25 Animated Films You MUST See: #1 Princess Mononoke

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?

No?

UnknownHow about Kiki’s Delivery ServiceNaussica, 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.

large_nQOOHGuhj9s9mDywIECOVpKNl7pSo, 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.

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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?

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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?

Unknown-1Once the movie was over, I flicked on the light and saw him staring, wide-eyed at the rolling credits. I asked him what he was thinking. He looked at me and said:

“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.”

To Shell With It: Should Anime Franchises be Made Into Live-Action Blockbusters?

It’s true. Ghost in the Shell is being made into a live action film.

unnamedA few years ago, that sentence would’ve spit out the same thought I get when people say there are ‘talks’ about a live action Cowboy Bebop or Gundam film: useless rumor. But with the recent news of Margot Robbie, the talented actress who played opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2014 smash film Wolf of Wall Street, being cast as the film’s protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell really seems to be turning into a reality. Because of that, and my general feeling about anime-turned-live-action projects, I’d say it’s definitely worth talking about.

Now when I say I have feelings about live action remakes, they aren’t neatly categorized ones. The notion of loving or hating a film before it’s even made is a real crapshoot and between the cast list, director, and screenwriter, there are still a lot of holes to fill. But if history shows any inkling of repeating itself, we’re not in for a good time.

But let’s start by talking about where the idea of producing a live action remake of an anime comes from. Anime series in Japan usually start out as a manga, or a graphic novel. The novel then can be transformed into an animated series. The manga can have a long-running series before it’s picked up and made into an animated series (like Dragon Ball Z), or be relatively new (like One Piece, which was made into an animated series in 1998, only two years after its first publication). Anime series also have been known to take risks and deviate from the plot of the original manga, and a good example of this would be Fullmetal Alchemist, debuting as an animated series in 2003. The plot included most of the same characters and the overarching themes, but writer Shō Aikawa took some major liberties in deciding the order of events. Then in 2009, another series came out, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. This new series played much closer to the manga and left fewer stones unturned, garnering a lot of praise. But within the realm of anime, plot change from the manga to the series is pretty forgivable – there’s a lot to account for when going from one medium to another, in this case book to film. And even if manga are typically more expressive and have much more illustration that regular literature, the process comes with several challenges, some of which result in some plot getting cut or a character arc being changed. And sometimes, animated series will get animated films of their own. Fullmetal has gotten two, and the Gundam series, Cowboy Bebop, and even Ghost in the Shell have their titles. These films are usually hit or miss, but it’s easy to see that the animators, writers, and voice actors are working their hardest to make their fan base happy.

But when it comes to taking an animated film and making it into a live action film, the problems are almost identical to that of making a book into a movie. Why? Well, for me, there are really three big reasons. One: anime is boundless. There isn’t much you can’t do with pens, paper, and a computer program or two. Characters can have big expressions and imaginative costumes or designs, actions and reactions can be overdrawn to represent raw, unfiltered emotion, and the location possibilities are endless. When you decide to move that over to film, you get a lot of this:

 

That’s a poster from Drangonball: Evolution, the remake of the popular anime Dragonball Z. It’s a film I’m still trying to bleach from my retinas. The character designs are laughable, the script so very forced, and the plot makes anime fans look immature, to say the least.

But that’s not the only time a remake has really scorned the people who helped make it popular, anybody remember Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender?

unnamed-1If not, be sure to use that two hours of your life to the fullest, because I can never get mine back. Avatar was proof that even if you had actors who were talented and smart and even knowledgeable of the material, a writer who doesn’t know what they’re doing can send everything down the drain at breakneck speed.

But I can’t completely blame the writer, because truth is, someone else (probably in marketing) is pulling the strings. And this is where my second biggest problem comes in: the demographic gets exponentially larger. When you’re making an animated movie from a manga, you know who your audience is. You started in animation, a demographic that is niche, to put it lightly. There’s a special kind of formula that goes along with writing, animating, and producing these sort of films, just as there is for any film. And just as with any other film, there’s an audience that comes with it. For example, if you’re a die-hard horror fan, you’re probably not going to catch the newest romantic comedy at the theater, because it just isn’t your cup of tea. And the same could be said of animated films, fans of anime know what they want (and no, it isn’t fan service), and filmmakers are well-versed in how to deliver a product that fills that need; they really aren’t out to draw in anyone else.

But once that movie gets put into the hands of a big name producer like Michael Bay, the demographic is blown wide open. Suddenly, this isn’t just for the people who have watched the series, this is a film for your everyday movie go-er, and that means a lot of changes that most fans won’t agree with.

I can’t tell you how much I don’t want the smash 1988 animated film Akira to be made into a live action film, which is set to film this Spring. Not because I don’t want people to see it, I’d gladly give anyone the copy I own, rather I think that Akira is right in the medium it needs to be, and I think this is where my third reason comes into play: anime just isn’t taken seriously. There’s this odd stigma to animation, like it’s something that can’t be a “real film” until it’s made into a live action version. There’s the stigma that anime isn’t art and that it’s all fan service, or that anime fans are somehow not in touch with reality because they prefer their films to be animated. To be honest, those are all part of the stigma of not being taken seriously – and that really needs to go. And honestly, it’s going to take a lot more than Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to make things better. But I’m afraid this is what’s going to happen with Ghost in the Shell. The protagonist is a strong female cyborg who leads a law-enforcement division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. Her basic job is to capture powerful hackers and bring them to justice. But all I can think of is people at the planning meeting saying, “So, we just need to make a lady Robocop, right?”

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this remake will set a standard and bring animation into a new world of possibility. Maybe we’ll do something right.

Or maybe you’ll find me in Spring with an Akira picket sign in my hand.

Astronomical: How Sailor Moon’s Reboot Improves on the Original

Can I admit something to you?

I really didn’t care for Sailor Moon as a kid.

SMC-640x426And being a girl who grew up in the ’90s, that’s a hard thing for me to admit. Most of my pals who had a fair share of animation adoration (and even those who didn’t) had a special place in their heart for the series.

I tried to like Sailor Moon, believe me. And looking back now, I can see why I kept on watching, and why all my friends loved it. The show about a troupe of magical teen girls, led by our main character Usagi (or Serena in the U.S. version), who can transform into the beautiful Sailor Scouts, all represented by a planet in the solar system. These Sailor Scouts, use their powers to save the world from the dark grasp of the villainous Queen Beryl. You have it all there: magic, secret powers, and girls near our own age. It had the makings to be something great. And in Japan, it was.

The original series in Japan, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, received lots of acclaim and was even said to have revitalized the magical girl genre in both the manga and animation world. The manga won the Kodansha Manga Award in 1993 for shōjo and the show was said to be popular with girls because our heroines were using their power to save people, not just to have fun or play tricks, which was popular in other similar shows at the time.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 4.08.11 PMBut then DiC picked it up and tried to air it in America. And if people my age remember anything of what the TV landscape looked like in the early 1990s, we remember that what sold was often boxed in ‘80s packaging, with bright neon colors, some shoddy fight scenes, and a moral at the end of every story. Basically, if it wasn’t  “Saved by the Bell,” “Power Rangers,” or the like, it wasn’t selling.

So, though I don’t doubt them, it’s easy to see that DiC did their best to try to sell the Sailor Scouts — they added in gimmicky lessons at the end, awful Power Ranger-esque dialogue during fight scenes, and animation scenes more reused than a hipster’s mason jar collection.

The show also ran into some cultural barriers as well.  Scenes of near nudity, an implied lesbian relationship, and that infamous transformation scene all caused major controversial edits to be made to make the show “suitable for younger viewers.” But I also felt like something else was edited out: the fact that these girls were supposed to be heroes. I felt like Serena cried a lot, whined, and generally made life hard for all of the other Sailor Scouts until she was saved by the mysterious male lead, Tuxedo Mask.

Basically, it just felt like a bit of a letdown when a big battle would be about to take place, and Serena would run away and leave Tuxedo Mask to take care of most of the dirty work. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to like it so very badly, but at the end of the day I’d end up rotting my brains out to Cowboy Bebop instead.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 2.42.54 PMAnd I finished the series, but after that, I left the Sailor Scouts behind. I saw that several other series followed it, Sailor Moon S and Sailor Moon SuperS (as well as some films), so it must’ve still been doing well. But when Hulu started streaming the unedited series back in June, I watched a few episodes, and it wasn’t awful. I still didn’t really care for Serena, but it was more tolerable.

But then, two weeks ago, Hulu also started streaming the brand new Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal. And I decided to give it a go. It was hands-down one of the best animation choices I made this year (next to buying a Wacom and watching “Attack on Titan”) and I could not be happier with it.

First of all, it looks gorgeous. From the opening scene of the first episode you can practically hear creator Naoko Takeuchi yelling, “I take this seriously and so should you!” The animation is nearly flawless and crafted with such a light, careful hand — I can’t help but just watch it to stare at the craftsmanship.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 2.43.10 PMBut I also noticed something in the opening credits, the new theme song includes the lines, “We are not helpless girls/Who need men’s protection.” Now those are some big claims. And as I continued to watch the first two episodes (the third will be up next week), I think they’re going to keep their promise. Now sure, the show does not come without its problems.

It follows the manga more closely, which is nice, though a little too narratively tight at times for my taste. And Serena (now back to her original name, Usagi) is definitely still a teenager who is pegged immediately as popular and ditzy — but she wants to fight, she just doesn’t know how to use her powers yet. And once the other guardians are located and join the team, I can only see character growth coming our way. And I keep thinking this might just be the show I longed for when I was a young girl watching anime shows where, most of the time, guys got the save the day.

So, if you are like me, if you gave up on Sailor Moon all those years ago — or maybe you didn’t, maybe you stuck it out and are a die-hard fan — you’ll love this new installment. Even if you aren’t particularly into animation, the artwork is definitely worth an episode or two of your time.

The episodes are available for streaming on both Hulu and Crunchyroll. So in the name of the Moon, get to watching!

 

My Wonder Wharf: How Sunday’s Episode Proved that Bob’s Burgers is the Best Animated Comedy on Television Right Now

Bob's Burgers - Currently in Season 4
Bob’s Burgers – Currently in Season 4

To say that Bob’s Burgers switched it up last Sunday night is a major understatement. The first of the two-part installment, Wharf Horse (Or How Bob Saves/Destroys The Town—Part I), harkens back to the Simpsons’ Who Shot Mr. Burns? episode couplet.

But just comparing it to the Simpsons won’t cut it for me anymore, because with this episode, it seems a major change has taken place in the Bob’s Burgers universe — namely that the universe itself is starting to matter.

From the beginning of this episode, we know things are going to be different. Instead of the usual bright xylophone dings, we get a haunting establishing shot of Wonder Wharf — the central character of this episode. You heard me right, Wonder Wharf is the crowning jewel here. Not Gene’s one-liners, Linda antics, or the usual episode absurdities, all of which are hilarious in their own right. Tonight, Fischoeder’s borther, Felix, wants to destroy the wharf and build condos and a nightclub for his singing, 29-year-old girlfriend, Fanny, but Fischoeder doesn’t want to sell.

So Felix appeals to Bob’s fantasy — Bob’s Burgers on the beach — and all Bob has to do is convince Mr. F to sell the wharf. What follows is a decently funny plot of “kidnapping” Fischoeder, intermingled with Louise’s desire to ride the wharf’s new rollercoaster, and Tina’s need to save her old equine carousel companion, Mr. Goiter. The characters are spot-on — even when Linda is at her worst, she’s still the absolute best. Jordan Peele as Fanny was astoundingly creepy and Felix’s character was way more appealing than his original appearance in “Ambergris.”

So, though everything seemed to be in place, something still felt different. There weren’t as many 409-002-bobs-burgers-wharf-horse-photos-lightbox-tbdlaughable moments, but the longer the episode went on, I realized that getting laughs wasn’t the point — that’s not all Bob’s Burgers is going for anymore. There was a need to immerse the viewer in the universe that characters lived in.

The whole episode is dedicated to the history of the wharf — each plotline revolves around some aspect of it, and it means something to each of the characters. And I realized, like Dorothy’s beloved Kansas, the wharf had been there all along, another character hiding in the recesses of many of my favorite episodes — “Art Walk,” “The Deepening,” and others. It was clear; Wonder Wharf was becoming the new Springfield.

I started watching Bob’s Burgers only a few months ago, and when I decided to jump on board I was there for entertainment — I wanted laughs. They were delivered, tenderly grilled and severed up on a soft, funny pun. But after a few seasons, I could see that the writers were making me care about the family I was watching. I feel like the dynamic between the siblings got stronger, the plots are more intertwined in the desires of the parents, and I watch them all reach out to each other in very real ways, even if the situations were still insane. But with this episode, I felt the writers saying, “It’s time to go up another level, get to know more about this place, because it’s built to last.”

And with that, I was convinced — Bob’s Burgers is the best animated comedy on television right now. It fills the shoes set out by The Simpsons (who I believe have completely given up, now that they’ve announced a crossover episode with Family Guy and killing off a major character), it takes the regular family formula and goes deeper, and even when it switches things up, it’s definitely tasty enough to go on the specials board.

If you’re not watching yet, who are you? (And you can find the latest episodes on Hulu and past seasons on Netflix).