#103 : Horus: Prince of the Sun

Horus_1I often wonder, was Horus: Prince of the Sun ‘born under a bad sign’? Many circumstances attempted to derail this early gem of the modern era of Japanese animation. It went over budget, it took more time to finish and even the parent animation company of Toei and it’s producers wanted to shelf this film. Why? This film had and even still has so much potential; it took chances and sounded a battlecry for a new generation of animators. And there in lies the answer as Horus: Prince of the Sun attempted to break free of the conservative standards of the day by telling a different story in both concept and direction. The results of this would honor Horus with critical notoriety over the years as one of the crowning achievements of the 1960s.

Horus_2By 1968 Isao Takahata had become a solid veteran in the animation industry and gained a reputation as a leader of those younger up and coming members of the industry in the 1960s. With both TV and film work of various degrees under his belt there was one achievement that this young man had left to fulfill and that was to direct a feature film. This opportunity came, but at a price. As mentioned before from the start this movie had some nasty karma associated with it. Producers at Toei, money and time all had a hand in stopping this film, but Takahata with his quiet demeanor and steadfast approach to being a director made sure that this film would get made, finished and then released.

The major controversy of this film can be traced into the story itself. The Norse mythology and look that was used was nothing more than a cover for another story that existed underneath. Japan’s native population, the Ainu, had for generations been looked down upon yet their culture was rich and diverse. A new generation wanted to adapt a traditional tale of the Ainu and present a more serious subject matter to give animation a more mature option. Both progress and change are a part of civilization and this new generation of artists and animators wanted to be at the vanguard of this movement. This was the 1960s after all and be it America, Europe, or Japan, the youth of the period were questioning and protesting against the rules and the establishment of their day.

Horus_3The story is a quintessential tale of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ (all hail Joseph Campbell) where our young hero Horus, sometimes translated to Hols, must integrate into the greater whole of civilization. This is a common theme I find in Takahata’s work and both sides of the extreme can be seen in Grave of the Fireflies (going against society and/or being ignored by society) on one end of the spectrum and Pom Poko (the community coming together for a common concern) on the other. Horus soon settles into a town and becomes a local hero after conquering a giant pike (fish) that prevented fish from being a food source to the local people. Soon afterwards he meets a wayward girl, Hilda, with a mysterious and unknown past and a large, very large, chip on her shoulder. Hilda is quite a complex character and her relationship with Horus is complicated and becomes a key element for the plot of the story as the film progresses forward.

Horus_4Horus: Prince of the Sun not only took more seriously the storytelling, but also on a technical level, the animation itself. This film amongst other examples of the era raised the standard of the quality of Japan’s output. Disney was the standard and Horus: Prince of the Sun is on par with the quality of the venerated classic Disney films. In certain aspects it excels, in particular with the action sequences with the pike fight and the final showdown. Of course Japan has always had an edge (my opinion) in regards to action and the movement and fluidity required to make those sequences work.

This is a film that has taken a few views on my part to fully appreciate the greatness to what Horus: Prince of the Sun truly is. Due to the issues with the production of the film it has it’s own way of unfolding the plot, which took me a little getting used to, but once I understood the whole of the scope of this film I came to love this movie. It’s classic Takahata and I recommend you to watch this one at least once to see where anime once was, where anime was going and see where this film has left it’s influence today.

… on a personal note, I dedicate this posting to the memory of Isao Takahata who passed away recently. Thank you good sir for your work and I for one will never forget the stories you shared with us all.

Isao Takahata
Oct 29, 1935 – Apr. 5, 2018

#75 : Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Mention the name Hayao Miyazaki today and you will be told he is the king of the world in regards to anime. Now imagine mentioning Hayao Miyazaki’s name in the spring of 1984 and the otaku world would say that this guy is the new rocket in town and he has his sights set on the stars and the infinite beyond. The film adaptation of his manga, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, did more than move the masses and set the ground work for the future of Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki would present us with one of cinema’s greatest and most honorable heroes.

Nau_1Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind cemented Hayao Miyazaki into super stardom and led to the formation of Studio Ghibli. He had been in the anime business for almost a couple decades by this point, but this one film changed everything overnight. So am I saying that Nausicaa is that powerful? That this is a film that can change destiny? Uh huh! And why is this? Two reasons. One, Nausicaa grounded fantasy and sci-fi so to speak (as did Fist of the North Star, also 1984). This is not about spaceships, or laser blasters. It’s about our Earth’s environment, the aftermath of great devastation and the corruption of those who don’t work in accord with their natural environment and within themselves. Which to be honest, is one and the same; as above so below. But more importantly, it’s about the heart. Miyazaki can pull your heart strings like few others and Nausicaa represents a spirit more often needed in anime or entertainment in general. This movie was ready at the right time.

Nau_2Now… what about our hero, Miss Nausicaa? How can you not love her? She is a role model for everyone who has a way with animals, an understanding of nature and a love of flight and freedom (so Miyazaki). Her powers can tame the wildest of beasts, build a garden from what many consider poisonous plants and fly a glider like a bird. Yet she is vulnerable as well because she is surrounded by factions that want to shake her standing on what she believes in and what is right to her. Despite these controversies she holds her ground and stays honest to herself and she knows how to get her hands dirty when needed. A princess and yet a tomboy who follows her heart… so noble. She would be the first in a line of strong female characters that Miyazaki would bless us with. Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service), San (Princess Mononoke) and Chihiro (Spirited Away) are all representative of the Miyazaki heroine archetype.

Nau_3Miyazaki has always been the showman compared to his partner in crime, Isao Takahata. Yet when Miyazaki goes into a more serious direction, he does not slouch. Even at this early stage of his career, he still showed the ultra professionalism that oozes from his work. This was a time where fame and fortune was just around the corner and he was hungry to prove himself as an auteur and while he did direct the awesome Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa would be his first total vision. But he needed help and various names are linked with this film. Takahata produced, a young Joe Hisashi provided the epic score (which reminds me of his then current work on Mospeada and Birth) and Hideaki Anno, years before his time at Gainax, would be a key animator during one of the climactic scenes (I am not saying which one 😉 ).

Nau_4Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is more than just another anime title, or even one of Miyazaki’s best films, it is required viewing. You call yourself a fan of anime? Let me see that you have seen this movie? Yeah I figured you have 🙂 as my readers have good taste. A timeless classic worthy to be in any collection, unless it is the Warriors of the Wind release (I have never seen that one). To Hayao Miyazaki, I thank you for making this movie that has made generations of fans cheer, cry and believe in a greater good. While many productions in the 1980s mark the times that they were made in, few can be considered eternal classics. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is and always will be a permanent classic.

#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!

#34 : Anne of Green Gables

aogg_1Families can come in all shapes, sizes, or colors. Many times unlikely circumstances can bring about the formation of a family that may not have been planned. On another subject, how is it that Japan made some of the best adaptations of beloved western children’s novel? And another subject, the work of Isao Takahata before Studio Ghibli. Now to put together all three ingredients… and what we get is one of the trilogy of World Masterpiece Theater Series that Takahata directed. We shall look at the third and final, a beloved story around the world, 1979’s Anne of Green Gables.

aogg_2Before I begin I will say that I have yet to read the original book written by Lucy Maud Montgomery at the time of this writing. I was aware of another animated version that aired here in the U.S. on PBS as well as the famous name of this classic. But of course if a version was created for the Japanese market, in my eyes, I have to watch it. And watch I did as I have been getting into much of the World Masterpiece Theater Series and enjoying them immensely. Add in Isao Takahata’s directing vision and the skills of Nippon Animation and  you have a combination of fine pedigree. Though the first five episodes were a slow start, at least for me, it began to turn into a typical Takahata production of an investigation into the intimate lives of characters.

aogg_3The beginning of this story has Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, an elder pair of siblings who live in rural Canada and are in need of a child to aid in the farmwork of Matthew. Hoping for a boy they end up with a scrawny red headed girl, Anne Shirley, who has had bad luck in finding a lasting home. Marilla’s strictness, Mathew’s gentleness and Anne’s imagination and firecracker temper all seems to meld together as the three learn what it is to be a family unit. Not only does Anne grow from childhood into adulthood, but the Cuthbert siblings also evolve. Almost in a direct opposition of Takahata’s Grave of Fireflies, Anne of Green Gables shows what happens with the community and child relationship working together to create the greater whole.

aogg_4Like many of the other World Masterpiece Theater Series shows I had my moments of joy and moments of tears. Anne’s friendship with Diana is adorable and real as things are not always picture perfect… just watch out for the raspberry cordial. Anne’s temper is also a fun thing to watch, much to the dismay of Gilbert Blythe… don’t call her hair carrots! Though the ending was a little disappointing on my end personally as Anne lets go of a great opportunity, but she has her reason. And that reason was justifiable in regards to the circumstances. I wish I read more books when I was a kid, as this anime is a good example. But the benefit of watching them now is seeing them with character designs I know and love.

aogg_5Released the same year as more ‘revolutionary’ shows like the original Gundam and Rose of Versailles, Anne of Green Gables can seem like a more tame family oriented affair. It is since much of the World Masterpiece Theater Series are basically adaptations of literature, but never, ever, discount these shows. I am honored that Japan back in the day gave the attention to bring stories like Anne of Green Gables a place in the sun. Not only does it show Japan’s willingness to be open to other cultures (because anything foreign is awesome, right?), but it gives those of us in the west to see familiar stories in a different style. Anne of Green Gables you are a fine classic. Who needs Cliff Notes? But you should still read the original… and so should I.

#29 : Lupin III (Series 1)

No anime collection is proper without the adventures of Lupan San Sei, Lupin III. A product of the late 1960s counterculture in style and attitude, only one production of the famous thief can claim to be the closest to Monkey Punch’s original manga… sort of. The original Lupin III TV series of 1971, the ‘The Green Jacket’ series, is a study of two different visions in regards to production and outlook. Beyond that, this is the series that is official swinging 60s cool.

liii_s1_1The two visions in question look at being authentic to the original source material and a softened version by following the source material’s source material. The original concept of the show was directed by Masaaki Osumi and followed the approach of Monkey Punch’s manga. That being said, for approximately the first third of the show, the direction was hard boiled and mature. Adult oriented programming is often taken for granted today as normal, but for the early 1970s, this was untested ground. Ratings suffered and Osumi was soon shown the door to be replaced by the young and hungry Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Not overly enthusiastic, they took the job and followed the marching orders to clean up the show and make it appeal more for families and children. At first there were a handful of transitional episodes that became out and out fun and non-offensive adventures of the week.

liii_s1_2And due to the split nature of Lupin III, I have a love/hate, well more disappointed than hate as I can’t hate this show. As famous as Miyazaki and Takahata are and as well produced and fun the later episodes are, I really love the original vision of Masaaki Osumi. The attitude and grittier look are just brilliant. Lupin is not as much of backstabbing bastard as the manga, but he is still a bit of a scoundrel. And this kind of goes for the so called team of four: Lupin, Jigen, Goemon and Fujiko. It seems all four of them will one up each other to be on top (maybe not so much Jigen?) and that is a nice thing to see as it is four egos on a rampage. Particularly Fujiko, who I think suffers the most during the change. The big haired bombshell who would shoot Lupin in the back and have him in the sack as well gets a hair cut and her hemlines extended. Fujiko is a strong, independent and sexy woman who may be the most cutthroat of the bunch becomes almost a backup figure. Big mistake. Let Fujiko be Fujiko.

liii_s1_3So with all the grit and angst of the original one third of episodes, it should be a dark show with nothing funny. OH NO! Funny is the word of this show from the word go. My favorite episode, One Chance to Breakout, is comedic genius. After all what would happen if Lupin gets caught by Zenigata? He stays put and acts like a crazy man for months and months and months until he decides to leave. And poor Fujiko tries to break him out and every single time Jigen pulls her back to say let Lupin do his thing. It’s mature comedy, smart comedy that if you love Monty Python or Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb you will get it and in spades. Funny and bit bizarre on the side of being experimental. It is a shame they left the original intention behind, but at least that much got through the system.

liii_s1_4Also to make a small comparison to the Patlabor OVA to Patlabor 2: The Movie, we see a couple storylines in the Lupin III TV Series that ended up being used… again! After all episodes six and seven of the Patlabor OVA are similar to the plot of Patlabor 2: The Movie (similar yes, same no, Patlabor 2 is beyond perfect). As for Lupin III, you have an episode with a guy who makes counterfeit money with a clock tower/mountain and another featuring an odd guy named Mamo. I think these sound like a couple movies that featured Lupin a couple years later? Recycling done right.

Beyond the matter the of vision or production, the adventures of Lupin have always been about style. Cool style baby, YEAH! And that style looks damn good with a green jacket, a good addition over the red (not saying one is better, but from style preference, I like green). And I give the original Lupin III credit for the audacity to push animation into a more mature waters. After all, grown up kiddies still need cartoons too.

#28 : Gauche the Cellist

Let’s see. What should I watch that is different? Hmm… Gauche the Cellist. What’s this? Let me see who directed this… OH! This is one of Isao Takahata’s pre-Ghibli works. And it’s based off a short story from Kenji Miyazawa, author of the original novel that became Night on the Galactic Railroad. Well, that settles that, I’m sold. Time to hit play and check this out. But first, I need some popcorn.

gtc_1You know what I love about you Isao Takahata? You are like George Harrison. Miyazaki is like Lennon/McCartney and getting a majority of the spotlight both within your group and friendship. His work is often more recognized and is often looked at as the frontman. But Takahata, when you speak up or make a film, it is a little different and you own the moment, much like Harrison. You don’t shy away from fame, you just do it your own way and with the quiet grace of a seasoned professional. 1982’s Gauche the Cellist would be the final production Takahata would produce before the founding of Studio Ghibli, along with the 1981 TV series Chie the Brat, which would continue to 1983.

gtc_2Our story concerns a small provincial orchestra caught in the act of practice. The music is Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony. The group’s unity and sound is going well, except for one element. Gauche (Goshu is a more appropriate translation) on the cello is a little behind in his timing and more importantly behind in the feeling and passion of playing in the moment. The conductor spots this and makes a melodramatic statement. Needless to say, Gauche is a bit taken back, but he knows something is missing.

gtc_3Returning to his modest country home he pushes hard to get the best out of his playing. It is not working, until he encounters some strangers in the night. Almost like Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, our hero has to face himself through lessons taught by complete strangers. But, unlike A Christmas Carol, we don’t get ghosts of particular moments of time, we get an assortment of animal friends from nature. The first being a calico cat, the second a bird, third a tanuki and finally a field mouse and her child. Each lesson brings out the essence and passion that is necessary to be a great musician, though in the most bizarre and unexpected ways. Much like listening to the forces around us, or more importantly within us, we often dig up the solutions that answer the questions, or issues we often struggle to deal with in almost a moments notice when we concentrate on our problem from an alternate angle.

gtc_4Only an hour long, I wish Takahata would have stuck with this shorter format when he released Tale of Princess Kaguya. He keeps it simple and sweet and does not over embellish for the sake of self indulgence, something I feel he and Miyazaki have done a bit of in more recent works of theirs. Although the artwork is embellished in certain areas and that deserves extra points. Leave it to Takahata to be experimental at just the right times. Oh, by the way the company that worked on this was called Oh! Production. Had to play up the double Oh… kind of like James Bond, 007… OK I have gone on a tangent.

Gauche the Cellist, you sit in the back of the room without making much noise, or fuss, but your pedigree is unquestionable. Truly a hidden gem by one of the best directors in anime. And it has Beethoven too… fancy 🙂 But sadly, no George Harrison songs 😦

#22 : The Grave of the Fireflies

I often find many people remark about how The Grave of the Fireflies may be one of the best anti-war films of all time. True the story takes places during the final stages of World War II in Japan, but this film has nothing to do with war as we usually think of it. No where do we see soldiers in trenches or the politicians sitting high and pretty. But I must say, this is a war film. A war between the individual and society, a war between compassion and ignorance and a war of distrust and survival. This is my personal take on one of Studio Ghibli’s most un-Ghibli films (if that can be the case?). May I present Isao Takahata’s The Grave of the Fireflies.

gof_1One of the biggest misgivings about reviewing or researching information is the fact that in many cases we end up adopting what others say or have said and in return we regurgitate that same information. The ability to create one’s own unique experience can become lost. Such is the times we live in, but if you go in with very little expectation and your own perspectives often times you come up with a unique point of view since you are not obliged to meet another’s standard. When I first witnessed The Grave of the Fireflies the only things I knew was it was told through the eyes of two children during World War II and it is noted as one of anime’s most tragic tales. That first viewing I was with my mom as I had corrupted her into becoming a fan of anime as well. At the end we both had the wind knocked out of us and our faces were wet from tears.

gof_2For me The Grave of the Fireflies is the loss of potential. Young Seita and Setsuko, have to survive on their own merit because they have no choice, or do they? True they have lost their mother, their aunt was cruel and unkind and the doctor was nonchalant about treating their physical ailments. No one showed interest in helping the children, but what if perhaps they tried yet another person? Maybe that next person could have been the break through that was needed. But for adults to shove away children for any reason instead of helping them achieve everything that they can become is a crime beyond criminal. Though in times of war there can be difficulties, but to ignore another individual’s cry for help is extremely uncalled for. It shows that adults are often not the wise hopeful teachers that we often have been led to believe. Sometimes adults become self obsessed to a point where the humanity that they once possessed has been sold off for a bit of false prestige. But this is not true of every adult.

But part of the blame has to be on Seita as well. Being too stubborn to admit he needed more help than what is led to be believed can for anyone lead to downfall. Often we all get to a point were we go enough is enough and we just keep sliding along thinking it will get better because ‘I’ can do this. ‘I’ often needs to be, or more truthfully has to be, a ‘we’ in times of desperation. No one can carry the weight of the world when you don’t have the understanding that it does not have to be your burden alone. Life can be hard, but making it more difficult by not opening up to change is infinitely more dangerous.

gof_3My only message from all this is to learn from this movie. If a child needs help, help them. If an animal is starving, feed it. If a friend, loved one or stranger you encounter needs a moment of aid, give it as it can change someone’s life. And if you are in need and no one is helping you, you have to take the initiative to say enough is enough. I need help either from a phone call, therapist or trusted advisory figure. Don’t let the fireflies burn out in all of us because there is enough light in us all to make the world shine even brighter.

“War is over if you want it” – John Lennon and Yoko Ono