Tuesday, 29 March 2011

蟲師 / Mushishi

Mushishi, the story of an itinerant man in pre-Westernised Japan who meets people whose lives are affected by supernatural entities and offers help and advice, has been a critical and commercial success story, albeit no smash hit. Slow-paced, stately and serious, as well as occasionally really very beautiful, it made the transition from Afternoon manga to anime, and then to a live-action film. It is certainly a series with a great deal of unique character, but for all that it is pleasant to see an intelligent, mature series become a hit and win numerous awards in Japan, I could not bring myself to feel very strongly about Mushishi. I like it, but I am a long way from loving it.

Ginko is a mushishi, a master of the ‘mushi’, which are somewhat analogous to bacteria, with magical properties. Every episode, with a few exceptions dealing with his past, Ginko encounters someone whose life has been deeply affected by interaction with mushi, from people who can’t hear through to people who have seen family members resurrected as babies, or given birth to children who are growing at abnormal rates and clearly are not quite human. Even had it not become his vocation, Ginko himself would have a life very much affected by the presence of these strange godlike but with some exceptions unintelligent entities, for a childhood incident left him with white hair, one eye (the other is covered by his fringe) and an unnatural propensity for attracting mushi, which he has to keep at bay with smoke from special cigarettes.

Thus, the series is extremely episodic, only Ginko appearing every week, and even then, not always as an adult. Even towards the very last episodes, I expected a more continuous storyline to emerge, but it never happened. Thus, it joins the likes of Jigoku Shoujo and Shinigami no Ballad for being extremely episodic, which gives a slow, strange and distancing feel to the overall series - especially since unlike the former, there is no recurring cat-and-mouse side story, and unlike the latter, the show runs for a full 26 episodes. Ginko is likeable, a very laid-back and stoic character despite all the situations he finds himself in, but the problem is that ultimately it’s very hard to engage with the world of the story, or the one link we have to it.

And the problem with the concept overall is that there’s really very little inherent drama to the idea of mushi. This is essentially a medical drama, only because the diseases are supernatural, the symptoms can be anything. While occasionally this makes for some brilliant stories with the kind of moral dilemmas that can only be posed in hypothetical worlds – whether a man can kill something he has grown to love as a child, or sacrifice himself to give life to another, or give away his very memories – it also has the problem of always being easily solved by Ginko naming the mushi and claiming the problem can be undone with some special potion. At least real medical dramas require meticulous research, and even there, the need always arises to take the interpersonal dramas of recurring characters further in order to keep an audience engaged.

So while Mushishi was sometimes breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating to watch, at other times it was slow, utterly lacking in tension and as a result uninteresting. The animation varied from excellent to plain lazy and character design got rather repetitive. It was an anime to take out occasionally to admire, like a fine jewel, but looking too often only throws tiny flaws into focus, and eventually becomes boring.

However, if I thought that the solution was to bring many of the stories together, linking them in a coherent overall story, the live-action adaptation taught me that a whole lot more development would then be necessary, for that is precisely what the filmmakers decided to do. The result is a messy, uneven and overlong film that I’m sure would be very confusing for the uninitiated. Taking the time to develop each story at least builds a world. Rushing through them only highlights how necessary a central plot is to a feature-length film, and without one, there exists only a single actor, who for all his reputation for coolness simply did not have the charisma to make Ginko interesting for two hours.

(Originally written 28.02.10)

がくえんゆーとぴあ まなびストレート!/Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight

The big anime of the moment, the most-discussed, most-watched, most polarising anime amongst the up-to-date fansub community, and reportedly in Japan too, is undoubtedly Lucky Star. It has many vociferous fans, and many vocal detractors too – threads frequently pop up in Azuma Kiyohiko image boards, usually full of people annoyed at far-fetched comparisons between Azumanga Daioh and Lucky Star. But at the same time, under the radar, an anime far more similar to Lucky Star, and in many ways rather better, has been broadcasting, and that anime is called Manabi Straight.

Both shows revolve around high school girls with typical anime stock personalities, and the comedy derived from their interactions. The five girls in Manabi Straight are the usual suspects – the timid and childlike one, the athletic and brash tomboy, the sophisticated but rather taciturn one, the ditzy one and the forceful yet simple-minded leader. As with Lucky Star, these girls are supposed to be in their mid-to-late teens, yet look like they’re nine or ten, here with the slightly round-faced look of Petopeto-san, and cute cat-like smiles reminiscent of the :3 smiley. While Lucky Star focuses on being clever, with its incessant in-jokes and long scenes about nothing in particular, Manabi Straight is more conventional, with characters being adorably sweet to one another and a heartwarming story arc about putting on a school festival despite hardships and a lack of interest. Indeed, if there’s a fault to Manabi Straight, it’s that most anime fans have seen this all before, and beyond the very much peripheral gimmick of a near-future setting, the show does not offer much that’s new, and thus relies entirely on its characters.

And yes, the characters are likeable. Ironically, given that the crux of the matter is that Lucky Star has been given far better marketing and relies on the reputation of Kyoto Animation, while UFO Table may get some mid-sized hits but haven’t had a string of productions head-and-shoulders ahead of their competition, I took an initial dislike to Manabi, our protagonist, because she struck me as too similar to Suzumiya Haruhi (Kyoto’s flagship character). I never liked Haruhi, the smug, selfish, bratty, insensitive bully, which made me cautious of Manabi, but after the first episode, she became a calmer, more likeable character, caring of others and willing to work hard to realise her idealistic aims. On the other hand, her spontaneously being able to give a professional-standard vocal performance at a school festival, where the animation standard went up a few notches, was too derivative of Haruhi for my liking.

There wasn’t much to Manabi Straight, and its humour was a little too soft and gentle for it to work as a comedy. Lucky Star probably brings more fresh ideas with it, but in taking risks, it ends up falling flat a lot more. Manabi Straight may not introduce any stunning new concepts, or make its stamp on the moé subgenre, but it does what it sets out to do, introducing well-conceived and likeable characters and telling a satisfying, small-scale story. And that’s why I think overall, it was a better show.

(Originally written 02.08.07)

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Princess and the Frog

It's no exaggeration to say that this film was Disney’s rebirth. It didn’t make many headlines, but the disaster of Home on the Range and the failure to produce a successful cell animation since…well, since Mulan, really, meant that Disney Animation closed its doors, the company intending to rely on its CG branches. Seems strange that it was already six years ago.

So really, this film is more of a milestone than many people seem to realize – a make-or-break for Disney’s traditional animation department. And, happily, it looks like the biggest and most important animation studio of all time are going to be able to stay on their feet and make more traditional animations, hopefully returning to a more experimental, whimsical and risk-taking strategy.

The Princess and the Frog
is far from the best Disney film ever made, but it is a very good one, well worth seeing with or without knowledge of the milestones left for the company. The hook that’s been used to pull people in has been the fact that this is the first film with a black ‘princess’ character – and yes, that’s well overdue, but to be fair to Disney, the last three have been other minorities (Mulan, Pocahontas and Jasmine), the rest are all derived from very old fairy tales, and if Nala hadn’t been, y’know, a lion, she would come very close to counting. However, the setting of New Orleans was an excellent choice for the reimagined story here, taking Disney back to their rich association with jazz, neglected since…well, probably since The Aristocats, or possibly Oliver & Company, which I haven’t seen.

I went in suspecting that Disney would be rather desperate to prove how progressive they are, making the black characters perfect and the white ones hideous, and to be honest, it came close, with most white characters weak-willed or grotesque and one surprisingly terrible English accent on display, but it had more depth than that. Race is central to this production, because of the publicity machine, because of the fairly brave in-film allusions to racial inequality and because some rather idiotic critics have suggested that Disney is as white-supremacist as ever because the bad guy does voodoo and because Disney finally feature a black princess and have her spend much of the film in another form altogether. But if anything was racially insensitive, it was the way it was packaged as a bone thrown to a community, although let’s face it, it would have been worse if it was presented as nothing important because society is now ‘colourblind’. Inequality still prevails, so bringing the issue to the fore is good. The voodoo criticism is daft because a virtuous character also does it, and the Facilier character was more interesting, more vulnerable and human, while also more basely callous, than most Disney villains. Similarly, the rather grotesque spoilt white belle character was also a friend and a confidant, a character not out of stock, bridging comic relief, rival, best friend and facilitator roles. The prince was charmingly roguish beyond his silly accent and Tia was genuinely likeable.

The plot was also pleasingly freewheeling and unpredictable, much more aligned to the Pixar formula than traditional Disney. The general outline could be predicted, perhaps, but if anyone expected the incidentals, the surreal image of a crocodile drawn in the customary Disney style being deeply concerned for his good friend the firefly, without any suggestion of hip irony or self-consciousness, then I’d be very surprised. Risks were taken with animation, too, and it was great to see a musical number in 20s art deco style, the sort of thing usually reserved for a title sequence. Disney is revived and revitalized. Great news.

(originally written 25.2.10)

Friday, 25 March 2011

おたくのビデオ/ Otaku no Bideo / Otaku no Video

This 1991 OVA by Gainax, back when they were still highly experimental, is a bit of a mini-landmark amongst ‘otaku’, fans who obsess about a subject to the point of excluding all else. This is because it focused on them - it put the subculture centre-stage. It’s a strange little two-part OVA, alternating a fanciful animated retelling of Gainax’s history – with plenty of artistic licence – with mockumentary interviews with real-life otaku, painting them in the worst possible light: cosplayers are ashamed of their pasts but can’t go to work without a Gundam helmet stashed nearby, porn obsessives masturbate on camera, a gaijin otaku’s dialogue is dubbed over with really over-the-top praise for Japan, and otaku come over as the lowest form of life on the planet, just under the sea slug. It’s the satirical juxtaposition of silly, posturing otaku-takes-over-the-world-and-yet-sticks-with-his-buddies idealism and an exaggeratedly grim reality that makes the concept work, and because it’s so brief, it doesn’t matter that there’s not a whole lot to develop; Otaku no Video doesn’t overstay its welcome.

A few things have changed in 16 years, and not just because VHS is obsolete, posters on an Otaku’s wall would likely be less Galaxy Express 999 and more Gantz, and cosplayers more likely to shun Lupin III to embrace Loveless; there’s also things like the Internet’s presence on an Otaku’s daily life, and increased numbers of otaku meaning increased segregation between subsets (how many gun otaku mix with anime otaku now? Even the crossover between sci-fi and anime otaku grows exponentially less prominent). But nevertheless, the similarities between Otaku no Video and Genshiken are remarkable, down to the unlikely parts (how attractive female members of the club (and the main character) are, for example, how well they pull off cosplay), despite what is almost a generation gap.

Hilarious in concept, quite funny in execution, Otaku no Video is an amusing self-referential vignette, as well as a bit of a vanity project for Gainax (who enjoy pointing out just how good the Daikon IV animation is). It is well worth watching for anyone who identifies with otaku culture, but perhaps too bizarre for the uninitiated.

(originally written 28.04.07)

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

らき☆すた /Raki ☆ Suta/ Lucky☆Star

Lucky☆Star was one of a slew of similar anime of the last two seasons. A light-hearted slice-of-life comedy about a group of teenaged girls drawn much younger than they were actually supposed to be, it had to directly compete with Manabi Straight and Hidamari Sketch.

In this race of silly loli shows, however, Lucky☆Star soon emerged as not only the front-runner, but gained truly widespread recognition and a huge fanbase, while the other shows faded into obscurity. With Hidamari Sketch, that’s no surprise, since it’s terrible, but as I mentioned in my Manabi Straight impressions, it was something of a surprise that show didn’t compete better, since it was warmer, more coherent, more consistent and cuter. Lucky☆Star, though, had a few things going for it that Manabi Straight just couldn’t compete with.

One was the reputation of Kyoto Animation. UFO Table are a big studio, but Kyoto are the new powerhouse and real otaku-pleasers, having produced their impressive animations of Key’s lonely-young-man-pleasing dating sims and the quirky smash hit Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu, so all eyes were on them for their first cutesy animation. Also, knowing well that they were appealing directly to the basement-dwelling feverish spenders that are the Japanese otaku, they targeted them specifically, putting in lots of references and in-jokes, as well as making one of their cutest characters an extreme geek, playing directly into the fantasy that the audience just might find an amazingly cute, young-looking, childlike girl with interests directly aligned to theirs. This also had the side-effect of drawing in fujoshi, female otaku, especially in the West, who saw themselves reflected in an idealised form, and declared an uncanny alignment with this girl, at the least in personality terms.

I had a lot of problems with Lucky☆Star. A lot of people complained about the show’s slow pace and plotlessness when it first appeared, but I actually liked it a lot more back then. The first episode has a very long discussion of the best way to eat a kind of chocolate-filled pastry. There was a distinctive Azumanga Daioh flavour back then, at the inception, with four girls simply talking about the random things in their lives, the humour deriving from their strong personalities – Kagami is a strong-willed, sensible girl, her sister Tsukasa is air-headed and childlike, Konata is brash and proudly irresponsible and Miyuki is brainy and feminine.

But as the show progressed and one director was fired to make way for another in a bid for better ratings, the show moved away from its 4-koma comic roots and became a smug, self-referential comedy that just loved to pat itself on the back, so that otaku could feel included and pat themselves on the back, too. Slices of life got reduced more and more, becoming little snatched scenes of families watching TV or visits to the dentist, while more and more airtime was devoted to references, especially to Suzumiya Haruhi. The girls go to a cosplay café and see the show’s signature dance performed, capitalising on the fact that Konata’s Seiyuu also portrayed Haruhi herself, or we see her dressed as Yuki and doing impersonations. The references at the beginning of the show were subtle but unobtrusive, so that if you’ve seen To Heart or Maria-sama ga Miteru, you get the reference and get a thrill of amusement (as with other anime with a lot of pastiches, like Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei) but if you haven’t, the context is still there and you don’t miss much – indeed, there are so many references that it’s unlikely anyone will get them all. But if you haven’t seen Suzumiya Haruhi or know about its cultural impact in the otaku community in Japan, tough luck, great long sequences can go right over your head, with you being made very aware you’re missing something. And even if you do understand, recognising yet another reference to the same show soon loses its sheen. Watching the entire season feels like going to see bad sequels to a movie you like, or turning on an episode of The Simpsons from its later series – you like the franchise and feel a kind of obligation to it, but ultimately it feels hollow and the jokes are less and less funny. New girls get introduced, but somewhat like Scrappy-Doo, they’re less interesting rehashes of the established cast, and don’t really bring anything new or refreshing to the formula.

I’m not saying Lucky☆Star is a bad show. It looks nice, with cute character designs and Kyoto’s usual fluid and detailed animation, despite the simplicity of the aesthetic. It has some great little pastiches and nice music. I loved some of the subtler references, and like most of the keen fans, felt a certain affinity with the habits of the otaku. But I soon grew tired of this show and its lack of big laughs and constant rehashing of ideas – as with the ending credits, which become strange live-action sequences in the second half of the series, funny for the first two or three, then utterly painful. I also disliked it when self-referential humour conflicted with realism, as when Hiraishi goes from commenter in the one-note ‘Lucky☆Channel’ end section (its main draw being the amusing contrast between its presenter’s adopted cutesy characteristics and her real, belligerent personality) to actual character in the main show, but still seems omniscient, for example when in the last episode he shouts out something one of the other characters said earlier in the episode, which he could not have heard.

Ultimately, the big problem with Lucky☆Star is that it’s just not very funny. Put it beside Azumanga Daioh or Ichigo Mashimaro, both slice-of-life shows about young girls that revolve around their character quirks, and you soon realise how lacking in laughs it is, as well as how limited its emotional range is – no heartbreaking graduation here, or sensitive side of comic characters seeping through. Lucky☆Star is superficial and never has any build-up for its jokes. An entertaining diversion but, much like Suzumiya Haruhi, vastly over-rated. Roll on Yotsubato! the anime…

(originally written 15.10.07)

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Peace Maker Kurogane

PMK was one of the anime broadcast in that era, around 2003-2004, when just about everything I watched was great. And while it isn’t the anime I remember most fondly from back then, and nor is it Gonzo’s finest moment, I still love it and have been interested in the historical Shinsengumi ever since.

Indeed, Peace Maker Kurogane is based on historical figures: the Shinsengumi were a group of rōnin who came together in the mid-1800s to police Kyoto and protect the shōgun. This put them on the wrong side of the Meiji restoration and placed prominent members into key battles of that conflict; in the years since their struggle, they have became romanticised and are generally considered some of the last, greatest swordsmen of Japan’s history.

Ichimura Tetsunosuke, along with his brother Tatsunosuke (no, really. You couldn’t make those names up…) are historical figures, too. Tetsunosuke was just 12 or 13 when he joined the Shinsengumi, and became an attendant to the formidable Hijikata Toshizou. PMK ages him up to 15 (to time historical events with better pacing, I suppose), makes him very much adorable, and then turns life in the Shinsengumi into a strange mixture of silly fun and deep melancholy.

All the characters turn out fascinating in their own ways, even if they may not quite sit right with their historical equivalents. Tetsu’s coming of age is achingly compelling, and the silly pig mascot is surprisingly never unwelcome. The music is catchy – although one of the sillier episodes using the can-can was a step to far – and the voice acting superb.

A lot of viewers were turned off by spewing blood in the first episode, far over-the-top. But that was never again an issue, and there’s a realism to the violence here that makes it compelling and actually meaningful.

What starts out seeming to be one of Gonzo’s least mature actually develops into one of their most sincere and compelling pieces. And the characters are just so good that whenever they – or close equivalents – crop up in the likes of Kenshin or Gintama, it’s these designs I think back to.

Friday, 18 March 2011

天元突破グレンラガン/ Heavenly Breakthrough Guren Ragan / Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Not since One Piece has there been such an exuberant, wilful and just plan enjoyable anime, and indeed, Gurren Lagann is utter brilliance for very similar reasons. Both series thrive on being extremely over-the-top and power through their stories with big speeches and endless ebullient self-confidence, but both can switch gears to become something full of genuine emotion, something that really is epic despite poking fun at itself. This has to be the most fun action-adventure series I've seen beside One Piece, and can even go to places Shounen Jump’s flagship title cannot, because as a 27-episode series, it has a finality that an ongoing piece does not – or at least, has not as of yet.

There are several wrong ways to watch Gurren Lagann. It’s no good watching it as an important sociological comment, because it revels in saying that we should cast aside responsibilities to go and kick arse, and the consequences will work themselves out. It’s not good as a really coherent story, since it has a certain air of making-it-up-as-it-goes-along: this nasty king controls the moon, but oh wait, he’s in league with these anti-spiral guys, but oh no wait, he was actually against them all along and they just happened to be using his machines to their own ends, and this formless astral projection thing sends messengers and incrementally increases the power of its attacks rather than starting with full force because, um…because…it wants everyone to be in despair! Yeah! It’s also not exactly something that you can rely on for good science, seeming to forget evolution is reliant on aptitude for an environment, rather than just being indefinite. But those are all totally the wrong way of looking at the show. You sit back, you watch the show expecting it to just kick arse and go way, way over the top, and you’re rewarded with a magnificent display of silliness that will genuinely move you.

Here’s a story outline. Shimon is a young boy in one of the subjugated colonies of humans left on an earth ruled over by the giant robots of the beastmen. All he does all day is dig, so that the colony can eke out a meagre underground existence, until one day he finds a strange little drill, a drill that just might activate a little fighting machine. And good thing too, because the war between humans and beastmen soon bursts into the colony, a girl in a bikini with a very large rifle fighting against a giant robot. Along with his brother figure Kamina, a man so full of cheesy lines and dramatic poses that none can deny his awesomeness, they defeat the enemy and burst out onto the surface to wage war against their oppressors. But there may be more to the situation than they realised, and those that have long subjugated the humans may just be doing it for their own good.

Most of the early episodes are just plain fun, brainless fights between loudmouthed heroes and snarling baddies, but later on the series takes a brave turn and starts to question what it means to be a leader, when one should make sacrifices for the greater good, and how a society often runs on selfish, minor needs, but that angle is soon sloughed off when a few convenient attacks allow the heroes to reassert themselves as fighters and go rocketing off to kick some butt. But such out-of-hand dismissal works well; we see enough of the change of mood to know that the series could have covered that angle and done it very well, but prefers the adrenaline rushes of immense battles where galaxies and even Big Bangs can be hurled around, and huge personal sacrifices can be made. At its funniest, Gurren Lagann is hilarious, as when Kamina decides to try and make two robots combine for the first time, or when yet another massive robot grows out of the last. At its saddest, it really is moving, with all the self-sacrifices war films can allow. And it’s not afraid to just throw everything into the pot to see what happens. Got a mole-pig mascot? Let’s make it evolve into a cute boy-thing just for the hell of it, then forget about that in the next episode. Got a great voice actor who’s not gonna be used any more? Make him an exposition-spewing computer head! While you’re at it, take a typical anime side-story formula and give it to the gun-toting girl, but make sure you do it in typically awesome fashion. The whole point of Gurren Lagann is that it’s stuff you’ve seen before, done in such an excessive way, with so much style, that it’s totally brilliant.

And the show looks great, too, reaffirming my faith in Gainax after mediocre efforts like Melody of Oblivion and He Is My Master. The art style isn’t to everyone’s tastes, being loose and bouncy, but again, I think of One Piece’s often slapdash art and strange character designs that are made to work by the randomness of the setting. In Gurren Lagann, there’s no problem having talking armadillos or flat-nosed identical twins or a gunnery controller who looks strangely like Charlie Chalk – it all fits into the world, and helps tell the slapdash, hyperactive story, and looks awesome, especially the stylised eye-catches with snatches of the similarly overblown soundtrack (much of which is London rappers going ‘Ro! Ro! Fight da powa!’ while an opera singer screeches). It takes spirals as its theme, mostly because anime fans have a bit of a thing about drills, having appeared in some of the unintentionally silly 80s mecha anime and often being used in fanart for things like Marimite, and so big drills and loosely related things like DNA helixes are placed at the fore, and there’s nothing quite like an unfathomably huge robot attacking a huge stone face with a planet-sized drill!

Gurren Lagann
exists for its moments of sheer idiosyncratic greatness, of ludicrously uplifting fights and moments of bittersweet love, of big speeches and bigger drills, and rushes of adrenaline. I’ll definitely file it beside One Piece in terms of fun, humour and all-round awesomeness, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it again and again. It’s not one for newcomers to anime, for thinking this is what all anime is like would be to miss most of the joke – the humour here derives from the fact that it’s so much dafter, so much camper than just about anything around it, which is why it will make fans of the genre laugh at it and love it all the more. If you’re an anime fan who’s even a little bit au fait with the tropes and clichés of mecha anime, you must watch Gurren Lagann.

(originally written 15.10.07. Spellings have since been solidified at least in fandom to 'Simon'/'Row! Row!' Movie impressions here)

Thursday, 17 March 2011

じゃりん子チエ/ Jarinko Chie / Chie the Brat

Jarinko Chie is another pre-Ghibli movie directed by Isao Takahata, this one from 1981. This is perhaps his most immediate and light film alongside Houhokekyo! Tonari no Yamada-kun, and is similar in many ways: based on a popular humorous manga with a focus on a slightly dysfunctional family, although the storytelling here is for the most part more conventional.

Jarinko Chie has aged well: the animation is smooth, the acting (though there are some odd choices of obviously adult actors for children) is top-notch and it still hits the right emotional notes. The plot flows quite nicely: Chie lives in a little eatery with her meatheaded father, who is tough enough to beat up yakuza but embarrasses her in school. Her mother - having wed Chie's father for an arranged marriage - is estranged from the family, and lives elsewhere. However, although tough, athletic and forceful little Chie takes after her father the most, she idolises her mother and tries to be more feminine for her. She hides the fact that she sees her mother occasionally from her father, but this secret can’t last forever.

Intertwined with this is the rather bizarre story of some tomcats with visible testicles in the same style as you see in Pom Poko, who speak in human voices (although the humans cannot hear them). It’s a typical Takahata jerk in styles, and while yes, it works okay, it seems odd to use it for the climax of the movie. The slapstick and the warmth of the family, even when the father is a total meathead, are what work here, and the little things that jerk you out of the moment, like anthropomorphised cats or a weird cameo from that hideous Peko girl, I don’t think really enhance the whole, being too unsubtle to just fit in and be noted only by those looking for them. Takahata is at his best when either everything he shows is acceptable as real or there is consistency in the unreal.

The strong, dated Osaka-ben accents here and cultural references make it perhaps not a film for the uninitiated, but the non-idealised portrayal of a family, the slapstick and the way events really have an effect on the characters make this enjoyable for anyone. No Sero-Hiki no Gauche, but fun nonetheless.

(originally written 10.09.08)

Avatar: The Last Airbender

I’m quite proud to say that I have to be amongst the very first people in the UK to have started watching Avatar. Indeed, I was amongst the earliest members of the fandom even counting the US crowd. As I recall, I started to watch the show shortly after the first season finished, after some artwork came up in an online discussion about Teen Titans and how American cartoons were increasingly influenced by anime.

Since then, my feelings have been mixed about Avatar. I was constantly frustrated with the way that everything I loved about the show seemed to be balanced by something annoying or badly-done. Its main problem was how it rushed through things, showing in half-episodes what needed three to explore, leaving an impression of real shallowness. I didn’t like Sokka’s humour and was frequently irked by how easy it seemed for main characters to learn difficult things, or for really contrived solutions to problems to present themselves, and seemed to swing from love to hate.

Having seen the grand finale, though, I have landed finally, though not unreservedly, on love.

Avatar was a bold move from the start. Successful American cartoons on Nickelodeon are things like Spongebob Squarepants and Fairly Odd Parents. Even Teen Titans was cancelled prematurely. And then here’s this grand epic, unashamedly anime-based, with some hugely impressive animated sequences.

I’m so pleased the risk was taken. This is really a step in the right direction, and after the big climax, much more is planned: a Shyamalan-directed live-action adaptation, probably several more short chibi specials from DVDs and who knows? Perhaps there can be another season to come.

Most importantly, though is the precedent set. Who knows what may come through doors now opened?

The story is good and solid: a cruel empire is spreading over the world, and the only one standing in the way of total conquest is the avatar, Aang, the only person capable of manipulating all four elements. This is an unoriginal magic system – powers derived from air, water, fire and earth – but the way each culture is developed (as well as the martial arts systems used to represent them) works excellently.

The other winning element is Zuko, the antagonist, initially bent on finding and killing the avatar to ‘restore his honour’, but later given a lot of complexity in his search for his own sense of morality. Why his father didn’t think his uncle was obviously going to shape his sense of the world, though, I can’t say.

A lot of minor parts about this show are badly thought-out, and in all honesty, I never thought Toph’s blindness worked very well (even though her character outside of that was always awesome). A lot of miniplots get resolved way too easily and the humour often grates and errs too far on the side of the postmodern, but these gripes are far outweighed by the positive elements. The art is superb, and some animation sequences are of excellent quality, especially in the character models. Aang, Katara, Toph, Zuko, Iroh, Bumi, Ty Lee – these are all outstanding characters I will always remember with fondness. The voice acting is outstanding, which only makes me sadder that dubbed anime gets such useless performers. And the relationships, the way they develop and all those warm, fuzzy moments – very well done.

If this is the future of western TV animation, count me very much in. Along with, of course, my anime.

(originally written 28.7.08)

Additional: first mention, Dec 12 2005

Saw a bit of new anime-influenced kids’ show Avatar, which looked fantastic in trailers, and has some beautiful animation. It looked like it might be a bit of a disappointment, though, but I shall wait until I’ve seen more before I pass judgement. Anime’s influence is getting more and more pervasive!

First impressions from Feb 2006

Watched the first episode of Nickelodeon’s leap onto the anime bandwagon, a series called Avatar: The Last Airbender (which is retitled Legend of Aang or something in the UK, though I’m not sure what they’ve done about the numerous references to ‘benders’ – someone clearly didn’t check UK slang when they wrote the series, but hey, Futurama does ok). It’s so close to being brilliant, but it just doesn’t quite work. It’s a shame, but it doesn’t have that certain charm and sincerity that makes anime so special.

The presentation is utterly outstanding – the character designs are superlative, the animation breathtaking and the anime influence very clear, from the characters’ faces to a creature with more than a passing resemblance to Totoro’s Catbus. The animation for the fight scenes in particular is stunning. The story in itself is a nice archetypal tale: teenagers find another mysterious kid, the kid turns out to have strange powers, bad guys appear chasing him, lots of angst as he’s chased out of the village he endangered etc. It reminded me of Tales of Symphonia, and was very similar in tone. Nothing at all wrong with the overall picture. The two main characters, Aang and Katara, are great – Aang is very sweet and childish, and Katara is an excellent everyman character. Their scenes together showed what this series COULD be.

But the problems are in the details. Katara’s brother Sokka encompasses much of the unappealing nature of the dialogue – he’s a typical American teenager, always being sarcastic or wisecracking or goofing around. It’s not just him – Aang was given a few annoying wisecracks in his combat scenes, and when the big bad guy Zuko came along, not only was he undercut by the eccentricities of his uncle (who alone has a strong Japanese accent), but he was soon rendered mere comic relief through pratfalls and silly sound effects. It wasn’t funny, and it ignored the fact that if you want someone of a serious temperament to be respected, you can’t make them the butt of far-fetched slapstick.

Well, these faults are only small cracks, and I don’t yet know whether or not they’ll be enough to bring the whole thing crashing down. It’s just a shame that in the US, writing for the 6-11 demographic seems to mean talking down to the audience and never letting yourself take them quite seriously enough for the story to work.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

ゲド戦記/Gedo Senki/The War Chronicles of Ged/Tales from Earthsea

The Earthsea of Ursula Le Guin is a long way off in this adaptation, and yet not far enough for it to work. As it is, the most entertaining thing about Gedo Senki is the drama that surrounded its inception.

First there was the drama of Miyazaki Goro stepping into his father’s shoes and shadow to make this film, documenting every step of the process on a blog that made it quite clear that he resented both his father’s absence in his childhood and the great expectations now on his shoulders, while of course being grateful and humble for the opportunity to be given a chance to be at the helm of the world’s most respected animation studio. Then came the drama as Ursula Le Guin went to the screening and declared her great disappointment, especially since she’d always hoped Miyazaki Hayao would adapt her books, which was why she’d given the rights to the studio. Both were very interesting for a fan to follow, but also prepared me for what turned out to be a rather tedious and disjointed movie.

How I wish father and son had exchanged projects, Miyazaki Snr. directing this film and Miyazaki Jr. taking on Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, the studio’s other recent disappointing adaptation of an occidental fantasy novel. That way, Goro-kun could have cut his teeth on the project that seemed just a little bit BENEATH Miyazaki-sensei (especially after his career reached its zenith with Mononoke and Sen to Chihiro), while the great man himself could have tamed the epic. While I wasn’t too impressed with Hauru, it at least showed that its screenwriters knew what to take from the source material and where to diverge wildly into original material.

For Gedo is just a mess. It tries to pick the iconic moments from books one, three and four of Earthsea and twist them into a new plot replete with clichés but bereft of the spirit of the novels – and then drops in little references to the source material (like Tenar’s past from book 2) that no-one but an established fan would understand or care about. It’s plain when reading the Earthsea series that book three, The Farthest Shore, is by far the best material for a film, despite its lack of a real antagonist – but that’s because it deals almost exclusively with the relationship between Ged (known throughout the movie, as in the books, by his alias Haitaka – ‘Sparrowhawk’) and Arren, who starts as a hero-worshipping naïf and comes of age on the journey. That gets lost in the film, since they only have a few real conversations, and the focus is shifted to the relationship between Arren and Therru, who in the book was a hideously scarred preteen who would speak to nobody, but here is a teenager with a fetching scar who takes about three scenes of grumpiness to defrost, predictable and inevitable as spam about Viagra in your inbox.

And this is part of the problem of the film – it’s so predictable, so full of ineluctable clichés and unredeemable platitudes. We see some slaves; slavery soon becomes a threat. A pretty girl is saved; she happens to be in the place the protagonists find themselves in. Add to that a totally meaningless and unnecessary plot taken from book one about a doppelganger, and some really dubious ways to get characters from A to B, and you have a mess. The only one who escapes with his dignity is Ged, whose magic remains nicely subtle, although he’s quite useless at the end.

It also seems once again that the only ones given enough time and money in Ghibli to make really top-quality films are Miyazaki and Takahata. While it doesn’t look as rushed and simplistic as Neko no Ongaeshi, this is no visual spectacle on the level of Sen to Chihiro. Characters are simple, all of them looking like they’ve walked out of Nausicaä’s Kaze no Tani, although the one who looks like Kurotawa doesn’t get away with his slimy looks by being a loveable rogue; he just has to be a cackling imbecile henchman, one of the most tiresome antagonists I’ve seen animated since Disney’s 80s slump, once again showing how Miyazaki Goro doesn’t have his father’s skill with undermining expectations. Arren is a typically good-looking Ghibli boy, though his dark side tends to be drawn with increasingly silly levels of exaggeration. The dragons, mostly cel-shaded CG, move stiffly and weightlessly, jarring with the animation and making me remember just how incredible it is to see the eel-like Haku in flight in Sen to Chihiro. And the less said about the way the baddie looks at the end, the better.

The backgrounds almost elevate the standard of art to beautiful. Some are breathtaking. But then mixed in with the ethereally beautiful skies and almost tangible cities are shots of desert sands that are pretty much monochrome, drab, thoughtless banquet halls and brick walls that look like they’ve been dashed off in minutes. Shame.

Shame, too, that the gritty, weather-worn, dark-skinned heroes of Earthsea are such simply-drawn Caucasian-looking figures. It just feels too obvious, too cheap, too much like someone on a board has said, ‘White sells better; stick to what we know.’ And yes, there’s a long debate to be had over whether anime characters are supposed to look Caucasian or Japanese which I’ve gone into at length before, but either way, they certainly ain’t dark-skinned.

Not that changes in an adaptation are a bad thing. I don’t think a straight adaptation of any Earthsea book would work as a movie, and Le Guin’s arrogance is showing when she imagines it would be a good idea to have a film set between two of her books, since everyone’s so familiar with them they’ll understand. But you can’t just use words that sound appropriate to a fantasy setting and assume they’ll have inherent relevance: since the seiyuu for Ged (Kamaji from Sen to Chihiro) sounds like he’s got a very sore throat all the time and the woman who plays Kumo (Eboshi from Mononoke) thinks she’ll sound really creepy and chilling if she just whispers all her lines, the nadir of the show was when they were almost inaudibly huffing at one another about ‘eien no inochi’ (‘eternal life') and ‘Sonzai no tatakau’ (‘battle of existence’) or something, I really did just want it all to end – and at nearly two hours, it’s much too long for the amount of story it contains. When the highlight of the movie is when two old flibbertigibbets are gossiping about the new ‘work’ they’ve seen up at Tenar’s, you know you’re in trouble.

A shame, because this could have been a great epic. But what I find myself really yearning for is for Takahata to make another down-to-earth, affecting story like Omohide PoroPoro.

(originally written 7.1.07)

Monday, 14 March 2011

ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん/ Houhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun / My Neighbours the Yamadas

Tonari no Yamada-kun was the second Ghibli film I ever saw, and the contrast with Mononoke-Hime couldn’t have been greater. However, I was impressed when I saw it, by something so different from any other animation I had ever seen, in terms of both presentation and plot (or lack thereof). I was, however, aware that plenty of people would watch it with a look of utter bewilderment on their faces – although my companions at the time remembered a fair few plot points when I reminded them of the film several years since that 2001 screening in the Barbican.

While I enjoyed the film back then, it’s only really since that time that my obsession with anime has developed, and so now I feel I understand and appreciate far more, in terms of both animation and cultural reference.

Based on a classic Japanese gag strip, Tonari no Yamada-Kun is the kind of quirky, unconventional work that Takahata seems far more inclined to direct than Miyazaki does. Essentially, it follows a very ordinary Japanese family unit – the mother and father, their little daughter and adolescent son, plus the grandma who lives with them – as they do various everyday things. Drawn in the manner of the comic strip, it looks extremely simple while actually containing sophisticated colouring and animation techniques, along with some hugely impressive tour-de-force sequences featuring thrilling action, pastiches of Japanese images like traditional watercolours and one very memorable shift into a more realistic presentation. Remarkably, the animation is 100% digital, not just the excellently-integrated cell-shaded 3D that is worked into various scenes with varying levels of subtlety.

However, a lot of the elements that seemed purely random to me on my first viewing have become elucidated by the things I have learned since – folklore references to babies coming from peaches and from inside bamboo, what festival chants sound like, even the way that Japanese people beckon…all went over my head before, but all are well-understood now. Too bad there weren’t cultural notes for me on my first viewing.

Tonari no Yamada-Kun (the ‘Houhokekyo’ part, an onomatopoeia for the call some bird or other, was added only so that the character ‘Ho’ (with or without ten-ten/maru making it bo or po) could be in all Takahata’s works, as ‘no’ is in all of Miyazaki’s), like Pom Poko, is a collection of episodic events deeply infused with the Japanese way of life – but rather than the mythological, most of what we see here is the mundane, and the focus remains always on the same five characters, so there is more of a feeling of a single, consistent movie here than the slight mess of Pom Poko’s shifting focus. Japanese or not, though, these characters are instantly recognisable, and their realism, the squabbling as well as the love, makes them so likeable that it’s hard to resist their charm. It’s very much like the Ghiblies shorts in the way it takes slices of life, presents them in a very experimental way, and yet still manages to contain enough emotional content to keep the attention, and I would consider those charming little pieces the film’s closest relatives in the studio’s canon.

The scale is small, so of course this isn’t going to change lives, but it can certainly entertain, and the must be fairly few people who cannot identify to some extent with at least one of the family members. See it for the warmth of familial love. See it for the laughs. See it for the incredible way traditional techniques mix with computer imagery for something unique and yet instantly recognisable and classic. See it for the strong, understated vocal performances, the seiyuu really finding the right ground between realism and exaggerated comedy in mixed dialects (though the son struggles with any heightened emotions). But mostly, see it because it’s a Ghibli film, and one that stands entirely alone.

(originally written 18.1.07)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

猫の恩返し/Neko no Ongaeshi/The Cat Returns

Of the kids in the Ghibli playground, Neko no Ongaeshi is one of the outsiders. While it’s really a spin-off of Mimi-o Sumaseba, its premise derived from a minor plot point therein, in other ways it seems considerably more distant from the rest of the Ghibli films than they are from one another.

For one thing, it is the sole film thus far directed by Morita Hiroyuki, and evidently had a smaller budget than the films the studio was making at the time (Sen to Chihiro was released the previous year). For another, it's a return to the more childish style of slapstick and scaled-down epic adventure the studio hasn't really employed since Laputa - even Totoro had a very different take on the winsome, being more of an adult look at childhood than an adult's attempt to appeal to a child. And then there's the fact that for once, the human cast isn't drawn in Miyazaki's style, something I was rather glad to see.

A young girl called Haru rescues a cat from a road accident, and is surprised when it thanks her in human speech, though not nearly as surprised as she is when she’s visited by the Cat King, who in return for her saving his son's life wants to take her to his kingdom to become a princess. Haru doesn’t want to be taken away from her home, nor does she want to marry the cat she saved, and doesn’t know what to do. When a voice tells her to seek help from a 'Cat Bureau', she meets Muta and The Baron, both from Mimi-o Sumaseba, enlisting their help just before she is whisked away.

It's a freewheeling and charming story. You can tell that the writer whose manga served as basis for the screenplay (or perhaps Miyazaki, who is credited with the concept) simply came up with a nice typical story basis (normal girl has mysterious things happen to her) and ran with it. It's not a sophisticated plot, nor is it devoid of dubious coincidences, but it's fun and fast-paced, with lots of big setpieces, an interesting two-act structure (the two different worlds being very different) and some great little touches. Lots of little details from early in the plot come back later with that satisfying feeling of a nice little twist, and the characters are great - The Baron is undeniably very cool (another example of the refined upper-class character that seems so very Western yet works so well in anime – like Shinku in Rozen Maiden or Saber in Fate/Stay Night), the greedy and lazy Muta is a perfect foil and companion to him, and a variety of other minor characters really leave a mark. For example, there's Yuki, the sweet cat who looks like she escaped from a Disney film, the hilarious slightly-sinister-tour-guide-type, the crow who provides a great mise-en-scene at the end...and then there's Haru, whose clutzy manner and bewildered asides make her very endearing, in a similar vein to Sen/Chihiro. Indeed, the two characters are close, but while we're encouraged to see the real vulnerability of Sen/Chihiro, Haru's world is purposely more silly, more superficial, more safe. She is very rarely left without friendly guardians, and it never really feels like she’s a little girl lost.

Yes, the tone of the film is very light. There is a lot of slapstick, from hapless and inept guards falling over to the defenestration of some unfortunate felines who fail to adequately entertain the King and his guests, which at first looks like it's going to be horrible, before you realise it's played for laughs. The climactic duel is far from dramatic, and there are a lot of very silly clichés - a tower blown up with a big button on a remote control, a clownish character's formidable past being revealed, a character having appeared earlier than you might realise at first, but as I said before, these little twists feel very neat, and make you smile, make you laugh, make you realise this is not a serious action piece but a cute and somewhat daft comedy. And it works in that idiom well.

However, that does make it feel rather more like a Saturday Morning kids' show than most of the later Ghibli films. This impression is reinforced by the cheaper art and animation than is typical of the studio in the last 10-15 years. While some of the backgrounds are superlative, be they modern Japanese streets or the fantasy Cat Kingdom, and the animation is smooth, art is often simplified when there are a lot of characters, or they're moving in a complex way - this is especially visible when a lot of guards are on the screen at once. The colouring is much simpler than in Sen to Chihiro or Mononoke-Hime, and overall it's all less of a spectacle than I'm accustomed to from Ghibli, but frankly the material suited it well and it was all good fun. Also, I’m glad my Japanese is getting good enough that I mostly rely on subs only for vocabulary words now – the reinterpreted English version (subtitles for the dub rather than a straight translation) used a lot of painful cat-related puns and really made some characters far more abrasive and hard to like.

This is far from the best Ghibli film. Indeed, it's nothing special. But it's immensely enjoyable and a joy to watch; I very much doubt anyone who saw it would feel they'd wasted their 75 minutes, even if the experience wasn’t exactly life-changing. I'd say that after Porco Rosso, this was the best of Ghibli's light adventure movies. Not up with the heavier classics, but closer to them than the likes of Laputa or Nausicaa, in large part because it achieves what it sets out to do.

Besides, I have to say I find nekomimi (cat ears) inordinately cute. I blame watching Thundercats as a child. Not that they have nekomimi...

(Originally written 22.10.06)

平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ/Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko/Pom Poko

If Miyazaki-sensei is the main-mast of the good ship Stajio Jiburi-go, his sturdy foremast has to be Takahata Isao, director of the haunting Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies), quirky Tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbours the Yamadas) and this warm, extremely Japanese but highly idiosyncratic film, Pom Poko.

Named after the nursery rhyme sound effects supposedly made by tanuki (racoon dogs) as they beat their stomachs, the movie revolves around the folklore associated with the popular creatures. When I was in Japan, there were a great many images of tanuki – one at the door to our hostel, several simply on the street, numerouin the shrine dedicated especially to them in Asakusa. Every Japanese child grows up hearing tales about Tanuki, many of which (I’m told) were referred to in the movie, and they’re prevalent in anime and manga that draw heavily from Japanese tradition, such as Naruto. Drawing on typical Ghibli themes, the story revolves around the Tanuki losing their homes as the development of Tokyo reduces the forests, pitting nostalgia for an old, bucolic way of life against modernisation in a way that is one part nostalgia, one part heavy-handed preaching, but makes for a sympathetic cast and a compelling situation.

However, focussing on an entire ‘clan’, rather than individual stories, while giving an entertaining variety of situations, means there’s never really any compulsion to see what’s going to happen next, or any sense of a solid goal that may or may not be achieved. This makes the film drag at times, and at two hours, it was a little overlong.

But it was great fun to watch, and I spent most of it with a big smile on my face. The simple-minded tanuki are so amusing and so much fun that their antics are hugely enjoyable. The sight gags are often utterly brilliant, from hapless tanuki trying and failing to transform in time with the others to the surprising appearance in human form of the characters – the best being the three old masters. The characterisation was never short of perfect, and the voice actors were perfect. But, as with Tonari no Yamada-Kun, offsetting the generally humorous tone with moments of deadly seriousness worked superbly, really hammering home the fact that an easygoing lifestyle does not mean cruel truths simply vanish, or on a more superficial level, that a comedy film cannot make you think seriously.

And like Yamada-Kun, Pom Poko sometimes emphasises such changes with changes in art style. There were three main ways the tanuki were drawn – semi-realistically, as cartoon characters and as simple caricatures (though I think it would have been better without the latter, which were apparently an homage to some old manga and didn’t suit the tone of the piece…) – and this helps one think of the real animals as though they were sapient.

With its ghost parade and its numerous transformations, the film is chock-full of Japanese cultural references. Just about every monster I’ve ever heard of, from faceless women to living lanterns and umbrellas made an appearance, as did traditional icons from Shintoism and Japanese Buddhism. Even Christianity got a nod, with one choral ‘Amen’. In-jokes were also plentiful; I spotted Kiki and apparently several other Ghibli characters were slipped in.

The film was a lot of fun, and its affection for a world gone by was (as with Cars) understandable and rather sweet, if not exactly something that’s going to change anyone’s lifestyle. It was enjoyable on many levels: just because I enjoyed recognising all the different bits of Japanese folklore, doesn’t mean someone who knows nothing about it won’t be equally entertained, and I'm sure people with more knowledge of the subject would understand more than I did. I’d recommend the film to anyone. As long as they’re not offended by the idea of giant, multi-purpose testicles being used as weapons, parachutes, mats and just about anything else you can think of.

(originally written 17.8.06)

海がきこえる /Umi Ga Kikoeru/I can hear the sea/Ocean Waves

‘I thought this was worse than a soap opera’, says the protagonist of Umi Ga Kikoeru, and while it’s not as bad as all that, I can’t say this film is a whole lot better.

I can easily find reasons for Mimi wo Sumaseba and Hotaru no Haka to be animated rather than live-action, but Umi really didn’t benefit at all from being animated, and the standard of art was a long way from Ghibli’s best - when their main team is at work. which it was not, here.

And the story really is lacking. A high school boy’s relationships with his best friend and a girl develop a bit. That is it. At seventy-two minutes including opening and ending credits, there really isn’t that much to this movie. If it were something remarkable, something beautiful and unique, the technical aspects would be good enough to support the story. As it is, there is nothing to elevate it beyond the status of absolute mediocrity.

Like Neko no Ongaeshi, this was a project designed to give the younger studio members some experience while keeping the budget low. While Neko was at least buoyed by a sense of exuberance, Umi is weighed down by its attempted realism and its lack of decent plot or likeable characters. The whole thing looks like it was a struggle to conceive, realise and complete, and as such, is probably the least pleasant of all Ghibli’s films to watch.

(originally written 30.12.06)

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

となりのトトロ/ Tonari no Totoro / My Neighbour Totoro

Most people with any knowledge of Studio Ghibli’s history know the story of Totoro’s release: after the success of Nausicäa, Ghibli was formed and released the moderately successful Laputa. Miyazaki wanted to direct something cuter after this, a little pet project about children and big, friendly animals in the vein of the earlier Panda Kopanda, written by him and directed by Takahata. But financing the project was difficult for the fledgling studio, so they decided to couple the film with the latter’s Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies), which was believed to be a safer option. Hotaru was a success, but it was Totoro that made the real cultural impact, causing Miyazaki to (for better or for worse) eclipse Takahata, furnishing Ghibli with its mascot and bringing the studio their first real fans in the West.

And while I don’t think the film superior to Hotaru, I can’t deny that it is more enjoyable. I’ve compared Miyazaki’s style to Hollywood and Takahata’s to arthouse before now, and I think that’s exemplified by these two movies, and their relative levels of success. But just as Hollywood is popular because it does what it does extremely well, undeniably Totoro does what it sets out to do magnificently. And that one man can write something like this and then go on to create Mononoke-Hime speaks volumes about his talent and versatility.

Two sisters, 11-year-old Satsuki and 4-year-old Mei, move with their father to a new house in the countryside of 1950s Japan in order to be close to their sick mother. There, they encounter various supernatural creatures, the largest and most powerful of which Mei calls ‘Totoro’ (probably trying to say ‘Torouru’, or ‘troll’), but life goes on as ever, the girls playing, exploring and on occasion getting lost. There’s not much in the way of drama here, but that’s not the point. It’s a slice of life, in the common anime territory of little girls being little girls, and Miyazaki writes children very well – Satsuki is incredibly sweet but occasionally a little insensitive, Mei likes to follow her sister about and can be very headstrong, and the boy next door, Konta, has difficulty talking to Satsuki in anything but grunts, though his real feelings are betrayed by his deeds and his body language. What makes Totoro really shine is the little moments – the way the father’s hat is almost blown off at the beginning, how Konta rides a bike that’s too big for him, the way Mei reacts to finding tadpoles. It’s also worth remembering that the Totoros, Nekobasu and the Susuwatari are only onscreen for a very short period of time; the majority of the film is taken up by the daily lives of the little girls – going to see their mother, Mei coming to school, getting caught out in the rain. The magical elements are iconic and thrilling layers added to a heartwarming, solid and extremely well-sketched core. The owl/bear/tanuki creature may be what sticks in everyone’s mind, but it’s the likeable little girls and their very ordinary interactions that make the movie so likeable.

Totoro isn’t about being clever or being funny or being exciting. It’s about sweetness and strangeness and happiness. Luckily for us, Miyazaki is a master of all these things, and several more. A film everyone should see at least once, and most will watch time and time again.

(originally written 21.6.07. One final note about the concept of Totoro being a shinigami and Mei being dead for much of the film, a theory that has run around fandom a few times and Ghibli have dispelled: It's already a film all about death. Just real death as opposed to creepy, theatrical death. I prefer it that way.)

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

おもひでぽろぽろ/ Omohide Poroporo / Memories Drip-Drop / Only Yesterday

What I suspected is now confirmed. I’ve seen every Ghibli film directed by Miyazaki, and with Poroporo, every Ghibili film directed by Takahata, too. And yes, surprised as I am to come to this conclusion, I think that Takahata is the better director. This is of course highly subjective, but after watching this movie, there is no doubt in my mind that while childlike awe, huge setpieces and simple thrills make Miyazaki’s films the masterpieces they are, the subtle hand of Takahata shows a maturity, a delicacy and an ingenuity that only Mononoke-Hime and Sen to Chihiro can come close to, and do not match. While perhaps I enjoy Miyazaki’s films more, there is more to appreciate in Takahata’s best. It is the difference between Hollywood and Arthouse – I love both, but admire the latter more. Yamada-Kun and Pom Poko were too zany and uneven to convince me, and for all its sincerity Hotaru no Haka too sensationalist, but not so Omohide Poroporo.

Omohide Poroporo is a simple little story – an oeru (OL, or Office Lady) named Taeko takes a break from her hectic city life to visit relatives in the country. On the way, she reminisces about her childhood. Intriguingly, Takahata based this work on a series of nostalgic manga about a little girl growing up in the 60s, with lots of cute and funny stories – I imagine them being like a more serious Yotsubato or Ichigo Mashimaro; to take these little anecdotes and make a coherent movie of them in the form of a memoir is rather impressive, and it works very well – we have the 10-year-old Taeko’s daily life, from trying her first pineapple to puppy love to the mystery surrounding a talk on menstruation, contrasted with the more solemn reflections of her adult self as she joins in the harvest and comes to feel at home in the countryside. And while I expected another rather inelegant pedagogic sermon on how nature is far superior to city life, which would have been typical of Ghibli (remember Takahata directed Pom Poko, though the concept was Miyazaki’s), I was surprised to find even this dealt with maturely, the farmer Taeko befriends pointing out that even though it’s not roads and cities, everything that can be seen in the countryside is still man-made, crafted and controlled by farmers and agriculture, which was a great scene.

And oh, the animation – because this is a simple, realistic story, the art remains simple (though adult Taeko’s cheekbones are a brave but wonderful addition to her design, really defining as well as aging her face, and some of the imitative art styles of child Taeko’s imagination sequences are superb), and a lot of people who don’t care much for animation wouldn’t think much of what they saw, but that’s BECAUSE it is so well-done. Apart from one or two fantasy sequences, everything here is an imitation of real life, and I can’t express how well the animation is done. Animation was clearly done after voice recording here, for real, stuttering, quirky, believable performances are given by the excellent seiyuu cast and animated beautifully. The movements of heads while the characters speak, the way that cars bounce on bad suspension, the entire class of children that move about individually in the last scenes, the funny, perfectly-depicted awkwardness of kids putting on performances, and especially the tiny changes in expression on the face of young Taeko, with the lack of self-awareness typical of her age, are breathtaking for anyone who cares about the art of animation.

This is something special. This is something that arthouse crowds would adore. This is a story that will move you, make you laugh and make you smile with more fondness than any blockbuster. Stay away if you need fast cutting or explosions to keep your attention, but if you treasure good stories maturely told, this is the best film Ghibli can offer you.

(originally written 9.11.2006)

Monday, 7 March 2011

Wakfu: shorts and extras

Season 1 impressions here: http://adziu.blogspot.com/2011/03/wakfu-season-1.html

Goultard le Barbare
More a Dofus special than one for Wakfu really, this appears to be really where the whole Ankama animation effort begins. There’s next to no information on Goultard le Barbare’s inception online, but it seems to have first been screened at the 2007 Japan Expo in Paris. The animation style also looks like the iffy first previews of the Wakfu cast, especially in the lack of pupils in the eyes of iops, but somewhat to my surprise, there are some animated sequences in this 20-minute short that really show Flash used to its fullest.

Goultard tells the story of a character who features prominently in Dofus and its comic adaptation, and appears (with little explanation) in one episode of Wakfu, where he proves himself incredibly cool and powerful. Here, though, his story is just beginning, at first in Heracles-like scenes from his childhood and then in a big showdown. This early animation effort from Ankama is a little throwaway and ends just as it gets interesting (which makes sense as a tie-in), but ultimately doesn’t have anything of the polish or cuteness of the series it would prove possible. An interesting companion piece.

Wakfu Webisodes
From what I can tell, these showreels and little gags predate the main series’ release. The first two are impressive showcases of what Yugo and Ruel can do, respectively, and last only a minute or two each, while the rest are silly comedy pieces about the tofu birds. They are interesting little nuggets, and show that the remarkably smooth flash animation that sometimes it felt the series had to build up to (forgetting the first Nox/Grougal clash) was in place early on.

Mini Wakfu
Continuing the tradition of the webisodes was the little gag episode accompanying each main serving of Wakfu, in cutesy SD-style. Like Avatar’s similar attempts, the style doesn’t quite look right, the rhythms, fluidity and variable models of anime’s SD not quite captured. And honestly, while some raise a giggle and justify the rest, others are horribly unfunny…

Noximillian special
Now this is the reason I am giving the specials their own impressions. I was overwhelmed with a great sense of ‘wtf’ while I watched this – because the character background special was animated by Madhouse in the style of Kaiba – one of my top two or three anime of the past five years. This was rather mindblowing for me, being so unexpected. Not that many people have seen Kaiba and I’m sure still fewer have seen Wakfu, and I thought them worlds apart, so seeing them together was rather startling. I presume, based on little but a hunch, that the makers of Wakfu were impressed by Yuasa Masaaki’s work and requested he work on the special episode. He provided only character design, but it’s clear that the rest of the team could continue the thematic stylings of Kaiba, especially when the characters give such a strong aesthetic.

As a standalone piece, it’s unoriginal but functions well as the dark past of a primary antagonist, making him more sympathetic and comprehensible, even if it ends too abruptly and it would be better had Nox lived his loss, rather than simply hearing of it from another. But the look of the piece is striking and unsettling, and above all, it’s a clash between French and Japanese animation that has become very dear to me but I never expected to see melded in this way. That stuns me, and kept me in a state of near disbelief throughout. In so many ways, this was a stroke of genius.

Ogrest: La Legende special
Ogrest: La Legende is the second of Wakfu’s special episodes, telling a side-story separate from the main story arc. Ogrest is a major figure in the backstory of the Wakfu game, but thus far has had little impact on the series, until now. The special, framed by some adorable scenes of a sick Yugo being told a story by his father Alibert, tells of Ogrest’s birth and childhood adventure with a group of Ecaflips. It’s a cute and winsome story, and a long way from the tragedy that forms the backstory, although there are hints of darker themes here and there.

Ogrest is the second special animated in Japan, rather than in-house at Ankama. According to the credits, Madhouse were once again the major studio involved, but work was also undertaken by the Korean in-between powerhouse Dr Movie (who do a lot of work with Madhouse), and also by Ghibli. This is likely mostly token background work and perhaps some character animation, but it is nonetheless apt because Miyazaki’s work is here – and I don’t mean in some abstract, this-feels-a-bit-like-Ghibli-so-I’ll-namedrop way: there are character animations here taken more or less directly from Toei’s Doubutsu Takarajima – which Miyazaki worked on as key animator, and which more or less defined his signature chase style back in 1971. The homage is subtle, but they made it explicit in a recent Inside Ankama, juxtaposing the clips. It was a great little nod to an important but much-neglected piece of anime history, and I have to hope more Wakfu fans go and find the original, because it doesn’t seem like many people have ever heard of Animal Treasure Island.

And the plot is all more or less a reference back to that film, too: after his unusual birth story, adorable little Ogrest (une catastrophe ambulance) gets mixed up with three animal pirates looking for treasure. They ultimately find it, but Ogrest doesn’t find what he’s looking for – or does he? We get a happy ending, but with plenty of foreshadowing of what is to come.

Wakfu’s specials are getting more and more interesting. With more to come – as well as feature films – I am only getting more and more excited about what Ankama will come up with next.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Wakfu: season 1

I’m not ashamed to say that Wakfu is the first animation I’ve been really excited by in a long, long time. I’ve enjoyed various anime and have great admiration for a lot of the films I’ve seen lately, but it’s been months since I last watched something where at the end of each episode, I needed to start the next one, and if I ran out of time, looked forward to continuing until I did.

Wakfu is an interesting and idiosyncratic piece of work. Since the success of Code Lyoko, which I was never very keen on, French popular animation has had a bit of a renaissance. Wakfu comes from this tradition, and in my view is its best iteration yet, eclipsing the likes of Ōban and in fact being the first European animated weekly work I’ve been interested in since the rather lacklustre Watership Down series.

Wakfu has its roots in gaming: its original incarnation is as a MMORPG, itself a sequel – its predecessor being called Dofus. The animators working on the game begun working with Flash animation in the typical basic way: vectors moving with somewhat artificial smoothness, with some nice little perspective techniques such as you might see on Weebl’s Stuff. Pleasant enough, but not really the sort of thing I’d want to watch. I may have seen the early animation previews in 2009 when they were posted (a couple of years or more after being made) on the MCM Expo sites, but they made no impression. That all changed when I saw the stunning season 2 intro, and realised the astonishing things that could be done in Flash.

It didn’t do any harm that the theme song is amazing, either. It’s been stuck in my head since I first heard it. Sois!!

The story is full of fantasy clichés. A foundling is targeted by a malevolent and powerful antagonist, so with the help of his adoptive father’s friend, a princess and her (female) bodyguard and a knight indebted to them, he goes off to find his true family, while getting to grips with the mysterious powers inside him. Some of the stories are unoriginal to the point of being tributes – as when the ‘confrèrie’ teach a village of weak non-warriors to defend themselves from bandits – and I rather wish the unfunny direct references to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars were left unsaid. Some of the sprightly first episodes go overboard with silliness – the primary antagonist of one episode is an old person with a big robot made of bread – and after all a large part of the series is given over to what is basically a minigame, pure videogame plotting, but somehow these little silly things they manage to pull off and make so fun, and when the plot does turn dark and epic, as you always know it will, you are already so fond of the characters that it’s incredibly compelling. And the complexity of the antagonist, who after all thinks that he will be able to simply undo all his sins, makes for some really interesting ambiguity in the final stages.

Somehow the design works. Detractors could clearly call it ‘fake anime’, as that’s obviously the inspiration for the aesthetic, but the whole thing also looks very French/Belgian. Yugo’s hood recalls Les Schtroumpfs and those Tofus look straight off a yoghurt pot in a French supermarket. Actually, the things I most wanted to change were those cheaply designed-looking tofu mascots and the noseless iop race, who just looked too like RPG sprites beside all the rest.

But if I didn’t care for the characters at first, every one won me over. Tristepin? I thought he was annoying at first, another Sokka from Avatar (especially as Yugo is very like Aang), but when he carried Yugo to the goal line in the tournament? I was won over forever, which helped when he became central in some episodes. And even that silly birdy Az made me smile with every appearance by the end. Yugo and Nox I loved from the start, and Adamaï has such a great voice.

Indeed, the whole cast is superb. Not every episode is a classic and not every joke hits the mark, but it’s one of the funniest, most enjoyable, most affecting and cutest series I’ve ever seen, and I will definitely watch the extras and season 2.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

が望む永遠/Kimi ga Nozomu Eien / The Eternity You Wish For

Kimi ga Nozomu Eien really hits me on an emotional level. Nutshelled, the plot is that a boy and a girl begin dating, even though the boy actually prefers her best friend. This best friend likes the boy too, but doesn’t show it because she only made his acquaintance in the first place to set up the romance for her friend. After some time passes, the boy starts to realise he really does like his girlfriend enough to fall in love with her, but then she is involved in a traffic accident, ending up in a coma. After three years, she wakes up – but the boy is now in a relationship with her best friend…and they have to keep it a secret, fearing the damage the shock of learning the truth might do.

The boy, Takayuki, makes me despair. He’s too cowardly to make a choice, so strings along both girls – deceiving his original girlfriend while letting the newer relationship crumble. I ended up wishing the girls would just leave him, especially the newer girlfriend, who he treats in such a cold, cruel manner. But of course relationship drama wouldn’t be drama if everyone made the right decisions all the time, and I doubt anyone put in such a difficult position would act much better.

I watched the anime at a time when it meant a lot to me…so it feels strange that it’s one of the anime from the period I remember least clearly. There’ve been OVAs since then, and it took a long time for me to even remember what happened in the original episodes when I heard the news. But Kimi ga Nozomu Eien is actually one of the best dramatic anime to centre purely on a relationship, and certainly one of the most mature anime to be based on a visual novel with sex scenes.

(Adapted from original impressions, 1.11.04)

Friday, 4 March 2011

プリンセスチュチュ / Princess Tutu

As I wrote when I first saw it, ‘Princess Tutu is a wonderful, weird and wacky anime about ballet with a lovely soundtrack [made up of] new interpretations of the great ballet themes by Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Delibes et al. Where else can you see a duck-girl taught by a crazy Puss-in-Boots teacher who threatens to marry pupils if they misbehave watching an anteater girl perform the male part of a pas de deux with a prince in the place of the girl?’ (Oct 20, 2003).

There’s something about Princess Tutu that makes it very, very special. I quite genuinely call it amongst the best anime of all time, and I’d quite vehemently defend an assertion that it’s the very best anime ever to have a very, very stupid premise, stupid name, stupid way of having characters resolve their problems and stupid overall world. Because what Princess Tutu grows from is very daft, and where it goes is masterful. I pity those that can’t get past the name or premise.

Princess Tutu is, probably unsurprisingly, an anime about ballet, and most of the most popular ones get a reference of one sort or another. Tchaikovsky is at the heart of the plot: in a ballet school in a romantic fantasy kingdom, a young girl is at the bottom of her class. Her secret, barely known to her, is that she is in fact not a girl but a duck with a magical pendant: indeed, her name is Ahiru, which simply means ‘duck’, and if she quacks, then she transforms into a cute duckling until she gets into some water, when she changes back. But the pendant allows for a further transformation, from the brave girl into the beautiful ideal ballerina, Princess Tutu. Ahiru is in love with the mysterious Mytho (pronounced ‘Myuuto’, probably better transliterated as ‘Mute’), a quiet and strange boy in the school. But as the mysterious Drosselmeyer sets a new story into motion, all the central characters find out that they are connected to the characters of an old story, and soon are forced to question whether they are real at all, or just characters in a story with an inevitable fate.

The balance of the story works brilliantly, for any audience prepared to give it the slightest chance. The first episodes are carried along by the sheer eccentricity and humour of the world - the aforementioned cats and anteaters, not to mention puppets and strange prawn-like innkeepers. Where normal magical girl series might feature a fight, Tutu features a dance that reveals the innermost heart. Really nothing very compelling, but fun and idiosyncratic enough to engage. But that is when, more or less with the shift to a second season, Tutu got darker and more sophisticated, although the ideas behind the change were obviously in place from the start. By the end, very little turns out as expected. At the time I finished it, (Dec 5th 2004), I ‘felt the end was so unfair on poor Ahiru, the noblest character in the anime, despite her humble nature…’, but the more I thought about it, the stronger the ending was because it wasn’t fair. Princess Tutu is not a story of magical happy endings and contrivances. It’s about a cruel (but likeable) madman manipulating others, and the struggle to stop him.

It doesn’t matter if the idea of ballet puts you off, or the first episodes seem babyish and trivial. Princess Tutu will impress you by the end. I feel I can say that with complete confidence. Its quality by the end is some of the best anime can offer, if not in aesthetic then in writing. And of course, it has some of the best music in hundreds of years.