Been quite busy these last few months, and while in the office, I tend to listen to co-workers dish out what they enjoy via their streaming. It has become a unique period in time, one where we are now awash in months- strike that. Hours worth of newly posted visual entertainment is available with a minimum of effort. Now what this does for someone like myself, is create an ever growing cushion of work that I can delve into whenever I feel the inkling. There is an immediacy to the newly released piece of hard media that feels like a special secret had landed upon the doorstep. An effect that doesn’t have the same impact with near real-time online release. Sure, a few seasons have expressed some truly enjoyable work from numerous studios without my making a peep. But to cave in to habitual watching for the sake of it, remains a questionable prospect to me. When I hear said co-workers chirp in excitement over the latest episodes of whatever new series is on Hulu or Netflix, there is a near instinct on my part to either ignore it, or heap it onto the ever growing pile of “not likelies” that have begun to amass since at least 2008.
When only one show has you by the cerebellum, unwilling to let go, it may be time to re-evaluate what we watch, and why we do.
Having reached that hallowed (or is it feared?) fortieth year, there is a natural inclination to seek out work that not only best sums up who you are, but considers where all are going. Which is probably why Kill La Kill continues to shine in my wheelhouse over everything else. Sure, it’s a series that began a year prior, but on its plate were a number of concerns and fetishism that harkened to the more rough and tumble aspects of classic anime, while still being rowdy enough to question the now. This is vital to me in all forms of art. We can continue to laud dramatic effect, and strive for perfection, but one cannot help but wonder why this is even necessary in a landscape that often pathologically avoids reason. Which isn’t to say that creative works cannot move forward, and offer up more articulate means of expressing the anime paradigm. But to forget that so much of the stuff is often knee-jerk in nature, is kind of detrimental to its identity. It’s a delicate dance. And every so often it is nice to be knocked wobbly by a work so uninterested in recently established rules.
It’s all about the questions.
Why anime? Why escapism? Why indulge?
We could use any number of reason/excuse. And while this may trouble some as a statement, I have no issue in admitting that with age, comes less room for trumped-up reasons for being so willing to be cast away into realms of fantasy. And as time has shifted, and films like INTERSTELLAR and EDGE OF TOMORROW, explore previously trodden anime territory, does one come to the revelation that it is not merely enough to call a conceit a conceit, but to ask why it exists these stories at all. This is at the very heart of the current me, and what it means to take in a work, and find our own individual answers. The problem with overindulgence, is that it often becomes a substitute for personal rumination, and thereby epiphany. We stuff ourselves with so much input, that we deprive ourselves of enough energy or time to respond in a work or even a conversation. I cannot tell you how many times I listen to a media fan gasp excitedly about what they have just watched without considering the whys and hows of such choices. It is often only about the existence of this captured moment.
So many subcultures thrive on the idea of the find, rather than the hard work it often requires to create an organic relationship with the work. Be this relationship one of harmony, antipathy, or even “it’s complicated”. It’s how we embrace the creative output of a select few individuals that allows us to think, recept to , and perhaps enact based upon. Which is probably why, as an individual, I tend not to take character “types”, or tropes terribly seriously. They are simply shorthand for other things. And the more one studies about how these come about, or how they are arbitrarily plugged into works, does one need to pull back to see the greater mosaic of the creative process. Like a freeway, some stick to their safest lanes, while others hop erratically, in search of that miracle means of getting to a destination faster. And then there are those few, who understand the flow of traffic, and seek to become one with the entire circuit. Willing to make the freeway an extension of themselves. And once this comes together, it becomes easier to filter through all the roughage we are inundated with on a regular basis now.
Like any good diet, it becomes essential to read up, know the ingredients, and consume accordingly.
And hey, output is important too. Never let anyone tell you different.
A wink to both the past, and maybe things to come?
It’s a difficult thing, topping what many consider to be a genuine cultural milestone. So many variables to be concerned with as markets feel the pressure for more of the same, but beefed up for the next go-round. One might almost consider it (often have) something of a fool’s errand, an exercise in futility. It’s rare that a well can be revisited, and improved upon with new vision and energy potent enough to become its very own entity. So when we look back, and consider what did exactly happen when the Macross franchise entered the 1990s, we can see both a medium come of age, and a seemingly niche-minded universe find its footing with purpose. The big budget (for its time) Macross Plus OVA series made its debut in August of 1994, featuring the talents of series co-creator, Shoji Kawamori, a young, eager Shinichiro Watanabe, Gainax designer, MASAYUKI, with a screenplay by Keiko Nobumoto. In an era where anime productions for straight-to-video fare were rarely if ever larger than say that of Yasuhiro Imagawa’s Giant Robo, this was something of a creative gauntlet. In an era where budgets for TV anime were beginning to look dire, the OVA was suddenly flirting with grandeur.
Planet Eden. Year: 2040
Brash ace pilot, Isamu Dyson is newly assigned to the hallowed New Edwards base in hopes of keeping the hot headed hotshot from causing UN SPACY further trouble. Upon arrival, he is informed that he is to participate in Project Super Nova, where two upcoming Valkyrie models vie for a spot in the future of aerial mecha combat. Having been an Eden native, Isamu’s return makes for a queasy reunion upon discovery that his competing pilot is none other than his one-time half-Zentraedi best buddy, Guld Goa Bowman. Still fuming after an incident that ruptured this once close bond, tension only rises further upon the arrival of shared childhood friend Myung Fang Lone, now producer to the galaxy’s most beloved idol singer- the virtuoid idol, Sharon Apple. The moment all three are reunited upon Star Hill, it’s very clear that the animosity from days long past is still raw. And despite the once aspiring singer’s position as the digital chanteuse’s producer, the role is closer that of puppet master, controlling Sharon’s performances via her still bruised mind. Further fueling the competition back at the base, the rivalry begins to take on dangerous dimensions as Myung’s scarring memories of those days seem to be creating a bit of a problem. An illegal AI chip has just secretly been installed into the virtual singer’s CPU, making her an interloper of the most terrifying kind.
Echoes of Top Gun aside, what truly sets this entry apart from the classic Macross mold is the eschewing of a star-spanning space war, and a greater focus on the inner lives of the story’s central leads. At the time it was a startling branch away from an already familiar formula, and it makes for what remains the most psychologically complex Macross to date.
In fact, the central theme this time around shifts the needle away from culture, and onto our increasingly tenuous relationship each other, despite all the advancements surrounding us.To best share feelings on this theme, it’s time to share a few thoughts regarding Plus’ central love polygon. (Yes. We have shot well past the classic Macross love triangle, and have landed somewhere altogether new for the time. Needless to say, it get a little..complicated.)
It’s still pretty fascinating to experience a character like Guld in something like this. While he carries with him an often proud stocism, he is also carrying within this need to be redeemed. While he has excelled as a solider and pilot, there is something very dark and unresolved beneath being his well regarded exterior. Indeed, there is a heroism about him. But lest the truth sees itself through, this painful hurdle might never be passed. He could so easily have been written and directed as a one-dimensional obstacle, but instead it’s a dynamic portrayal of rage versus serenity.
As for Myung, we have the first deconstructive Macross lead in the guise of an idol who never shined. The story hinges intensely upon her as one who saw herself become a part of the literal idol machine. Staying far from old friends, playing behind the curtain. Matters come to a head when fate intervenes, pressuring her to reveal more and more of herself before lives are further damaged. And outside of these painful memories, none of it is truly of her doing. She is fallen by way of a most simple, yet wholly destructive secret. And as such, is one of the first truly postmodern anime characters this side of an Ikari.
Cocky, hotheaded, clueless Isamu. What to say about him? Save for him being the ultra-classic Tom Cruise archetype, he is also perhaps one of the best avatars for unbridled arrogance in anime history. Outside of his love of flying, the guy is hopelessly simpleminded. He found his passion at an early age, and not much has evolved since. More than anything, he is less the central character, and more a sounding board whom everyone else bounces off of. More an audience surrogate than an actual character, Mr. Dyson is little more than a likeable fool right out of a 1990s arcade game.
Going to go ahead and admit it. If there is any character I feel the most empathy for in all of Plus, it’s Lucy McMillan. She was just part of the YF-19 research team, doing her part for the betterment of technology, and got herself hung up on an overgrown twelve-year-old fighter jock. No intention of trouble whatsoever. Save for one understandable act of selfishness, there is much to consider regarding this character despite her brief screentime. She merely wanted to care for a guy, and was subsequently dumped for someone who likely was far from ready to pick up from where they left off. Taste in guys notwithstanding, she comes from a more direct place than most of the leads, and learns a harsh lesson as a result. Talk about your collateral damage.
Lastly, what words can best be shared to encapsulate the conceptual leap that is Sharon Apple? Japan and the otaku dream of a virtual singer have shared DNA for quite some time before Hatsune Miku and her kin graced monitors, and car commercials everywhere. In fact, it feels very much like a straight up creative trajectory, like it was destined into existence. Anime had already been tinkering with the idea of a computer generated idol, most notably so in the classic AIC video series, Megazone 23. But when many of the same minds behind Macross and Megazone took the jump into CG enhanced animation, the timing never felt more right to create a character so definitive of her time. From large scale holographic performances, to virtual stalking, Sharon remains one of the most indelible idol characters of all time. And yes, we did just say stalking because for a being created out of code, there is an unprecedented complexity to her that is often overlooked. Long before Spike Jonze’s poetics regarding us and our technology, Sharon represents the glory and the fear of melding our worlds. While she draws us in with her abilities, there is certainly no shortage of disturbing behavior coming out of her. She is a Descartian dream gone south. Such power with such insatiable curiosity, and such a broken sample of a mind to work with. And therein lies the tragic majesty of Sharon Apple-none of it is really her fault. She is but a mere reflection of us.
Combine all the drama with some of the very best mecha and dogfight animation in a medium’s history, and you have a striking, nuanced entry in what has long been seen as an otaku evergreen . With Nobumoto and Watanabe added into the mix, there is a sobriety to the storytelling that was new to the Macross brand. (something only peripherally attempted by Kawamori’s later entry, the often-ignored, Macross Zero) With characters like Isamu, Guld, and Myung fighting amongst themselves, the war is an intimate one with a potential for many affected bystanders by way of some serious hardware (and software?). Like many of the great filmed fantasies, there is a careful blending of grand scale action with complex characterization. And within what is ostensibly a movie-length work, it’s a balancing act that hits far more than misses.
When looking deeper into the unique heart of Macross Plus, one can see a thematic throughline regarding increased connectivity between humans and machines. It could be argued that Plus is more concerned with our own will to allow technology to stand-in for our own crucial decision-making methods. While a great many shows of the time bore a more technophobic slant, there seems to be a greater emphasis on human flaws that allow certain problems to arise. This is emphasized via the character of ace pilot, Guld, who’s half-Zentraedi blood leads to an often violent temper, we witness him downing pills to bring himself back to the tranquil person required to fly an experimental machine. Nobumoto’s script harbors a love for people connecting directly, but an equal fear that equates retreating into realms of the virtual with impending disaster. Almost like a warning as the internet was gathering steam as an information and communications resource in the early 1990s. And considering the unprecedented vision of cultural pluralism on display in this series, it’s a concern that remains as prescient now as it did then. It almost feels like a pointed response to the gap that was inevitably closed in the original series. Now that culture has bound us together, now what? While it isn’t spelled out directly, it is haunting every moment of the OVA.
Closer together. Further apart?
The great concern for tech working as a stand-in for our often broken selves is ever at the human core of Plus. For all the archetypes that tend to populate the Macross universe, this is perhaps the one incarnation that chooses challenging characters with unlikeable traits over your typical romantic heroes and idols. The entire show reminds us that despite the advances happening around the principle characters, the peril of machines is simply that they will not stop where we might. Possibly a dated notion, but a potent one nonetheless. One of many firsts for the franchise.
And speaking of firsts, it even went so far as to be one of the first anime releases to have original soundtrack albums distributed in the US via JVC, which was how I was introduced to the music of one Yoko Kanno. Picked up a copy of this from my local outlet, and was instantly enamored with it. As ambitious as the world Kawamori and Watanabe were aiming to achieve, it’s the musical character of the show that makes for the full range iconography of Plus. For these ears, what makes a truly classic soundtrack is an intrinsic understanding of a film’s world and characters. And there isn’t a single track in all of Plus that feels out of place with the universe, or its leads. It promises a new, more nuanced worldview, and it delivers with a rare sense of playfulness and grandeur. From orchestral, to Badalamenti-esque bits of atmosphere, to experimental electronica of the day, Kanno’s work on Plus is the kind of debut work that could very easily signal a one-and-done scenario. The very best of one’s compositional prowess on display for one big splash, never to be equaled. To this day, it remains something of a major accomplishment for anime music, and a personal favorite.
And yet it was only a mere hint of what was just around the bend..
One of the earliest examples of iconic sell-thru anime on the VHS market, Plus reeks of artistic ambition rare for the format. I fondly remember seeing these Manga Video releases adorn the shelves of Circuit City stores, not to mention your local Sam Goodie locations, and was long a darling of rental outlets such as Blockbuster and Hollywood video. Produced with enough budget and panache to compete with even big movie fare, retailers saw Macross Plus as something of a bright spot in the then just piercing-the-surface American anime market.
It’s very rare when anime squares off beautifully with Hollywood quality storytelling, but it has happened. Through Kawamori and Watanabe, we were able to see what was truly possible. Yearning for something beyond anime’s reputation is always something worth hoping for. And Plus remains a potent, indelible reminder of what can happen when a medium shoots for the stratosphere.
It’s the year 2206, and a bright pink spacecraft has made an unauthorized launch from Pluto Space Base #17, and is sporting its hyper rocket engines with intense haste. As authorities seek to control, and perhaps even down the runaway craft, a crucial baseball drama is unfolding. With perhaps the Tigers’ 200+ year losing streak at an end, their winning play is thwarted as the troublesome pink streak fouls up the game, rendering a mob of spacefaring fans ready, and eager to destroy the speeding interloper. Not even the denizens of Macross, or Yamato can stop this intergalactic bullet from causing all amounts of nuisance to all in her path. Seriously, she’s a real pain.
Such is the life of headband wearing, pendant-sporting Micchi, pilot of the Pink Shock. Her mission is not very complicated. And it isn’t concerned with your space wars, your losing streak, your culture. She’s having none of it. She’s seventeen years old, and speeds on for love. And not you, nor any militaristic regime can do anything to stop her from reclaiming it.
How is this hard for your to understand?
OVAs in the 1980s are pretty much a wasteland of VHS nonsense, often highlighted by your random Bubblegum Crises, or Megazone 23s, and offer very little in the way of viable historical context. Even in Japan’s anime on home video heyday, these were the shelf stocker equivalent to today’s Asylum Pictures release. They were a dime a dozen, and often made on the quick and cheap. New studios opening, and new studios closing. It was a new market, and something rife with mental images of airborne yen signs just itching for a slice of this new home entertainment pie. So why in the world do we want to talk about 1986’s Cosmos Pink Shock?
Quite frankly, because despite everything in it that is typical, there is also a potent, and perhaps even frightening sliver of prophecy embedded within. From the wet-wafer thin nature of the aforementioned “plot”, there is both a reverence for the era’s legendary love of space war tales, as well as the burgeoning of that now all too worn concept of moé. The show makes every effort imaginable to play into the fetish, and does everything possible to justify its existence. In fact, the entire point of Cosmos Pink Shock, is just that: “Space Wars are annoying, this is the era of the cute girl-STEP OFF.” It has no compunctions saying that the space heroes of the past will have to make way for all the petulant cuteness, as if the show itself were Noah’s dream of a flooded planet, and we had to prepare for the inevitable.
It even goes so far as to introduce a possible foil in the form of woman hating, Gatsupi. A handsome ball of noble whom the ladies like for his looks, but are constantly rebuffed by his declaration of disinterest. Even when the assumption is that of a slashfic narrative, he contends this isn’t the case. Yes, even fangirls of the 1980s were quick to assume this guy to be prime fantasy material. But this Sho Hayami-voiced character holds within a simple reason for his standoffish ways. Perhaps leave it to the newly captured Micchi, to weave her tale of woe, thereby thaw Gatsupi’s frozen heart?
You see, Micchi’s one true love, a boy she was fond of at AGE 4, was abducted by a UFO during the night of the matsuri. Yes. And noone seemed to remember who he was, nor was motivated at all to find him. So naturally, she stowed away on a space shuttle in hopes of finding him. Again. How is this not getting through? Are you just being stubborn?
Looking back at it now, it feels like this was a sentiment that had long been festering until it finally saw a ray of legitimacy with the original Superdimension Fortress Macross series. And from that point on, it became standard practice to keep that element as an integral part of the space war genre. That is until the conditions were right. Cosmos Pink Shock feels like a light handed back slap against the decade preceding it in all its need for hard edged militarism and samurai propriety. Featuring some neat character design work by the always terrific Toshihiro Hirano (of Fight! Iczer One & Vampire Princess Miyu fame), and some impressive animation direction by Keisuke Matsumoto & Yasuo Hasegawa, there is some visual charm happening here. Especially worthy of note are the scenes involving hardsuit armor and even a robot baseball game. There is much to see as mere distraction in Cosmos, that many may see as your typical benign japan toon, but there is just enough moxy, and outright raspberrying to all things Gundam and Yamato, to make it into something of a manifesto. A harbinger of the future.
A future that was barreling closer toward us.
Whether we wanted it..or not. Get out of the way.
Oh yes, and it features quite a nod to fans of the Hanshin Tigers, granting it a Kansai aura that must have been bubbling in lieu of their once rumored “cursed” state. A running gag that screams “you had to be there”, but is mildly chuckle-inducing regardless.
Meanwhile, at Hazama Medical University Hospital..
Ever have one of those bad hospital experiences? The kind that shake your faith in the medical establishment, and all that is right with the universe? You know what I mean. The kind of experience where you’re brought into the ER for a broken leg from a vehicle accident, only for it to end with you being turned into a fully functioning cyborg, complete with missile launching capabilities? Or the kind that does this, leading to your neighborhood nominating you as defender of community, complete with spandex outfits, and a limited expense account as invading hordes goad you into joining their band of local weirdos? Oh be quiet, you know what I am talking about. Liar.
Welcome to 1986’s OVA one-shot, based on the parody manga by Koichiro Yasunaga. One of the more sought after treasures of the anime on home video era. Goofy to a fault, the show pits a ragtag bunch of local miscreants with an augmented Indian transfer student, against the troublesome Telephone Pole Group in a series of overstated encounters and battles taking place in essentially neighborhood backyards. Looking back at it now, one can see the roots of shows like Kill la Kill, just beginning to burrow deep into the soils of anime past. And while the original manga’s punch is given a pretty lavish treatment considering the animation of the time, the focus seems less on story, and more on piling gag upon gag. The 50-minute piece remains charmingly animated, if not altogether fulfilling anywhere else. And while older fans like myself continue to adore works from this era like Project A-Ko, there is something about this OVA that remains elusive when it comes to the big laughs. Which isn’t to say that PEDF isn’t funny. Heck, any show that pokes good fun at so many J-sci-fi cliches can’t be all frownsville.
And yet, there is much to learn from this unrepentant, goofy work. Told in almost episodic vignettes, there is plenty to enjoy as both forces find themselves often undone by mutual incompetence and ensuing property damage. At times it’s the often unprovoked wrath of a missile-launching, blonde-haired foreigner with a bone to pick with-well, everyone. Others, it’s the all-out nuisance of a team of heroes with no sense of subterfuge, PEDF bursts with goofy, and is indicative of an era that simply wasn’t afraid to make up any excuse for an anime wild take. Like A-ko, it is certainly an animator’s work, displaying tons of shots and ideas that reek of a staff ready and willing to play to their talents. While definitely not Urusei Yatsura, there are quite a few jabs at super sentai shows, local politicking, and perhaps even the travails of being a startup business in an iffy market. And with superheroes/villains who can’t even figure out a way to usurp their adversaries with effective ruses, we’re definitely looking at the kind of farce that one simply doesn’t see anymore.
Upon watching it again recently, I’m reminded of what has been severely lacking in my anime intake as of late. And what Studio Trigger’s recent TV achievement truly stands for. PEDF, while not as classic as some of my just mentioned favorites, is certainly a charming entry in what has long been a neglected subgenre in the anime world. It’s often important to be able to laugh at your own absurdity. Anime once knew this quite well. So happy to see that some animators are keeping those embers nice and toasty.
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.
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.)
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.
Anthology series are often such a rare recipe for even mild success that it’s a surprise to many when they do pop up. And in Japan, when such a concept is applied to the animated world, this becomes quadruply rare. Even after popular shows such as World Masterpiece Theater, and the like, the science fiction vignette concept certainly sounded like a perfect marriage. Especially in the latter 1980s, when the genre and the medium seemed at perfect sync with each other. So when looking back at the lost OVA series, Twilight Q, I am reminded of what potential might have been, and how certain animators saw it as a means to stretch their experimental wings- perhaps to its detriment. A defiantly literate concept, Q was the coming together of what would become something of a dream team of anime luminaries. Produced by a very young pre-Bandai Visual, and with only two episodes to its name, it remains something of a footnote in the history of these would-be legends.
First Episode: Time Knot – Reflection
The first installment concerns teen girl, Mayumi who on vacation with a friend, discovers a near-intact camera on a beach with mysterious clues written all over. After attempting to develop pictures from a roll within the eater resistant casing, most is indecipherable save for one shocking image – one of her with a boy she has never met before. Troubled by this, her best pal’s big brother takes it upon himself to investigate the camera’s origins, only to discover that it is not of any preceding/present time frame! A very laid back, and almost poetic journey ensues as Mayumi (and in turn, the audience) is taken on a trip between eras that not only explain her role in all of this, but of Japan’s path toward ecological disaster. Written by longtime Oshii collaborator, Kazunori Ito, there are clear parallels to what would become a solid theme in his work, looking into a nation’s less than flattering past as a means to ensure young people like Mayumi some manner of clarity. While less science fiction than wisftul, Time Knot is presented in a more deceptively sunny, reflective manner than one would expect. And also contained within its very short running time, an almost stealthy level of meta-humor holding it all together.
Ito, and director, Tomomi Mochizuki (Ranma 1/2, Umi Ga Kikoeru) take full advantage of the short’s sunny skies, and light-hearted musings to paint a portrait of prosperity on borrowed time. As Mayumi finds herself drawn even further into the mystery, there is almost a feeling as if it isn’t merely time that is being manipulated, but also reality. The implications of Mayumi’s world being a quasi-parody of anime’s overt compensation for reality, is a potent one if viewers are willing to take the trip. Even without it, there is plenty to chew on considering how brief the short is. On top of this, the presentation remains gorgeous.
And then run headlong into..the second and FINAL episode..
Mystery Article File 538
What one could consider an odyssey into social isolation, and borderline obsessive insanity, 538 tells the tale of a lone detective who has found disturbing typed testimonial whilst investigating the connection between a recent rash of jumbo jet disappearances, and the lives of a man, and his toddler “daughter” in a disheveled apartment. And the closer we intently listen, the more confessional, and bizarre the tale becomes. From the very beginning, the totems of a particular anime voice are established loud and clear as we listen to the narration being read, and the revelations that this case has indeed been going on longer than many might imagine. Obsessions with endless meals of noodles, lack of human interaction, detailed descriptions of a life cloistered, and even imagery of JAL planes becoming scaled, breathing carp telltale the presence of the one and only Mamoru Oshii. And in classic form for the anime auteur, the findings in File 538 are less about aliens, espers, or time travelers, it is more of the surreality that is modern Japanese life.
Very much a spiritual follow-up to perhaps his most obtuse work, Tenshi No Tamago, 538 is much more concerned with atmospheric montage and rambling theory than perhaps Oshii’s most impenetrable works. As we are drawn into the lives of the aforementioned “man”, and his pantsless toddler child, are are also given glimpses into the hidden metropolitan. Parts of Tokyo that have become reclaimed, and often discarded whilst the economic engines of the era pretend that all is fine. There are even some challenging notions regarding Japan’s role in the contemporary asian sphere as we see both nature and human sprawl scroll across the screen. In many ways, the obsessions displayed in 538 are ones that would eventually become major components of Oshii’s more mainstream works to come (most notably the first PATLABOR film, which was clearly in the wings at this point). It’s clear that despite his yen for comedy, Oshii’s temperament had decidedly become more solemn, more sober in only a mere few years. 538 is a mostly forgotten, but important bridge between a famed director’s most well-defined poles.
It’s also no wonder that the concept only lasted as long as it had. Even in the formative days of anime as global populist entertainment, this is perhaps as uncompromising as it gets. And while Twilight Q might not seem to be the best, most well-realized hidden treasure anime around, it is certainly one of the most interesting. As the opening warning in red states; This is a show that is capable of controlling your reality. And as a very brief visitor, I was certainly hooked
“For years, I didn’t understand the concept of writer’s block. I was like, “what’s that?”, you know? And then I realized a few weeks ago, it was like, “Oh! That’s every day!”
-Jonathan Nolan (Co-writer of The Dark Knight Trilogy & Creator Of Memento)
Pretty amusing to ever think that scribe, Kazunori Ito has ever experienced that oft-blamed phenomenon, but apparently it (along with a great love of 1980s Hollywood) was enough fuel for this rare, and infectious one-shot OVA from the very early days of EMOTION – IE, Bandai Visual that places the writer amidst a whole mess of trouble. Ryo Matsumoto is a hapless screenwriter, who has been unable to get traction for his latest action opus, when he is witness to a murder on the street, and somehow finds himself in possession of some sensitive documents. And just like that, it’s a writer’s 1980s action fantasy wet dream as Ryo finds himself not only pursued by dangerous thugs who look bizarrely like a more Bruce Lee-like Kenshiro, but befriends a classic “cop-on-the edge”, and possibly finds enough time for love? Urban Square – Kohaku No Tsuigeki (AKA – In Pursuit Of Amber)is the kind of OVA that in its day would have made a fun addition to my localized collection in the day, but was likely considered not “anime” enough to sell here.
But personally speaking, there are enough things happening here that only anime could deliver.
So when we begin the film, Ryo is quickly established as a very young writer who seems to be hurting for a script sale. It’s apparently not going very well, which leads to him out in the rainy streets, where fate intervenes, forcing Ryo, and everyone else around him to live out a reality that is far more exciting than fiction. This is made even more complicated by the two-time chance meeting between Ryo and Yuki, a local art student with indirect connections to the envelope that has come into their possession. With both their lives instantly in danger, a burgeoning relationship might have to wait, as noone can be trusted. Thankfully, they find an unlikely ally in tough cop, Mochizuki. A grizzled detective with a seeming obsession with bringing down Goda Geese, a long untouchable criminal figure with an eye for art fraud. Classic “noir” tropes abound, Urban Square is less a parody of the more hard-boiled action genre of film that was before matters went full Schwarzenegger in the ensuing years.
Looking back at it now, 1986 seems like a banner year for anime in regards to their reverence for all things “American Action”. Where California Crisis established a grand love of all things Spielberg, Urban Square seems happy with being a fun little ode to the ever-reliable 80s cop thriller. From the cold blues of the city at night, to Akemi Takada’s classy character designs, the 55-minute OVA screams pre-Lethal Weapon police pot-boiler, complete with often weird jazz score. Most egregiously, the aforementioned grizzled detective, Mochizuki, is a dead ringer for a Sharkey’s Machine-era Burt Reynolds! Heck, while were on that, tow headed assassin, Henmi is a bit of a Moke clone himself. Hair breadth escapes, coincidences, and just plain heaven’s luck play a major part of the film’s disarming aura.
But a lot of it wouldn’t be as much fun, if it didn’t have itself a likeable guide through this odyssey of familiar. This is where Ryo fits in more than fine enough as a guy who has seen all of this done on screen, and can’t believe that the real deal is in no way any more imaginative. The closest things to ability he has on his side are his movie cliche knowledge, and pure dopey spunk, which becomes a fuel for many surprises throughout. Like many writers, he’d sooner not write about his own life. But when the reality is this good, and with friends caught up in everything, perhaps life can surpass art just this once. It doesn’t hurt that the new lady in his life is ideal in more ways than one. Yuki becomes that additional spark that makes this non-action hero into something so many outside of the original John McClane fail to be, tangible and likeable.
A few years later, John McTiernan’s The Last Action Hero attempted to subvert what the action genre had become over the years, to often middling to lesser results. Urban Square excels by strictly avoiding such cynicism, and playing matters as light and reverent. What could so easily be a simple parody, becomes an appropriately charming little piece of bubblegum noir. Director Akira Nishimori and Animation Head, Hideyuki Motohashi are clearly having a ball taking on the kinetics of western action, creating a surprisingly flowing visual narrative of hand-to-hand, gunfights, and vehicle chases one must see to appreciate. The tired, almost disdain-coated feel of Last Action Hero, is a vibe that is completely absent in Urban Square, where all we have, is a big, charming ode to the salad years of an american cinematic pastime.
Inspiration does indeed sprout from the strangest places..
This is a title that has never experienced an American release, and has remained long out of print in Japan. But can be found by way of many of the old channels. Happy seeking!