#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.

#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.

#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.

#122 : Swan Lake

SW_1I call to court the fact that Disney has too much of a stranglehold on the so called ‘Princess’ genre. Are there any princesses left that don’t belong to Disney? … any hands in the audience? … Oh, Miss Odette from Swan Lake, you are not part of the Disney pantheon, though Barbie has sure used your story and there is that Swan Princess movie too, but we won’t count these for the moment. Many tales of princesses, eh… lets say fairy tales, have been brought to life from the great artists of Japan, many of which came to life in the 1970s and 80s. Swan Lake is one of the many and in 1981 Toei’s adaptation would see a release in theaters.

SW_2Certain anime titles are with us since our beginnings. Swan Lake is one of the many titles that during my childhood in the 1980s became the genesis point for my love for Japanese animation. With TV series such as Voltron and Robotech and Toei’s Little Mermaid on VHS, Swan Lake would make its way into my consciousness via a chance TV broadcast on a Sunday afternoon. As a younger version of myself I recognized the character designs to be similar to many of the titles listed above and without the knowledge of what or where Swan Lake came from, I enjoyed it. Such was the era before the internet and the word anime came into our lexicon… you loved a cartoon because it resonated with you and that was all that we went on back in the day.

SW_3Based on the ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, expect to see fine visuals mixed with the classic and powerful, yet refined music of Tchaikovsky. Swan Lake is a love story between two star crossed lovers, a handsome prince and a captive princess who has been enchanted to become a swan by day and a girl by night in the clutches of an evil sorcerer. …and… don’t forget the love story between a pairing of two squirrels as well. And yes those two little ones do play a part into the story beyond just being cute animal characters. This is classic romanticism, yet kind of old hat as it is about a guy rescuing a girl in captive. It’s a time and tested formula, yet it is nice to see the roles reversed. That being said I have nothing against the formula this time round as this story can also hold more esoteric meaning beyond the exoteric surface. Fairy tales and myths are filled with esoteric concepts and add a BIG reason for me to revisit these classic stories again for another frame of reference.

SW_4And what of a supposed ‘Black Swan’? Let’s throw a monkey wrench into this entry. Odette our heroine is so innocent, dressed in white, passive, blonde hair… she is the essence of clarity and purity as a symbolic figure. Hence why Rothbart, the sorcerer, finds her so attractive as she is the total opposite to his dark ways and look. A true essence of polarity. AND… he is one dirty old man for wanting a young trophy wife as a status symbol. Ecchi! A very similar dynamic to Vampire Hunter D with Count Magnus Lee and young Doris. But what of this ‘Black Swan’ mentioned earlier? Rothbart has a daughter at about the same age as Odette, Odile. She may be my favorite character as she is the ‘bad’ girl. Well not bad, just independent, dark and gothic and a little conniving. Her daddy can have Odette, though Odile thinks its odd, but that leaves her to be with that stud of a Prince. It must be his haircut that makes him so popular? Anime and romance… it’s never simple.

True unconditional love and magic under the moonlight mixed with heroic virtue and a classic soundtrack. You know you want to watch? … Swan Lake you were with me since my salad days of youth and you still hold a place in my collection and my present. If Disney ever makes claim to do a version of Swan Lake they are welcome, but I will more than likely stay with my old friend out of respect.

#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.

#14 : The Little Mermaid

This movie has been with me for a long, long time. Believe it or not, this was one of my foundation anime that began everything that has led me to this point. To be honest at the time of this writing, I am dealing with a lot of unresolved issues throughout my life and I need something to help me give a good cry. Forget Grave of Fireflies, if I have a bad day and require to curl up in bed with a warm blanket and a lot of homemade popcorn and need some ‘comfort food’ I pull The Little Mermaid. True I can go with Windaria, or Farewell Space Battleship Yamato, but to be honest… the nostalgia runs very deep and when you have a feeling of being wounded, nostalgia feels beautiful.

lm1Lots of love always goes to Disney’s version. I remember when it was brand new in the theaters and eventually home video, rocking the VCR. Ariel defined a generation as Disney came back strong after years of releasing films that did not attach significantly with audiences. And that’s because films need to make a lot of money to be successful? In any case my sister was all over the Disney release. And I though now wait a minute, didn’t we see this years earlier? And it looked a lot better (anime art style bias on my part). That and Ariel gets to, in the end, win? WIN! Life happily ever after? Uh, Disney, did you read the source material at all? Did Hans Christian Andersen ever write a happy story? I am sure he did, but every one I have read sure goes with the standard I know well.

LM2.jpgI often think about how much trauma I was subjected to as a child from entertainment. Trauma may not be the right word, maybe a dose of reality outside of a rose tinted fantasy that we all at some time must face the tragic. Watership Down, the death of Optimus Prime and Marina’s final moment all left their mark or memory, but Marina’s is personal. To sacrifice one’s own life knowing that you can never make the other person return the love that one has for another is quite moving. Not to the same extent, but sacrifice is very powerful theme that I love in other anime: Night on the Galactic Railroad, Mawaru Penguindrum and even the end of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam with Kamille’s loss of sanity.

A few years ago when the death announcement of Kirsten Bishop was all over the news in the anime world, most every one were mourning one of the original dub actors for that mega-hit show known as Sailor Moon. I was also in a state of melancholy, but not for Sailor Moon, but for the movie you are reading about. Kirsten voiced Marina during her teens and that innocent quality of her voice added so much for the character. The dub is not perfect, but her performance for me is pure gold. Kirsten from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

LM3.jpgTruth, in time, can never be hidden. Facing one’s own issues and honoring another’s decision is often painful, but a critical part of growing up. Death is never an answer, but often the experiences we know we can never fulfill end up in a way killing a part of  us inside. Accepting these events, though necessary, is never easy. Such is the value of what many consider only simple a ‘fairy tale’ or ‘children’s story’.