Search

2018-04-18

"If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger" and the Death of Pop Culture Blogs

"If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger" and the Death of Pop Culture Blogs

I'm very sad to discover that Tom Sutpen's essential pop culture photo blog "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger..." has closed down. I don't know exactly when this occurred, but the author's Twitter page was last updated on March 29.

Every week, I am reminded that the golden age of movie and pop culture weblogs has now passed, as people have devolved from engaging with culture to merely consuming it. People once shared their love of movies and music and the arts, often sharing a spotlight to more obscure, left-of-the-dial subjects. It was always such a joy to discover these cultured, educated fans as they blossomed on the new online frontier of the 21st Century. Now it's nearly all gone extinct, and the few remaining holdouts are fighting over table scraps.

It appears that most people today are perfectly fine with just clicking on images on social media sites. They're not really engaging or bonding or coming together in any meaningful way. They're just sitting like a lump on a log, clicking buttons in a techo-digital drugged-out haze, like animals in a cage who press a button to receive their sugar pellet. Here's another pellet. Here's another.

This isn't interesting or even remotely fun, either as the rat in the cage or the one dispensing the sugar pellets. I tried keeping up with that on Ghibli Blog Twitter, and was modestly successful for a while, but it became so much work for so little payoff. One never makes friends or builds careers. Nothing grows or builds. You're either the sucker stuck inside the cage or the sucker stuck outside the cage.

I remind myself that nothing lasts forever, and it can become fairly difficult to endlessly curate and manage a website when there's virtually no money involved. That's often the reason why many of us quit in the end. We love doing this, but we also love to eat and have clothes on our backs. The internet age has been a great opportunity for writers, but it has also created a race to the bottom that results in stupid, useless clickbait that makes you want to hit someone over the head with a Whiffle Bat. It also results in websites that pay next to nothing for freelance writers, including many who pay nothing for "internships" that will lead absolutely nowhere. I recently replied to an ad for writers, and the company offered $100 for 4,000-word essays. There are beggars on the streets of Chicago who earn more money than that.

So, once again, I find myself saying So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright, and goodbye to another beloved pop website that made me feel more connected to the world and its boundless possibilities.

Also, I would like to politely point out that I need writing jobs that actually pay the rent! The work has to be out there. You can't all still be living with your parents.

2018-04-16

Happy 30th Birthday to My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies

Happy 30th Birthday to My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies

Happy 30th Birthday to My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies

Today marks the 30th anniversary of two of Studio Ghibli's most acclaimed movies, My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies. The two were offered as a double bill in Japanese theaters, which has always bemused and befuddled fans around the world.

My understanding of the whole saga is that Hayao Miyazaki wanted to create his movie but couldn't convince Tokuma Shoten (the owners of Studio Ghibli in those days) to finance the project. So he convinced Isao Takahata to create a film adaptation of the famous novel Grave of the Fireflies and then piggyback Totoro onto that.

It must have been an enormous strain on both the filmmakers and the studio's finances to create two feature animated films at the same time, but they successfully managed to release them on time (more or less). Unfortunately, the Japanese moviegoing public wasn't very interested that summer, or perhaps they just couldn't handle the emotional whiplash. I'd also like to think that Akira-mania also played a role, as the two Ghibli movies were radically different and didn't fit in with the times.

The Totoro/Fireflies double bill was a financial flop for the studio, their biggest until My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. Thankfully, Tokuma Shoten continued to support Miyazaki and Takahata and believed in them unconditionally, and Ghibli rebounded the following year with Kiki's Delivery Service, which became their first box-office hit.

Meanwhile, both Fireflies and Totoro would become widely respected classics over time, thanks to home video and a little thing called merchandising. Once the kids had Totoro toys and plushies to play with, and enough time to watch the videos over and over a million times, they came around. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Animal Treasure Island on DVD


Out of curiosity, I checked Amazon to see if the 2005 Animal Treasure Island DVD was still available, and to my surprise, copies are still in stock. Yay! This Discotek Media release has been out-of-print for many years, so be sure to pick up a copy while you can. I see that Puss in Boots is more difficult to score, so don't dawdle.

This DVD is pretty bare-bones, but does include both English subtitles and the original US English-language dub. The cover design is pretty good. I do wish Toei would reissue this movie on Blu-Ray, but they seem very reluctant to preserve their history. Horus remains the only "classic era" title on BD, and all of the movies on DVD were single-layer discs released around the year 2000. Oh, and they're all LaserDisc rips.

I really can't explain that. Am I really the only one who cares about these classic animated feature films? Maybe. Anime fans, who are mostly high school and college students, won't touch anything older than a decade, and they especially won't touch old Japanese cartoons that were modeled after Walt Disney. Whatever.

Get this movie. Click on that link at the beginning of the post and buy Animal Treasure Island on DVD. Don't bother waiting for a BD to arrive. It won't.

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Since we recently looked at Hayao Miyazaki's newspaper comic adaptation of Toei Doga's Puss in Boots, I thought we should also look at his version of Toei's 1971 classic, Animal Treasure Island. I love this movie, a true cartoon classic full of slapstick humor and adventure like a warm box of sunshine.

These newspaper scans are all in black-and-white. Judging by their quality, I have always assumed that the originals were in color, but that is only my personal speculation. These look like they were run off a photo copier long ago, and then later scanned into digital computer files. Thankfully, the page sizes are large enough so that you can read everything clearly (just click on the images to view at full size). I would be very happy if we could find originals, but these remain the only preserved copies of this 1971 comic.

This Miyazaki comic appeared after People of the Desert, his original epic manga serial from 1969-70, and so we see his drawing style far more established than in Puss in Boots, which still followed the style of Osamu Tezuka and classic cartoons. Notice the extremely dense, packed pages, a Miyazaki trademark. The arrangement of those panels communicates its own energy and tension, and it's a quality that continues throughout his career. Most Japanese manga comics are very spacious, zen-like in their arrangements and compositions. Miyazaki-san is just the opposite; he just packs together as much material as he can possibly fit onto a page.

This Animal Treasure Island comic series follows the plot of the movie fairly closely, albeit in a condensed fashion, and with a lot of the lighter material removed. We don't get to see the famous pirate battle (conceived and animated by Miyazaki, one of his all-time classics) recreated here, but space was no doubt a premium and there's only so much you can do with 13 pages. You just know that if given half a chance, Miyazaki would have cranked out at least a couple hundred without breaking a sweat.

This comic comes at his final year at Toei, as Miyazaki-san left with Isao Takahata and Yoichi Kotabe to join Yasuo Otsuka at the A Productions studio to pursue their ill-fated Pipi Longstockings project, as well as Lupin the 3rd, where Miyazaki served as co-director with Paku-san. Add in the Pipi project, the two Panda Kopanda short films, assisting on a couple other A Pro anime series and putting together Heidi, and you just marvel at the man's work ethic. I don't think Miyazaki ever took so much as a coffee break during this time. He must have lived solely on a diet of coffee and cigarettes and boundless ambition. He was out to conquer the world and would settle for nothing less.

2018-04-15

Photos: Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

Moretsu Ataro (1969-70)

The following screenshots come from episodes of Moretsu Ataro directed by Isao Takahata. The Toei Doga TV anime series ran from 1969-70 for 90 episodes. I found these screenshots from the Toei website while doing research.

One thing I really enjoy about these Toei anime programs from the 1960s is how they still embrace a Western cartoon style that will almost completely disappear in the 1970s and beyond. As much as I embrace anime's evolution away from the Disney paradigm and towards new horizons, I do hope they wouldn't forget the joys of a simple gag cartoon with really inspired animation and goofy humor.

Maybe I'm just feeling really nostalgic for Rocky & Bullwinkle and Hanna-Barbara these days. I'd really like to see this show. It looks really fun, the character designs are inspired in that classic-moderist fashion. And most importantly for this website, Paku-san directed these. What more do ya want?

The Films of Isao Takahata, Part I: Toei Doga

When Isao Takahata passed away last week, he left behind 50 years of many groundbreaking, visionary works in film and television, in animation and live-action. We're going to take a look at the director's complete career, including all of his directorial works. In this installment, we will look at Paku-san's early career with the Toei Animation studio.

Isao Takahata was born in 1935, and was recruited by the Toei Doga animation studio while still a university student in the late 1950s. After graduation in 1959, he was hired by the company and entered into their directors program. For the next several years, he would be trained in animation and filmmaking, learning the ropes, always hoping to apply his love of French and Japanese New Wave and Neo-Realist cinema, and join with the rising young generation of animators to forge the modern anime era.



Anju to Zushiomaru (1961)

Takahata served as assistant director on Toei Doga's fourth animated feature film, which is a major shift in tone from the studio's first three animated features. A loose retelling of the fable Sancho the Baliff, this movie focuses on character melodrama and tragedy than cartoon adventures, and its tone is comparatively dark and bleak. According to anime scholar Ben Ettinger, this film was not received well by the Toei animators, who believed that it endorsed passive acceptance of authority figures. All of these factors no doubt had a great impact on the young filmmaker. It is not known what role Takahata played in this film, beyond that of an apprenticeship.

I have watched this movie, and the tragic melodrama was very surprising to me, but the movie as a whole felt very sluggish and sloppy, more like a thematic experiment than anything else. The story is very uneven, particularly when the tone completely changes in the second half. That said, there is an interesting sword fight and a battle against a giant spider at the end because, well, every movie needs a big monster fight.

Anju is not one of my favorites, but I think it's worth seeing for diehard anime and cartoon fans, if only once.



Tanoshii Bunmeishi: Tetsu Monogatari (Interesting History of Civilization: The Story of Iron) (1962)

Here is an interesting and little-known entry. The Story of Iron is a 23-minute short film that premiered on April 22, 1962 in Japanese theaters. It was produced in tandem between Toei Doga and Iwanami Productions, a provider of sponsored educational and PR firms. Takahata again served as assistant director, and is also credited as a production assistant (according to the Japanese Wikipedia page) or script supervisor (according to US Wikipedia).

It appears that this short film was something of an educational film, an animated documentary. This screenshot is the only physical documentation that I could find. I could find, however, more material about Iwanami Eiga Seisakusho, including a 2015 book published by Yale University Press titled, "The Dawn of Cinematic Modernism: Iwanami Productions and Postwar Japanese Cinema", written by Takuya Tsunoda, PhD.

I could not find any evidence that this film was ever released on home video. There was at least one Iwanami compilation DVD, so it's possible that it was preserved. The above photo most likely came from a print source, either a book or newspaper.



Wanpaku Oji no Orochi Taiji (Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon) (1963)

Here is a true classic, one of the all-time great Toei Doga animated features, a thrilling visual spectacle with amazing action scenes, wonderful characters, varied environments a fantastic climactic battle (a Toei staple) and even a good dance number. The animators are really show off their skills with confidence and grace, and the result is the studio's best movie yet.

Takahata served as assistant director on this movie, and while it's difficult to say what scenes were his, or what influence he had on the production, there is no doubt that the cinematic shots and more three-dimensional compositions made an impact on his career. There are moments in the battle against the eight-headed dragon that feel like Paku-san, and I noticed several brief shots that were "riffed" in Horus, Prince of the Sun. Of course, that might also be the influence of key animator Yasuo Otsuka, who was the animation director on Horus and animated the legendary fish battle.

I really love this movie, and wish a US distributor would pick it up for release. I'd also like to see Toei release this title on Blu-Ray; to date, Horus remains their only high-definiton release of their "classic era" feature films. That really ought to change.



Ankokukai Saidai no Ketto (The Biggest Duel in the Underworld) (1963)

This is a surprise, one that I had to search long and hard on Japanese websites to verify. The Biggest Duel in the Underworld is a live-action Yakuza gangster picture directed by Umetsugu Inoue, a prolific filmmaker who worked for all six major Japanese movie studios, and even worked for the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. Isao Takahata is listed as one of two assistant directors for this movie, which mostly involves tough, cool gangers looking tough and cool and shooting up the place.

The trailer is available on YouTube, which is where I snapped a few screenshots. A DVD is available in Japan but without English subtitles, and no fan translations currently exist. It's a pity that Discotek Media no longer imports pulpy live-action movies, as they did in their early days, because this movie would be perfect for cult movie fans.

Again, I have no idea what role Paku-san played in this production, but we can see the seeds to his unique filmmaking style, influenced greatly by New Wave and documentary films, and bringing those qualities to animation. I may have to buy the DVD just so check it out. Maybe I'll become hooked on Japanese gangster pictures.



Okami Shonen Ken (Wolf Boy Ken) (1963)

Now we come to Isao Takahata's directorial debut on Toei Doga's first TV cartoon show, Wolf Boy Ken, which followed on the heels of Osamu Tezuka's and Mushi Production's landmark Tetsuwan Atom, aka Astro Boy. The TV anime era had arrived, beginning a radical change away from lavish feature film productions. The series ran for 86 episodes over two years and remains a beloved staple. A pilot episode was even dubbed into English for a potential US release, but those plans were never realized.

Takahata directed twelve episodes of the series: 6, 14, 19, 24, 32, 38, 45, 51, 58, 66, 72, and 80. There are clips of several episodes on YouTube, but none of Paku-san's. The entire series was released on three DVD volumes in Japan, but without English subtitles. The prices are very affordable, however, so anime and cartoon fans should purchase a copy.



Hustle Punch (1965)

Hustle Punch should have been brought to America. It's a classic cartoon with animals, slapstick violence, and would have fit in nicely with Hanna-Barbara and Looney Tunes. What more do ya want? This show only ran for 26 episodes, but don't let that hold you back. The Jetsons only ran for 13 episodes, and it's an all-time classic. This series was created by founding Toei animator Yasuji Mori, and features key animation from Hayao Miyazaki, Yoichi Kotabe and most of the gang.

Isao Takahata did not direct any episodes, as pre-production for Horus, Prince of the Sun had already begun. He did direct the opening, however, which is terrific, and you can watch it on YouTube. Notice how the main characters pop out of a refrigerator in a junk yard? Takahata and Miyazaki paid tribute to this in the final episode of the "green jacket" Lupin the 3rd TV series. Some of the animal characters would also reappear in the Toei movies Animal Treasure Island (a classic) and Puss in Boots 3: Around the World in 80 Days (a stinker).



The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968)

Alright, the next person who uses the words "Little Norse Prince" will be smacked upside the head with a rolled up newspaper. Use the name "Horus, Prince of the Sun." That's the title on the DVD and Blu-Ray, not "Widdle Baby Schnooky Wookums." Got it? Good.

After years of preparation, planning, theorizing and growing, Isao Takahata and his band of merry rebels unleashed an anime masterpiece that took everything that was great about classic Toei Doga, added in a wealth of new animation theories and modes of expression, and transformed the medium.

We all know the story about this movie, that it was a troubled production, that Takahata had to fight the studio bosses over every scrap, being told "you can't do this" and "you can't do that," only to have him immediately turn around and do it anyway. The resulting movie is a towering masterpiece that liberated Japanese animation from the Western Disney archetype of children's fairy tales, opening the door for complex characters, adult themes, moral nuance, graphic violence, and visual stylization. This is where "manga eiga" became "anime."

Paku-san was the mastermind, but he relied upon his core team of animators, including Yasuo Otsuka, Hayao Miyazaki, Yoichi Kotabe, Reiko Okuyama, Yasuji Mori, etc. etc. This was a team effort, and one reason why this movie's influence was so wide was that those same artists would soon explode across the anime landscape, working on such diverse works as Lupin the 3rd, Belladonna of Sadness, Heidi, Future Boy Conan, and, of course, Studio Ghibli.

Simply put, if you don't have this movie in your Blu-Ray collection, you're not an anime fan. End of story.



Himitsu no Akko-Chan (The Secret of Akko-Chan) (1969-70)

Horus was far too experimental and radical for 1968 audiences, and it was pulled from Japanese theaters after only ten days, the studio's biggest box-office failure to that point. As punishment, he was demoted, sent back to television, and assigned as assistant director for this popular TV "magical girl" anime series, based on a popular girls comic book.

I actually found an episode on YouTube, and it's a pleasant surprise. It's definitely a "girl" cartoon with a fair mix of family drama and comedy, which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense. You can see the seeds of inspiration for future Takahata films like Jarinko Chie, especially with a pair of childhood flashback scenes that are nearly identical to Omohide Poro Poro. So Paku-san wasn't merely punching in a time card. He was still actively creating.

Fun Fact: Hayao Miyazaki also worked as key animator on episodes 44 and 61.

This series was released on a DVD box set in Japan, but no English subtitles are included. Expect to spend...how much? What? $200?! Are you out of your damned minds?



GeGeGe no Kitaro (1968-69, 1971)

This Halloween monster-themed series, adapted from a popular manga comic, is very fascinating. I'm a big fan of classic monster movies and TV shows like The Munsters and The Addams Family, so GeGeGe no Kitaru could become a favorite if I ever get a chance to see some episodes.

According to research, Takahata directed only one episode of this late '60s TV series, number 62. A second TV series, this time in color, aired in 1971, and Takahata directed the opening and closing credit sequences, as well as episode 5. Those credit scenes are available on YouTube, and it's a very fascinating discovery for Ghibli fans. It shows the title character, a young boy with goth hair, running through a graveyard with an assortment of strange monsters. Several of them are also seen, many years later, in the "ghost parade" sequence in Pom Poko.

The 1971 opening is very visually sophisticated, with parallax scrolling, more complex backgrounds, and a greater use of 3D space. We even see the "camera" placed very low, practically at ground level. This is far superior to the original 1969 opening, which focuses squarely on simple character movements and 2D cartoon movements. It's another demonstration of Takahata's highly intelligent and cinematic approach to animation direction, and would prove to be his final work for Toei Doga before leaving to join Yasuo Otsuka at A Productions.

Black Hole Reviews has a great essay on the GeGeGe series, including all the TV and movie adaptations over the years. DVD box sets are also available, but frightfully expensive.



Moretsu Ataro (Ataro the Workaholic) (1969-70)

Finally, we have Moretsu Ataro, a comedy cartoon based on a weekly gag comic. With this series, Takahata returns to the director's chair for an extended period, directing episodes 10, 14, 36, 44, 51, 59, 71, 77, and 90. He also directed the opening and closing segments of the final 20 episodes, which I presume are the color episodes (the show began in black-and-white).

I have only seen the b/w and color opening and closing sequences, so I cannot comment on this series. You can read episode summaries (w/screenshots) on the Toei website. I can report that the color version is much more sophisticated and varied than the b/w version. It's not quite up to the level of GeGeGe, but very impressive. I do wish I could see some episodes. This looks to be a very funny cartoon.

The entire series was released on home video in Japan in 2007 and again in 2016, both as expensive DVD box sets. I do wish these prices could come down. Doesn't Toei want us to watch these shows? I think there could be a willing audience if the barriers to entry weren't so high.

That's the end of Part I, where we looked at Isao Takahata's early years at Toei Doga. Horus is the obvious standout, but there are other titles worth discovering. In the next part, we will discuss his work in the 1970s.

2018-04-13

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki Comics: Puss in Boots (1969)

Hayao Miyazaki always wanted to become a manga comics artist, but somehow found himself working as an animator for Toei Doga instead. Fortunately, his boundless energy and work ethic gave him the opportunity to pursue his first love, with this 1969 newspaper comics adaptation of Toei's Puss in Boots movie.

This comics version of Puss in Boots closely follows the plot to the anime movie, skipping all the slower parts and song numbers and getting straight to the action. These panels are wonderfully drawn, full of action and great poses. The panels are very small, owing to the format, but Miyazaki works wonders on every page. It's quite remarkable to see how quickly he has progressed since 1963 when he joined Toei.

It's at this same time that Miyazaki also began his serialized adventure comic People of the Desert, and we see his growing skills at layout and scene design that would pay off spectacularly in the 1970s with Heidi, Marco and Anne, to say nothing of Future Boy Conan.

This is a great document from Miyazaki's early formative years as an artist. It shows that he was still mimicking the comics style of Osamu Tezuka. We also see that in the People of the Desert's early chapters. Over time, however, that drawing style quickly evolved and grew into the Miyazaki "look" that we all know so well from Studio Ghibli.

There are still people in the West who believe that Hayao Miyazaki's career began with Castle of Cagliostro or Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. His career began here, in the 1960s, and it's here that you'll find the seeds that blossom in his later works. Fortunately, that perception is slowly changing as more of us become aware of that elusive (to Americans) pre-Ghibli period. If would help tremendously, of course, if more of those early works, and especially his comics, were made available on our shores. Who wouldn't pay to read the maestro's comic adaptations of Puss in Boots and Animal Treasure Island? I can't believe Viz Media still hasn't picked up People of the Desert, which feels like a perfect link between Horus, Prince of the Sun and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

Oh, well. Progress is often slow. It will take time. You should spend a little time to admire these great Puss in Boots comics pages.

2018-04-12

Heidi: Todos Los Episodios (en Espanol)



In the United States, Isao Takahata is best remembered for his Studio Ghibli movies, including Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. In Europe and Latin America, however, he is remembered for Heidi, the landmark 1974 animated series that became a household name to children all around the world. The series has been shown in over thirty countries and translated into twenty different languages.

Here is the Spanish-language version of Heidi, all 52 episodes complete and uncut. Since half of our household is Colombian, these videos will be most welcome.

I really like the rich color saturation in these video transfers. It looks like it was translated directly from 35mm film, which is how the series was originally shot. Yes, there is a lot of color bleed and fuzzy NTSC resolution, but this only adds to the warmth and nostalgia. The Spanish-language dub is also quite excellent, much better than I expected. I might have to stop watching episodes of my fan-translated copy (using video sourced from the Japanese Blu-Ray) and start watching this instead.

Enjoy Heidi todos los episodios en Espanol! Yay!

One Week Only Podcast Pays Tribute to Isao Takahata



One Week Only Podcast has just published this excellent video tribute to the directorial films of Isao Takahata. This automatically receives two big thumbs up from me for showing clips from Paku-san's many pre-Ghibli films. The only major directorial work that's missing is the 1971 Lupin the 3rd series, but that's really more Miyazaki's thing, right?

There have been many wonderful tributes to Paku-san this past week. It has been a very long and difficult seven days since his passing. But it is nice to know there are others who mourn with you. When I began this weblog, I swear I was the only one who knew about any of these movies. The only Takahata movie that anyone had ever heard of was Grave of the Fireflies, and even then, the exposure was limited to a handful of small anime fan sites and Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" column.

Enjoy this terrific video. Have you seen all of these great movies? The first person who says "yes" will receive a free pizza! Okay, not really. You'll have to buy your own pizza. But you will have genuine bragging rights.

Redcoat Discusses My Neighbors the Yamadas



YouTube channel Redcoat has published a great discussion on Isao Takahata's 1999 comedy classic My Neighbors the Yamadas. This program was made as a tribute to Paku-san's passing on April 5. The occasion is very sad, but the tone of this episode is cheerful and celebratory, highlighting many of the memorable themes and scenes from this great movie.

Yamada-kun remains one of the less popular and less known Studio Ghibli films, as most fans will prefer an action-packed fantasy adventure like Spirited Away than a low-key comedy that is adapted from a Japanese newspaper comic. But if you are willing to give it a chance, you will discover a movie that is upbeat, very relatable and very, very funny. Yasujiro Ozu would be proud, and probably a little jealous.

It's Paku-san. What more do ya want? Why else are you here? Go watch this video, then go watch the movie.

The Continuing Adventures of Bungalow Bill (or, Insert Your Favorite Beatles Titles Here): The Pre-Ghibli Films of Isao Takahata & Hayao Miyazaki


I.

Meeting a Studio Ghibli fan in the West is a lot like meeting a teenage fan of John Lennon who has never heard of The Beatles. You listen to him rave about how much he loves Imagine, but when he describes it as “Lennon’s First Album,” you stop and look puzzled. You almost feel sorry for the poor kid who’s completely missed out.

So let us start, briefly, at the beginning. In 1965, Japan’s premier animation studio, Toei Doga, was busy producing their eighth feature film, Gulliver’s Space Travels. It was their first movie created with an international audience in mind, drawing inspiration of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's Travels books.

Toei President Hiroshi Okawa founded the animation studio in 1956 with the dream of becoming “the Walt Disney of Japan,” sharing his nation’s rich cultural heritage with the rest of the world, and showcasing the innovative talents of his animators. These animators had studied the pioneers of Western animation, from Disney to Fleischer and all points in between, but they were slowly developing new ideas for animation theory, encouraging all staff members, regardless of status, to suggest story ideas.

One young man jumped at the opportunity, an in-between animator who was hired two years prior and trained by the studio’s teachers. Despite his entry-level position, the young animator was bursting at the seams with energy and ideas, and he had a bold idea: he wanted to change the ending to the movie.

Gulliver’s Space Travels is an outer-space adventure about a young boy named Ted who joins up with a grandfatherly Gulliver for an adventure to the stars. They discover an alien world where a race of robotic puppets are oppressed by a sinister race of evil robots from an adjacent world. Armed with a water pistol and an assortment of cartoon friends, Ted and Gulliver rescue the puppet princess, defeat the invading machines and bring peace to the realm.

This rookie animator had a novel idea: Instead of merely rescuing the world of puppets, what would happen if the princess, and all her people, were not puppets at all, but humans trapped inside by their robot overlords? When the princess is rescued, her shell could be cracked open with water, revealing a young human girl inside.

The young man’s name, of course, was Hayao Miyazaki. The studio, and his peers, quickly took notice of his talents, and he soon rose to key animation, first with television, later on the classic Toei features Puss in Boots, Animal Treasure Island (a Miyazaki film in all but name) and Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves. All that was needed was a partner to whom he could bounce his endless ideas. He found that partner in another young man everybody cheerfully called Paku-san.

(ProTip: A shot from this climactic scene in Gulliver’s Space Travels would be directly quoted over twenty years later in My Neighbor Totoro, in the shot where Mei pokes Totoro’s tail. Such riffs are staples of these animated films, like endless Easter Eggs in your backyard, waiting to be discovered.)



II.

Isao Takahata was gifted with a prodigious mind: precise, logical, widely curious. He was courted by Toei Doga while still a university student, and joined the movie studio in 1959 as part of the director’s department.

I have never understood fully why Takahata chose animation as his muse. He could have easily made a career as a live-action director, having worked on two of Toei’s live-action television series during his assistant director’s internship. He was clearly inspired by documentary film, the Italian Neorealists, the French New Wave. He cites the French animator Paul Grimault as a primary influence on his work and ideas. Perhaps he sought a greater challenge. His grand vision required nothing less than a transformation of the medium itself: a fusion of hand-drawn animation with live-action sensibilities. Such a thing had never existed before.

Takahata won the respect of the Toei bosses and quickly rose through the ranks. He earned his first directing role on Wolf Boy Ken, Toei Doga’s first television cartoon series (a direct response to Osamu Tezuka and Mushi Productions’ Tetsuwan Atom, aka “Astro Boy”), and also directed the opening title sequence for Hustle Punch. In 1965, after the completion of Gulliver’s Space Travels, animator Yasuo Otsuka was named the animation director for Toei’s next feature animated film. Otsuka agreed on one condition: that his friend Paku-san would direct the picture. The studio agreed, the die was cast.

Takahata immediately set to work. As the president of the Toei animators union, he had built friendships with many notable talents, including Yasuo Otsuka, Yasuji Mori, Yoichi Kotabe, Reiko Okuyama, and Hayao Miyazaki. Paku-san revealed his master plan: to create a feature animated film that would inspire the rising youth generation, address the political and social themes of the times, and carry the banner for the union’s values of democratic socialism. And they would create a thrilling spectacle never before seen in Japan.

Perhaps we are being romantic. Perhaps Paku-san didn’t seek to spark a revolution. He certainly never wished to wage war against his studio bosses. But revolution was at hand, for the studio and Japanese animation. And the war came.

The movie we refer to, of course, is The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun. It is famous for its long and turbulent production, which lasted over two-and-one-half years, consumed over twice its original budget, and used 150,000 animation cels, an astonishing number for Japanese animation (that record would finally be broken by Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 landmark Akira). The original running time was cut by one-fourth. The original title was rejected by the studio for being too controversial (Takahata changed the name but secretly kept the story intact). Several child-friendly cartoon characters were imposed into the story. Two action sequences were never animated.

The finished film was met with the worst box-office returns of any Toei Doga feature. In the aftermath, many staff members were demoted and reshuffled, including Isao Takahata, who was sent back to television to direct several children’s cartoon shows.



III.

As we all know, this story does not end here. Horus, Prince of the Sun emerged not as an embarrassing failure, but a groundbreaking masterpiece. It introduced the auteur theory of directing to Japanese animation, as well as complex characters, and adult situations. This movie introduced frame-rate modulation, richly complicated frame compositions, and a fully three-dimensional virtual “camera” that simulates specific lenses and shots. This movie fused psychological realism with an expressionist use of character and background art to show conflicted hearts and minds. This is the movie that liberated Japan from the Walt Disney archetype, creating a new and unique brand of animation known, simply, as anime.

Most importantly, Horus marks the first real collaboration in the famed partnership between Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, one that would continue across five decades. Their director-animator partnership was one of teacher and student in the 1970s; this would grow into a producer-director partnership in the 1980s and 1990s. Eventually, the two filmmakers’ paths had diverged too far for collaborations, and they learned to respect one another’s space. But they have always maintained their friendship and mutual respect for one another.

In 1971, Takahata and Miyazaki left Toei to join up with Yasuo Otsuka at A Productions studio, working as the “directors team” on another groundbreaking, ahead-of-its-time anime, Lupin the 3rd. This would be Miyazaki’s directorial debut, and many episode ideas would later be incorporated into his 1979 feature film, Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro (a movie which was a direct sequel to the original series).

During this time, Takahata (director), Miyazaki (layout, design, ideas) and Yoichi Kotabe (animation director, character design)  joined together to create an animated series based on Pippi Longstockings, a project which famously collapsed when author Astrid Lindgren refused to grant the rights. Many of the story and character ideas would find themselves incorporated into the joyous and endearing Panda Kopanda short films in 1972 and 1973. The trio then carefully crafted together another animated series, one that not only aired, but became a worldwide sensation, finally realizing Hiroshi Okawa’s vision of sharing Japanese animation with the world. It’s name, of course: Heidi, Girl of the Alps.

Heidi spearheaded what would become known as World Masterpiece Theater, a beloved staple of Japanese television. The trio of Takahata-Miyazaki-Kotabe would return again in 1976 with 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (aka Marco), a series that pushed animated character melodrama to its absolute limits. Its epic landscapes and large cast of characters, complete with interweaving storylines, and its wrenching emotional intensity, make Marco a masterpiece. But it lacks Heidi’s enthusiastic optimism, as Takahata exerted greater creative control. The strains eventually caused the band to break up.

Interestingly, at this time, Miyazaki began character sketches and story ideas for a lighthearted children's tale featuring three large woodland animals who make friends with a young girl. The story would eventually be made into the Studio Ghibli feature My Neighbor Totoro.

By 1978, Hayao Miyazaki was ready to fly solo, and the result is one of his most enduring classics: Future Boy Conan. A continuation of the cliffhanger-serial adventure comic style of Puss in Boots and Animal Treasure Island, Conan is thrilling, tense, endlessly funny. It shows a great maturation from his early period, both in the story pacing and its themes. The series aired on Japan’s NHK network, beginning a partnership with the director that continues to this day.

In 1979, Takahata persuaded Miyazaki to return for Anne of Green Gables, the third in their WMT trilogy. Young animator Yoshifumi Kondo, who began his career on the 1971 Lupin series, replaced Kotabe as animation director. The series is a masterful rendition of Maud Montgomery’s classic book, utilizing Takahata’s trademark neorealism and psychological fantasy, with a heavy dose of romanticism.

After thirteen episodes, Miyazaki bowed out after being given the opportunity to direct an animated feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro. As with Conan, Yasuo Otsuka served as animation director, and this movie played like a summation of the decade, with obvious influences and riffs from Lupin ‘71, Heidi and Conan. It’s a terrific caper movie, perfectly lean and trim and without a dull moment. It also carries a weary mood, portraying a hero who feels trapped in his life of endless adventures. La Dolce Vita comes to mind.

This mood becomes eerily prophetic as well; Cagliostro, like Future Boy Conan, was not a commercial success, and thus began a long and difficult period for Hayao Miyazaki, which includes the second Lupin television series, the Sherlock Hound series (which was famously scuttled after only six episodes were completed), and the US/Japan Nemo film production. By 1983, the director’s career appeared all but dead, and so he retreated to his first love: Japanese manga comics. Specifically, a weekly serial in Animage Magazine called...Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

Takahata, meanwhile, proved far more stable during this period of 1977-83. In 1981, he directed the masterful family comedy Jarinko Chie, with Otsuka and Kotabe both serving as animation directors. The movie no doubt inspired My Neighbors the Yamadas with its episodic structure and family drama, but Chie is more tightly focused, and is also a love letter to the city of Kobe. The success of the film led to a TV series, where Takahata served as “general director,” which means he oversaw the production and guided the series, but did not direct any specific episodes.

In 1982, Gauche the Cellist was released by the Oh Productions studio, after a long six-year gestation as a labor of love. It’s a masterful, sweet, sparse film, one that fuses the music of Beethoven’s Pastorale to the poems of Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa. The entire movie is the work of three men: Takahata, Shunji Saida (animation director, key animation) and Kenji Matsumoto (background art). Another trio. Another fusion of the arts. Another emotionally overwhelming masterpiece.



IV.

Hayao Miyazaki is a dynamic, emotional character, and I think that’s why I enjoy his films so much. His turbulence is part of what makes him such a compelling storyteller. You’re caught up in the whirlwind of his life and ideals and passions, largely because that drama fuels his personal storytelling style. He is the youthful idealist who becomes the disappointed cynic; the young Horus who grows into Porco Rosso. He’s the young comics artist who learns to ask deep, probing questions. He’s the escapist who seeks complex meaning. And he’s always wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Paku-san, meanwhile, is always rock-steady, “walking logic,” as Mamoru Oshii once described. He has met many hardships, particularly his early years, but we weathers them calmly. You can appreciate his patience in creating, for example, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, when you understand just how difficult it was to create Horus, or Heidi, Marco and Anne. True, he has strained the patience of many a producer with his deliberate, measured pace, his willingness to break budgets and schedules. But look at the results. Look at all the masterpieces.

When you gaze upon the Sistine Chapel, you never think to yourself whether Michelangelo was behind schedule or using too many paints or missing too many deadlines. All you can think is, “Good Lord, the genius of the man. What genius!”

If you are only familiar with the films of Studio Ghibli, then I am happy to report that you have missed half the symphony. An entire first half awaits your discovery, one whose works completely define and influence the second. Discovering each film forces you to reexamine the later ones in a new light, draw out new ideas or themes, illuminate new facets to the stories. Go watch Horus and Animal Treasure Island. Go watch Lupin and Conan. Go watch Heidi, Marco, Anne.

Studio Ghibli is a link in a long chain, one that extends back to Oh Pro, Telecom, Nippon Animation, A Pro, and finally Toei Doga. It’s all part of a long conversation full of humor and tragedy and depths of meaning. What does Imagine mean to you after you’ve finally discovered Rubber Soul? A lot. Welcome to Pepperland, Ringo. Glad you could join us.

----------

(Note: In early 2016, I was asked to write the prologue to the book Antes de Mi Vecino Miyazaki: El Origen de Studio Ghibli. Written by Alvaro Lopez Martin and Marta Garcia Villar. I later published the original English manuscript in my November 2017 book Pop Life. This essay discusses the pre-Ghibli films of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, which remain unknown to many American Ghibli fans.)

More Ghibli Blog Posts To Discover