Tag Archives: Anime Classics

Through Older Lenses: Ghibli Night At The Egyptian

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Imagine the saucers I had for eyes upon the discovery that Hollywood’s fabled Egyptian Theatre was hosting a multi-week tribute to the films of Studio Ghibli, and that two longtime favorites were sharing a bill this weekend. Upon hearing the news early Saturday, I told a partner of this and held steadfast that this could be our nocturnal activity. And considering that this new quantity has had little to no knowledge of the works of legendary animators, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, this felt like a brilliant entry point. As both films represent Miyazaki at something of a career turning point (firmly planted between humanist blockbuster maven, and quasi-individualist auteur), the commonalities and breaks seemed just right to allow new eyes to survey what it is that has captured the hearts of animation fans the world over. And while personal feelings have shifted some on these films over the years, it was truly magnificent witnessing these films in their full 35mm glory, complete with scratches, pops, and prolonged silences.

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At roughly 7:00pm, we filed on in, and found seats surrounded by fellow attendees. As ideal as the seats were, I was quite impressed by the serious dearth of “anime folk” in the audience. In fact, a great deal of those in the auditorium with us were either fellow cinephiles, the occasional family, and possibly more local animation and effects artist types. The overall feeling was that of a more well-rounded viewership than I have ever been privy to for a screening like this, and that was certainly telling of Ghibli’s impact in the years since Disney/PIxar brought Ghibli’s catalog to the US masses. In a very real way, it felt as if Miyazaki’s works have finally become part of the general fabric of family film in a way that eluded many of us admirers in previous decades. It truly has been a long time since that fateful Cagliostro Castle screening at the Disneyland Hotel, with not only nerds, but parents and kids with eyes aglow at the sheer kinetic artistry gracing that audience.

Truly a long time.

So also imagine my surprise when upon giving Kiki’s Delivery Service(1989) the nth viewing, I found a great deal more to derive personally from it than I had expected. Even in the many years since first watching it, there is a confidence and effective simplicity that still evokes a potent response regarding the inherent potential in all. While many have continued to write the film off as a crowd-pleasing adaptation of Eiko Kadono’s work, it is also very much a touching call to the young, and for them to follow beyond familial piety. As young witch, Kiki seeks to create a name for herself in bayside, Koriko City, there is much to figure out as many a witch have within them a special ability that they hone into their main focus of practice. And in this single year of being away from her family (including a potions-specialist mother who muses about wishing her daughter had taken up potions as her focus), Kiki and her chatty feline familiar, Jiji must find the central meaning to independent life. Through many meetings, trials, errors, and adventures, Kiki is throughout the film faced with her own self-doubts as a girl in the world, let alone a witch. It’s a story where magic is no more than the things we grant to the world as ourselves. Told in a patient, wistful manner, the film never veers far from the focal point that Kiki is that moment between being our family’s child, and our own giving, working individual. (Which is best encapsulated by the film’s opening scene, as Kiki makes the sudden choice to leave for her one-year trip at the behest of unprepared parents. It is both a charming, and heartrending stuff that evokes feelings of that moment so many of us go through, as we move out into the world.)

POTENTIAL SPOILERS(?)

So when Kiki’s journey inevitably leads to a crisis of ability come the latter third, it is vital to consider the preceding hour as lead in for this. With all the pressures that she must carry with her as both girl and witch, as other girls her age in town are living up to many of the atypical fun and relationship building, she must maintain something of an icon of tradition. We even meet another young witch early on that informs us early how this rite of passage can very easily lead us astray, without much room for others. And rather than becoming this, Kiki’s arc largely involves her natural capacity for more hand-based services. While her mother is closer to a doctor/pharmacist-type, she is closer to a public service specialist. And while that may look less than flattering to some, there is something very sneaky and hopeful happening with this in mind. When she suddenly finds herself unable to use her magic abilities, it is no wonder that the broom she came flying into Kokori breaks..is her mother’s.

It is here, and with local artist, Ursula’s advice that even our greatest gifts will experience something of a block at times, that the road to maturity drifts into cruising speed. Kiki finds herself at her best and happiest when she is living up to her own instinctive ideals, rather than any fears she might have about the thoughts of others.

As with the breaking of the mother’s broom, the broom used to rescue airship fanboy/witch fanboy, Tombo from a nasty fate..belongs to an elder street sweeper. A “public servant”. Personal redemption comes from Kiki’s own passion for helping the people of Kokori. It’s a pretty solid tale in the telling that still finds ways to keep me active and enamored throughout.

Porco Rosso(1992), while still a truly personal work for Miyazaki containing some of his most sumptuous imagery and elegaic moments, seems to have lost some luster for me over the years. Hard to say why this is so, but upon this viewing it became evident that the tale of WWI fighter pilot ace, Marco Pagot, while as complex and politically dense as it is, suffers from a lack of a stable central thesis. It really is something of a kitchen sink affair, as Miyazaki struggled to make Porco into a loving tribute to the era, and a tale of personal redemption in a time fraught with change. With Porco, now living the cursed life of a pig after long deserting his life as an air force pilot, and now making a living on the Adriatic as a bounty hunter, the film shakily dances between sweet natured comedy, adventure, and romantic homage. And while much of it works magically (as most Ghibli films of the era did), there is a lack of focus that dogs a majority of the running time.

And yet at the same time, one of the film’s meatier themes is that of a life independent. Not unlike the shame Porco feels for having abstained from serving any nation, as well as the loss of his closest colleagues, it all feels like Kiki’s darker, more battle-worn sibling. Even as the previous film lauded the individual as part of a collective, Porco represents a search for life beyond the state. Miyazaki both praises the talents and honor of those who dedicated their lives to flight, but admonishes governments who would exploit it in the name of foggy politics and control. As Italy seems on the brink of another governmental shift, and the world economy is en route to great depression, taxes and allegiances are on the lips of all. All the while, pilots find themselves in this situation either scraping out a meager living as sky pirates, or as bounty hunters living on the fringes of this now rapidly changing society. Rivalries aside, hunters like Porco and pirates like the Mamma Aiuto gang seem culled from similar cloth. All well represented by all parties cooling their engines in peace at the Andriano bar, a place run by Porco’s lifelong friend and long-suffering love interest, Gina. With these air bound skirmishes growing ever more and more desperate, things exacerbate once the pirates opt to hiring American hot-shot, Curtis, in hopes of taking down the “red pig” once and for all. (Or at the very least, humiliate him..)

Upon losing what even wouldn’t constitute an actual air duel with the eager american, Porco is forced to make a run into fascist led Milan in hopes of repairing his beloved seaplane. So when he is surprised to learn that his long trusted plane engineering and construction genius, Piccolo is bereft of his usual help, it is in the shared labor of the feminine and the talents of his youthful american granddaughter, Fio, that Porco finds within him an unexpected spark. And while much of this is classic storytelling, a great deal of the film feels more interested in the details of the world than in any real character based storytelling. The main throughline, while relatively solid, is equally as happy to examine the the world around them, occasionally to mixed results. So when it comes time for the big rematch between Porco, and the american Rattlesnake, our attentions are recalibrated toward the fate of Fio, who in the event that our hero loses, must go to Curtis, who’s buffoonish aims seem to be mostly intent on getting hitched..even if to an underaged plane engineer.

But the worries Miyazaki has about his own talents and the way in which it is utilized post-success are evident during an important exchange between him and a former colleague-turned fascist ace, Ferrarin inside a movie theatre. As Ferrarin secretly informs Porco that the new government is actively buying off sky pirates, and actively rendering them obsolete, Porco remarks how the standard “Dog Vs. Pig” animation they are watching is lousy. Staying on message seems to be the program. This is only bolstered by Ferrarin’s respone that the animation is great. It’s well considered that Porco, is indeed the spirit of Miyazaki, ever dogged by powers that only see him as a company tool. Ever longing for the freedom to tell the stories he wishes, his way.  Now if only, the film could pick a theme before being merely one of several disparate ones. One could even argue that PR is something of a rail against the changing fates of animators throughout the 1980s. At any rate, there’s simply so much going on that it becomes a little tricky to suss out.

All this said, Porco Rosso remains one of Miyazaki’s most poetic and playful films. There’s no denying the power to entertain here. And as a work that lies in between the thoughtful, straightforward Kiki, and the oft-considered overbearing Princess Mononoke(1997), it’s still a gorgeous movie with a lot on its mind.

So in all, a memorable evening of some of the very best that commercial Japan has to offer, with an audience that was more than adequately receptive. So happy to see that the American Cinemateque is continuing to host these films over the next few weeks, with Takahata’s incredible Grave Of The Fireflies(1988) and Tomomi Mochizuki’s Ocean Waves(1993) tonight, ending with Miyazaki’s Oscar winning, Spirited Away(2001) on Thursday, March 20th. So if you’re in LA over the next few weeks, do give it a consider. The Egyptian remains one of my favorite cinemas, and this is a most exciting way to introduce these works to a whole new world of eyes.

As for the person I shared last night’s event with..I’d say we have a new convert.

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Bridging The Gap: That Moment

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Whenever I discuss any creative medium, one often is remiss if unable to bring up moments of vibrant inspiration. Moments that not merely find themselves as great water tower conversation starters, but moments which find themselves endlessly replaying themselves over and over again. And this isn’t merely in regards to anime, film, and so on. It can be found in a great book, or even a still work of street art. It’s that runner’s high instant where the creator, and the self seem to match spirits, if for only a second. It can be a few seconds of sheer, unadulterated beauty, or even overwhelmingly absurd. To look back and really consider this, it only happens a small number of times. And when it does, they tend to stick around, coloring a great deal of what makes us–us.

 

 
So when I think of this in the anime world, I can but pick out a disparate few that remain important personal milestones. As great series’ of artwork and behind the scenes rigor that somehow transated themselves into pure sensory transcendence. Some people call them Classic Moments.

Or as I sometimes  lovingly call them, “High-Fiving-God” Moments.
Here are a few of mine, in no particular order..

 

Tetsuo’s Olympic Performance

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Growing up heavily into 1980s fears of dystopian hell, as well as under threat of technological ahnilation, there was something about seeing our great scientific  secrets unveiled by way of unbridled youth. And in one of Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark feature, AKIRA‘s many iconic moments, we get a penultimate expression in Tetsuo’s arrival at Neo-Tokyo’s neglected Olympic Stadium, a place housing revelations about his own newly-aquired psionic abilities. So much destruction had already taken place since prior to this, but to see such a mammoth structure uprooted, all while a psychically controlled Kei attempts to stop him while one of the more experimental pieces by Geinoh Yamashirogumi screams with guitar wails and drones, and the military and science establishment looks on helplessly. Nature reasserting its dominance over mere custodians. It’s an orgy of sight and sound that has lost none of its power for me.

 

Naota At The Bat

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Having already thoroughly enjoyed a majority of what would become Gainax’s last great work, Kazuya Tsurumaki and crew take their manic rock infused fever dream, FLCL  into metaphorical nirvana come the finale of episode 4, Furi Kiri. While admittedly, a majority of this OVA had been leading to this moment by placing quasi-disaffected protagonist, Naota in a fortitude contest against the enigmatic Haruko. Living in the shadow of a never-seen elder brother, his presumptuous nature is taken to extreme task when he finds himself in needing to save his boring town of Mabase by way of using his “bat” to swing at and hopefully stop a careening satellite from slamming into the Earth. All set to the tune of Crazy Sunshine, by cult faves, The Pillows, the scene is so thrilling, so poetic, so patently delirious, it could only be made so in anime form.

 

A-Ko’s Platform Game Gone Awry

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Forgiving the reality that the OVAs that followed leave so much to be desired, the original animator’s anime, Project A-ko remains a dynamo of inspired lunacy nearly thirty years on. But the gag that never ceases to leave me smitten takes place in the final third, as rivals A-ko & B-ko are forced to cease their mass destruction-laden feud in order to rescue the obnoxious C-ko from gender-ambiguous aliens who have descended upon the Earth with terrifying force. A-ko, the redheaded heroine of exceptional strength lacks the ability of flight, and quickly must improvise a strategy of reaching the humongous alien craft by way of playing leap frog with Self Defense Force Jets (most of which are shot down, leaving A-ko little choice but to jump from jet to jet). BUT it’s upon getting closer to the ship that our hapless hero takes on a nightmare run that would give many platform game lovers some form of PTSD! Apparently mostly animated by Dirty Pair designer/animator, Tsukasa Dokite, A-ko breathlessly leaping from missile to missile, with her donning the most exasperated face remains an all-time medium favorite.

 

Hikaru’s Lack Of Proper Valkyrie Knowledge

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Man, I still love me some Macross. Perhaps the ultimate fan anime. Part soap opera, part space war saga, part self-conscious satire of the very young phenom of otaku. Not merely because of the fact that it was a watershed moment for me as a lover of Japanese cartoons, but of how all these seemingly disparate elements came together almost seamlessly. It was also the first transforming robot show to truly take full advantage of its gimmick, and create something that was on a whole, convincing from an engineering perspective. Without merely telling us how the UN SPACY’s latest fighter units worked, we discover the big secret via an outsider character in our lead, Hikaru Ichijo, a civilian whom while sitting in the cockpit of a demonstration Valkyrie, is mistaken for a real pilot, and ordered to take off as alien invaders begin pummeling Macross city.  Being suddenly surrounded by plumes of smoke and flame, the shock has only just begun when he falls into a tailspin. With the comlink instructions of one Misa Hayase (the officer who inadvertently assumed he was a fighter), Hikaru selects configuration G (aka Gerwalk Mode), and the resulting action..Let’s just say it remains beautifully timed, and lovingly animated for a low budget tv anime from the early 1980s. This is how you deliver a surprise. (Also look carefully for all the animation studios Hikaru’s Valkyrie pulverizes along the way!)

 

Lupin III’s Hardcore Parkour

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While it has become increasingly niche to consider Miyazaki’s Cagliostro Castle to be  the cream of the Lupin III crop, I remain a Cagliostro devotee largely because it remains one of the most directorially consistent, and entertaining of the franchise. But what also makes it such a remarkable experience even now, is the animation and art direction which continue to impress me. There are just too many great action and comedy beats here to list. So when I have to pick one that gives me the face-cracking smiles every time, it has to be the scene in which the mater thief uses the cloak of night to climb his way to a castle tower to reach the captive princess, Clarisse. With merely a little rope with hooks, a few taut-string rockets, and a cigarette lighter to assist him, his mission to reach from one tower to another is pure comic suspense. From the lush background, to the tile roofing, to all of Lupin’s stumbling amidst the breeze, it’s all the setup one needs before he loses that one little rocket…and..

 

Nagato’s Big Reveal

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As budgets for animation have increased, spectacle in our anime has exponentially followed suit. The problem then, of course lands in how it is delivered. While I may have expressed enthusiasm about a number of wild moments, the biggest element that binds them all together is simple; a sense of build. Great moments cannot merely happen, they must be earned. They must come as a response to all that has come before it. The precendent must exist before it can be broken. And in the initial season of the surprise hit, Haruhi Suzumiya No Yuutsu, it comes almost out of nowhere, and in the process it lives up to the buildup in regards to a single character; the largely silent bookworm, Yuki Nagato. Throughout the course of the show’s original out of chronological order narrative, we are privy to the revelation that Nagato claims to be an alien. A being from a digitized world overlooked by an all-seeing data overmind. And as the stories build, we get fragments of her abilities, but it’s nothing compared to when the show’s centra narrator finds himself in a perplexing life or death situation in an empty classroom of all places. The moment of her appearance is exciting enough, bit the ensuing battle culled almost perfectly from the Tanigawa light novels is astonishing to the point of masterful. Turns out she’s the real deal, and the reality is beyond comprehension. One classical theory out there is that all art is a conversation between artists, and in the case of the cyber-battle over a once-very-skeptical lead character, this is the kind of visualization of such a world that has long been neglected in film form, and more common on cyberpunk literature, made corporeal in a high school fantasy setting! It’s wholly bonkers and brilliant. Heck, it even does The Matrix one better by exhibiting what happens to mass, manipulated by way of code. The kind of marriage between concept and action that is capable of greater inspiration.

 

Nagumo’s Heartfelt Apprehension

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There’s just no denying it. Patlabor 2 will always remain in my heart as not only my favorite Mamoru Oshii film, but one of the unsung great Japanese films. Yet unlike the HEADGEAR-inspired science fiction action comedy that it had been up to this point, 2 is a quiet, taut, and contemplative masterpiece that features some of the most poetically beautiful moments the medium has ever seen. While there are indeed moments of action here and there, some of the most gripping moments tend to be the calm moments in between storms, sometimes even after the worst has occured. And in a tale about a future Tokyo psychologically ravaged by an unseen terrorist force, it is all about how a nation reacts, and how simmering feelings can reach a boiling point, never to be fulfilled. So unlike all the previous moments I have made mention of, it is in the finale of Patlabor 2 that I found a deep kinship with Oshii, and character artist, Hiroyuki Okiura. It is with the quiet second in command of the SV2 mobile police unit, Shinobu Nagumo, that so much is said by saying very little. Emotions are complicated, and even more so with those no familiar with expressing openly. It’s widely known that Nagumo was always Oshii’s favorite Patlabor character, so when he’s finally able to grant her center stage, it is with a quiet confidence, and studied patience that he grants her a unique dignity, regardless of the complexity of her current situation. Taking down the perp has never been so pensive, yet resolute. Yep. Not an action moment, but one that calls out the goosebumps like few others.

 

And there’s several more where these came from..

 

Have instances of “That Moment” in your anime memories? Ones that made you want to stand a cheer for their electricity? Share them with us!