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.

#143 : Pole Position

PP84_1“Fun and excitement are abundant today as the Pole Position team get their own entry at The Classic Anime Museum.” … now that’s how to start an episode. 😉 It feels like Saturday morning though it may only be Tuesday Afternoon… I’m looking at myself, reflections of my mind… nice Moody Blues tie in, hehe. Pole Position was for me a staple reason to get up early, grab a bowl of Cheerios, or Rice Chex and cuddle up with my favorite toys for a couple years. Based on the classic arcade game by Namco, Pole Position was and still is one of my favorite shows from my formative years. Time to buckle up again for another ride.

PP84_2Often when it comes to video game adaptations into animation you have one of two choices: be a literal copycat or completely jump the shark and turn the show into something completely unique. Pole Position easily took the later option. Seriously, how does one turn an arcade quarter muncher driving laps around Fuji Speedway? An episode can turn into a quick game over if you hit any of the objects on the track, or the other cars… instant EXPLOSION! We need to do some heavy modification here work, à la Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors as an example. DiC created both of these shows and knew how to take creative liberties to the extreme to create a cartoon. And in either case, it works… splendidly!

PP84_3Now… let’s start off this alternate version with a brother and sister stunt team who are accompanied by their even younger sister and their pet. Is it a crossbreed between a monkey and a cat, or something else altogether? Who cares, it’s Kuma and I want one and I like him. Or, it is her? Maybe their non-binary? Very forward thinking! Now for the secret… Dan and Tess Darrett are more than just your everyday stunt drivers. Like their parent were, they are secrets agents for the organization Pole Position and solve crime and mysteries. Only their boss, their uncle, knows. And instead of the fancy open wheeled Formula One racer, let’s give Tess a red vintage Ford Mustang and Dan some blue futuristic prototype each with a computer A.I. that communicates with them, Wheels and Roadie. Brilliant, brilliant, I think we have a winning entry here.

PP84_4Pole Position is a stew where we take the name of a popular arcade racer, mix in elements of Scooby Doo, Knight Rider and James Bond and end up with a 1980s version of Speed Racer. And since the show was only 13 episodes, it doesn’t grow stale. It’s almost perfect for what Saturday morning cartoons used to be. Had it been a longer run for syndication, 65 episodes, then Pole Position may end up running out of steam? Maybe? Can’t say, because like everything, Pole Position is what it is and I love it for what it is. Action and adventure, cars, futuristic technology for the mid 1980s and being animated in Japan… I call that a killer combination. Check the credits at the end and mashed between the American and French staff you discover all the animators were Japanese. Even famed mechanical designer Shinji Aramaki contributed work. Oh yeah almost forgot… this is a DiC show… you have to have a classic Shuky Levi soundtrack and theme song. Yeah… now were ready to race! … um, who has the keys?

Honestly, a Saturday morning can be any, or every new morning of your life. Perhaps even a Saturday morning can occur during the afternoon or evening? Adjust accordingly to your local timezone. We all have a reason to get up every morning to see a new day… at least I hope so. For a time there was fun entertainment before the crack of dawn, but nowadays you may hit the snooze button twice before realizing it is past noon. In the end it does not matter when you get up, or what you define as the morning as you can always watch a Saturday morning favorite, like Pole Position, either via physical media or somewhere online at anytime. How the world has changed; as a kid I would have never saw that coming.

#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!

#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.

#136 : Alpen Rose

Spinning around with my bare feet on the grass at a park I begin to sing, “The hills are alive with the sound of… Alpen Rose. Alpen Rose. Those red flowers. These cross shackles that hold me…” … Love and romance, adventure and suspense, mystery and amnesia and being on the run from an obsessed bishonen Count and Nazis during the eve of WWII… are you excited yet? Pack your bags because you are scheduled for a tour of Switzerland, Austria and France circa 1939/1940. All aboard!

AR_1Based off a manga and debuting on television in 1985, Honoo no Alpenrose first came into my life through a condensed two episode OVA compilation released in 1986. If only I could see  the original 20 episode TV series? I like a non-abridged version whenever possible. Thankfully this version fell into my lap and became a recent priority. So what exactly is Alpen Rose? To begin the title refers to two specific references. The first is a flower that grows in the Alps region. During winter snows and freezing temperatures this flower never loses it’s will to live and stays in full bloom. Impressive! Alpen Rose is also the title of an important piece of music toward the plot of the series. An anthem to be precise! A subtle and tender song speaking out against Nazi oppression. A song to rise up and believe in life and freedom… very fitting to be named after a flower that represents choosing life and beauty in the face of strife and hardship.

AR_2We begin after a plane crash in the heart of Switzerland. A young girl with her pet parrot returns to consciousness unsure of who she is. She is soon met by a boy her age, Lundi, who gives her the name Jeudi and helps her start a new life. By the way the parrot is named Printemps by the way (All this French! I like it!) A few years pass, Jeudi is now a teenager and is working as a nurse’s aide when she is reunited with her beloved Lundi. Then the chase begins when both characters encounter a bishonen count who has loose ties to the German Nazi’s and has an obsession with Jeudi. She is totally underage… creepy! Along the way Jeudi and Lundi meet many new friends, but the most important would become a third party, an young anti-Nazi composer prodigy, Leonhardt/Leon, perhaps my favorite character (has to be those locks of hair!). This is turning into a love quartet. OK Jeudi for whom does your heart desire for?

AR_3Alpen Rose is one of those titles where I can’t help but love, yet I do have mixed feelings. Often times an anime series starts off with a great plot line and resolves at around the half way mark. The show continues on, but it just doesn’t feel the same. Jeudi’s journey to rediscover her past identity, find her parents and solve the riddle of why the song Alpen Rose has special significance made the first half a nail biter. From there it became a prelude towards the war between the Allies and the Axis. Our cast of characters became  part of the bigger zeitgeist of the moment. Yet the second half did reveal some new twists and discoveries which provided interest. The show is solid and even paced throughout, but the ending was a little rushed… now begins WWII… the end. Hey now!

AR_4Many big names are tied with the production of Alpen Rose. Tatsunoko was the studio responsible for bringing the show to life… and they have a great track record! The music was composed by Joe Hisaishi, who would go onto super stardom scoring films for Hayao Miyazaki. In fact he already did Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind the previous year! Often times when encountering shojo material I often run into magical girl shows and high school romantic comedies. Both genres have merit, but I have a soft spot for the historic romantic drama. Something a little more serious with an element of old classic style. Alpen Rose fills these qualifications fantastically and I am so thankful I finally got to see the entire TV series. I will watch this one again!

 

#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.