Tuesday, 31 August 2010

アリババと40匹の盗賊/Aribaba to 40-ppiki no Tozoku/Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves/Ali Baba’s Revenge

This is in all likelihood the end of my personal little trail of devotion. Like several other Ghibli enthusiasts, I’ve tracked down all the significant feature films of Miyazaki Hayao’s career, some much more difficult to find than others, and found myself happily watching some golden-age Toei in the process.

But while others uncovering this half-lost little gem, seemingly only disseminated at present as English dub Ali Baba’s Revenge (which is more or less the direct opposite of what this film is about), have raved about its frenetic action and quirkiness, I must confess how disappointed I was. By 1971, when this film was released, Toei had already released Hols, with a scope and tone that hinted at great things to come. Puss In Boots was slightly limited by its time, but it was slick, clever, funny and satisfying. Doubutsu Takarajima looked good and moved at a nice pace. So why, around the same time, with Miyazaki working on key animation, was Ali Baba so crushingly awful?

Awful? Yes indeed. This is simply a very bad piece of animation. While it has a nice premise – with the riches found in the cave, Ali Baba seized control of a whole kingdom, and begat a dynasty of tyrants, until finally the descendent of the murdered head thief (the part about his killing Ali Baba’s brother conveniently left out) leads a rather feline rebellion – the execution is horrible. For one thing, it looks terrible, apparently aiming for an American comic strip aesthetic, with round eyes that mostly stay crossed in a horribly unfunny way, the most ugly yellow cats I’ve ever seen and a genie apparently traced from the cover of a Dr Seuss book, only with all the charm surgically excised. For another, it moves horribly, full of recycled animation and always changing between shots with nasty, choppy editing. For a third, it’s dull, with no characters actually having stories that are in any way interesting: the king’s character changes in almost every scene, and the little thief boy is just swept along by events and an exposition-spewing mouse.

It sounds terrible, too, especially the musical numbers, but since this is the English dub, the original may be better.

While it’s true that in the chase scenes at the end, there is a faint glimmer of Miyazaki’s hand, but I’d hesitate to call it ‘undoubtedly Miyazaki’s animated choreography’ as Nausicaa.net does, unless they have read things I have not (quite possible as they almost never cite their sources), for it’s much more generic and less distinctive than the chase scenes in the earlier Puss in Boots, and totally lacks his distinctive sense of weight and momentum.

Ugly, annoying and dull, this is by far the worst of the pre-Ghibli films Miyazaki worked on. But of course, a film is determined by its director, script and budget, and a key animator’s influence will always be limited. But this is nothing like as good as the other films from Toei at the time. It’s not even as good as the peculiar and dated Gulliver. Indeed, even the mess that is The Flying Ghost Ship was far more watchable than Ali Baba was. A shame, but there it is.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

千年女優/Sennen Jyoyuu/Millennium Actress

Judging from the fact that I got this DVD free in the goodie bag from Virgin Megastores’ Naruto Cosplay Event, I’m guessing Millennium Actress’s sales weren’t quite what they were hoped to be. Indeed, it got nothing near the amount of hype Kon Satoshi’s last film, Perfect Blue, managed to receive. And this is a shame, because Millennium Actress is not only an excellent and rather clever little film, but is in fact one of the best animated movies I have ever seen – and I’ve seen a fair few in my time.

A documentary filmmaker and his cameraman seek out the reclusive actress Fujiwara Chiyoko, who disappeared from the public eye after becoming one of Japan’s premier actresses in the 40s, 50s and 60s. In a way that is far more like theatre than cinema, once Chiyoko starts to relate her life story, the filmmaker and his cameraman become enveloped in a flashback, able to see it and interact with it, with flashes of ‘reality’ returning at times to show us that really, Chiyoko is just re-enacting her story with the help of the director, who seems to have more of a connection to the fading actress than that of simple admirer. Because she was an actress, she steps into many of her past roles, her real life and that of her characters seeming to intertwine, allowing her to appear in a multitude of guises and the movie to take on a variety of styles, which is a joy to watch. We see all the great staples of Japanese cinema – the Kurosawa-like feudal samurai/ninja movies, the suppressed maiko in a geisha house, the apocalyptic war film, even a brief snippet of a Gojira-like monster rampaging – and throughout, Chiyoko is searching for her first love. It’s a bit far-fetched, this endless quest for a man Chiyoko knew as a teenager and remained in love with for her entire life, a bit like the cheesy love story in Memoirs of a Geisha, but the point was to have a simple plot strand that could carry the central concept of a girl stepping into a multitude of roles at different stages in her life, allowing us to see her grow older as well as adopting the costumes from many different periods, while around her the same motifs are repeated to various degrees of subtlety – the film director doing the same at her side, and a bit of level-headed comic relief being provided by the goofy cameraman.

Millennium Actress is a film-lover’s film, and to really enjoy it, it helps to be familiar with the kind of films that are popular enough in Japan for their settings to have seeped into public consciousness, the kinds that are always returned to for historical dramas, though a pretty general knowledge is enough – one doesn’t need to be able to spot Shinsengumi coats to understand a general time period. Animation fans also have much to admire, for while there are few displays of animation pyrotechnics (though they do exist), it’s in the little details that one can observe just how good MadHouse’s animation was here, in the girl slipping over while running and pushing herself back up, or the posture of a woman vacuuming.

The idea is simple and well-executed, the characters charming and the canvas uniquely both broad and intimate. The music is idiosyncratic and might make the film date badly, but works quite nicely. I recommend this film quite highly.

(originally written 24.06.07)

Live-Action Adaptation: The Last Airbender

I nearly shed a tear, I must admit it.

Not at the travesty of what M. Night Shyamalan did to Avatar: it was a bad film, but not as awful as has been suggested. Not at the politically incorrect parts dubbed ‘racebending’: I have never been too troubled about the casting, knowing the Hollywood machine is and will long remain extremely racially prejudiced, because it caters to its audience. Certainly not for the emotional high points of the film, such as stabbing a fish.

I nearly cried with laughter at the increasingly infamous scene of a whole group of earthbenders performing a long sequence of complex martial arts moves associated with element-bending…only for one puny rock to drift across the screen. Fortunately, this was the absolute nadir of the special effects in a generally good-looking film, although some inconsistent CG, obvious miniatures and rickety sets will date the film very quickly.

But this was not at all a good adaptation of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, a brave attempt by a Western company to make a series with the tone of an epic anime; other similar attempts have almost exclusively been comedic. It was not entirely successful and while I look back on it with fondness and would certainly rank it amongst my favourite American cartoons, it ought not to be forgotten that the series frustrated me almost as much as it pleased me, and a lot of episodes had me gnashing my teeth at bad pacing, annoying characters, dubious power-ups and poor world-building. But in the end I loved much more than I hated, and this film made it all look so good.

Before its release, fandom was mostly critical of the racial elements. I must say that these were not as I expected. I thought that we would see a Central/South-Asian Fire Nation, maybe some East-Asian monks and everyone else would be white. In fact, while this seems right for the Fire Nation, everyone else was a cosmopolitan mix – although of course all young heroes were white. Dev Patel is an anti-hero, of course, but still virtuous, and we ought not to forget that the original casting had lily-white Jesse McCartney in the role. The Earth Kingdom seemed predominantly East-Asian and Aang himself had an appearance suggesting mixed white and Asian heritage. Indeed, while he is a long way from the series’ Aang, far less playful and yet still seeming even younger, and not so much of a pretty-boy, this ‘Aang’ (‘Ong’? One of many odd pronunciation changes) fit his badly-developed role well, performing acrobatics skilfully and delivering stilted lines with enough directness to just come over as naïve, not wooden.

Unfortunately, his co-stars were not so good. Worst was the guy from Twilight as Sokka. I assume that he was cast purely to try and draw in teenagers, because he was so, so wrong for the part. Quite seriously, if I didn’t already know the plot and world of Avatar, I would have expected a twist to come later on that revealed he was a robot or emotionless alien. His performance was just that flat. And it’s a real shame that apart from one amusing moment where Katara’s water-bending goes wrong at just the wrong moment, all comedy was removed from his character. Not even an extremely pretty Yue whose performance was excellent given the terrible material, could excuse the entirety of her relationship with Sokka being told to the audience by Katara’s voiceover.

Katara herself fit quite well, looking more formidable towards the end, but as yet she has nothing of the strength or warmth of her cartoon counterpart. Dev Patel as Zuko was worse, and he apparently worked in cahoots with the hairdressing department to give us a Zuko who was based entirely in appearance and performance on Ross from Friends. I really could not see past this. Every emotional outpouring seemed to directly channel David Schwimmer.

Uncle Iroh was a rather cool hawklike Asian man, and while there’s much to be said for hidden strength found in a fat, affable old man, this new formidable interpretation worked nicely. I can’t help but think he would make a better Ozai, though, for the man cast in the role looked like some office clerk.

The plot could have worked, as an outline, but it was all so rushed and distant, events unfolding with barely a reaction shot to give the impression the characters were in any way involved. There was no reason to care for any of the characters, and making a plot point of Aang being emotionally repressed is hardly a way to make us sympathise with him. The climax had its moments – some waterbending looked great, and Aang’s moves occasionally made him look incredible, but the crisis of the moon spirit lasted all of a minute, after which the battle was clearly decided, leaving no tension for Aang’s Avatar State moment, which while impressive did very little of any effect.

No tension, no emotional attachment to characters, no climax and no development made for a dull, detached film.

I sincerely hope that the sequel does not get made, and look forward to the new animated spin-off.

Friday, 27 August 2010


Kon Satoshi’s recent death has probably affected me more than the passing of any other director since Kubrick, and in fact probably more than that. Having become one of the three or four most prominent anime directors alive, I felt he was on the brink of international fame, and that with a few more films he might rival Miyazaki in the Western mindset and perhaps help Japanese animation to be recognised as increasingly sophisticated and adult-oriented. And then a few days ago, I was genuinely shocked to hear the news he had passed away, apparently suddenly and without warning, his latest film The Dream Machine unfinished.

Last night a final blog entry from Kon himself was disseminated around the internet and quickly translated. It stands as one of the most moving pieces of writing I have ever read. He knew that he was in the advanced stages of cancer and had come to terms with his imminent death at the age of just 46. He detailed how he and his wife reacted to the news of how close he was to death, how he thought he would not be able to see his parents again but managed to recover from pneumonia for long enough to see them, and his regrets over how The Dream Machine cannot possibly be what it would have been had he lived to see it completed. Most affecting of all, at the end, he had accepted that he was about to die and closed this final epistle, this auto-eulogy, with dignity and, indeed, happiness.

Thus it was with turbulent emotions that I watched what will essentially stand as his final complete work, excluding the one-minute short he made for NHK. Apart from one last episode of Paranoia Agent I’ll watch in the coming days and that little short, watching Paprika means that I have seen everything Satoshi Kon directed, a distressingly short corpus, and rank Tokyo Godfathers, Millennium Actress and especially Paranoia Agent as amongst the best anime I have ever seen. So it pains me to say that Paprika, for me, doesn’t match up at all.

There are many ways in which I can sing its praises: it is utterly beautiful, smoothly animated, consummately drawn and shows fantastic imagery that brings wonderment still exclusive to animated films. The voice acting is pitch-perfect, from seiyuu of great standing like Hayashibara Megumi to Kon himself in a cameo role alongside the novelist who wrote the original story. The concept, too, is fascinating, made of very similar stuff to what made Inception such a success: a machine has been invented which allows people to enter the dreams of others and explore their psyches for information, used here for psychotherapeutic reasons. Of course, the machines go missing, abused in the hands of people with nefarious agendas, and chaos ensues.

There are some appealing characters here and some stunning, memorable visuals. But the trouble is that the plot is so poor. It’s clear from early on who is going to be the self-appointed defender of dreams, and there’s really no good reason for dreams to start pouring into reality. A lot of characters, like the police inspector, are left underdeveloped even when their backstories get laid out, and the chanting of nonsense gets old very quickly.

But the real problem is comparing this with Kon’s other films. Even Perfect Blue, similarly dark and strange, had strong emotional content and a sort of appealing innocence. Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress are both heartfelt, full of affection and fondness and warmth, even if they take darker turns or face a grim reality. In Paprika everything seems to be at arm’s length. The main characters are all aloof and professional, and the protagonist even splits herself into two distinct parts. The only naïve and innocent character is soon turned mad and trundles about detached from everything for the climactic final act. And the problem with removing reality from the equation is that makes it extremely hard to find points of identification and empathy. This is Paprika’s problem, and the reason why it does not quite stand with all the rest of the great man’s finest works.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Yuri Norstein’s Сказка сказок & Ёжик в тумане / Tale of Tales and The Hedgehog in the Fog

Yuri Norstein is a giant of animation, and so seminal are Tale of Tales and The Hedgehog in the Fog that quite frankly I am ashamed of never having seen them until last year. Today, I rewatched The Hedgehog in the Fog and remembered just how brilliant it was. Indeed, 29 years since his last animated release (not counting his 2-minute segment of the Winter Days project), I feel it’s high time he got a move on with The Overcoat...

All jokes aside, as I’ve mentioned before, I regard it as a shame that so many fans of animation are tribal and tend not to stray beyond their devotion to, for example, Disney or anime. On the other hand, once one is aware of Norstein’s work, his stature becomes more obvious. Along with Paul Grimault, Miyazaki Hayao has cited Norstein as a great influence, international polls often put these two titles at the top of ‘best animation of all time’ lists and the wolf from Tale of Tales even cameos in an episode of Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei.

Norstein’s animations are grim, almost devoid of colour but complex to look at, and are capable of that kind of empty, plaintive storytelling that to the viewer seems profound and beautiful. While Tale of Tales is the more serious, weighty and symbolic of the two, my personal preference is for the coherence and simple storytelling of The Hedgehog in the Fog, which creates its strange atmosphere through direction and art rather than disconnected segments. The latter’s story follows a little hedgehog who, concerned about a horse, goes into a frog, is startled by various encounters in the strange world there, but is ultimately aided by weird but good-hearted creatures and is reunited with his friend the bear cub, whose voice actor delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever heard in no more than a handful of lines. Tale of Tales, conversely, makes a degree of sense following the little wolf, but otherwise it is mostly strange snatches of skipping bulls, apples and soldiers. Both, rather like poems, can bring strong emotions with just the slightest impressions, but I find elements of the lack of story and bizarre imagery to be overly simplistic and without symbolic power, rather than the other way around. I have never been keen on images which may mean numerous profound things, because it is equally probable, if not more so, that they mean nothing at all. This is likely because I put more emphasis on the storyteller’s intentions than my subjective interpretation.

But it is undoubtedly the uncanny mood of Norstein’s cut-out animation, moving between several layers of glass with different textures upon them, that makes him so prominent. Take the exact soundtrack and storyboard and animate in Disney’s style and see if you get the same impact. Norstein is a master of mood, of his own strange aesthetic, and of pitching animation to be both cute and unsettling. And these are no small feats. Essential viewing.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

カフカ 田舎医者/ Kafuka Inaka Isha / Franz Kakfa’s A Country Doctor

Much as I love anime, when one thinks of arthouse, it is not where the mind first turns. Anime may have outgrown its eighties clichés of ultraviolence, big-boobed airheads getting molested by tentacles and plotlines with little more to them than good guys and bad guys have a scrap, but while modern anime is more sophisticated, little of it appeals to international arthouse crowds. Osamu Tezuka’s experiments are long in the past, and seldom revisited. Today’s anime is dominated by cutesy comedies, fantasy action series and a few shows which aim for realism. Arguably some of SHAFT’s stranger work has a heavy arthouse influence, Takahata’s work with Studio Ghibli has an artistic angle that balances Miyazaki’s populism, and some of the releases from Madhouse and Studio 4˚C have certainly been exceptional, from Mind Game to Tekkon Kinkreet, but these are recent examples, and that they stand out so much is indicative of how little they represent the immense anime industry.

But anime, especially in 2010, is getting to be as broad as cinema in general. While the minds of those who think of arthouse animation may still go first to Yuri Norstein or the Zagreb School, arthouse anime is still being made. And here is a rather unsettling, grotesquely beautiful example, directed and seemingly almost wholly realised by Yamamura Koji. A Country Doctor is a pretty direct attempt to render Franz Kakfa’s weird short story of the same name in visual terms. Thus, the hallucinogenic and Protean way the narrative weaves about and hints at political commentary comes through as a strange, scratchy and almost monochrome animation in which characters and objects swell and change and move without weight, but remain recognisable and can interact with one another, while overlaid filters shift and blend, giving a scratchy overall texture not too distant from Norstein’s work. At times the delivery seems juvenile: choral delivery of narrative in spooky, flat voices immediately brings student theatre to mind, for example. However, as a whole the mood is unsettling, iconic and grotesque and suits the strange story well.

Of course, the question of the validity of Kafka’s narrative, which quite probably means nothing at all in conventionally storytelling terms and is instead a series of emotional expressions, is a debate far too large for this page, but this anime at only 20 minutes long can bewilder, disturb and to a degree amuse without becoming tedious.

Never to be a popular hit, nor to be of much note in any history of Japanese animation, it is nonetheless an award-winning animation worthy of attention and interest. Unfortunately, at least in the West, those who would be impressed generally steer clear of anime as lowbrow, while those who adore anime are more ‘in it for the pretty’ and would be baffled and irritated by something like this. Ah well. In my view, that is their loss.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Majo no Takkyubin/ Witch’s Delivery Sevice/ Kiki’s Delivery Service

The change in tone between Mononoke-Hime, one of Miyazaki’s most epic, serious and Japanese films and tonight’s viewing, the intimate, whimsical and very European-flavoured Majo no Takkyubin, is a true indication of the director’s versatility. Kiki is few Ghibli fans’ favourite of the studio’s movies, but I think I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who admires Miyazaki’s work who doesn’t at least like this warm-hearted, thoroughly sweet little story. Indeed, I can think of few fans of Japanese animation, beyond those who like nothing but giant robots, big explosions, gunfights and overlarge boobies, who wouldn’t have a place in their heart for Kiki, Jiji and their charming little world.

Set in an imprecise European location in the 40s or 50s, the tone is somewhat reminiscent of Pippi Longstocking (which Miyazaki and Takahata at one stage wanted to adapt for a TV anime) or the Heidi books (which were adapted into an anime series directed by Takahata, with Miyazaki working on layouts), although the story was based on a book (more a series of short stories) by a Japanese author.

Kiki is a young witch. At thirteen, she must leave home to find a city in need of magical services, where she will stay for a year in a traditional rites-of-passage ritual. With only her black cat Jiji (who can speak only to her) for company, she finds life in the big city difficult when she first arrives, but since her ability to fly on a broomstick is her greatest asset, she soon strikes upon the idea of setting up a delivery service.

There’s barely any plot to speak of. Of all the Ghibli anime, this is the one that feels most like it is simply a truncated version of an anime series. Pom Poko jumps about from character to character, plotline to plotline, but there’s a goal that unites all the different parts. Porco Rosso has the merest strand of a story, but it lasts the whole movie through, and has consistent development of character relationships. Majo no Takkyubin just…keeps things simpler. Kiki arrives, gets herself in trouble, picks herself up and sets up her business with the kind baker woman she meets, delivers various items, with the focus on her going beyond the call of duty to help people, makes friends with Tombo (who has saintly patience with Kiki), has a crisis where she loses her powers, then gets them back in time to help avert disaster so that there can be a strong ending. As you can see, it’s a very episodic plot, and other than Kiki and Jiji, none of the characters really share the screen with our young heroine enough to be developed very well. Even Tombo seems like a two-dimensional nice-boy character.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that Kiki is a lovely, sweet little girl in a mostly very sweet world, who has her ups and downs and enriches the lives of everyone she meets. She does little favours to lovely people, whose reciprocal acts of kindness really bring a smile to the face. This is winsome, innocent fluff, the wholesome entertainment most Westerners expect from their cartoons – but it’s done very well. Very well indeed.

I was watching another of my old, slightly dodgy subs, from the pre-Disney licensing of the movie. Every time I re-watch some anime, I’m thankful that I know a little more Japanese than I used to, because some of the translated lines were so much more aggressive than they needed to be. And whoever thought they were being clever by making a television announcer say, ‘Oh, the humanity!’ when a dirigible was crashing…well, you weren’t. I really should get new versions of these films soon. The washed-out colours and bad transfer were a pain. There are lots of cheap Ghibli DVD offers at the moment – I should make use of them. Despite this, I could see how good the art was, how beautifully this fictional city had been depicted, how sweet young Kiki looked, and how utterly cute Jiji was.

And the voice acting here really is top-notch. Kiki is played by Takayama Minami, who was recently making headlines in the anime world after successfully proposing to the man who created her most famous character, Conan, and who was one of the first seiyuu I ever really admired (since she played Emilio in Psychic Force). She plays Kiki with such earnest sweetness that I was astonished to discover that she also played the worldly, headstrong Ursula. But then, since her most recent role I’ve seen has been playing two identical (male) twins with totally different personalities in Jyuu-Ou-Sei, her versatility shouldn’t come as a surprise!

Also worth noting that while Tombo’s role wasn’t very complex, he was also played by another great seiyuu, Yamaguchi Kappei, who is most famous for playing Ranma and Inuyasha, but also does lots of generic young boy voices like Ryuichi in Gravitation and Iwaki in Rizelmine. And also plays Usopp in One Piece. Trust me when I say that you cannot beat his performance as Usopp. It is just peerless. Comparable might be Clarence Nash’s Donald Duck or Dan Castellanata’s Homer Simpson, in their own respective cultural spheres. Sure, Tombo isn’t up there with Usopp, but it’s still worth mentioning!

I’ve digressed somewhat, but the fact is that there isn’t a whole lot to say about Kiki. It’s simple, clean, sprightly fun that won’t challenge you, confuse you or surprise you, but will put a smile on your face. It’s not Totoro, or Sen to Chihiro, but aside from those two classics, I’d say there was no better Ghibli movie for younger children.

(originally written 20.08.2006)