Special : Watership Down

WD_1This is the real real world… this is nature interpreted through an artist’s particular vision and, or vernacular. A veritable John Constable, or even at times a J.M.W. Turner landscape coming to life with all the lush blues, greens and browns that echoes a quiet summer’s day with a punch of yellow and orange. An organic world of basic survival, gut instinct and presence within the moment. Except our vantage point of view is not from our familiar human senses, but from those of the animals of the wild we commonly call rabbits. This is the epic of the heroes journey set in an honest portrayal, a grand adaptation of the original source material (how often does that happen?) and a story that will last for thousands of years. This is the original animated version of Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

I am totally, totally breaking the rules with this entry. Watership Down has absolutely nothing to do with Japan in either the source material, or the production. It is British in origin, British in terms of production and vocal casting and American with director Martin Rosen. The adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel technically should not be here… yet I MUST include Watership Down on this website. I love this film and draw so much inspiration from it. It may be perhaps my all time favorite animated creation. So much so that in one of my classes in college, I used Watership Down as visual material for one of my best design projects of my academic career. Watership Down is not just any other movie, it is my personal spiritual myth, my Holy Book.

WD_2Watership Down begins with a core element that is something we must all face, that of the unexplained. Fiver’s sixth sense of impending danger and Hazel’s trust in him to go on a great journey to find a safe land, paradise, Arcadia (Captain Harlock reference) is not of the rational. I often think sometimes animals in the wild have an intelligence that a portion of humanity has lost. A true deep connection to the universe that does not question the motives behind signs, or feelings. Call it whatever you wish, but to our lapine friends they put their trust to Lord Frith. For it was Lord Frith who bestowed the gifts of swiftness and cunning to El-ahrairah, the original chief of the rabbit race. With cunning, quick decision making, or trickery and a fast stride a rabbit can and does survive. Yet often we humans lose this ability to see and feel our true essence because of the conformity structures we try to belong to. When one “Let’s go and let’s God” (God as your personal definition) we become closer to those of the wild and in essence our truest selves.

WD_3Hazel is not the only one to believe Fiver’s calling. A group of deserters join including a former Owsla (Army) officer, Bigwig, to find this special land of safety. They must traverse unknown terrain, encounter obstacles and at times lose a comrade. They must learn just who to trust and keep faith that their journey is true even when deviation becomes tempting. With a gorgeous film score, exceptional voice acting (I became a fan of John Hurt immediately) and the natural style of the artwork, both characters and backgrounds, I often feel that I am outside in the world of nature and with our little friends on their quest. Sometimes fiction looks more real than fact? Watership Down is a masterpiece that took itself seriously and is a true labor of love. This movie can’t hide from the apparent details.

WD_4Animation and in particular the traditional painted cel has always been a source of joy and a personal sanctuary for me. Watership Down is a testament to this style. After the movie, I felt obliged to buy and read the book which I have gone threw a handful of times. Either medium provides the depth and assurance I sometimes need to know that I am one with this universe and that the cycles that we all live through are worth the ups and downs. Many talk about the so called violence in this film, but they are missing the true core. This is an honest and mature look at our lives and not some flashy over dramatization to appeal to a low common denominator. To Richard Adams, Martin Rosen, Angela Morley, the cast and production crew I heartedly thank you for giving all of us such a beautiful epic.

#141 : The Dagger of Kamui

You love ninja and samurai stories, I love ninja and samurai stories… we all love a good ninja or samurai story. Here in the west we have the epics of ancient Europe and the American western to delight our tastes in mythology, but for some of us there is a draw from an alternate source, the native myths of the East. Anime’s representation of a skilled man (or woman) is numerous: Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin and Ninja Scroll just to name a few. But what if we can marry the samurai genre with the western genre into a film? Yup, that’s been done before… ever heard of 1985’s The Dagger of Kamui?

DoK_1Even if one is not much into action, ninja skills, or sword mastery, The Dagger of Kamui can still be a worthy watch; even if only just once! The Dagger of Kamui equates the definition of the big epic expensive action film, with an art house twist. Big… no no no… more like say, HUGE! Take a break my friends because this is one of those long journeys that spans Japan, Russia and then the wild west of America. Now that is quite a tour! You even get to meet historic figures like Geronimo and Mark Twain too. What?! And this is still considered a ninja, or samurai film? Or perhaps the ultimate shonen fighter? That may be stretching it, but does it matter? Nah, not at all. Just remember, to tell a large epic journey will take some time and this film is long, two plus hours long. And no intermission either (except the pause button, shh! it’s a secret), so be prepared.

DoK_2The Dagger of Kamui is a great example of ‘the hero’s journey’. The Hero with a Thousand Faces has now reached 1,001; a quick nod to you Joseph Campbell! Our hero is Jiro who is in no better terms, a bastard. He is an illegitimate child adopted into a loving family and also an individual whose heritage is partly Ainu, the native culture of Japan that was once frowned upon. Needless to say the kid is not well liked, or respected for no fault of his own except the ignorance of those around him. These elements don’t help when Jiro returns home to find his mother and sister murdered. Take a guess who gets the blame with no due process? With a dagger in hand that will unlock many clues of his origins and destiny, Jiro goes on the run to at first find the murderer of his family and then… well, that’s the beauty of being on a quest… it’s open to discovery beyond imagination.

DoK_3The story may be huge, the music is funky, with electric guitar and traditional Japanese drumming, but the visuals are a sight to behold. This is one gorgeous movie. Backgrounds are lush. Motion is fluid. Colors are bold. The fight scenes are like expressionist paintings that have come to life that could easily pass as a psychedelic experience. No surprise really as this was made at Madhouse, a studio which seems to have two quality settings in the visual department… amazing and fantastic. That and with a director like Rintaro, the ocular experience triples if not quadruples with his use of editing, color and dynamics. Let me go back to the fight scenes again. They are not like the usual brawl. Think more in terms of a well choreographed dance in a lucid dream you can only have at midnight where all around is magic and wonder to behold and see. Conflict becomes poetic art; danger becomes beautiful.

DoK_480s anime cinema has many standout choices. Many originate from well known directors, franchises, or are just at the right place at the right time. The Dagger of Kamui can fall into line with say the Fist of the North Star film for being a big action epic where our hero has to face up against a his major arch rival in the end, but The Dagger of Kamui is a completely different beast altogether. Some action films are just that, an action film. But there are those action films that are blessed to have been created by an auteur studio and an auteur director as well. There is something special about these movies, even though they can be a little long winded. The Dagger of Kamui is one wild ride!

#140 : The Wild Swans

WS_1I love the work of Hans Christian Andersen. His stories are often dark in tone, filled with allegory and meaning and are considered essential myths that we continue to have a need for… even in today’s climate. Yet some stories pass by us unnoticed until just the right time. Until a week ago I had never heard of the Wild Swans, but when I found that this story was adapted into a feature film created by Toei I had to see it immediately. I must also state that there is also another story collected by the Brothers Grimm that is very similar and from general reading it seems their tale, The Six Swans, has more the influence on this movie. I had only one thing to say… Hi, can I be your friend? And as usual, seems always the case with anime, we got along splendidly. Let me tell you about our date together!

WS_2Much like another story many of us know very well by Andersen, The Little Mermaid, there is much that is similar, yet also different. Both stories were animated by Toei in the mid 1970s, The Little Mermaid in 1975 and The Wild Swans in 1977, and share the basic style and form of the era. Both stories deal with prolonged sacrifice and hardship in the form of being away from loved ones and not being able to communicate vocally. In the case of the Little Mermaid, Marina could not speak due to giving up her voice, and tail as well, to be amongst the human world and be with her prince. As for the Wild Swans, our protagonist Elisa does not loose her voice at all. She takes a personal vow of complete silence as part of her cross to bear. Though she can speak, she promises not to.

The story begins on a happy note as we meet a lost man on horseback in a forest. He is greeted by a witch who promises him a way back home if he can grant a wish for her daughter. The attractive young lady asks to become his betrothed as she has learned that his wife has passed recently. He accepts and returns to tell his children the good news. Wow, saying yes to a woman you just met without even a date or anything? Some men are quite desperate! And you know, “some beautiful roses have wicked thorns.” But I digress, he uses a magical ball of yarn to open the location where his children are to give the news of their new mother. Everyone is happy, except that conniving woman. She is jealous of the children (what a surprise!) and plans a trap by stealing the ball of yarn and meeting the children herself.

WS_3Upon their meeting miss jealous pants bestows gifts, which the six boys accept without hesitation. These garments that are given turn them into swans and when the seventh child, a daughter, Elisa arrives she sees the damage that has occurred and stands against the evil woman. Yet all is not lost, at night time the boys return to human form and comfort Elisa. Hmm, sounds like Swan Lake? Then, much like swans born naturally, they migrate away when the proper season beckons. During this time Elisa learns she can make six garments out of nettles that will return her brothers to their natural human state. The only reservations are that she cannot show any disdain, or complaint during the process and that she has a limited amount of time. Because of this she shuts herself off from the rest of the world and vows a life of silence. Now we know why Elisa losses her ability to communicate.

WS_4For an emotionally riveting plot that seems to point towards total tragedy, The Wild Swans does end up having an optimistic outcome. This was a surprise for me and even though I was ready for an all out cry fest ready to see something sad, I still had a little tear in my eye for witnessing a happy ending. A true tale of love and sacrifice that I can put on par with Night on the Galactic Railroad, The Wild Swans shows that a dedication to love will pay off with rewards unimaginable. And if this movie borrows from either Hans Christian Andersen, or the Brothers Grimm, or both at the same time, it does not matter. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling and that is all one needs in a great anime.

#139 : The Wonderful World of Puss ’n Boots

WWoPnP_1Once upon a time there was this very cool cat who had a killer pair of boots and a very fashionable hat. He met a young man stuck in a muck and brilliantly the cat thought of a way to change his luck. A prince you shall be, to impress a princess from yonder away though there is a another suitor who is big, strong and the token bad guy… this just is not our lucky day. Never fear, rescue her you shall with our friends the mice, while I dodge a helpless trio devoted to capturing me as I feed you great advice. Sounds like a tale so classic filled with adventure and folly that it can only be The Wonderful World of Puss ’n Boots, I am feeling oh so jolly!

WWoPnP_2Let’s first talk about mascots in anime. They number in plenty from Pikachu (Pokémon) to Totoro (Studio Ghibli) to Mokona (CLAMP) and even Astro Boy (Osamu Tezuka or just anime in general). But what of one of the oldest studios in Japan that has entertained generations going back to the 1950s, Toei? That smiling cat in the hat… just who is that? And no this is not some Dr. Seuss riddle? … oh how I love me some green eggs and ham … That fine feline is none other than Pero (why not Pierrot?). Pero? Yeah Pero from the 1969 classic The Wonderful World of Puss ’n Boots. A fairly popular film in it’s day, it eventually led to two sequels in fact. But I hypothesis the popularity also because why would a studio choose a character to be a mascot, if not a veritable logo, from a film that did not reach a certain level of recognition? The Wonderful World of Puss ’n Boots is a film that defines Toei’s classic cinematic style.

WWoPnP_3Puss ’n Boots is light hearted, witty and fun for the whole family. Though to be fair the film was geared towards children, as is most animation, you can’t say it does not have humor and sophistication to draw in adult fans as well. After all many of us anime or animation fans are just ‘kids’ disguised as ‘adults’ 🙂 … I know I am! Often when one thinks of these early anime titles from what we term as the modern era, mostly the 1960s to be precise, we often equate Disney’s influence as they were the biggest animation standard during the day. But I want to include Warner Brothers for this movie. I have no idea if this was an influence, but the humor, action and even the artwork reminds me of Chuck Jones masterpieces like What’s Opera, Doc? and The Scarlet PumpernickelTouché; great ideas from animation can be borrowed from anywhere! We artists are not creators, we be pirates, argh, lol.

WWoPnP_4Speaking of borrowing, when reading the back of the DVD case I noticed that Puss ’n Boots’ director also directed the film Swan Lake. Hey!, I know that movie and come to think of it. the dynamics and even the character designs for Pierre, Rose and Lucifer (PnB) are very similar to those of Siegfried, Odette and Rothbart (SW). Even the climatic battle scenes at the evil castles are even similar. Not a bad nod, or reference to previous anime! Especially when you worked on both. 😉 And some of these scenes are so well animated that I thought, hey this part reminds me of say The Castle of Cagliostro? And maybe Future Boy Conan as well? Again the action scenes at the castle and the design of Princess Rose (the essence is all in her face) looks oh so Hayao Miyazaki. Well I don’t know what parts, or sections he worked on but yes, Miyazaki did work as a key animator on this movie. A portrait of an artist as a young man…

The 1960s would be the decade when Japan’s animation industry became a big business, serious in approach and growing ever professionally. The Wonderful World of Puss ’n Boots stems from the tail end of that decade and it’s influence would continue into the next decade and beyond. Some of Toei’s early films look cheap or grow dull quickly, but examples like Puss ’n Boots and even Horus: Prince of the Sun set standards that we need to honor today. Oh great Puss ’n Boots I bow before thee, bless u all your great legacy evermore.

#138 : Gall Force: Eternal Story

What ever happened to our old friend Gall Force? Debuting in 1986 with a feature film that spun off into a pairing of direct single release OVA sequels and then a couple more larger arc OVA series, Gall Force seemed to become a major player in anime. Then quiet arose over the landscape and Gall Force faded away into the sunset. It’s time to come out of retirement ladies, we miss you! To get a foot hold and get reacquainted with this series as a whole we have to start from the very beginning. Let us return once again to the maiden voyage to the 9th star system with Gall Force: Eternal Story.

GFES_1All is war in the galaxy. It has been for a long, long, long time. Two factions fight it out to the death with their huge armadas of spaceships that fire laser beams that take up half the real estate of your viewing screen. This is the story of the Solenoids vs. the Paranoids. Wound coil magnets vs. people who are extremely afraid, or perhaps Black Sabbath fans? … “Finished with my woman ’cause she couldn’t help me with my mind, People think I’m insane because I am frowning all the time” … Not exactly, but seriously, where do you kids come up with this stuff? No, this is more like… the battle of the sexes… in DEEP SPACE! The Paranoids (ugly parasitic monstrosities of aliens), being the masculine and the Solenoids (a race of women that look very ‘familiar’?), the feminine.

GFES_2Gall Force: Eternal Story is not my favorite anime of all time by a long shot, but it is one I enjoy watching for the fun of it. This was one of those titles that was part of the steady diet of titles that solidified my love for Japanese animation. It’s a sci-fi homage of everything we loved about space and adventuring through the galaxies all thrown into one. This is a film that borrows much from earlier titles in anime, but also live action references such as: Star Wars, Alien, 2001 and Star Trek. It’s a film that defines all that is generic and cheesy, but pulls it off so well that it’s classic. Even the English dub gives the movie so much character. Gall Force: Eternal Story is a film where everything falls apart in order to give birth to something new and fresh. One trial after another hits our heroines and slowly one by one they eventually bite the dust. And yet would you believe that this movie does ends on a happier note?

GFES_3Our protagonists are a group of seven Solenoid soldiers whose mission is to pilot their vessel, the Star Leaf, to the 9th system to defend a new world for colonization from the Paranoids, Chaos. Along the journey Eluza, Rabby, Lufy (my fav!), Catty, Pony, Patty, and Rumy run into several obstacles including repairing a part of the ship to activate the warp drive (which also meant a scary trek into the belly of space), a battle with the Paranoids, fighting a stow away monster and eventually… childbirth! An interesting voyage isn’t it? I mentioned earlier how the girls all look very ‘familiar’, this is due to the fact that they were designed by Kenichi Sonoda. These seven girls all prototypical examples of his character stylings, which were also featured in Wanna-Be’s and Bubblegum Crisis, both being early work Sonoda did at AIC along with the Gall Force series.

GFES_4I have a weird theory about Gall Force: Eternal Story… maybe it’s… maybe it’s… our true origin story? This will make sense when you see the film in whole and make it all the way to the end. To put this into perspective, a child is born from the mating of the Paranoids and the Solenoids and that child along with one of the girls are the sole survivors to start a whole new evolution. A whole new race, a new beginning. Kind of like Adam and Eve? Maybe Gall Force: Eternal Story is the opening parts of Genesis from the Bible? … In the beginning there was void and war and laser blasts covered the deep of space. And then God spoke and said, “Cut out the fighting kids and have a baby instead!” … I dunno, it makes sense to me, what do you think?

#135 : Crusher Joe (movie)

CJm_1Say Joe, what do you know? … How does it feel to be the literary older sibling of the Dirty Pair? Maybe a little jealous as Kei and Yuri often get a lot of love and fan mail, but some of us out there in old time otaku land remember you too my old friend. Space adventure and science fiction were really hot in the early 1980s and a 1983 film by the name of Crusher Joe set itself perfectly into the zeitgeist of the moment. Let’s step back in time to experience the future, grab some popcorn and cut the lights… we’re watching this movie! 

CJm_2Does Crusher Joe remind you of say, Cowboy Bebop? The character dynamics are there: Young heroic guy, the big tough veteran, the pretty girl and a nerdy kid. What!… no cute Welsh Corgi!? Crusher Joe is sci-fi fun similar to say Star Wars, or maybe Buck Rogers, or perhaps Flash Gordon. What about Space Dandy? Or in contemporary anime terms of about 1983… Space Adventure Cobra meets Gatchaman that looks a lot like the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Oh and one big difference to Cowboy Bebop… no swinging jazz. What!? No flat fifths, or 7th #9 chords interspersed in hand drawn loveliness? Ah shucks! Alas Crusher Joe is sci-fi the way we hoped for the future to be in the 1980s. Lots of warp drives, high collared tailored jumpsuits and dancing at the discotheques. I don’t know about you, but I am still waiting for this dated version of the future to come to fruition. Am I alone on this one?

So what exactly are Crushers anyway? You got a job, any job? You got money? Then a Crusher has got you covered, except keep it clean and legit as this keeps the paperwork easier to file. Joe, Alfin, Talos and Ricky have a new job of transporting a mysterious cargo with no questions asked to a specific destination. Sounds simple enough, but then again be careful what contracts you sign your name on. On a trek through hyperspace a ‘little’ accident occurs with this cargo on board. Ever have a bomb go off in the middle of a warp? Its not very pretty. After coming back to consciousness, Joe and crew quickly evaluate the situation and discover the cargo has gone missing. Ah oh, what else could go wrong? Maybe a run in with the authorities and finding out your cargo was a princess who was cryogenically frozen and now you are charged with kidnapping. Talk about a good time to call a lawyer. Now the question becomes who set up Joe and how do they get this princess back safe and sound?

CJm_3Let me return to the Mobile Suit Gundam reference again… this movie really, really looks like the iconic mecha series in terms of it’s characters. This is NO!! accident. The character designs, script, and storyboards were mainly at the helm of Gundam’s character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. ‘YAS’ even helmed the directors chair. He literally owned this movie, maybe even more so than original creator Haruka Takachiho. Besides the obvious stylings of YAS, Crusher Joe also shares his sense of humor and fun action, which ties back to Takachiho’s source material quite nicely. Add in some mecha designs from a young up and coming Shoji Kawamori, hot off of the original Macross (LOVE!), and the fire power of Studio Sunrise, you have one of the best stand alone sci-fi movies of the decade. In fact Crusher Joe was Sunrise’s first original movie outside of TV show adaptations, in case you wanted to know (it’s common knowledge on the internet?).

CJm_4Once upon a time we had grand and fun swash buckling adventures told through the medium of intergalactic outer space fantasies. True they still exist in some form today, they don’t hold the same romanticism as their analog counterparts of yesteryear… or perhaps I am just being biased. Crusher Joe is a film that defines what made 1980s anime appealing and fun, even into the present. Plus as an added bonus… guess who makes a brief cameo for their first appearance ever in an anime? Kei and Yuri… the Dirty Pair… ah… Lovely Angels 🙂 They always seem to hog the spotlight in some form or another… can you blame them?

#134 : The World of Hans Christian Andersen

WoHCA_1So… can we consider The World of Hans Christian Andersen a biographical film? Perhaps not, but from a fantastical perspective, let’s just say it is. Apparently a young Hans Christian Andersen is a young working class boy whose father is a cobbler, a shoemaker. Hans has a love of storytelling and he has a distant dream of being part of the local theater, a place he likes to frequent from the outskirts. What’s a poor boy to do with a dream with no outlet? Have a visit from that good old guy, the sandman, Uncle Oley. Sure sounds like an odd film? Maybe even silly and cliché? It is, but The World of Hans Christian Andersen is enchanting in it’s own way.

WoHCA_2While this film may not be historically, or factually accurate (most films rarely are, even if they are based on a ‘true’ story), it is without question an inventive use of play and imagination. Could Hans Christian Andersen in his spare time have concocted many of his famous literary works in the prime years of his youth. Maybe? Perhaps? Or maybe not, but what can be true about any author is that one often pulls from direct experience. Many of his known classics like The Red Shoes, Thumbelina (a few anime adaptations are available), The Little Match Girl and The Little Mermaid (giving some love to the 1975 Toei version) amongst others all make some sort of an appearance in the film either as being part of the plot, or having a minor cameo. The World of Hans Christian Andersen is more of a general tribute to the work of Andersen than anything else.

WoHCA_3A product of Toei animation from 1968, The World of Hans Christian Andersen can be seen as an example of Toei’s de rigueur style. Simple, easy to digest and not confrontational. Also, perhaps a little on the cheaper end of the budget scale compared to my next example. In contrast, Isao Takahata’s directorial debut Horus: Prince of the Sun, is a complicated film, darker in tone and progressive in terms of content and ideology. Plus, Horus looks expensive and for its time, a bar raising standard for the future of animation in Japan. The established old guard vs. the rising younger generation. Even with all that was just said, don’t think that The World of Hans Christian Andersen is by any means inferior, it’s just an example of a different approach. Still I can’t deny that it looks rather cheap and goofy, but it still has it’s own way of being… appealing and cute.

WoHCA_4One thing does make me wonder about The World of Hans Christian Andersen… this movie reminds me so much of the so-called holiday cartoon classics (in terms of style mainly) we see here in the west that I often wonder was this perhaps made for the west from the start? From general research, it seems to come back time and again that this hypothesis does not hold up. Still? … There are far more important battles to find instead of worrying about cartoons. Just watch and enjoy them for what they are. The World of Hans Christian Andersen is one of those titles that came my way via an interesting source. Sometimes you find anime on bizarre dollar bin/dollar store shelves and wonder is this stuff truly anime? Then with a little research you find that this is a title that has long since been forgotten. Forgotten until you find it, watch it yourself and then write about it so others know that a movie like this does actually exist.

The wondrous world from the vantage point of youth, or even the innocence of childlike simplicity in one’s supposed adulthood is important to balance and retain in all of our lives. Such knowing that true riches are internal and are within the realms of our imagination. From that fertile ground of a garden known as the mind, the conscious and subconscious fuse together, you can create anything and I mean anything as boundaries do not exist. Such creations can include stories and the art of storytelling itself. This is the world and imagination of The World of Hans Christian Andersen.