#163 : Frosty the Snowman

FtSM_1According to this calendar right in front of me it’s December and it is yet that time of year when many of us get ready for that holiday known as Christmas. While many of us get a little cynical at this time of year due to all the high amounts of stress, the over spending, or eating a little too much, we often over look a basic fundamental. The daylight is short and it’s colder outside for us in the northern latitudes (I envy you all in the southern hemisphere), but… but there is still something to look forward to on the near horizon. I myself don’t technically celebrate Christmas anymore, yet I am still within the festivities (I prefer to see it as the Winter Solstice), I still love and treasure Christmas cartoon standards like Frosty the Snowman and I feel no matter how you celebrate this time of year, Frosty’s story can inspire all of us to try yet again.

FtSM_2It all started with a simple song about a snowman who came to life all with the help of a magical hat. Recorded originally by Gene Autry and Jimmy Durante and re-recorded by nearly everyone you can name under the sun, Frosty the Snowman is a playlist staple during this time of year. Yet there is also the animated cartoon brought to us from Rankin/Bass from way back in 1969 to enjoy as well. Wow!, this makes Frosty 50 years old this year and he still does not look like a day older than… how old was Frosty anyway? A newborn? After all, he just came to life one day from a magic silk hat picked up by a bunch of kids during recess. Just a throw away item from a supposed magician whose rabbit sidekick has infinite times more talent than him. Yet this mean old magician wanted that hat back after seeing the potential of bringing a snowman to life. Tisk tisk. “It isn’t yours anymore, you threw it away!”

FtSM_3The story is a simple travel adventure with Frosty, Hocus Pocus (the previously mentioned rabbit and my favorite character!) and Karen (one of the children from the school) making their way from their little modest town all the way to the North Pole to see Santa Claus… who else! The North Pole of course is a cold place year round with lots of snow, so it makes a perfect habitat for a naive and jovial snowman. Plus Santa Claus will be his neighbor, always a bonus. They run into a cop who swallow a whistle, get chewed out from the train ticket attendant for not having any money and are always one step ahead of that mean old magician. Give up the hat man, it didn’t go with your complexion anyway. Will our heroic trio make it to the North Pole? Will they meet Santa?

FtSM_4Now for the fun part… just what is Frosty the Snowman’s connection to the Japanese animation industry? Rankin/Bass for years have used several studios in Japan for a majority of their work and Frosty is no exception. A studio by the name of Mushi Production would hold the honor of doing the heavy work of making Frosty come to life.… so it wasn’t just the magic hat after all, hmm? Mushi Production was Osamu Tezuka’s original studio that turned out many a classic like the 1963 version of Astro Boy, 1965’s Kimba the White Lion and 1967’s Princess Knight and even the adult gothic film that put the studio into backruptcy, Belladonna of Sadness. Frosty the Snowman, even though considered an outsource job, is a good cousin to what we call anime.

A film I am sure we have all seen 1,000 times and perhaps may get another 1,000 views into our near futures, Frosty the Snowman connects us with what we love about the winter. It is a time to reflect, remember and contemplate on where we have been through out the year, yet it is also a time to start new into a new year, the future. Winter is a like a bridge and sure as clockwork Frosty the Snowman will be a part of of our winter festivities and traditions for generations to come as it has for generations in the past. No matter how you celebrate, have a great winter and holiday everyone!

#146 : Astro Boy (1980 TV Series)

AB80_1I bow down before thee, for you Astro Boy are the head patron saint of all anime. But wait, this is not the original version from 1963 that is often considered among the first modern anime to be conceived. No, this is not that version from 2003, nor that animated movie that was… umm… yeah. This telling of Astro Boy is like the middle child of the family, a reimagined version from 1980 that was under the full direction of it’s original creator, the man himself, Osamu Tezuka. I bow yet again. For this time round we present Astro Boy in FULL COLOR!, an upgrade from the black and white of the 1960s. So fancy! Heroes we look up to and admire come in all shapes, sizes and ages, but how many have the heart of an innocent child? Or even better, is an innocent child who is curious and sensitive to himself and everyone around him? Astro Boy is this and that’s why we fans love you!

AB80_2The character of Astro Boy… he is so cute and a lot like a stuffed animal. I just want to hug him and keep him safe from harm, but more than likely he will be the one protecting me instead. A mix of Superman, Frankenstein and Pinnochio that is rolled into an idealistic hope for the future, Astro Boy tells stories with an aesthetic originating in the 1950s/60s with animation advancements from 1980. We are in an idealized utopian world of the nuclear family, school days and good always triumphing over evil. Progress, optimism and the coming of advanced technologies spearheaded with science that includes a product that defines the show, robots. One of those robots is a young boy who was a clone of a boy who was tragically killed in an auto accident. The grief and guilt from the boy’s father led to the birth of our protagonist Astro Boy, which by the way, is the plot for the opening episode.

AB80_3The joy of Astro Boy is that really and truly is a show for children. And yes, it can also be enjoyed by the whole family, or even us youth minded adult types. The storylines for each episode are mostly simple to digest and easy to follow and often times you may be asking yourself, am I too old for this? And then the truth begins to shine from underneath, as is the magic of Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka’s humanitarianism and depth are renowned in every work he created, but it is in full display in Astro Boy. The bright colors and simple designs are just a package for the drama and lessons that each episode portrays. Nothing is held back, including at times the cost of one’s life. Astro Boy is a show with a high body count and often depicts some sort of sacrifice. The difference is that there is always a moral teaching behind everything. Tezuka does not lie to children and shows that loss and even death are a part of our lives and that violence is not always the answer. Tezuka’s Unico movies are of a similar caliber.

AB80_4Each episode is self contained so there is no overarching serialized story that comes to a final conclusion. The episodes featuring arch nemesis Atlas are the closest to a having a larger narrative and offers much in terms of drama. Atlas became my favorite character and his tragic story alongside his beloved Livian, brought much in terms of maturity and personal reflection. Many times anime portrays the villain, or antagonist, as a more appealing character than the hero; Atlas belongs with this grouping of classic beloved bad boys… and girls. On another note one special episode stands out. A crossover story, which features Tezuka alums Black Jack, Rock and Sapphire; a welcome treat for those of us who are fans of the ‘God of Manga’s’ work.

I whole heartedly recommend Astro Boy as a starter anime if you have young children. And for those of you who are full grown, such as myself and I am sure you as well, the 1980 version of Astro Boy is something of an oddity to consider if it crosses your path. Relive the 1950s/60s from the perspective of the 1980s in the current moment of whatever year you consider the present. In the end it’s all the same.

#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.

#85 : Ringing Bell

RB_1Ahh! Look at the cute little lamb, I bet this is a movie that will be all heart warming and cozy and adorable. Oh hey… and this was produced by Sanrio of Hello Kitty fame too, yup heart warming, fuzzy and kawaii. And then reality sets in once you start to watch Ringing Bell. What you see before you is a cautionary children’s story with a moral to teach.  And I say children’s story in the highest regard by recalling a quote by C.S. Lewis, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” So a dark tale wrapped in an unassuming adorable package; a venerable wolf in sheep’s clothing… funny how thats a fitting statement for this classic short film. Details to follow…

RB_2Let’s start with a personal question… how much does your anger control you? Are you so consumed with negative emotions that you become blind to your own ego? Mix one part Disney’s Bambi and one part the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vadar from Star Wars and you get the basic foundation of Ringing Bell. We have a story about the downfall of the innocent protagonist, who dives into the dark night of the soul and keeps on falling into the ever expanding hole of suffering. This dark night becomes the ever present defacto reality our hero lives in, until the very end when our hero learns of his misjudgments. We all suffer to a degree, but we should NEVER suffer alone, or make life altering decision in that state of being.

RB_3Our hero is a young lamb, Chirin, adorable as can be, living an idealized childhood. He laughs, he plays, he loves to eat his green clover and he is the apple of his protective mother’s eye. Life is simple, happy and almost utopian. Around young Chiron’s neck is a bell that acts as a signal, a warning, to prevent Chirin from exploring too far from safety. The line of safety in our story is a simple wooden fence. Yet as much as you can close yourself out from dangers or change, those forces will find a way to creep in. Such is life, a constant battle between light and dark that is always in a constant state of change. Chirin is told not to cross the fence since there are dangers on the other side, but what if something from the other side crosses this line of safety? One night a ‘something’ does cross that line, a wolf specifically, and changes the course of Chirin’s life forever.

RB_4The consequences of this aforementioned tragedy leads our character onto a unique journey. The old saying of if you can’t beat them join them pertains. Instead of confiding his feelings, his suffering, with his peers, Chirin instead tries to enact revenge to the wolf the best way he can. And when he realizes that he can’t beat the wolf, Chirin instead desires to become a wolf; to go against his natural tendencies. Why be a weak and timid lamb when you can be a strong wolf? Like so many of us when we are young, we eventually realize that making a decision from an ungrounded and negative stream of consciousness only feeds into the initial pain and injury. The process eventually leads us to look at ourselves in a metaphorical mirror to have only one question enter into our minds. What have I done?

Sanrio’s output of original work outside of the Hello Kitty brand are a treasure trove. Ringing Bell is one of many examples, including Sea Prince and the Fire Child and Unico. A gem for all ages and all time and a reason to show that the childhood experience goes much deeper and shapes us beyond the ephemeral moment.

#68 : Galactic Drifter Vifam

“Wipe away all your tears, together we will conquer fear, come and give us a hand, in search of a new land, I wonder where you are my friend, tell us what is left in the end…”

Vifam_11983 was a grand year for mecha. In particular, let us take a look at what was made at Sunrise. Yoshiyuki Tomino made Aura Battler Dunbine. Ryusuke Takahashi released his crown jewel, Armored Trooper Votoms. And that other guy known as Takeyuki Kanda took an original idea from Tomino based loosely on Jules Verne’s Two Years’ Vacation (a story that influenced Adrift in the Pacific and Infinite Ryvius) and made one of my ALL-TIME favorite shows. The brilliant, fun, and at times adorable Galactic Drifter Vifam or Round Vernian Vifam.

Vifam_2For me Vifam is one of those shows I would recommend in a heart beat, even to those of you who are not into robots at all. Much like My Neighbor Totoro, Vifam touches the joy and innocence of being a kid and growing up, just in a more sci-fi adventure kind of way. This cast of kids is one of the best ensembles ever conceived (my opinion) and they range from the early teens down to almost being out of diapers. That and having Toyoo Ashida as your main character designer only adds to their appeal. The story begins with these 13 kids on board a starship with a group of adults as guardians. Soon the tides will shift when our cast of youngsters have to go it alone. Now if you think this will be like Lord of the Flies, fret not, these kids are responsible and end up working together sharing every emotion from joys to sorrows on a voyage of a lifetime.

Vifam_3Escaping from an alien force and adrift in space trying to return home to find their parents, our cast of young survivors would happen upon and learn how to pilot a few robots known as Round Vernians. One of them, the Vifam, will become the main hero and under the piloting hands of our main hero, Roddy Shuffle, a force to be dealt with. Now if this sounds far fetched… hey, it’s anime. The other element of this show that has to be highlighted is the concept of xenophobia. Katue Pearson, a young girl with the Earth children, looks a little different and it comes to show later that she is one of the alien Astrogaters (odd name?). How will this affect the relationships of our young cast to know one of their own, in a way is not, but at heart is still very much a part of the group?

Does this kind of remind you a little of the original Gundam? Yes? However, Vifam has it’s own elements to be original in it’s own way. Vifam was created at a time when mecha anime was still king of the shonen market and still had great stories to tell. As I said earlier, 1983 was a great year for mecha in the overall, but I have to give all the credit to Sunrise. Before Gundam took over as the flagship brand of Sunrise anime, you had shows like Vifam and many others.

Vifam_4And that robot, that Round Vernian known as Vifam, with that number seven being proudly displayed, is my second all time favorite. The SPT Layzner from it’s own eponymously named show still takes the top spot for me. But the Vifam is a very functional looking piece of machinery, yet has an aesthetic flavor that is inviting. What do you think? And… and as for that epic theme song, that for some reason reminds me of something Pete Townshend of the Who would write, it’s in English! TAO’s Hello Vifam may be the first theme song to be completely recorded in English and if you have sources to back this up I would appreciate it. This would have been ready made to bring over to the West back in the day, all you needed was a dub and like magic… an instant hit for all us kids. Just don’t forget all the toys and merchandise!

Vifam is such a joy and I look forward to when I can get another round of watching this show again. Never underestimate the power that children can accomplish… if only adults could put kids in charge. And if you are still young, or young at heart, don’t surrender anything!

… and for fans of Eureka Seven. Compare Roddy Shuffle and Katue Pearson to the designs of Renton Thurston and Eureka. See any similarities?

 

#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!