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2007-12-31

Does Anime Have a Future in America?

It's a hard life being an artist, living by your passions and dreams. You create and share great art, hoping it will change the world, only to inevitably run into the suits, and the cold reality of the marketplace.

It's a lesson I'm well aware of (in case you haven't noticed, I'm still not a world-famous artist), even though I resist the realist view every step of the way. Perhaps that's why I'm such a fierce champion for these animated works from Japan. They're beautiful. They're moving. They intelligent, wise, thought-provoking. These are some of the great cinematic works of my lifetime. And it's all so painterly; only animation truly fulfills cinema's promise as the dream factory.

But there's still the hard reality of the market. Folks have to be paid. And it's here that the dreams usually die.

What future is there for anime in America? What future is there for the Takahata/Miyazaki canon? Really? It's one thing to be moved by a classic like Anne of Green Gables or Gauche the Cellist, to name a couple examples.

Heck, look at Totoro. Even in the greater American culture, poor Totoro is only barely known. Apart from animation fans and the wisely devoted parents (the ones who do more for their children then schlump them in front of the idiot box and call it a day)...where does it all fit? I'd be greatly interested in looking at some sales numbers.

In a perfect world, the market would be wider and the audiences would be smarter, and there would be good money to be made by all parties involved. But how do you crack this egg? And can this egg be cracked at all?

These are the kind of sobering questions that rumble through my mind after surfing through three years of "Ask John" columns from Anime Nation. His view lacks any romanticism about the commercial state of anime in the States. I'm sure he wishes things could change. But he doesn't seem to believe that will happen.

To succeed with a Heidi or Marco or Anne, to succeed with a Conan or Lupin, you need to break to a wider audience that what's currently available. As of now, that's pretty much teenage boys and parents of small children. Hmm.

I'm trying to think of ways I could have made Animal Treasure Island and Puss in Boots sell better than they have. Maybe the packaging could have used better colors. Maybe they shouldn't have been single-layer discs. Maybe rigorous pursuit of the anime community would have helped. Maybe I'd find out I had a rich uncle buried in the mountains.

I don't know how to change that. I really don't. All I have are my dreams, and this stubborn conviction that there's more to life than what we merely see. There's more than the numbers. If you'd only sit down and watch, and experience for youself, then things would change. Then we'd get the revolution. Maybe.

Then there's this viscious circle involving dubbing. Paying for a dub of an anime series will at least double production costs. But most consumers insist upon American dubs (strangely enough, they like the idea of watching Japanese animation, but don't want to be reminded of anything that's actually from Japan). So you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Hmm. Not good, in any case. Any ideas?

Happy New Year! My Wishlist For 2008

Well, technically, it's still 8pm here in frozen Minnesota, but I'm pretty much trapped in the middle of nowhere without any escape, so it's back to workin' on the keyboard for a little while longer.

It's been a terrific year, everyone. I've had a pretty productive 2007, thanks largely to my discovery of vinyl records and the beloved portable turntable. Seriously, kids, that's the best toy I ever had. At least, until next year, when I finally break down and get that HDTV and Blu-Ray player.

Now that it's time for making those promises we never intend to keep, I suppose I should offer up my own wishlist for 2K8. Ugh, how'd it get to 2K8 all of a sudden? Last thing I remember, I was getting drunk and filling up on custom-built pizzas at the Dinkytown Pizza Hut, playing NFL2K1 until dawn. This decade sucks.

Anyway, here are my (barely) blog-related goals for the new year:

Ghibli Podcast: I haven't thought seriously about doing a Conversations on Ghibli podcast for a while, but I've got the bug again. My inspiration largely comes from the fact that I could make a show as short as 20 or 30 minutes. That seems to be the trend in podcasts, away from the monstrously long marathon sessions. I'm not Terence McKenna. I can't do those weekend-long raps.

As always, and help or pointers would be appreciated.

DVD Releases: Perhaps a bit more ambitious, but I want to be involved in seeing the DVD releases for many of these great productions that continue to evade the Americas. Why has there been no serious push for these films and television shows? Horus, Prince of the Sun. Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Little Boy and the Magic Serpent. Lupin the Third: Series One. Future Boy Conan. Heidi Marco Anne.

Am I missing something here? Mind Game is still not available on Region 1 DVD. What's wrong with this damn picture? Who the bloody hell knows some investors? Let's bring out the start-up.

Fewer blogging breaks (preferrably none): Okay, I can't promise I'll try. But I'll try to try. Maybe I'll even reach 100 daily visitors. Whee. Now you know why I get so discouraged about these things.

Publish a Book: This is something I've promised for the past year or so, but I haven't been satisfied enough with what I've written to make the final push. I'm still crazy enough to go the Lulu.com route, if only to gain some extra exposure before being picked up by someone respectable. But mostly I just like the idea of being a published author, and Lulu at least allows you to score that all-important ISBN for inclusion to Amazon.

Right now, I'm thinking of publishing the videogames writings, either from DanielThomas.org or my Videogames of the Damned blog. Probably just call it VotD. There's some good writing there, even if the subject matter is below trivial. I really should be doing something more legit.

Movie Screenings: This is something I've been trying to do 'round these parts for years. It's still a slim hope at best, since there's no real fan support beyond the snobbish anime fan circles. This is where I really wish I was taking film studies classes at the University of Minnesota.

Finish My DVD Collection: Did I even buy anything this year? 2008 is the year where I finally fill in all the cracks, including Japanese DVD's for the Studio Ghibli films, the earlier Toei Doga pictures like Magic Serpent and Ali Baba, and all those extra discs on the Ghibli ga Ippai label.

The anime DVD you most desperately want but don't know? Mind Game. Of course. It's time I traded the fansub for the import.

Widescreen TV and Blu-Ray: I very nearly jumped this Christmas, coming dangerously close to that new LCD/plasma, but I'll continue to wait just a little longer. I'll be happy with a 42" or 46", but larger would be better. Just as long as the picture quality of my standard DVDs looks fine. This is the one major issue that held me back this season.

Standard television looks horrible on an HDTV. Just hideous. HD broadcasts are fantastic, of course, but I was left very worried about how my standard DVDs would look. I don't want to go back to the muddy, blurry days of videotapes. Perhaps a BR player can help with its upscaling, but I don't know how effective that is. Perhaps you readers have some insights?

Despite all the hype, the next-gen format wars appear to be over. Blu-Ray has held a steady 2:1 ratio over HD DVD, and in Japan the contest was dead in the water. My only major holdouts are, predictably, Studio Ghibli and Criterion Collection. Ghibli (and Buena Vista) are firmly in the BR camp, and that just leaves my prized DVDs of Seven Samurai and The Third Man.

And, finally, the most important event of 2008 that we're all looking forward to:

Firing Bush and Cheney! Kick these rotten Republicans to the curb and take this country back. Because, let's face it, the Democrats are never gonna do it. Why do I have to do everything myself?! It's become my mantra.

2007-12-30

Iblard Jikan DVD & Blu-Ray

Alright, folks, since I'm bringing all these movies up, I should offer more details to bring everyone up to speed. This is the DVD release for Iblard Jikan, which hit shelves July 2000.

This is one of the latest direct-to-video features from Studio Ghibli, which has been steadily expanding their library beyond the studio's major films (in case you haven't noticed). Documentaries, side projects, and a growing library of foreign movies from the great animation filmmakers that influenced Miyazaki and Takahata.

Anyway, Iblard Jikan is based on the fantasy world of Japanese artist Naohisa Inoue. His first connection to Ghibli was in 1995 with Mimi wo Sumaseba, aka Whisper of the Heart. He priovided the surrealist backgrounds for the fantasy scenes in the movie's second half, including that one scene that was directed by Miyazaki (where Shizuku imagines herself flying with The Baron through the air).

Inoue came to work with Ghibli again this year for the DVD, which is essentially a show-off work for the artists' skills. This is more of an art-lover's film, depicting Inoue's vivid and detailed paintings, with animations from Ghibli's wizards. The running time is only 30 minutes, but the DVD also includes a bonus CD (I didn't think anyone still made those, snicker).

Iblard Jikan is the first Ghibli Blu-Ray disc, and it's probably an excellent show-off for your new player and television. Standard DVD owners should be just has happy, at least until you see how much better the picture quality is on the new format. For me, at least, it's pretty tough to go back. Perhaps you can hold out a little longer before making that jump.

In any case, this is clearly something for the fans and completists. If you're more casual about your Ghibli, then don't feel as though you're missing anything significant. It's not the second coming of Totoro.

Updates - Purchase These DVD's

I've added some more movies to the "Purchase These DVD's" links section. These direct links will allow you to buy these DVDs without any hassle or searching around, which is all too often a pain in the neck. I'm also sticking with YesAsia which is where I've always bought my Ghibli discs, thanks to their swift speed and great prices.

DVD's added to the links include the just-released Kazuo Oga Exhibition (DVD/BR); Oga's directoral debut Tamayamagahara no Yuro (DVD); and Iblard Jikan (DVD/BR), which is Studio Ghibli's collaboration with artist Naohisa Inoue (he provided background art for Whisper of the Heart's fantasy scenes).

Unless specified, these links are for standard DVD's. There are currently only three Ghibli Blu-Ray releases - Kazuo Oga Exhibition, Iblard Jikan, and Michael Ocelot's latest feature, Azur et Asmar (part of Ghibli ga Ippai's growing library of foreign animated films).

Studio Ghibli Blu-Ray: Kazuo Oga Exhibition

Kazuo Oga is one of Studio Ghibli's greatest artists, as the painter who created the wonderful backgrounds for such films as My Neighbor Totoro, Omohide Poro Poro, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke. His artwork is one of the reasons why I treasure my Ghibli Art books so much. There's so much attention to detail, so much love of texture and color. I can't think of another artist who brings the natural world to life.
This summer, Oga was featured in a major gallery exhibition at Japan's Museum for Contemporary Art. Over 600 paintings from his career at Ghibli were displayed, offering art and movie lovers to appreciate the master up close.

Now this is where Studio Ghibli really earns their status as the world's best film studio. This month saw the release of the documentary DVD, Kazuo Oga Exhibition: Ghibli no Eshokunin - The One Who Painted Totoro's Forest. The gallery experience is brought home for the rest of us, including numerous interviews with Oga's colleagues and and peers. Everything, according to the YesAsia page, is subtitled into English.

This DVD is being released in standard DVD and Blu-Ray, Ghibli's third release in the BR format. The package includes discs for both formats, which is a great incentive for us to make that jump to hi-def. This is something that I see happening a lot for Japanese movies, and I wish it would be seriously pursued here in the States.

Both formats include a 72-minute feature on Oga, and a 40-minute feature containing interviews from Isao Takahata, Ghibli art department head Tanaka Naoya, art director Kobayashi Shichiro, and art scholar Tsuji Nobuo.

The standard DVD also includes a 20-minute feature that brings us into Oga's creative realm. This feature is extended to 35 minutes for Blu-Ray, and also shows Oga painting the artwork for the DVD.

But the DVD's best feature - and this is where you're really excited if you're a Blu-Ray owner - is the inclusion of all the paintings from the Oga exhibition. That's over 600 works in all. I'm sure this will look great in standard format, but if you're looking for something to really show off that new widescreen tv, well, folks, this is it.

You can purchase Kazuo Oga Exhibition seperately in each format, but YesAsia is selling both packages together, and since you're paying the same for the BR alone, you might as well grab both. Now at least you'll have something to show off when you finally break down and get that BR player (or whenever the prices come down to reasonable levels). This is what I'm planning to do.
The big question on all our minds, of course, is when Ghibli will begin releasing their feature films on BR. This DVD release will only whet our appetite for more. Disney is pretty heavily committed to Blu-Ray, and the "format wars" are pretty much a non-starter in Japan. So it's really only a matter of time before we get our hi-def Totoro.

Oh, and have I mentioned that Blu-Ray players will play Japanese discs on American players? Yep, both countries are included in the same region - and, yes, the suits are still sticking with those stupid region codes. Like every player on the market won't be hacked.

Update: I've added a direct link to YesAsia among the purchase links. The current price is just under $55. Enjoy.

2007-12-28

Tenguri, Boy of the Plains - "Lost" Miyazaki/Otsuka Anime on DVD


Always count on the excellent GhibliWorld to keep us up-to-date on all the important news from Japan. If you're a Ghibli fan by any degree (and if not...what are you doing here?), then you should have the website bookmarked.

This month, just in time for Christmas, we're tipped off about the DVD release of a very obscure work in the Miyazaki canon. The title is "Sougen no Ko Tenguri," or Tenguri, Boy of the Plains. Created in 1977, it was a 22-minute short film that also served as a promotion for Snow Brand Dairy Products. The film was the first effort from Shinei Animation, which was an offshoot of Topcraft (TMS).

This discovery was a surprise to me at first. It's not something I'm familiar with; apparantly, Tenguri has never been seen outside of the company for ages. With a little digging around, however, I immediately recognized one of its images. I've seen a very short clip, unnamed and unknown aside from the fact of Miyazaki's involvement. The video clip runs only 10 or 20 seconds, and looks strikingly similar to Heidi, Girl of the Alps. I had assumed that it came from a similar time, and perhaps was an earlier project that fell through. Now we know the source.

Hmm...I'm surprised I haven't uploaded that to YouTube, but I'm sure it's there, and easily found online if you dig around.

So, anyway, back to Tenguri. The short film has just been released on DVD in Japan. The story is adapted from Osamu Tezuka, and its director is none other than our beloved Yasuo Otsuka. This is striking, since Otsuka famously shunned directing (whatever ambitions he may have once held were burned away during the production of Horus) in favor of animation. I think he did direct one animation project at least, but that was near the end of his famous career, when he retired a quarter century ago to become and equally great teacher at Telecom.

Miyazaki's presence was greatly felt, as always. Also on board were Yoichi Kotabe (his style is apparant in the character designs), Yoshifumi Kondo, and the musical composer Yoshio Mamiya, who scored four Takahata films (Horus, Gauche the Cellist, Yanagawa Waterways, and Grave of the Fireflies).

Tenguri is pretty obviously patterned after Heidi. This should be perfect for all those spot-the-riffs Ghibli drinking games. The character designs alone feel like Heidi outtakes, but there must have been something there, that spark of quality, to win endorsements from Japan's Ministry of Education, the Central Children's Welfare Council, and the Distinguished World's Cinema Introduction.

The story involves a boy who is befriends a cow and is taught how to make dairy products, sparking a confrontation against his villagers who want to hunt the cows for meat. Ahem. Yes, it's really a dairy commercial, though hopefully without the shameless corporate propaganda that winds up in those brutal Simpson's parodies.

So this is clearly one for the completists and the fans. Which pretty much describes each and every one of us. As luck would have it, I'm itching to score some more DVD's this next month, so Tenguri, Boy of the Plains is a must buy. The Pioneer DVD includes 35 minutes of bonus material in addition, retailing for 3990 yen. Hopefully I can grab one before the dollar collapses.

MOMA This January - My Neighbors the Yamadas


New York's MOMA will be hosting a series of animation screenings this January. Finishing out the month-long series will be My Neighbors the Yamadas. Thankfully, it will be presented in its original language, with English subtitles.

It's oh so rare to be able to watch Studio Ghibli movies on the big screen (I think my last chance was Howl's Moving Castle a couple years ago), the way they were meant to be seen. I think there's an added dimension of awe and wonder that's only possible when sitting in a darkened room with many strangers, staring at an enormous screen. Even with the advent of larger and larger HDTV's, there's a certain magic that your living room can't match.

Who knows? Maybe the theatre experience will finally fade away one day. The lure of the home system, cheap DVD's, and digital downloads may keep you stuck on the couch. But I hope that doesn't happen for a long time.

Be sure to see Yamada-kun at the MOMA. It's a terrific picture. It's Takahata. You know the score. As for me....well, I'll have to throw on the DVD and watch again this weekend, quietly hoping for a bus ticket to New York.

MOMA - Still Moving
"My Neighbors the Yamadas (Tonari no Yamada-kun)"
1999, Studio Ghibli
Written & Directed by Isao Takahata
Japanese with English subtitles
Wednesday, January 30 - 1:30 pm
Thursday, January 31 - 1:30 pm

2007-12-27

AniPages Thoughts on Animation Directors

There's an excellent discussion at the AniPages message boards about the role of the auteur director in Japanese anime. It's a terrific discussion that began earlier in the fall, but you owe it to yourself to check in and read everything. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the insights from an actual, real-life animation filmmaker (hint: Tikkon Kinkreet).

Naturally, since the role of director came up, I had to highlight the master himself, Mr. Takahata. Here's my post, in case you're interested. Continue the discussion here, or on your own blogs. I'm looking forward to your insights, as always...

This is an excellent discussion! I feel sorry for having missed out
on so much of it. This is just about the best animation reading I've found
online in some time.

If you're going to talk about the auteur theory and the role of film
director in Japanese animation, it's absolutely crucial to focus on Japan's
greatest animation director of them all - Isao Takahata. His work is
essential viewing not just for anime fans, but for Westerners looking for that
crucial new inspiration in helping our animation styles evolve.

I argue (and I'm pretty sure Ben Ettinger argues this too) pretty
fervently that Horus, Prince of the Sun ushered in the modern anime era, that
moment when Japan's animation made the critical break from the West and became
its own unique entity. All of the hallmarks of the later classics are
there: the literary quality, the depth of characters, the focus on psychology
and the inner mind, the emotional range, and, of course, the battle by the Toei
crew to break fully from the Disney model. And anime's visual language,
it's jazz-like tempo shifts and compositions and movements, is given
birth. It's really a spectacular movie to watch; even with all the battle
scars visible.

For me, modern anime is forged from the old Toei crew - Miyazaki and
Takahata are now world-famous, but their peers are equally brilliant and should
burn in the minds of all animation lovers. Otsuka, Mori, Kotabi, Okuyama,
Ota (heyyy...what exactly did Akemi Ota do on Horus?), yadda yadda.

Takahata is not an animator, and this distinction always stands out for
us on this side of the pond, although he insists this was common practice when
he was coming of age in the 1960's. It's impossible to think of an
American animation film - real animation, not just the Zemekis motion-capture
approach - where the director isn't a craftsman as well. Maybe that's more
due to our style. Bugs Bunny ain't exactly auteur. But Takahata
brought the great directors to animation - Renoir, Bergman, Welles, Ozu - and
challenged live cinema on its own terms.

I remember Roger Ebert commenting on Grave of the Fireflies, noting
that the movie couldn't be possible as a live-action movie. The reality of
the actors would clash too harshly with the archetypes and what they
represent. In a sense, animation succeeds in connecting to us emotionally
because it's more iconic, more abstract. You can do human drama that's
more involving; just in the way expressionist art succeeds where photography
fails. Could Van Gogh succeed as a photographer? Perhaps. But
that inner dimension into the mind wouldn't be there.

I know it's hard for animation and anime fans to point to these three
programs, but I think they sit at the top of the entire Takahata/Miyazaki
canon. These are the three World Masterpiece Theatre series produced in
the '70s - Heidi, Girl of the Alps; 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother; Anne of
Green Gables. I don't brag nearly enough about these three on my Ghibli
blog, but they are absolutely essential viewing for anyone remotely interested
in animation. Goes double if you work in animation.

Oh, and great job in calling out Animal Treasure Island. That's
the craziest, wildest pirate movie I've ever seen. It just blazes. I
like it even more (if only a little) than Puss in Boots, the definitive anime
comedy. Ben Ettinger is right - Miyazaki's pirate battle is required study
for all aspiring animators.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All

Sorry I haven't been blogging for some time now. Yeah, right. I'm down to what, a handful of viewers now? Yeah, that's okay, I deserve it. The internet is never kind to vacations or blogging breaks. But, hey, my cable internet was down, and my computer died. My brother gave me a new (sorta new) one, but I need a special cable to connect the hard drive to the motherboard. Ugh!

And I really wanna watch some Lupin III episodes.

Anyway, here's to a happy and merry Christmas and Holiday season. Hope Boxing Day went well for everyone. I spent Christmas Day with family, where we laughed ourselves silly to Spongebob Squarepants. It's just about the only really fun cartoon show on the air these days. After that, we threw on My Neighbor Totoro and Laputa: Castle in the Sky while various parties made their escapes. Totoro looks terrific on a 42" widescreen - I really need to get one of those.

2007-11-08

Borders' Miyazaki DVD Box Set, or Duck, You Sucker!

Okay, I needed a catchy title. I was thinking of something like Rocky & Bullwinkle would do for their crazy cliffhangers. Next time I think I'll quote Commander McBragg...

I spend most weekdays hovering through the Borders in downtown Minneapolis, scanning through the books and magazines, trying not to be tempted by that Super Mario Galaxy kiosk in the GameStop next door. This week I discovered an exclusive DVD set of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli movies.

This was a great surprise which only lasted about ten seconds. After that, my brain switched on again and everything turned sour.

Here's the scoop: Borders has an exclusive DVD box set of a number of Ghibli films. These are the same Disney DVD's as are currently released. Those of us hoping and praying for those much-needed updates to Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke are still out of luck.

The movies are all Miyazaki's - Nausicaa, Castle in the Sky, Totoro, Kiki, Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl. Notice anything missing? Where's Porco? There's no Porco Rosso in this set. Just great - the first movie I grab when I want to introduce someone to Studio Ghibli, and it isn't included in the damn box. This is just bizarre. One could make the case that Porco Rosso is a more adult-oriented film, and this might not work for the kiddies; but the same holds true for Nausicaa and Mononoke, and they're included. Those are the dark, heavy films, the Kurosawa pictures, and I wouldn't recommend them to parents searching for movies for young children.

This is another notable casualty in America's Disney fetish, the notion that animation only serves the role of virtual babysitter for the small tots. Anyone who grew up on Charlie Brown, Chuck Jones, Yuri Norstein, and Watership Down will tell you that's not true, and Studio Ghibli shatters that myth to pieces. That's their great strength; their films have the widest range and greatest appeal of any movie studio in the world. Pixar could only hope to stretch their wings as wide.

Alright. Porco's out. A bitter shame, since it's such a wonderful movie. It's bad enough that only the Miyazaki DVDs are in this box; again, this pretty much defeats the point of packaging a Ghibli box set. And, of course, I'm going to huff and puff that Isao Takahata has been left out. Pom Poko? If you're smart enough to put down the paint chips and stop giggling at the pee-pee parts, you'll find a masterpiece of storytelling. My Neighbors the Yamadas? The primal archetype for how you adapt a comic strip to the movies. I'd say these are truly "family pictures," more so than the standard non-Pixar drivel. These are movies that demand that Mom and Dad and the kids all sit together - then sit together and talk it out afterwords.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned. That whole human communication thing. It's so yesterday. Just become bloated whales while watching the fake Barbie dolls on Disney Channel. Now we can all be Stepford Families! Yay!

More baffling omissions. Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart? Where's Mimi? After Omohide Poro Poro, it's my favorite Ghibli picture. The Cat Returns? Now there's a genuine kid's movie. You left in Mononoke, with its extentialism and grim violence, but you left out the cartoon with the cats? This movie should have been sold to every cat person living on this continent. Good glayvin, people, do I have to do everything myself?

It's bad enough that Disney won't be bothered to ever release Poro Poro and Umi ga Kikoeru, or any of those other terrific Ghibli DVDs from Japan. It makes the whole notion of a box set pointless. All this runs through my mind....and then the sticker shock kicks in.

The Borders' Ghibli DVD box is selling for how much? Two hundred bucks. Seven DVD's. No extras. Two hundred bucks.

Hah hah hah. That's a funny one. You are aware that you can buy each DVD individually for less than $25, yes? For this kind of money, you're almost smarter to import the Japanese DVD's. Which, if you're a serious Ghibli Freak, you're already doing.

Don't be a sucker for this, gentle readers. You have better options. Too bad, really, since a Ghibli box set makes perfect sense. Hopefully somebody who doesn't work in marketing and sales could hash it out. Aww, heck, who am I kidding? I'll hop on the plane and head over to Disney HQ myself.

2007-11-06

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind: Watercolor Impressions - New Miyazaki Book


Terrific news to report, folks. I had to make sure to switch blogs (as I sometimes do - I've been posting heavily on Videogames of the Damned, if you're wondering where I've been) and share the surprise.

Today, Viz Media released the latest book in the Studio Ghibli Library series. Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind: Watercolor Impressions is 208 pages of sketches, rough ideas, and finished illustrations from Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece. And nearly everything is in glorious watercolor.

This was a terrific surprise for me. The book was originally published in Japan in 1997 (?), and has been one of those Ghibli-themed books I told myself to grab. Unfortunately, other priorities always intruded, as life often does. Now we'll all be able to read Miyazaki's own thoughts in English, gaining insight into the evolution and development of Nausicaa the manga, and then the Nausicaa film which gave birth to Studio Ghibli.

Watercolor Impressions is magnificent. The book is in the same large size as all the "Art of..." books, and is similarly priced. The illustrations are wonderful, and I'm sure you'll spot many of them. You'll also see many snippets and fragments of ideas that Miyazaki held onto throughout the years; ideas that formed during earlier productions, like that Superman robot that appeared in the Farewell, Beloved Lupin episode. As the ideas for Nausicaa began during the production of Sherlock Hound at Telecom (Miyazaki worked on his comic project at home, keeping the two jobs seperate), you can see that steady stream of consciousness from Future Boy Conan (and stretching back, as always, to Horus, Prince of the Sun). Many ideas and motifs that weren't used for Nausicaa would surface years later for Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke.

There are so many comic works from Miyazaki that have never been shown here in the West, so it's always a joy to see a new collection of his artwork, especially from his signature graphic novel. It's the perfect companion piece to the film and comic. Foolish me. I was hoping to save up enough money to get Super Mario Galaxy next week. Those plans are now in tatters.

(Alright, it seems Blogger is being a pain at this computer, so I can't upload any photo of the book. I suspect this is an issue with Internet Explorer - my own computer uses Firefox, naturally.)

Update: Okay, I was wrong about the book's original date. I don't know, to be honest, but it appears to have been published after Mononoke was released. The book makes mention of the film, and photos of Miyazaki show him with the goatee. That would have been around '97 or so.

Update #2: Alright, alright! It's 1996. The book was first published in 1996. I bought this volume, of course, because I had to have it. That original date is buried in the fine print, where my aging eyes are increasingly stumped. I suspect glasses will be in my future. Also, as you can see, I've uploaded a photo of the Nausicaa Watercolor book.

2007-11-05

Isao Takahata Turns 72

Happy birthday to the revolutionary film director, Isao Takahata. He turned 72 years young on October 29. While we are all eagerly awaiting the arrival of Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo on a Cliff, we're especially excited at the prospect of a new Studio Ghibli film by Takahata. It's been far too long.

Here's to many more fruitful years for Takahata and all his peers. If only they could continue making movies for another 20 years....I know, it's selfish and greedy on our part. But, doggonit, we're fans.

Help yourselves to more cake and some of the Halloween candy stash, while you pour through your favorite Takahata movies.

2007-10-03

Future Boy Conan - The Videogame!

Hey, did you know that Future Boy Conan had its own videogame? Pretty cool, huh?

No, not that Conan. You're thinking of Conan O'Brian.

No, no, nooooo....now you're thinking of Governor Ahnold.

The other Conan. You know, the Miyazaki show from 1978? Hello, Bueller?

Anyway, not many folks know that Conan appeared as a video game on the PC Engine CD in Japan. The PC Engine arrived on American shores as the Turbografx-16 in 1989, where it squared off against Sega's Genesis, and lost fairly handily. They were out of the game by the time Nintendo jumped into the ring with the Super NES. But in Japan, the PC Engine was fairly successful.

The upshot to all this? This video clip of the Future Boy Conan game, which seems to re-enact the plot to the television show. Only with lots of two-dimensional platform jumping. And breaking boxes open. Because, you know, that sort of thing happened all the time on the show. I think the platforming stages were taken from the episodes Takahata directed. Yeah, that's it.

In any case, enjoy the video.




2007-09-29

Thoughts on My Neighbor Totoro (Youtube Pulled Our Movie Edition)

Well, folks, I wanted to post another movie here on the blog, and I stumbled along into another copy of My Neighbor Totoro on YouTube. Well, why not? That works perfectly fine. And it's in the original language? That's fine, too; everybody knows the words by heart. At least, you should.

I've been watching Ken Burns' The War this week, and it's been a moving and profound experience. Above all else, it's a heavy film, the heaviest retelling of World War II I've ever seen. Likely this will become the war's heaviest statement, as that fateful and legendary generation is dying.

I wanted to write posts here that connect with that war, or deal with war in general, to continue the dialog. It isn't really that hard, since the two principle filmmakers at Studio Ghibli were born and raised during WWII, and profoundly affected by them. Hayao Miyazaki, especially, has been shaped by the war and its aftermath in his native Japan.

Which kind of brings us back to Totoro. Despite its reputation the world over as one of the happiest, most pastoral tributes to rural childhood ever put to film, it is likewise impacted greatly by the war. In this way, Miyazaki created a deeply personal film. He's always been a personal storyteller, narrating his own idealism and cynicism and romanticism and despair, engaging the audience into his ongoing dialogs. But My Neighbor Totoro is different. It's far more nostalgic, it carries into his past, without ever really engaging the present. If we can relate to the characters in Totoro, it's because Miyazaki touches universal themes of our collective humanity.

Japan's post-war years were wracked with poverty, suffering and disease. Tuberculosis was a deadly disease among the civilian population. Miyazaki's own mother was hospitalized, on and off again, for many years. This affected their relationship greatly; the son was especially impacted. In a sense, he never really recovered. His mother's illness, the son's pain, and the emotional distancing between them would be portrayed in My Neighbor Totoro, and both the film and manga versions of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

Absent or surrogate parents played a role in Future Boy Conan, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and Kiki's Delivery Service. Porco Rosso deals with alienation and the difficulty to emotionally connect to loved ones. And the struggle to find and maintain those connections in a world torn by war and suffering are at the heart of Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle.

For Miyazaki, so much of his emotional trauma comes back to those early childhood years. The reality of so much suffering around him, caught in forces beyond their control. My Neighbor Totoro, in a sense, is an effort to make peace with that past. He creates a pastoral paradise, one where childhood is truly cherished and allowed to flourish and grow. It is a world without the trapping of the adult world; here, landscapes are teaming with life, dark forests only offer mystery and awe, and a giant furry animal lies underneath the trees, quietly snoring away.

My Neighbor Totoro is a movie with a dozen sides. You could appreciate it from any of those angles. That's why it's so beloved by all ages around the world. Well, here's another angle you may haven't thought of before.

Enjoy the movie! Get some more popcorn!
















2007-09-20

Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro in Theatres Sept 26


Good news, everyone! Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro will be showing in movie theatres across America on September 26, at 7:30 pm.

The complete list of movie theatres participating can be found here.

This screening is part of the ongoing Anime Bento movie series, presented by Manga Entertainment. One feature film is shown in participating theatres every week, one screening. I've heard of this promotion some months ago, and thought it was a pretty good idea, even if the anime being shown wasn't my thing. But now Manga has pulled out the heavyweight. It's all too rare that we get to see a Miyazaki picture on the big screen, so for fans this is pretty much a must-see event.

Unfortunately....the movie will be shown in dubbed form. Booo! I'll still be attending, of course, just as I have with every Miyazaki movie on the big screen. But I can't fathom how a forum aimed at the anime fan community would pass up the original language version. Yasuo Yamada? Sumi Shimamoto? Hello? Bueller? Bueller? The English language dubbing on the DVDs are pretty terrible, as nearly all anime dubs are. I wonder if that's even considered part of the appeal, like old kung-fu movies. Who knows?

In any case, if you're like me and you would prefer to hear the original voice cast, you could always record the audio soundtrack off the DVD, and then save it to your iPod. In fact, that's not a bad idea at all.

Here's something that the online fan community can really rally behind. I'd love to read about everyone's experiences in their towns. Host a local Miyazaki blog-a-thon! Post pictures, record videos, bring along your portable DVD player for private screenings. Make an event out of it.

2007-09-17

Today's Screnshots - Animal Treasure Island







Time for a few new screenshots from everybody's - that means you - favorite pirate adventure movie, Animal Treasure Island. This time I wanted to include pictures from the opening and closing of the picture, which bookend this little album of photos.

I'm pretty sure I've written along these lines before, but I'm always amazed and enthralled at the bold use of colors from the Toei Doga era. These have some of the most vibrant use of colors in all of animation, anywhere in the world, but especially in Japan. I think, also, the iconic design of the characters and sets really allows the colors to come out and shine. The later Ghibli movies are all masterful, of course, exhibiting a level of skill unmatched anywhere else. And I'm a great fan of painters like Kazuo Oga who brought such an impressionist style to movies like My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke and Omohide Poro Poro. But I still have a sweet spot for that simpler, splashier style of late '60s, early '70s Toei.

And I think Animal Treasure Island is the most vibrant and colorful of 'em all. Puss in Boots spends much of its time at night, and Horus is always so dark and moody. This picture just screams fun. It's a party splashing right out of the screen. Note, also, the great attention in the variety of colors. There's a lot of blues in this movie, but look at the different kinds of blue, sometimes shifting from scene to scene.

Heck, I always liked that part in the pirate battle scene when the water and background is set all in green. Pretty much just there for effect, but it has a jazzy style. I'm reminded, of course, of my favorite Charlie Brown cartoons, with the color splashes in the background for closeups, even though there's no continuity. Cartoon and animation purists may cry foul; I say whatever. It's their loss. I miss cartoons that are stylish and fun just for the sake of being stylish and fun. Do we even know how anymore? Parts of Ratatouille give me some hope, but I still miss Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Bugs and Elmer, and good 'ol Charlie Brown.

Also, please note the photo of our beloved Miyazaki Heroine in her definitive pose. You have no idea how long it took me to capture that shot. Her pose is less than a second, but I had to capture it in motion.

And how about the terrific composition in that second shot? The one with Jim carrying the live bomb. This is what makes anime shine in skilled hands. The masters can convey action and tension and motion with a single pose, all on the strength of the composition and color and lighting. It's much closer to comic book and manga art than American animation, and I think it adds a real dynamism to the screen. This, I fear, is another skill that has become lost to American filmmakers, live action or animation. You see, is everyone had a copy of Animal Treasure Island, they could study it and learn all these valuable lessons, without me trying to teach 'em to ya while half-asleep.

Hah. Have a great day, kids.

Int'l Talk Like a Pirate Day is This Wednesday


Yaarrgh! This Wednesday is the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day! Avast! Throw on your favorite Rolling Stones records, stock up on root bear, fill the treasure box up with candy, and spend the night together watching the greatest pirate movie of all time....

....No, not the ones with Johnny Depp.

....No, not The Princess Bride.

....No, not that Pirate movie from the '80s with Gena Davis. Augh!

I'm talking about Animal Treasure Island!

A movie with action, adventure, sunken pirate treasure, a lost ship that gets stuck at the top of a volcano for some unknown reason, slapstick comedy gags, pirate drinking-and-looting songs, and everyone's favorite aggressive and moody heroine in blue. Oh, and don't forget the pirate battle against the pig ship....I don't want to put too much on this, but it's only the greatest pirate battle in the history of pirate battles! That's all. You can even make a drinking game out of spotting all of Miyazaki's crazy sight gags - there's the sub periscope, take a shot!

Again, I regularly make the case for this movie, which is available on DVD and practically disappeared on sight. But everyone deserves to have Animal Treasure Island in their collection. Oh, and don't forget to grab Puss in Boots while you're at the store - you can make it a double feature for Wednesday.

Yaargh! I want a beer barrel boat!

Reiko Okuyama Has Passed Away


It is with a profound sense of sorrow that I report to you the passing of Reiko Okuyama. Ben Ettinger reports that she died in May, and only discovered this truth on Friday. Those familiar with this blog will already remember her as the firebrand pioneer who broke down doors for women animators in Japan, and as a crucial member of what I like to call "The Horus Rebellion."

Here's what Ben Ettinger wrote about Okuyama's contribution to Horus, Prince of the Sun, from his must-read post on famous women in Japanese animation:

Next came the union's big film, Horus, Prince of the Sun (1965-68), in which Okuyama played a major part second only to Miyazaki in coming up with designs and drawing animation. She designed many of the female characters in the film, as well as their clothes, such as the little girl Mauni and the bride Pyria. She also animated numerous sequences, including the part where Coro arrives in the village and is chased by a lot of children, the scheming village chief, and even scenes of Hilda, such as Hilda in the rocking chair, Hilda holding Mauni in the meadow, and Hilda pushing Horus over the cliff. Mori did not correct her sections, so it should be possible to note some difference in Mori's and Okuyama's Hilda. Mori would have handled Hilda when she was experiencing complex, conflicting emotions, which he expressed masterfully in her expression, such as Hilda by the lake with Horus, whereas Okuyama handled Hilda when her expression could be more straightforward, such as Hilda throwing the axe at the village chief.


Reiko Okuyama contributed heavily to many of our Toei favorites, many of which I've written about, begging and pleading for you to see. She was often joined at the hip with her husband and partner, Yoichi Kotabe, proving her considerable skills and indominable spirit on Puss in Boots, Animal Treasure Island, The Flying Ghost Ship, and later joining Kotabe as co-Animation Director for 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. She also worked on the strangely overlooked Puss in Boots sequels (Puss 2 is considered criminally overlooked by Ettinger), and Toei's final moment of greatness, Taro the Dragon Boy - again with Kotabe by her side.

Okuyama was also a fierce fighter for women's rights in the workplace, breaking down barriers to women in animation. She proved crucial in those years of the unions at Toei Doga, alongside Otsuka, Takahata, Miyazaki, and Kotabe. Her refusal to step down after becoming a mother in 1960 lead to battles with the studio, which threatened both her career and Kotabe's. But she and the union stayed strong, and they eventually prevailed, winning the rights of women to balance work and family without sacrificing their careers.

Reiko Okuyama was also Japan's first Animation Director, with 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1969, a title she in fact shared with three others. And she continued this role for the two Puss in Boots sequels, Taro, and of course, 3000 Leagues. By the end of the '70s, she had drifted away from animation, moving towards children's book illustrations - which was really where she wanted to be at the very beginning. It's only because of a misunderstanding that she ever applied for a job at Toei; she thought the "Doga" meant illustrating books.

So she followed her muse for many years, as an illustrator, and as an artist. She became enamored with copperplate engraving in the mid-eighties, while she taught at Tokyo Designer Academy. It was this passion that would carry her through to the end of her life, with many appearances in art galleries and shows. A lucky encounter with Tadanari Okamoto in 1989 led to her involvement in his independent animation The Restaurant of Many Orders, and this sparked a reawakening that finally culminated in her triumphant comeback in 2003's anthology film Winter Days. For her short, she once again paired up with Yoichi Kotabe, this time incorporating her copperplate artistic style, and revealing a maturity and emotional depth never seen before. It remains one of her greatest works.

Like many of you, I was hoping that Reiko Okuyama could have created more works in this vein. It was emotional and vital, and spoke to the hopes and sorrows of womanhood, and of life. Sadly, it has become a perfect tribute to her passing; a celebration of her life, and a liberation of her spirit. Her loss for animation and the world is enormous, and she will be sorely missed.

2007-09-03

Labor Day Movie - Horus, Prince of the Sun (subtitled)

(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube.  Sorry.)

Put down that pencil, soldier! Repeat after me! To-labor-day is Labor Day! Go hug a union worker, without whom you wouldn't have the weekend, the minimum wage, child labor laws, living wages, health and safety laws, the public school system and more.

I've uploaded this some weeks ago, and was waiting for the perfect opportunity. I'd say today is the best time, don't you? So here we go - Horus, Prince of the Sun, with English subtitles!

For comparison's sake, I'd say the older fansub - the one you can download directly from the links section - is the better one. This newest subtitle set tries to sound more conversational, more casual. These sort of things are always judgement calls, and only highlights that, yes, reading a couple lines of subtitled text are a poor substitute for hearing and knowing the spoken language. But, until we are all fluent in Japanese, this is our best second choice. Don't even get me started on dubbing.

Enjoy Isao Takahata and company's groundbreaking masterpiece from 1968. Bring your own popcorn. Play some Pink Floyd records (I'm playing Obscured by Clouds right now). And stop working! Unless you have no other choice - courtesy of President Stupid and the GOP.

2007-08-01

We're Alright


Just wanted to post along, since I left my cell phone at work - of all the damned times to forget these things! In any case, the public has been advised not to use cell phones in the Twin Cities, and leave the airwaves open for those who need them.

This is a sudden and shocking event, and I know that all the television footage looks horrific. But casualties, so far, are very low, and many people caught on that bridge managed to walk away or receive immediate medical attention. It really is miraculous. Our hopes and prayers go to all those affected here in the Twin Cities.

2007-07-31

Wild Strawberries - Dream Sequence

(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube.  Sorry.)

For the benefit of movie lovers, and in memory of the great Igmar Bergman, I present one of his signature scenes, the surrealist dream sequence from the beginning of Wild Strawberries. It's a magnificent example of his skills, and a damn fine piece of movie making. See, kids? This is what the old-timers talk about when they talk about, "movies." No fart jokes, no endless explosions, no torture porn. Real movies.

To the video store!

Igmar Bergman Parody on MST3K

I just had to post this here, since I'm such a die-hard Mystery Science Theater junkie. It's a Bergman parody-slash-homage, which is all you need to know. Enjoy.


Igmar Bergman, Tom Snyder Have Died

Learned about Bergman's passing this morning, and Tom Snyder this evening while reading Atrios. It's always sad when anyone dies. I, and most movie lovers, are grateful that Bergman came out of cinematic retirement to make what would be his final movie. I don't know about anyone else, but I for one was thrilled that the greatest living director had returned from his generation-long seclusion, if only for one more run.

I don't know if the name Igmar Bergman registers with moviegoers anymore. Likely not, particularly with the multiplex lemmings who mindlessly obey whatever the tv ads tell them. Ooh, another Adam Sandler movie! And he hits people, an' stuff! Duuuude!

Don't be like the suckers. Don't be like the mindless losers whose fate it is to be manipulated and contorted like a puppet. Theirs is the way of suburban hell, consumerism, decaying democracy, and permanent war. You were meant for better things. Believe in that.

If you're not familiar with Bergman's movies, there has never been a better time to start. The Criterion Collection has served the master superbly, with is many masterpieces available on DVD, and often with commentaries, documentaries, and extras that were once the domain of college courses. Everyone has their favorites, and I'd recommend pretty much everything, but if you have to start someplace...I'd say your first Bergman movie should be The Seventh Seal. Widely regarded as among the greatest of movies, and it probably remains the quintessential Bergman.

After that, I'd suggest Wild Strawberries, if only because it's tone is so completely different. Bergman has always been parodied as the purveyor of gloom, sort of a 1950's cinema answer to Black Sabbath. But I find a lot of humor in his work, and Wild Strawberries is a good choice. It also reminds me greatly of Omohide Poro Poro - Takahata certainly draws inspiration from him, and Poro Poro even quotes a shot from Bergman. Perhaps Grave of the Fireflies owes something as well, with Strawberries' use of narrative flashbacks, as the main character revisits the ghosts of his past.

After that, there are all the doom and gloom movies, and if you're carefully observant you may learn a thing or two. Or maybe you'll just understand what all those parodies - from Woody Allen to SCTV to MST3K - were all about.

Igmar Bergman was the world's greatest living filmmaker. No other person walking the Earth could make that claim. Now he's gone, hopefully to meet God and settle things once and for all. That's bound to be an event.

Tom Snyder was a radio and television personality. He hosted a show called, simply, Tomorrow, which followed Johnny Carson, many years ago. I have fond memories of sleeping on my grandparents' couch with the tv on, and Tom Snyder coming on. I felt so grown up and lucky to stay up late enough to watch it. Remember when staying up way past your bedtime was a real thrill? You were a rebel. You don't get too many thrills like that once you grow up; certainly not after you're legally old enough to drink.

When Snyder's show was canceled, he was replaced by a young hotshot named Dave Letterman. When Letterman moved to CBS, he brought Snyder back with him for The Late, Late Show, a triumphant return to form. It was, as always, a terrific show, fun and free and extremely intelligent. This was an adult program for real adults - the Charlie Rose of his time.

Tom Snyder had been battling leukemia for the past few years, possibly a consequence of his smoking. How I hate those damned cigarettes. They're the worst poison, that and alcohol. Cannibis and psychedelics are illegal because, why again? Don't let the tobacco and alcohol industries destroy you, children. You'll get to touch the face of God soon enough - there's no need to enslave yourselves to puppet masters in the process.

2007-07-13

Not a Bad Little Screening

If I do say so myself. Turns out the U of M's Asian Film series is related to summer classes, so most of the attendies to Pom Poko on Wednesday were students. It was a nice little turnout, about 30 or so. I told myself to expect, at best, ten. Twenty would mean a great success. So I was pretty pleasantly impressed by things.

I was also able to talk for some time with the teacher, a woman who's a fervent Ghibli fan, and also lived in Japan for five years. It was nice to finally be able to talk to someone about these films; someone who actually has a clue what they're about. I still win on points, though - I've seen everything in the pre-Ghibli era. Hah!

As for any discussions afterword, that was pretty much a lost cause. Most everyone split once the credits rolled, and I found myself struck with a case of stage fright that was extremely frustrating. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep that brought it on. Next time, we'll make sure to do the talking before the picture.

But I did promise to spend this next week blogging on Pom Poko, which I haven't really gone into much yet. The weekend should offer that opportunity.

The University of Minnesota is a perfect place for these movie screenings. I should find ways to show more of these films there in the future. We'll see what happens.

2007-07-11

Pom Poko Screening at U of M


This evening, there will be a 7pm screening of Pom Poko at Nicholson Hall at the University of Minnesota. The movie is part of the Asian Film Society's summer run of films. A good time is had by all.

There should be time for a discussion, roughly a half-hour by my guess. I wanted to help out on that, but I've been far too overwhelmed by sleep this week to be of any use. In any event, I'll be there early enough to see if I can participate. Then again, maybe it would be best to keep me out of it. I'll wind up giving a night-long lecture on Takahata's career.

I'll cross my fingers and hope for a decent turnout.
As a final addendum, it appears I've already helped out. Turns out they're using my screenshot above, the shot from the Pom Poko page on danielthomas.org. Isn't that nice. I'll be sure to say "you're welcome" to the folks in charge.

2007-07-09

Movie Review: Ratatouille - A Few Rambling Thoughts Posing as Some Sort of Movie Review

Review: Ratatouille
I.

I've been following the box office numbers for Pixar's Ratatouille on Box Office Mojo, hopeful that the movie's fortunes turn out to surprise us. It's a common assumption that this movie would not be a big hit with audiences, certainly not when compared to Pixar's other hits. I've kept my hopes up that people would defy the suits and marketers who run Hollywood, and turn out in solid numbers. It hasn't really happened, and at this point I don't know if those numbers will ever arrive.

I'm really not sure why this is the case. Pixar is about as reliable a brand you can find for movies today. They've never made a bad picture, although a couple of them were weaker than the others. But you have to struggle to explain what will now become Hollywood conventional wisdom - that Pixar is now a fading brand.

I'm not eager to accept such a pessimistic view just yet, but there's no denying the numbers. Ever since Finding Nemo hit the peak, every Pixar movie since has grossed steadily smaller numbers; first with The Incredibles, then Cars, and now (almost certainly) Ratatouille. Surely this would be a concern, but add in the immensely expensive Disney buyout from last year, and you can see the stakes involved. The knives will be out for John Lasseter and Pixar's generals, and that battle is really only just beginning.

So what's wrong here? Is it simply that the market is oversaturated with cgi cartoons? Are parents reaching the burnout point, tiring of having to drag their children to more and more animated animal movies? Has the public become burned from an endless durge of second-rate movies, cheap cash-ins and cynical sequels? Or is it the rats? Are folks really just turned off by rats?

I don't know, I really don't. I have my own pet theory, which also happens to be the running theme of the Conversations on Ghibli blog. And here it is, in case you've missed it - Americans don't think of animation as an artform or a facet of the movies; they see animation as a babysitter. The idea that the medium could be capable of anything more, or serve any greater purpose, is lost on these poor souls.

Little surprise that anyone would think this way, since that's what they've been served for decades. And movies and the American public in general have been steadily dumbing down for a generation. Movies are expected to provide lots of big, loud noises, cheap gags, and lots and lots of explosions. The rise of corporate consolidation has only exacerbated things.

So I can understand the challenge in making a smart, subtle movie like Ratatouille a big hit. Too many people don't understand that such a thing is possible; and the suits have no incentive to show them otherwise.

II.

Brad Bird is among the smartest filmmakers in America today. If you were really perceptive, you were likely telling anyone within earshot about a little movie called The Iron Giant, a charming and humane movie that no one ever saw. And you likely had a difficult time explaining why it was a better form of animation than, say, the latest Disney picture. That's largely because it's strength lies in its heart, in its storytelling, not necessarily in the moving drawings themselves.

Again, I really don't know. I'm just scrambling for understanding. Bird seems destined to become one of those gifted filmmakers who earns great respect and praise, without really connecting to the greater public. Yes, The Incredibles was a great success, and it's a terrific movie, but sometimes I wonder if that success had to do with its aping of superhero comics and James Bond spy movies. Did people register with the human emotions of the characters, or were they just conditioned to watch yet another Bond spoof with big explosions?

Maybe that's the challenge of Ratatouille. It's a movie that continues to push the human drama we saw in The Incredibles, but without the enormous, action blockbuster set-pieces to keep the kiddies from becoming distracted. It's almost as though this movie were Bird's gambit. Okay, folks, you say you like my movies for their heart; well, have a load of this.

That's not to say that I believe he's being confrontational. But he does show a great confidence, a willingness to take the audiences' preconceived notions, including their anxieties, and challenge them. The basic framework of what became Ratatouille was already in place by the time Bird took over the project. It's the story of a rat who dreams of becoming a famous French cook. That premise was already in the public consciousness, but no one knew how he would handle the material. It is, after all, a delicate subject, mixing two ideas together that are polar opposites, rats and cooking.

The temptation, I suppose, would have been to turn Remy and his fellow rodents into another batch of cuddly, wuddly cartoon animals, just like 'ol Mickey, just like every other animated cartoon to hit the pike this decade. But that doesn't happen. Bird knows our squeamishness about rats, and he doesn't shy away from it. He faces it head on. There are some sequences in the movie, particularly at the beginning and the end, when packs of rats overwhelm an environment. In these moments, what we see are essentially rats. They swarm and scuttle with a fluidity that is downright alien. And a little unsettling, too.

I'm reminded of the way Isao Takahata stylistically changed the appearances of the tanuki in Pom Poko, from real-life naturalism to cartoon caricature. Brad Bird achieves something like this in his movie, but without the visual shifts. His rats pretty much look the same, apart from the necessary lighting and compositions.

I don't think the goal is to unsettle or scare us. If anything, Bird shows a great deal of respect for his audience, by acknowledging those fears. But he likewise doesn't shy away from being honest. This is they story we've chosen to tell, and these are they players. They are who they are.

For me, this approach - more subtle, more honest - is just what makes Remy such a likable character. It makes him more believable. It helps, of course, that he isn't banding about the screen, shouting at the top of his lungs, or offering yet another batch of lazy movie quotes to keep the stupids happy.

Ratatouille isn't merely the story of a character with a crazy dream, but a portrait of an artist, a character who pursues his muse wherever it leads him. Conventions be damned. It takes any old cartoon rat to be zapped by lightning while cooking on a rooftop. It takes an artist to get zapped, and then rush back for an encore. That's dedication.

III.

I don't want to spend forever retelling everything in Ratatouille that I enjoyed, because we'd be here all day, and I'd be reciting the entire show. I just want to share a couple thoughts and impressions that have stayed with me this past week.

I think that emotional honesty, that respect for the audience, is Brad Bird's best gift. I hope the movie business never beats it out of him. American animation needs his sensibilities, and the artform is far better for it. It seems that he and Pixar met at just the right time. The studio has been steadily growing, pushing the boundaries of computer animation. And now, it seems as though they've finally mastered the tools. They're finally making animation that is as expressive, fluid, and emotional as the hand-drawn style. This is a tremendously beautiful movie, full of subtle hues and shades and textures. All that is needed for great art is a capable mind, a director with the humanity to match. And I think that's just what has happened here.

I'll be honest; I was tremendously moved by this movie. It felt as though a new plateau had been reached, especially in the character animation. Animators always talk about "acting," from their perspective, and apart from a few notable moments (Pinocchio, for one), their ideas have been lost on me. Ratatouille shows what is really meant by "acting" in animation. There's a gracefulness to movements, large and small. The characters don't move; they dance, like Fred Astaire in all of his wonderful movies. I remember reading how Fellini would play music for his actors while filming, to set the proper mood. In Ratatouille, you can hear the music in everyone's heads, because it's playing in yours as well.

What's striking is that this rhythm translates to the chase sequences so effectively. Brad Bird has always been a great student of the classic cartoon chase, as his 1987 Family Dog demonstrates. For me, those were the cartoons I loved the most. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote. Not Disney. Disney cartoons were stale and lifeless and preachy, always so puritanical. Even by the time I was eight I felt embarrassed by them. Give me Tom and Jerry instead. And where, I lament, is today's answer to those great American cartoons? Hardly anybody does it anymore; or perhaps, to be fair, hardly anybody knows how to pull it off. Well, Bird sure knows. He knows better than anyone.

The problem with everything post-Star Wars is that every movie treats action like an assault on the senses. You, the public, are too stupid to grasp anything more than endless explosions and rapid-fire cutting, set to blaring pop songs that were never really any good (why are Counting Crows still around, I ask?). This weakness affects nearly every big-budget movie in this country. Even The Incredibles was shackled needlessly with a noisy action sequence in its final 20 minutes. Everything, as I've said, comes down to the Death Star Battle. Boom boom boom show's over.

Ratatouille is loaded with terrific action sequences, but a wonderful thing happens in the movie's final act. It stops. The conclusion is not dependent upon anything but it's original premises: food, cooking, the passion of pursuing one's art. I was overwhelmed by the final 30 minutes, because it just felt so right. It felt honest. I wasn't being mugged by the theatre's sound system. I wasn't being mugged by the movie for cheap, preachy moral lessons. I wasn't being suckered with a cheap, happy conclusion. Have I mentioned this is a beautiful movie?

IV.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS THIS SECTION - Proceed With Caution!

I want to finish with a couple observations from Ratatouille that have stayed with me. It all relates to what I've been saying and writing about. There's a scene near the end when Linguini, the shy, lanky cook who is both Remy's collaborator and puppet, has to give the big rousing speech to his fellow cooks. This is the big pep speech at the climax of so many movies, one where the hero wins back the respect of his peers, and they all roll up their sleeves for the big fight/big game/big finish.

This time, Remy's secret role as the restaurant's star talent is revealed, and poor Linguini appeals to his chefs to come together, not to abandon him in their hour of need. And then something remarkable happens.

The cooks walk out. Every one of them.

And the movie stays with that. Sure, Colette, the tough romantic lead, does return to Linguini's side, but the rest? They're gone for good. There is no cheap reconciliation, no tired cliches to be played out. The conclusion to the movie will be performed without them, and they will never be heard from again.

The second thing is a moment that was horribly mis-read by the audience I sat with. This comes back to all that dumbing down. It's the moment when the infamous and dreaded food critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole masterfully, as a character who is not villainous but plays the part) is handed the titular meal.

When he takes his first bite, he is immediately hurled back into his childhood. There, as a young boy with tears in his eyes, he is comforted by his mother with a hot meal. Ego is reminded, in a flash, of what it was about food that he loved so much, and why he pursed a career as a food critic. It's probably the most touching and humane and deeply personal moment in the entire film.

How did the audience react? Bowling laughter. Haw haw haw haw haw haw haw!!! It was enough to make me want to throw things at them, for being so crass and so damned stupid.

This is why I don't like watching movies with college kids anymore, you see. They can't react to anything on the screen except with laughter, especially violence. Uh, fast movement mean laugh. Or somethin'.

Which came first, the smarter movies or the smarter viewers? Remember the words, dear readers, of Saint John Lennon the Divine: War is over, if you want it.

2007-07-06

Photos: Pixar's Ratatouille

Photos: Pixar's Ratatouille
Photos: Pixar's Ratatouille
Photos: Pixar's Ratatouille
Photos: Pixar's Ratatouille
Some official screenshots from the excellent new Pixar movie Ratatouille. I've been meaning to sit down and write a lengthy review, but there just hasn't been time enough this week. On the upside, I did finally manage to change by flat bicycle tire. Oh, and I made headway on getting caught up at my other blog, Videogames of the Damned. These 6:45 am commutes to work are terrible! Ugh!

Anyway, enjoy the screenshots, especially if you haven't seen the movie yet. You really should. I think I'll go back for an encore this weekend.

2007-07-01

Joel Siegel Passes On

I wanted to pass along my condolences on the passing of movie critic Joel Siegel. I hadn't even realized he was battling serious illness, although I understand he's been fighting for some time. For those who don't know, he was the movie critic on ABC's Good Morning America, and one of the more popular American movie critics.

It's always sad when anyone dies. I'm not a fan of this whole death concept. So I'll just be an optimist instead, and hope Mr. Siegel has been unplugged from the holographic universe and is now chatting away with God and Orson Welles. Hopefully, he'll be able to distinguish the two.

Brad Bird's Family Dog

(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube.  Sorry.)

Scouring around YouTube, I found this little gem. Back in the '80s, Steven Spielberg started a popular weekly anthology series on NBC called "Amazing Stories." Some shows were good, some were not-so-good. In 1987, this Tim Burton-produced cartoon aired. It's a half-hour cartoon called Family Dog, and it was written and directed by one Brad Bird.

It's important to remind ourselves that something like Family Dog was pretty cutting edge for tv animation 20 years ago. The Simpsons were still just short clips on Tracy Ullman. There was no Ren and Stimpy. Was Beavis and Butthead on MTV yet? Don't think so. Oh, and you're still years away from Animaniacs.

So while a cartoon that takes a satirical swipe at the surburban family, and with a slightly grown-up appeal, has become a horribly tired cliche in 2007, in 1987 it was exciting, daring, and in the hands of Brad Bird, endlessly entertaining. All of his traits as a movie director are here in abundance, from his love of classic cartoon chases, to a nuanced and humane view of family life. In fact, there's probably bits in here that feel as though they were lifted right out of The Incredibles or Ratatouille.

So, anyway, here's the 1987 Family Dog. The short was later revived several years later, again with Tim Burton's input and Spielberg's drive, but no Brad Bird in sight. Predictibly, the new tv series tanked almost immediately.

Oh, and I caught Ratatouille at the Megamall Saturday night. It was a fantastic movie; transcendent and wonderful. It's an American animation classic, and Pixar's best film. I'll probably go see it again before the weekend's out. Full-length review to come later; hopefully, it won't prove too long-winded.

2007-06-20

Ghibli Short Short - The Capsule Videos

Alright, kids. Last one for the night. Between this and Jarinko Chie (w/subs), you're plenty served for videos. I give you Momose's three Capsule videos, created in 2004 and 2005 at Ghibli's stepchild Studio Kajino. Each video follows an overarching storyline about a young fashionable woman of the future. She visits futuristic places, flies around in her own Jetson car, crashes a fashion show, engages in a car chase, becomes ensnared by a gaggle of robots (I've been itching to use that word all day), and finds true love. Not a bad way to spend a couple afternoons. Thank goodness the music's so good.

Portable Airport, Space Station No.9, and L.D.K. (Lounge Designers Killer) is the next generation of Japanese animation. Its visual style holds more closely to Yuasa's Mind Game than the old masters at Ghibli. Miyazaki, Takahata, even the newer filmmakers like Otomo and Oshii (Satoshi Kon may fit in with the new generation, but his roots are still clearly in Takahata's domain) represent the old guard, the postwar generation. They were the pioneers, the trailblazers, and now it falls into the hands of the next group of kids to take anime to the next level.

Or maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Momose was born in 1953. You wouldn't think that by watching his anime films. His is the energy of a 25-year-old, the energy of those young punks who created Horus, Prince of the Sun.

Here's one thing that strikes me about Momose's Capsule videos - it demonstrates how fully animation is embedded in Japanese culture. The videos are young, hip, trendy, feminine - qualities you could never even think to find in the West. We're still stuck in some Eisenhower-era time warp. It's kind of like the way I felt when rave culture finally trickled its way down to Minnesota - a decade after the whole thing peaked everywhere else in the globe. There's nothing worse than being the last to show up at the party, only to see everyone's already left.

I don't know if the gender equality that's glamorized in modern anime like the Capsule videos, Dore Dore, Mind Game, Paprika and their peers testify to the youth culture as it really exists, or the ideal dream of the future. It's probably a mix of the two. But it still seems so much more grown up, so much more cool and exciting than what we have here. American culture is dominated by a hyper-macho aggression, at times veering dangerously into proto-fascism. We seem gripped by fear, dread, and the only outlets are torture and violence. Small wonder we're in the mess we find ourselves in.

Japan just seems to have its act together. They're your cooler older sister, the one who's moved on to makeup and cars and new music - the future. Theirs is the futuristic world we once dreamed of, before dreaming became outlawed and terror reigned. That's the vibe I get from Portable Airport, Space Station No. 9, and L.D.K. I'm curious to discover how Momose and Japan found their groove, and what I can do to get ours back. It's the 21st Century. When the hell do we get our Jetson cars?






Ghibli Short Short - The Sky-Colored Seed

Aw, heck, since we're on a roll tonight. Sore Iro no Tane ("The Sky-Colored Seed"), animated and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo; and Nandarou ("What is it?"), animated and directed by Miyazaki. These are the first shorts to play on the Short Short DVD. I've always enjoyed this one. Pull it out the next time someone complains about all those doggone bug-eyed anime characters.


Ghibli Short Short - House Foods Ad #2

Here is a second set of television ads for House Foods, created by Ghibli in 2004. These newer shorts are now directed by Yoshiyuki Momose alone. You can notice immediately that Miyazaki's trademark nostalgia has been replaced by a more modern, hip vibe. Pop group Capsule provides some music, some really catchy electronica - and I'm the guy with the Jimi Hendrix vinyl records.

This collaboration, of course, sets the stage for Momose's three videos for Capsule in '04 and '05, created at the Ghibli side studio, Studio Kajino.

And, again, I'll offer these ads as an example of the true diversity computers can offer animation. That is, if we choose to stop following the pack and search for new discoveries. Unless, of course, you're perfectly happy with your Shrek sequels. Your call.


Ghibli Short Short - House Foods Ad #1

Here is a collection of several television ads for House Foods. If my understanding of kanji holds, I believe Yoshiyuki Momose directed these, with Hayao Miyazaki as his direct supervisor. Which would probably mean he was hanging over Momose's shoulder the entire time, struggling to resist the urge to barge in and take over everything.

This is just spectacular animation. Studio Ghibli has mutated and evolved computer animation in different directions than here in the West, and when you see something like this, you know they've hit the real paydirt. They've always emphasized the traditional art of hand-drawn animation, instead of completely throwing the pencils and paintbrushes away as we've done here. And now we see how that classical style can be brought into the computer age.

What we're seeing on the screen is mostly computer models, with hand-drawn characters, but what's most striking is the painterly way everything is presented. Everything is a lush, wonderfully detailed watercolor painting, but moving in three dimensions. It's the perfect realization of Ghibli's brilliant sketches and storyboard paintings.

It's a shame that the House Foods ads are so short. I don't know about you, but I want to see a lot more. It's still largely the domain of the studio's more experimental shorts. Ghibli hasn't committed to bringing this art style to feature-length animation, and that likely won't change as long as Miyazaki is still around (remember that Ponyo will be entirely hand-drawn). So that means some other artists are open to walk through these doors and really let loose. How about the Yanks? Getting tired of that rubber doll look? Missing the good 'ol days of hand-drawn animation? Well, here's your solution, gang. Get to work.


Ghibli Short Short - Ghibli Museum Ad

Here's a real treat. Totoro and Catbus whisk by in a couple short television ads for the Ghibli Museum, animated and directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself.

Here's a little pop-quiz for everyone to ponder: if Totoro was an American creation, just how many direct-to-video sequels would we have been hit with by now? Ten? Twenty? God bless Miyazaki for staying true to himself and leaving his creations well enough alone.


Ghibli Short Short - Doredore no Uta

I discovered a number of Studio Ghibli shorts on YouTube from the Short Short DVD, so I decided I'd better move quickly and post them here before they're all shut down. Hopefully, these will be around for a little while, perhaps long enough to inspire you to grab the DVD.

This is Osamu Tanabe's 2005 short, Doredore no Uta, a music video featuring the music of Meiko Haigou. She was a discovery of Toshio Suzuki's, and apparently he was involved in launching her career. The Short Short DVD includes a lengthy video segment featuring the both of 'em, and there's even a CD single as an extra. Really nice. The song is amazingly catchy, too.

Tanabe's video is the latest incarnation of that Ghibli watercolor style birthed by My Neighbors the Yamadas. As always, the animation and attention to details is exquisite, and I'm a real sucker for color saturation like this. It follows the daily lives of bugs-as-modern-citydwellers, a nice metaphor for Tokyo and Japan. The passing of the seasons brings about the cycle of life, from birth to death, comedy to tragedy. Everything is cartoony, but poignant, and that gives Doredore a real sentimentality.

There's a shot of bugs in a line busy at work, handing off nuts, that reminds me of all those early title sequences from Animal Treasure Island, Panda Kopanda, and Heidi. Perhaps a way of paying tribute to Ghibli's roots. All in all, this is one of my favorite Ghibli animations, and I hope you enjoy watching.


2007-06-19

Yuri Norstein Commercial (1994-5)

Here's a real surprise for me - an animation short by the master himself, Yuri Norstein. He created four ads in 1994 and 1995 for Russian Sugar. This was his first released work since Tale of Tales, and as always it's a sublime work of poetry in motion. It was also awarded the Breakthrough Prize at the Open Russian Festival of Animated Film.

I don't know if anyone is familiar with these ads, but this was the first I've heard of them. Unfortunately, only one ad is available on YouTube. Hopefully, we'll see others. Are there any other Norstein works that I've still yet to discover?


Downloading Sucks

Downloading has become a real pain for me ever since I set up the new cable modem at the apartment. I really ought to get on Comcast's case about that.

The good news is that I've found a couple of new torrents for Horus, Prince of the Sun. The newest one is brand-new, having been uploaded just this week. I found a segment of the title sequence on YouTube, and the subtitles are terrific and fully comprehensive. More importantly, it's all integrated into the video file (instead of having a separate file), which means I can upload the entire movie - and we can all watch with the subtitles.

The down side is that download speeds are practically nonexistent. I may take me as long as a week to get this damned thing on my computer. Thanks a lot, Mininova!

The moral lesson here, kids? Downloading sucks. It would be far easier to go to the bookstore and buy a DVD, but Horus has yet to be released here in the States. You have been buying those Discotek DVD's like I asked you, right?

UPDATE: Okay, things are improving. The new Horus fansub may be finished downloading by tomorrow. If anything happens, you'll be the first to know. Cross yer fingers.

2007-06-18

Movie Review: But You're So Much Fun - Thoughts on Satoshi Kon's Paprika

Review: Paprika
I.

It probably helps you if you can go outside and walk for a while after seeing a good picture like Paprika. You'll need the time to sort everything out and figure out just where your loyalties lie. You'll certainly need to think your way through its mindbender of a story.

I saw Satoshi Kon's latest feature at the Lagoon Theatre in Uptown Minneapolis, which is the only independent theatre chain in the Twin Cities. Apart from Lagoon, Lagoon Edina, and Uptown theatres, it's all multiplex. This is our sole source for any independent or foreign movie to protect ourselves against the never-ending assault of stupidity and crass swill we now call American Popular Culture.

I'm pointing all this out as a reminder to myself not to get too critical, and also to remind everyone just how difficult it is when you're not living in a major city. You're at the mercy of big studios' summer cartoons: Shrek 3, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Fantastic Four 2, Surf's Up (aka Penguin Movie 3), Hostel 2, yadda yadda. The idea of an animation film that's intelligent, provocative, and visually inventive - instead of sensory overload - is completely foreign to Americans. How did things ever get so bad?

Satoshi Kon is one of the smartest filmmakers around today. His are the kind of psychologically-driven character tales that great American directors once tackled. We used to make these sort of movies, albeit live-action. A whole generation of Americans are accustomed to expect movies to be little more than toy commercials, videogame demos, and wall-to-wall explosions. And fart jokes. I'm afraid that Mike Judge's Idiocracy would one day be seen as prophesy, the way we look back on Sidney Lumet's Network. Yuck! Help!

The last Satoshi Kon movie was Tokyo Godfathers, and it was a spellbinding, poignant, and endlessly funny adaptation of John Ford's Three Godfathers. It was one of the year's best. And yet it was only shown in Minneapolis for one weekend, at the U of M Film Society, after being suddenly bumped from the Lagoon. When I attended, there were only three or four others in the seats. And then we wonder why anime remains such a niche product, and why animation in this country will never grow up.

There's a reason you see nothing but junk food on the shelves, folks. Junk food is all that you consume. It's as simple as that. No corporatist conspiracy theories, no nightmare scenarios of Dick Cheney peering into your brain for unpure thoughts, no Ned Beatty howling about the primal forces of nature. You're stuck with Shrek the Third because you shelled out good money for Shrek the Second. And you didn't show up for Tokyo Godfathers. Or Innocence. Or Triplets of Bellville. Or Metropolis. Or Howl's Moving Castle. Okay, that last one really wasn't your fault.

I have this thought in the back of my head that I could make a short movie about fray boys farting on a couch and make a fortune. It's got all the ingredients for a hit - frat boys, lots of farting, lots of different sound effects for farting, and an old, beat-up couch. Heck, set the story at a college party, just to see how all the hot chicks freak out. It'll be the biggest thing since Scary Movie, Part 6. Which is a hell of a lot worse than Leonard, Part 6. And for that, gentle readers, we should all be ashamed.

Pauline Kael often extolled the virtues of trolling through the movie trash. What the heck would she say about the state of things today? I sincerely hope that, if her soul still lives somewhere in Creation, she's far enough away so she can't see us.

All of which brings us back to Paprika. This movie arrived in town last week, and I didn't attend on the opening night as I usually do with foreign animated features, so I can't comment on how folks have seen it. But when I walked into the theatre this afternoon, I was the only one there. Only three or four others arrived at all.

The movie has, to date, grossed a little over $340,000. Shrek the Third has hit $300 million. Remember what John Lennon once said, folks. War is over, if you want it.


Review: Paprika
II.

Now here's my favorite moment in Paprika. It's not one of the dazzling effects pieces, or any of the surreal dream sequences. It's just a short confessional between two main characters. One is a computer geek, a comically overweight man who invents things with the mind of a child. The other is a woman who's the head of her department, all work and all business. Alright, she's the main character in the movie. The one in that screenshot up there. Like any of you will be able to see it in a theatre.

Anyway, the good doctor Chiba Atsuko has pulled the dreamy, chubby inventor, Tokita Kohsaku, out of an elevator, a dream-world reenactment of an earlier scene in the waking life. She's always known of his affection for her, and she's remained friendly yet at a distance. But here she has finally let her guard down and chosen sides.

With her arms around him, she recounts all of her stock refusals, her excuses for resisting him. You're a slob. You eat everything. Looks aren't everything, but there is a limit. And through all this he nods and sheepishly agrees. Yes, yes, I know.

She exhausts her lines, then leans in closer, and with a faint smile, whispers out to him, "But you're so much fun."

It's a sublime moment, the best damn line in the whole movie. If Charles Chaplin were still alive, bless him, he'd be leaving the theatre with tears in his eyes.

Paprika deals with a lot of characters dealing with their own inner impulses and urges and repressed desires, and it's driven by an internal action that's only accentuated by the action on screen. This may surprise folks saw the trailer, and expected another action thriller, something on par with The Matrix or Mamoro Oshii's movies. That's not really the case, which is to say that you're not completely off the mark. This is a deeply visual film, deeply surreal and stylized. But I don't think we're seeing another animated roller coaster ride. I think Kon's interest is in the psychology and emotions of the characters.

In that sense, Kon really is the successor to Isao Takahata, that greatest of all animation directors. I came away from Tokyo Godfathers with that strong suspicion, and Paprika, while a completely different kind of film, still confirms it. It's a psychological thriller in the purest sense, a mind-bender that really understands the mind.


III.

A bit about the plot, if just for formality's sake. A psychology institute develops a futuristic machine, the DC Mini, which enables one with the power to enter another's dream. The device is intended for therapy sessions, as doctor and patient travel through the REM landscapes, while other doctors watch all on their computer screens. Pass the popcorn, wait for the trailers. Have I mentioned that this dream has a sequel?

Things become complicated. DC Minis are used unofficially, for recreational purposes. One or more devices may be stolen, an act immediately blamed on "terrorism," but admitted to be an inside job. Dreams are invaded, stolen, and inserted into unwilling people. The lines between the dream state and the waking state becomes blurred, then completely shattered. And a growing collective dream threatens to overwhelm everything.

At this point, it's easy to say that most viewers - certainly in the case of the movie critics - will become lost on the story, and just enjoy the highly surreal animation. Take it all in as a post-millenium LSD trip, loaded up on paranoia, conspiracy, and suppressed dreams. And I'm not one to be critical of that, if you enjoy yourself and have a good time. This is a spectacularly visual movie, after all; certainly at the peak of Japanese animation.

But I think you'll miss out on a lot of deeper ideas if you just expect pretty pictures. Paprika is about as surrealist as any movie gets these days, but it's an honest surrealism, fueled by the ideas of Freud and Yung, one eye on the days of legal LSD experiments, the other on our modern obsession with escapism and fantasy. Wouldn't it be wonderful to share another person's dream, Tokita asks. Well, Kon responds, we already have that little miracle. It's called the movies.

What makes Paprika work as an idea film is the way all these common motifs, of movies as a dream factory, the internet as a virtual world, dreams as a window into the soul, the realization of archetypes, and the inner selves that we never reveal to others in the waking world. It's extremely smart. Too smart? Eh, maybe, maybe not. I'd rather have too smart than too stupid.

One major subplot involves a middle-aged detective, himself something of a movie archetype. He's haunted by terrible nightmares, a fusion of Fellini and Kurosawa, brought upon by an unsolvable case, and his own repressed past. His whole life is wrapped in movies; when the dream and waking worlds melt together, he's the one who's most able to adapt, because he's been playing the role his whole life.

I'm reminded of the Howard Beale speech in Network - you people have been watching the tube so long, you're beginning to think the tube is real, and your own lives are fiction.

The title character is, likewise, an archetype avatar for the dream world, but she's also the idealized version the repressed Dr. Atsuko has of herself. Both are roles she plays to the hilt, and like everything else in this movie, you can't tell which one is real, and which one is the illusion.

Which one gave birth to the other? That's one of the central questions Kon poses, right up to the end. We should probably figure that answer out, before our fantasy worlds overwhelm us completely and we find ourselves turned into empty shells.


IV.

And now, finally, dear readers, the things I didn't like about Paprika. I'm still telling myself to go easy, and overlook the flaws, but we need some way to end this thing before it really gets out of hand. I haven't even gone into all the ways the movie mines Japanese culture, from the modern pop obsession with giant robots and monster attacks, to their traditional, ancient mythology - which is pretty damned surrealist, too, if you think of it. And why am I reminded so much of Takahata's Pom Poko?

Whatever. Here's my big beef. The last 20 minutes or so dissolve into a series of big-budged action scenes. Chases, loud music, big villain, lots of explosions. What's the deal with this? Practically every movie nowadays finds itself stuck in the end, and can't find any way to resolve it without resorting to that other movie archetype, the Death Star Battle. Let's just end it all on a big action scene, and all is fine.

Except it's not. The original Matrix (Paprika's spiritual cousin) had this problem. The Incredibles was saddled with it. You can't have an idea movie that ends on a Death Star Battle. Big huge chase, end everything with a bang, everyone is happy and back to normal at the end. Every movie turns into Rambo in the final 20 minutes, and frankly, it sucks. I'm tired of it.

That said, the image of a girl devouring an old man, and growing in his place, is a really great image.

And I don't like the cheap melodrama of the bad guy. Why is there a "bad guy" in a movie like this? What was his whole point for causing trouble in the first place? Why couldn't he be treated as another screwed up human being, like the others? Shouldn't a movie that calls attention to the mechanisms of the movies not rely on those mechanisms as well?

Ah, Paprika. You're so complicated. Hardly anybody understands you. You're stuck between being an idea film and an action film. Nobody really buys into that villain. And that plot framework really was just an excuse to set everything in motion. If I try to think rationally, try to think critically, I could really spell out all of your flaws.

But you're so much fun.

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