Aladdin (1992)

Aladdin (1992)

Disney has seemingly always lumbered along plundering fairy and folk tales, sometimes egregiously and other times in a more transformative, artistic manner, and they’ve been a giant in the animation world for probably more than 70 years* now.

Ups and downs coloured that dominance of course and Aladdin landed during one of those ‘ups’ – during a mighty resurgence in popularity after the hit-and-miss period that was most of the 1980s.

Aladdin is noteworthy in Disney history for several reasons that I’m sure everyone is pretty much aware of – featuring Disney’s first non-European Princess, home to some killer songs and the knock-out performance of Robin Williams too, and also good enough in the eyes of the bean counters to get a remake this year.

Aside from those things, it’s a great story that seems equal parts One Thousand and One Nights and Roman Holiday.There’s memorable characters (not in the least being Jafar), a fantastic fictional desert setting, top notch use of vivid colour, animation and fascinating early CGI in some parts. (I know Pixar’s Toy Story gets a lot of attention as early innovators with CGI and obviously the technology pre-dates both films but that carpet ride was a big thrill in the cinema as a kid – looking back now I can almost see the theme-park ride tie-in :D).

For me, this Disney film has a great balance between comical sidekicks, music, romance, actual heroics, sacrifice and villainy, though if you’ve never seen Aladdin you won’t find any curveballs re: the overall story nor the tone, but it just feels like every aspect hits spot on. And following the success of The Little Mermaid audiences were no doubt more than willing to give it a chance (the monster-performance at the Box Office played that out too).

But, to jump back to that magic carpet ride before I finish, I think it’s a really perfectly-executed escape scene, from the pacing to the direction, the dramatic lighting and even the little break in tension for a spot of humour when Abu is clinging to Aladdin’s face, everything works for me:

And a final note, Robin Williams reportedly improvised heaps of material, allowing the team to pick and choose the bits they liked best, but here’s a classic song from Genie instead 😀

5 Stars

*And a studio for longer, just with smaller beginnings when compared to say, the big hit that was Sleeping Beauty.

Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago)

Mamoru Oshii is quoted as saying that Angel’s Egg “kept [me] from getting work for years” and that makes me kinda sad to read even now, years after his career skyrocketed.

Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago) 1985

I do see why it freaked out the studio suits – but it’s a beautiful film that deserved to be made, I reckon. And in an utterly non-controversial way, I reject the idea that something is only good if it is wildly popular and makes a lot of money – but that’s an aside, I guess, let’s get back to the movie.  

Angel’s Egg is fascinating to me and I found it deeply immersive; there’s so much atmosphere built in to every moment, from the dissonant opening to the way the rest of the movie builds and reveals detail about the dystopian-like setting and its lonely characters.

If you’ve read much about the film you’ll know it’s not praised for its narrative but that isn’t to say that Angel’s Egg is without story or events; there’s a lot going on but so much rests in subtext, leaving us to infer things like motivation, consequence and purpose. In a way, the film is almost a study in animating water, light, shadow, in visual storytelling.

Of course, it’s more than those things but Angel’s Egg is also so much like traditional visual art. The composition and framing of so many shots as the Girl moves through the seemingly empty city with her egg, is relentlessly striking. It’s also exceptionally minimalist (dialogue-wise especially) in terms of palette – covered in blues, greys, blacks and whites for the most part. It’s ghostly, moving.

The sound design is equal parts haunting and dissonant – from metallic sound effects to softer rain, to the unearthly choirs, there’s a darkness there too. In fact, shadow is probably the key element to Angel’s Egg, how it moves, conceals or contrasts is constantly explored by Yoshitaka Amano and Mamoru Oshii. The closest comparison I can make to the style is probably the way German Expressionist film can be said to focus on the following:

  • Mise-en-scene and heavy atmosphere
  • Long shadow effects
  • Details of sets used to evoke emotion or provoke thought
  • Camera set in unexpected angles
  • Mystery, hallucinations
  • A slower pace than other movies

Expressionism does explore other things in different ways too but I think that Angel’s Egg is what you’d get if Anime met Expressionism, and it had me enthralled – glued to the couch, as it were. And while it all sounds bleak perhaps, I think the movie does explore hope (and maybe offers some too), though that can be a bit buried – at times the darkness and even the surrealist touches take charge; there’s even echoes of the Venice seen in 1973’s horror classic Don’t Look Now.

Related to above, there’s an aspect that I don’t want to spoil and which somewhat sums up the idea of surrealism in the film – it’s both moving and kinda sad, purgatory-like in a way – but again, I won’t mention specifics in case those of you reading have never seen the movie. In a similar way, I won’t ruin the final, chilling shots but I will circle back to my word choice of ‘purgatory’ because Angel’s Egg does have a strong focus on Christian symbolism, even if it’s not a film anyone would call ‘preachy’. Lots of room for the viewer to decide what they felt about the movie and the characters here.

Once more, I’ll repeat that I don’t think everyone will enjoy Angel’s Egg (which is normal and valid of course) but I think it’s worth watching at least once for the visual elements alone, and for how very non-typical the film was for the anime world.

A classic but not everyone’s classic 😀

5 Stars

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (Banpaia Hantā Dī: Buraddorasuto)

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (Banpaia Hantā Dī: Buraddorasuto) 2000

Even today, nearly twenty years after the release of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, I’m still fascinated by the fact that the English dub was done first. And, twenty years later and I’ve still never heard the Japanese cast 🙂

Finishing the English voice acting first was done as part of push for (much-deserved) attention overseas during a US theatrical run in 2000 and I wonder if the subtitle had a related secondary function? The first was of course to distinguish it from the original anime adaptation but to me it’s suggesting that a vampire’s struggle with (or failure to contain) their desire for blood will make up a good amount of the plot.

Instead, the source material probably has a more accurate title perhaps – the third novel in Hideyuki Kikuchi’s series that makes up the key aspects of the movie was called Demon Deathchase.

I like it because it’s more functional in terms of a descriptor – since the film is kinda one long chase sequence. There’s still room to breathe and reflect here and there, and plenty of fighting and gore, but the pacing is brisk as D seeks his bounty through increasingly grim scenes. There’s not a lot of time for character development either, but the scene-setting and atmosphere-building (via the creepy OST and the beautifully gothic visuals) aren’t ignored by any stretch.

The opening alone feels like a lesson in establishing both setting and mood – but it soon leads to the main plot – the rescue mission of a maiden ensnared by a vampire, and then it’s straight to the first impressive fight sequence as D and competing bounty hunters rip through some of the shambling zombie-type vampires. (It’s not until later that we meet the real Vampires; once again the arrogant noble-types).

On almost every level this adaptation is superior to the 1985 one, though in a way it’s not as bold, nor do we get the same feel for D as a character this time around. I think Bloodlust is not as much a gore-fest either, and perhaps it’s even somewhat toned down for Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who was behind Ninja Scroll, Wicked City etc. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is also something of a tragic love story and so if you’re looking for the kinda crass sexual content sometimes found in his other films, you won’t get it here. And whether that was done in part to placate US censors or audiences, I obviously can’t say, but it was a nice change from Kawajiri.

While I don’t usually place spoiler warnings within reviews of ‘old’ films, nor much beyond my general note in the About section, I’ll probably do so now – this next para will spoil a few things.

The film follows certain horror conventions almost as much as dark fantasy and so a good deal of the supporting cast is quickly established as cannon-fodder, and so once I knew most of them would die I didn’t have to bother becoming invested in their lives or storylines, but obviously Leila remains important enough to survive, and again, D is the main draw. Yet it’s Grove who’s probably the most memorable of the supporting cast – and arguably the most tragic – in the film. He’s basically an ace-in-the-hole but when he’s not kicking monster butt he’s bound by the toll his power takes on his body and though his fellow hunters care… there’s no quest to help him; he’s just a caged weapon to be used up. (Maybe there’s more to it in the novel, of course.)

For me the dub was memorable though I guess Wendee Lee might have possibly been under-utilised a little? And if I compare John Dimagio (who you’ll doubtless know as Bender among many other roles) he was able to play three or four characters and I only picked up on him voicing two of them 😀 In terms of a more specific negative for me, I admit that I wasn’t totally sold on semi-Beetlejuice-esque update to Left Hand – his dialogue too, often fell into a ‘comic-relief’ vein which I didn’t like but, it is a distinctive feature of the film.

But again, everything is really high-level with Bloodlust, right down to the very last scene, which is a touching coda that I won’t spoil, and is probably my second-favourite moment in the film.

Definitely for fans of Kawajiri and the vampire genre in general, and certainly anyone who is familiar with Vampire Hunter D but might not have seen this one yet, as it can be fun to compare, for instance, there’s still a strong western feel and a retro-look to a lot of the character design.

Supposedly a television series has been in development for many years – so if it is released one day, I’m sure I’ll check it out with high hopes indeed.

5 Stars

When can I say something is a classic?

So, when can I actually say something is a classic?

The glib answer is whenever I want, of course 😀

But while working on a semi-functional menu for the Review Heap and checking over some of my tags – I saw one that caught my eye: classic.

Of course, I instantly began to doubt myself, wondering “am I using this tag judiciously enough”? I think I’d only tagged three titles thusly out of the scores of reviews I’d done at that point. After a quick look through them I added two more and then started to doubt myself again. For instance, I thought about tagging Pyscho-Pass… but is it really old enough to be a classic?

Another pause.

.

‘Age’ is hardly the only valid metric for deciding whether something is a classic or not, right? I mean, I reckon it certainly is useful – if a text has maintained some sort of critical and/or audience-based acclaim over a long time then it probably is pretty damn classic. But should something quite good (in my opinion) like Pyscho-Pass be precluded from that status because it’s less than 10 years old?

(To change gears for just a tic, I wonder if this might be a good discussion-style kinda post? I don’t do many of them but this seems like it could work, and so if you’d like to weigh in, please do!)

So after a few quick searches I found some interesting quotes/posts/ideas from a few different areas: cars, games, beauty, literature, furniture and music. Obviously, they won’t all be directly analogous to film and television and further, not all of the quotes below are from famous or scholarly sources either, but I think they’ll still be useful.

At the very bottom I’ll narrow down some parameters that I want to try to use here on the blog perhaps.

To begin at last, generally speaking:

A classic is an outstanding example of a particular style; something of lasting worth or with a timeless quality; of the first or highest quality, class, or rank – something that exemplifies its class.

(Wikipedia)

That’s a pretty good start I reckon, high quality and exemplary. Now I’ll change gears into the world of automobiles for a moment, where one source defines ‘classic’ as:

For example, the Classic Car Club of America defines a classic as a “fine” or “distinctive” automobile built between 1915 and 1948. For insurance and registration purposes, the age of a classic car, in most cases, is at least 20 years old but not more than 40 years old.

Here ‘age’ pops up but there’s a minimum for ‘classic’ of around 20 years, and a top range too, when insurers get involved at least. Obviously I can’t speak to their categories but using that idea of age as marker would suggest Pyscho Pass isn’t actually ‘old enough’ yet.

A quick one now:

Furniture and small appliances tend to be considered ‘vintage’ from 25 to 50 years old and older.

There’s that ‘couple of decades’ kinda requirement again! Now I want to jump over to literature for a bit, to first come at the metric of Time from the opposite end:

Modern classics in literature are like that—smooth-skinned and young, yet with a sense of longevity… A classic usually expresses some artistic quality—an expression of life, truth, and beauty.

Thoughtco

Longevity appears here, which I like – in this instance they’ve suggested that the beholder has to make a call about what is an ‘instant’ or ‘modern’ classic based on potential longevity. That I think is pretty interesting as it sets us each up, in a way, as kinda arbitrary arbiters. Not sure beauty fully works in terms of language or say, a visual style when thinking of film texts, because those production elements can be outstanding, distinctive or exemplary without being conventionally beautiful, right?

Still, onward – now from Italo Calvino:

A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers… A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.

I like some of this as well; a classic text rewards repeated engagement – seems like a criteria that most folks would accept too. It’s also interesting to see him mention genealogy but also a place ‘above’ the rest, perhaps – and so I now feel like a classic can only be a true classic if it’s seen as better than the other classics out there 😀

This from Richard J. Smith, writing about the I-Ching:

  • First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them.
  • Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’
  • Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom.
  • [Fourth] One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.

Okay, more stuff I like here, though again I see ‘beauty’… but maybe I’m being too narrow in my definition when I see the word used here? I keep thinking aesthetics, yet maybe I shouldn’t – though I definitely believe memorable is a useful word. The first criteria is interesting too – if I double back to Pyscho-Pass, the series feels like it does identify fundamental human problems and maybe offer some guidance too.

I stumbled across this blog post from 2010 and it’s going back to ‘time/age’ again but brings in the idea of the wider genre – and I think it’s clear that while all the songs in the example are rock songs, (so the grouping is of similar things on the surface) there are still differences in how audiences respond to these purportedly equal members of that group of classic songs.

When I was at the gym this afternoon, before I had put in my iPod earbuds, I heard U2’s “Beautiful Day” on one of the local classic rock radio stations. No complaints from me, of course, but really … how old does a song have to be to be called “classic rock”?

“Beautiful Day” was released less than 10 years ago — September 2000. Partly because U2 has really slowed down its pace of album releases, that song was the lead single just two albums before the current one. Just doesn’t seem like it belongs next to 25-year-old Van Halen songs, 35-year-old Zeppelin songs, and things like “Freebird” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The other point this example triggered for me, is whether a band which started in say, the late 70s like U2, is always playing ‘classic rock’ even when they release a song in 2010 and such a term in music clearly refers to the past. Obviously, the band’s work spanned a range of genres and styles over the years but this becomes similar to a related issue, I guess: namely, when unpacking any art movement that features terms like ‘modernism’ or ‘contemporary’ I have to remember that sometimes that word is ‘frozen’ and it only refers to a particular period.

Therefore, ‘classic rock’ is perhaps closer to a historical genre than a description of quality and so we might have classic films that are of a time and place but more valuable as historical documents rather than paragons for the future.

Anyone else getting sick of the word classic yet? Just me? Okay, well, now I want to share a short exchange from a gamespot forum, dated around five years ago:

#1gamerguru100

I know this can vary for different things. In your opinion, how much time passes before a movie is considered classic? Video games? Cars? Something else?

I can’t really come up with an example. 😛 I mean, when did NES and SNES become classic video game systems? The early 2000s maybe?

What do you think?

Master_Live

Like you said, it varies. I would say for example (to name a few):

GoldenEye (1997)

GTA III (2001)

Halo 1 (2001)

are already classics.

top_lel

I would say 16 years but that would make me classic too.

The_Last_Ride

10-15 years i would say

deactivated-5b1e62582e305

I don’t think it’s only a measure of time but more about how much impact it’s had. Something like Call of Duty 4 that came out 7 years ago can already be considered a classic simply because of how it changed the industry.

So once again, time seems really important but also now the question of how much ‘impact’ a game had on those that followed. To me, that makes the two go hand in hand to some extent – for instance, to truly judge the impact of one text on those that followed, you obviously have to actually wait around a few years to see.

In that case, can I say Pyscho-Pass is a classic because it will probably one day be cited as an influence on future productions? Or is Pyscho-Pass the result of the influence of other classic texts? I guess we only need to look to Philip K Dick’s work (specifically the film adaptations like Blade Runner and Minority Report) to see what director Naoyoshi Shiotani felt were influences on Pyscho-Pass.

And as a side-note, is the series no longer a classic (in my head) now that subsequent seasons have lowered in quality or audience response?

But finally now, this from a 2018 thread online where folks were arguing about classic beauty:

Classic beauty just means a beauty that involves a symmetric, well-proportioned face, features on the delicate side, none disproportionate (even if its beautiful or sexy in its own way, e.g. Angelina’s mouth, Amal’s eyebrows), perhaps a statuesque, sculptural quality to face and body.

Here there seemed to be concerns around aesthetic and structure, which I think can be applied to art just as easily because we obviously care about the look of animation, the quality of the writing, especially the plot and characterisation at a minimum.

Phew – bigger post than I feared!

But it looks like idea of longevity (or at least a sense that longevity is likely) comes up often, along with the actual features of the text (which I take to mean both style and content) and yes, a certain amount of chronological distance from the present (distinct from longevity) along with the actual or even potential impact on a genre/medium and/or upon the texts that followed the potential classic, are all key factors that I should consider – based on my admittedly cursory research here.

I guess something like the following could be among things for me to think about before using the ‘classic’ tag in my reviews (not that it ultimately matters, but I’ve had fun here :D):

  • Longevity
  • Impact on other texts
  • Aesthetic or structural qualities
  • Worth multiple viewings

Okay, done! I’d love to hear if you’ve got anything to add, as I’m sure I’ve missed something.

And I haven’t decided on Pyscho-Pass just yet, though maybe it shouldn’t be so hard? I think the first season at least ticks 3 of the 4 criteria I mentioned above for me, but I’m wondering whether the Longevity aspect can hold out? I mean, will folks turn away from the show in the next couple of decades if the subsequent seasons continue to be received poorly/not as highly as the first?

I’ll keep thinking!

AND for curiosity’s sake, here are the films I’ve tagged with that precious ‘classic’ moniker so far:

The Review Heap Classics (as of Nov 2019)

Though if you’re expecting certain films or shows to be there well, they might not show up simply because I haven’t got around to them yet – for instance, GITS is missing but won’t be missing forever!

Memories 1995

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Memories (1995)

Katsuhiro Otomo had been involved with two other anthologies (and one afterwards) prior to Memories, and while I’m still hunting down Neo Tokyo, I’m pretty confident in saying that Memories will remain my favourite.

And maybe there’s a certain amount of nostalgia in that – some of the stuff we see as teenagers seems to cling to us for decades after, right? Well, this is one of those titles but I think most anime fans would enjoy at least two out of the three shorts in this anthology regardless of the production context or their age.

Actually – let me re-phrase, if you like science-fiction and a bit of light horror, maybe some dark comedy or allegory, then Memories has you covered.

The anthology is made up of three pieces – all based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s short manga works, and features three directors. For me (and for most folks it seems) the stand out is Magnetic Rose (dir. Kōji Morimoto), which is as haunting as it is beautiful. Everything about it is top notch and I’d recommend seeing Magnetic Rose if you had to choose just one. Now, I’m definitely biased as there’s a lot of involvement from some of my favourite industry figures – there’s the Otomo source material and a screenplay by Satoshi Kon and music by Yoko Kanno, but the nightmarish search of the ruined ship and its decaying memories really is mesmerising.

The other two stories, Stink Bomb (dir. Tensai Okamura) and Cannon Fodder (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo) are just as well put-together but for me not quite as good as the opener – Stink Bomb has some moments of dark comedy but it’s closer to a tragedy in the end, and features some great animation too. The final short is easily the more distinctive when it comes to art style, but perhaps due to its allegorical nature the message seemed stronger than the story; it came closer to being a vignette actually.

I actually would love to see more of the anthology format, as it seems to have resurface only occasionally across the last twenty years. Or maybe it’s more that I’ve missed them? Obviously I remember Short Peace from 2013 and I was also excited to see that Studio Ponoc’s second work is also an anthology (Modest Heroes) so the anthology approach isn’t ‘gone’ but it did seem like it was no longer in fashion for quite a while there.

4 Stars

Metropolis (Metoroporisu)

Metropolis (Metoroporisu) 2001

Metropolis was fascinating and I know I’ll watch it again – mostly for the visuals and direction rather than the story perhaps (which is kinda conventional but not boring by any stretch).

But setting that aside for a moment, another aspect that I found really interesting was the many links to one of my all-time favs: Astro Boy.

Now, obviously I’m writing about a 2001 adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga – so his style is all over the film and the ‘look and feel’ of these 1949 heroes and villains are one day developed further when he creates Astro Boy, and then of course, used again in the 2001 film. It was nice to see a lot of those hallmarks really faithfully recreated by the Madhouse team actually, and maybe not unsurprisingly considering Tezuka’s successor/collaborator Rintaro was at the helm.

So what I got to see was something enjoyably out-of-step with the chronology; it was really fun to see a host of familiar faces – like Skunk, that seemingly immortal jerk! And of course he’s not the only one, you’ll notice Ban/Daddy Walrus, Kenichi/Astro, Duke Red/Temnu+Dr Elefun among others too (and for those like me who crave some comparison images, I’ve put a few shots below).

(I tried and failed to find a gif showing Kenichi’s bulky/Astro-like legs and even kinda Popeye arms, but you can see the development/reiteration of characters here.)

The other aspect that Astro/Tezuka fans who might not have watched Metropolis yet will notice is the way the heroes seem to be striving for robots to be treated fairly – and a common theme to sci-fi; that the villains are quick to blame robots for all the ills of society. I won’t go into the plot here, but that’s one of the key motivators for villain Rock, who is a pretty nasty fellow.

Another somewhat recurring theme I think most folks will have noticed across a certain amount of anime (and one which appears here too) is an attraction to Christian themes and symbols, and so in Metropolis there is a Tower of Babel/pride element to the film which is pretty effective and makes for a big finish too.

While I’ve been sorta rhapsodising a bit about some of the irregular things I liked, I want to say again that while the level of animation and setting detail is stunning, the story isn’t as strong. For example, I felt like the main characters (esp Kenichi and Tima) didn’t really get enough time to interact and build their relationships. Or maybe I just wanted more dialogue and a touch less CGI?

And maybe I was a bit disappointed in the story balance because Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) is credited with the screenplay – so on paper, it sounds pretty ace, huh? Rintaro directing an Otomo-penned adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s manga! With just those elements alone the film should be Out of This World Good – and in many ways it is but I dunno, maybe if it had been a little longer? Had room for just a few more scenes between characters here and there?

Still, despite my gripes – it’s a modern classic, no arguments from me, and one that brings together that Golden-Age* Science-Fiction feel, social issues and a Film Noir aesthetic (right down to its jazz OST) really well.

5 Stars

Quickly, I’m mentioning again how much I enjoyed the direction – I’m really curious as to how much storyboarding was inspired directly from the manga actually, but in any event, here’s one aspect I loved: compositions like these really show the immense scale of the city and add to the kind of latent menace to the place too, and the idea that the characters are really facing something mammoth.   

* Maybe I’m a little off re: the exact era/influence here, but it doesn’t feel like New Age sci-fi of the 60s and 70s and it’s doesn’t feel like 20s/30s pulp either.

Vampire Hunter D (D Banpaia Hantā Dī)

Looking back to another classic for this review – this time it’s Vampire Hunter D which is very much a ‘monster hunting other monsters’ film but while there are definite horror aspects present, the Western and post-apocalyptic/sci-fi elements are just as clear.

Vampire Hunter D (D Banpaia Hantā Dī) 1985

So many of the story beats do read like a Western actually; you’ve got ranchers under threat, blackmail, dodgy law-keepers and a hired gun who has drifted into town to save the day… nothing groundbreaking in and of itself, but when it’s set against a futuristic/retro backdrop with Vampires and mutants, I think I see why the film must have stood out when it was first released. (And it remains engaging to me both now and when I first saw it as a teenager, though what I enjoyed most on first viewing probably wasn’t so much the cross-genre stuff as the more predictable horror/action elements I suppose: fights! exploding monsters! mysterious heroes! Etc etc).

Anyway – getting back to the actual review, as with so many of my write-ups, I can’t really speak to the quality of the film as an adaptation but if you’re interested in the genre, and if you prefer your vampires to be arrogant nobles a la the classic European style (rather than ‘animals’ or ‘sparklers’ as per some more modern texts) then you might like Vampire Hunter D. Certainly give it a shot if you only have time for a film-length anime too, since it won’t take long to watch it with a running time of only 80 mins.

However, length of the movie aside, I think it’s worth a look not only for its place in anime history, but because I really liked the ‘hard-to-pin-down-a-precise-era’ look to the character design (and some great creatures too) along with a handful of twists that kept things engaging – not to mention the titular character D himself, who’s a stoic but dependable hero. Personally, I’d have loved to see more of his internal conflict but that’d fit better in a series than a single feature I guess.

Until reading up on Vampire Hunter D for this review I’d also never realised quite how much the US was involved, with Sony Records and CBS acting as partners to Ashi Productions, which is perhaps part of why D eventually had a theatrical run in the States a few years after original release (and well before the ‘modern’ anime boom in the west.)

The OST was another element that I really enjoyed – it’s somewhat minimalist and even quite pensive at times (for a horror OST). Fans of 1980s electronic music will doubtless dig it too, but there’s still the sense of a simulated orchestra at times so it’s not ’empty’ either.

No spoilers – but this guy is a real highlight too 😀

Writer of the novels Hideyuki Kikuchi is on record saying that the look of this film is “cheap” and I think that’s somewhat misleading but not always inaccurate either, as there are some animation techniques used throughout that are probably in there to cut some corners, including the use of a lot of close-ups, but the direction is still pretty ace overall, especially with that creepy opening sequence.

4 Stars

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)
1984

I suppose you could argue that Nausicaa is not precisely a Ghibli title, since the success of the film was part of what actually enabled Studio Ghibli to be formed in the first place, but it’s always sold and labelled as such and of course, Nausicaa features the ‘power trio’ of Miyazaki, Takahata and Suzuki, who would go on to have such a big impact on the landscape of cinema in Japan.

Folks were making Nausicaa’s glider a few years ago but I’m not sure where they’re at now: http://www.petworks.co.jp/~hachiya/works/OpenSky.html

Generally, I consider this my favourite Ghibli film despite tough competition from a few other movies, in part due to the scale but also the small moments that humanise the characters throughout.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the roots of what might now be called a ‘classic’ mix of Miyazaki themes: environmentalism, fantasy settings, war, the joy of flight, and the use of a female lead whose ability to solve conflict with kindness (as opposed to endless violence) is both a key part of plot and charactarisation.

Nausica-of-the-Valley-of-the-Wind-nausicaa-of-the-valley-of-the-wind-27647506-500-300

On the off chance that you’re unfamilair with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, here’s a tiny blurb:

Threatened by spreading toxic jungles, Nausicaa’s people rely on their own vigilance and the wind to protect their homes and people. When a ship carrying an ominous secret crashes in their valley, warring nations converge on the Valley of the Wind and it’s up to Nausicaa to save her people.

Part of why the film is so enthralling for me is due to the world-building; it’s so detailed – you can feel that there’s so much more beneath the surface, the world in Nausicaa is so interconnected, from its environment and its tensions to the prejudice of its peoples, it’s just as realistic as it is fantastical. (This is no doubt in part due to the film basis in a multi-volume manga written by Miyazaki himself). The insects especially, are impressive and varied but also complex creatures – not in the least being the almost majestic Ohmu.

Ohm-nausicaa-of-the-valley-of-the-wind-32776892-800-449

Fans of Hideaki Anno will of course be aware that he was hired to work on the film’s climax with the great warrior – this gif offers a glimpse but not the whole sequence, though it’s still impressive enough (and I won’t say ‘for the 1980s’ because that’d be needlessly reductive).

Like many Miyazaki films, there’s another beautiful soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi too, this time with an electronic feel typical of the 80s, though the opening piece to the movie is still sweeping and orchestral. Below is a live performance for the 25th Anniversary where you can see Joe leap from the role of conductor to pianist 😀

5 Stars

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

Some classics hold their status by virtue of reaching certain storytelling spaces early, by being perhaps more influential rather than brilliant in their own right. I’d argue that the 1988 OVA adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga fits that mold pretty neatly, since so many tropes, settings and ideas have carried forth well into the present, yet the film itself has its limitations.

Of course, the Appleseed manga is probably more key in terms of the influence I’m talking about (and obviously Akira before it) but the OVA is still part of the storytelling tradition that puts certain conventions and characters into the fore.

And while there’s certainly cyberpunk elements re: technology, rebellion in oppressive societies and augmentation, the film reads more like a Hollywood action blockbuster if you strip away those typical cyberpunk or science-fiction elements. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, that’s part of the fun for me when I watch it – it’s not unlike Lethal Weapon set in the 22nd Century!

So for me, what can I say represents Appleseed’s best parts?

Maybe the ‘time-capsule’ aspects – that ‘old-school’ anime character design which was usually a little rounder of face, with visible noses and sharper use of shadow, along with what I consider the wider, more generalised US influence – the big hair, 1980s workout-costuming, a montage sequence and a saxophone and light synth-soundtrack. Add to that robotics, guns and explosions and a clear, linear ‘police-hunt-terrorists’ storyline and you’ve got Appleseed. Even Briareos and Deunan have a bit of a buddy-cop dynamic going on – though any such character interactions/development (or exploration of the social system in Olympus) tend to take a back seat to the action and tech. (There’s bits of humour here and there too but again, it’s not the focus either).

In fact, another joy for me tends to be seeing how the future is imagined both in terms of how society is organised and how technology might evolve – and Appleseed has both fascinating ideas and amusing moments common to a lot of 80s and 90s cyberpunk: especially when it comes to the office settings or communication technology. Here, computers are massive, police still print on paper and phones have only reached ‘video’ and yet military tech and cybernetics are light years ahead. Audiences probably appreciate a good deal of familiar things in future-settings though, and predicting the future must be so, so very difficult. I tend to think speculative fiction writers do get it right pretty often too.

Where the OVA suffers in my opinion is due to some truly clunky dialogue and the missed opportunities to reveal more detail about the world and characters, something a series might have solved, but the movie still packs a lot into its runtime and I tend to prefer it over say, the 2004 adaptation, though nostalgia clearly plays into that feeling.

If you’re curious about the film’s place in the timeline of cyberpunk or maybe Shirow’s work in general, then you’ll probably pick up a few familiar themes and ideas – I remember feeling like the multi-leg tank was a clear precursor to GITS’s spider tank. And speaking of that robot design and influence, I think some Boomer designs from Bubblegum Crisis might be a nod to Landmates and other robots in Appleseed, which is the kind of detail I tend to enjoy noticing because it reminds me just how interconnected storytelling tends to be.

4 Stars

My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)

Reviewing Totoro is tough because with a film that’s loved by millions and which has enthralled audiences for decades – what’s left to say, right? 🙂

My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)
1988

But I love it and so here we go!

While Nausicaa is actually my favourite Miyazaki film, My Neighbour Totoro does bear a few similarities such as the environmentalism and the choice of lead female main characters, but what seems most satisfying to me as a viewer is that the drama is located around a (seemingly) small event.

Small compared to the world-changing or boldly magical aspects of Hayao Miyazaki’s other films at least. But for sisters Satsuki and Mei, moving to a rural landscape and coming to deal with the illness of their mother is clearly an example of incredibly high stakes. (Even more so when young Mei sets out with her corn and we get those dusk-search scenes that are so powerful.)

Obviously Totoro and his friends really show that sweeter side to magic in Miyazaki’s oeuvre, along with adding the humour, but I think it’s probably the bright-eyed nature of the kids themselves as they roam the beautiful even pastoral settings and explore, that really makes the film endearing for me.

On the off chance that you haven’t seen Totoro – definitely watch it!

And again, if you’re not familiar with its history of this one – Ghibli released this and the gut-wrenching Grave of the Fireflies at the same time in 1988 and the ‘double a-side’ really helped cement the studio. It’s since become an absolutely mammoth industry – my favourite example of its reach isn’t the merch or the global love, but when the kids’ house was built for an expo back in 2005 I think.  

5 Stars