#120 : Belladonna of Sadness

BoS_1On the surface you may think Belladonna of Sadness is some pornographic psychedelic fest of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. Hedonism at it’s height and yet far from it. Yes this is an erotic movie, very sexual indeed at certain parts, though much of what is brought out through the sexual act is not pleasurable or idealized. With pleasure comes pain, much like any responsibility, including love. Belladonna of Sadness is a title for ‘mature’ adult audiences, told partially through an erotic perspective, with so much more going on that to dismiss this film as simply a wild psychedelic skin flick would be an injustice.

BoS_2Mix elements of The Beatles Yellow Submarine, Gustav Klimt, the Ryder Waite tarot deck (or maybe even Yoshitaka Amano’s deck… I use this one) and beautiful organic line work accented by watercolor fills and you get a general idea of the look of a tale of a Medieval maiden by the name of Jeanne (is it me or does she remind you of Fujiko Mine from Lupin III?). Recently married to her beloved Jean (a perfect pair of opposites/polarity?) the honeymoon is completely spoiled due to the kings need for taxes. When Jean is unable to pay the fees it is up to Jeanne to come up with a solution. Selling her soul to the Devil and exploring the dark night of the soul via sex and witchcraft, Jeanne soon becomes targeted as a witch. Yet she admired by the townspeople as she brings help to the suffering via her femininity and the use of belladonna, a nightshade that can be a medicine, hallucinogen, or poison depending on the dose. Now for the ultimate question, are Jeanne’s methods and new role, both of which exist outside the established patriarchal order, considered methods of evil, or balance?

BoS_3Belladonna of Sadness may be an anime, but it does not follow or accept the traditional look typical of Japanese animation as stated previously. The look is more akin to western sensibilities, yet I doubt any western studio would dare to give life to a project like Belladonna of Sadness. I give thanks and respect to Mushi Production and studio head Osamu Tezuka for creating such an uncompromising piece of art. The animation most of the time is sparse and at times is nonexistent in sections where the only movement was the action of scrolling long still collage images. Is this animation, or fine art passing as a film? Still shots could pass as canvased paintings much more so than just painted acetate cels. Much akin perhaps to Angel’s Egg, Belladonna of Sadness could belong in an art gallery setting instead of the usual theater venue.

BoS_4The original source material, a novel by Jules Michelet named La Sorcière (The Witch, though the title is better known as Satanism and Witchcraft) is unknown to me, but this did not block my own interpretations. Much of the themes reflect the history of the subjugation of the divine feminine and the fear of our more ancient principles and primal desires. The aspects of the darker subconscious, raw sexuality, the use of psychedelic substances as a way of altering ones consciousness and the worship of the feminine as supreme Goddess. Is the Goddess a witch, or a savior? …think Lilith, the untamed feminine. Reminds me of the Hindu goddess Kali… just what is God? SHE is darkness, the void, wild and terrifying beyond compare. The polar opposite to the Abrahamic ‘father’ image. In medieval European society and even still in our ‘modern’ cultures, much of what is listed above was and is still at times considered heresy. Yet this is only because that is what we have been told. Where is truth? How can such darkness be natural? And just what, or who is the Devil really?

Like any hallucination that takes the your mind, your ego, your essence into a different sphere of consciousness, viewing Belladonna of Sadness changes your perception of anime and perhaps even a part of yourself. Be gentle when viewing this film as mind blowing adventures always leaves something behind that you must take full responsibility for as it is now a part of your experience. Belladonna of Sadness is more than a movie, it’s a full blown awakening.

#116 : Aim for the Ace (TV series)

AftAtv_1The sun beats down as sweat drips from your forehead onto your hands. Those hands are gripping a tennis racket and as you pant for a moment of breathe you concentrate your stare upwards to your opponent. It’s your turn to serve, its match point and you are about to finish the game of your life. … (shakes head) … Wow, daydreaming really takes your mind away from where you are. Almost as if you are in the ‘game’ so to speak; the game of tennis in this instance. We are not here to discuss the actual sport itself, but an anime about a girl’s rise into the world of high school tennis. Serve, smash, volley… welcome to the original TV adaptation of Aim for the Ace.

AftAtv_2For shojo sports anime, Aim for the Ace is perhaps the grand dame of the genre. The elder spokeswoman, yet not the originator. A volleyball themed series from 1969, Attack No. 1, is from my research the first anime to show girls in the world of sport. Aim for the Ace is perhaps remembered better because of the popular and excellent film adaptation from 1979, but this entry will look at the previously released TV series of 1973. Both tell the same story with a small amount of variation to story, both were created at TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsha) under the direction of Osamu Dezaki (GENIUS!) and both are hallmark titles representing the growing sophistication of anime in the 1970s. The movie may have a more technically sophisticated presentation (which is ‘SO’ important in our HD obsessed world), but the TV series has a few tricks up it’s sleeve that I found endearing.

AftAtv_3Like many sports entries, Aim for the Ace is a simple coming of age story. Our heroine Hiromi Oka, though being a complete amateur (and at times a klutz), wins a spot on the coveted varsity team at Nishi High School. Nishi’s coach Jin Munakata sees much potential in the abilities of Hiromi, which in typical shojo fashion starts a soap opera of drama between the other girls on the team. Kyoko Otawa, in particular, would loss her spot on the varsity squad, which brings out a very jealous and deceptive character. And then there is the queen herself, the best player on Nishi’s squad, Reika Ryuzaki a.k.a. Ochoufujin (Madame Butterfly). At first, Rieka lives up to the sempai relationship towards Hiromi by becoming a shining example to follow. Yet when Hiromi’s skills begin to improve and challenge those of Reika’s is when we see the dark side of the beautiful butterfly. Needless to say the greater length of this TV series lends itself to more story and character development compared to the movie.

AftAtv_4Visually, Aim for the Ace is a great example of manga come to life. Gorgeous watercolor like backgrounds and rougher lines push the look of being hand made. There is a simplicity within the rawness that makes it feel honest and have a lot of heart. So while this may have been par for the course for animation back in the day, it is welcome to see a cartoon not look too overly polished and sophisticated like many productions of today. Then again this was all completed under the direction of Osamu Dezaki and I have many times commented on how much I enjoy the way he approaches animation. Dezaki knows just how to make it all look so… so… so damn good!

Much like Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam, Aim for the Ace was cancelled early due to low ratings (well thats what Wikipedia says!). All three series through the effort of loyal fans, reruns and eventual film adaptations would become legends. Often in our current glut of all that we have nowadays, how often does this opportunity of a second chance gets to come to a fruition. But much like many of these other shows from the 1970s, Aim for the Ace would get it’s second chance, but if you ask me, it was just right for what it had to bring to the table the first time around as well. I loved the movie, but I also loved this TV series for what it was, still is and always will be… a forerunner… a classic… a beautiful anime!

#82 : Cutie Honey

CH_1We need a hero… right here and right NOW! Not just any hero, but a warrior of love. Ai no Senshi! And we need a lady to do this job, because guys I am sorry, you and I have had enough of being the champion. It is time for the ladies to shine, transform and kick butt. And, NO!… Sailor Moon you need to sit down my dear because you have to meet your awesome auntie who did it all first. Sometimes she is a news reporter, sometimes a fashion model, or sometimes a motorcycle racer, but to me, she is just awesome. She is after all, the one, the only… Cutie Honey. Or perhaps it’s Honey Kisaragi? Cue that famous tagline… Honey Flash!

CH_2Now I will be the first to admit that I love 60s camp. Even though Cutie Honey was a product of 1973, it retains all the over the top theatrics of say Barbarella, Modesty Blaise and maybe I am stretching it Valley of the Dolls (Neely O’ Hara!… OK, I am stretching a little). But the bright colors, the over the top acting, the parody (either intended or not) and all that big hair and fashion is simply fun. Now add all that into a magical girl show, but instead of an ordinary human lady, let’s make our pretty girl an android. And this story also needs a shonen fighter sensibility as well just because. That should be all the ingredients we need, now lets make this show rock!

CH_3Go Nagai, you sir have a twisted mind, and yet brilliant as well. From the guy who sprang forth titles ranging from Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, Devilman and even the lewd Violence Jack would come Cutie Honey. And it shows, in particular with the bad ladies of the criminal organization Honey fights each episode, the nefarious Panther Claw. These villainesses of the week come in all shapes, sizes and with the wildest choices of costuming to boot. I have never seen the female form look as beautiful and/or grotesque at the same time. And then you have the leaders of Panther Claw, Panther Zora and Sister Jill. Sister Jill, with her dominatrix costume and well endowed figure, I am sure made many young boys lust over the bad girl instead of our heroic Honey. But then again, Honey has a fan club a mile long…

CH_4Such as those Hayami boys. Honey’s boyfriend Seiji, his father Danbei and his younger brother Junpei all show their devotion and attraction to ‘Miss It Girl’ Honey usually by comedic means. More than just comic relief, when Honey is in a jam, or needs a second hand, she can rely on the skills of the Hayami clan. And then there is Miss Alphonse… could be a lesbian, could just be enamored by Honey’s beauty, or could it just be that mustache? Honey has yet another reason to skip class besides being a little rebellious. Oh how it is to be so popular. Of course her looks are not what makes her attractive to Panther Claw. That necklace she wears around her neck is their prey. With it she can transform to all her alter egos, besides that it is one hell of a McGuffin device.

And now for something completely different… let’s talk music. In particular the themes, both the opener and the closer. These are perfect gems that have been resurrected in every reincarnation of our hero Honey. But the original versions… timeless. The opening is funky, funny and catchy beyond belief with the punchy bass, fuzzy guitar and string and horn sections scream the pop music of the day. I say, it’s time to dance and shake it. Now the closer on the other hand is a soft ballad that could have been a product of say Burt Bacharach production and arrangement. It still stands for me as one of the best songs I have ever heard in anime. It’s kind of romantic, like a great dance song.

A staple of 1970s Japanese animation, a classic soundtrack and an iconic hero. A triple powerhouse combination on why Cutie Honey lives on in it’s original and more current adaptations (including an awesomely bad live action version). When evil calls we will always have Honey Kisaragi to save the day. “I’m changing now”… wink!

#36 : Panda Go Panda/Rainy Day Circus

pgp_1There is the old saying that ‘anime’ is not for kids. It’s oh so mature and again… not for kids. For some ‘anime’ that is very true, but for all of anime itself, no. Is Doraemon for kids? Yes. Can a lot of the shonen and shojo titles that some consider ‘not for kids’ have an appeal and are made for a younger demographic? Yes. And Studio Ghibli titles, do many have an appeal to children, i.e. Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, Castle in the Sky? Yes, yes, yes and YES! What about an early film series from Miyazaki and Takahata, like Panda Go Panda and it’s sequel Rainy Day Circus? Yup, it’s all for the kids.

pgp_2Way back in the early 1970s, after their tenure on the first Lupin III TV series, our intrepid heroes Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were looking to do a project on their very own. A good decade before opening Studio Ghibli these boys had the idea that they could make a movie themselves, by their rules. The idea was simple, let’s make a version of the western tale of Pippi Longstocking. They even went all the way to Sweden to get the rights and in the end were rejected. Now what? Well why not take this character design that Miyazaki made who looked like Pippi and insert something else that could make it sell. What about pandas? They were fairly new to the zoos in Japan. Hmm… sounds like an idea that can work… OK we have a movie!.

pgp_3Thus Panda Go Panda was born. A simple tale about a girl who befriends a large papa panda (Papapanda), who looks like a creepy version of Totoro. Don’t quote me, but that dude is kind of scary to me. And a little baby panda (Panny) joins the mix as well as our young hero Pippy… I mean Mimiko becomes the mommy? And that’s as deep as this little story and the follow up Rainy Day Circus follows the formula. Both stories are cute as they are targeted towards young children and I don’t see anything non-offensive, except that giant daddy panda. Everything to him is nice, the weather is nice, the bamboo is nice. Maybe I am overthinking a simple kid’s movie?

pgp_4These two tales are the innocent days of being four, five and six where anything can happen because your imagination was not corrupted by TV, the internet or peer groups. I want to reclaim my innocence, then I could fully appreciate these titles. Though for the time these are great looking movies and with the shorter runnings time of just over half an hour each make them more palatable than say the longer Toei movies of the time like Puss n’ Boots and Animal Treasure Island. Besides all this, the historic significance of Miyazaki and Takahata making their own project is of great importance. Miyazaki contributed designs and the story and Takahata oversaw the whole production as director. Truly the best example of proto-Studio Ghibli.

Anime is not only for adults. Never has been and never will be. True we have titles that are made for more mature eyes, but you have to have titles that can be enjoyed by those before the years of puberty. Because anime in the end are cartoons and all cartoons are are images put to video. And cartoons, be it anime or not, are not mutually exclusive to one age demographic. There are cartoons for kids and cartoons for adults. Some of it is called anime and that is stuff made in Japan for Japan that ends up getting out to the rest of the world and we all fall in love with it. If you have kids and you love Studio Ghibli, well your kids now have the perfect gateway anime Panda Go Panda and Rainy Day Circus. In the end, we all win!

#33 : Neo-Human Casshan

cass_1If you want to be a superhero, there is one main rule to follow. True you need to have some kind of power that makes you… super? But, even more important, you have to have a great costume. Casshan’s uniform is second to none and has left an influence onto future creations, not unlike Megaman. A helmet clad cyborg hero in a world that has flipped upside down trying to make it right again, while looking awesome in the process. I call that worth a watch! Tatsunoko redefined the concept of the superhero in the early 1970s and this was their second concept to hit the market. A reborn human, or a cyborg, better known as Neo-Human Casshan.

Say Casshan… one thing before I begin. The spelling as ‘Casshern’, what is this? Hearing the original language track and I hear something closer to ‘Cassharn’ so ‘Casshan’ is more appropriate? Enough of the being on the soapbox. …

cass_2Oddly I came to the original Tatsunoko production of 1973 not first in my journey of watching all that is Casshan, but last. I watched the 90s OVA first (I thought it was ok), then Casshern Sins (I loved it) and then the original. For some weird reason I thought the original series, before even watching a minute of it, was going to be a little bit of a brighter and more fun series. Of course I had seen the original Gatchaman, Tatsunoko’s first superhero series (and a good one), and that was a bit of a more serious affair and the same was also true for the original Casshan. My gut instinct was wrong, just don’t ask me what I ate that day to have me come to that original conclusion.

cass_3Casshan like in every other adaptation is the lone warrior, the anti-hero, the one who is unjustly given a role to make right in a world that has gone wrong. The cause of these issues was an accident that brought a robotic creation of his father’s, BK-1 or Braiking Boss, to life. Braiking Boss’s awakening corrupted his logic and function, which in turn makes him the main bad guy of the series. To counter this error, Dr. Kotaro Azuma’s son Tetsuya volunteers to be reborn as a cyborg to fight the robot army of Braiking Boss. And it is this army that has taking over humanity. Their purpose is to eradicate the human race because these robots think the only way to clean up the pollution and problems of Earth is to destroy the inhabitants that created it. Kind of like Frankenstein meets Fist of the North Star? And speaking of FotNS, Braiking Boss you sound a bit like Raoh (Kenji Utsumi voiced both roles).

cass_4Mixed with the social responsibilities are Casshan’s personal struggles of the break-up of his family and his distancing behavior of forgetting his former identity of Tetsuya Azuma. His personal angst is most apparent to his friend Luna, a long time friend and maybe a love interest. But to me the most touching moment of his troubles are his interactions with Swanee, a robotic swan who acts as a spy for Casshan, but also Swanee contains his mother’s soul or essence. The interaction between these two are the most heartfelt as Casshan, or should I say Tetsuya, really wants to reconnect with a relationship with family. And who says being a super hero is easy? With every duty comes a cost.

In terms of western story telling, Casshan reminds me of the lone cowboy, but to be eastern appropriate, Casshan is the lone samurai. Except he is not alone. Fighting along side is a re-invention of the Azuma family dog Lucky now known as Friender. And if dogs are man’s best friend, then robot should be added to the equation as well. The pairing of these two make a formidable combination and to state it again, both are great examples of design. And speaking of design, Casshan has the great look of the early Tatsunoko shows of the 1970s and perhaps 1970s anime in general. This show looks like it was made by hand with heavy emphasis on strong lines that scream pencil and ink. Beautiful and rough.

Heroes come and go, but legends never die. Thanks to a couple reinventions the name Casshan will live on longer. Much like Yamato and Gundam, remakes can sell ideas to a new generation, but never hold the honesty of the original. Neo-Human Casshan you are a one of a kind.