#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.

#125 : The Hobbit

hobbit_1“Hello, what’s this?” One often finds unexpected treasures on unplanned journeys that alter the course of destiny. Or maybe it was all preordained? Enter the rich and full harmonics of John Huston’s voice… “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”… now thus this classic journey begins yet again. Long before Peter Jackson’s film adaptations and well before I knew the name J.R.R. Tolkien had any meaning, I enjoyed a cartoon produced by Rankin/Bass and animated by a Japanese studio named Topcraft. It is simply named The Hobbit, just like the original book, and what a grand adventure it was and still is.

hobbit_2“The greatest adventure is what lies ahead…”, or perhaps it is also what has gone before. I have always found animation when done properly, can become the modern mythology that we all need as a society. At least in my case, many of the central core myths and legends are these moving drawn pictures which have shaped my reality, philosophies and life. When animation meets a literary mythical giant, then you have the opportunity for something really special. The Hobbit is an excellent piece of evidence towards this hypothesis. As a kid I had no notion of Tolkien’s legend or reputation and even still I am not the biggest fan, but I do know when a story is more than just an ephemeral experience.

hobbit_3The Hobbit is a classic Joseph Campbell styled ‘Hero’s Journey’ were one leaves a comfortable life of safety and routine to become transformed through an unexpected event, meeting, or situation. Bilbo Baggins is a metaphor for you, or me, and his joining up with Gandalf and the company of dwarves through his adventures of Middle Earth could be yours as well, though maybe not as fantastical. What’s your favorite part of Bilbo’s journey? Meeting Elrond, Bard, or even Smaug? Perhaps the run in and troubles with trolls, or goblins? My favorite, and perhaps for you as well, was the meeting of Gollum and Bilbo’s subsequent finding a shiny ring… my precious. But not just any ring. This ring is the legendary ring of power in the forthcoming Lord of the Rings. Gollum’s voice actor in this version sets a standard in my book for being so odd, eerie, corrupt and psychotic. A brilliant performance that sends shivers down the spine and also makes one want to imitate each intonation out of respect.

hobbit_4The artwork has a storybook quality almost like when you are a kid and each page unfolds with a new image that brings surprise. Or perhaps, an unfolding medieval scroll that has the grit and organic quality that feeds into the imagination. The designs are a combination of Tolkien standard illustrations and the odd character designs that are attributed to much or Rankin/Bass’ output from the late 70s/early 80s. Think The Last Unicorn, Flight of Dragons, or The Wind in the Willows. Almost a hybrid of western and Japanese sensibilities that are grotesque, but appealing in a way. No one looks heroic or fashionable and this again gives the story a little more of a grounded appeal. Almost as if this production did come out of the dirt and rocks of a landscape, very natural.

The grunt of the animation and drawing was accomplished by a studio named Topcraft, which evolved eventually into a fairly well known studio known as Ghibli. Heard of that one, it’s fairly famous and popular? After all, Topcraft was the group that Hayao Miyazaki worked with on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. However, Rankin/Bass had been a client of Topcraft during the 1970s and 1980s and this version of The Hobbit is a prime example of that partnership. Nice work everyone!

Short (as compared to an elongated live action movie trilogy), concise, well animated and with some sing along songs that add charm, the Rankin/Bass versioning of The Hobbit is still a standard go to for many of us. For me it is an early treasure, or perhaps a discovery, from my youth that still holds value into the current day. The Hobbit is one movie that I consider as ‘precious’, yet it does not corrupt like a particular ring. It instead enriches the soul.

#71 : Space Battleship Yamato

When it comes to Space Battleship Yamato, I give the utmost respect. The original super otaku craze has all the justification it truly deserves and it’s not because it has a reputation, or a status of being one of the greatest series in all of anime history. It deserves my total respect, and hopefully yours as well for a singular reason. Science fiction can at times be too impersonal, or at the other extreme, too fun. And yet, Yamato is neither. It’s the beauty of the potential of humanity in the purest sense of the word.

SBY_1By the time I got around years ago to sit and watch the original series from 1974, I knew I was in for something great. I was well aware of Yamato’s pedigree and I considered this to be one of the keystones in the select elite of classic anime that all fans should see. Yamato was required reading so to speak and any other substitute just would not suffice. Initially the concept belonging to producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki, with refinements brought in by a little manga artist by the name of Leiji Matsumoto turned this show from resurrecting the pride of WWII Japan’s naval fleet that flew through space into one of the greatest anti-war epics of all time. But, then again Matsumoto was no slouch when creating epic space dramas with feeling. Any fans of Captain Harlock, or Galaxy Express 999? Yeah I see you 🙂

SBY_2Matsumoto’s touch gave Yamato a humane touch and it is expressed in our two main heros, the young Susumu Kodai and the elder captain, Juzo Okita, the greatest father figure of all. Every time and anytime I witness Captain Okita’s death scene I always shed a tear; you were a good man sir. These two men along with the other members of Yamato including Yuki Mori (token female character), Daisuke Shima (Kodai’s friend) and the remaining crew fly toward the planet Iscandar (awesome name, I think it’s Sanskrit) to meet a woman named Starsha to receive the great Cosmo DNA. This gift is said to help clean the ravaged Earth from all the toil and radiation that has built up from the invasion from the Gamilan Empire. Gamila’s emporer Deslar will stop at nothing to prevent the Earthlings from getting this and in a span of 26 episodes we watch this drama unfold.

SBY_3There are many scenes from anime that have left an indefinite mark on me, but none can hold a candle to the scene after the crew of the Yamato defeated the Gamilan Empire on their home world. Was this a time to celebrate, to shout for victory, to show them who was boss… NO!!!  Absolutely not, because in the scene both Yuki and Susumu saw what that victory brought. Ravaged destruction, death and shock all from what should be seen as victory. How does someone face themselves to the consequences that they have enacted onto another living civilization? After all in the end Gamilas was a dying planet and despite the wrongful actions of it’s people, all that was wanted was to acquire a new home world. As Susumu said that since ‘we’ were young ‘we’ have been taught to win at all costs, but this victory… is quote… ‘bullshit’. In anime as in real life, we have had enough of military conquests. Better to extend a hand in friendship than raise a gun in superiority.

SBY_4This series, very similar to the original Mobile Suit Gundam, was not popular in the eyes of the masses during their original TV runs; a second chance would be around the corner. A theatrical release would resurrect both of these series and turn them into the superstars they are today. And while the film compilations are convenient, they don’t give the whole picture in my eyes. If you can’t watch all 26 episodes of Yamato, then yes see the movie. But… but, if you can witness the whole series there are little stories that make the difference, similar if this was a novel. Or, for bonus points, watch both 🙂 Or, if you are older than me, you would promote the old adaptation of Star Blazers as well. Even though I prefer the original Japanese, this dub, for it’s time, was special.

Space Battleship Yamato has influenced me, has shaped me, helped me ask questions, helped me cry when I needed a cry, helped me smile with I needed a smile. It’s a beautiful thing, as Captain Okita said in his death scene right before returning to Earth… “Earth, everything about you is beautiful.” How has the beauty of Yamato left it’s influence on you?