#125 : The Hobbit

hobbit_1“Hello, what’s this?” One often finds unexpected treasures on unplanned journeys that alter the course of destiny. Or maybe it was all preordained? Enter the rich and full harmonics of John Huston’s voice… “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”… now thus this classic journey begins yet again. Long before Peter Jackson’s film adaptations and well before I knew the name J.R.R. Tolkien had any meaning, I enjoyed a cartoon produced by Rankin/Bass and animated by a Japanese studio named Topcraft. It is simply named The Hobbit, just like the original book, and what a grand adventure it was and still is.

hobbit_2“The greatest adventure is what lies ahead…”, or perhaps it is also what has gone before. I have always found animation when done properly, can become the modern mythology that we all need as a society. At least in my case, many of the central core myths and legends are these moving drawn pictures which have shaped my reality, philosophies and life. When animation meets a literary mythical giant, then you have the opportunity for something really special. The Hobbit is an excellent piece of evidence towards this hypothesis. As a kid I had no notion of Tolkien’s legend or reputation and even still I am not the biggest fan, but I do know when a story is more than just an ephemeral experience.

hobbit_3The Hobbit is a classic Joseph Campbell styled ‘Hero’s Journey’ were one leaves a comfortable life of safety and routine to become transformed through an unexpected event, meeting, or situation. Bilbo Baggins is a metaphor for you, or me, and his joining up with Gandalf and the company of dwarves through his adventures of Middle Earth could be yours as well, though maybe not as fantastical. What’s your favorite part of Bilbo’s journey? Meeting Elrond, Bard, or even Smaug? Perhaps the run in and troubles with trolls, or goblins? My favorite, and perhaps for you as well, was the meeting of Gollum and Bilbo’s subsequent finding a shiny ring… my precious. But not just any ring. This ring is the legendary ring of power in the forthcoming Lord of the Rings. Gollum’s voice actor in this version sets a standard in my book for being so odd, eerie, corrupt and psychotic. A brilliant performance that sends shivers down the spine and also makes one want to imitate each intonation out of respect.

hobbit_4The artwork has a storybook quality almost like when you are a kid and each page unfolds with a new image that brings surprise. Or perhaps, an unfolding medieval scroll that has the grit and organic quality that feeds into the imagination. The designs are a combination of Tolkien standard illustrations and the odd character designs that are attributed to much or Rankin/Bass’ output from the late 70s/early 80s. Think The Last Unicorn, Flight of Dragons, or The Wind in the Willows. Almost a hybrid of western and Japanese sensibilities that are grotesque, but appealing in a way. No one looks heroic or fashionable and this again gives the story a little more of a grounded appeal. Almost as if this production did come out of the dirt and rocks of a landscape, very natural.

The grunt of the animation and drawing was accomplished by a studio named Topcraft, which evolved eventually into a fairly well known studio known as Ghibli. Heard of that one, it’s fairly famous and popular? After all, Topcraft was the group that Hayao Miyazaki worked with on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. However, Rankin/Bass had been a client of Topcraft during the 1970s and 1980s and this version of The Hobbit is a prime example of that partnership. Nice work everyone!

Short (as compared to an elongated live action movie trilogy), concise, well animated and with some sing along songs that add charm, the Rankin/Bass versioning of The Hobbit is still a standard go to for many of us. For me it is an early treasure, or perhaps a discovery, from my youth that still holds value into the current day. The Hobbit is one movie that I consider as ‘precious’, yet it does not corrupt like a particular ring. It instead enriches the soul.

#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! 🙂

#101 : Ulysses 31

U31_1Ancient Greek mythology is awesome! Don’t you agree? Such a wonderful storehouse of great storytelling and wisdom from a bygone era. We can take these myths on the exoteric level as historic documentation to the richness of Hellenic culture and esoterically as metaphors for you, the world we live in and greater spiritual envelope of our whole universe. Film and animation have had many adaptations from Jason and the Argonauts to Clash of the Titans. Japan has animated many examples as well with Saint Seiya and Arion coming to mind. But!… there is yet another example, a collaboration between the French company DiC and an old favorite here, TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsa), that actually adapts the old myths into a 31st century universe instead of borrowing elements like the other two mentioned before. Have you seen Ulysses 31?

U31_2Hey look, it’s Space Jesus! I have heard that before in regards to our hero who does have an uncanny resemblance to the Christian icon. Yet alas, this is Ulysses my friends, the guy just has really awesome hair and that beard. He is readying his crew to return to Earth aboard the spaceship (that looks like a giant eye?), the Odyssey (well named). But first, we need to celebrate the birthday of his son Telemachus as the young boy is given a robot companion, Nono. You have to have that lovable, but kind of annoying robot character. Reminds me of Oon from Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. Soon Ulysses and his companions set off when all of a sudden Telemachus becomes kidnapped. And like an awesome dad, Ulysses sets course to save his son.

U31_3Telemachus awakes to meet two Zatrians, Yumi and her older brother Numinor, to learn that they are to be sacrificed to the Cyclops to keep the priests vision intact. Far fetched, but amazing and those priests are scary too! Ulysses soon find the children and destroys the Cyclops and in typical fashion, Ulysses has to deal with that time old issue, Karma. This act angers the gods and now Ulysses has to find his own way back to Earth, via the Kingdom of Hades. That and all his companions, plus Numinor, fall into a sleep state and will awaken once he gets beyond the Kingdom of Hades. This leaves Ulysses to work with his son Telemachus, Yumi, Nono and the Odyssey’s onboard computer, Shirka. So begins the ‘Odyssey!’ Homer would be so proud.

U31_4A strength of this show is the fact that you can casually watch any episode in any order, except episodes one and 26 as these are the bookends for the series. Hooray this show has a solid openner and a satisfying closing episode! …No loose ends here… Take Ulysses 31 in any order you like, kind of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure book series. If you are aware of many of the tales of Ancient Greek myth you will be pleased to see the variety that have been chosen. We see interpretations of Oedipus’ trial with the Sphynix, the punishment of Sisyphus, Thesseus and the Minotaur, the enchantment of Circe and many more. The most surprising episode has our heroes going back to Ancient Greece itself where they meet their legendary counterparts.

In case you are a fan of The Mysterious Cities of Gold, both dubs feature the same cast. I have never seen the original Japanese dub, but if you have give me an update; same with the French dub as well. The show looks very much the era it was made, 1981. You might say it looks very Star Wars, but I want to think it looks more like the era’s Flash Gordon since this had a European influence, though it is not campy. Sci-fi had a certain flavor from the late 70s/early 80s that cannot be recreated. The technology may not have been up to far of today and the costuming at times can be a little goofy. Yet you get a lot of heart, which is what makes the era’s sci-fi and mecha so desirable (at least for me). Ulysses 31 is a solid show where heart and soul reigns supreme. May your journey to find the Kingdom of Hades be immortal and full of discovery.

#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.

#80 : Little Princess Sara

I like a story that represent the cycles of how we live our lives. After all, business marketing and historians may disagree on this stating everything is always up and up. Life and nature, my friends move in a circle. We reach peaks of success that must in turn draw itself back into the darkness and end up going into the so-called ‘Hero’s Journey’. The changing of the seasons and even your life as an individual all go through this process every day and year like clock work. It is never linear in fashion and neither is a great story. And I know such a story from 1985, Nippon Animation’s Little Princess Sara.

Sara_1I have become a fan of the World Masterpiece Theatre series over these last couple of years. These are stories familiar to many of us in the west, which instead of the heavy lines of a printed text we get an animated version in full color… “come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination”… I couldn’t help but include that line (Willy Wonka forever!). And we must all begin somewhere and for me, World Masterpiece Theatre would begin with the 1985 entry, Little Princess Sara. Having never read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original writing and only knowing a sparse amount of detail, I was essentially going into this one blind. And in many ways, that is an advantage. Well, at least in my mind it is. No expectations are the best expectations.

Sara_2Sara Crewe is a very fortunate young lady. She has a supportive family even though her mother had passed on some time ago. Her father, who is quite the successful businessman, is loving and a source of stability for young Sara. She has almost everything she could ever ask for and in turn is not spoiled and honors what she has. Being as she is to become a proper lady of her generation (we are talking late 1800s Europe here), she is sent to be educated at a prep school in England, while her father will return to their home to continue his business in the British colony in India. She is soon brought to the attention of Miss Minchin, the headmistress of the seminary she will be attending.

Sara_3Settling in with her treasured doll and an assortment of new friends, classmates Ermengarde and Lottie, and allies such as Peter the stable boy and Becky the maid, Sara begins to enjoy her time at the seminary. Until… fate had to reigns it’s hand to announce that Sara’s father had passed away without any known inheritance. Sara’s identity switches from student to servant in order to stay at the seminary. And this brings a smile to those who didn’t like her in the first place. Such an example is Lavinia, who in the tradition of Mean Girls, could be the spitting image of Regina George. She is such a snot-nose and of course has a couple cronies that agree with every little conniving idea she musters up in that twisted brain. But what of who is in charge, Miss Minchin? Does she give any grace to our downtrodden Sara? Hardly, after all ‘Minch’ rhymes with bitch so you can see where this is leading towards.

Sara_4Can Sara once again rise? Return to a state of glory and humanity? The answer is yes, but the heartache she endures makes this one tragic tale with a very happy ending. Passing through the dark night of the soul is always a painful period for anyone, but handling it with grace and dignity will always lead to a finality of compassion. Much like a typical soap opera, the emotions and circumstances are heightened for dramatic purpose, but they show the difficulty she must endure to in turn, wait for the proper season to rise again. Have some tissues ready at certain moments. I may have gone through a box, or am I just exaggerating for dramatic purpose? I leave that up to your opinion of the story.

Thank you Little Princess Sara. You gave me my initial sojourn into the World Masterpiece Theatre and for that I am grateful. I have seen a handful of the collection and I have many more to open up to. And since most of these are subtitled, that count’s as reading material, right? Even though the printed copy is no where near the front of my face? Maybe? Nothing wrong with text, but I do like all the animated pictures! 🙂

#41 : The Wizard of Oz

Alright now… how many of you have seen the movie The Wizard of Oz? WHOA, lots of hands as I expected as this is a cornerstone for a lot of us who grew up since it’s release on 1939. Now I got one for you… how many have seen an anime version of The Wizard of Oz? Oh yes they exist and from the looks of it I see a couple hands, OK. This interpretation I will be looking at was something I saw way back when I was a little munchkin. And I from what I remember my mom taped it off TV for my sister and I to watch and to be honest I am sure mom wanted to see it too. This is the theatrical version (an alternate TV series was made later) of that little book written by L Frank Baum.

wooz_1Oddly this was released here in the west before Japan, kind of like the original Transformers: The Movie. I wonder if this was a production that was made for us over here first and eventually Japan pulled it off the shelf to give it a go in their market? I can’t say for sure as that is not my area of expertise. What I do know is that it is a product of it’s time, particularly the dub which features Aileen Quinn (remember Annie?) as Dorothy and long time Hollywood alum Lorne Greene (Bonanza and Battlestar Galactica) as the Wizard. Both are well known names of the time, but today… anyone remember these two? And yes this dub is cheesy, like melted cheddar, maybe limburger, ok actually Velveeta, but you know what… who cares.

wooz_2As for the Japanese version I have never seen it. And with something this odd finding the original track in this section of the globe could be a little close to improbable. I don’t say impossible, because in many ways the impossible has proven to be possible in regards to coming across classic anime. In time all things come to your collection, you have to work for it a little more. And from a little research it seems Jo Hisaishi did the music in that version (the English track I doubt is his music as it does not sound like Jo, or it could be a redo on the lyrics?). And I forgot to mention the animation was done by that little studio called Topcraft. You know they did Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Miyazaki hired up a bunch of their best talent to make Studio Ghibli. This was also the studio that made many classic Rankin Bass cartoons like The Last Unicorn, The Hobbit and Flight of Dragons amongst others.

wooz_3Now… I am sure you know this story… Kansas girl with her puppy gets swept up by a tornado in her house and lands in a strange land. And she gets some fancy shoes by killing an evil witch with this house and she has to walk a yellow bricked road to meet The Wizard of Oz himself to get her back home. Kind of like Escaflowne, Rayearth, or Leda: Fantastic Adventure of Yohko, except this story goes way back to the early 20th century and our heroine gets those fancy shoes. Ruby slippers that seem to fit her perfectly like she hit the clearance rack and struck gold finding a pair of designer brand pumps for next to nothing. What a vacation find! And of course Miss Dorothy has golden locks instead of the familiar brown of the Hollywood classic. Some sources say the original is blonde, but I leave that up to you.

wooz_4As a movie I liked it then and I still like it now… with some caveats. Could be nostalgia, but it is simple and charming. And also far from perfect. But it works and that’s all that matters. But what about a younger generation’s opinion of this 1982 version? I have shown it to my niece and she liked it though she is not the big anime fan except for Pokemon… but then again Pokemon is beyond anime itself. But someday… I will some how, some way, get her to love anime as well. It all comes down to finding the right show or movie. But if you have children yourself or work with children I would say give this one a chance as an alternate because the work needs to watch more animation… PERIOD!

In the end we have a cheesy rendition of a classic western tale, mixed with a little singing, decent character designs and one scary Wicked Witch of the West. So toast up some bread, melt that cheese, eat that grilled cheese sandwich and have a “Wizard of a day…”.