#200 : My Neighbor Totoro

Imagine a world with the perfect neighbors. Mr. Rogers would be among them, John Lennon too and maybe even a giant furry woodland creature who represents all of nature and what is great in life. This is not just any furry woodland troll, he is in fact one of the defining symbols of a little studio named Ghibli and even anime as well. Totoro represents the magic we often need in our lives to make everything work and often times we forget this when we get so stuck in our day to day lives. Hayao Miyazaki is responsible for bringing many characters to life, but Totoro is something on another level. For two lucky children, this mythical creature would bring much into their lives as both a guardian and a loyal friend. I now want to return again to a place of peace. Return again to My Neighbor Totoro.

“I’m going up the country, baby don’t you want to go? I’m going up the country, baby don’t you want to go? I’m going to some place, I’ve never been before.” How about a little Canned Heat for good measure and no this is not going to be a trip out to Woodstock. Ah man I was looking forward to Richie Havens, Santana and Jimi Hendrix…

MNT_1Another time, another place… a family buys a country home that’s slightly run down, surrounded by lush greenery and has lots of mysteries including dust sprites and acorns scattered in odd places. The story dynamic is basic. So basic I argue there isn’t really a story. It is more like the unfolding of our lives… things just happen. As the father and two girls get situated into this new home they wait patiently for the ailing mother to recuperate from an illness in the hospital. During this waiting period we find the two girls exploring this ‘Garden of Eden’ like paradise. The encounters they have are nothing like they have ever experienced before. Trees, streams and clean fresh air abound. And then, like magic, a chance discovery of a large nature spirit. Isn’t he just some kind of giant odd rabbit? Nope, he is Totoro and it is he who gives these girls the greatest adventures of their lives. Be it growing a large tree, flying in the skies, enjoying time in the rain, or riding a cat bus… cat bus?… yes a cat bus! It’s the only way to travel!

MNT_2Much of Miyazaki’s experience both personally and professionally made this film the way it is. His childhood memories about his own mother’s illness and his staunch believe in being in accord with the natural world around us are ever present. In true auteur fashion the world he created in Totoro is and was the ideal childhood he did have, or perhaps wished he also had at the same time. He would craft a family film unlike any other that even to this day still stands out. This is not so much a story, but a feeling, an experience, a place of solitude. Stylistically, Totoro is as much about the totality of Miyazaki’s experience as an animator more so than originality. Why not borrow what works from previous productions; after all it ain’t broke…

MNT_3From the opening credit sequence we see influence from his work on early Toei films and the short Panda Go Panda movies he did with Takahata. The giant panda from Panda Go Panda is much like a precursor to the giant Totoro n terms of stature and facial expression. The lush green of the scenery and the placing of children into the wilderness where they can run free brings back memories and influence from his work on Heidi, Girl of the Alps. The main characterization of a strong young female lead, Satsuki, is reminiscent of Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Little Mai could have been Mimiko from Panda Go Panda. Even the father looks a little like a young Miyazaki from my eye. Totoro could be an amalgam of everything Hayao Miyazaki had done up to that point in terms of animation? I argue that this movie is both autobiographical and a snapshot of his portfolio at that point in time.

MNT_4Many of us have a place in our hearts for My Neighbor Totoro and I too have a special relationship to this film in regards to the Studio Ghibli catalog. By no means my all time favorite Ghibli film, though I admire Totoro very highly, this was my very first experience of both the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. At the time I was not very well prepared being more into sci-fi and mecha properties. Here was a simple, yet highly complex film about nature, relationship dynamics, wonder and the magic of childhood. Yet I knew something of substance was there from the very beginning. I was now in the grasp of the Ghibli and Miyazaki’s visual presentation style. A style that spares no expense in creating a world that is beautiful and as close to tangible reality as I ave ever encountered in animation. While this was not Akira, another film released in 1988, in terms of action, intensity, or atmosphere, Totoro would show me another way of visual expression. More yin in approach compared to the yang of Akira.

MNT_5Masterpiece… My Neighbor Totoro is just that being a movie about simple living, quiet moments and being outside in the ‘real’ world. As I have aged these facets have become more my regular pattern of existence. Action and far out stories used to be my mythology and it still has it’s a place, but now the world of Totoro is more in accord of where I am presently. That being said I respect Totoro more today than I did in the beginning as I have grown into a place to call my own home in all the ups and downs of life. Even with the under lying tensions in the plot of this movie (with the mother’s illness), a place of serenity was found. The same holds true in many aspects of our lives. Yet it is the knowing about the simple quiet place where we can truly just be and that is true reality. Be present, be here now, I shall forever be with you my friend, My Neighbor Totoro.

#189 : The Story of Pollyanna, Girl of Love

We all need something to be glad about… to find the simple things that bring joy in either the moments of happiness, or difficulty. Can one individual have the power to spread this love to others? Of course it is possible and in many ways a child is the one who can often share this superpower. Eleanor H. Porter created such a character, Pollyanna Whittier, with the classic novels Pollyanna and Pollyanna Grows Up. Both novels would be adapted into an anime that was featured in the lineup of the Nippon Animation’s hallmark series World Masterpiece Theater. Let us return to a tale known as The Story of Pollyanna, Girl of Love.

Pollyanna_1The more I watch any of the World Masterpiece Theater series, the more of a fan I become of these shows. Truly a treasure trove of well crafted stories that offer an alternative to the busier familiarity of mecha, magical girls and high school comedies. For this entry, Pollyanna and I had to wrap up some unfinished business. I watched approximately the first half of this 51 episode series back in 2015/2016 for a panel I was doing on 1986. This was my second World Masterpiece Theater show after Little Princess Sara. I enjoyed what I saw and had enough to work with for my panel, but that final half was nagging at me for years. Just recently I made a point to finish Pollyanna to the end. 1986 was a great year for anime on TV, ever here of Dragon Ball, Saint Seiya, Maison Ikkoku? What about Hikaru no Densetsu, or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? All these shows I enjoyed or loved, but when I finished Pollyanna I never realized that I missed out on something special.

Pollyanna_2The first half of the series retells the Pollyanna novel with the second half adapting Pollyanna Grows Up. Beginning from humble origins to live with an aunt in need of a consciousness shift, Pollyanna would soon spread her kindness to the entire town of Beldingsville. Even with setbacks, some life threatening, Pollyanna preservers. She even brings her magic to Boston in the second half of the series to basically start the whole process over again. Along the way she meets othet children who become loyal allies and also saviors of her special touch of connecting good people together. I also cannot forget her most loyal companion, a furry friend because every show needs one, a chipmunk named… Chipmunk (Chipamunku!). Perhaps one of the most heart warming and surprising shows I have ever seen where in the second half a mystery unravels itself until the very end.

Pollyanna_3And I guess I just spoiled the plot? Not completely folks, I have only provided a skeleton to work off of. So many nuances are in Pollyanna that kept me going, but perhaps the one element that flavored my need to continue was a knock on wood usual contender… relationship dynamics. The way Pollyanna brings life back to everyone, inspires hope and delivers love in times of need lives up to the reputation of someone being a ‘Pollyanna’. The simple joy of being glad, or happy about the little things that we have in the present moment is something we often forget… so don’t forget it! 😉 The fact that your ‘family’ can come in any shape, size, or circumstance is shown that it does not matter who you are, or what has happened to you in life, when you allow love to permeate the hard ice exterior of isolation, or depression, you will be healed!

Pollyanna_4The Story of Pollyanna, Girl of Love… I can only say that my life now can be categorized as pre-Pollyanna and post-Pollyanna. The beauty of this show is that it can change lives, or continue to further influence those who are on the path to give some sort of love into a situation that is difficult. I don’t have children myself, but I deeply respect all of them for what those who I have met have influenced me as an adult to become a better human being. I do have a niece that I love dearly who reminds me of Miss Whittier as she has always been my staunch cheerleader all through out her life. I dedicate this entry to you Sophia… without you my life would not be the same.

#181 : Animal Treasure Island

Oi! There be treasure on that there island me boys and girls. Yah interested in finding it? Yah need a map in order to find it’s whereabouts… are you up for some treasure hunting?  Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island is beloved by many. Adventure, pirates, the high seas and lost valuable treasure await you. Except… we are going to throw in a catch of sorts. Let’s make most of the characters anthropomorphized animals and tell this tale in terms of an animated feature film. Classic anime studio Toei would do this in 1971 with the aptly titled Animal Treasure Island. Ahoy we go!

ATI_1Jim Hawkins sits alone with his baby brother (I assume this is his brother?) in their family’s inn dreaming of adventures in the high seas. With a model ship in hand on a lonely night a visitor would arrive that would change his destiny. The hero has been called to action. From this visitor, Jim would be gifted a treasure map by chance that holds the possibility of a great fortune. Time to hire a ship, yet our young man has only a couple pieces of gold for payment. Never fear because kids are often times more resourceful than many of us who call ourselves adults. Jerry rig a barrel with a few contraptions including an engine, sail and a cannon and you get the ideal way to travel on water. Conquest awaits, but also setbacks, untrustworthy folks, and even new friends to aid oneself on this journey.

ATI_2This is a fun movie, at times very silly and slapstick, but far from perfect. Perhaps I am not the target market as this is a film made primarily for young children, but then again, I love many children/family films and stories. Reason… I am a child disguised as a ‘mature’ adult. Shh!, it’s a secret. No that’s not it, perhaps the film is a little long in the tooth? Now this makes sense. At least for me this movie really drags in the middle and while there is a lot of fun action and comedy, it felt like filler. This is an approximately 80 minute film that could have fit more into a 40–45 minute space. My opinion now, you may see different. It starts really great and then I fell into a little boredom that eventually breaks at the end to a surprise ending… be careful when pulling that chain in the cave and make sure to read all the directions.

ATI_3A little trivia for everyone… ever hear of Hayao Miyazaki? He worked on this film, but not in the executive role that he is most famous for; director as an example. These were his salad days where he was making his way through the animation industry and by the early 1970s being put into middle management type roles; key animator as an example. The designs of Jim and Cathy, the two main characters, have part of the Miyazaki flavor in terms of design and many of the action sequences have the fluidity and at times comedy he is known for. That being said, Miyazaki had some say in the making of this film, but was in many ways, ‘working for the boss’.

ATI_4Toei was known for many decades of the company’s history for the creation of big budget animated films for children and families; Japan’s answer for Disney. (what about Warner Brothers?) Animal Treasure Island fits properly into this tradition along with other titles including: The Wonderful World of Puss n’ Boots, The Little Mermaid, Swan Lake and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. Animation no matter what, takes us on trips into worlds that can only be understood by the imagination. While not ‘reality’, and also in my opinion a more average experience of a film, Animal Treasure Island is still a vital part of anime’s history and an important stepping stone for many who worked on this project.

#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.