahata recently, touching upon his insights gained from a revolutionary 50-year career. The interviewer, Matt Kamen,, to my pleasant surprise, knew his subject's work, and brought up the 2003 anthology movie, Winter Days, in which Paku-San contributed a scene. That was very nice; Winter Days is one of those animated movies championed by animators and artists, playing in museums and festivals on a regular basis. Instead, it remains almost completely unknown outside of Japan. I guess it doesn't fit within the established genres of "Anime," "Disney," or "Pixar." That needs to change.

Takahata also comments on the freewheeling, impressionist art style of Princess Kaguya, which first emerged in his 1999 feature My Neighbors the Yamadas (and a number of Studio Ghibli short films), and was very strongly influenced by the films of the late, great Frederic Back.

Kamen speaks of Kaguya as Takahata's "final" movie, and this is a common mistake, probably owing to Hayao Miyazaki's retirement from feature films. Paku-san has never announced any retirement; indeed, he has recently spoke about future film projects he might pursue. Will those plans come to fruition? It's hard to say. The clock's ticking, in any event, a fact that Paku-san will happily point out.

Here are the key segments from the interview:

Between My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999 and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, you were involved with Kihachirō Kawamoto's Winter Days anthology. It's probably your least known work in the west, so could you discuss how you became involved on the project?

 Winter Days is a collection of collaborative linked poems hosted by BashōMatsuo, the renowned seventeenth century haiku poet. Creating renku, collaborative linked poems, is a highly cultured amusement in which several people take turns composing extemporaneous short, linked poems to jointly create a long poem. Humour was an essential aspect of this form of haiku, or the playful form known as haikai.

Kihachirō Kawamoto, to whom I owe much, came up with the idea of creating a film of Winter Days by assigning each poem to a different animation director to realise this project. He asked me to participate in this effort. I thought this was a rash attempt, but I wanted to applaud Mr Kawamoto's foolhardiness as he knowingly took this on. I first cooperated with Mr Kawamoto in turning the old and difficult language of the linked verse collection into modern Japanese. This was distributed to the participating animation directors. While we were working on this, from the expectations I had and respect I felt for mutual friends of ours, the Russian Yuri Norstein and the Canadian Frédéric Back, I decided to take on one of Bashō's haiku. Unfortunately, Mr. Back was unable to participate as his schedule was too busy.

The result was a unique and interesting film. But, unless one understands the meaning of each poem, it might be hard to comprehend. I was especially impressed by Mr. Norstein's segment in which he showed such a Japanese poetic sentiment and humour, far beyond what Japanese people can express.

Visually, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is closer to Yamadas than your earlier movies. What appeals to you about this more impressionistic style?

 It is interesting that you describe the style as impressionistic! I have been strongly influenced by Back's Crac!and The Man Who Planted Trees. His animation style can truly be called impressionistic.

In order to have people believe in a fantasy world and characters that no one has seen in reality, it may be best to present the space, objects, and characters in a three-dimensional manner. It is as if that world existed right there, in a trompe l'oeil fashion. The current American animation films utilise 3D CG to aim in that direction.

But I wonder about the representation of the world we know well, how to depict very ordinary daily landscapes, nature, and people. I have long thought that it is better to appeal to the viewers' memory and imagination but this was impossible to express through animation. The initial act of sketching has been the best method for carving onto people's minds and memories the true impression of objects and figures.

Convinced that it was unnecessary to draw in scrupulous detail the everyday world that everyone knows, I used this style forMy Neighbours the Yamadas. I thought that the gifted Hisaichi Ishii [creator of the manga Nono-chan, thatYamadas was based on] had captured a distinct reality of Japanese people in his graphic renditions, and I believe I made the characters move with greater reality than in the usual animation films.

How did you apply those techniques and styles to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya?

 With [this film] I went further along this direction to have the audience vicariously experience the instant the artist rapidly sketched what was occurring in front of his eyes. I aimed to have the audience vividly imagine or recall the reality deep within the drawings, rather than thinking the drawings themselves were the real thing. This would allow the viewers to feel moved by the actions and emotions of joy and sorrow of the characters, and sense nature teeming with life, in a more evocative way than through a seemingly real painting.

For this effort to succeed, it was essential to have the collaboration of a brilliant animator and an artist with special talents. Without Osamu Tanabe, who created the character design, animation design, and layout, and Kazuo Oga, who created the artwork, "The Tale of The Princess Kaguya" could not have been made. This work is the crystallization of the efforts of these two and the entire staff who supported our vision.

Art Gallery For the Day

My Picnic Was Hijacked by the Ant-Hill Mob (2000)
Watercolors and Liquid Paper on Canvas, 18" x 24"

One of the goofier titles, I'll freely admit, playing off the old Wacky Races and Laff-a-Lympics cartoons. I think the name came to mind because of the Wacky Races on Sega Dreamcast, which arrived in the summer of 2000. It was also one of the early videogames to feature "cel shading" graphics, which aimed to recreate a hand-drawn animated look to polygon graphics. It was a pretty innovative idea at the time, best utilized in Sega's own Jet Grind Radio (Jet Set Radio in Europe and Japan).

The painting continued the "watercolor on canvas" series, with multiple layers and quantities of paints, with a couple layers of correction fluid as the final layer. If I remember rightly, I didn't use the Kinko's brand this time, but one of the other major "Liquid Paper" brands. I discovered that they were not the same; this brand didn't dilute with water very well, preferring to clump together. It resulted in some interesting patterns, which helped make this painting stand out from the pack. But after this piece, I immediately went back to the Kinko's brand.

I'm not sure if that Kinko's fluid even exists anymore. I should have bought a 20-year supply and put everything into storage. But one can never anticipate the future, knowing what will stay, and what will disappear forever. Your only solutions are to make peace with the impermance of life, or become an obsessive hoarder. I don't have that much closet space.

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