Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Rebuild of Evangelion / Evangelion 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone


It’s three years since the Rebuild of Evangelion feature film was released in Japanese cinemas, and two years since it was dubbed. It is, however, only a matter of days since the extended Blu-Ray 1.11 version was released, with extra footage and beautiful transfer, and that’s the one I’ve waited to see.

I’ve written elsewhere that Eva means a fair bit to me. I watched it back when I was just Shinji’s age, when the Internet was a tiny place and it was fun waiting for strange and fascinating images to download with a dial-up modem. It was the first anime series I watched that wasn’t made for young children, and it was a pretty remarkable place to start. I didn’t actually watch the remainder of the series until some years later, but the characters and setting stayed with me, as well as the uniquely unorthodox and experimental direction style. I was happy to get the original Japanese dub, though, for most of the reason Shinji has a reputation as whiny is his dub actor’s grating voice.

So when I started to watch Rebuild, the first thing that struck me is how direct the remake is. A shot-for-shot recreation of the first five or six episodes, with a few parts trimmed down and a couple of added vignettes, the real question that lingers after watching is…why bother? Nothing new is added in story terms, the direction is the same, and it doesn’t even match up to the original because the character development is much more rushed. It has one great advantage, and that is its beauty, for everything has been redrawn to a higher standard, and indeed, other than one scene in which Shinji sits looking down at the city in the morning mist, it all looks so much nicer than the original series, which for all its advances and cleverness looks a little dated now.

But that is all, and covering only a quarter of the series, it becomes easy to call this a cynical and mindless cash-in. Almost no thought has been put in, and it made a lot of money at the box office.

It is worthwhile, however. It is worthwhile for the thrill of seeing this classic animation made as beautiful as anything released today, especially on a large screen. It is worthwhile because old fans will be impressed and new fans being introduced to the story for the first time will see it in the best possible way. And it is worthwhile because, yes, it will still make money for Gainax. And it is worthwhile because even if this is just a rehash, the later Rebuild films may not be. My only disappointment is how long I will have to wait to see the next one.

There wasn’t even any Asuka here!

Saturday, 24 April 2010

劇場版 NARUTO-ナルト- 疾風伝 火の意志を継ぐ者 / Naruto Shippuden movie 3: Inheritors of the Will of Fire

The third shippuden movie may be the worst yet in the Naruto franchise. Soulless, totally lacking in a decent plot development, contradicting things established in the main series and ending on a really contrived, rather bewildering gay joke that I can’t imagine anybody, anywhere finding funny, it’s probably the worst of a pretty bad bunch.

There are some good points, but they go but a short distance to redeem the overall picture: as usual, a theatrical release allows for superior art and animation, although this film continues the lazier but less conventional trend of direction in Shippuden movies; the young female characters actually got to do things that look impressive and stand as equals on the team; and best of all, some parts of the Kakashi Gaiden get animated.

The story is as flimsy as they come: some super-powered exiled Konoha shinobi nearly starts a war, and the only way Tsunade can think of to stop him is to give in to his demands and send Kakashi to him, but then blow him up using a power that, when he's used it before, has not blown him up. As opposed to sending some excellent shinobi and kicking butt. Naruto doesn't like this idea so goes after him, and shows that actually, a bunch of kids could do the butt-kicking so there wasn't much of a problem from the start.

Much of the tension is provided by the difference between following orders (represented by Shikamaru) and disobeying them for your own morals (represented by Naruto). While this, a theme of the series since its first chapters, is a good thing to question, especially given world history, and allows for some good fights between friends (although the fight with Gaara has a very unlikely and convenient end), it doesn't get adequately explored. Naruto gives an impassioned speech to Shikamaru, and that's all sorted, but Shikamaru could have easily given the opposing argument just as emotionally (probably starting 'If I could give my life so that Asuma never had to fight and die, don't you think I would? If my death could avert a war that saves hundreds of lives, would you stand in my way?' etc.). Trouble is, the two sides are never actually put into opposition, and really it's a case of Kakashi giving his life and the Leaf winning, or the Leaf fighting and the Leaf winning. In other words, there is just no tension in the premise as executed.

I wrote recently that shounen filler is getting better. Movie versions, it would seem, have yet to catch up.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Kaiba


Kaiba was screened by the anime club at uni, on the day I didn’t go, so I decided I would catch up on it as well. And that was one of the better decisions I made, because I really do believe that Kaiba is one of the most important and impressive pieces of Japanese animation I’ve ever seen. I actually put off watching the last episodes for quite some time, partly because I didn’t want the series to end, and partly because I knew it would be difficult to write these impressions and really convey what Kaiba means.

It will be incredibly sad if Kaiba goes unnoticed. Yes, the larger crowd of anime fans will ignore it. It will pass by the older guys who want to watch blushing schoolgirls pining over a clueless everyman, the girls who want angsty homoeroticism and the young guys who want nothing but fireballs shooting out of swords. Mature seinen anime, aimed at older males but with more sophisticated plots, sometimes find huge audiences but generally don’t get close to the mainstream. And Kaiba, in choosing a very simple, almost babyish visual style directly descended from Tezuka, very possibly alienated another chunk of its audience.

But Kaiba is something special. If people don’t give it a chance, that is their loss. I’ve been exposed to more arthouse animation in recent months, and this fits in there.

The story is convoluted, sometimes sloppy, but full of great characters and thought-provoking sci-fi tropes. The world of Kaiba is one where memories can be captured in physical form, whole personalities transplanted into new bodies and memories explored, even manipulated, by others. When a boy awakens with no memory of who he is, narrowly escapes being shot and ends up in a bizarre, ever-changing world where the rich may destroy bodies purely for hedonistic pleasure and the poor may toil their whole lives trying to upgrade themselves or find ways to bring their parents back into the world from a small capsule. The boy is soon adrift in this strange world of metamorphosis and debauchery. He ends up in a female body and abruptly the brutish security guard who had until then been the antagonist becomes infatuated, not only providing some comedy but eventually becoming one of the most sympathetic characters in the piece. It is this first half of the series that is its strongest, uncovering the strangeness of people living in what has become an extremely impersonal world.

The last few episodes are weaker. The climax descends into extreme cliché with the end of Popo’s story, and the final conclusion of Warp’s becomes very contrived and clumsy, concepts so lofty and overwrought that it becomes hard to continue to sympathise, but that detracts very little from the overall beauty, intelligence, daring and uniqueness of the series as a whole. I can only hope the series finds the audience it deserves.

(originally written 14.09.09)

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

崖の上のポニョ/Gake no Ue no Ponyo / Ponyo on a Cliff


I’ll admit that I had doubts about this film. The early images of Ponyo looked bizarre and the plot sounded so thin. It was clear that Miyazaki was going back to his cuter roots, revisiting the tone he set in Tonari no Totoro and possibly even harking back to Panda Kopanda. But I wasn’t sure it was going to happen in the right way. Ponyo is a very odd-looking creature, even more so than the Totoros, and after three successful films with an epic tone, I wasn’t sure going back to the more babyish style was going to work. It felt almost like a direct reaction to my impression that his output was less worthy, artistically, than Takahata’s, which I’m sure has been said by more people than me, and now he was going to try to be quirkier, stranger, more experimental, and shy away from the mainstream.

In the event, I wasn’t right about that. Not quite. Ponyo has some very strange elements but is very much a spiritual successor to Totoro, and actually feels much more genuine than, say, Hauru. It feels more like the story Miyazaki wants to tell. And it is not without its populist elements. If you took the basis to Pixar, you would likely get a very similar story by the end, a little sassier and slightly less warm.

The story is straightforward: kindergartener Sousuke lives with his mother Risa by the shore, Risa holding the fort while her husband is away at sea, taking her son to school and working in the old folks’ home. One day, playing at the shore, Sousuke finds a funny fishlike creature with a human-like face and calls it Ponyo. However, mysterious watery creatures come and take Ponyo away. Her ‘father’, wild-haired and beak-nosed Fujimoto, tries to ensure she stays at home, but she breaks free, accidentally spills all of his magic supply and with it, finds herself able to pursue her desires, so along with her numerous dot-eyed siblings, goes to find Sousuke.

Because the central characters are around 4 years old, it was easy to understand most of what was being said in Ponyo, and I understood about 95% of the dialogue, with most of the 5% remaining being not understanding what Fujimoto was babbling about when he was talking to himself. I was worried that it would be contrived, but Ponyo has genuine charm and it’s impossible not to think of little Mei from Totoro when watching. The best parts are the sweet little moments, the cantankerous old woman getting water in her face and thinking there was a tsunami coming, Risa and Sousuke sending messages to his father about what a ‘baka baka baka’ he is, and of course Sousuke and Ponyo’s interaction, especially when they are out on their boat bumping into the various townsfolk.

The usual Ghibli staples are here: metamorphosis and an uncanny acceptance of it; spectacular high-paced sequences (cars and waves this time); the warmth of family and friendship; antagonists who are revealed to have a good side; and, of course, spectacular animation. The odd simplicity at the beginning soon gives way to that trademark naturalistic human animation, and then there is the stunning beauty of Ponyo’s mother (‘I love her! She’s scary!’ ‘Ah, sounds like Risa!’) and the amazing water effects – the copy available to pirates like me at the moment is a little jerky and does feature the silhouette of a guy standing up, being a ‘camrip’, but given that it’s just a camera in a theatre is of remarkable quality.

It’s far from my favourite Ghibli film, and yes, the cutesiness trivialises the film overall. I prefer Miyazaki’s epics, and it just can’t match Totoro in terms of mixing the fantastical (and adorable) with the starkly realistic and nostalgic. That said, it was well worth seeing and very heart-warming, and there’s no denying that Sousuke and Ponyo are irresistible. Miyazaki’s mastery is his ability to get us to support his characters, the strange ones as well as the instantly loveable. And no-one does loveable like Miyazaki.

(originally written 31.7.2008. Upon watching it again in April 2010 with English subtitles, I 'actually felt that the film was rather slow this time, even dull in its first act, and that Sou-chan wasn’t as cute as I remembered him being. That said, I found Fujimoto rather more awesome and amusing, perhaps simply because I was able to understand more of what he was saying.')

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

ちっちゃな雪使いシュガー / Chiccha-na Yuki tsukai Shugā / Little Snow Fairy Sugar

It’s undisputable. Even with such incredibly cute series as Bottle Fairy and PitaTen as competition, Little Snow Fairy Sugar takes the crown as sweetest anime show I’ve ever seen.

Saga is a girl with a painful past. She’s lived with her Grandmother since her mother’s death, and learned to cope with her loss in two ways: by playing her mother’s piano, which the music shop has for sale but which is out of the means of just about anyone in her small European town, and by making sure her life is run on a tight schedule, with no time to sit and dwell on the past. One day, she finds a tiny fairy girl unconscious in the road. Saga revives this little curiosity by feeding her a waffle, only to discover that the diminutive girl has a very, very big personality.

Sugar is an extremely energetic, childlike snow fairy. She is only little, and in training in the human world to become a fully-fledged snow fairy by finding ‘twinkles’, though she and the other trainees don’t know exactly what these ‘twinkles’ are. She is delighted that Saga can see her, since fairies are invisible to most humans, and liked the waffle so much that ‘waffo!’ becomes her general exclamation of delight (since it sounds a lot like ‘wahoo’ in Japanese pronunciation – VERY cute!). Saga, however, is not so thrilled. Her schedules are thrown into disarray, Sugar’s boundless energy grates on her, and she gets into embarrassing situations because she’s the only one who can see the fairy. However, before long, she begins to feel more affectionate and even motherly towards the little fairy and her two best friends, the quiet and feminine Pepper and the typically boisterous boy Salt.

Yes, all the fairies are named after condiments and herbs. There are also the mischievous duo Basil and Cinnamon, plus senior fairies Ginger and Turmeric (which actually makes a very nice name!).

The series revolves around the fairies attempting to find out what a twinkle is, and the ups and downs of Saga and Sugar’s relationship. Everything is very sweet, alternately being fluffy and adorable and pulling gently at the heartstrings.

It must be said that there is nothing very original here. The characters are all right out of anime stock, and the various storylines are oft-rehashed cutesy fare. The most obvious comparison is PitaTen, where very similar characters appear, a human and a non-human bond, and the drama comes when the non-humans must return to their own worlds – and that’s not even mentioning the fact that Koge-Donbo was behind the character designs of both series (but as far as I know had no input in the actual story of Sugar). However, stock characters and typical storylines become overused because they work, and startling originality isn’t the name of the game here. It’s about taking a familiar story and doing it damn well. And that’s what we have here.

Like several other of my favourite anime, the show works well by taking hackneyed ideas and then developing them extremely well. This can be in little touches, as when the focus moves briefly to Salt, who begins to have doubts about whether he really does want to be a sun fairy, or in the bigger storylines, such as when Sugar and Saga fall out because Sugar tried to write a sorry note to Saga and used her mother’s musical score as paper. The charm is in the details: the little hints of deeper emotions than the ones on the surface, the genuine emotions.

It is also a beautiful show to watch. The characters are, as expected from Koge-Donbo, incredibly cute, and, when it comes to the fairies, their clothes are imaginative and witty, tied in with their fairy jobs. Special mention must be made of the town and general culture, which is broadly north-central European in that typical anime way, but wonderfully realised, giving a fairy-tale sense to the aesthetic even with such typical anime character designs.

Little Snow Fairy Sugar thrives on using tried-and-tested anime themes, but doing them very well, with each episode packed with more cuteness than an entire forest full of early Disney animals – and rather less creepy, too.

(originally written 29.11.05)

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Monster


Of all the anime series I’ve watched, Monster has always stood out. By far the most sophisticated and most mature series I’ve been watching, part of its charm has always been that it could easily have been a live-action series, and indeed, a Hollywood movie is supposedly in preproduction. Monster doesn’t have any magical powers or robots or psychics. If someone thinks that animation is just for kids, it’s not ultra-gory or cod-profound series you should make them watch; turn them instead to Monster, a challenging and highly original crime thriller set in the real world and the present day.

Tenma Kenzo is a highly brilliant and very successful Japanese surgeon working in Germany. One day, a little boy is brought into the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head. Tenma is about to operate when he is called away, instructed to let the boy die in order to save an important investor. Believing all life is equal, no matter the pecuniary benefits, Tenma refuses, instead saving the child. The next day, the directors who he disobeyed, who have made it clear that his promising career will now stall under their influence, are found dead, and the boy has vanished.

Because of lack of evidence, Tenma is cleared, and continues working in the hospital. Many years pass, and when a series of murders make him once again the main suspect in a serial killer investigation, Tenma realises he may well have saved a monster.

That’s how the series begins, but this interesting premise is developed in several fascinating ways, touching on organised crime, the fall of the Berlin Wall, human experimentation and the possibilities of psychological manipulation. Tenma is only one of several main characters, along with the twin sister of the boy Tenma saved, a man from the same orphanage who cannot remember how to feel emotions and a machine-like detective called Runge, who is pursuing Tenma as a fugitive and habitually makes typing movements with his hand to input data into the ‘hard drive’ of his mind, one of the most striking but effective character quirks I’ve ever seen. Numerous other minor characters have their stories told, and while most do not further the plot significantly, all were at least interesting diversions.

The atmosphere of the show is unparalleled. The respect the major characters earn through their actions and simply through what they endure is remarkable. The main antagonist, Johan, barely appears, instead being a shadowy presence lurking in the background, controlling his puppets, which only makes him more fascinating (although unfortunately, by the climax, we still don’t know nearly enough to satisfy curiosity). The moral questions of who can be called a ‘monster’, how such a person can be created, and what it really means to erase your existence are all deeply compelling.

While I think the final act was a little far-fetched for all its great moments, and find it a bit daft that certain characters seem able to totally manipulate just about anyone just by finding out about their insecurities and confronting them with them until they crack, the plot was well-paced and huge in scope, and a story well worth watching, from start to end.

It was also brilliant how the characters all aged, changed in appearance depending on their circumstances, how different art styles got mixed in (especially those creepy children’s illustrations during the credits.

I’ve been watching this for so long – it’s strange, not having more to see. I’ll have to read 20th Century Boys instead!

(Originally written 16.2.06)

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Cowboy Bebop

When I first saw Cowboy Bebop, which was when I joined the anime club in my first year at uni – before the interest blossomed into an obsession – I thought it was quite a good series, but not brilliant. The anime club was essentially a springboard for me: I found some series I really enjoyed, got hold of all the episodes, and then began finding out what people who liked my favourites recommended. But I never felt much desire to go back and watch any more Bebop. I’d seen about 8 episodes, and the episodic narrative, with its simplistic characters, never hooked me. What I DID take an interest in was the music, an exuberant jazz score (with some very eclectic variations thrown in) by Yoko Kanno that I still listen to frequently today. The series, though, just hadn't gripped me.

I’m glad to know that even ignorant of 99% of the anime world, my taste was as it is today.

After hearing endlessly how wonderful it was, and watching Samurai Champloo (same director; same structure (none); similar characters; same audience), I thought I’d finally take the plunge and watch the whole series.

I can’t say it’s a shining example of anime’s focus on substance over style. I can see why it appeals to the Buffy and Hollywood crowd, but that’s not what I’m looking for, and that’s why Bebop leaves me cold.

I’ve heard quite often that the characters in Bebop are brilliant. But they’re far from it. A couple of flashback episodes and a pretty face does not a good character make. Spike is a tribute to Lupin III, a classic anime character – a nonchalant, laid-back and slightly goofy antihero, charming and everyman-ish, yet much duller than his predecessor. While not a bad protagonist, he failed to do anything that made him likeable, even when it came to slow motion-laden, artsy episodes that revealed his skimpy backstory. Jet is a clichéd old mentor character, grizzled, grounded and thoroughly functional. Faye was slightly better, a self-centred, greedy woman without a past, but she was left underdeveloped. And then there was Ed, adorable little girl and computer genius, whose sheer exuberant randomness I thought I would find charming, but she was left so totally one-note, so excessively ridiculous that she was actually really annoying. And she got one line in the whole series that was serious, and that was the last one. Character-wise, I can’t say I found anything to grip me.

And then there was the plot. Okay, the idea is that it freewheels like improvised jazz, changing genres here, quoting there. In a limited amount, this is very amusing – the first episode is a tribute to Desperado, there are western and sci-fi references all over the place, most of the episode titles are taken from great blues, jazz or rock songs. Best of all, one non-speaking bad guy is quite obviously ‘played’ by Woody Allen. But after a while, it just seems to be done for the sake of it, to the expense of, y’know, the actual series itself. As though a saxophone solo started quoting Beethoven and then went on to ignore the original song to carry on with the 5th symphony. For example, one entire episode is devoted to Spike hunting down a super-assassin whose appearance seems to be a tribute to either The Joker and The Penguin or that guy from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. There’s no character development in the episode, no real threat, no statement, just a few fights. And then there’s the episode that parodies Alien but falls far short of even Red Dwarf. The movie, too, is full of beautiful animation, but mediocre in story terms, featuring a whole series of McGuffins and then an evil plot that really isn’t a threat at all – but of course, Spike has to go and have a big climactic fight anyway.

When we finally get episodes that focus on the characters, like 'Ballad of Fallen Angels' or 'Speak Like a Child', there are some great moments, and we see what this series could have been. But so concerned were the writers with being clever and being funny that they missed out on making something that was actually engaging.

(orginally written 21.12.2005)

Monday, 5 April 2010

Trigun


Trigun is one of an ever-shorter list of classic anime that I always felt I should have watched ages ago. Some on that list prove disappointing (like Lain), while others are classic because, really, they’re damn awesome. And Trigun is one of these.

Trigun is made up of familiar elements – a protagonist from the Himura Kenshin clown-with-a-scarily-powerful-side mould. Vash is a very silly man who is nevertheless amongst the best gunfighters in his world: the familiar sci-fi setting of a desert planet on which mankind is marooned after a fleet of spaceships conveying them to a new homeworld crash-landed. Known as ‘Vash the Stampede’ because of his reputation for causing huge destruction wherever he goes, our adventure begins with our likeable clown being tracked down by two women from an insurance firm who have been told to try to mitigate the damage he’s causing.

It’s a comedic premise, and the tone mostly matches it. The anime closest to Trigun in spirit and humour (in my experience) would have to be One Piece, where another happy-go-lucky character with powers that easily level buildings does battle with other hyper-powered foes and gets a vast bounty put on his head. Like One Piece, it starts by establishing itself as a very funny and rather silly comedy show, and then becomes something much better when it layers on the angsty backstories of its characters. Trigun does this in a more finite way (though I believe the manga has yet to conclude properly) and with an interesting if simplistic moralistic theme, but both elements are done well enough, and with such a great amount of charm and genuinely entertaining situations that I don’t hesitate to call the show a classic. It’s episodic to begin with, but each episode is light, funny and enjoyable, and then once we really know the major characters well, the main plot begins. It’s a format that Cowboy Bebop really could have learned valuable lessons from.

The characters in the show are great. While the art and animation have dated a fair bit (eyes wobbling on static faces really put me off in the final episodes), and the show doesn’t look nearly as crisp, fluid and spectacular as many of today’s shows (Madhouse’s current work can be seen in the Death Note anime), the character designs are still absolutely top-tier, and Vash’s distinctive coat remains one of the most oft-adopted cosplay garments. The characters are immensely likeable, especially Vash’s foil, the deadpan cross-bearing churchman Nicholas Wolfwood, the two insurance girls (straight-laced Meryl and simple saint Milly) and of course, Vash himself, in all his goofiness, rambunctiousness and eventual soul-searching. Every seiyuu is perfect for the role, instantly recognisable and yet still natural.

While the setting of the story and Vash’s past are well-crafted, the plot isn’t great, and much of this is to do with badly-conceived villains. Too many of them are either just that bit too goofy, even for a goofy anime like this, or they’re just over-powered and their motives too problematic or stretched to be believed. The Gung-Ho Guns never seemed to me to have sufficient motives; they acted neither like people who wanted to do what they were doing, nor like people who were being forced to behave the way they were. They just did it.

But that flaw aside, the series was one of the most enjoyable shounen shows I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

(originally written 31.10.06. Badlands Rumble here.)

Sunday, 4 April 2010

ガリバーの宇宙旅行/ Garibā no Uchū Ryokō/Gulliver’s Space Travels/Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon


For two reasons, this somewhat unremarkable and highly uneven little Toei film from 1965 stands out in animation history. Firstly, it signalled the failure of Toei to break America, flopping upon its 1966 release even though it was the first of their films to be based on an English story, and led to no more Japanese animated films appearing in US cinemas until 1978.

More interesting for me, though, is its place at the beginning of the somewhat mythologised story of Miyazaki Hayao, now-legendary Ghibli figurehead. In his own accounts, Miyazaki talks of his work as an inbetweener, his work scrutinised and usually heavily edited before it even reached the eyes of a key animator. Two years into his career, he worked on this film, and proposed a change to the ending. Apparently, in the original screenplay, the inhabitants of the ‘Hope Star’ were all robotic, and Gulliver and Ricky/Ted merely battled to fend off evil robots in order to save the good ones. But Miyazaki suggested that there be a twist at the end, the Hope Star refugees being revealed to be not robots but cyborgs of a kind, humans wrapped in robot skins.

I can’t help but feel the story may be exaggerated a little. Unless somehow major changes were made in the translation (for the only version I could track down was the English dub, which is actually quite pleasant, if frequently awkward), it is clear for most of the part of the story in question that the robots were at the very least once human. The antagonists are machines they created to keep them comfortable, which wouldn’t make sense if they were robots in the first place. When asked about water, they say that they gave it up long ago, which heavily hints that they are not wholly robotic. The baddies also sing about superiority to man, not other robots. So it seems either changes were made to the backstory to suit Miyazaki’s suggestion, or what he was really responsible for was the presentation of that scene, the way it unfolds like a twist even though it isn’t really. Whatever the case, the result was one that changed the course of animation in the decades to come: Miyazaki had gained the attention of his superiors, was soon working on key animation, and eventually became the world-renown director he is today.

For all its significance, though, Gulliver’s Space Travels is not a particularly good example of golden-age Toei animation. Toei in the mid-60s were still trying to imitate Disney, with talking dogs and a forest full of cutesy friends for the aging Gulliver, somewhat hallucinogenic musical numbers and yet nothing like the budget or capability to make something as slick or smoothly-animated as The Jungle Book or even The Sword in the Stone, roughly contemporaneous Disney films. The feature was also written by Sekizawa Shin’ichi, the man behind Mothra and several Gojira films, so perhaps it would be a bit much to expect a film about the day being won by a pure heart or strong will, or even the sort of silly and exciting chase capers of later, more charming Toei films. Instead, there’s a full-on war with an army of evil robots with laser beams, combatted by our heroes with water pistols and giant water balloons. It at least makes you feel the Disney influence has been left behind, and that few things could be more typical of Japanese anime, but it really lacks the charm of later Toei, and all feels very crass, to the extent that not even Miyazaki’s poignant climactic scenes can make for a satisfying ending – and that’s without the truly cheesy final stinger that people have griped about since Alice in Wonderland.

Additionally, the presence of Gulliver seems an entirely random gimmick designed purely to rope in an audience. Young Ricky, dreaming of a more thrilling life, befriends a toy soldier and a talking dog, before meeting an aging Gulliver in the forest and travelling into space with him, where they are first abducted and then befriended by people who look and act like robots. Is there any Swiftian satire? Any real link with the Gulliver of his stories? No, he’s just a peripheral figure who happened to have a rocket ship. Ultimately, this is something of a mess, but harmless and fun, with one or two inspired moments.

And of course, well worth watching for its place in the history of animation.

もののけ姫 / Mononoke-hime / Princess Mononoke

For a while, now, I’ve been saying that Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi is my favourite Ghibli movie, but I was mistaken. Mononoke-hime is the film that started my love affair with Miyazaki’s work, helped galvanise my love for anime and indeed, became one of my favourite films of all time. It has flaws that Sen to Chihiro perhaps manages to avoid, but the tone, scale and sheer emotional power of this film allow it to stand above anything else Miyazaki has produced - and I say this having watched almost everything the man has had a major role in creating.

I first saw this movie, dubbed, on the big screen, at probably its only official UK screening, which was part of Jonathan Ross’s season of personal favourites at the Barbican in 2001. It transfixed me. The spectacle, the fantastic setting, the sheer beauty of character and location…I was wowed.

The dub continues to be the only one I would ever choose to watch. For a while, I even preferred it to the original. I now know enough Japanese to know how far Neil Gaiman’s translation is from the original, how overly wordy and melodramatic, but it is still a strong piece of work, concentrating on spirit rather than precision. The cast of genuinely strong actors do well – but now I prefer the subtler, more naturalistic and more atmospheric original language track.

Our setting is a fantastical 14th-Century Japan, where the Forest Gods still thrive. But their existence is threatened by the development of industry, and of modern weapons of war. When a boar god, turned to a demon by the iron pellet embedded in its body, attacks a village, its touch places a cursed mark on the young prince Ashitaka. Departing on a journey to find where the pellet came from, he soon finds himself embroiled in a war between humans and gods, and at the centre of it, finds the girl who is neither one nor the other, the adopted human princess of the mononoke.

Again, we are confronted with the nature vs technology theme of Nausicaa and Pom Poko, but it seems so much more mature here, especially in that neither side is presented as being correct or virtuous. There is no such obvious evil as can be found in the God Brothers of the Nausicaa manga. Eboshi, head of the industrial Tataraba, is a charitable and highly respected woman, but her interests are at odds with those of the gods, who in turn only protect what they have always protected.

The beauty here is in the details. From the traditions of Ashitaka’s tribe to the daily lives of the inhabitants of Tataraba, the rules by which great gods live and the tiny artistic brushstrokes such as the way everyone must carry their own bowl, everything adds up to a totally believable fantasy setting. Just one line can hint at the history of an entire culture, with no need for further embellishment. This imagined world is so rich, so fully realized, that its supernatural elements become very easy to accept. There is a whole mythology here.

The plot might be a little lacking in focus and a little too reliant on contrivance, with Ashitaka just happening to go to the right places at the right times again and again, and the thing that most people complain about, the climax, is admittedly almost totally without rules, becoming perplexing and really rather lazy in writing terms, but is exciting enough to seem fitting and its resolution is neatly uplifting. Besides, Miyazaki isn’t great at stories: what he excels at is characters, relationships, fantastical worlds. And there are no better examples of these things than are found here: not only in his films, but anywhere.

Besides, I for one am astonished that someone who can write something as grandiose as this can write something as tiny and heartwarming as Totoro, as comically jaded and knowing as Porco Rosso, as whimsical as Sen to Chihiro and as action-packed and fun as Laputa. The man is a true legend.

(Originally written 18.8.06)