#108 : They Were 11

TW11_1Now for that age old question… what do you want to be when you grow up? The more appropriate version I would say is… when you mature what identity, or role, will you tie your life towards. For a group of young students in a far off sci-fi future these questions amongst many others will be answered as they learn to live with each other and understand what is important and true for themselves. In 1986, these students were the focus of a feature film by the name of They Were 11.

TW11_2Imagine having to pass a final exam as if your life was on the line, literally! Groupings of ten students have to board spaceships and survive on what is available and solve any problems without guidance. If you need to call for help, even just once, you have to forfeit the idea of graduation. As the story begins we have an immediate problem. This group of ten students we will be with during the story numbers one more. We have eleven students instead of ten, which means one of them is either a stow a way, an imposter and maybe even a threat. Who can it be? Everyone seems to be a suspect, yet all of them have legitimate reasons for being part of this final test. As the story unfolds, the drama grows as problems and issues ensue and trust becomes difficult between these eleven as one of them seems to intuitively understand the ship and certain circumstances better than the rest of the group. This would be enough for any other tale, but They Were 11 has even more to tell.

TW11_3The eleven students all come from different backgrounds. Many of them come from royalty, or well to do families and are in school to essentially follow their family’s traditions. These students are locked into their own paradigms and don’t have much choice for their lives. Tada, one of our main protagonists, is an exception as he is a highly gifted young man from a modest background and is making his way based on his talents instead of his lineage. Add to this, Tada begins to awaken to esper and psychic abilities, plus repressed memories from his childhood, that makes him quite suspect to the others. Frol, our other primary protagonist, is a young feminine androgyne who desperately wants to fit in and be one of the boys due to male privilege and freedom. Frol’s questioning of gender is the other major focus of They Were 11 as Frol comes to terms with the fact that in heart, soul and body a woman she is meant to be. A relationship soon develops between both Tada and Frol as they both share each other’s company, ideas and struggles.

TW11_4So many times space opera is a showdown of spaceships, laser beams, battle tactics and macho bravado, or perhaps, stern military seriousness. Many examples can follow these traits and do it successfully, but They Were 11 goes against this trend. Instead we have a story about relationship, characterization, love and sacrifice set in a future outer space environment. Sounds more like a shojo type of story than the usual shonen/seinen and by jove it is; one of my all time favorite’s of the designation. Instead of the bombast of say a full symphony orchestra, we have a string quartet. And though the size is smaller in scale, the power behind the meaning being expressed may be a little more intense. This is space opera treated as traditional drama for the stage; They Were 11 is dramatic theater, a play, set to animation.

They Were 11 tackles many difficult issues and does it all with grace and dignity. The original manga was the creation of one the best from the Year 24 Group, Moto Hagio, a woman who I have heard was the female equivalent to the great Osamu Tezuka. They Were 11 is a story that represents themes of self discovery and aspiring not to become someone, but to embrace an inner truth in ourselves that only we know to be correct. In a year that saw the release of Studio Ghibli’s first film Castle in the Sky and one of my all time favorite’s Windaria, They Were 11 represents a true dark horse that deserves more attention and recognition; an awesome and inspiring movie.

#107 : Cyborg 009 (1966 movie)

Cyborg 009 equals the epitome of ‘Old School’. Or, perhaps that is a mistranslation; I prefer ‘Old is Cool’. Because with age comes wisdom, or so I keep telling myself as I keep adding up solar cycles and still retain the heart and soul of my youth. A product of the 1960s, Cyborg 009 reflects the era with the rise and hope of big technology, growing social equality and Cold War politics. Cyborg 009 represents a story about brand new heroes in a (once long ago) modern age heading towards an uncertain future.

C009_movie_1Many adaptations of this Shotaro Ishinomori manga have see the light of day, but this film from 1966 was the very first time the cyborg soldiers of Professor Gilmore came to life on a screen brought to you by the great old studio, Toei Animation. The story begins simply with a young race car driver, Jo Shimamura, becoming involved in a nasty crash (knife in a tire, yikes!) and is subsequently hauled off in a mysterious ambulance. He soon awakens to find he now has incredible powers, including an ability to run extremely fast, and new clothes as well (I like the new threads man). Jo has had cybornetic enchantments and is now known as Cyborg 009 (you are the star of the show my friend, hooray), a tool for the evil counter organization Black Ghost (great name). 009 also meets eight other cyborgs, his new fellow comrades, who rebel against Black Ghost in the name of justice and freedom. An uprising ensues as the team of nine cyborgs kidnap Professor Gilmore and escape.

C009_movie_2Often Cyborg 009 can be seen as Japan’s version of the X-Men. Yet I see them as one of the great early examples of a sentai squad. Ishinmori should know that concept very well as he is the creator of the Super Sentai live action genre. But then again, I see the cyborgs as a reinvention of family. There is a tight bond between these nine individuals and even though they all come from different countries, ethnicities and backgrounds, they fight together and care for each other. Very forward thinking and yet perfect for the 1960s and even today to show that no matter who you are, or where you are from, we are all brothers and sister of the human race. It’s the formation of the greater family you can build when you embrace diversity and individuality. We all have a role and a part to play to help the greater good, it’s just all of us lack the technological enhancements of our brave nine heroes.

C009_movie_3There are a few oddities I caught from this release compared to the more popular, or better known releases of Cyborg 009. First, 009, is clad in white while the others have their uniforms in purple. All except 003, she gets to be closest to most adaptations with a pinkish shade of the standard red. And red is also the color of her hair, instead of the usual flaxen hue I am used to. Do blondes have more fun? Not this time around, it’s all about the auburn. And for some reason 007 (who is British, love the James Bond in joke) is portrayed as a kid. These characteristics are also carried into the second film, Cyborg 009: Monster Wars (on my radar to find) and the first TV series of 1968.

C009_movie_4Though the art style might be archaic to our more modern eyes and honestly this may not have been the most sophisticated film made at the time, Cyborg 009 makes up for it with pure fun. This feels like a period television series amped up just slightly, including cinemascope widescreen (fancy), that still retains much of the simple limited animation used during the era. Think Astro Boy and Speed Racer as a frame of reference. Yet it is a very attractive movie with bold colors and designs. If you are looking for a basic starter into Cyborg 009, this movie is a great option as it is action packed and about an hour long. Plus you’ll get to experience Cyborg 009 during the time of it’s genesis with all the hope, innocence and at times cheesiness that made the 1960s so great. For without the likes of Cyborg 009Speed Racer, or Astro Boy, we would not have the fruits of all the great animation that we treasure today. Thank you Cyborg 009 and thank you Shotaro Ishinomori.

#104 : Aim for the Ace (movie)

AftA_movie1I often find that the older I get, an interest in professional sports and following a team, or such, is not something to aspire towards. Yet I respect sport and competition and my love for anime is strong, if only there were anime about sports… oh, yeah there IS! And LOTS of them too. There are several I have enjoyed and are quite good as well. And then there are entries that are legendary, hall of famers so to speak. Aim for the Ace is part of that higher echelon of sports legends. As I make my way through the original 1973 Aim for the Ace TV series I had to stop and take a break to revisit the cinema version of 1979.

AftA_movie2The influence of this movie is epic and goes well beyond the sport of tennis and sports anime itself. I am sure Studio Gainax and a young Hideaki Anno loved this story because Aim for the Ace is written all over Gainax’s first OVA release and Anno’s directorial debut Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. The name totally gives away the influence, but also the story in and of itself is a close facsimile except tennis was swapped out for a sci-fi world with mechs. Still in both stories the concept of aiming to be your best! And not just the best in your own frame of reference, but also to your fellow peers and most importantly, to a mentor who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself. It’s a type of story that never gets old because don’t we all need a reminder to pick ourselves up and try again if we stumble?

AftA_movie3Aim for the Ace’s story begins with it’s starry eyed protagonist Hiromi Oka, a new student at Nishi High School. She and her best friend Maki join the illustrious and highly noted tennis club and soon she has her eyes on two particular individuals. The first being the all-star of the girl’s varsity team, the amazingly talented, most beautiful and girl with perhaps the best hair in all of anime (seriously where do you get all that volume and curls?), Reika Ryuzaki better known as Ochoufujin (Madame Butterfly, so fitting). The second is Nishi’s new coach, Jin Munakata, a former champion, who is a tough yet fair mentor whose presence brings out a little fear and sweat. His first objective is to test the team, to see which of the hundred or so members are most fit to play on the school’s varsity squad. Hiromi is still very much a rookie and when her time comes to test her skills, she connects with one ball that impresses the coach in more ways than one. So much so that she lands a spot on the varsity team… wha, say what? Now the drama, no, more like soap opera begins!

AftA_movie4While watching the original TV series concurrently with this film, I could not help but notice the jump in animation quality and complexity. The fluidity of the film is a quantum leap from the TV series and could be down to a number of factors. First, the idea that you go from TV to movie is obvious since there is often a budget increase. The second is the six year gap between TV to the movie. This second reason is a strong point to a theory I have about how the 1970s is perhaps the most important decade in all of Japanese animation. Stories grew into more sophistication, many traditions and cliches settled themselves during this time and drawing and animation began to mature and become more complex. Such an awesome decade and Aim for the Ace is a great example of the growth of anime during this era. Ah to be born in the ‘70s… wait I was born then… 1979 no less… so that means I am the same age as this movie… interesting!

Now for the final wrap up… Aim for the Ace, is based on a great shojo manga (check!), was made at the awesome Tokyo Movie Shinsha (check!), was directed by the creative and artistic Osamu Dezaki (check!), and it still stands the test of time (double and triple check!). Aim for the Ace wins in straight sets!

#103 : Horus: Prince of the Sun

Horus_1I often wonder, was Horus: Prince of the Sun ‘born under a bad sign’? Many circumstances attempted to derail this early gem of the modern era of Japanese animation. It went over budget, it took more time to finish and even the parent animation company of Toei and it’s producers wanted to shelf this film. Why? This film had and even still has so much potential; it took chances and sounded a battlecry for a new generation of animators. And there in lies the answer as Horus: Prince of the Sun attempted to break free of the conservative standards of the day by telling a different story in both concept and direction. The results of this would honor Horus with critical notoriety over the years as one of the crowning achievements of the 1960s.

Horus_2By 1968 Isao Takahata had become a solid veteran in the animation industry and gained a reputation as a leader of those younger up and coming members of the industry in the 1960s. With both TV and film work of various degrees under his belt there was one achievement that this young man had left to fulfill and that was to direct a feature film. This opportunity came, but at a price. As mentioned before from the start this movie had some nasty karma associated with it. Producers at Toei, money and time all had a hand in stopping this film, but Takahata with his quiet demeanor and steadfast approach to being a director made sure that this film would get made, finished and then released.

The major controversy of this film can be traced into the story itself. The Norse mythology and look that was used was nothing more than a cover for another story that existed underneath. Japan’s native population, the Ainu, had for generations been looked down upon yet their culture was rich and diverse. A new generation wanted to adapt a traditional tale of the Ainu and present a more serious subject matter to give animation a more mature option. Both progress and change are a part of civilization and this new generation of artists and animators wanted to be at the vanguard of this movement. This was the 1960s after all and be it America, Europe, or Japan, the youth of the period were questioning and protesting against the rules and the establishment of their day.

Horus_3The story is a quintessential tale of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ (all hail Joseph Campbell) where our young hero Horus, sometimes translated to Hols, must integrate into the greater whole of civilization. This is a common theme I find in Takahata’s work and both sides of the extreme can be seen in Grave of the Fireflies (going against society and/or being ignored by society) on one end of the spectrum and Pom Poko (the community coming together for a common concern) on the other. Horus soon settles into a town and becomes a local hero after conquering a giant pike (fish) that prevented fish from being a food source to the local people. Soon afterwards he meets a wayward girl, Hilda, with a mysterious and unknown past and a large, very large, chip on her shoulder. Hilda is quite a complex character and her relationship with Horus is complicated and becomes a key element for the plot of the story as the film progresses forward.

Horus_4Horus: Prince of the Sun not only took more seriously the storytelling, but also on a technical level, the animation itself. This film amongst other examples of the era raised the standard of the quality of Japan’s output. Disney was the standard and Horus: Prince of the Sun is on par with the quality of the venerated classic Disney films. In certain aspects it excels, in particular with the action sequences with the pike fight and the final showdown. Of course Japan has always had an edge (my opinion) in regards to action and the movement and fluidity required to make those sequences work.

This is a film that has taken a few views on my part to fully appreciate the greatness to what Horus: Prince of the Sun truly is. Due to the issues with the production of the film it has it’s own way of unfolding the plot, which took me a little getting used to, but once I understood the whole of the scope of this film I came to love this movie. It’s classic Takahata and I recommend you to watch this one at least once to see where anime once was, where anime was going and see where this film has left it’s influence today.

… on a personal note, I dedicate this posting to the memory of Isao Takahata who passed away recently. Thank you good sir for your work and I for one will never forget the stories you shared with us all.

Isao Takahata
Oct 29, 1935 – Apr. 5, 2018

#98 : Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer

UY2_1Imagine living in your own dream world; anything goes! This is your ultimate utopia and if you apply any boundaries, they are of your own choosing. Who would be in this dream world with you? What would you do together? Once upon a time there was a property by the name of Urusei Yatsura that during the 1980s was one of the hottest tickets around. This show (and the manga) put Rumiko Takahashi on the map and brought a young director by the name of Mamoru Oshii into the spotlight. Before Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor and even Angel’s Egg, Oshii would showcase his signature style for the first time in Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer. 

UY2_2The year was 1984 and going to the cinema was the thing to do for an otaku. I consider 1984, the anime Summer of Love. The Macross crew would release Macross: Do You Remember Love and Hayao Miyazaki wowed audiences with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Mamoru Oshii, who at the time was the director of all that was Urusei Yatsura, followed the script so to speak… and then a second film with Ataru, Lum and crew allowed Oshii’s individual style that we know so well to blossom for the first time. With both writing and directing duties, Oshii would bring his contribution of Beautiful Dreamer into the class of 1984. Oshii’s dreamworlds began to be a part of our worlds.

UY2_3I will be the first to admit that I may not be the best reference for Urusei Yatsura. I have seen the first handful of episodes and have a general idea of the plot and all the hijinks  including the lecherous main character, Ataru, and his jealous love interest/who happens to be an alien Lum. You know Lum (I hope)? The bikini clad girl with the horns on her head… a timeless design. Now, what I am familiar with is Mamoru Oshii’s artistry which he uses tastefully in Beautiful Dreamer. He adds elements of surreal imagery and circumstances and completely bends the rules to what you consider a particular property to be. Think Patlabor 2 in regards to Patlabor as a whole, or perhaps the Ghost in the Shell film in regards to the original manga. He puts his philosophical and symbolic spin into action that only Oshii does so well. Like a skilled painter, his style is his own. And where Patlabor 2 and Ghost in the Shell can get very heavy into drama, being that this is a film is in the Urusei Yatsura universewe still retain the comedy and dynamism. Mamoru Oshii brilliant with fun and comedy? Oh definitely YES! 🙂

The plot begins with a school festival where everyone is pitching in with their own contributions, decorations and such. Many of the usual cast are putting together a cafe of sorts, which includes a tank in the middle of their particular classroom. Wait, a tank?! How did they get that upstairs? Anyway… events seem as if things are repeating themselves as various characters start to see that the reality of their surroundings keeps moving in a loop. If you travel, you end up back at the same spot and occasionally you lose contact with others. Just what is happening here? Eventually the entire world turns into a ghost town… on the back of a… turtle (it ties in with traditional Japanese mythology)? The only normality is the Moroboshi house, which becomes the safe haven for our cast since there is a constant supply of food, water and electricity for some reason. I’ll say it again, just what is going on here?

UY2_4Not being completely up to par with the Urusei Yatsura universe, I will be the first to say that I did not have much trouble following the film. Watching Beautiful Dreamer purely as an Oshii film worked well enough for me! There has been a Blu Ray release recently here in North America, but my viewing of this film came from a recent VHS find.  … Oh whatever has happened to you, oh great Urusei Yatsura? Rumiko Takahashi’s other work, Maison Ikkoku, Ranma and Inuyasha have all eclipsed this once behemoth property. Yet Urusei Yatsura you still live on be it YV series or movie adaptation in our memories… and even perhaps, our dreams…

#96 : GoShogun

If you wish it, it will come! Ever since I fell in love with an OVA from 1985 by the name of GoShogun: The Time Étranger, I had a yearning to see the original 1981 TV series. For a long time I had two options: raw episodes or the odd adaptation of Macron 1. I tried the raw and got through five episodes, but had to concede defeat. No fansubs to be found and no official releases anywhere… and then like a gift from the cosmos, perhaps it was Beamler energy (will explain later), an official release here in North America would materialize. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… ZERO! Let’s watch some Sengoku Majin GoShōgun.

Goshogun_1As stated before this has been a long time coming and if it was not for Time Étranger I doubt I would have cared to even watch this show. Although I love mecha shows from the late 70s/early 80s, my main reason to finally see this show was not the action, nor the sci-fi, nor the GoShogun robot (which by the way, is a nice looking design). My reason was the main cast of six characters I fell in love with in the OVA. And while that OVA was a dark character study steeped in suspence, the original television show is mostly light hearted fare sprinkled with times of satirical reference and the occasional moment of seriousness.

Goshogun_2Our heroes known as Good Thunder include a group of three heroes who come from unheroic circumstances. One is a spy who failed in her mission and was sentenced to death (Remy Shimada). Another is a tough guy with a warrant on his head who covered for a crime of a friend (Killy Gagley). And the last, a former soldier whose wife was killed on the day of the wedding (Shingo Hojo). These three are brought on board the Good Thunder (also the name of a ship) by way of the mysterious Professor Sabarath (absent from the OVA) to protect the ship’s precious ‘cargo’ and pilot the robot GoShogun. Not your usual group of heroes, but then again who says you need experience to pilot a super robot? Sabarath also brings on board a young boy, Kenta Senada, who’s destiny is linked with this ‘cargo’ (reminds me slightly of GaoGaiGar).

Goshogun_3Now for that  ‘cargo’, it is called Beamler energy (told you I would explain this). Beamler allows teleportation and becomes the McGuffin device for the so-called evil empire of Docouga with their three second in commands (a bishonen snob, a big lug and a pill popping pirate type). Beamler though is evolutionary and changes with time and this lays influence into the story line. Sometimes Beamler is stabile, sometimes beyond unstabile and all the time, it is a great mystery of the beautiful universe we live in. But for my money, the big attraction so to speak is always in the appearance of the GoShogun robot, or it’s three component that join with the robot to complete it. Not only do Shingo’s King Arrow, Killy’s Jack Knife and Remy’s Queen Rose have the ability to join Goshogun, but these three also unite into another robot the Try-Three. And while Shingo is the so-called main leader of this Getter Robo like trio, it is Madame Remy who gets the control board when united as the Try-Three. I bet the original toyline was fun to play with! 😀

Goshogun_4By 1982 a compilation movie would emerge and is worth tracking down to serve as a nice sip of tea into the mythology of this show and it served the purpose of a minor stopgap before taking on the whole show. Seeing the entirety of Goshogun gave me such a smile on my face, but alas, a smile is ephemeral and I must soldier on to more anime. And yet… it is such a feat to see something you yearned for so badly that became a part of your universe. The once impossible hole for viewing Goshogun is no more and I happily display the DVD with all the other Goshogun artwork and Time Étranger releases I have collected over these years. Now to find a space and time to re-watch it all over again!

‘God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the My world’

#93 : Galaxy Express 999 (movie)

If one must set out for a voyage to the stars, you must do it with an element of style. An ordinary spaceship will work for many, but come on now… let’s push the boundaries of imagination. What about traveling through space in a train? Hmm?… I like it… all wood grained and classic black iron, now that is classy! As well, a voyage to the stars should be something personal, a journey to not just discover what is out there, but also what is within yourself. Galaxy Express 999 is such a journey that once you ride this train line, you will never be the same.

GE999_movie1Here is an idea… let’s say you want to honor your goal to achieve immortality by adopting a mechanical body and the only way to do that would be to board a train to the stars that will take you to this fated destination. Only problem is that this train ticket is quiet expensive and sought after. Plus, you also wish to avenge your mother’s wrongful murder since you have so much spare time with all this other stuff going on. Are you in consensus with our hero Tetsuro Hoshino for a ride on the Galaxy Express 999? Great… we have a ticket for you, except you have to have the classiest lady in all of anime join you in your journey.

GE999_movie2Leiji Matsumoto’s vision of science fiction is beyond brilliant. What sets him apart is his use of tenderness and emotion. I always shed some kind of a tear due to the enduring qualities and almost simplicity of Galaxy Express 999. That almost motherly womb of nurturing I get from this movie is summed up in that lady I mentioned earlier, Maetel. Her name is derivative of mother, matter, maternal, Mary, or mare (sea/waters) at least that is my hypothesis. Beyond being a near protective saint, she has the longest blond hair I have yet to see and dresses in a Russian styled black fur coat and hat. So classy! If the story tells the meat of the experience, Maetel represents the symbolic image of this story. I hate to see her as a mascot, more like an ascended master in the form of an anime heroine.

GE999_movie3The essence, or perhaps theme of Galaxy Express 999, is beyond the awesome space operatic elements. Often we are watching a story set in the future, but the true teachings are of the present moment. Life is something to be cherished and in two ways particularly. One, the fact that we are mortal and the time that we have is precious and our presence in this very moment is precious. And two, love yourself for who you are and what you believe in; your highest dreams and aspiration. Love yourself, love the environment and welcome all opportunities, you never know who you may meet on your journey when you just go with the flow. Just ask our hero Tetsuro.

GE999_movie4Galaxy Express 999’s movie adaptation is more than just a basic re-telling of the epic TV series. True we follow Tetsuro Hoshino’s path of maturity, which is sped up and abbreviated due the compression of the mammoth length of the manga/TV series original, yet we also have the inclusion of Matsumoto’s other great sci-fi epic which ran concurrent with Galaxy Express 999. That being of course Space Pirate Captain Harlock. This movie could be the ultimate expression of the constant retelling and reimagining of all that is the Leijiverse. And not just Captain Harlock the character, crew and mythology, but also that TV series’ director, Rintaro. Always a visual feast, so typical of Rintaro, this may be his most coherent film where the story does not get lost within the presentation of powerful imagery.

Stories of the hero’s journey number in the infinite and often times we are telling the same over yet again with a slightly different veneer. The origins of Galaxy Express 999 may borrow elements of Night on the Galactic Railroad and Star Wars (or perhaps Yamato?), but in the end it is something far different. A classic among classics, a step above the rest, Galaxy Express 999 may be one of the best coming of age stories ever created. Thank you Leiji Matsumoto and Rintaro for this great gift.