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25 Animated Films You MUST See #17: Song of The Sea

Everyone.

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.

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25 Animated Films You MUST See: #20 The Triplets of Belleville

When I was looking for a film for this week, I wanted something…new.

Different.

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…)

25 Animated Films You MUST See #22: Perfect Blue

Not exactly.

Perfect_BlueThat’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.

perfectblue1But 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.

25 Animated Films You MUST See 
#23: Cat Soup

unnamed-3Late 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.

unnamed-4The 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.

cat-soup-6But 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.

 

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25 Animated Films You MUST See: #24 Akira

unnamedAkira 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.

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But when I first saw this film, all I could think was “It’s like The Matrixbut 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 large akira1because 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.

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.”