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2006-06-30

Pauline Kael on "The Little Mermaid"

"Hans Christian Andersen's tear-stained 'The Little Mermaid' is peerlessly mythic. It's the closest thing women have to a feminine Faust story. The Little Mermaid gives up her lovely voice - her means of expression - in exchange for legs, so she'll be able to walk on land and attract the man she loves. If she can win him in marriage, she will gain an immortal soul; if she can't, she'll be foam on the sea.

"I didn't expect the new Disney 'The Little Mermaid' to be Faust, but after reading the reviews ('everything an animated feature should be,' 'reclaims the movie house as a dream palace,' and so on) I expected to see something more than a bland reworking of old Disney fairy tales, featuring a teen-age tootsie in a flirty seashell bra. This is a technologically sophisticated cartoon with just about all the simpering old Disney values in place. (The Faust theme acquires a wholesome family sub-theme.) The film does have a cheerful calypso number ('Under the Sea'), and the color is bright - at least, until the mermaid goes on land, when everything seems to dull out.

"Are we trying to put kids into some sort of moral-aesthetic safe house? Parents seem desperate for harmless family entertainment. Probably they don't mind this movie's being vapid, because the whole family can share it, and no one is offended. We're caught in a culture warp. Our children are flushed with pleasure when we read them 'Where the Wild Things Are' or Roald Dahl's sinister stories. Kids are ecstatic watching videos of 'The Secret of NIMH' and 'The Dark Crystal.' Yet here comes the press telling us that 'The Little Mermaid' is 'due for immortality.' People are made to feel that this stale pastry is what they should be taking their kids to, that it's art for children. And when they see the movie they may believe it, because this Mermaid is just a slightly updated version of what their parents took them to. They've been imprinted with Disney-style kitsch."

Today's Screenshots - Omohide Poro Poro



Two screenshots from Omohide Poro Poro: Toshio sharing the benefits of organic farming to Taeko, and their drive through the countryside en route to the farm. The masterful background paintings are by Kazuo Oga, background artist for many Studio Ghibli films, including My Neighbor Totoro and Pom Poko. His debut film, Tameyama ga Haru no Yoru, will be released on DVD this July.

Muzsikas - Marta Sebestyen



Hooray! My latest CD arrived in the mail today. The album is called "Marta Sebestyen," and it was released in 1987 by a Hungarian folk group called Muzsikas. It's wonderful, earthy music, the kind of real culture that's continually threatened by the global corporatist machine. One day, everything on Earth may be reduced to commercial jingles and vapid Brittney clones, but not yet. Not today.

How did I discover Muzsikas? Simple. Omohide Poro Poro. Takahata used a variety of European folk music in his masterpiece, including several songs from Muzsikas. Music is often a vital element of Takahata's films, and it's especially crucial here in establishing a mood of rural nostalgia, of a longing for the earth and the trees.

Three songs from "Marta Sebestyen" appear in Omohide Poro Poro: Hajnali Nota (Morning Song), Fuvom Azenekem (I Sing My Song), and Teremtes. The final song, in particular, is carried along by a driving, almost Zeppelin-esque rhythm. It just makes you want to drive through the country and make small talk about organic farming.

Miyazaki Riffs #2

Panda Kopanda (1972)



My Neighbor Totoro (1988)




Here we have one of my favorite of all the Miyazaki riffs. It's a favorite because it's so clever, so very subtle and graceful. It's all wrapped around a line of dialog in the opening scene of My Neighbor Totoro, a little throwaway line for most people, but one that, in truth, reveals to the audience just what kind of movie awaits them.

A quick backstory first. In 1972, after the first Lupin III television series went off the air (due to abysmal ratings, in that classic Star Trek vein of "What Were They Thinking?"), Takahata and Miyazaki went ahead with the project that brought them to A Pro: a TV adaptation of Pippi Longstockings. They completed their preliminary work, did the necessary research, and drew extensive image boards. Then they went to Astrid Lindgren, the original author, for permission. Lindgren refused.

Miyazaki, especially, was disappointed, and in a sense, he never really got over being snubbed. He, along with Takahata and most of the regulars from Toei, poured their efforts into a 35-minute short film called Panda Kopanda. It seems a lot of what was intended for Pippi was changed into Panda, in particular the young girl, who sports the same red pigtails.

If you'll notice, the "Pippi look" popped up from time to time in Miyazaki's career: Dora, the pirate leader in Castle in the Sky; Fio, the firey mechanic in Porco Rosso; even the heroine in his 2005 short Yadosagashi ("House Hunting") wears the pigtails. Take this as a lesson, kids: don't cross Miyazaki.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Where were we? Ah, yes, the opening scene in Totoro. If you'll recall, there's a moment early on where the moving truck, carrying the father and two girls, passes a man on bicycle. Satsuki tells her sister to duck and hide; after the truck passes, they pop their heads back out, and they wave to the man on the bike.

"That's a relief, I thought he was a policeman," Satsuki says.

Now here's the riff. That sideways shot, of the bike moving past the moving truck, is directly quoted from Panda Kopanda. In that scene, the man on the bike was on his way to check up on Mimiko, the girl, and get scared stupid by the giant panda living in her house.

What does the man do? He's a policeman.

That's bloody clever, and not only because it's subtle. It's Miyazaki's way to telling you that Totoro is going to be similar, in content and style, to Panda Kopanda. It allows us to see the new film in light of the old, playing them off one another, making comparisons, and noting just how far the director has grown in the space of fifteen years. Of course, My Neighbor Totoro is far more than merely an updated Panda short. It's so much more. But that's where its roots lie. We'll chat about that more some other time.

(P.S. A little port-game trivia for you: the policeman from Panda Kopanda was voiced by the late great Yasuo Yamada, famously known as the voice of Lupin III. He voiced the character in every Lupin production, except one, until his death in 1995.)

2006-06-29

Opening Shots - Horus, Prince of the Sun

Jim Emerson, film critic and editor-in-chief for rogerebert.com, has a running series on his own movie blog, Scanners. The series is devoted to great opening shots. Not necessarily opening scenes, mind you, but the opening shot. This got me thinking, and I almost immediately came upon the perfect candidate: the opening shot in Horus, Prince of the Sun, Isao Takahata's debut film from 1968.

Horus was an exhilerating ride when I finally watched it for the first time. It's an explosive, revolutionary movie (both figuratively and literally), and I've always been wise to see each revolution and learn from it. Bob Dylan going electric; Jimi Hendrix arriving with "Are You Experienced?"; that video on YouTube of Elvis Presley swinging his hips on Milton Bearle. Those are the moments when the plates of the earth shift, when Dorothy walks into Technicolor Oz.

Horus is one of those movies. It's the precise moment at which the Japanese animation of the post-war era broke away from the rigid, mollifying Disney standard. It's the beginning of the modern anime era. It's a declaration of independence; Takahata was the general, Yasuji Mori, Yoichi Kotabe, Yasuo Otsuka, and Hayao Miyazaki his liutenants.

Gone are the cuddly cartoon characters, the simple-minded melodrama, the syrupy "moral lessons" that sound patronizing to a seven-year-old. In its place is something new. Dark, violent, desperate, complicated and profoundly psychological. It's message lives in the darker side of the '60s, the '60s of assassinations and war and student uprisings and the labor movements and the struggle for freedom. If Yellow Submarine, released the same year, was Woodstock, then Horus, Prince of the Sun would be Altamont. Yin and Yang.



Here are some screenshots from the opening shot. This is a spectacular scene because the mood and tempo are established immediately. Takahata doesn't waste any time pulling any punches. The camera follows a crowd of birds off in the distance for a few seconds. Then, suddenly, POW! A silver wolf darts out right to left, just inces away from the camera. A hand-sized axe smashes into the ground, just missing its target. The attatched rope slacks, then tightens and is ripped out as a man's feet run past. A pack of brown wolves flash across the screen, also in pursuit, in extreme close-up.





The movement of the wolves is flowing, a crowded rush of curved lines, like the rising and falling of the sea. But it's violent, aggressive. The camera freely pans to the left, regains its bearings, and captures Horus in the far distance, being chased by the wolf pack. He runs up and around, then loops back and runs back towards the camera. This is our first real glimpse of him, a very brief glimpse.




The first shot sets off a two-minute chase, a battle that is fierce, desperate. Horus is badly outnumbered, but he slashes, violently, as he tries to escape. Boulders are kicked downhill. Wolves are struck, slashed, cut; they yelp in pain. They keep on coming. The movements, and the axe, come from every possible angle. Forward. Backward. Directly into the screen. Directly out. Suddenly, the rope tied to the axe is broke; Horus is left defenseless, backed into a corner.

He climbs the nearest rock to gain high ground. Then the ground shakes and gives way. The rock Horus stands on becomes a giant hand, which scatters the wolves. A pair of giant stone feet thrust out of the earth. Horus runs for cover as a rock monster, now standing fully, towers over him, and booms in a deep voice.

How's that for an opening scene? Two minutes.

I try to imagine how shocking this opening battle was meant to be, in an age of cuddwy-wuddwy cartoon animals. The furthest Walt Disney ever took things was Dumbo's mother in the cage, and Bambi's mother being killed by hunters. But you only heard the gunshot; nothing was ever seen. This, dear friends, was Takahata's shot across the bow, and he intended to bring animation into uncharted waters.

Revolution. Learn, America.

(Edit: These screenshots were taken from the UK DVD release of Horus, under the asinine Western title of "The Little Norse Prince" or "Little Norse Prince Valiant." Ugh. What a lousy title. It's like someone released Casablance in a foreign language under the title, "The Brave Little Toaster." The UK release is taken from the Toei DVD in Japan, which is single-layered. There is also an unacceptable amount of ghosting, which comes across here. I hope you don't mind.)

The God For the Movies

Reading Marc's letter immediately reminded me of something Pauline Kael wrote at the tail end of her great essay, "Why Are the Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers." It's a masterful essay in any right, especially for anyone struggling to understand today's corporate movie industry and how it became that way - "There are direct results when conglomerates take over movie companies."

St. Pauline's concluding observation is a message of hope, and that's probably the reason many people pursue careers in the movies, and animation, and even me and my little weblog:

"And when I saw 'The Black Stallion' on a Saturday afternoon, there was proof that even children who have grown up with television and may never have been exposed to a good movie can respond to the real thing when they see it. It was a hushed, attentive audience, with no running up and down the aisles and no traffic to the popcorn counter, and even when the closign credits came on, the children sat quietly looking at the images behind the names. There may be a seperate God for the movies, at that."

Letters...We Get Lots and Lots of Letters

Hey Daniel,

My name is Marc Craste. I made a short film a while back called Jojo in the Stars which you may (or may not) have heard of. I'm a big fan of Ghibli, although I'm ashamed to say I've only discovered the films in the last couple of years. My kids love them, which is such a revelation. They're quite happy watching Shrek, etc., but for repeat viewing and total enchantment, Ghibli films are winning hands down (at least for now). This is in the face of all that Hollywood can throw at them - well, it kind of restores your faith in all things good and worthwhile.

I've only had a chance to read a couple of your posts, but it makes good reading. Just wanted to wish you luck with it.

All the best,
Marc Craste
Studio Aka

2006-06-20

Miyazaki Riffs #1

Puss in Boots (1969)


Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

One of the most famous images, from one of the most famous action sequences, in Hayao Miyazaki's career. The shot of Lucifer lumbering up the stairs has reappeared in countless homages, tributes, and riffs. Castle of Cagliostro, shown here, pays tribute with predictably humorous results.

2006-06-09

Today's Screenshots - Puss in Boots #2


Cheap cartoon gags, I know. But they're still funny, and that's the one thing that matters. Another pair of photos from the new Puss in Boots DVD. If I have to keep harping on this movie until every one of you own it, so help me, I'll do it. Oh, that the classic gag cartoon would make a comeback...

The Miyazaki Riffs, or "Hey, Look at That!"

Alright, kids. This is where we start rolling up our sleeves and really get to work.

For fans of Miyazaki's work, it's an altogether different experience for those of us in the West, and particularly in America, than it was in Japan. In his home country, animation fans were able to follow Miyazaki's career ever since the Toei Doga days of the '60s. Us? We didn't know any of this existed until Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. So that means we have a lot of backtracking to do.

It's always important to put a filmmaker's career in perspective, to have a sense of the greater picture, when understanding their movies individually; for Miyazaki this is especially true. His career is an ongoing conversation, a continuing orchestra or various themes and icons, and it all bleeds into one another. Mononoke, for example, stands on its own feet (as our enthusiasm for it showed), but it only truly comes alive after you've seen the 1984 Nausicaa film, the Nausicaa books, and even 1968's Horus, Prince of the Sun. Mononoke takes on an added dimension, and suddenly a lot of mysteries begin to make sense. You discover the whole unspoken narrative between these various works.

It's much like seeing The Godfather, Part II for the first time, without ever seeing the original Godfather. That's an absurd notion for anyone who lived through the '70s, but for later generations, those of us drowning in the age of corporate mass media and lousy movies, we have to wade backwards through the muck to find the buried treasure. The younger kids will, God willing, discover the original Godfather; and suddenly, everything clicks into place.

I'm often reminded of Frank Zappa's theory of conceptual continuity, or the Big Note. Zappa saw all the music he created as a part of one enormous symphony; all the music in the world is really just a part of the Big Note. Bits and segments and riffs would pop in and out of different albums, sometimes in different fashion. Some of the fun for Zappa-philes is in trying to spot the riffs that reappear everywhere: that tape loop from Lumpy Gravy that pops up in We're Only in it for the Money; the avant-garde Mr. Green Genes that's refashioned into the jazz fusion Son of Mr. Green Genes on Hot Rats. And on and on it goes. You get the idea.

Hayao Miyazaki's work is a lot like this. Americans who don't know any more than the past couple Ghibli movies watched Howl's Moving Castle and complained that the Japanese master was repeating himself. It almost makes you want to pat the little dears on their heads. Silly rabbit! Miyazaki has always been quoting himself. Filmmakers do it all the time, either as a way of honoring their influences, or as nostalgia for their own past.

American animation is drowning today in pop culture riffs, dumbed-down inbred stepchildren of The Simpsons. The audience's laziness is pandered to; everything becomes a dumbed-down game of "spot the TV or movie reference." This is the poor man's version of riffing, a pat on the back for a whole lifetime wasted in front of the idiot box. It's something that, used properly, can be extremely clever; the right creative minds can illuminate an entire movie with a two-second riff. Think of it as the difference between My Neighbor Totoro and, oh, let's say, Shrek 2. Or Robots. Or Shark Tale. Or Madagascar. Or all those hideous direct-to-DVD Disney videos. Ahem. You get the idea.

The Japanese animation filmmakers have an interesting history of quoting themselves and their history; of these Miyazaki is the king. He's the one you turn to after you've completely memorized every Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode ever made. It's his way of making you aware of the interconnected nature of Japan's anime history, from someone who was there to shape that history from the very beginning.

So, kids, there's your homework, and you've got a lot of it waiting for you. I'll help out from time to time with a screenshot here or there. Oh, and did I mention already that you should be buying the new Puss in Boots DVD. That's a gold mine right there.

2006-06-08

Totoro and Cat Bus at Minnesota Children's Museum

Totoro and Cat Bus at Minnesota Children's Museum

Today's photo comes from the My Neighbor Totoro exhibit at the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul. It was part of their "Jump to Japan" exhibit which teaches kids about Japanese culture, its customs, and the like. Totoro was chosen since it holds the title of "most beloved children's movie" in Japan. Jump to Japan is touring around the US for the forseeable future, so take a look and see if your city will be hosting a visit from Totoro and Catbus.

Oh, and yes, you can hop around inside Cat Bus. And, yes, it's really groovy cool. Makes me wish I had my own kids to share the fun.

2006-06-07

The Nemo Pilot (1984)






Courtesy of Google Video, the 1984 Nemo Pilot film. A masterpiece of animation, of action, and of movement, it represents everything that defines anime. There's probably only a handful of films or television shows that deserve to sit on that mantle.

The Little Nemo film project was extremely ambitious, a joint effort between the top animators from Japan and America. Production began in 1982, and a number of big names were courted, including Ray Bradbury, Gary Kurtz, Hayao Miyazaki, Osamu Dezaki, and Isao Takahata. Unfortunately, production was stalled as people walked away. Miyazaki, for instance, didn't want to make a movie in which everything was a dream, and Takahata wanted to tell a story about Nemo's growth into adulthood (much like Anne of Green Gables and Omohide Poro Poro).

Fortunately, in December of 1984, after six months of work, the first pilot appeared. Created by Yoshifumi Kondo (director), Kazuhide Tomonaga (animation director/e-konte/key animator), Nobuo Tomizawa (key animation), Kyoto Tanaka (key animation), and Nizo Yamamoto (art director). The pilot is essentially an extended chase sequence through a surrealist landscape of buildings and skyscrapers and waterfalls, drawn in full animation and shot in 70mm.

Sadly, despite the praises of the American side, the Nemo production stalled again, and by March, 1985, Kondo had left. Eventually, two more pilots would be created, and the project finally hobbled together in 1988, but with a much more typically bland and banal Disney style. Nemo was finally released to theatres in 1989, and was roundly dismissed by critics and the public.

The history of the movies is very often the history of artists frustrated in achieving their visions. Frustration by the suits, by the men with the money, who always second-guess anything that doesn't shamefully pander to their worst expectations of the public. The first Nemo is one of those great "what-if?" moments. You're amazed, endlessly thrilled at this three-minute self-contained universe; truly, whoever was in charge should have had the sense to get out of the way and let these brilliant artists follow their muse. Kondo and Tomonaga and crew poured everything they learned from Miyazaki's Future Boy Conan and Castle of Cagliostro, and at Telecom, the second Lupin III series, and then Sherlock Hound, which was really the one that most clearly predicts Nemo (one shot from Hound is riffed in the short).

And Nemo, of course, predicts the rise of Studio Ghibli; which brings us here to the present day.

2006-06-05

Puss in Boots - Who Did What?

One of the fun things in watching animation is learning who is responsible for everything. Animation buffs and people who work in the business are always pouring over this sort of thing. So, continuing our Puss in Boots conversation, I wanted to catalogue exactly who animated which scenes in the movie.

One important thing I should note is the difference between Japanese and American animators. Here in the States, animators will focus on a particular thing - a character, or elements like water - and a scene will be the collective work of many people. In Japan, however, a key animator will be responsible for all the key drawing in that scene. So, for example, the pirate battle in Animal Treasure Island - that was Miyazaki's scene.

Puss in Boots is so much of an animators' movie, because they had the freedom to create, to add new ideas as production moved along. That's much more of an American style, which likely is a reason the movie has such an American cartoon flair. It was also the polar opposite to their previous Toei film, which was Takahata's Horus, Prince of the Sun. Takahata maintained creative control over every single shot, every scene, and he battled the studio heads relentlessly for three years to get it made. You can understand why the mood on Puss in Boots was so free, so much fun, and so creative. It's a tremendous release of energy, and it's seen here, in Animal Treasure Island, and in Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

Anyway, let's see if we can't put our heads together and see who contributed what to this picture. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.



Yasuji Mori: Mori served as Animation Director and also designed all the characters. His studious efforts at correcting everyone's drawings kept a unified look to the picture, which was essential with all the animators running loose. His most well-known scene is the first song number with Pero the Cat and Pierre. It's not one that he was ever happy with, speaking about this in a 1984 article in Animage magazine:

"That part is awful. I'm so ashamed. I had a hard time getting the skipping right. The difficult thing about skipping is how the legs come up. That's why when I was asked to do another skipping scene for the opening of Heidi, Girl of the Alps. I didn't want to screw it up again, so I filmed some people [Miyazaki and Kotabe] skipping on 8mm and drew it by analyzing that."



Yoichi Kotabe: Kotabe was responsible for this scene, when a lovestruck Lucifer grows impatient waiting, in vain, for Princess Rosa to arrive. Note the giant slide that's attached to his throne. I really wish I had one of those. Ben Ettenger's, on his AniPages site, lists Kotabe as also responsible for the scene where "Pero play[s] the guitar while Pierre and Rose meet;" although Pero never plays a guitar, he may be referring to the Cyrano moment when Pero feeds words to a lovestruck Pierre (why is he always so half-dazed, anyway?), until the cat assassins show up and spoil the party.



Yasuo Otsuka: Otsuka got the first half of the massive castle chase. This is the part where Lucifer transforms into a series of animals to impress Rosa, all the while Pero and Pierre wait for the moment to pounce. There's also a great gag when Lucifer turns into a three-headed dragon, and Rosa faints at the sight. This brings us right to...



Hayao Miyazaki: Otsuka's in charge right until the part when the skull pendant drops onto the small cat's head. Then Miyazzaki takes over and runs with it. There are so many terrific gags and fits of action packed into this climax, the whole final act could work as a movie in itself. Pierre and Rosa crashing through a glass window, just like Douglass Fairbanks; Lucifer's bumbling and bouncing in pursuit; that rediculous cookoo clock with the cats trapped inside; the heroes' climactic climb to the top of the tower; Lucifer's locomotive stampede, and then his ballet jumps to the stairs. Which brings us to an essential topic that we'll be returning to in the future: the Miyazaki riffs.

2006-06-03

Today's Screenshots - Puss in Boots





I'd have to say this is the single best gag in the entire movie. One of those great "why didn't Chuck Jones think of this?" moments.

Puss in Boots Now on DVD


Wonderful news, everybody! Puss in Boots has finally been released on DVD in America! For fans of animation and Hayao Miyazaki, this will certainly become one of the most cherished releases of the year.

Puss in Boots is one of the great slapstick cartoons, a freewheeling joyride that stays in your head and sticks to your bones. It's probably the best animated comedy ever made in Japan (although I'm often torn between this and Animal Treasure Island). The comedy will remind Westerners of their favorite Tom and Jerry or Road Runner cartoons, and the action scenes are endlessly inventive and thrilling. This movie was released in 1969 at Toei Doga, and was a tremendous rush of freedom for the animators; after three years of battling the studio over Horus, Prince of the Sun, everyone was set loose like children in a candy store.

All the major Toei talent is on display: Yasuji Mori, Yoichi Kotabe, Yasuo Otsuka, Hayao Miyazaki, Akemi Ota, Reiko Okuyama. The director, Kimio Yabuki, gave everyone free reign, letting ideas flow freely; this is very much an animators' movie, and is an excellent example of Japan's cutting edge.

The story is fairly standard fairy-tale fare, with Pero, the title hero, helping a shy peasant win the heart of a beautiful princess, rescue her from a towering villain, and avoid pursuit from cat assasins. There are a number of song-and-dance numbers, which were standard in Japan's post-war years, but was now headed for extinction thanks to Horus. Sounds a little Disney-fied, but thankfully, everything moves at such a clip, and the gags keep flying at you so fast, that the plot barely has a chance to keep up. It's really just a bare framework to setup all the jokes and chase scenes, which is what a comedy cartoon should be, anyway.

The final act of Puss in Boots, the assault on the magician's castle, is one of the most famous segments in all of anime. It was animated by Otsuka and Miyazaki in tag-team fashion; the castle chase is practically its own self-contained movie, and you soon feel as though the rest of the movie is just a grand set-up, just to get to this moment. This is one of Miyazaki's greatest achievements as an animator, as an emerging master of comedy and action. If you're observant, you'll start spotting endless Puss in Boots riffs nearly everywhere. Animal Treasure Island, Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa, The Cat Returns. That's just a few titles off the top of my head.

So, in case you haven't figured out, this is a beloved movie. Toei reached its peak with Horus (although they didn't know it yet), and Puss in Boots was still riding on that wave. But it was the beginning of the end; by the time Animal Treasure Island was released in 1971, Otsuka had already jumped ship, and soon everyone would follow, carrying the Toei tradition to A Pro, Zuiyo, Nippon Animation, Telecom, and then finally Ghibli.

Discotek did a great job with the DVD. The original Japanese movie poster is on the cover, which is a great plus for me. There are a couple extras on the disc, which is an improvement from earlier releases, the subtitles are good, and the original soundtrack-with-subs is the default option, which is really nice. This is a new company, and they're fairly small, so they deserve our support. Show 'em some love.

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