#147 : Animated Classics of Japanese Literature

ACoJL_1Never judge a book by it’s cover… same goes for anything else that is packaged. Advertisers can sell you anything, so long as the branding is attractive to you. Sometimes the plainest of outer shells contain the richest and most profound inner contents; true beauty at it’s best. Let’s recap about books again for a moment, literature if you will. One of the best ways one can look at a culture is to examine the stories that they tell. These tales give the personal experiences, feelings and outlook of those who choose to write it all down and express. Anime often times gets big and over the top and strives for something newer, brighter, more exciting, etc. But what of the classic literary tales of Japan, don’t they deserve a voice as well? Of course they do and with Animated Classics of Japanese Literature you can have your cake and eat it too without ever reading a line of text.

… Of course if you don’t speak, or comprehend Japanese, you will more than likely be reading subtitles for Animated Classics of Japanese Literature, or any other anime unless you have, or choose the route of a dub in your native language. So in the end watching anime can be like reading a book… sort of. Don’t you feel smarter knowing you watch cartoons? No matter which way you slice it, you are going to be reading. …

ACoJL_2On it’s original release, Animated Classics of Japanese Literature went by another name. Sumitomo Life Insurance Youth Anime Complete Collection is the proper title as seen in Japan. The naming that I am familiar with and using in this entry, was used on the DVDs I found from the old Central Park Media catalog. An odd choice for that company back in the day, but I for one am glad that this was part of their repertoire. Similar to another Nippon Animation production, World Masterpiece Theater (Nippon animated both productions by the way), Animated Classics of Japanese Literature would translate native Japanese stories instead of the Western classics more familiar to the previous. Obviously! Except in the case of Animated Classics of Japanese Literature, these would be pocket sized entries as each episode, or two, or three, was a self contained story instead of the longer drawn out full series format. Hence we have an emphasis on the format of the short story rather than the longer novel.

ACoJL_3Even to this day I have yet to see the complete series. The long out of print DVDs released here in the U.S. only cover a dozen of the 34 total episodes. And if I remember correctly, a few more episodes were also available on VHS. With only about one third of the series under my belt I can safely give a proper analysis due to the overarching format being an omnibus collection of smaller stories. This is not for the usual otaku type searching for magical girls or giant robots. These are mundane stories, very plain and mostly ordinary. Many are very dramatic, or at times comedic, depending on the source. As a fan of World Masterpiece Theater this was a no brainer for myself as I enjoy seeing literary classics come to life from my favorite visual medium of animation. As a lover of Eastern culture and philosophy, I welcomed these stories into my home like a traveling friend. As I have grown up in the west, all of these tales are completely foreign to my native experience and serve as an appetizer to introduce me to more of Japan’s literary history. Many of these episodes were memorable, but I always seem to remember The Harp of Burma most fondly.

To finish off, let’s go back to the beginning… never judge a book by it’s cover. Animated Classics of Japanese Literature may not win awards for glorious designs or high end animation. Animated Classics of Japanese Literature is also, in many cases, not what we gravitate towards our choosing of anime subject matter. These are mostly common everyday stories, similar to many of the books we read in school, or choose to now, that pertain to our cultural definition. Often times these stories have lasting value and even with a more budget appearance, their golden centers still shine.

#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!

#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!

 

#27b : The Rose of Versailles

For my original entry for The Rose of Versailles, click here.

Sometimes you have to recover your tracks in order to move forward. In terms of classic anime and in particular, The Rose of Versailles, I have a little more to say…

RoV1Sometimes I wonder if I will ever rewatch certain shows that sit on my shelf or on a hard drive ever again? About a month or so ago I have given one particular show a second go and by the title of the entry it is of course The Rose of Versailles. It seemed like the right time. I didn’t question it, or wonder why. I just needed The Rose of Versailles. After a tough winter with nasty snows, isolation, some setbacks and a gnawing, or itch that chronically comes and goes, the The Rose of Versailles became a sea of calm and a vision of reassurance to say… hey, everything is will be ok. … OK time to get personal.

The Rose of Versailles has high regard for being a standard of … anime excellence. Shojo perfection. Though I feel the show goes beyond the general demographic, as most anime does in any case. And with the show turning 40 this year of 2019, it still looks and presents flawlessly. What a gorgeous masterpiece of visuality. The first half directed by Tadao Nagahama is bright and sparkly reflecting naive youth and the second half of Osamu Dezaki (GENIUS!) is gritty and intense showing the politics of revolutionary France. Beautiful and timeless, a show I am honored to share as a virtual twin (both RoV and I joined the world in 1979).

RoV2So what of the personal? The Rose of Versailles’ main protagonist. Oscar Francois de Jarjayes. is one of two women in anime that I whole heartedly admire; the other being Remy Shimada from GoShogun. Blonde, graceful, intelligent and independent speak to both ladies, but Oscar has something else, a particular fragility. Her sense of duty as a noble, a military commander and her enforced gender classification. Raised as a ‘boy’ and expected to follow into her father’s footsteps, much dysphoria abounds in the beautiful Oscar. This expectation of a gender role, to be a ‘man’ in public, tugs at the truth in her heart that she is a woman. Yet also the role of being a noble who has lived in luxury and comfort and seeing first hand the life outside the gilded cage. Being rich and powerful in a position of authority is not all that it is cracked up to be and the same goes for being a ‘man’ as well. To quote Alan Watts, “don’t envy rich people, it’s a great mistake. Don’t envy anyone.”

Personally I understand both of Oscar’s dilemma’s. I am not ‘rich’ in the way we often think with lots of money, fancy car and house, etc. I am comfortable, yes, as I live in the U.S. and have a ‘job’, but I have great health, my mind and intuitive senses. No amount of money can put a price on those three. Living in the affluent west and seeing much of the flash from TV screens, luxury items and being in stores with a glut of stuff… ok most of it can be classified as crap… that is constantly being barraged through every sense imaginable I question, is this all life is? Is this to be my life? Living in a gilded cage of constant consumption where we are taught there is never enough and you have to bleed yourself dry in order to fit in? Like Oscar, I see the ‘nobility’ of our backgrounds as not real and limiting. Monarchy or capitalist state… looks about the same to me? We just need more corsets and petticoats instead of suits and wingtips.

RoV3And of course there is the concept of gender… and dysphoria… and the combination of the two that Oscar deals with and even I as well when I look in the mirror, sigh. Such questioning and re-questioning of why, how, but what if? I was assigned male at birth, was a decent kid, lived life as a ‘man’ and yeah… all these years the signs were always there. I have always had a side of my closet with all my nicer clothes and some wigs and shoes and more shoes and even more shoes and makeup and accessories and… oh girl, you are so trans, or very gender fluid at least. This is not something new for me to say to myself, but it is something that is becoming harder to hold in and it is something I do not have to have any shame or guilt over. Of course the real test came from watching the first episode of Wandering Son (see I watch titles outside of the 20th century). I was a crying mess through out the whole thing because so much of it rang… personally… true. … My highlight of Oscar’s journey was when she wore that gown to the ball, had her hair all put up and had that mug of her’s painted. I sense a little jealousy on my end… guilty.

In terms of the winter of discontent from 2018/2019, I had The Rose of Versailles as a catalyst to pull me out of my depression. Watching this time round made personal issues come into a better perspective; as well as waking up occasionally in pools of tears. This of course was my reaction to The Rose of Versailles. Beyond these personal points, it is a show about love, politics, desires and revolutionary France with occasional sparkly eyes. God I love shojo anime! It’s a masterpiece and I hope for this show, or any particular anime that you watch, that you take something of it with you to heart. Because sometimes a show is more a mirror of your inner psyche than just ephemeral entertainment. Think about that one!

#123 : The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

wwoo_1“We’re off to see the wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz… ” again, yet this time round it’s a little different. Of course the 1939 MGM film is for many the de facto standard barring even the original novels. In terms of anime, I grew up with a 1982 cinema version, but wouldn’t you know there was another version of L. Frank Baum’s creation created in the same decade? Years ago I passed this alternate off as some other show that didn’t need my attention. But being older, wiser and hungry for a diet of anime produced in 1986 for a panel I did in 2016 led me to this version of the Oz saga, a TV series known as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

wwoo_2Four of the Baum books filled 52 episodes of adventure. Let us count them off… The Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Marvelous Land of OzOzma of Oz and The Emerald City of Oz as the credits state. This series expands beyond the well known plot of the original novel and in many ways stay very true to the essence of the books, while incorporating creative liberties as needed. Encompassing four distinct arcs, the plot moves in a much more relaxed and leisurely pace compared to that of a film. Story and character have more time to develop, but there are times when I felt there were moments of filler. Such is the nature of any longer running anime, yet the filler is not so much a waste, but supplementary.

A little girl from the farm country of Kansas circa 1900 is swept away into a magical world filled with many friends, foes, colors and imagination far beyond the plain and mundane. Sounds like a shojo standard… could the Wizard of Oz really be Japanese in disguise? Of course not, look to Alice in Wonderland as a previous example of a swept away magical adventure. Both titles mentioned previously are early western examples, but this is not a comparison of east vs. west. I would say this is more like an archetype that transcends boundary. Influence from one story teller to the next and be it as Alice in Wonderland, or Wizard of Oz, either one may have led the way to anime like Leda: Fantastic Adventure of Yohko, Escaflowne, Magic Knight Rayearth, Twelve Kingdoms, etc., etc. The story with ‘A Thousand Faces’ per se where imagination and fantasy have no territorial bounds.

wwoo_3The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had an early release in the west during the 1980s, perhaps on cable, and from the look of the credits emphasized the post production and dubbing done by Cinar (some of the casting was featured in Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities of Gold) more than the original animation by Panmedia. Such was kind of true back in that decade where you try to cover your tracks without having to hint that this was a ‘foreign’ production. Those were different times and may I say a little ignorant. The English dubbed version is what I know, but the first episode is also available under many sources in the original Japanese with subtitles. Both presentations are excellent, but the original Japanese opening is extremely charming and can pass as a period pop song that makes you want to dance.

wwoo_4The joy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz surrounds the fact that this production can be for all ages. Though it is more of a children’s show, it is without a doubt a great option for the whole family, especially if you want to introduce the very young with a story that is somewhat familiar. Years ago I could have sworn I caught this series on a chance Sunday morning as a rerun and as I said earlier dismissed it. But then caught up to the now and I got a second chance to give this version of the Wizard of Oz a chance and perhaps it is now my preferred go to. I just was not ready, but when the time came I was in the moment. Have fun with this one if you get a chance to experience it! 🙂

#120 : Belladonna of Sadness

BoS_1On the surface you may think Belladonna of Sadness is some pornographic psychedelic fest of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. Hedonism at it’s height and yet far from it. Yes this is an erotic movie, very sexual indeed at certain parts, though much of what is brought out through the sexual act is not pleasurable or idealized. With pleasure comes pain, much like any responsibility, including love. Belladonna of Sadness is a title for ‘mature’ adult audiences, told partially through an erotic perspective, with so much more going on that to dismiss this film as simply a wild psychedelic skin flick would be an injustice.

BoS_2Mix elements of The Beatles Yellow Submarine, Gustav Klimt, the Ryder Waite tarot deck (or maybe even Yoshitaka Amano’s deck… I use this one) and beautiful organic line work accented by watercolor fills and you get a general idea of the look of a tale of a Medieval maiden by the name of Jeanne (is it me or does she remind you of Fujiko Mine from Lupin III?). Recently married to her beloved Jean (a perfect pair of opposites/polarity?) the honeymoon is completely spoiled due to the kings need for taxes. When Jean is unable to pay the fees it is up to Jeanne to come up with a solution. Selling her soul to the Devil and exploring the dark night of the soul via sex and witchcraft, Jeanne soon becomes targeted as a witch. Yet she admired by the townspeople as she brings help to the suffering via her femininity and the use of belladonna, a nightshade that can be a medicine, hallucinogen, or poison depending on the dose. Now for the ultimate question, are Jeanne’s methods and new role, both of which exist outside the established patriarchal order, considered methods of evil, or balance?

BoS_3Belladonna of Sadness may be an anime, but it does not follow or accept the traditional look typical of Japanese animation as stated previously. The look is more akin to western sensibilities, yet I doubt any western studio would dare to give life to a project like Belladonna of Sadness. I give thanks and respect to Mushi Production and studio head Osamu Tezuka for creating such an uncompromising piece of art. The animation most of the time is sparse and at times is nonexistent in sections where the only movement was the action of scrolling long still collage images. Is this animation, or fine art passing as a film? Still shots could pass as canvased paintings much more so than just painted acetate cels. Much akin perhaps to Angel’s Egg, Belladonna of Sadness could belong in an art gallery setting instead of the usual theater venue.

BoS_4The original source material, a novel by Jules Michelet named La Sorcière (The Witch, though the title is better known as Satanism and Witchcraft) is unknown to me, but this did not block my own interpretations. Much of the themes reflect the history of the subjugation of the divine feminine and the fear of our more ancient principles and primal desires. The aspects of the darker subconscious, raw sexuality, the use of psychedelic substances as a way of altering ones consciousness and the worship of the feminine as supreme Goddess. Is the Goddess a witch, or a savior? …think Lilith, the untamed feminine. Reminds me of the Hindu goddess Kali… just what is God? SHE is darkness, the void, wild and terrifying beyond compare. The polar opposite to the Abrahamic ‘father’ image. In medieval European society and even still in our ‘modern’ cultures, much of what is listed above was and is still at times considered heresy. Yet this is only because that is what we have been told. Where is truth? How can such darkness be natural? And just what, or who is the Devil really?

Like any hallucination that takes the your mind, your ego, your essence into a different sphere of consciousness, viewing Belladonna of Sadness changes your perception of anime and perhaps even a part of yourself. Be gentle when viewing this film as mind blowing adventures always leaves something behind that you must take full responsibility for as it is now a part of your experience. Belladonna of Sadness is more than a movie, it’s a full blown awakening.

#92 : Sherlock Hound

SH_1“I say Watson. There is even an anime adaptation of me… and I am portrayed as a dog? Mmm, interesting.” And not only that Holmes, or Hound, but you had the blessing of the magic touch from one of Japan’s top directors. Hayao Miyazaki, working with studio TMS, was on the brink of fame and fortune with the release of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind in 1984, a year that also featured a collaborative television show with the Italian broadcast and production company RAI. Sherlock Hound would be the fruit of this collaboration.

SH_2Italian and Japanese design and sensibilities reminds me of, and I am sorry if you are not into cars, but I think of that beautiful machine, the Honda/Acura NSX. It’s graceful, elegant and high quality. This is an example of the complete best of two different cultures filtered through a project. Sherlock Hound is perhaps one of the finest looking television anime of the 1980s. Rich in fluid motion, witty humor, crisp details and beautiful colors. There is no mistaking that this was produced at TMS; such a high mark portfolio piece. And while Miyazaki is credited heavily for this show, it must be known that he was only around for the first six or so episodes before licensing issues came to the surface. Miyazaki would leave TMS to continue work on first the manga of Nausicaa, which led to the film production. Still, the influence of the master was still ever present once the show got back on track a couple years later.

SH_3Sherlock Hound is a very loose adaptation of the crime fighting detective who always seems to be one thought ahead with every clue he finds. “Hello?” Along with Dr. Watson and occasionally the bumbly Inspector Lestrade, Hound (or, just Holmes in the original Japanese dialogue) has to foil the exploits of his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty. Across the 26 episodes I am reminded of another franchise very familiar to TMS. I think of Lupin III, yet it is almost the inverse of Sherlock Hound. Instead of cheering on the thief and laughing at the authorities, you laugh at the thief and the authorities (Scotland Yard and Lestrade) and cheer on the third party who seems to be more effective than the officials that are in charge. Now that makes me think of Batman as Gotham City’s police squad may be good at handing out parking tickets but leave the real work for the caped crusader. Goes to show that in order to do it right, you have to find an alternative source. Off to Baker Street we go to solve our problems.

SH_4Nostalgia, at least for me, is strong with Sherlock Hound. The glory years of the mid to late 80s Saturday morning cartoon boom, which also includes the independent syndication market that had shows on everyday after school during the week, are very much in harmony with this show. Yet I didn’t see Sherlock Hound during my youth and yet it could have fit in quite well. In particular are the shows that Disney cranked out, you know Duck Tales, Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers et al since you have the anthropomorphic animal characters in fun adventure situations. And then there was the British cartoon of Danger Mouse, which is similar to Sherlock Holmes meets James Bond, with dry humor so beloved in the British Isles. In all honesty, they don’t hold a candle to Sherlock HoundSherlock Hound holds to an even higher standard as mentioned above that draws me as a ‘mature’ adult. And yet, it is brilliant for an audience of any age; it’s almost perfect? Truly, lightning captured in a bottle.

Sherlock Hound is an easy recommendation and invites you in from a number of possible routes. Do you like Sherlock Holmes? Do you enjoy Hayao Miyazaki’s work and style? Are you looking for a great anime to watch with the whole family? Are you an old school otaku? Do you like great animated action that’s fun? If you answer yes to any of these, I would consider you a candidate for this show. Try or rewatch Sherlock Hound for the first or 101st time because this round is on me 🙂