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Mirai of the Future

(Catch my previous Hosoda film review here: The Boy and The Beast)

This past Thursday, I finally got a chance to watch Mamoru Hosoda’s new film on the big screen. God knows the thing has been hyped just about all year long, and being a sucker for critical praise (especially the fact that the film premiered at Cannes) as a deciding factor in my watching a film or not, I was pretty excited to watch it. Not to mention, I have seen all of Hosoda’s previous films, enjoyed them all immensely, and thereby jump at the chance to watch anything new in his output.

And, once again, Hosoda didn’t disappoint.

Mirai of the Future tells the story of a young boy named Kun whose parents are looking forward to the birth of a new child. At the beginning of the film, Kun is pretty excited about the prospect of having a sibling to play with as well. However, soon after his little sister, Mirai, is brought into the home, Kun realizes that rearing a baby takes a ton of time and energy on the part of his parents. What’s worse is that all this excess bonding time was once spent between he and his parents, and is now reserved almost entirely by his younger sister.

Kun is intensely jealous, and as a result, he begins to retreat into a world of fantasy and imagination wherein his younger sister visits him from the future as a teenage girl. His dog, Yukko, takes on an anthropomorphic personality within Kun’s revelries as ‘The Prince’: a figure who once ruled as the sole loved object of the father and mother of the household. When Kun arrived into the world some years prior, the dog was no longer given as much attention or treated quite the same as in his heyday and now he feels a certain resentment toward Kun and Mirai, despite also serving as their companion and protector. Yukko’s presence in Kun’s imagination is as an analogue of Kun himself who feels much the same way toward his little sister who must protect whilst simultaneously disliking for diverting away his parents attentions. Having a brother in arms like Yukko who has experienced the same loss of importance in the household helps Kun to work out and resolve the minor psychological trauma of suddenly finding himself a secondary magnet for his parents attention.

Mirai’s future self appears as a didactic symbol whose purpose is to endear Kun to his younger sister and to constantly remind him to treat her fairly. Her first appearance is on the day following ‘Girl’s Day’ during which a set of decorative Japanese dolls is set out to bring good luck to the newborn baby girl in the household. However, if the dolls are put away in their ceremonial boxes on the day following Girl’s Day, each additional day will supposedly prolong the date of the girl’s eventual marriage by an entire year. As Kun and Mirai’s father is relatively absent-minded, he forgets to put the dolls away. Mirai of the Future arrives to make sure the dolls are put away by Kun instead.

Throughout the film, Kun’s imaginative episodes grow in scope and vision as he eventually catapults backward in time to visit his relatives. In one of these episodes, he visits his mother as a child and learns what she was like when she was little like him. The two bond and become bosom friends, which helps Kun to understand his mother better and to later eke out more of her free time for himself despite Mirai’s presence.

Kun also meets his great-grandfather, the calm, cool, and collected ex-Air Force engine mechanic who now runs a motorcycle repair shop. From this man, Kun learns to stay focused on the horizon ahead whilst riding a motorcycle or any fort of vehicle, which later aids him in learning to ride a bicycle without help. He also finds out that the man was injured in the war when his ship was torpedoed and smashed to smithereens. As his great-grandfather lie on his back, floating atop the waves, blood streaming from his broken leg, the man decided that he must make an effort to swim the many miles toward shore lest he die right there and then. Without this action, Kun and Mirai would never have been born.

As the imaginative episodes increase in intensity and frequency, the audience becomes less and less certain that they are mere creations of Kun’s overactive mind. Rather, the possibility of real time travel becomes pretty apparent, especially insofar as Kun had no prior knowledge of who his great-grandfather was before he met him in one of his visions. The implication eventually becomes clear that all of these generations, tied together by small choices on the part of earlier generations that made the difference between existence and non-existence for those farther down the line, are connected by something like a genetic memory or a collective unconscious, or a real time loop that allows them to visit one another when necessary.

All in all, Kun learns many important lessons throughout the course of the film and comes to appreciate and love his little sister even though her presence leaves less time for him to spend with his parents. He learns to control his temper when it flares up and to think logically about situations before making decisions, such as his final decision to stop complaining about not having his yellow shorts to wear for a family outing (they are still in the drying machine when the family is set to leave) and instead to don his less favored blue ones in order to swiftly exit the house and thereby spend as much time as possible with his family that day. A minor lesson surely, but this is a film about children. Innocent ones to whom even a minor lesson is new and fresh and vibrant and world-changing in its implications.

Mamoru Hosoda has said that this film appears to be a specific narrative about the life of one family, and more specifically, the life of one little boy within that family. However, Hosoda also expresses his belief that this explanation is a mere canard. That in fact, it is a story about family and childhood in general, with universal implications for all people in all places. I, being an adult with no children and no plans to have any at any future date, find the film compelling. I think that pretty much proves Hosoda’s point.

 

Cody Ward

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Paprika

(Catch my previous Satoshi Kon film review out here: Tokyo Godfathers)

Satoshi Kon’s fourth film, released in 2006, was also his last as four years later, at the age of 46, he would die of pancreatic cancer before completing Dreaming Machines: the projected film that would have become his fifth feature. Despite this tragic course of events, Kon’s actual final film, Paprika, would later become his most well-known work and the one for which he is most often praised (at least in Western media).

The film is an adaptation of a 1993 sci-fi novel by Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui and is unique in that regard as very few of this author’s works had ever before been adapted into the medium of animation. More interesting still is the fact that not just the one, but two of Tsutsui’s works were adapted as animated features in the same year by rising auteurs in the field: the other being Mamoru Hosoda’s breakout 2006 film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (adapted from Tsutsui’s 1967 novel of the same name).

In addition to Tsutsui’s connection to the work are the inclusion of many greats on the production end of Kon’s film. Studio Madhouse once again provided funds for the creation and marketing of the film and Susumu Hirasawa provided one of his tautest musical scores hitherto to the production by pilfering through the best material from his previous band P-Model, his solo work and past film scores to craft a complex, rich, and often unsettling sound design. And if that weren’t enough, famed editor Takeshi Seyama provided editing on the picture. Seyama’s influence here cannot be understated as his work can and often has elevated good work to greatness and great work to legendary status. His extensive filmography includes such works as Akira, Venus Wars, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, Memories, Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze, Steamboy, Tetsujin 28, Elfen Lied, the previous Kon works’ Tokyo Godfathers and Paranoia Agent, as well as many pre-Ghibli Miyazaki and Takahata works and most films in the Studio Ghibli canon.

So what’s the film about you ask? The film is a sci-fi in which advances in depth psychology and cognitive science are at the centre. Scientists have developed a new field of study called Dream Therapy wherein the therapist enters the dreams of a sleeping patient in order to help guide them through the traumas and anxieties preventing them from living life to its fullest. The technology associated with such a process is called the DC Mini and when worn by a patient, it records the memories of patients and allows them to later be analyzed or even revisited by the patient or the psychologist present. Furthermore, when the psychologist wears a DC Mini along with the patient and both simultaneously fall asleep, the DC allows the psychologist to enter the dreams of the patient and thereby provide more hands-on therapy to better lead the patient toward recovery.

However, Dream Therapy is still highly controversial and any experimental psychologists planning to test it out must do so surreptitiously and without being caught by the government, lest they lose all funding for engaging in a therapy whose safety has not yet been assessed. Nonetheless, a doctor named Atsuko Chiba is a close colleague of the creator of the DC Mini: Kosaku Tokita. As such, Chiba has made it her duty as a scientist and a friend (and quite more as we will later learn )of Tokita to test the DC Mini on patients who experience debilitating anxiety or trauma and respond to no other therapy options.

The story from here is that a detective named Torataro Shima is one of Chiba’s clients. He has grown enamored with Chiba’s DC Mini alter ego Paprika and rather enjoys his therapy sessions. But in the background, a luddite force is trying to prevent the DC Mini from passing safety inspections to allow the free domain of dreams to remain thus. Although the goal is noble enough, it is a regressive step in the face of technology and one that could prevent many a person from overcoming their psychological problems to consequently live a better life. After the director of the program begins to experience dreams in waking life and act erratically and dangerously thereby, the detective’s dreams are slowly taken over by an outside force. It is up to Paprika-Chiba to dig deep within herself to unlock the power necessary to dispel all of the insidious forces at play and restore normalcy to the world before the realms of dream and of reality merge indefinitely.

Paprika is a heartfelt film that calls on its viewers to never forget or forego their goals (their ‘dreams’) in life and to accept their feelings in order to find happiness. It is a narrative of eventual success of the progressive spirit over against the reactionary forces in society. It is an exercise in meta-cinema (as are most Kon films). And it is an arthouse film with more imagination and visual splendor than anything live-action or CG cinema could even aspire to in that time or today. And I earnestly hope that in the coming years, this and all the works of Satoshi Kon continue to grow in cultural relevance and push filmmakers to press onward creatively into new meta-cinematic and hyper-visual territories.

 

Cody Ward

The Creation of Birds (La creation des oiseaux)

(Check out my review of Frederic Back’s previous film here: Abracadabra)

Frederic Back was a Quebecois animator whose career as an animator and as a graphic artist in the stained glass medium goes back to the late 1940s. That is, a full twenty years or more before he began directing his own animated short films in 1970 with his debut Abracadabra. That film was a paltry 9 minutes in length, despite taking Back many months to make. But those were the demands of the medium before digital assistance techniques and when one was producing works on a shoe-string budget with few fellow collaborators.

His second film, The Creation of Birds, would not be released on syndicated Canadian TV until 1972 though it only clocked in at 11 minutes. However, the film is interesting insofar as it continues to lay bare Back’s ideological commitment to ecology through its personification of nature as a mythic force to be revered and respected. The more central focus of the piece is to present a past narrative, however. In this case, a classic Native American tale about the cycle of the seasons. The short length of the animation, in addition to its nature as a mere recounting, means that Back relinquished any inclination toward didacticism and instead merely presented an interesting- albeit obviously pre-modern and pre-scientific myth- in order to entertain a young audience.

The story begins with a group of Native American (I use this term broadly here as the particular Nation or Tribe to which they belong is not made explicit in the text)  children as they romp about in an idyllic world. Here, the deer, the birds, and men roam together throughout the eternally virgin land wherein the cold of frost has never once killed off any living creature, and presumably, wherein no animal finds it necessary to consume one another for sustenance. A Chieftain smokes a pipe and sits happily upon a tree log in a small dell. The children approach and knock the man off of his seat, whereupon he drops his pipe and loses his composure momentarily. But these are good times and the man immediately forgives the children for their indiscretion just as they recognize the error in their tomfoolery and begin to help the man reclaim his pipe and reposition himself upon his perch.

However, this idyllic scene cannot remain eternally so after all. A large wolf spirit descends from the heavens and brings along with him a strong wind that transforms the foliage into a glorious assemblage warm colors. A cool breeze appears, which subsequently forces the people to retire beneath structures for warmth during the night. Later, a polar bear spirit appears and wards off the wolf. With the bear comes a blanket of white snow that covers the domiciles of the land, forces trees to become bare and lose their leaves, and drives off birds whilst killing other animals unaccustomed to the change in temperatures.

Just as the people begin to feel the pressure of the new state of things and begin to become malnourished, one of the girls breaks out in tears. The depth of her dread projects these tears toward the heavens wherein a god decides to send along a message to the sun using smoke signals from his pipe. Then, the sun awakens and thaws out the land. The god descends and breathes life back into the world. Birds lay eggs and chicks hatch and begin their incessant chirping as flowers bloom and new fawn and human children are born. The cycle of seasons becomes a yearly phenomena as this mythological procession of spirits and personified celestial objects giveth and then taketh away in equal measure.

The film is animated mostly through the use of cut-out animations on painted backdrops. The form is reminiscent of methods employed in the graphic works of French artist Henri Matisse augmented with a then-modern liberal application of color palette associated with the late-1960s counterculture. However, the animation lacks a fluidity that Back’s works would later gain and retains an amateurish, experimental quality one might expect of such a green director, though decidedly not of someone who had been working in the field for decades already.

I can’t really say that I recommend viewers watch these first two early Frederic Back animations. However, for the cineastes and cinephiles of this platform who find themselves studying animation history, these animations are a must-view. At very least insofar as they can help one better understand how an obscure Quebecois animator making shorts for TV syndication became the auteur of The Man Who Planted Tree/ L’Homme qui Plantait des Arbres, and eventually influenced figures as important as Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli.

 

Ciao,

Cody Ward

Ride Lonesome

(Catch my previous Western film review out here: Buchanan Rides Alone)

The fifth installment of director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott’s Ranown Cycle of Westerns, Ride Lonesome, is a return to form after two relatively low quality dramas immediately preceding it: Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone. Although the film was scripted by Burt Kennedy (who scripted five out of seven of the films in the cycle) and was executive produced by Harry Joe Brown (who served in this role on a total of four out of the seven pictures), Ride Lonesome was the first move toward a producer credit for director Budd Boetticher who took this aforementioned credit presumably because he offered up some money toward the film’s budget or sacrificed some of his director’s fee to create it to his own artistic specifications. On future productions, Boetticher would realize he could retain more creative control in such a position and as such, Harry Joe Brown’s involvement would later be discarded in lieu of Boetticher producing and directing the remaining films in the cycle himself.

The film is also notable for the first reoccurring actor in the series besides the Ranown lead Randolph Scott. This actor was one Karen Steele who had previously played the character of damsel in distress and heroine Lucy Summerton in Decision at Sundown. Steele would later appear in one more film of the cycle, Westbound, before appearing in Budd Boetticher’s 1960 gangster film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. 

Ride Lonesome begins as a bounty hunter named Ben Brigade (Scott) sulks through a deep rocky gorge looking for his quarry: a man named Billy John who killed someone in cold blood back in Santa Cruz. Billy John and his ilk represent unrepentant evil throughout the film and threaten, at the film’s opening coda, to make the picture into another stale classical Western exercise in form. Brigade tracks the young man down, but is surrounded immediately by Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) and posse who threaten to kill the ageing bounty hunter if he tries to take the youth in. Brigade is crazed, however, now a man seemingly with nothing left to lose. He tells the posse that if they shoot at him, Billy John will die immediately as well, and aims his rifle toward the boy’s head. They relent and Brigade’s long trip toward Santa Cruz begins.

Along the way, Brigade runs into a woman named Carrie Lane (Steele) whose husband has been missing for some time. As there are roving Mescalero Apache Indians about and out for blood in the territory, Brigade believes her husband has been killed, and his gut reactions are later vindicated when a group of Mescalero approach and try to trade a couple of horses to Brigade for the young woman, one of which belonged to her late husband.

In addition to angry Mescalero Indians and the nihilistic evils of Frank’s posse trying to kill Brigade and get their hands on Billy John, there is the duo of Sam Boone and Whit (James Coburn) who are old friends of Brigade’s, but are found in an abandoned stagecoach stop where they seemed to have set themselves up to rob the next unsuspecting passerby. Instead, they latch onto Brigade’s crew and offer their help in warding off Frank’s gang, with the implicit knowledge between the two parties that Sam and Whit will rebel and take Billy John for themselves when the opportunity comes. Sam and Whit own a large ranch out in the Western territories and wish to work the soil and live upright moral lives, but they both have committed crimes in their pasts and therefore must turn in a criminal of Billy John’s caliber to receive absolution in the name of the law, clear their names, and once again build their reputations as upstanding members of society.

By the film’s denouement, we learn the true reasoning behind Brigade’s quarrel with Billy John. We learn of the untimely, unnatural death of his late wife at the hands of Frank who killed her out of purely psychotic reasoning. But the two have their day in the sun, and the our hero barely scrapes by once again. Brigade’s methods are extra-judicial, and as a bounty hunter he is a figure both outside of civil society and necessary for its continuation in the Old West’s social system. He is a heroic figure who represents the forces of moral law whilst often breaking with the strict rules of legal dictum, and thereby he is an antihero. His foils are the unrepentant totally evil Frank who hung Brigade’s wife only to wound Brigade’s pride and emotional stability, as well as the upstanding and moral Sam Boone who is loyal to his friends and wishes to live a life of good moral virtue but has a dark past that he is always running away from: a dark past he may only be able to escape through one final, fatal confrontation with his friend Brigade. A confrontation against the basic tenets of Sam’s nature. But hell, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Ride Lonesome is a classic Revisionist Western before the term became vogue, and a refined Classical Western at a time when the genre was becoming stultified and stagnant. It is a very basic tale of one man’s justifications up against the justifications of numerous other actors, all with their ‘own reasons’ (to borrow a Jean Renoir-ian comment on the banality of evil and human action). It is a story told a hundred times made all the more potent and powerful through its broaching of postmodern morality, or anti-morality as it were, attendant within the post-World War II world wherein the bountiful fruits of human rationality gave way to the wasteland:

‘A heap of broken images, where the sun beats.                                                                              And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,                                                          And the dry stone no sound of water.’

A West with no moral sentiments recognized as anything greater than human invention. An innocence lost, squandered, needlessly slaughtered at the sacrificial table under the knife of a father working the miracles of man, for the sake of man, but in the name of his God. And only to one end: to leave the world ignoble, stripped of all honor, dignity, and fellow feeling. To leave behind a realm wherein there is surely no revelation at hand.

 

Cody Ward

Tokyo Godfathers

(Catch my previous Satoshi Kon film review here: Millennium Actress)

In 2003, Satoshi Kon released another one of his magnum opuses. This time a loose adaptation of a 1913 novel by Peter B. Kyne entitled 3 Godfathers that had previously been adapted for live-action cinema in the States on three different occassions (the most famous of which being John Ford’s 1948 version). Together with screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto (Macross Plus, Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain), Satoshi Kon adapted the screenplay into an equally cinematic work par excellence and modified its characters and settings to a world more familiar and close to home for himself. The three men became a group of homeless people who happen upon a child that has seemingly been abandoned. Their world: modern-day Japan’s Megalopolis and Capitol city.

The three godfathers are interesting figures in Kon’s film that all have very unique, distinct personalities and identities. There is Hana, a transgender woman who once lived a life of elegance and camp as a singer in a bar for queens. She found love in a conventional manner with her husband Ken who unfortunately died in an accident. Distraught, Hana took to the streets and stopped finding joy in life. Together with her two friends, however, she has created a lifestyle on the streets as a homeless person with some semblance of a family.

Her counterpart, steadfast friend, and would-be emotional lover is Gin. A gruff man who enjoys ribbing Hana for her queerness, but does so in good fun typically. He took to the streets supposedly after his daughter died and he lost his career as a professional bike racer for purposely losing a match to make more money through a gambler friend of his. We later learn that his reasoning for leaving behind his family was much more banal, and thereby Gin loses much of his tragic quality over the course of the film, finally becoming an absurd figure of sorts. Luckily, he manages to reconnect with his daughter, who actually never died, as well as strengthening the ties between himself and Hana through their fleeting foster parent status of the young Kiyoko (the abandoned baby found at the film’s beginning).

Finally, the third of the ‘godfathers’ is Miyuki, a young girl who has run away from home and become a delinquent. She used to be an obese young girl when she lived at home, but has since lost a ton of weight due to the oft-time difficulty finding food and the constant need to move around to find trash to recycle for money throughout the city. She thinks of herself as an adult, as an equal in the ‘family’ she has established with Gin and Hana. However, it is clear that the others see her as a daughter figure, and for Gin in particular as a proxy for his own daughter. When the three find a baby in a pile of trash, they take her in and try to find her real parents, which serves as the plotline for the majority of the film and leads the trio into many interesting scenarios. Gin decides to call her Kiyoko, the name of his own real daughter, and thereby this new child becomes the new proxy for that lost child and Miyuki’s status is lowered somewhat.

After acquiring the child, the three godfathers follow up every lead they can to track down the real parents of the child rather than merely turning her in to the police or to a local hospital. This goes directly against the wishes of Gin initially to rid themselves of the child quickly, but Hana wants to feel motherly for a time and as such, the group goes along with her plan. They search the trash near where the child was found and collect a photo with a picture of a young couple and a card to a fancy club downtown. The picture also features the front of a house wherein the young couple pictured therein most likely lived, and locals in the area directly surrounding that house give more vital details.

In every new lead, the group find themselves in some form of mortal danger but always manage to escape harm (except for when Gin is attacked by a group of teenagers looking to ‘clean up’ the city). When their leads begin to dry up, they always spectacularly find a new one to continue the search. And when all looks hopeless, the miraculous occurs. This theme of miraculous events in their search during the Christmas season for Kiyoko’s parents is ubiquitous throughout the picture and lends to it an artful veracity that helps to raise the film above the level of your typical anime film fare. Though the story is particular, it reaches toward the universal through its themes and toward the timeless through its relation to cinema history and to a Western tradition of filmmaking that links it to one of America’s greatest auteurs in John Ford. All of these features of the film as well as the compelling visual style common to Satoshi Kon’s works make Tokyo Godfathers another classic work in Kon’s oeuvre. An oeuvre of only five anime works that unarguably contains five classic, top-form works that will remain seminal in Japanese animation history for decades and generations to come.

This film, like all of Kon’s anime works, was created through funding by Studio Madhouse. Like most of his works at the Studio, it was produced by the legendary co-founder of the Studio Masuo Maruyama. And again, like all of his films, this one received many accolades upon its premiere including Best Animation Film at the Mainichi Film Festival and the Excellence Prize from the Japan Media Arts Festival. But most importantly, it has a reputation as a great film that transcends the medium of animation and should be counted amongst the greatest films in any medium, or at least the top 1000 you should watch at some point before you die, leave this earth, and return back to the void of nothingness from whence you arose.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: Paprika]

Abracadabra

Frederic Back was one of the most important and acclaimed animators in Canada throughout his relatively short career in the 1970s through the early 1990s. Although born in The Territory of the Saar Basin (a dual-occupied U.K.-French territory that created from the acquisition of German holdings after WWI), he grew up in the cosmopolitan French-German town of Strasbourg. Many of his teenage and young adult years were spent in Paris before Back moved to Quebec in 1948 along with his family to take a job with Radio-Canada TV as an artist for TV show title sequences. During this period, he honed his minimalist skills as an animator, creating beautiful, albeit minor works, akin to those being developed simultaneously by Jean Giraud ‘Moebius’ back in France. After a dozen years in Canada working on title sequences as well as stained glass artistry, he was given the opportunity to direct his first work for Radio-Canada TV: 1970’s short film Abracadabra.

Directed, animated, and co-written by Back (alongside screenwriter Graeme Ross), this first work would lay out much of the groundwork for Back’s future projects. The artwork is very minimalistic, and his characters (four young children of different ethnicities) border on stereotype as Back works to develop a film about a subtext, about ideas rather than about characters. His bold line is reminiscent of Herge and other classic comic artists, and thereby openly at odds with the Disney Paradigm of animation, as well as the burgeoning Japanese animation styles popular at the time. Back’s art is staunchly within a European tradition of cartooning that was being lost to much of the world, and is today nearly completely absent except in the most underground of Underground Comix or Graphic Novels. It draws from deep wellsprings of tradition: from tribal and cave art, from traditional comics, from impressionism and pointillism, and overall from a rather effete artistic context.

However, the content of the film is itself quite banal. Abracadabra is a fairy tale of sorts recounting the children of the Earth living an idyllic life amongst the flowers and sunshine, innocents untarnished by the industrialization and commercialization of a post-WWII post-God post-modern world. A sorcerer enters the picture and decides to use his magic to steal the sun, to use his techno-fascist alchemy to claim total rights to a resource that ought to be open to all, part of the commons. He spirits away the sun, and total darkness descends upon the land. All plants begin to die, storms pour forth rain perpetually, and the joy of the our young Scandinavian blonde girl is destroyed. But she is no pushover. She decides to travel the world to find others like herself, ecological warriors who wish to fight back and return joy to their world by combating the exploitative forces whose wastefulness and capitalist evil threaten to make the world into a veritable hellhole.

The film is only nine minutes long and obviously serves as a pedagogical tool for the network Back was working for at the time. Its sentiments and approach are a bit obvious, but excusable in the context of a work broaching complex topics to a young audience. These ecological and socialist sentiments were very important to Back and to much of the world at this particular point in time, 1970, and would be topics that would only grow in prominence and import in the modern world to this day. Unfortunately, Back made the egregious mistake in his first film of portraying the polluters of the world as total, unrepentant evil fools. The realities of socio-economic forces that drive capitalists to make the world a worse place to live within, on occasion, are quite matter of fact, and those who engage in such activities are rarely as evil as represented in artistic works. And works like Abracadabra unfortunately perpetuate stereotypes that prevent the average person from better understanding such complex issues. Luckily, Back would become a more nuanced activist and artist in his future works that broach topics like environmentalism and animal rights.

Back in Japan, a young animator named Isao Takahata who had already directed his first feature film, Horus: Prince of the Sun in 1968, would come across the works of this middle-aged Frenchman Frederic Back and champion him as a cause celebre years later for his inspirational role in Takahata’s own works. Specifically, Takahata found that Back’s approach to filmmaking and animation was one of the first real, modern attempts to import meaningful issues into the medium and to create an animation for adults and children alike. He valued Back’s willingness to attack issues in the real world through his animation’s narratives rather than merely serving up facile surfaces for mass consumption, or worse yet, mere fables and banal morality tales ala Disney.

And most importantly, Takahata valued Back’s artistic proclivity and interest in making his films look great from a painterly perspective, his ability to condense and elongate time along with the best live-action directors, and the poetic pacing of his films. Although the 1960s were over and the hippie movement had been dealt a decisive death blow at Altamont, the ecological, social, and political consciousness of artists was still in vogue. And visual artists, above all others, were still producing highly ambitious works of an experimental nature that rejected brutal art in lieu of aesthetically pleasing works. Together, Back and Takahata, through their willingness to create conventionally beautiful art that tried its best never to talk down to an audience whilst essaying important topics and reflecting the real world, helped to promote a new artistic movement within animation that I refer to as Animated Poetic Realism (and discuss in more detail HERE) of which their later respective films L’homme qui plantait des arbres and Gauche the Cellist would serve as paramount examples.

But while Takahata was already well on his way to creating works in this vein, it would take a few more tries for Back to really crack the critical bubble and make himself well known. At least as well known as he would ever really become in a market wherein quality is always the first element discarded in favor of bullshit for the least common denominator.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: The Creation of Birds]

Buchanan Rides Alone

(Catch my previous Western film review here: Decision at Sundown)

Unless the film I’m reviewing has a really novel plot or rare characters or an interesting subtext I’ve yet to fully reflect upon, I often opt for an essay on the placement of the film within its cinematic and historical context. In this case, Buchanan Rides Alone, the fourth of seven films in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown Cycle of Westerns is a relatively simple story. A lone gunman named Tom Buchanan (Randolph Scott) enters a small Texas-Mexico border town, and although unusually jovial and easy to get along with compared to figures like Clint Eastwood’s (Sergio Leone’s) Man With No Name, Buchanan still ends up provoking the ire of the Agry Family who own and operate the town, which is even named Agry.

Over the remainder of the film, a young man named Roy Agry comes galloping into town with a young Mexican bandit named Esteban Gomez following closely on his heels. The young man kills Roy Agry, and somehow Buchanan becomes caught up in the entire scandal, and is taken for an accomplice by the Agry Family. Buchanan narrowly avoids being killed by a duo of hired guns by the Agry Family, ostensibly to send the old gunman on his way out of town, when Pecos Hill (played by the great character actor and Sam Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones) warms to the old man and double crosses his fellow gunman to free Buchanan. The remainder of the film is something of a comedy of errors in which Pecos is killed and Buchanan is returned to jail, escapes jail and saves Juan Gomez, is returned to jail, and eventually has a final confrontation with the Agry Family Sheriff.

Like all three previous films in the Ranown Cycle, Buchanan Rides Alone displays revisionist tendencies within its subtext. First off, Juan Gomez is a criminal who killed Roy Agry while he was unarmed, and thereby, from the perspective of the townsfolk, Tom Buchanan is an anti-hero. His alliance with Juan Gomez, a convicted criminal, promises to upend the Agry Dynasty and make the territory a better place for its non-Agry inhabitants. As such, on the very face of it, the film is a Revisionist Western in which the rich and the entitled are murdered for political reasons of making the plight of the average person better. However, only Buchanan learns of Juan Gomez’ reasoning for killing Roy Agry: the young man raped and killed Gomez’ sister and was running from Juan when he entered what he thought to be the safe haven of Agry Town. This means that Buchanan is a bit more morally conventional, though the prospect of a young white man (Roy) being the villain and of a young gunman of color (Juan) being a moral hero is still revisionist as it steers clear and subverts the typical Western racial characterology.

Buchanan Rides Alone was the second film nominally scripted by Charles Lang. However, his initial edit was not up to snuff, not up to the standard at which Randolph Scott or Budd Boetticher were accustomed, and as such, they hired on Burt Kennedy to shape the script into a workable form. When the film was released, Land retained billing as the screenwriter, despite the bulk of the work being actually completed by Kennedy, and purportedly because Lang was falling on hard times and really needed the money. All in all, Kennedy would be the go-to screenwriter for the Ranown Cycle, eventually penning five out of seven of the film’s in the series (the other two being Lang’s sole true script, as well as a script by Boetticher himself). The film also continued the Boetticher-Scott partnership with producer Harry Joe Brown who produced the majority of the films in the cycle.

Another notable figure involved in the production of Buchanan Rides Alone is the cinematographer Lucien Ballard who was then just beginning the most prestigious period of his career. In 1956, two years prior to Buchanan, Ballard scripted the classic Stanley Kubrick film noir The Killing. A year prior to that, he began his long career alongside Budd Boetticher as cinematographer on The Magnificent Matador. Ballard would later collaborate with Boetticher on The Killer is Loose in 1956, episodes of the TV show Maverick in 1957, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond in 1960, and Boetticher’s final films in the late sixties, early seventies, and mid-eighties: A Time for Dying (’69), Arruzi (’72), and My Kingdom For… (’85)

Two years after the completion of the Ranown Cycle, in 1962, Lucien Ballard would provide cinematography for Randolph Scott’s final film: Ride the High Country. A fitting end to a great, esteemed career, the movie was also the first real critical triumph of Sam Peckinpah’s directorial career. Together, he and Ballard would continue to work together on a number of important films including The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getawayand Junior Bonner. 

Martin Scorsese once spoke of the Ranown Cycle as a series of Westerns in which a lone gunman encounters trouble and meets an outlaw who shares a moral code and a sense of honor with himself. The outlaw in these films is supposed to be something like a shadow, like the dark eternal opposite, of the the protagonist (always Randolph Scott) who has merely been unlucky in life and has fallen into ruin, into disrepute, and into a life on the run. Scott and Richard Boone, or Scott and Lee Marvin, are the examples par excellence in the four films I’ve reviewed thus far. These men are charismatic and seemingly good, and thereby their proclivity toward evil serves as a reminder of the evil dwelling within all men, just waiting for the opportune moment to escape.

They are foils for Scott that reveal that he is only noble, his is only morally upright because of his social predicament, and that if something were to change in that society, he could easily become like The Misfit of John Ford’s The Searchers or in the fictions of Flannery O’Conner. That at a moments notice, the animal side of his nature might make itself apparent, and through it the absurdity of life with all of its banality and lack of ontological grounding for morals, for the belief in higher powers, or for even common human feeling toward one another. And the weakest element of Buchanan Rides Alone is that this foil for our protagonist is not present, and thereby the whole exercise seems for naught. Beyond the basic commercial qualification of providing audiences with an easily understood piece of media to consume, this particular saga in the Ranown Cycle is of little merit. Especially when measured up to the power of The Tall T or Seven Men From Now.

 

Cody Ward

[Next Up: Ride Lonesome]

Decision at Sundown

(Catch my previous Western film review here: The Tall T)

The third film in Budd Boetticher’s Western Ranown Cycle is also the second picture the director made in 1957. Like his previous picture, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown was produced by Harry Joe Brown would continue on to produce three of the remaining four pictures in the cycle. This film was Boetticher’s first collaboration with screenwriter Charles Lang who would later contribute the screenplay for one more picture in the series. But most importantly, the heroine of Decision at Sundown, was one Karen Steele who would later appear in two more films from the cycle, Ride Lonesome and Westbound as well as Boetticher’s first film after completion of the Ranown Cycle: 1960’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. 

A man named Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) and his friend Sam open the film as a pair of outlaws who have commandeered a stagecoach and forced its drivers to bring them a few miles out from a town called Sundown. From there, they ride horses into town and immediately begin to use their gifts of gab to track down a man named Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) who has apparently done some wrong to Bart in the past. After asking around, they find that Tate is indeed in town, and has become something a big shot in these parts with his connections to the town’s lawmen Sheriff Swede Hansen and Deputy Spanish. Furthermore, today of all days is Tate’s wedding day and he is set to marry a young dame named Lucy Summerton (Steele) whose father’s riches are the real object of Tate’s attentions.

As Sam and Bart make their way into a barber shop and make clear their open animosity toward Tate, the aforementioned father of Lucy Summerton, Mr. Charles Summerton, is present. He runs back to tell Tate about the two seedy-looking rogues who came into town with five o’clock shadow and bad intentions. But when Summerton visits Tate, he finds him holed up in his hotel room with a young woman named Ruby James (Valerie French) who has long captured Tate’s amorous attentions, but has escaped his matrimonial intentions by being of low breeding and with no family fortune to function as a dowry. Tate is revealed here to be a player, a greedy man, and an all around jerk, though none of these attributes quite qualify the man as one deserving of death by the guns of an outlaw.

As Sam and Bart cavort around town, they make their way to the local saloon where drinks that day are all on Tate’s dime. Bart, not wishing to accrue any debts of any kind to his mortal enemy, decides to pay the barkeep instead of mooching off of Tate. But the local Sheriff, who is in Tate’s posse and pocket, dislikes this behavior. He takes Bart’s money, throws it in a spittoon, and then hocks a big one right in it. Bart keeps his cool, which throws the Sheriff into an even more hostile attitude. Unfortunately for him, Bart has broken no laws and as such, cannot and should not be subject to any brute force by the sheriff’s hands. Sheriff Swede leaves in disgust, much to the pleasure of the barkeep who openly dislikes Tate and all of his ilk.

After depositing their horses at a local stable, Sam and Bart meet the town Doctor, one Mr. Storrow, who also admits that he dislikes Tate and what he and his friends have done to his town. When time for the wedding comes around, the doctor attends arm in arm with Ruby James as a visual sort of protest. Bart enters the chapel with his gun, and instead of pumping Tate full of lead right there and then, he speaks up when given the chance during the ceremony (‘Speak now or forever hold your peace.’) and promises to kill Tate before sundown that evening. He also warns Lucy not to marry the man as she will surely be a widow the following morning.

The concept sounds good in theory, but in practice going to a wedding and making such big proclamations about planning to kill the groom don’t go over so well. The Sheriff and his Deputy follow Sam and Bart out, pick up their guns at the door, and end up trapping the two men inside the stables where a stand-off occurs for hours on end. Eventually, Deputy Spanish makes his move and tries to enter the room from a window, only to have his gun arm hacked into with a large meat hook. Sam and Bart spare his life, the doctor arrives and heals him up, and as time carries on, the townsfolk begin to realize that this moment might be their only chance to rest back their town from the likes of Sheriff Swede and Tate Kimbrough.

After an egregious event in which Sam leaves the stable to give up and is shot down in cold blood by the Swede, the Doctor, the barkeep, a local ranch owner Morley Chase and his boys arrest and disarm all of the Sheriff’s men and local militia who have the stable surrounded. The Sheriff is then forced to take on Bart Allison mano e mano, which ends in the former’s death. And then, only Tate is left.

By this point in the film, there have been mentions of Bart’s reasons for wanting to kill Tate. We learn that Tate screwed Bart’s wife Mary years ago while he was away on a trip. Mary killed herself some time thereafter and Bart blamed Tate who he thought had raped his wife and left her with the requisite psychical trauma to go and off herself like she’d done. It is slowly revealed that in fact, Mary was a loose woman and was seeing men like Tate behind Bart’s back all the time. Moreover, she was so difficult to reign in not because of some mere moral defect, but because she suffered from some sort of psycho-sexual disorder that also pushed her toward suicide. As Bart learns of this reality, he ends up leaving Tate alive, though the townsfolk cast him out of Sundown nonetheless, and they champion Bart as a hero.

Unlike the traditional Western with its clear black and white distinctions, here we have only obfuscation. Tate is no devil in disguise. No, he is a man with a sordid past and a charming demeanor who finds it easy to woo women, and just so happened to woo the wrong one. Bart is no true hero vanquishing evil from a town for the benefit of the good townsfolk. He is bent upon revenge based on mistaken assumptions about a past event. And he couldn’t ultimately give a damn about the well-being of the town itself. Neither man is totally evil, and neither is unrepentantly good. They are real people, populating one of the most realistic Western scenarios wherein gunslingers are not gods with inhuman reflexes working in the name of one metaphysical entity or another, but human beings, flawed and weak-natured as any others.

 

Cody Ward

[Up next: Buchanan Rides Alone]

The Tall T

(Catch my previous Western film review here: Seven Men from Now)

The Tall T, released in 1957, is the second Western in actor Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher’s late-fifties Ranown Cycle. The film was the second collaboration in the projected series with screenwriter Burt Kennedy, as well as the first film collaboration in the cycle with producer Harry Joe Brown who would continue on to produce three more of the films. The Tall T is probably also the most well-known of the film’s in the Ranown Cycle today as it was discussed by popular American auteur filmmaker Martin Scorsese in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, specifically in his Western subsection of Part 1 The director as storyteller. 

In this fifteen minute segment of Scorsese’s sprawling send-up to the films that inspired him as a young man and a budding filmmaker, he discusses how the changing of the times in American society in the mid-twentieth century can be registered and understood merely by watching three different Westerns starring John Wayne and directed by John Fordeach separated by a production window of about a decade each. The winsome, roguish Wayne of Stagecoach evolves into the middle-aged, morally commanding general of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon before finally evolving into the Misfit of 1957’s The Searchers. This figure is nihilistic, hardened by his times and more of a comment on post-WWII sensibilities in the new moral vacuum of our world’s wasteland than anything truly reminiscent of the figures of the Old West.

Scorsese recounts how the same trend toward nihilism, toward moral relativism, and toward absurdity in the Western, and by consequence in the artistic and cultural landscape of American life, became more obvious than ever before in the 1950s. He points to the example of Anthony Mann’s sparse Freudian Westerns like The Furies and works like The Naked Spur in which even the usually-jovial and father-like James Stewart becomes an unrepentant immoralist, as a bounty hunter who has lost all sense of honor and dignity, as a man who would track down an innocent man, a framed man, with a bounty on his head, kill him, and then haul his body into town merely to claim a reward.

Likewise, through the example of The Tall T as a stand-in for the entire Ranown Cycle, Scorsese explains that the nihilistic and amoral culture fomented by the rock and roll revolution of the late 40s and early 50s was reflected almost solely in one cinematic genre, the Western, which would premeditate the American New Wave by more than fifteen years. Auteurs like Budd Boetticher worked at this time within the uniquely American cinematic genre of the Western, and those auteurs amongst the studio ranks brought to bear upon it a feeling of moral vacuity in a world wherein scientific advances had increasingly chiseled away at any sense of human moral, ontological, spiritual, or cosmological superiority. A world wherein religious men and women could commit genocide against their brothers en masse in concentration camps. Wherein Christian nations warred against Christian nations and scientists at the beck and call of their military superiors created tools and weapons to harness the very power of the gods themselves.

Boetticher’s lone gunman, always played by Randolph Scott in the Ranown Cycle, is a moral figure with a code of honor, a code of right action. In this sense, he is a classical Western protagonist, a force of good and a stand-in for the bringer of salvation. However, his antagonists are never as morally simplistic, never totally evil figures in any sense. In Seven Men from Now, Lee Marvin played opposite Scott as a roguish figure out to help the lone gunman in his quest to decommission those who killed his wife in a hold-up at the bank back in his hometown. But Marvin’s only condition is that he must get the money at the end of the mission, which runs counter to Scott’s plan to vindicate himself by returning it to the bank, becoming a hero in his town, and once again being named Sheriff. Marvin’s aim is not immoral as he did not kill anyone to get the many except for murderers, but he nonetheless runs up against Scott for personal reasons, which eventually forces the two men to shoot it out, and honorably so I might add.

In The Tall T, Scott plays Pat Brennan, an ageing ranch owner who is unmarried and thereby without an heir to his vast holdings. After a visit to a neighboring ranch on which he makes a bet for his horse that he can ride a particularly aggressive bull, and loses, he is forced to walk the twenty or so miles back to his ranch. Along the way, his friend Rintoon, a local stagecoach driver picks him up and allows him to ride with the newlyweds therein, Willard and Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan), as they just happen to be passing by Brennan’s ranch on the way back into town. Unfortunately, at the first stagecoach station along the way, they find that the entire place has been taken over a trio of outlaws who have also killed everyone within and placed their bodies out back in the well. The group is more brutal than most outlaws portrayed by this point in time in Western films, and the gruesome nature of their actions is more closely akin in its depravity to the inscrutable actions of outlaws from the Western fictions of Cormac McCarthy more than two decades later, or to the antagonists, like The Misfit, in Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic works being published contemporaneously in the mid-1950s.

Brennan’s pal Rintoon is gunned down, as would be his three passengers if not for the fact that Mrs. Mims’ father is a big copper mine businessman in the region and may potentially be able to pay a handsome ransom for her safe return. The money-hungry Willard Mims is the one to originally propose such an option to the bandits, which unveils his character as corrupted, and will ultimately lead to the much more honorable leader of the bandits, Frank Usher (Richard Boone), to gun the man down.

Usher takes a liking to Brennan over the course of their days waiting for the ransom money to turn up out in the desert, and he reveals that his two misogynistic, drunken pals are kept around for their skill with pistols and other firearms. Usher has tired of their presence and seems to be intimating that Brennan could live if he helped him to take out the two goons, turned his back on his ranch, and decided to join Usher. But Brennan will have none of this talk, he is a plain spoken man who understands that life is hard, but that crime is no way to build one’s fortune, and that Usher’s past crimes will dog him till the day he dies, preventing him thereby from ever attaining a ranch like Brennan’s, and the sense of home, of security, and belonging it brings.

In one of the greatest scenes in the film, Usher responds merely that he has no choice but to live his life of crime, no choice but to continue falling in with this crowd. Brennan merely responds, ‘Don’t you?’ The tensions are palpable and Usher becomes heated, almost reveals his scorpion nature beneath the jovial exterior, and then decides to suppress it when he hears his companions approach from below the ridge.

Ultimately, the two men must face off in mortal combat with one another, something which could have been avoided if not for the animistic tendencies of Usher’s very being. And we all know who the victor turns out to be, though neither man is diminished in heroic stature by the end of the conflict.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: Decision at Sundown)

Millennium Actress

In my previous Satoshi Kon film review, I mentioned that GKIDS recently acquired the rights to re-release his first film, Perfect Blue, on home video, specifically on a much-awaited Blu-ray release. I also discussed how the studio was apparently planning to theatrically release the film sometime in 2019 as a way to promote their upcoming home video release. Now, it has come to my attention that this whole plan may be going underway much sooner than ever expected. There is word that the film is to be released theatrically in the United States through Fathom Events as early as September of this year (2018), next month. So keep your eyes peeled and your ears open for that.

If it is indeed released at that time, I’ll be going to the cinema more than I ever have in a month-long period since last year when Blade Runner 2049 was released and I went to six different cities on six different nights to view it. Through August and September of this year, the itinerary seems to be My Neighbor Totoro 30th Anniversary, Grave of the Fireflies 30th Anniversary, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie 20th Anniversary, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, and Perfect Blue. I hope you’ll be able to go see a few of these pictures, and if you’re in the Charlotte, NC vicinity, let me know if you want to meet up to view one of these films at Concord Mills AMC Theatre, and get some Chinese from the food court beforehand (my new ritual it seems).

After the theatrical run and festival circuit was completed for Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon’s initial idea was to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s sci-fi novel Paprika immediately. However, due to financial problems at the production house who distributed Perfect Blue, the project fell through and would be put on the back burner for a few more years. Instead, Kon opted to create a totally unique and original project, which he co-wrote and developed with Sadayuki Murai, the screenwriter who began his career as a writer on Perfect Blue and would later go on to write for legendary productions like Devilman Lady and Cowboy Bebop before reuniting with Satoshi Kon to work on his second film in 2000. The story they developed is loosely based on an amalgamation of the lives of Japanese actresses Setsuko Hara (of Yasujiro Ozu collaboration fame) and Hideko Takamine (whose career I know much less about), who is now a reclusive, ageing woman with health problems.

A man named Genya Tachibana, who used to work for the same production house as this actress, named Chiyoko Fujiwara, is now also an old man. He now runs his own small documentary production house called Lotus Productions: a name he chose for its connections with Fujiwara, who loved that plant above all others and knew it as a symbol of purity in Japanese poetry (itself adapted from its symbolic significance as a purifying agent in Indian Buddhism). As the old classic studio is being demolished, and Chiyoko has fallen on hard times physically, Genya senses that the new millennium has brought with it a new era, a different time in which the movies of yore will be revered less and less often, and by an increasingly shrinking group of movie buffs.

He feels as if he himself is becoming something of a dinosaur in these new times and that thereby it is his duty to document the life of his favorite actress, the one whose work has occupied his gaze, and the gaze of millions of film-goers the world over, for generations. Genya Tachibana loves, and always has loved and been enamored with Chiyoko. But this male gaze is not the same as the disruptive, paranoid gaze in Satoshi Kon’s previous film. No, this gaze is the very thing that allowed Chiyoko to enjoy a great career as one of the defining cinema icons in fictional-Japan’s cinematic history. It allowed her to run the gamut of roles as a young girl playing in street pictures, to classy young ladies courting gentlemen in early Meiji Japan. She played as princesses and empresses, as samurai and kunoichi in Jidaigeki spanning the Kamakura, Muromachi, and Tokugawa periods, and in her final film role, before disappearing from the Golden Screen and from public life altogether for thirty years, she played in a space opera that has become legendary in Genya’s eyes.

As Chiyoko and Genya converse about the past; the present, the real past, and the cinematic past converge in a kaleidoscopic play on time, memory, and cultural history as the two play important roles. Chiyoko as the actress who began her profession only to track down a young man she met during war-time, a young man she ultimately chased her entire life until she felt too old to do so any longer. Genya as the young man who worked for Chiyoko’s studio and witnessed many of her triumphs, many of her defeats, the young man who saved her life on multiple occasions, and is now bringing meaning to that life once again in her final days. Genya, the man who has always been by Chiyoko’s side but was always ignored, the man who ought to have been her husband instead of the manipulative studio director Otaki. But no, Chiyoko was chasing a romantic dream her entire life over, a dream that often was mirrored by her greatest roles on film, which consequently brought something urgent to her performances and made her the greatest dramatic actress of Japanese cinema’s first full century of art and commercial production, of the world’s greatest and simultaneously most terrifying century, the 20th century.

The film was Satoshi Kon’s first collaboration with the great Japanese electronic musician Susumu Hirasawa, of the legendary band P-Model. Their collaboration would last for the remainder of the decade, for the remainder of Kon’s short life, and would propel Hirasawa to the forefront of the American and Japanese high-art anime consumer markets where he stood, and still stands, as a titan whose orchestral and electronic themes remain unmatched in complexity, in mystery, in mood, and in their ability to heighten the mise-en-scene of a production to an unearthly sphere and level of operation. Within this trompe-l’oeil of a film, Hirasawa’ often disorienting style is most at home.

When I first researched this film and re-watched it for this blog, I came across a bit of news about the acquisition of its theatrical and home release rights by GKIDS, like the aforementioned Perfect Blue. I was excited to report that the film was set for a theatrical release sometime in Autumn of 2019, but if we are lucky, and the earlier reports are true, it might also turn out that Millennium Actress gets a 2018 Autumn release instead. And most importantly, a widely available home video release for I, and American like myself, to spend our expendable income on.

 

Satoshi Kon is dead, long live Satoshi Kon!

[Next up: Tokyo Godfathers]

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