Hello again! Its time for another edition of Anime Update, this time detailing the cool anime-related stuff coming to North American shores for the month of July. I hope you’ll check out some of the sites discussed herein and consider buying in the otakudom through the unique merchandise and/or experiences on offer this month.
My usual go-to manga distributors for the North American market are Viz Media and Seven Seas Entertainment as they release large numbers of manga each week. Unfortunately, there is little of note coming through their stores this month. Regardless, I recommend you put their names on a list somewhere and keep them in mind for the future.
On June 1st, Kodansha Comics is releasing a new 4-volume omnibus edition of the original Sailor Moon manga entitled Sailor Moon Eternal Edition. These four volumes are each around 300 pages and of a larger size than your typical manga. So pick ’em up if you ever felt the desire to read the source manga in its entirety. On the 16th of July, Kodansha is releasing a new Ghost in the Shell graphic novel entitled Global Neural Network. Although not a new work by GITS originator Masamune Shirow, it contains four new stories by younger manga-ka inspired by Shirow’s cerebral subtexts and kitschy iconography.
Dark Horse Comics’ manga division is releasing many interesting omnibus editions of some of the most gritty manga on the market. But their coolest new release, set to hit shelves on the 31st, is Start Blazers 2199 Omnibus Vol. 1. Again, this new story is not the work of Star Blazers’ (Space Battleship Yamato) creator Leiji Matsumoto, but instead it is comprised of new stories by younger manga writers and artists inspired by Matsumoto’s monumental influence.
The boutique anime home video release company, Discotek Media, has been experiencing some major technical difficulties as of late regarding their releases. They moved warehouses earlier this year and have been having trouble getting back into the swing of things. This is very apparent during this month when a new Cutey Honey release and a new Lupin III acquisition have both been scheduled for release and subsequently shelved until late August. Bummer…
Luckily, there’s always Sentai Filmworks as an alternative for the best in home video anime releases of classic and cult anime. On the 23rd, they are releasing the Cutie Honey Universe: Complete Collection on Blu-Ray. And exactly one week later, they are releasing a definitive steelbook edition of Elfen Lied: The Complete Series on Blu-Ray complete with tons of extra features and an artbook.
Where theatrical anime is concerned, Funimation Films is really slacking off. They typically show a film in the U.S. once every two months. However, they currently have a number of films slated for release with no tentative date attached. Since February, Funimation has been touting the release of Eureka Seven: Anemone , and is no closer to releasing it now than all those months ago. In April, they announced the acquisition of a Cyberpunk anime adaptation of an Osamu Dazai story called Human Lost that seems currently lost in the fray of planned releases. And now, they’ve released information regarding the premiere of a pop idol film called Love Live! Sunshine!! The School Idol Movie: Over the Rainbow. The former two of these prospects are at least vaguely interesting to the common otaku, but the latter seems so asinine as to turn away any but the youngest, greenest audiences from the theater. If they ever get around to releasing any of the films theatrically that is…
But thank Ohirume-no-muchi-no-kami that we have GKIDS! Together with Fathom Events, GKIDS is screening Studio Ghibli classics’ Whisper of the Heart on July 2nd and Kiki’s Delivery Service on July 28th and 29th nationwide. Also on July 2nd, GKIDS is releasing Ghibli alum Kitaro Kosaka’s new film Okko’s Inn on a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack. On the 16th, they will be releasing a new French animation (from the studio that brought us Ernest and Celestine) called The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales. Finally, as of July 1st, GKIDS has announced its acquisition of Masaki Yuasa and Studio Science Saru’s new film Ride Your Wave set for theatrical and home video release in 2020.
Although I’ve already mentioned Fathom Event’s work with GKIDS on the Studio Ghibli Fest showings above, there are two other notable anime films being release through their cinema circuit this month. The first, playing on the 11th and 15th, is Sound! Euphonium: The Movie. The film is a sequel to a popular series by Kyoto Animation and is helmed by some of the same artists in the studio who produced great films like A Silent Voice and Liz and the Blue Bird. The second film, set for release on the 23rd only, is Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?: Arrow of the Orion. Unlike Sound!, this second film is more kid-fare than anything else and probably not up the alley of anyone who has made it thus far into this review.
Finally, in the last section of my monthly anime update, I like to take a few sentences to introduce the anime conventions coming up this month in my region: the South-Eastern United States.
Cosplay America, July 5-7th, Cary, NC
Anime Blues Con, July 12-14th, Memphis, TN
Blerdcon (a classic), 12-14th, Arlington, VA
Banzaicon, 19th-21st, Columbia, SC. I’m a regular at this one.
GalaxyCon, 25-28th, Raleigh, NC
& Otakon, 26-28th, Washington D.C. One of the largest anime conventions in the country.
Ciao for now
(Check out my previous Frederic Back film review here: Crac!)
Frederic Back’s eighth, and penultimate, short film was his longest to date at 30 minutes in length (nearly tripling his longest previous short film). The production took a little over five years to complete alongside his other duties at Radio-Canada and comprises over 20,000 separate drawings, with 3,000 in-between frames completed by Back’s assistant Lina Gagnon. The process improves upon earlier Back productions by using notable early techniques like Prismacolor colour pencils on frosted cels, but adds new pastel artwork for the backgrounds with fixative chemicals to stay the artworks.
Aesthetically, the film moves through multiple styles and movements in the history of art throughout its runtime from harsher Nietzschian landscapes and abysses animated ala Goya to pastoral landscapes permeated by an intense undercurrent of fear and malaise ala Bruegel. As we come to land of the man who planted trees, we find them animated more impressionistically and thereby conventionally beautifully to the modern art-goers sensibility. During this period, pastels predominate in the fields and forests of one man’s making. Finally, the wiry old man becomes less of a real figure and slowly ascends within his domain to something closer to a hermit-prophet of nature whose image becomes more serene and less distinct from his surroundings until the final close-up shot of his wizened old facade animated like a Da Vinci portrait with soft lines and intense detail.
Frederic Back was an avid environmentalist and ecologist whose work often betrayed his love for nature and of a life lived close to it. And for years, he had worked in his free time to plant trees of his own accord: more than 30,000 single-handedly at that. As a member of the Society to Overcome Pollution, he did all he could to leave his world a little better off than when he came into it. So when he came across French author Jean Giono’s 1953 allegorical tale L’Homme Qui Plantait des Arbres, the story of a man who leaves the world behind after tragedy befalls him and comes to a barrent land wherein he spends his life cultivating a forest, Back was absolutely in love. He wanted to immediately animate the story and managed to gain the rights to do so through Radio-Canada. The resultant effect was his most popular and enduring work of his career. A work that competed for and won awards in dozens of film festivals from 1987 till 1993 (including an Oscar, an Emmy, and most prestigious of all, an award at Cannes), that inspired a reprinting of Giono’s classic complete with Back illustrations, and more importantly one that inspired others to plant over one million verifiable trees throughout the world.
The story is of a young man in 1913 who is traveling across the French countryside, specifically through a barren wasteland in Provencal. The bleak landscape is populated by little more than serpents and wild lavender. Ancient villages dot the landscape, all in disrepair and total abandon with old receptacles where once water flowed from beneath ground in vast reservoirs. Now, the traveler moves from village to village and tries to prime these pumps, but finds all water absent. He runs low on his rations and begins to become dehydrated and starved, on the brink of life and death. That is, until he sees a figure above a hill. The man approaches and finds an aged shepherd with his small flock and dog.
The old man gives him some water and leads him back home after fulfilling his duties in the fields. There they sup together and the man is led to believe he will be able to spend the night before moving along the next day toward the populated villages two days aft. He watches the old man sort through a bag of hundreds of acorns, mixing them into two piles for the good acorns and the bad acorns. The old man then puts the good acorns into piles of ten and discerns the smallest or least robust amongst each pile until he has 100 perfect acorns. The young man reflects on his future trip to the cities surrounding this pleasant grotto. Those cities have people who struggle for sustenance and live lives of quiet desperation, which often reach the breaking point and erupt into violence, fear, anxiety, hatred, envy, madness, suicide, and murder. Compared to those places, where he is now is much preferred.
The next day, the young man decides to stay on for a little longer before making his trip back to civilization and its discontents. He watches the old man as he leaves in the morning to place his sheep in a dell for grazing and leaves them behind for his dog to watch while he himself climbs a nearby hill and proceeds to dig holes with his iron staff. In these holes, he plants a single acorn each. Later, the young man will ask the older man many questions about himself and learn that he is 55 years old and is called Elzear Bouffier. He lost his son and then his wife three years previously and decided to leave the world to reflect in his solitude. He found this barren patch of land and knows not who owns it, whether it is parish or common land, or whatever. But he decided to begin planting trees there. Of the 100,000 trees he has planted in those three years, only 20,000 grew and half of those were dealt the hand of providence, were killed by rodents or blight. that leaves him with a grove of 10,000 trees, but he hopes to last another 30 years so that this grove of 11 by 3 kilometers will one day become a mere drop in that veritable ocean of green.
Through two world wars, the young man continues to visit the older man on an almost yearly basis. The forest grows, springs and little rivers appear in the landscape which give birth to willows, reeds, flowers, and gardens. Wildlife returns and over the years, this place, once a wasteland, becomes a thriving world of beauty and natural peace and serenity. The inhabitants of the surrounding region become engrossed in this landscape and part of it over time. They become happier and more peaceful and less resource dependent on the big cities and on hard labor to earn their livings. The place enchants even the parliament who decide to make it a protected land, and eventually the old man dies. And in the process, the young man becomes an old man, almost the same age as when he first met Elzear in these hills. And he realizes that ‘a man’s destiny can be truly wonderful.’ But more importantly, that Elzear, one man, was able to ‘complete this task worthy of God’ and to craft a paradise for which over 10,000 people rely upon for their happiness and peace of mind.
The film was simultaneously released in English and French with two different narrators, both classically-trained highly revered Canadian actors: Philippe Noiret and Christopher Plummer. And it probably thereby had the widest commercial run of any of Back’s films in his career. The work is a beloved classic of Quebec, Canadian, and North American animation that is generally considered to be one of the finest animated works ever created, and in my books, one of the finest short films ever made in any medium whether animation or live-action. I’ve managed to leave much out of the plot of this film, and very many details in the hope that upon reading this you will go out and seek the film yourself: either on the Frederic Back complete short films DVD release through his website or online at some streaming site. You will not be disappointed, and more importantly, you may come away feeling happier, more alive in this moment, and enriched in the prospect that though small and of little weight in the calculus of world actions, you can make a difference for the better in this life. With one step at a time.
(Check out my previous Frederic Back film review here: Tout Rien)
Before the release of Crac! in 1981, Frederic Back’s career as an animator and short film director was very intermittent at best. He created less than one short film per year and continued to make the bulk of his money working on smaller, less personal projects for the Radio Canada Broadcasting Company. But after toiling away on this film for 22 months during his free time between 1979 and 1981, Back finally released this 15-minute short film to audiences. The film made it to the shortlist for the 1981 Academy Awards for Best Short Film and even won the category, scoring Radio Canada and Back their first Oscars.
However, the process of the film’s creation was pretty arduous in a number of ways. Back required the help of an assistant for around 11 weeks during the project’s production run in addition to his own 22 months of animation work and the help of his usual team of editors and sound designers who searched tirelessly for the proper traditional Quebecois music to incorporate as a soundtrack. During this production, Back continued to paint onto frosted cells with pastel for all of the major action in the film’s sequences, but continued to advance his medium by penciling in backgrounds using the new Prismacolor pencil technology. And like all great artists seem to do at some point in their careers, he poured his blood, sweat and tears into the production, giving his all by accidentally getting fixative fumes in his right eye. This painful accident would weaken and nearly blind that eye for the remainder of Back’s life, thereby giving him his signature eyepatch in the process.
The story is one of a traditional Quebecois life of the past wherein small cities existed, but most people lived by themselves in the frontier, out in the woods where they were relatively isolated with just their family units. In this social landscape where the Church was once a great social space and public square for the disparate denizens of the cold north to congregate once in a blue moon, a young Native man finds a beautiful young French-Quebec woman to his fancy. The two go out and practice the normal courting rituals and spend time together before becoming engaged.
The young man, a woodcutter and trapper by profession, steals off into the forest one day to search for the perfect tree for carpentry work. He chops it down with his ax and the tree falls with a large crack (hence the title of the short film). The man drags it back home with the help of his horse and starts to work building his wedding gift to his lovely bride to be. The result is a rocking chair that will serve them for years to come as a beautiful reminder of their place within nature as human animals and as a token of his love for the woman forevermore. They grow together and have children who occasionally rough-house and damage the progressively ageing chair, which the man- no longer a young man- repairs often with tender loving care. And each time he repairs this icon of his life’s trajectory, he repaints it and makes it feel fresh and new thereby.
But things change, they always do. The children grow up quickly and leave the nest. The young man progresses into an old man, and eventually his wife dies. The chair’s seat breaks and the old man throws it out into the harsh clime where it sits and waits for generations as the old man perishes. His old cabin is put up for sale and eventually torn down as condos and other high-rise buildings rise up around it. Gentrification and urbanization wrack this once idyllic landscape with the visual tremors of civilization: the skyscraper, the apartment block, and finally the nuclear power plant.
But this is Back’s vision of the world and it can never remain sick for long without perishing totally. He believed in our ability as rational animals to come to the logical conclusion that we should cherish this planet and serve it well as good shepherds. Protests erupt and the power plant is gutted by the regional government that actually listens to its people. The old silo is renovated into a beautiful art museum where the elite enclave go to see abstract paintings and other forms of artwork much too cerebral to tug on the heartstrings and make one feel a positive emotion like traditional art can. A curator finds the old chair after all these generations and brings it back inside a new docile for complete restoration and a new paint job.
Once there, the chair becomes the favorite seat for a friendly security guard and guide at the museum. And more than that, the children, untainted by modernity and intellect, find the colorful and ancient chair to be absolutely fascinating. It becomes a beloved object to whole hosts of people once more and feels fulfilled in its duty as a chair that is no longer abandoned and alone in this world. And in the dark of night, when the night watchman is in a different corridor, it dances to the music made by the emotions of all of the paintings in the room and revels in its newfound usefulness: a reveling we can all sympathize with in our own wishes and desires to be useful to someone else, and to be loved by someone else by proxy.
The film is a veritable love letter to the imagined Quebec of Back’s childhood and to the historical Quebec wherein people really did live such beautiful, quaint lives in nature quite often. The young man is a paean to Back’s own uncle and the story is a reminder not to trade in old values for new ones, but to cherish the old values in the hope that they can enrich our lives in the present. Crac is the sound of a falling tree and thereby of deforestation and human progress, but it is also the sound of creation through destruction. It is the sound of a rocking chair’s rasp across the floor of a room and the sound of the breakneck pace of social change in the 20th century. A change that hasn’t slackened in the slightest into the 21st. But we can always continue to derive pleasure, joy, and energy renewal from positive traditions of yore in the hopes of assuaging some of the modern pangs of conscience and dread attendant upon us in the modern age.
[Continued here: The Man Who Planted Trees]
(Catch my previous Frederic Back film review here: Taratata)
Quebecois animator and short film director Frederic Back’s sixth film is important within his oeuvre for one principal reason: the innovative new approach to animation used therein. Rather than using large quantities of paper anymore to produce his animations, Back decided he needed to find a cost-effective and ecologically-sound way to make his films. The result of his search was a new process whereby Back used frosted cells, which he would animate, commit to celluloid, and then reuse by either making small changes for the next shot or by erasing his work to create a new scene entirely. Even though this process was more in keeping with Back’s ecological concerns, it was a slow process wherein multiple frames could not be worked on at once by a team. As such, even with two assistants on the film, it took the team 20 months to complete this 11 minute, 30 second long short film.
The story is extremely philosophically and theologically resonant while never making reference to any particular mythos and instead concerning itself with a sort of constructed or imagined creation mythos derived equally from Judeo-Christian tradition and Native American cosmology. A vague, personified cosmic force with the general appearance of a human being lives within a universe that is void and without form. This being decides to bring into creation other beings who may commune with it. The first are the birds who come into the world naked, featherless. They emerge from out of the void of Being into another kind of void where they now exist but live without direction, meaning, and in a cold world where their bodies are ill-equipped to handle the elements. The God-force directs their evolution through a one-time instantaneous change that allows all the birds to develop feathers and wings of ostentatious, beautiful, and varied plumage.
Next, the mammals are created to live upon the terrain of the Earth. They too are brought into being naked and afraid without fur. The God-force directs their evolution into hairy, warm animals who live in peace with the land through natural laws of predation and survival. The fish are born and the the heavens emerge to the light this new world wherein so much bounty has been established. And all things are good and well, are wholesome and gay in aspect.
And then the God-force creates a pair of beings in its image: the humans. They are endowed with the power of intellect, reason, fore-thought. But with this great gift, so too arise negative forces like desire. The animals, endowed with animality as opposed to God-gifts of language and intellect, live with the world and in the world. They do not desire things beyond the fleeting momentary ones needed for survival. Through this imbecility, they remain pure, sinless, and live without a fear of death because their thoughts don’t reach forward for very long into the domain of the future. They are, in a complicated German philosophical strung together word, Being-There, Dasein, and happy.
The human pair arrive and immediately covets the majestic potential of life undersea with the fish. The God-force grants their desires to appease them and changes them into merpeople who live amongst the sea’s creatures for a time before becoming tired of these surroundings and crying out to the heavens for a change. Next, the humans become hairy beasts who roam the land with the other animals, consume weaker forms of life with their claws and teeth, and generally live as Bigfoot-like monsters, which also bores them after a time. Finally, the people are changed into bird-people who admire their own plumage and attempt to live within the branches of trees. However, having heavy bones and large frames only makes life difficult so up high as they break branch after branch in their tree-domiciles.
Finally, the God-force decides to forsake these presumptuous human beings who thought they could just demand and demand again and again from their creator, progenitor, from the wellspring of their being. They are reverted back to naked human beings who then create their own weapons to destroy other forms of life once more. This time, however, this destructive work is not undergone for sustenance, for food, it is undertaken to artificially constrain the powers of nature to themselves. They kill all kinds and don the dead’s skins as fancy accoutrements to their newfound powers as murderous beings who kill for sport and comfort.
The generations pass and children are born to these beings. Those children are indoctrinated into the murderous lifestyles of their forebears. They travel and spread by foot before developing ships with which to conquer the world. They go whaling, harness the oil therein, create factories and oil refineries, deforesting operations and natural resource extraction, automobiles and planes arise. Industry booms as cities expand, and so too do production and wealth increase as waste and abject poverty become the norm for the majority of those wretched of the earth (to quote a Franz Fanon title). Human beings become more than a member of the animal kingdom. They become the master species whose exploits have the ability to alter the very inner workings of the world itself.
And they kill the God-force with their bows and arrows and other weaponry, just as we have killed spirituality and a belief in forces outside of our power through modern medicine, science, and technology. They rely on medicine for cures rather than on nature’s discretion about who will live and die, they rely on science to avert global catastrophe or lessen their effects, and they rely on technology to prolong their lives. All commendable things in a world where there is no God, but Back’s imaginative plain here is not such a world. And as such, the final action for these people is only to return to nature, to recognize their animality, and to become one with the world once again rather than coveting all its spoils. The God-force revives after this about face by the humans and all is restored to an idyllic world. If only such a narrative were true and such a return were possible in our own world.
[Continued here with Back’s award-winning 1981 film Crac!]
As far as Japanese directors go, Mamoru Oshii is probably the most acclaimed and revered alive. He has won awards from film academies in his home country to France, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy. Oshii has been nominated for the Golden Bear and the Palme d’Or for his animated films: two awards more prestigious than even the American Oscar and more important when deciding if a film is a masterwork that holds a place of importance in cinema history. Oshii has helped to mentor and influence some of the greatest modern Japanese directors including Kenji Kamiyama and the now-deceased Satoshi Kon.
He is a filmmaker of both philosophical anime, and of science fiction and surreal live-action films who finds his influence in the domain of the greatest of all directors to ever grace the medium: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, Melville. And he recognizes the importance of Science Fiction films like This Spaceship Earth, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner as at least fundamental to the grammar of the medium as Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane. If all this were not enough, his career has given us the first OVA in Dallos, the greatest anime head-trip in Angel’s Egg, an enduring cross-media science fiction work in the Kerberos Saga, and arguably the greatest animated film ever made in Blade Runner’s only true spiritual successor: Ghost in the Shell.
Over the next four months or so, I will reviewing and analyzing the career of Oshii on this blog, and I had planned to begin with an essay on his first feature-length film Urusei Yatsura: Only You. However, Oshii’s career began long before this film’s release in 1983 and that narrative is an integral part in understanding how he developed into the filmmaker we know, love, and admire today.
Unlike another father of modern Japanese animation, Isao Takahata (who studied French Literature at University, could not animate to dying day, and only lucked into a directing job with Toei that spring-boarded him to an illustrious career of his own), Mamoru Oshii was always a cinephile with an interest in directing films one day. As a youth, his father exposed him to tons of films by European arthouse directors. At Tokyo Gakugei University, Oshii continued to explore his interests in filmmaking and consumed at much as possible. He must of trained as an artist there as after graduating in 1976, he managed to gain a job as an animator for Tatsunoko Productions, which was just over a decade old at the time and had previously scored a big hit with its animated TV series Speed Racer.
While at Tatsunoko, Oshii worked primarily as a storyboard artist and episode director, while occasionally penning an episode as a writer for many of the Studio’s productions. From 1977 until his departure from the studio in 1980, Oshii worked in some capacity on the following shows: Ippatsu Kanta-kun, Yatterman, Gachaman, Majokko Tickle, and Zenderman. However, the money must have been good or Oshii must have enjoyed working there as he returned on three subsequent occasions between 1980 and 1987 to work on the series Dashu Kappei, Gyakuten! Ippatsuman, and Zillion. One can consider this time spent with Tatsunoko as a period of development for Oshii as he learned the ins and outs of the production process of anime from many different vantage points and built up a highlight reel or resume for himself that he could later refer to in order to promote himself as a director deserving of the helm of series director or head director on a film.
At Tatsunoko, the head director of the studio’s most popular productions like Speed Racer and Gatchaman was Hisayuki Toriumi. Toriumi took Oshii under his wing while at Tatsunoko and when the former made the move to Studio Pierrot in 1980, so too did his protege Mamoru Oshii. There, they worked together on the World Masterpiece Theatre-like Wonderful Adventures of Nils anime for which Oshii storyboarded 11 episodes and directed 18 out of series total of 52 episodes. And later, Toriumi helped Oshii write the script of his OVA series Dallos. During their time together at Pierrot, it seems that Oshii began to come into his own as a director and after Dallos in 1983, the two never worked together again despite Toriumi continuing on as a director of animation until 2001. Toriumi’s career past this split include classic OVAs and Films like Area 88, Lily C.A.T., Like the Clouds Like the Wind, Baoh, and Sohyryuden: Legend of the Dragon Kings.
For a time, Oshii’s work at Pierrot remained relegated to occasional jobs as a storyboard artist and episode director. From 1980-84, he worked on the following shows for Pierrot: Rescueman, Yattodetaman, Belle and Sebastien, Golden Warrior Gold Lightan, Miss Machiko, and Mrs. Pepper Pot. Most important, however, was Oshii’s work on the exceedingly popular Urusei Yatsura from 1981-84. On this TV anime adaptation of a classic Rumiko Takahashi manga, Oshii created storyboards for 21 episodes, directed 24 episodes personally, and served as the series head director for the first 106 episodes of its run (more than half of its final total run). The anime was so popular that it later spawned 12 independent OVA episodes and 6 feature-length films. On the first two films, Oshii was given the opportunity to direct. It is through Urusei Yatsura that Oshii began to helm big productions as a director, and particularly through the series’ second film Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer that he began to be known as a director interested primarily in the Surreal, the Philosophical, and in how these modes of operation relate to Science Fiction and Fantasy.
From this point forward, Oshii’s work would continue on through production houses like Studio Deen, Headgear, and Production I.G.. He would begin work on his Kerberos Saga through live action films, animated films, and manga, eventually settling on the former (live-action filmmaking) as his favorite way to create narratives. But in every new venture throughout his life, Oshii has given his all to make the production artful, thoughtful, and ultimately, consumable media made to satisfy more than the Society of the Spectacle, but transformative media crafted to satisfy the intellect. This is just the first chapter in my investigation into the career of Mamoru Oshii. I hope you’ll tag along with me.
[Next up: Urusei Yatsura: Only You]
(Check out my review of the previous Studio Ponoc film here: Mary and the Witch’s Flower)
When Studio Ponoc was founded after the initial dissolution of Studio Ghibli in 2014, it seemed that its head talent and lead director was Hiromasa Yonebayashi who had previously directed two films for Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There). Yonebayashi had well over two decades of experience in animation by this time as an in-between and key animator for Ghibli productions like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales of Earthsea, Ponyo, and From Up on Poppy Hill as well as the Nasu films by fellow Ghibli alum Kitaro Kosaka (and director of the highly anticipated Studio Madhouse feature Okko’s Inn) and acclaimed anime series like Monster and Serial Experiments Lain.
However, with the arrival of Studio Ponoc’s first anthology film comprised of short films by three different directors, it seems the studio is working to recruit many talents (probably to avoid the successor problem that hounded Ghibli throughout its days). In an extensive interview (released as part of Modest Heroes’ U.S. theatrical run) with Studio Ponoc producer and former Ghibli producer (Howl’s Moving Castle, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, The Tale of Princess Kaguya) Yoshiaki Nishimura discussed the future direction of the Studio and revealed therein just how integral his vision is for that future.
Nishimura is not only the one who drums up support and funding for projects at the Studio, but he is also the one who brought Yonebayashi along with him to start the Studio. Nishimura was also the one who initially came up the idea to start a short films anthology series at the Studio to help develop new talent. The idea came to Nishimura while at Ghibli where tons of short films were produced throughout the years for commercial use at the Studio Ghibli Museum. Unfortunately for all of the talented young directors who worked their ways up in the ranks of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki cannibalized most opportunities to work in this way, and few beyond the old master ever got the opportunity to direct anything for Ghibli during their tenure there. Nishimura reasoned that this lack of opportunity for other directors beyond Miyazaki and Takahata to direct was the principal reason that Studio was unable to find a successor, and as such, Nishimura has no such plans to repeat their mistake.
The first short films anthology begins with ‘Kanini and Kanino’ directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and based on an original idea by Nishimura (as are all three short films in the anthology, once again establishing Nishimura’s role at Studio Ponoc as a bonafied auteur in his own right). When Yonebayashi released Mary and the Witch’s Flower, it was received with open arms by an anime community yearning for more works in the Ghibli tradition. However, many criticized the film for being unambiguously Ghibli and too similar to past Miyazaki films and plots, with characters all too similar to those we already know well. Mary was also Yonebayashi’s first film created with an original script not based on a classic British fantasy novel. If anything, that misstep merely reveals that he ought to stick to adaptations until a time comes when his abilities as a writer improve. Suffice it to say that ‘Kanini and Kanino’ suffers from much the same problem and is the least compelling of the three films in the anthology.
The second film is entitled, somewhat awkwardly, ‘Life Ain’t Gonna Lose.’ It is the tale of a young boy who is deathly allergic to eggs. The boy finds his life difficult because of the presence of eggs in almost any baked good and often avoids outings with other children to avoid potentially life-threatening accidental exposure. As a spiritual successor to the Ghibli helm however, the situation works out for the best as this little boy works to overcome his allergy by deciding to go to the hospital on a more regular basis where he can be treated through exposure therapy until he is one day able to eat eggs like other children.
This segment was directed by Yoshiyuki Momose who had previously only directed on two occasions (Ghiblies Episode 2 and Space Station No. 9) for the rare Studio Ghibli short films not helmed by Miyazaki-san himself. Momose is an animator whose career began all the back in 1971, or shortly thereafter Miyazaki himself entered the field of animation in the mid to late sixties, and therefore, it was imperative for Nishimura to hire Momose on to direct something as a test to see whether he was ready for feature film work down the road. Imperative, because Momose is currently 66 years old, and although he may have thirty more years of productivity ahead, the fates may also find it fit to yield less than ten to him (fickle as they are). Momose’s career hitherto has involved animation work for classics like Lensman, A Journey Through Fairyland, Grave of the Fireflies, Porco Rosso, whisper of the Heart, Spirited Away, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and the popular Ghibli inspired RPG series Ni no Kuni. Hopefully, we will see more work from him in the coming years through Studio Ponoc.
Finally, the third and final film in this short film anthology is ‘Invisible’ by director Akihiko Yamashita. The story is by far the most visually, aurally, and thematically arresting of the three tales as it depicts the bleak, grey life of a man doomed to live in the world as a spectre, invisible to all but those who suffer his same misfortune, though they too are few and far between. The heaven’s call toward him as some sort of suicidal impulse he can only assuage by carrying heavy objects that weigh him down using the earth’s gravity. But through a redemptive action wherein he saves the life of another, of an innocent child, the invisible man finds redemption and solace, and more importantly he finds himself once again.
Akihiko Yamashita is the least experience director of the three in this anthology as he has only previously directed the Studio Ghibli short film A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail. Yet, Yamashita can also be considered the most accomplished animator of the three as he has served in more capacities than merely an in-betweener or key animator. Thus far, his credits include highly prestigious production roles like Assistant Animation Director on The Cat Returns, Ponyo, When Marnie Was There, and Mary; Head animation Director on Howl’s Moving Castle and Arrietty; and Assistant Director on Tales From Earthsea. Moreover, his work outside of Ghibli and Ponoc includes more classic anime than any of his fellow Ponoc directors: e.g. Urusei Yatsura, Legend of the Overfiend, Nadia, Giant Robo, Serial Experiments Lain, Blue Submarine No. 6, and Big O.
Besides the hope for a future for Ghibli animation, this short film anthology signals the willingness of Studio Ponoc to experiment continually with the medium of animation, to foster a home for new animators and a testing ground for future directors, and as a future gateway for potential droves of new viewers to rediscover Ghibli in the future when the all too short-sighted masses begin to forget its impact. The most hopeful takeaway for me, however, toward this end was Nishimura’s stated promise that he enjoyed the process of producing films, was good at drumming up financial support, and that the Studio’s films have thus far been moderately profitable enough for him to continue the series. And not only to continue it for a while, but indefinitely as Nishimura plans to release Ponoc short film anthologies well past the tenth installment, and until the very day he dies.
A final rejoinder. This anthology was originally sleighted to be somewhat longer due to the initial plan for a fourth film by Studio Ghibli founder Isao Takahata. Unfortunately, Takahata passed away before such a plan could come to fruition. Modest Heroes is dedicated to his memory and to the influence of his films without which anime would be a completely different beast than the one we know it as today.
(Catch my previous Back film review here: The Creation of Birds)
In 1972, Frederic Back directed and animated his second and third animated films. And although I reviewed it first, The Creation of Birds is actually his third film. Inon, a tale derived from Native American myth was Back’s second go at direction in animation for television. Inon, at around nine and a half minutes in length, was also Back’s longest animation to date. The Creation of Birds would up the ante at around 11 minutes in length. Moreover, his animation style at this time, though still primitive in nature in keeping with his inspiration from Native American cave art and iconography, was improving drastically from film to film. One can see this most effectively in the minute-long establishing montage at Inon’s beginning that immediately propels the audience into the world of Back’s imagined American past.
The film centers around one of the most important inventions, or discoveries, in human history: the attainment of fire and its variable powers (warmth and safety from predators at night; cognitive improvement through the cooking of food which develops and makes more acute many raw food’s nutritive qualities). The film’s establishing shot makes apparent the desolation of the landscape during winter before the conquest for fire. Animals and men alike suffered through these harsh climes and found it difficult to subsist without the loss of life. And so they endeavor to work together, the animals and the humans, to track down fire and master its power’s thereby.
However, there is a significant hitch in their plans as the keeper of fire, the God of Thunder Inon, is an evil god who uses his powers to cause pain and suffering. Inon is not like the Greek god Prometheus who willingly brought fire to men as an act of good faith, even if it meant eternal punishment from the other gods in his heavenly host. Perhaps understanding the plight of his brother God on the European continent, Inon refuses to yield his magic to the people of the Earth in an effort to keep it for himself, to retain his hegemony as one who giveth and taketh away at will, and to please himself as a manipulative god who enjoys causing the death and suffering of others.
Bear has a dream-vision of the location of the fire on Earth. He searches amongst the host of animals: the birds and geese, the wolves and foxes, the hawks and the rabbits and stags. Eventually three champions are chosen for the journey: Hawk, Beaver, and Wolf. Mankind rejoices in their journey and the three are off. But wolf, whose purposes are often at odds with those of men as predators of those beings wolf predates upon, decides to run off to chase a rabbit during his travels. This leaves only Beaver and Hawk left in their journeying. The two eventually find the location of the eternal fire, but find that it is has been entrusted into the care of warlike Dryads who protect the fire using bows and arrows.
Beaver and Hawk use their wile and skill, respectively, to work as a team and claim the fire. But on the return journey home, Inon learns that his precious fire has been stolen from its resting place with the dryads and as such, Inon descends from the clouds to reclaim the fire. He manages to harm Hawk and Beaver on numerous occasions during their trip through the power of storms, of lightning, and of fire itself, but the two trudge onward, always one step ahead of Inon who is one and has not the power of teamwork on his side. When Beaver and Hawk finally arrive to spread the power of fire to men, they retire back to the forest as beings who are no longer needed by men and must return to their own domain. Yet, the men remember the deeds of Beaver and Hawk and thereby revere them from then onward in their sacred rites of fire.
Back’s rendition of this Algonquin legend is one perfectly in keeping with his purposes as an environmentally conscious person who believes that men must live with the land and give back to it rather than merely stripping it of resources and destroying other species in the process. Back, like all truth seekers of the modern age, know through scientific reasoning and hard and fast logic that man is no more special than any beast on Earth. That he is one of the beasts and that thereby this world entrusted to man by the gods or by chance and nothingness is a gift to be shared. This tale of man and beast working together to fight back against evil gods is like a call to arms by man to harness the powers of nature and physics to make the world a better place. It is likewise a tale of solidarity between all beasts and a reminder that while most animals are not intelligent enough to actually help mankind or one another, the conscious beasts can and do do so: e.g. dolphins who help fishermen to catch large harvests or apes and wolves who welcome lost children into their fold and protect them until the children can be reunited with their own peoples.
But there is a warning here as well. When the beasts found fire and gave men this magic, they were separated from men forever thereafter. Fire yielded smelting and smithing, and thereby weapons and warfare at a greater destructive degree than ever previously thought possible. Fire lead to manufacturing and industrialization and civilization, but also to all of their discontents: deforestation, land stripping, the death of species, the atomic bomb. And though the power of fire has landed men on the moon and sent our technology to the farthest reaches of our solar system and even beyond these limits, it always has the literal destructive power to render our world unlivable, as well as the psychical power of forgetfulness. Of erasure of our memory as a beast-people who live with the world and cannot survive properly in its absence, or in the absence of our fellow world-travelers: the Beasts.
[Next up: ¿Illusion?]
(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.
[Next up: Inon]
(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.
[Next up: Paprika]
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.
[Next up: The Creation of Birds]