You may have missed this Studio Ghibli film since it is approaching its twenty second anniversary in July, but you still have time to seek it out, and it is well worth the search.
The first film produced by Ghibli that was not directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, it is much quieter than some of the studio’s better known films. The story focuses on fourteen year old Shizuku dealing with two big coming-of-age moments: realizing her passion/dream to write, and navigating her first love.
(B&B is in the public domain of everyone’s childhood so Boblius refuses to acknowledge plot details as “spoilers.”)
Before he’s THE BEAST, Beast is a tax-and-spend Prince. He vacuums income from the subjects of his French village to throw lavish parties where he prances around like Agador from The Birdcage (but somehow isn’t the gay character people are up in arms about?). The villagers are happy to RSVP in the affirmative for pre-Beast’s parties as long as he doesn’t mock them.
When a disheveled and smelly (one assumes) crone stumbles into pre-Beast’s latest party offering a single rose in exchange for shelter during a horrific storm, he laughs her offer away. Only pre-Beast gives out the roses in this edition of Bizarro Bachelor. For his haughtiness, the crone reveals herself to be an Enchantress (we wouldn’t want to call her a witch in a movie starring Hermione) then transforms pre-Beast into THE (CGI) BEAST. Finally. Now he looks like the Beast from our childhood. Whew. (more…)
The Incredibles is a wonderful film full of metaphor and visual splendor. Brought to the world by the brilliant storytellers at Pixar, marking their last in a brilliant string of classic films cut short by the stale Cars two years later. The Incredibles is about a family of superheroes who are no longer “legally” allowed to use their powers. The government hides and subsidizes them to not use their powers. Bob’s family has issues not terribly different from those without superpower but they are content with this life. Bob, however, is increasingly dissatisfied with his role as a spineless bureaucrat. He spends his nights listening to a police scanner, breaking the law, and saving lives. He is offered a secret job stress testing a weapon on a remote island.
(Spoilers below? Oh yeah.)
A few years back there was a Lego movie. It’s name escapes me right now. Anyway, the Lego movie was thought to promote collectivism and criticize capitalism. The makers of the Lego movie (whatever it was called) denied an anti-business agenda BUT… the bad guy in the film was named “Lord Business.”
Well, a few years have passed and now we have The Lego Batman Movie on our hands. Perhaps to bring a Ra’s al Ghul-ish balance to the cinematic Lego-verse, this film asserts a strong critique of police policies largely revealed through the Barbara Gordon character. Her shedding of the commissioner’s uniform (Don’t get excited, it’s a PG film) in favor of her Batgirl costume formalizes her abandonment of supposedly enlightened law enforcement policies.
In the first reel Police Commissioner Jim Gordon finds himself in a crisis: The Joker has assembled a huge bomb to blow the literal floor out from under Gotham City. Gordon does what the G.C.P.D. does best: Call BATMAN!
If you are anything like me, “skepticism” best described your thoughts when learning of The Lego Batman Movie. Yes, I love Lego’s. And yes, I love Batman. But “The Caped Crusader” in an animated film depicted by the world’s favorite plastic block construction toys? Sounded like too much of a good thing to me, perversely so in fact. I just did not think that Lego Batman could do the character justice. I did not think it could tell a Batman tale that anyone over 11 years old could get behind. I am glad to say: I was wrong.
The premise for the film is a rather simple one—what if Batman believed himself to be the bad ass that we believe he is? That’s Lego Batman, a narcissistic, frat-boy superhero who always saves the day, and always knows the he will. Lego Batman sacrifices friendship and relations out of his commitment to the superhero craft and out of his fear of losing others in the same way he lost his parents. Lego Batman’s narcissism is so profound, that even the Joker is disillusioned by it. In fact, we find that the Jokers criminal behavior is largely attention seeking. He just wants validation from Lego Batman, and to be accepted as the plastic hero’s arch nemesis.
I don’t know about you, but I had absolutely no desire to be in the world while election results were coming in on Nov 8. So instead, I went to my favorite “escape from the world” place: a movie theater. A friend and I decided on Trolls. An hour and a half of bright colors and rousing musical numbers just seemed like a good idea before finding out who gets to screw up the country over the next four years.
Trolls was actually a pleasant surprise though. It wasn’t just good in a fun kids movie sort of way, it actually made me realize some important things I needed to remember as my country becomes as divided as I’ve ever seen it. [Spoilers below].
Lesson 1: We can still be happy without shitting on other people
The antagonists of this movie are the Bergens, unhappy creatures that believe the only way to be happy is to eat the trolls. What makes the dynamic of Bergentown especially interesting is that any Bergen under the age of 20, including the king of Bergentown, has never actually tasted a troll, as the trolls escaped captivity 20 years before the primary plot arc of the film. So your primary villain isn’t someone who is just straight up evil, it’s someone who has been socialized to believe a lie, and that belief inspires him to do evil things. The movie isn’t a story of good triumphing over evil, it’s a story of good teaching evil the error in their ways.
Unlike some, I personally do not believe all Trump supporters are just straight up evil. I do however, believe many view the world as a false dichotomy. They have trouble seeing how immigrants and native-born citizens can live in peace and even benefit from each other’s presence, and instead believe one group can only benefit at the expense of the other. They believe that the rights of Americans are more important than the rights of people born elsewhere, even though such people are equally human. And I think for many, those beliefs were instilled in them at a young age. They voted for Trump not because they’re just terrible human beings that Satan sent to destroy America, but because they genuinely believe that was the only way to restore their own prosperity after other systems have failed them. Sad!
Trolls is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be “us vs. them” even when the world around us constantly tells us that it is. There are ways to be happy and successful without infringing on the rights of others. (more…)
If you’re like me, you missed Megamind in theaters because the trailers didn’t really sell you on the movie. If you’re really like me, you will regret that decision after watching it at home. Megamind is another unfortunate example of a brilliant film being misrepresented and shown in its worst light via marketing (I think Mean Girls is another prime example). To be fair, I’m not sure the film knows whom it is targeting. Most of the jokes, such as the classic rock songs that Megamind favors for stylish entrances, seem like they would go over most kid’s heads. I would be curious to watch the movie with a child and see what they respond to and enjoy. As it is, I think the movie was made for me and my ilk. Especially because of what I consider the most interesting aspect of the film (spoilers): Hal Stewart’s character vs. Megamind’s and the representation, and critique, of white male privilege. Yes, I just went there.
*SPOILER WARNING* This essay heavily uses textual evidence from throughout the film.
The name “Zootopia” (a portmanteau of “zoo” and “utopia”) works ambivalently as the declaration of what this animal society wants to be and as an ironic joke about its failure to meet those aspirations. The joke is on us though since it’s one large Aesop’s fable about prejudice in the real world. The city motto is “anyone can be anything [and not be limited by what they are],” an ideal that protagonist Judy Hopps takes as her own personal motivation to become the world’s first bunny police officer. However the anthropomorphic pretense of the film forces characters to test their devotion to the ideals of this claimed post-racial utopia. Judy believes that foxes can be trusted, despite personal experience and warnings from well-meaning though racist parents, but is she willing to bet her life on it? This is the “Chekov’s gun” of the film, represented by something that literally goes where Judy’s police issued side-arm would be if this weren’t a cartoon. Judy reaches for the “gun” when fear overwhelms logic for the film’s argument about how we don’t live in a society rid bigotry, but only a society that wants to be rid of it.
It’s a very daring choice to make a world full of prejudice and have this spread over into other marginalized characters as well as the main characters. It’s writing 101 to throw the worst and most unfavorable traits at your villains, not the heroes. Supporting lead Nick Wilde (a fox) carelessly calls Judy “carrots” and “cute,” which the rules of the film sates are racist slurs for rabbits. Judy accidentally performs a micro-aggression on Nick, praising him as a “real articulate fella.”. (more…)
I went to see Zootopia last week expecting a solid children’s movie. What I didn’t expect was arguably the most libertarian children’s movie in recent memory. Seriously, Ayn Rand could have written this thing. Zootopia can teach kids about all sorts of libertarian ideals, such as citizen accountability, skepticism of government officials, civil liberties, and the rejection of majority rule justification.
We start with a relatively simple premise common in kid’s movies: our lead character has a dream that the world says will never come true. In this case, that lead character is a bunny, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) who wants to be a police officer. A bunny has never been a police officer before, but Judy works hard and becomes the first one. What makes Zootopia somewhat unique is that it spends relatively little screen time telling us how that dream comes true. Instead, the movie focuses on all of Judy’s struggles after she becomes a cop and how sometimes dreams aren’t everything we thought they would be.
As an independent filmmaker, the single biggest obstacle to getting your film made is: paying for it. You can have all the other elements you need lined up: a great story, a fast and efficient crew, talented actors, and your aunt has even agreed to let you film at her vacation home in the mountains, (as long as you pay for the maid service afterwards,) but if you don’t have a budget to pay for it all, you will not make your film. This is where Taliesin Nexus’ Liberty Lab for Film program comes in.
The Liberty Lab for Film (or LLF) is an advanced program for those who have filmmaking, screenwriting, and/or producing experience and want an opportunity to work alongside liberty-minded creatives under the guidance of seasoned professionals such as Daniel Knauf, (co-executive producer, NBC’s The Blacklist) Adam Simon (creator of the FOX series Salem) and screenwriter David H. Steinberg (American Pie 2) in developing, writing, filming and editing your short film or web series idea.
If you and your treatment are selected, you will receive a grant for $10,000 to fund your project and be paired with an established industry professional who will mentor you through a 100 day process. At the conclusion, Taliesin Nexus will host a gala showcase screening in Los Angeles where your film will premiere along with your fellow LLF participants’ projects.
This is not for the faint of heart. You and your partners will be responsible for producing a high quality film. For 100 days, you must contend with: a rigorous development process, valuable collaboration, working within a budget, and notes & feedback from your mentor and the network. It’s a process not unlike aspects of the Hollywood system or any independent film production.
To submit, all you need is a one-page treatment of your story idea for a short film or web-series that touches on some aspect of liberty. Why Liberty? Taliesin Nexus is committed to helping storytellers, who share a passion for human freedom and diversity, succeed in their entertainment career.
One great aspect about applying is, if you apply early, it will give them time to review your application and reach out to you to offer feedback. If they can help you with your treatment even before you make it in to the program, they want to do it. Taliesin Nexus is committed to ensuring that you and your project receive as much support as possible.
Please follow this link to learn more about the program, the application process, and what to expect when you are selected into the program. Applications are being accepted NOW and you have until April 15, 2016 to submit.
(Taliesin Nexus is the owner and operator of SmashCut Culture)
It wasn’t until fairly recently that I even knew Pinocchio was a children’s novel and not a fairy tale out of Grimm’s or the like. And, boy howdy, is it a doozy; thirty-six chapters of absolutely bizarre Italian children’s literature circa 1880s. Granted, the chapters fly by like in Moby Dick, with each only being about three or four pages long. The book actually reads like an epic fable with very simple moral that is omnipresent: go to school and mind your parents.
The main differences between the book and the Disney film (I’m sticking with that adaptation for brevity’s sake) consist of a larger role for Jiminy Cricket in the film, who is only referred to as the Talking Cricket in the book; a smaller role for the fairy in the film, who is the Blue Haired Fairy in the book; and the actual character of Pinocchio, who is sweet and naive in the film as opposed to an amoral ass in the book.
It’s been awhile.
You’ll have to excuse me, I’m slowly getting accustomed to life in the outside world. Aside from going to my 9-5 job, I’d been tucked away in a corner of my apartment, furiously pounding out pages of my thesis project for grad school. My thesis was a hefty section of my novel, 120 pages to be exact, and now that the sheets have been bound, the section turned in, and my degree received, I can slowly begin to acclimate myself to normalcy. Most of this has involved slowly exposing myself to sunlight, understanding that the food pyramid is not just a giant slice of Domino’s pizza, and getting all the sleep.
But I digress.
As my time in grad school came to an end, I spent a lot of time thinking about the future, my own specifically — where would I go, what would I do, what would things look like for me a few years down the road?
But I also began to think about the future of the things I loved. With E3 in full swing, I wondered where video games were headed. What new, immersive technology would pop up, which franchises would live on, and OHMYGOD THERE’S A NEW STARFOX GAME.
Needless to say, I’ll be updating you all soon (if I can contain my excitement until then).
But I also had some similar thoughts about the future of animation. As most of you have noticed, a large portion of this list are films that were made more than five years ago, some even older still. There are one or two newer films I’ve considered putting on this list, but it’s obvious that the pool of animated films is definitely getting thinner. With Studio Ghibli’s (potentially) last film, “When Marnie Was There” in theaters and more films going the way of Pixar-style animation, it’s hard not to wonder where things are headed.
I was immediately taken with the movie Big Hero 6 the first time I saw it. Actually, I was completely on board from the first teaser I saw for the film. The movie is fun, compelling, beautiful animated, and involves Alan Tudyk. But, it took several viewings for one of the most visually striking elements of San Fransokyo to really register. I’m referring to the brightly painted, floating wind turbines that hover above the city.
It turns out that, like a lot of the technology in the film, these wind turbines are based on science fact, not fiction. These turbines, referred to as BATs for Buoyant Air Turbine, are already in small scale production. Their use in the film is both obvious, and non-intrusive; a subtle way to start normalizing the idea of renewable energy in our modern, everyday lives.
Last Monday, I sat on the hardwood floor of my apartment, leering at the white cardboard box in front of me. The box, which contained a disassembled nightstand from IKEA, had been sitting under my bed for weeks. And one night after getting home from work abnormally early (before 8 p.m.), I did the adult thing – I put a load of laundry in the wash, ordered a pizza from Dominos, dragged the box out from under my bed, and put on “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”
“Kiki’s Delivery Service,” or Majo no Takkyūbin, was a 1989 release from Studio Ghibli about a young witch, Kiki, who leaves home with her talking cat companion Jiji on her 13th birthday, part of a custom where a young witch must be apart from her family for a year and find another town to live and use her special ability in. Kiki’s ability of flight seems like an ordinary witch power, but she finds that in her new seaside town she is able to use it as a delivery girl for a bakery. But her journey to using her talent doesn’t come without obstacles. After one delivery goes sour, she seems to lose her powers. She can no longer fly or understand Jiji and becomes deeply depressed before finally regaining her confidence in herself and her abilities.
A pretty remarkable claim over The Telegraph.
Simon Singh, author of The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, told a literary festival audience that the series is staffed by writers with an interest in maths.
“That equation predicts the mass of the Higgs boson. If you work it out, you get the mass of a Higgs boson that’s only a bit larger than the nano-mass of a Higgs boson actually is.
“It’s kind of amazing as Homer makes this prediction 14 years before it was discovered.”
Since I hated math as a subject while forced to learn it in grade school, and having spent a few of my childhood summers making up for sub-standard grades, I’ll have to take his word for it. It’s also a crazy reminder that not only has The Simpsons been on TV 14 years priors to the actual discovery, it was on when I was in high school impressing my teachers with my style over substance approach to school and that, my friends was a long time ago.
One of the many things I admire about animation is that it has the ability to make a mountain of emotion out of minimal resources. Sure, animation programs aren’t cheap and under careless direction they can go the way of several live action films that adopt the mantra, “the more money we pour into this, the more money we’ll make.” And while there’s certainly nothing to scoff at if you’ve got the cash to pump into your feature, if you’re throwing money at the project for the sake of money, chances are you might have some incorrect intentions.
But I say all of this because this week’s film did so very much with so very little – a little over $7 million to be precise. Though that amount might seem high, consider it in comparison to some other animated films — even Studio Ghibli’s work can rack up some high costs. “The Wind Rises” burned through $30 million, and “Spirited Away” cost about $19 million. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to some of America’s production companies. Pixar’s last film, “Monsters University?” 200. Million. Dollars.
When I was looking for a film for this week, I wanted something…new.
Not in the Japanese anime style, is what I’m saying.
Yes, I realized that when it comes to my animated films, I show Studio Ghibli a lot of love. But I’m working on it. Really.
But difference in animation style isn’t the only reason I wanted to add “The Triplets of Belleville” to the list — this film is just different in general. There really isn’t a way to describe the way I feel about it. You’ll find yourself grinning once the film’s over, because it has this strange ability to be insanely dark and insanely satisfying, all at once. There isn’t just one descriptor that does it for me — weird, goofy, grotesque, odd, magical — it is all these things and more.
This 2003 comedy written and directed by Sylvain Chomet tells the story of Madame Souza, an elderly woman who lives in a slumping house in the parisian countryside with her grandson. When she finds that he is in love with cycling she buys him a bicycle and trains him until he is one of the top cyclists in the world and finally ready to compete in the Tour de France. (more…)
The chief philosophical sages of our age, obviously by that I refer to Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park, addressed this question somewhat in season 4 episode 7, Chef Goes Nanners. The relevant scene is at 7:44.
In this spoof of the state flag debates across the American South, in particular Georgia, Chef demands changes to the South Park flag because it is racist. To leave no doubt in the minds of the viewers that Chef is spot on, the flag is discovered to show four white people lynching a black man.
And yet, Jimbo and Nedd, the resident hunter rednecks of South Park disagree, offering what amounts to the same argument relied upon by most southerners who oppose changing their state flags: The flag is a part of our history, our traditions. While people in the past did racist things and perhaps some minority today holds racist views, the whole culture of the South was not built around racism, and the flag represents the whole culture, not just the sordid parts.
Now for a not so brief digression, I’m from Alabama. I confess I very much identify with Jimbo’s position at least regarding the flags of the southern states.
Sure it’s catchy, smart, and witty original song, “Everything is Awesome” was nominated for an award, but the excellent screenplay and overall achievement in, not just animation, but all of filmmaking that The Lego Movie brought this year was grossly overlooked this morning as the nominations for the 87th Academy Awards were announced. If you’ve heard great things about this movie but still haven’t taken the time to watch. Please do, you will be pleasantly surprised. I admit it’s about 15 min too long (lots of toy explosions account for that) but it’s as original as any of the other out-of-the-box films that were nominated for big awards this morning – The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, and Boyhood being prime examples.
So. It’s been awhile.
Yes, I realize this is an understatement.
But when it comes to wondering why it looked like I’d fallen off the face of the planet, you can either place the blame on my graduate thesis and full-time job — or the fact that the next movie in this countdown left me a crumpled heap of sadness, a blob of inactivity lurching its way through the holiday season and fighting the urge to live in a glass case of emotion. I hope you choose the latter.
Of course, I’m talking about the 1988 film “Grave of the Fireflies” or “Hotaru no haka.” This has everything you need for a good night in of just you, a box of tissues, and a tub of whatever ice cream you prefer, which you will immediately regret consuming throughout the course of this film.
This Isao Takahata tragedy opens in September of 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, and a crippled Japan is trying its hardest to survive. The film opens at the ending, so be prepared for a giant sorrow punch to the gut. We meet the deliverer or said punch, 14-year-old Seita who is dying of starvation at Sannomiya Station, main railway terminal for Kobe. When Seita succumbs and dies, a janitor removes his body and finds a candy tin, which the janitor throws away into a nearby field. From the tin springs the spirit of Seita’s younger sister, Setsuko. And boom, you feel another immediate gut punch as the two spirits reunite and Seita beings to narrate their backstory, beginning with the firebombing of the city of Kobe in March of 1945, where they lose their mother.
Seriously — minutes in and you already feel a little bit of your soul being consumed by the sheer amount of sad.
But oh wait, on the horizon there’s an entire mountain of sad for you get over. Because though the two siblings manage go to live with their Aunt, she becomes increasingly bitter due to the hardships brought on by the war and the quickly thinning food rations. She becomes so bitter towards the two that Seita decides to leave with Setsuko and care for her on his own. They find refuge inside an abandoned bomb shelter and release fireflies within for light.
And I’m going to leave it off here. Any more spoilers at this point would either cause you to feel so depressed about pushing this animation through your eyeholes that you’d rather not press play in the first place.
And I sincerely hope you don’t feel that way.
Because yes, Grave of the Fireflies is sad — it’s supposed to be sad, and the animators at Studio Ghibli knew what they were out to convey with this film. They do a stellar job of making you care about these two kids, which makes their hardships all the more hard to watch. Every scene is there for a reason, every decision the characters make is a real one that they turn to for extremely believable reasons, and the ending will make this film one you cannot forget — for both exciting and horrifying reasons. The animation is gorgeous, but depicts two very brutal, heartbreaking lives; the medium isn’t “real,” but brings out emotions and problems that are so real.
War is a real thing, starvation is a real thing, things experienced by children and adults today all over the globe — and this film will make you think about those things. So, go watch it, and think about some uncomfortable things for awhile. And though I know the holiday season is over, maybe think about bringing about some change when it comes to ending world hunger too. If you like, take a look at two sites that I’d really recommend: Bread for the World , a religious organization that focuses on feeding the hungry through legislation and boots-on-the-ground type work. Or, if you’d prefer an organization without any affiliation, check out The Hunger Project — both sites let you donate any amount you feel comfortable with, or maybe just read up on what world hunger looks like and educate yourself.
Or hey, maybe watch “Grave of the Fireflies” first and join me in my cave of sadness — there’s plenty of room.
That’s my immediate response to the title “Perfect Blue.” Granted, there are plenty of things to like about the 1997 release from directors Hideki Hamazumm and Satoshi Kon. It gives us a great, thrilling story, following our protagonist Mina, a popstar who is forced to drop her career and pursue an acting gig to remain relevant. Though the plot goes much deeper than that, because Mima’s sudden retirement upsets a devoted fan and she begins receiving threats, obscene calls, and things take a set of extremely upsetting turns.
This film is great in the ways of mastering suspense and using very human issues to do so, dealing with the pressures of fame and the horror of cultivating an identity that someone else loves or desires to emulate to the point of self-harm or harming others. The animation is gorgeous and uncomfortable, and I mean that in the best way. Unlike “Cat Soup,” where the visual can be stunning but often nonsensical and use that to create an air of uneasiness, Perfect Blue doesn’t dance around the issue. This is one of the first on-point animation films I’ve seen that deal with horror in a great way and use every facet to its advantage. We are meant to be shifting nervously while watching this. Facial expressions are extremely distorted at points, the line between reality and fiction is hard – even for the viewer – to follow. The film features a rape scene (though one done as a recording for a television show) and it pulls no punches. It made me uncomfortable. It would make anyone uncomfortable. And it should. For these things, I’m glad that Perfect Blue exists; it pushed the genre, and it opened animated films up in ways that were dark, complex, and very gritty and real.
But for all those good things that are built up in the first three-fourths of the film, the end just throws it all out. I won’t give away the ending by any means (because it’s a great twist that I really enjoy), but the very end shows this intense progress by our main character that seems incredibly hokey when it’s all said and done. It seems like the film has built up all this sadness, all this mental instability, but they felt required to stabilize things by the end. It just felt like a cop-out, and maybe when you check it out, you’ll know what I’m referring to.
But when the rubber hits the road, Perfect Blue did a lot more good than bad for the animated world. It’s a great thriller, paced very well and using a lot of symbolism to get the job done. I would offer the small critique of it being a little over-stylized, but I would say that judgment is a tick-tack one, if anything. I would say that I genuinely enjoy this movie because of the emotions it makes you feel. Are they good ones? Absolutely not. But I can remember getting the same feeling when I watched “Requiem for a Dream,” a film that is, by design, meant to make you feel unwanted emotions. And to know that film, especially animated film, is powerful enough to accomplish that, it can do wonders for the medium and the audience that watches.
If you’d like to check out Perfect Blue for yourself, the easiest way to get a hold of it is through Netflix’s order system. But it’s also available on Amazon and even in major retail chains like Best Buy. So, if you’re looking for an anime staple to add to your collection that really packs a punch, give this film a go. It’s not perfect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not pretty darn close.
Late last week, a wrench known as late postal service has kept me from getting “Perfect Blue” delivered to my apartment in time for me to write the article. So, I was left without a film to review, and I didn’t want to skip a week. So on Friday night, I started flipping through the rolodex of my brain, thinking of all the old animated films I’d seen. The longer I thought, the more I wanted to just log onto a message board or plug “The Best 25 Animated Films” into Google, because that’s what this list should be about, right? The best of the best?
But after really considering things, I decided that the “best” animated movies weren’t really standout ones on my list; they were films that I thought were memorable. Aside from Miyazaki films, my list was obscure, strange, and sometimes only watchable on YouTube. But now that I think about it, I would say that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want to lie to you, reader, and tell you to go see a film that I’d find boring or similar to every other animated film out there. No, I want you to see all the sides of animation – and that’s where “Cat Soup” comes in.
“Cat Soup,” or “Nekojiru-so” was a 30-minute film created in 2001, directed by Tatsuo Sato and inspired by the work of manga artist Nekojiru. With a hefty amount of awards endorsing it, including taking the “Best Short Film” award at the 2—1 Fantasia Festival, I was surprised I had never heard of it when a friend recommend this short film to me in college. I was also supruised that I couldn’t find the thing anywhere. Video stores, Netflix, Hulu – the thing was nowhere to be found. But I finally managed to find a full recording of it on YouTube. I remember that it was a rainy day, my roommate was out on a grocery run, and I was particularly bored, so I went for it.
The story itself is a simple one that we’re introduced to in the first 5 minutes of the film—a young cat finds out that his ill sister is being led by the spirit of death to the edge of their town. He attempts to save her, but is only able to keep a half of her. The mysterious death spirit explains that a certain orange flower can save his sister’s life, and the brother goes searching for it.
What follows can only be described as 26 minutes of animation – that’s all I can say. It’s not pretentious, it’s not plot-driven; it’s just…odd. The brother and sister journey through strange worlds and obstacles, from a flood to escaping the clutches of a very – odd – man who wants to make them into soup. There’s no dialogue, save for some indiscernible chattering and a few subtitles depicting location. The style is surreal, beautiful, and at times even a little disturbing. In short, this film is perhaps the weirdest but most magical collection of animated images I’ve ever seen.
But the reason I’m including this film on the list isn’t because it’s perfect. Yes, it’s won some great awards, and when you’re watching it, it’s easy to see why. But is it something I would put on all the time like I do with “My Neighbor Totoro?” Of course not. This film is on this list for an entirely different reason than the others I’ve mentioned so far. Though the animation is beautiful, I just want someone else to see this film. I want someone else to say, “This is the oddest thing I’ve ever seen” and then never be able to forget it. There are several scenes and images in this film that will stick with me forever. Not because they move the plot, not because they bring out a particular emotion – except perhaps for confusion, which might be the point – no, I’m including this because it has this different type of captivating effect on me, as both an animator and a animation viewer. It definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I will say that if you don’t like it, it’s only 30 minutes of your time, and I really do think it has something to say about the strangeness and awe that people experience when they watch animation.
So, reader, I could chalk this post up to being about a lot of things: wanting to get people to watch something different, what it’s like to experience animation, or – you know – an excuse for why Netflix hasn’t delivered “Perfect Blue” to my mailbox yet. But I think if anything, I’d like this post to give the impression that I’m not into playing safe with this list. Yes, I’m going to recommend some Miyazaki to you, and films like “Akira,” but I’m also going to throw some “Cat Soup” at you too. Because I should represent all the flavors of animation, even the odd ones.
You can find “Cat Soup” on YouTube, or if you’re really interested, you can purchase it on FYE or SecondSpin.com.
Akira is the type of film that many have heard of, but not too many people have actually taken the time to sit and watch, which is understandable. The film was a big deal when it was released in 1988, but now it mostly comes up as a nostalgic centerpiece for those of us who enjoy anime and have a strong love for its roots. If I had to make a list of films that I would say changed the history of animation, Akira would definitely be one of them (hence why it ended up on this list). But the first time I saw it, I was really impressed – and truthfully, really excited. Let me explain.
I saw Akira when I was maybe 12 or 13. And I came from a pretty conservative town, so those of us with any kind of inkling towards anime were immediately pegged as oddballs. Anime was viewed as this weird fantasy world filled with way too much violence and nudity and way too little plotline. True, those anime shows definitely exist, but they shouldn’t consume the entire genre or make animated films that do have a smattering of nudity or violence immediately get the “fan service” label. But Akira avoided that label, and brilliantly. The films was definitely known for its violence, and the plot – a psychic teenager in a dystopian version of 2019 Tokyo in the year 2019 — gives a lot of room for a lot of blood.
But when I first saw this film, all I could think was “It’s like The Matrix…but better!” And I think this is why Akira has such a great following, because it was really, really ahead of its time. Even watching now, I often find myself lost in the visuals and character design. Even the way the violence is depicted takes a lot of skill and is worth mentioning as artwork. But I love Akira because it brings up the question of what’s counted as permissible in anime and what’s permissible in live action by making a good quality film that mirrors a landmark film everybody knows. I’ve seen plenty of live action films with way more blood than Akira, but because Akira was animated, some reviewers were willing to criticize director Katsuhiro Otomo’s decisions when taking on the original 2182-page manga epic. In terms of plot, if you’ve read the manga, the restructured plot of the movie differs considerably from the print version, pruning much of the last half. But that’s not a reason to avoid it. This movie knows what it means to create a world and drop you into it with gorgeous visuals, great characters, and a lot of action.
But if you’re new to anime, think of Akira as your 101 course. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but it’s a landmark film, and it’s definitely one not to miss.
And speaking of animated films that were way ahead of their time, come back next week when I’ll be reviewing a thriller that dealt with performance personality before Black Swan’s Nina ever slipped on her ballet shoes.
We start our list off with a Miyazaki flick — because come on, you should know me by now. This 1997 film was Japan’s biggest blockbuster of all time until James Cameron’s Titanic came along. But if you don’t recognize his name, you might recognize some of his titles, because he’s got quite a hefty animated resume working for him. Let’s start with childhood. Remember My Neighbor Totoro?
How about Kiki’s Delivery Service? Naussica, Valley of the Wind? The newest of the batch, The Wind Rises. And moving into the older audience, there’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and surely you’ve heard of the big one, Spirited Away? All animated and directed by Hayao.
Now before I go any further, I have to make the animation defense, and I’ll do it by highlighting this specific movie’s relationship with my husband. Now, my husband studied film at BIOLA University in California, a school that knows the craft of film very well. He was still in school when this incident happened, and he told me he had never seen a Hayao film before.
After I questioned our relationship, I decided to be excited that I’d get to share a different form of film with him. I begged him for weeks to watch this movie. WEEKS. All the while, we’d been watching the typical films on a “film major’s” list. The 400 Blows, The Seventh Seal, Blue Valentine, A Clockwork Orange, and one night, I finally cornered him about why we hadn’t seen it yet. And although he didn’t mean to, he made it sound as though animation was a form of film that just couldn’t compete with others, because its characters weren’t real.
The child inside me that watched My Neighbor Totoro nearly every day, who cried with Kiki when she lost her witch powers, and who read books upon books of character molded from a writer’s subconscious wanted to swiftly and maturely kick him in the junk and run away. But instead, I led the gentleman upstairs with the promise of chips, dip, and a slew of whatever movie he wanted — if he only watched this one.
So, we sat down and began our journey into the plot of Princess Mononoke (I should also tell all of you that I plan on typing out “Mononoke” every time it shows up because it’s fun as all get out. And you just tried it. Point proved.)
So, the movie begins with an immediate showcase of the animation Hayao is capable of. The lush landscape of medieval Japan unfolds around us, letting us enter into the dawn of the Iron Age, when nature was at war with civilization — a regular “Gilgamesh.”
But in the midst of the gorgeous animation, we are immediately confronted with a problem. There is a watchtower guard who shouts that he has noticed something “wrong with the forest.” From this point on, a giant creature, revealed as a boar-like creature covered in black leech-like worms, comes crashing out from the woods and begins to attack. Here we meet our hero, the brave Ashitaka, who is the prince of his isolated people, those who still live in accordance with nature, and who are peaceful towards it, not encroaching on its space. We also meet Ashitaka’s noble steed (who’s actually more of an ibex, but you understand), Yakkuru. Ashitaka and Yakkuru do battle with the creature, and he is finally able to slay it, but not before the worms attach themselves to his skin and leave a deathly-looking scar.
A wise shaman of the village is able to interpret what went on. The monster was a boar god, until a small iron bullet casing was embedded in its flesh and drove it mad. We are left wondering where the bullet came from, until Ashitaka is suddenly told he must cut his hair (a symbol of being cut off from the others) and leave the village, because he too has been infected with a demon of hate inside his arm, a curse. And so Ashitaka obeys. We watch him have a wrenching goodbye scene with his sister and he rides off towards to West to find the source of the bullet and to find out why nature is acting so strangely.
From here on out, Ashitaka is thrust into a world of violence and war. Nature versus Civilization, humans versus gods, and he is caught in between to find some balance. He finds an area that is rule by Moro, a wolf god of an entire pack of gorgeous white wolves, and sees a human living among them, one who has been raised by them since birth. She is introduced as San — or Princess Mononoke
And San’s intentions seem wild, but noble. She is out to destroy Lady Eboshi, an iron-willed ruler whose village is manufacturing the very bullets and guns that are causing nature to revolt.
Ashitaka also ventures into Eboshi’s village to ask that she stop this production. Although her townspeople are gaining profits and land, they are loosing the ability to know the language of the gods (and animal gods are literally only being able to speak in animal sounds, rather than being voiced by actors). Their land is stripped of trees, slaves work in their factories, and lepers make weapons for Eboshi. Ashitaka even meets a slick-talking Jigo who wants to take the head of the Spirit of the Forest to have full control over nature.
But before you go pointing out the obvious “bad guy” here, Hayao throws in elements that make things far less black and white. Emperor Eboshi is adored by her people, and the lepers are accepted members of society (unlike Ashitaka was when he was pronounced diseased) by helping keeping the economy afloat, and she genuinely cares for her people and wants them to be wealthy and powerful. Even Jigo’s motives make sense at times. It becomes obvious — there are risks to each side, there are heartbreaking deaths that happen to major characters on each side of the problem, and everyone has their own reasons for justification. Pretty complex for moving drawings, don’t you think?
All of this action includes an extreme depth and scope of human nature. For example, Ashitaka and San, who admit love for one another, see that they can never “lead the life of the other” and must sacrifice their love for freedom and see one another in passing glances. How many live-action love stories have been so deep?
The animation is stark, real, vivid, and appeals to the realistic view of the audience — no character is an afterthought. The white wolves are wonderfully crafted and detailed. They are not Disney-friendly. When they bear their fangs, they are shown as violent gods, ones who can and will kill for their ideals.
….As for my husband?
“I forgot that was an animated film well over an hour ago.”
Now I do not give you this review without pointing out a couple of things that might’ve distracted me. First off, it is a bit long (a little over 2 hours). I feel as though Ashitaka’s journey really, really takes him awhile, but when he meets San, things pick up considerably.
Also, it really does reflect “Gilgamesh” quite a lot — not that this is a bad thing, but it can make the plot a little predictable about motives and wether or not everything will come out alright in the end.
Speaking of which, I didn’t plan on sharing the entirety of the plot with you, because I want you to watch this for yourself. I want you, the reader, the follower of this blog, to have an experience. I want you to see that animation is not just reserved for Saturday morning cartoons; it can make the world of the animator come alive — he or she can bend time, space, reality, and get away with it all because they convinced you their characters were as real as Tyler Durden was to the narrator in Fight Club, and they can affect you just as much.
I honestly think Roger Ebert (who gave this film FOUR STARS) said it best:
“Animated films are not copies of “real movie,” are not shadows of reality, but create a new existence in their own right. True, a lot of animation is insipid, and insulting even to the children it is made for. But great animation can make the mind sing.”