Studio Ghibli's newest feature, Gedo Senki (Tales From Earthsea), was released in theatres in Japan this weekend. Understandably, there has been great interest in Goro Miyazaki's film debut. If nothing else, people will want to see what the fuss is all about, to see if the son of Japan's most successful filmmaker can pass muster. Thankfully, the reviews have been very positive.
The Daily Yomiuri has a pair of reviews praising the film, one in English and the other in Japanese. The English review by Andrez Bergen describes it as "a bit like Sword in the Stone meets Zatoichi," and has only kind words for the 38-year-old director:
"Still, away from comparisons with anime's uncontested international contemporary success story, and examined in the softer hue of what it actually is--an outstanding debut, and a rousing animation romp in its own right--Gedo Senki augurs well in terms of setting sail toward Goro's very own signature style, Miyazaki moniker or not."
The second Yomirui review, in Japanese, can be read here.
(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube. Sorry.)
Welcome, one and all! This week's Movie Night will be Isao Takahata's Omohide Poro Poro, the Studio Ghibli film from 1991. The title translates as "Memories of Falling Teardrops," which betrays its strong Yasujiro Ozu influence. It tells the story of a young career woman who feels disaffected, and quietly begins to question her life during a vacation on an organic farm. Haunted by her childhood days from 1966, the movie shifts from the present-day to the childhood memories that shaped the direction of the woman's life.
This film is deeply affecting, and connects to your emotions on a degree never seen in animation. Certainly never seen outside of Takahata's oveure. Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata's best known work in the West, feels almost monochromatic by comparison. You're about to discover Technicolor, Dorothy. Welcome to Oz.
Omohide Poro Poro is, with all due reverence to the great Yuri Norstein, the greatest animation film I have ever seen. It represents the peak of everything Isao Takahata hoped to achieve, in terms of content, in terms of form and structure, in terms of sheer beauty and naturalism.
Isao Takahata's films, as a whole, are a complete repudiation of the American animation codified by the Walt Disney studio, introducing psychological complexity, documentary neo-realism and naturalism, elements of tragedy, drama and comedy, a wide variety of visual styles, and strong influences from masters of world cinema. His movies display a wide variety of visual styles, and his free-roaming camera predates the age of CGI by decades.
Most of all, his stories are deeply human. Omohide Poro Poro is one of the great stories about a person's life, about quietly disenchanted woman who begins to reexamine herself, her place in life, all while being relentlessly shadowed by the ghosts of her childhood. It is a story of the inner child that speaks to us.
I don't think most Americans, or most Westerners for that matter, are aware that animation is even capable of dealing with such themes. Many of you probably won't believe until you see with your own eyes, until you're moved to tears by its graceful beauty. Good Lord, I know this person. I know this woman. This is me.
Omohide Poro Poro translates as "memories of falling teardrops," which is a wonderfully poetic title reminiscent of Ozu. Ozu, painted in watercolor. The scenes in 1982, when the movie is set, is painted with astonishing detail; Taeko-chan's childhood scenes, set in the 1960's, are contrasted with warm colors and faded details. No other picture captures so perfectly the idea of memories. Some events in our lives are sketchy, and we remember only the essence. Other moments sear in our minds with perfect detail; we remember everything.
Takahata adapted this film from a comic of the same name, in which the author recounted events from her childhood. Most of the flashback scenes are brought to the screen, and they run parallel to the adult Taeko as she takes a vacation in the Japanese countryside, working on an organic farm with in-laws. The film is at once tremendously funny, deeply insightful, poignant, tragic, always moving. Bring the Kleenex. You will cry or you have no soul.
There are so many things I could point out, from Yoshifumi Kondo's character design, to the musical score which spans from 60's pop to Hungarian folk music. I'll simply highlight my favorite scene, the sunrise in the safflower fields. It is a sunrise that arises slowly, steadily, over the endless hills, the yellow flowers, the bees, glowing with the Romanian choral music that sweels. The light breaks over the mountains, and we pause, reflect, give thanks. It is one of the greatest treasures of the cinema.
Today's the last day before we move on to the next Movie Night feature, so I thought I'd add a couple screenshots from Umi Ga Kikoeru. There are a lot of terrific shots to choose from, but I'm always a sucker for good composition, so here's one from the airport scene. The other shot comes from the class reunion; note the attention to detail in the shopping mall in the background. Like many Ghibli films, this is based on an actual location, and the accuracy in the detail is striking.
Also, it must be said. I miss the good ol' days of hand-painted animation. Today's computers have many advantages, but they still cannot match that unique quality that only comes from using a paintbrush. Poor Michiyo Yasuda must have cried buckets when they took all the paints away from the Ink & Paint Dept. and replaced them with computers.
So now that you've seen Umi and read a little about it, you want to pick up a copy and watch it on your new big-screen TV. Will there be any chance of it being released here in the US? Hmm. To be honest, I can't say, but if I were a betting man, I'd say our current chances range somewhere between "not likely anytime soon" and "fat chance." To understand, we'll have to look at the distribution deal between Ghibli and Disney.
In 1996, Disney signed a distribution deal with Tokuma Shoten, the publishing company that financed Studio Ghibli. According to the deal, Disney would sell the Ghibli catalog on video and DVD, and distribute theatrical films around the world. For Ghibli, this was a very profitable deal. They retained creative control over the DVD's, and released their entire catalog in excellent condition, and to great success. Disney's involvement also meant global exposure, which obviously is a very good thing (otherwise I'd be fast asleep instead of writing this).
There were some conditions to the deal, however. Rule Number One: no cuts. Rule Number Two: see Rule Number One. This was the deal-breaker. A number of Hollywood studios came courting, but wouldn't accept Ghibli's terms. Disney, however, agreed to the terms, and walked down the aisle.
Rule Number Two: Disney has to release all of the studio's movies in the American market (with the exception of Grave of the Fireflies, which was taken by Central Park Media), and they would get distribution of later theatrical films. And while they could not remove a single frame from any movie, they could rescore and re-dub the soundtracks for the US versions.
Despite signing on the dotted line, the Disney suits were never very happy with these terms. In all liklihood, they just wanted to get the rights to some of Miyazaki's more kid-friendly movies, like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service (these were the first movies to appear here on VHS, and they remained the only Ghibli movies on video for a number of years). It's also just as likely that Disney signed with Ghibli to prevent the other studios from getting their hands on the catalog of a rival animation studio - a studio that had cranked out one masterpiece after another, something that the Disney corporation hadn't done since Walt's glory days of the 1930s and '40s.
Disney was hoping Miyazaki would churn out another Totoro. Instead, his next film turned out to be Princess Mononoke - a dark, bloody violent meditation on conflict and the human condition, a grand opera on par with Kurosawa's Rashomon and Ran. Not exactly Mickey Mouse. The suits didn't like the picture one bit, but they were bound by the contract, and were later suckered by a second movie trailer, assembled by Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki, that sold it as a romantic damsel-in-distress adventure.
Mononoke was handed to Miramax, where Harvey Weinstein tried to chop the picture apart, as he often has with foreign movies. Miyazaki and Suzuki's response was almost like something out of The Sopranos. Suzuki greeted Weinstein with a samurai sword. On the sword was the incription: no cuts.
Miramax's response was the standard response of every Hollywood boss who doesn't like the movie the director handed him - they buried the picture. Despite spending over a million dollars on the Mononoke dub, employing Hollywood stars, and the writing talents of Neil Gaiman (whose original translated script was chopped to ribbons almost immediately after he handed it in), Mononoke played in a handful of major markets and was then shelved.
In the intervening years, there have been two major efforts by Pixar's John Lasseter to give Miyazaki's films a wider theatrical release. It's no bit of exaggeration to say that Lasseter is the one responsible for Miyazaki's Academy Award. Both Pixar and Ghibli have become remarkably close over time; Ghibli regularly helps to promote Pixar's movies in Japan (particularly with prized exhibits in the Ghibli Museum), and even released a DVD, "Lassater-San, Arigatou," as a thank-you for the Oscar.
Still, despite all the hard work, despite the stellar results (easily the two best American dubs of any foreign film), Disney buried Spirited Away, and then buried Howl's Castle. The two highest-grossing Japanese films of all time were never shown on more than a few hundred screens. Most high-profile releases are shown on several thousand screens.
The DVD front has been more successful, but it largely depends on where you happen to live. Buena Vista's Japanese DVD's are magnificent, wonderfully packaged, with superb picture quality and extras that include making-of videos, interviews, extensive trailers (the Mononoke DVD includes 26 minutes of movie trailers around the world), the e-konte storyboards, and English subtitles.
In America, Disney has finally released the bulk of Ghibli's films, but they've only done so kicking and dragging their heels every step of the way. The DVD's for Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service were literally shelved for years, only to be brought out after Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. These first DVD's are generally terrible. Nearly all of the extras, save the storyboards, were excised (the Mononoke disc doesn't even include that), the packaging is terrible, and the Disney-dubbed soundtracks were just awful.
To Disney's credit, the later DVD releases have improved somewhat, coming closer to the Region 2 originals (and in the case of Totoro, matching them). At least the packaging includes a cardboard slipcase, at least when you can find a store that stocks them. The cynics among us may complain that Disney has steadily swept the Ghibli movies under the rug, but at least they're improving. Well, sometimes. It's best not to go into detail just now. Unless you want to read another 10 or 20 paragraphs without blinking.
I'll come back to Disney's American Ghibli DVDs, but chew on this one for a minute: they don't put the movie's title on the main menu screen.
So now we're back to the beginning of this never-ending essay, and the main question at hand: will Umi Ga Kikoeru be released in the US? The answers, again: "not likely anytime soon," "fat chance." Choose your poison.
Since Goro Miyazaki's movie is about to be released, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at the movie trailer for Gedo Senki. The title translates as "Gedo War Story," but the official Western title is "Tales From Earthsea." The film is adapted from the series of Earthsea fantasy novels.
If nothing else, this looks to be a well-crafted movie. However, am I the only one who notices the heavy influence of Miyazaki Senior? The imagery seems to be jumbled from parts of Horus, Prince of the Sun, Heidi, Girl of the Alps, and Nausicaa. At the very least, it raises a few questions. Does the hero represent Goro, struggling to find his own identity within his famous father's shadow? Does Goro have a creative vision of his own? And why did he wait so long to get into the family business?
Oh, and will the movie be any good? It remains to be seen whether the son will be accepted by the moviegoing public, but there's no doubt everyone will want to buy a ticket and see for themselves. I don't think we should expect the next Mind Game, or even the second coming of Hayao Miyazaki. In any case, this will be the movie to watch this season.
For Friday's screenshots, I wanted to share some images from Heidi, Girl of the Alps. I'm having a wonderful time watching the series, drinking in all the magnificent artwork, sumptous color, and remarkable naturalist detail. It easy to see why Heidi remains among the most beloved anime series in Japan.
While the DVD box set doesn't include English subtitles, the story seems to be faithful to the Johanna Spyri's original novel, with a heady mix of romanticism and documentary realism. It's a landmark anime in many ways, and remains one of the great triumphs for Yasuji Mori (Animation Director), Yoichi Kotabe (Animation Director, Character Design), Hayao Miyazaki (layout, continuity), and Isao Takahata (director).
Just a quick heads-up in case you hadn't already noticed earlier. YouTube is doing some routine maintainence, which means that all the videos are down. This should only last a little while, I hope. I really hope I won't have to re-enter the links to get them working again. For now, we'll all just assume that everything will be working again soon.
On a related note, I wanted to clarify something about the movies and video clips. I've mentioned earlier that a number of Studio Ghibli films have been uploaded to the YouTube site, including Cagliostro, Nausicaa and Totoro. It's been suggested that I was the one responsible for uploading them, and that isn't the case. I had nothing to do with any of them. This week's movie, Umi Ga Kikoeru, was uploaded by somebody else, and I'm just linking to it. To date, I've only uplosded two movies: Horus, Prince of the Sun, and...well, the second one's a surprise. You'll just have to wait until Sunday for our next Movie Night screening.
(Edit: Yay! We're back in business! The videos are working again, as of 10:30 am cdt.)
It's just been announced that Studio Ghibli's Gedo Senki (Tales From Earthsea) will be screened at this year's Venice Film Festival. It seems that Venice has become the home for Ghibli's international premiers, having shown both Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle in past festivals.
Gedo Senki is the directoral debut for 39-year-old Goro Miyazaki, the elder son of some totally obscure filmmaker I've never heard of. The movie will be released in theatres in Japan this Saturday, July 29.
As always, my thanks to Peter van der Lugt, whose excellent Ghibli World should be on your rolodex (check the blogroll to the right). He's written extensively on Gedo Senki's production, which means he's the main go-to guy for Western fans.
Reader Konan points me to this music video I've seen recently (but subsequently have forgotten about). This is a video for a 2005 song titled, "Kaze no Tori Michi," sung by 26-year-old pop singer Sayuri Horishita.
This video was directed by Tomomi Mochiyuki, and three artists from Studio Ghibli, Katsuya Kondo (animator), Takahito Nakazawa (animator), and Naoki Tanaka (backgrounds). Ms. Horishita was a great fan of Spirited Away, and was thrilled at the chance to work with Ghibli's famed artists.
It's a great little song, isn't it? I'm not especially experienced with Japanese pop music (apart from garage band Guitar Vader), but this is a nice, sparse tune. It's so nice to hear a pop song that's, well, real music, instead of the corporate-jingle driven, computer-manufactured drivel that passes for pop in America today. Ugh. It hasn't been this bad since the dark days of Hair Metal (could even be worse - at least Stryper didn't lip-sync).
Anyway, this video aired on an NHK program called Minna no Uta, or "Everybody's Music." It's a long-running show, usually running five minutes at a time (at the end of television programs), and serves as a vehicle to introduce new pop songs and showcase animators. A Wikipedia page (the real one, not the Mad Magazine version) on Minna no Uta can be read here.
I haven't written anything about Puss in Boots in a little while, even though I'm still not through endlessly praising it to the heavens. But since the new Castle of Cagliostro DVD is coming in a few weeks, this is a great opportunity to spot another patented Miyazaki Riff.
Cagliostro contains one of the more famous parodies of the castle chase from Puss in Boots. We've already seen one example, and here's another one. At top, the bit where Lucifer takes a couple ballet leaps across the air; and at bottom, the Lupin version, with similarly funny results. I'm a sucker for these goofy little gags. Blame it on sugary breakfast cereals and Saturday morning cartoons.
I have mixed feelings about Cars. I've found that a certain charm still lingers days after, and goodness knows everything looks terrific. On the other hand, the script is weak, very cliched and formulaic. I wasn't as enamored with Finding Nemo as many other people are (I made the mistake of watching Studio Ghibli's Whisper of the Heart on the same day I watched Nemo), but I don't remember that movie relying so heavily on sitcom routines and '80s movies like Doc Hollywood.
On a deeper level, Cars serves as a metaphor for the Pixar studio. The film was made while the studio was ending their contract with Disney, and wondering what direction they should take. Could they break away, plow their own independent path, and cut a distribution deal with one of the other major studios? Or should they stay with Disney, embrace the corporate behemoth with all its status and money and opportunity.
So we can forgive Cars for offering an ending that's a bit of a copout. It wants to thread the needle, to have it both ways. I don't know if that's possible, and I'm unsure just how much freedom Pixar had in choosing to walk down the aisle with Disney (the other studios balked at a deal). But Lasseter and his crew have their optimistic hopes, and they've made their choice.
To his own credit, Lasseter received the thumbs-up from Miyazaki. Is there any other person, aside from family, whose opinion matters more to him? Likely not.
(Note: I wrote these comments on Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, a great little movie blog that highlighted Conversations on Ghibli in a recent post. So I decided to reprint my Cars thoughts here. Cough, shameless padding, cough. Oh, and for the record, don't change the name!)
"And it was then that I realized...I had always been crazy for her."
Umi Ga Kikoeru finishes with a climax that's truly moving, a dramatic punch-line after a long, engaging story. More likely than not, it's the scene that will linger in your mind the longest. At least, that's been the case with me; it's a grand, sweeping romantic gesture, literally sweeping.
It's a great construction. The whole film is building, building, building to the climax. Anyone who knows drama or comedy, truly knows it in their bones, will tell you how important it is for the punch-line to contrast against the set-up. This is a crucial lesson for anyone who wants to write novels or make movies. Something like this just isn't possible from today's brain-sucking Hollywood blockbusters. There's never any contrast, any proper build-up; no, it's all punch-line. It's all endless explosions and rapid-fire cuts. BoomBoomBoomBoomBoomBoomBoom!!!!!
Kids, this is why Master of Puppets is vastly superior to Kill 'Em All. It's all in the contrasts, the tempo shifts.
The climax to I Can Hear the Sea is a textbook lesson, taken straight from Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu became the master of zen filmmaking, of stripping away every excess, every concept, every notion. All that's left is the pure, unnamed experience.
Notice how scenes are assembled, with its casual pace, its long shots, its endless pillow shots. This brings us not only closer to the characters, by moving everything in a real-time tempo, it also allows us to contemplate, to meditate, to reflect. Umi is mostly told via flashback.
Notice how every shot is a static shot. The camera never moves once. And then we return to the train station, right where we began. Taku had once spied a girl he believed to be Rikako; now, having come to terms with himself, he spies her again. He won't let her get away this time. He sprints down the stairs, across the subway, and then up the stairs to the other side. Running out, he looks around, but cannot see her.
And then Taku turns his head. His eyes are fixed, the sounds of the train station melt away, and the camera swings around, sweeping in a circle to meet Rikako, who waits, smiling. Punch-line. Checkmate.
After an hour of stationary cameras, we have a circular rotation, 180 degrees in two cuts. It's an emotionally-charged climax, and it's about as satisfying a payoff as one can ask for. It's only possible when in concert with the rest of the film, and its long, slow buildup. A remarkable lesson learned from the young Ghibli staff - two degrees removed from Ozu.
Studio Ghibli's 1993 production, Umi Ga Kikoeru, is a superb example of animation in the service of naturalism and neo-realism. The teenage drama, which veers from anxious romance to open-eyed nostalgia, provides another excellent example of what animation can achieve in the service of drama. It's a lesser-known work in the studio's canon, mostly because the DVD has yet to be released outside of Japan, but it deserves equal billing with its older siblings, Grave of the Fireflies, Omohide Poro Poro, and Mimi o Sumaseba.
In a sense, I Can Hear the Sea represents everything that Miyazaki and Takahata sought to achieved when they founded Ghibli in 1985. Allow me to explain.
When Studio Ghibli was founded, one of the things Miyazaki and Takahata wanted to change was the working conditions within Japan's animation community. Traditionally, an animation team would be assembled for a specific project, but would be dissolved after its completion. For many people, there was little job security, moving from one project to the next in an almost temp-like fashion.
The old masters wanted to change this. They wanted an environment which could nurture and raise the next generation of animators. Ghibli ushered in a new wave of reforms. Employees would be paid a living wage. They would be hired permamently, not merely hired for one gig and then let go. This committment to share the wealth was a generous move for Ghibli, especially when you consider that the studio's first three films - Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro - were not box-office hits. The first movie to pull in a profit was Kiki's Delivery Service in 1989.
Perhaps most importantly, Ghibli also established a school for training the younger employees. Both Miyazaki and Takahata taught classes, imparting their wisdom and sharing the techiques in filmmaking and animation that made them world-famous. Soon, the kids would be set loose upon the world.
I Can Hear the Sea was the fruit of those labors. The project was handed to the newer kids, and the television format guaranteed that there would be less pressure upon them. Perhaps it's also a nod to their teachers' own experience; they began their careers on Toei TV shows like Hustle Punch and Wolf Boy Ken, and became masters of the form on Heidi, Girl of the Alps, and other television dramas of the '70s.
In any case, Umi is an accomplished work, and doesn't feel at all like a student work. It's focused, firmly paced; the many characters are given a considerable depth and avoid all the typical teenage romance cliches. Clearly, it's heavily infused with Takahata's naturalist style, with its objectivist portrayal of the main characters, and the many pillow shots which point back to Ozu. The animators had worked on Omohide Poro Poro two years before, and they absorbed that film like a sponge.
The director's chair for Umi Ga Kikoeru was filled by Tomomi Mochizuki, an outside director best known for his work on Here is Greenwood and Kimagure Orange Road: I Want to Return to That Day. Like the staff, he was a young up-and-comer, and his sensibilities fit perfectly with what the story requires. He was already committed to the Here is Greenwood TV series, and the resulting stress of directing two productions simultaneously took its toll on him. Fortunately, he succeeded on all fronts.
This was the first Ghibli production with an outside director, and it presages later director work by Yoshifumi Kondo, Yoshiyuki Momose, Hiroyuki Morita, and others. It's also the beginning of the great crisis for the studio, namely, Who Will Be in Charge When the Old Masters Retire? We'll be coming back to that one again sometime.
Hi Daniel! My name is Nancy & I'm a fan of your site. I got Animal Treasure Island & Puss n' Boots through your recommends and also enjoyed reading your insight from a Westerner's point of view. Very nice.
I'm writing because of something you mentioned in today's entry--"The Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon". I bought this R2 DVD in Tokyo 2 years ago while on holiday. They had the most amazing Japanese animation show at the Museum of Contemporary Arts.
They displayed a ton of amazing sketches and watercolor illustrations from some of the great early animation in the 60s, right down to the entire Studio Ghibli/Miyazaki catalog. It was so good and yet you weren't allowed to take photos, or anything. This weblink is the closest I've seen to any visual documentation of this show.
It was at the museum gift store that I was able to find a nice selection of the Studio Ghibli stuff (already available at HMV Japan, etc.) and many early selections by Toei Animation. (I heard about this show through the Nausicaa mail list when one of the Japanese fans shared the info.) Before arriving I had only known about the work after Panda Go Panda--had NO clue about the early works or Toei. I found their work so stylized, retro (in a good way) and quite refined for it's time. When I saw clips of "Little Prince" projected on the wall throughout the showing, I was blown away and had to get the DVD. I had never heard of Yasuji Mori but immediately became a fan. Anyway, there were at least 6-10 old Toei titles to choose from and they weren't cheap. I only bought the one I really wanted (it was 4,500 Yen--you do the math) and looked forward to watching it when I got home to Canada.
There are no English subtitles so my husband did his best to translate (he knows only basic level through immersion) but it's in very formal old Japanese. It's very quiet with little music so it has a really slow pace compared to the Miyazaki-directed pieces. The quality of the film and sound is impressive and very clean. I would imagine that if you contacted the gallery store directly, you might be able to purchase it directly or find it through other means online.
Anyway, just thought I'd share the info with you and some cellphone pics I took of the case so you know what to look for.
I recently passed a milestone here at Conversations on Ghibli. About two weeks ago, my Heidi DVD box set arrived in the mail. Two, actually. I purchased one box from JSDVD Mall, thinking that it was only the first half (like my Marco box set), and I purchased the second box from the ever-reliable YesAsia. As it turns out, the JSDVD set was the entire series, all 52 episodes. So it seems I picked up an extra Heidi volume that I didn't need.
In the end, this really isn't a bad thing for me. The single-box Heidi is more stripped-down, with all the discs packed into four cases, which are all crammed into a cardboard box. There are no extras to speak of, but since it only cost me $40 (plus another $25 for air mail), I can hardly complain. That's a terrific bargain any way to look at it.
The Volume II Heidi box is just like my two Marco DVD boxes, with a sturdy box to hold five cases inside. Also included is a sizeable booklet, which features an episode synopsis, a profile of the Heidi series (including photographs from the Swiss Alps), and interviews with director Isao Takahata and Animation Director/Character Designer Yoichi Kotabe. This box cost me around $80, which would have been more wisely spent on a couple more DVD's, but at the very least, I get that booklet. And it has to be said, it balances out the shelf sitting alongside Marco.
The one significant drawback? No English subtitles. Sorry, kids. There is no version of Heidi anywhere in the world with English subs, and believe me, I've looked. Our only three options are to 1) wait for a fansub team to translate and release it online, 2) some company to obtain the rights and release the DVD set in North America, or 3) learn Japanese. I don't see option #1 happening anytime soon, if ever. Anime fans want their naked chicks and giant robots, not character-driven drama with a heavy Ozu bent. Option #2? I'd like to see it happen, and often wonder why some enterprising company doesn't obtain the rights to the WMT series. Perhaps if interest in Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli continues, something could happen. But they'll run into the same problem as #1.
So that leaves #3. Dagnabbit. If I would only keep up with my grammer studies more often, I'd be much more fluent. As it is, I'm only good at playing the not-too-clueless tourist. Fortunately, I'm able to follow most of what's happening in Heidi, even if most of the dialog is lost on me.
And this brings me to a notable milestone, as I've mentioned at the beginning. This is the last major find of my DVD collection. Now I have all of Takahata's directoral works, from Horus in 1968 to Winter Days in 2003 (he directed one segment in the movie anthology). There still remains the Toei Doga television series Wolf Boy Ken, which was Takahata's very first job in the director's chair, the TV show Hustle Punch (on which the whole Toei crew, including Miyazaki, worked on), the earlier pre-Horus films like Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon, and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, which was a later Miyazaki movie made after Animal Treasure Island in 1971. But, for all intents and purposes, this is it.
There's something both satisfying and sad about reaching your final destination. A sense of accomplishment, but then an empty feeling lurking behind it - what do I do now? All the money's gone, nowhere to go...but, oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go.
(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube. Sorry.)
Alright, I've got my chilled mug and cold root beer ready to go. Our movie tonight will be Studio Ghibli's 1993 production, Umi Ka Kikoeru, "I Can Hear the Sea." The official Westen title is "Ocean Waves," but this remains among the last Ghibli films to appear outside Japan.
Umi was a tv movie, and was created by the younger members of the studio. It's adapted from a manga of the same title, and covers teenage drama, romance, friendship, and the difficulties of fitting in. A young man en route to his class reunion remembers his final semester in high school a year ago, and the Tokyo girl who both frustrates and captivates him. Set firmly in the neo-realist mold of Grave of the Fireflies, Omohide Poro Poro and Whisper of the Heart, it's an excellent little film, another example of animation's great dramatic power. Enjoy!
With a little digging around, I've managed to uncover an excellent fan-translated copy of Aoi Hiiragi's romance comic Mimi o Sumaseba. This is the original "shoujo manga" that served as the basis for Studio Ghibli's 1995 film of the same name.
For fans of Mimi/Whisper of the Heart (and that should be all of you), this is an excellent opportunity to read the original work, and to observe the differences in Miyazaki and Kondo's interpretation. And "interpretation" really is the correct word to apply. While American movies adaptations are expected to follow the original story to the letter (or, at most, refashioned into a Star Wars-style action blockbuster - see Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Phillip K. Dick), Ghibli's literary adaptations are looser, more conversational between the filmmaker and the original work. Miyazaki, especially, is one to turn a story around to suit his larger agenda and worldview. Howl's Moving Castle is probably the most dramatic example of this.
Mimi the comic is very much in the vein of Japanese romance comics, with all its likeable quirks. Mimi the film is more self-aware, wiser of the ways of love and the tribulations of adolescence. There's a slight undercurrent of sadness that comes from experience. The movie carries a wider arc; it feels more full of life. The comic is purely focused on Shizuku's quest for that elusive, slightly harmless boy.
This fan-translation ("scan-lation") appears on My Whispers, a Mimi/Whisper fan site by someone who uses the moniker Roarkiller. It's obviously a labor of love, and we're obviously grateful for his/her efforts. More recently, Roarkiller has also finished translating Aoi Hiiragi's follow-up manga, which was written after the movie was released. It's a collection of short stories entitled "Happy Times" that follow the exploits of Shizuku and Seiji.
You can download both comics from Roarkiller's Mimi manga page. The page also details some of the differences between the comic and movie versions, for your benefit. I'll put a page from Mimi o Sumaseba below, just so you know what to expect. Happy reading!
A few posts ago, I briefly mentioned that there was a Miyazaki riff in the new Pixar movie, Cars. Reader Sloindahed asks me just what and where it was, so I figured I should let everyone else know about it. This is a very short riff, one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-it gags, but a very clever visual gag nontheless. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem as though anyone else has spotted it.
So here it is: there's a scene where Lightning McQueen, the hotshot hero car, is tethered to a bulbous behemoth machine named "Big Bertha." McQueen is ordered to repave the avenue he recklessly destroyed the night before. You already know the details, because you've already seen Cars more than once.
Anyway, there's a moment when McQueen stops pulling Big Bertha after some distance, and the blacktop machine sputters to a stop; its pipes tilt and slack, one after another in quick fashion. It's a tribute to Howl's Moving Castle. To be specific, remember the scene where Howl's Castle comes to rest at a lake. Its appendages fall down and rest, in pretty much the same manner.
I came away from Cars feeling pretty divided, and the film's barrage of noise in the first act left me cold. But this quick riff made me sit up and take notice. It was smart. It was unexpected. John Lasseter doesn't name-drop Miyazaki's name in his movies, and that's a tribute to his work, because he's gracious enough not to. But he's a great champion of Ghibli, and Pixar worked so hard on the American dub of Howl's Castle, only to have the Disney suits bury the picture.
Of course, if you really want to get down to it, Cars is really about the Pixar studio at the crossroads as their contract with Disney expired. But that's another topic for another time.
(This is an English translation of Hayao Miyazaki's 1993 project proposal for Studio Ghibli's Mimi o Sumaseba, aka Whisper of the Heart. This unofficial translation comes from Online Ghibli, and was taken from the Chinese version of Miyazaki's book, "Shuppatsuten 1979-1996." My deepest thanks to Doraneko for translating this text and making it available to us in the West. Nowadays, why do we need to use a shoujo manga as our main theme? With the opaque future of the 21st century becoming clearer and clearer, the social structure of Japan is undergoing major changes and is beginning to be shaken. Our era has undoubtedly entered a period of changes, with the common knowledge and rules of the past rapidly losing their original strength. The pursuit of worldly possessions in the old days has already formed great billows of tide. Even though it has yet to dash high on the youngsters of today, there is already a straw in the wind. In such an era, what kind of movie should we produce? We should return to the nature of existence. The movie will neither cater to the tastes of the younger audience, nor deliberately raise questions or highlight the problems in their present situation. To the middle-aged people who have unspeakable regrets and remorse towards their salad days, the movie should be able to deliver an inciting feeling to today's youngsters. Deep in the minds of these young people, they are assuming in great faith that they can never play the main roles in the stage of life. Indeed, they are the reflections of the old selves of the middle-aged people like us. Therefore, we hope to revive the wishes in their hearts, and reveal to them the importance of embracing their dreams. Running into a partner who can raise our own potential by a stroke of fate - seemingly, it is a consistent feature in the works of Charlie Chaplin. While to enable such to miraculously resurrect is the main ambition of this film. The original source of the movie is a common shoujo manga with a relaxing and standard plot. In the fiction world, there would not be any obstacle between the main characters. There would neither be inconsiderate parents nor unreasonable restrictions. With setbacks and grievances thrown into the distant future, the girl would see in her dream a story of her own. This seems to be the standard format of shoujo manga at present. Even the manga which our movie is going to be based on is no exception: focusing on the portrayal of the frames of mind of the boy and the girl, at the same time rendering everything else irrelevant. Everything included is used to ascertain the mutual bond of love, while nothing happens in the story aside from that. Since every shoujo manga ends in such a way, it is no wonder that they have become so popular. The one whom the girl is attracted to is a teenage boy dreaming to become a painter. In the story he draws some kinds of art that look like illustrations. This is also a typical style of shoujo manga: the main character will never be someone with an extremely strong artistic inclination. The girl who dreams to become a writer is of no difference. Her works are merely fairy tales of unknown nationalities. Just like her soul mate, she is restrained in a safety zone where she can never be injured. Then, why are we proposing to turn "Whisper to the Heart" into a movie? That is because, no matter how the middle-aged people try every effort to complain about the fragility of the story, criticizing it as a dream with no regard to reality - they cannot deny that the story has illustrated, in a frank and healthy manner, the youngsters' hope of meeting their partners, as well as their admiration for a pure, innocent relationship. This is exactly the true and valuable part of youth. We can freely point out in a sarcastic manner that the so-called "health" is actually a feeble behaviour under protection, or an unachievable accomplishment even in an age of no obstruction. Nevertheless, why can't we try to use an even stronger force majeure to show the goodness of wholesome love? The healthy force that tosses reality aside - Aoi Hiiragi's "Whisper of the Heart" - isn't it the best subject for our experimental work? If the teenage boy's ambition is to become a craftsman - if he decides to go to Cremona of Italy upon graduation from junior high school, and enters the school for violin-making to learn the art - what will the story become? Actually, this is where the concept of animating "Whisper of the Heart" began. The boy will be a woodworking-obsessed teenager who at the same time loves playing violin. While his grandfather, an antique dealer in the original story, will become a character with keen interest in playing instruments and repairing art and craft. To facilitate both his work and interest, he will have turned his basement into a workshop. Such a workshop will definitely have served as a seedbed for the teenage boy's dream of violin-making to grow. When all the teenagers of his age are evading their future (since, to most children, growing up has no benefit at all), only the boy is able to look far ahead and live his life earnestly. What we are thinking is that, if the female protagonist in the movie meets such a boy, what will the outcome be? Having set up this question, an utterly plain shoujo manga immediately becomes an uncarved gemstone with a breath of the contemporary world: a gem that will be able to shine and glitter after careful cutting and polishing. In such a way, we can emphasize the pure and innocent feelings unique in shoujo manga, as well as let the audience to contemplate the way to lead a rich and healthy life in a materialistic society. Hayao Miyazaki
Traditionally, a project proposal is written after some degree of preparation, but as I've written in a previous post here, Miyazaki often begins production of a movie after writing and storyboarding the first act - the first 20 minutes or so. After that, the rest of the film is created as it goes along. So here we can see just what Miyazaki wanted to achieve at the beginning, and compare this to the final film that he and director Yoshifumi Kondo presented us.
One final short note: a "shoujo manga" literally means "girls' comic." Mimi originally appeared as a short graphic novel by Aoi Hiiragi. "Mimi o Sumaseba" translates as "If You Listen Closely." The official Western title was changed to "Whisper of the Heart," although the phrase has no direct connection. Enjoy!)
We should ascertain our starting point.
We should completely ignore the rapidly changing trends.
We should produce a movie that is capable of providing a broad vision.
By making use of an idealized boy-meets-girl scenario, we aim to show all the realistic feelings involved and try to celebrate the beauties of life. These will be the challenges faced by us when doing this project.
12th October, 1993
Nowadays, why do we need to use a shoujo manga as our main theme?
With the opaque future of the 21st century becoming clearer and clearer, the social structure of Japan is undergoing major changes and is beginning to be shaken. Our era has undoubtedly entered a period of changes, with the common knowledge and rules of the past rapidly losing their original strength. The pursuit of worldly possessions in the old days has already formed great billows of tide. Even though it has yet to dash high on the youngsters of today, there is already a straw in the wind.
In such an era, what kind of movie should we produce?
We should return to the nature of existence.
The movie will neither cater to the tastes of the younger audience, nor deliberately raise questions or highlight the problems in their present situation.
To the middle-aged people who have unspeakable regrets and remorse towards their salad days, the movie should be able to deliver an inciting feeling to today's youngsters. Deep in the minds of these young people, they are assuming in great faith that they can never play the main roles in the stage of life. Indeed, they are the reflections of the old selves of the middle-aged people like us. Therefore, we hope to revive the wishes in their hearts, and reveal to them the importance of embracing their dreams.
Running into a partner who can raise our own potential by a stroke of fate - seemingly, it is a consistent feature in the works of Charlie Chaplin. While to enable such to miraculously resurrect is the main ambition of this film.
The original source of the movie is a common shoujo manga with a relaxing and standard plot. In the fiction world, there would not be any obstacle between the main characters. There would neither be inconsiderate parents nor unreasonable restrictions. With setbacks and grievances thrown into the distant future, the girl would see in her dream a story of her own. This seems to be the standard format of shoujo manga at present. Even the manga which our movie is going to be based on is no exception: focusing on the portrayal of the frames of mind of the boy and the girl, at the same time rendering everything else irrelevant. Everything included is used to ascertain the mutual bond of love, while nothing happens in the story aside from that. Since every shoujo manga ends in such a way, it is no wonder that they have become so popular.
The one whom the girl is attracted to is a teenage boy dreaming to become a painter. In the story he draws some kinds of art that look like illustrations. This is also a typical style of shoujo manga: the main character will never be someone with an extremely strong artistic inclination. The girl who dreams to become a writer is of no difference. Her works are merely fairy tales of unknown nationalities. Just like her soul mate, she is restrained in a safety zone where she can never be injured.
Then, why are we proposing to turn "Whisper to the Heart" into a movie?
That is because, no matter how the middle-aged people try every effort to complain about the fragility of the story, criticizing it as a dream with no regard to reality - they cannot deny that the story has illustrated, in a frank and healthy manner, the youngsters' hope of meeting their partners, as well as their admiration for a pure, innocent relationship. This is exactly the true and valuable part of youth.
We can freely point out in a sarcastic manner that the so-called "health" is actually a feeble behaviour under protection, or an unachievable accomplishment even in an age of no obstruction. Nevertheless, why can't we try to use an even stronger force majeure to show the goodness of wholesome love?
The healthy force that tosses reality aside - Aoi Hiiragi's "Whisper of the Heart" - isn't it the best subject for our experimental work?
If the teenage boy's ambition is to become a craftsman - if he decides to go to Cremona of Italy upon graduation from junior high school, and enters the school for violin-making to learn the art - what will the story become?
Actually, this is where the concept of animating "Whisper of the Heart" began.
The boy will be a woodworking-obsessed teenager who at the same time loves playing violin. While his grandfather, an antique dealer in the original story, will become a character with keen interest in playing instruments and repairing art and craft. To facilitate both his work and interest, he will have turned his basement into a workshop. Such a workshop will definitely have served as a seedbed for the teenage boy's dream of violin-making to grow.
When all the teenagers of his age are evading their future (since, to most children, growing up has no benefit at all), only the boy is able to look far ahead and live his life earnestly. What we are thinking is that, if the female protagonist in the movie meets such a boy, what will the outcome be?
Having set up this question, an utterly plain shoujo manga immediately becomes an uncarved gemstone with a breath of the contemporary world: a gem that will be able to shine and glitter after careful cutting and polishing.
In such a way, we can emphasize the pure and innocent feelings unique in shoujo manga, as well as let the audience to contemplate the way to lead a rich and healthy life in a materialistic society.
Well, speak of the devil! I made a passing remark a couple posts ago that we should write to Manga Entertainment and ask them to reissue a new DVD for Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro. It turns out, they're doing just that.
The old Cagliostro DVD is six years old, and it shows. The subtitles are excellent, but the picture quality is old, and the disc includes no real extras. Pretty much standard fare for a DVD from 2000. But, at the time, this was the only Miyazaki film to appear Stateside, and you were very likely the only kid on your block who knew about it.
This new DVD is going to be terrific. The packaging is obviously copied from Disney's packaging of the Studio Ghibli DVD's, which is fine as long as it sells. I'd prefer the original movie poster, which is a really cool poster, by the way; but, still, this looks great.
Extras on the disc include storyboards and an interview with Yasuo Otsuka, who served as the Animation Director. Are the trailers included? That's standard fare these days, but I can't say for sure. I guess we'll all find out the hard way.
Cagliostro is one of those excellent caper movies that you can never get out of your head. There are the usual litany of thrilling car chases and cliffhanger escapes, a little touch of intrigue, and a lot of humor. This is a very funny movie. I'm immediately reminded of all those Pink Panther movies.
And then there's that Steven Spielberg quote, which keeps popping back up. In truth, it's more urban legend than truth, but it's an urban legend that no one has successfully proven or disproven. According to the story, George Lucas invited Spielberg over to the Skywalker Ranch, where he showed him Castle of Cagliostro for the first time. This was when they were working on one of the Indiana Jones movies, either Raiders of the Lost Ark or Temple of Doom. Spielberg's praise of the car chase (and it really is a spectacular car chase) was overheard by an employee from Lucasfilm Games (later Lucasarts), and so the infamous quote was born.
In any case, expect to see Cagliostro on store shelves sometime next month. Thanks to, um, "Anonymous," for tipping me off in the comments section two posts down.
I didn't realize that I didn't mention this in a post before, so I'll do it now.
On the right column, below the external links to my film reviews/essays (from my original artist website, www.danielthomas.org), below the archives and recent posts, below the external links to other related websites, you will find the fansubs.
Currently, the original Lupin III TV series, Future Boy Conan, and Anne of Green Gables are available. Also available is the first seven episodes of 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, aka Marco. These series have been painstakingly translated, subtitled, and presented by dedicated fans just like you and me, purely as a labor of love.
These fansubs can be played on any standard media player, like Real Player or Windows Media Player. Lupin III requires the VLC Media Player to run, because of its file type. It's an excellent little player; I also use it whenever I want to watch The Flying Ghost Ship or Horus. You will also need a bit torrent program for downloading.
Everything can be found with a simple Google search. Just click on a link and start downloading. As always, be patient, and be sure to keep your bit torrent file open as long as possible, in order to share with others.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with these anime classics, here's what Mel Brooks coined the "short short version": Lupin III was a tv show which ran 23 episodes in 1971 and 1972. It was helmed by Yasuo Otsuka, while Miyazaki and Takahata joined in as co-directors from episode 7 until the end. 3000 Leagues is the 1976 season of World Masterpiece Theatre, directed by Takahata, and layout by Miyazaki; only eps. 1-7 have been fansubbed so far. Future Boy Conan is Miyazaki's own series, which ran 26 episodes. Otsuka was animation director, and Takahata directed eps. 9 and 10. Anne of Green Gables is Takahata's third and final WMT production, from 1979. Yoshifumi Kondo served as character designer, while Miyazaki worked on layout for eps. 1-13.
Good! Yer married! Kiss her! Start downloading already! Oy gevalt!
EDIT: I went ahead and added links to the fansub releases of Horus and The Flying Ghost Ship. Now you can watch Horus with English subtitles (much more extensive than the UK DVD, which misses a lot). The Flying Ghost Ship is a low-budget Toei movie from 1969 which included Miyazaki as a key animator - the only reason it's ever remembered, to be perfectly honest. It's cheesy, stealing from Scooby Doo and Godzilla, but still fun.
I've been debating with myself for some time whether I should feature movies for watching here at Conversations on Ghibli. Video sites like YouTube have provided a home, even if only a temporary one, for people to upload everything from fan-made music videos to theatrical shorts and feature films. I've uploaded a couple films for your viewing - Horus, Prince of the Sun, the 1984 Nemo pilot - and I've been seriously tempted to bring out more.
I added Horus and the Nemo pilot to this site because they were relatively obscure in the West. Chances are, you probably haven't seen them before stumbling onto this site. But the Ghibli films are another matter. With a couple very notable exceptions - Omohide Poro Poro, Umi Ga Kikoeru, Ghiblies Episode 2 - all of the studio's feature films is now available in America on DVD. You should already own them all.
Well, after a lot of thinking and pondering, I've come to a decision. The answer is Yes.
Yes, I'll be showing more movies here at Conversations. But we're going to set some ground rules first.
Rule Number One: You're going to buy all the DVD's that are available in the States, or your region of the world. The best way to show your support is with your wallet. That's what motivates the evil corporate businessmen. If we want to see more of Miyazaki and Takahata's pre-Ghibli works released in the States, we're going to have to demonstrate that there is a real demand. We are genuine fans. Not leechers, not pirates. That means you, junior.
Rule Number Two: Don't ask me where you can steal films over the internet. See Rule #1. If you want to see Animal Tresure Island or Puss in Boots, you're gonna have to cough up the cash.
Rule Number Three: Don't complain if or when YouTube or other such video sites take down something that's posted here. It's their neck that's on the chopping block, so they get to set the rules. That's life.
Rule Number Four: You will write letters to the DVD publishers of Miyazaki/Takahata movies (Disney, Discotek, Pioneer, Geneon, and Manga Video), thanking them for their support, and asking them to continue to release more DVDs in the future. Ask Manga to put out a better Cagliostro DVD. Beg and plead Discotek to release Horus, and have me and/or Ben Ettinger do a commentary track.
Rule Number Five: Send John Lasseter a fruit basket and thank him for pushing the Ghibli catalog through Disney. Be sure to thank him for that clever Miyazaki riff in "Cars." Ask him if Tales From Earthsea has a snowball's chance in hell of ever being released here.
Rule Number Six: God willing, we will soon be watching Omohide Poro Poro. You will bawl your eyes out at least once or twice. You will declare it to be the Greatest Movie Ever Made. You will vow to never stiff your family with "Disney Princess" videos ever again. Your daughters will thank you by going to college and not appearing in a future installment of "Girls Gone Wild."
Rule Number Seven: You will have a great time. Tell all your friends about COG's Movie Night.
Here is the Japanese movie poster for Isao Takahata's 1991 film masterpiece, Omohide Poro Poro. I suggested in an earlier entry that I knew of someone who sold Japanese movie posters, including all the Ghibli pictures. To be sure, I haven't emailed the person who runs that website, so let's not get our hopes up to greatly just yet. But, still, he claims to be selling this poster for a rather cheap price; I'll have to be sending him a couple emails sometime in the next couple weeks. If it turns out to be legit, well....just start saving up your pennies, dear readers, just in case.
I have intimated, on occasion, my great and terrible devotion to this movie. It sits on my short list of all-time favorites, alongside Citizen Kane, Casablanca, 2001, Lawrence of Arabia, Seven Samurai, Duck Soup...yadda yadda. I've also mentioned, at least once, that the chances of seeing it released in America on DVD is just about nil. It just ain't gonna happen, not on Disney's watch. Yeah, we'll have to go into that one of these days.
The last time I sat down and watched Kiki's Delivery Service was about a year ago. It's a terrific movie, with a certain quiet charm that has always moved me. But this time, it struck particularly close to the bone. I had been unemployed for the better part of a year, and without any real prospects. There's your George Bush "Ownership Society," kids. Worth its weight in mud.
There's a scene early in the film, when Kiki is seated down in a park, lunch in her lap. She's come to this coastal town, in search for a new home during her apprenticeship. However, her friendly overtures are largely met with puzzlement, indifference, or outright hostility. So Kiki sits in the park, all alone and without any ticket out.
And it's this moment, this quiet pause when Miyazaki focuses on the girl's islolation and lonliness, that strikes me in the face. The feeling that you're out of ideas, and out of luck. Nowhere to turn. No way out. What happens now? I hear in my head the dying words of Horus' father: "Go to your people."
"Where? Where are my people?! Who are my people?!"
It's that emotional honesty that Miyazaki brings to the teenage coming-of-age story; the sentiments of someone who grew up after the end of World War II, devestated by its aftermath. Kiki in the park, without a friend, spooked by the cops, she's just like John Wayne in the doorway at the end of The Searchers: pensive, uncertain, unsure where to go, unsure where to fit in.
(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube. Sorry.)
Taiyo no Ouji Horusu no Daibouken - The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun - is now available in its entirety at YouTube. I chopped it into 10 equal parts, roughly 8:00 each; this way, you'll be able to watch at your convenience. There are no English subtitles (the fansub copy but subtitles on a seperate file), but you'll be able to get the general thrust of the film.
I've noticed that some brave soul has uploaded a number of Miyazaki and Ghibli movies to YouTube. Currently available are the following: Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa, Totoro, Umi ga Kikoeru/Ocean Waves, and Mimi wo Sumaseba/Whisper of the Heart. For obvious reasons, I'd expect these to be pulled from the site before too long, but I'm still mulling whether or not I should link to them in future posts. All of these films, except Umi, are available Stateside on DVD. Let me know if you have any preference (cough, desperate ploy for comments, cough).
One of the great things Isao Takahata brings to his films is a wide variety of visual styles, a willingness to change the whole look of a picture several times over. It's one of his signature traits, and I don't think it's ever been more perfectly balanced than in Omohide Poro Poro. The movie's two sides - the adult Taeko spending her vacation on a farm, and the memories of her long-forgotten childhood - exist in their own worlds. The adult world is fiercely realist, the childhood world a pop montage of color and faded outlines.
These screenshots are both from Taeko-chan's childhood in the 1960s. The band in the still photo was Josie and the Tigers, a popular group in the Beatles mold. There's a strong Warhol pop spirit in this film, with advertisements, movies, and popular songs quoted and referenced freely (tapping into that nostalgia that defines so much of the Ghibli era). The second picture, with Taeko in the center, is shot as an a homage to a popular ad of the time (although, sadly, I can't remember specifics - oh, the irony).
I think there's something more important here than another footnote in cartoon history. We're witnessing a moment at the crossroads in Western animation. There's a greater appreciation and attention given to animated movies, from the Oscar category to the great box office success of Pixar and Disney and Dreamworks. The medium has never been more popular with the public. But there are some very fundamental structual problems.
Animation in the West needs to evolve. It hasn't. It's become more technically sophisticated and more profitable for the major studios, but in a lot of ways, it's still stuck in the middle ages. We're still trapped under Walt Disney's shadow, of tired-out phrases like "wholesome," "magical," "enchanting," "whimsical," and that perrenial "fun for the whole family." Why are we still saddled with fairy tales and simple-minded melodrama and preachy, syrupy "moral lessons"? Who decided that a five-year-old is the only acceptable audience for these kind of movies?
Scott McCloud battled against the same stereotypes in Understanding Comics, but at least he could point to Art Spiegelman or Will Eisner or the underground comic artists as a beacon of hope, as proof that the art form could thrive in a commercial setting. What is there for an animation fan to point to?
There needs to be a revolution in this country. There needs to be something more than children's bedtime stories and rehashed sitcom plots. Even the great Pixar studio, which I love dearly, is in danger of becoming trapped by its formulas. And I don't think this can be sustained forever. Audiences who were turned onto Toy Story and The Incredibles for their innovation will lose interest as safe, easy-to-package movies flood the marketplace. Isn't this what happened to Disney in the '90s?
This is why Horus matters. This is why we need to understand just what Takahata, Miyazaki, Otsuka, Mori, Kotabe and company achieved. We need to learn the lessons of the Horus Rebellion, and apply them here.
Horus is more than a film that presages Studio Ghibli. It's a film that expanded the emotional range of animation, exploded its consciousness like those '60s acid tests. It asserted that animation could carry a literary quality; that it could draw upon the history of cinema as well as the visual arts. If movies were an extention of photography, then animation is the extention of painting.
Takahata had to battle for every square inch to get his picture made. And even he didn't realize just how far-reaching it was. The character of Hilda, the shell-shocked tragic heroine, dominates the film with a startling degree of psychological depth and complexity. Movement, body language, color and light, the expressionist compositions and backgound artwork - all of these are used to bring us into the mind of the character. Hell, if it was good enough for Van Gogh, it's got to be good enough for us.
Takahata certainly lost more battles than he won. The Toei bosses expected a family cartoon with animals and sing-a-long songs and safe, predictable plots. After all, cartoons are for kids. That's the rule. The running time was cut down to 90 minutes from two hours, because, after all, little kids can't sit still that long. The original title and theme (based on Kazuo Fukuzawa's puppet play about Japan's indigeonous Ainu people) were changed; that would either confuse or bore the audience. And there has to be some cartoon animal sideckicks, becuase that's the way these things are done.
Each of these concessions was a personal slight, a clumsy intrusion. You can see how everyone felt about those kiddy characters, and took their revenge at every turn. It's fun, in a slightly vicious sort of way, to watch Koro the bear introduced as Horus' sidekick, then literally dumped into a wasteland five minutes later and almost left for dead. Flip, the boy, fares worse. He's introduced chasing a rabbit; in the next scene, his fathter is killed. By the end of the movie, both sidekicks nearly freeze, alone in a blizzard.
Notice, also, the counter-attack employed by Hilda's animal sidekicks. Takahata is saddled with a squirrel and an owl, but reimagines them as extensions of Hilda's tortured psyche. They turn from Bambi throwaways to Freudian symbols; the owl, representing the darker side, overpowers the squirrel, torments Hilda, and boasts of the deaths of the villiage children. A cunning bit of jujitsu, but what do you expect? These young rebels wanted to make a film about the political and social upheavals of their era; they wanted to be real artists and true filmmakers.
The idea that the animation medium could ever be anything else never occured to the studio bosses. They never do, it seems. But Horus opened the doors for a whole new style of intelligent, artful animation. It blazed the trail for Heidi, Girl of the Alps, for 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, for Anne of Green Gables. The World Masterpiece Theatre classics of the '70s were conceived as children's shows, but with a literary wisdom that challenged viewers of any age. It's impossible to imagine a Heidi appearing in America under the current corporate mindset. Consider the Canadian TV cartoon based on Anne of Green Gables, with all its Disney-fied cliches from head to toe; then compare it against any single episode of Takahata's Anne.
I don't think there's a better example of where we're creatively stuck now, and where we're capable of going. We should be making our way to the promised land, not some phony corporatist pryamid scheme. Miyazaki once drew a great cartoon, showing the Toei staff struggling to move a giant stone block labeled "Prince of the Sun." They've been blazing trails and creating one animation masterpiece after another for four decades. Isn't it about time that we learned to follow in their footsteps? Isn't it about time we broke the Stepford Family mold and joined the modern world?
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the opening fight scene from Horus, Prince of the Sun. Directed by Takahata, and animated by Otsuka and Miyazaki.
I'll see if YouTube will allow me the luxury of more uploads. Consider this the American premier, so pass it along to all your friends.
I just today received your amazing package of animation. I'm quite overwhelmed by it, and am obviously impressed. Thank you enormously. It must have been a lot of work just making the DVDs. I obviously realized your knowledge of anime is quite extensive, just from the many visits to your site and blog. However, your ability to make copies of all this is beyond me.
Certainly, it will take some time for me to get through viewing them, but I definitely look forward to it.
Thank you. I'll let you know what I think as I move on.
Michael Sporn Animation
There were two different movie posters in Japan for Kiki's Delivery Service. I've always preferred this one, with its rich, saturated color tones, and its sense of pensive waiting. A great portrait of a girl on the verge of adolescence. The times they'll be-a changin'.
There's an online merchant who sells movie posters for the Ghibli films, and I just may have to score a few of them for myself. This is what happens after you've collected all the DVD's. Nasty habit, this.
It's something of a mystery for me, and many others here in the West who have discovered Horus, Prince of the Sun, just who animated that spectacular opening scene. Yasuo Otsuka is best known for the scene with the giant fish, but not necessarily this one. Hayao Miyazaki, naturally, poured himself into every nook and cranny of the movie, but, aside from the two action scenes that were shot in a rapid-fire still photo montage, I don't know which scenes were his.
Thankfully, the Otsuka documentary, Joy in Motion, solves this riddle for of. Well, sort of. The film opens at a gallery retrospective of Otsuka's career, which features many animation cells from the many productions he worked on. As the camera pans along the walls, you can spot several cells from Horus: that giant fish again, and three poses of Horus, charging the camera in the opening scene.
However, later on, when discussing the movie, the narrator cites Miyazaki as a key animator for the scene. This makes a certain kind of sense; Otsuka and Miyazaki were the two "action" animators of the period, so I've long assumed one of them was responsible. The documentary shows Takahata, Miyazaki, and Otsuka posing as Horus swinging his axe (even here, you can see how intuitive Miyazaki and Otsuka are with swift movement). So it makes sense that they were both responsible for the opening scene.
I think my only reservation about Miyazaki's involvement is that nothing in the opening two minutes of Horus ends up riffed in his later work. That's something you'd almost expect to see by now. He has quoted this film, notably two shots in Howl's Moving Castle, and a shot of Hilda that became one of his iconic images in Nausicaa. Shows what I know, but that's why I keep searching for answers. It's always fun to discover something new that you hadn't seen before.
Having sent a copy of this DVD to Michael Sporn Animation, I figured it would be a good time to share a few thoughts about it. Joy in Motion is a 107-minute documentary, released in Japan under the Ghibli Ga Ippai ("The Complete Ghibli," or "Full of Ghibli," take your pick) label. It focuses on the life and career of one of the true masters of Japanese animation, Yasuo Otsuka.
For the benefit of readers who are Miyazaki and Takahata fans, here is a sampling of the productions Otsuka was involved in: Horus, Prince of the Sun; Puss in Boots; Lupin III, both the original TV series and Castle of Cagliostro; Future Boy Conan; Jarinko Chie; Sherlock Hound. In other words, he was a pivotal figure throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and remains influential to this day (Goro Miyazaki cites him directly when discussing his intended style for the upcoming Gedo Senki).
The documentary follows Otsuka through his early years, when he almost immediately developed a passion for drawing. Entirely self-taught, he absorbed everything he could, from the Sunday comics supplied by GI's during the post-war occupation, to American animation textbooks. It was also during that time that he discovered the trains, trucks and jeeps that would become a lifetime passion. After a two-year convelescance, Otsuka took up a newspaper ad for an animation audition. It was the Toei Doga (Toei Animation) studio, led by Yasuji Mori; the test required one to draw a man striking a steel hammer against a spike, in five frames.
Otsuka passed the audition and quickly learned he had a unique knack for animation. He was trained under the studio, joining ranks with a new generation of artists, eager to prove themselves and take advantage of what life had to offer. They included Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, Yoichi Kotabe, Ryoko Okuyama, Akemi Ota, Michiyo Yasuda, and others.
Both Takahata and Miyazaki express their gratitude for their elder brother, and looked to him as an influence. The film offers colorful moments from early Toei classics such as Hakujaden, Magic Boy, and Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon. All of these movies, however, were only stepping blocks on the way to the true revolution: Taiyo no Oji, Horus no Daiboken - The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun. Otsuka, Takahata, and Miyazaki all share their memories of the movie's long, difficult production. It's a little humbling that even these giants, the artists who gave birth to the anime era, didn't always know just what they had on their hands.
Otsuka served as Animation Director for Horus, drawing storyboards and the e-konte. His greatest contributions were twofold. One, the film's two great action set-pieces: the opening scene with the wolves, and the thrilling battle between Horus and the giant fish (one of the greatest action scenes in all of animation). Two, and more importantly, his concepts of frame rate modulation, the notion of altering the frame rate (or number of drawings) to heighten drama or action. The giant rock creature and ice mammoth were drawn at 3 frames/drawing, to add weight and mass to their movements. Likewise, the frame rate will be smoothed out, quickened, at the climax, much like a dramatic punch-line.
This, simply, is one of the founding doctrines of Japanese anime. It's probably the most definable trait to Westerners, who are used to the Disney style (1 or 2 frames/drawings). The American style is a consistent 4/4 beat. Otsuka introduced the language of jazz - of modulation, of tempo shifts, of chomatic key changes. It's a concept he refined in later years, with Lupin III and Cagliostro, bringing his talent for detail and realism.
The great thing about Yasuo Otsuka is that he, and the documentary, makes animation look like the easiest thing in the world. He makes it all look fun. It's all intuition and careful observation, much more about motion and personality than strict adherence to detail or form. His presense is a great rebuke to the stale cliches of both modern anime and Hollywood animated film (Ben Ettinger has noted that anime series in the '70s used 5-8,000 drawings, while today's shows only use 3-5,000 drawings, which goes some way to explain why everything is so stiff, so cheap).
For the last quarter-century, Otsuka has served as a teacher and advisor for the Telecom studio. The film takes us into his classes, and for a moment, you, too, feel like you could give this a try. All you have to do is just draw. Draw a face. Make a few drawing of a man diving into a pool. That's a cinch. I could do that. By the end, you'll want to grab a pen and paper and try your hand as well. This is a tribute to the warmth and wisdom of Yasuo Otsuka.
In a perfect world, this DVD would be required viewing in every art class in the world, especially here in America. We'll just have to pass along our copies one at a time, by word of mouth.
(P.S. This DVD documentary is so obscure in the West, it isn't even listed in the Internet Movie Database! Am I and Ben Ettinger (and now Michael Sporn) literally the only Americans who have seen this?! Wierd.)
The Japanese movie poster for Animal Treasure Island (1971). It's a great poster; Heaven only knows just where you could find one of those in the flesh. I'd imagine they'd be worth a small fortune.
Interesting to note how Kathy barely makes it out of the bottom corner; she's such a forceful firebrand that she practically dominates the entire film. Animal Treasure Island marks the first appearance (although Hilda from Horus, Prince of the Sun is clearly an influence) of that most celebrated archetype, the Miyazaki Heroine. Am I the only one who thinks she should be the main character on the poster?
JSDVD has a fire sale on its collection of World Masterpiece Theatre box sets, courtesy of PIM Group. 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, 10 DVDs in 2 boxes, is on sale for $39.13. Remember that English subs are included, as well as two booklets (episode guide) and three postcards.
When I bought the Marco set, I paid about $100, so this is a real steal. Most likely it won't last for very long, so take this opportunity to purchase the whole series while you can. Go, pass it on! Hyaku!
Michael Sporn is a long-time animator with his own animation studio in New York. His studio is responsible for a long string of award-winning short films, usually adapted from popular children's books. A few months ago, he was kind enough to send me a DVD copy of his most recent film, 2005's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Based upon a great illustrated book, the movie captures a sense of pencil and watercolor nostalgia. It tells the story of a performance artist who famously tied a tightrope between the then-newly built World Trade Center towers, then danced and frolicked between the towers.
As an artist (or at least a good substitute for a real artist), I enjoy the look of this movie, its illustrative style, like the pages of the book sparkled with life. It reminds me of all the terrific animation I used to watch as a child on a USA Network show called "Calliope," of The Wild Things and Phil Harmonic and Carol King looking for Chicken Soup.
I've wanted to repay Mr. Sporn's kind efforts for some time, to repay the gesture. So I put the DVD burner to good use, and sent over a "care package" last week. Any day now, the Michael Sporn Animation studio should recieve the following (drum roll...this is just like Christmas!):
- Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968)
- The Flying Ghost Ship (1969)
- The original Lupin III series, 23 episodes (1971-2)
- 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, 52 episodes (1976)
- Future Boy Conan, 26 episodes (1978)
- Anne of Green Gables, 50 episodes (1979)
- Goshu the Cellist (1982)
- The Story of the Yanagawa Waterways (1987)
- Omohide Poro Poro (1991)
- Yasuo Otsuka's Joy in Motion (2004)
A few extra notes for those playing at home. Quite a lot of this is only possible thanks to the efforts of the fansub community. These are kids who dig anime enough to translate the scripts and provide English-language subtitles, making them available over the internet. Horus, Flying Ghost Ship, Lupin III, Future Boy Conan, Anne - these are only available to us from the fansubs. So they all deserve our deepest thanks; without them, I doubt we would ever discover any of these gems.
The others are copies of DVDs I've purchased from online retailers like YesAsia, which I rely upon to fill out my collection. I chose these because they're unlikely to become available in the US anytime soon. Omohide Poro Poro, as a Studio Ghibli film, is part of the Disney distribution deal, but they don't intend to release the film in the States. You will never see that movie in the States with a Disney label on the box. This is deeply frustrating, since I consider it to be Ghibli's - and Takahata's - masterpiece. It needs to be seen.
I wrote about the 3000 Leagues (Marco) box sets in one of this blog's first entries. It comes from China, and is the only release anywhere in the world to include English subtitles. A fansub group has assembled the first seven episodes, but progress is slow, and anime geeks want Naked Chicks and Robots, not heartbreaking drama. This is the only version we'll have for some time. I also made copies of the DVD covers and bought some blank cases, which is something I do when I make DVDs for the family at Christmas time.
While I'm clearly against piracy (and I'm obviously on the side of the artists in the eternal war between artists and suits), I'm eager to spread the word and share great animated productions like these. I look at these and wonder, why not us? Why can't we create something similar to Heidi, Marco, and Anne? Where's our Goshu the Cellist? Where's our Poro Poro? Animation is capable of so much more than the public is being served, and there are so many talented artists who could help us evolve out of the muck. My hope is that exposure to a Takahata, a Miyazaki, an Otsuka, a Kondo, will become a crucial source of inspiration for American animators.
Each generation has its great film movement. Other people had Kurosawa and Ozu, the French New Wave, the Italian Neo-Realists. This is the great movement of our times, and we need to learn, to adapt, to evolve. We're capable of more than bad sitcom cliches and music video segues and endlessly cynical product tie-ins. We deserve better, and our children deserve better. If I have to share what I've seen with every single animation studio on this continent, so help me Almighty God, I'll do just that.