Alakazam the Great in 11 Minutes

Fortunately, there are a couple videos of Alakazam the Great, the American theatrical release of Toei Doga's 1960 movie, Saiyuki. Hey, is that the voice of Winnie the Pooh? Yeah, I always liked that guy's voice in the Disney cartoons. And, yeah, the writers of the American script took many liberties with the original story, but it's quite enjoyable. I can't help but laugh at some of these cheesy puns. And is that Peter Fernandez and Johnathan Winters? Yayy!

Now I'm going to have to track down Alakazam the Great on the intertubes. The rights to the US film have long since disappeared, understandably. Ideally, if and when Toei gets around to bringing their classics to Blu-Ray, they'll need to include the American soundtrack, too.

Trailer - Saiyuki (Toei Doga, 1960)

Continuing along the series of Toei Doga movies, here is the trailer to the studio's third animated feature film, Saiyuki.  Now this is a fantastic movie.  It's easily my favorite of the early Toei pictures.  Considering that this studio began with only two master animators, who had to train in dozens of new artists, this is a remarkable achievement.  This is where they strike gold.

I really love their movie trailers, too, because the studio itself is also the star.  Here, we have another look at Toei president Hiroshi Okawa, as he greets Goku, the hero of the picture.  We get another look at the artists and animators, the background painters, and musicians who made the movie.  I always enjoy this look at the Toei staff, since the great drama of this era is the rise of this young generation of animators, and the conflict between the staff (and their union) and the studio bosses.

Saiyuki, or "Journey to the West," comes from Chinese legend, and is a famous story.  The script for the film was written by none other than Osaumu Tezuka, the famed "God of Manga."  This was Tezuka's first involvement in animation.  Perhaps it was this discovery, or perhaps his falling out with the Toei bosses - his original ending was scrapped in favor of a happier, more upbeat ending - that inspired Tezuka to create his own animation studio, Mushi Productions in 1961-62.

This movie was imported to American theaters under the title, Alakazam the Great!  It featured different songs (sung by Frankie Avalon), and some changes to plot and characters to erase any unsettling religious references.  After all, America in the early '60s was struggling with such radical ideas as a Catholic President or black people sitting at a lunch counter.  A family cartoon based on a Buddhist Chinese folk tale probably wouldn't go over too well...unless you wanted your theater burned to the ground.  So the changes are understandable.

As I've said, this is my favorite of the early Toei Doga films.  It's nearly as good as Wanpaku no Orochi Taiji (Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon), if that can be believed.  We need to hurry up with some English subtitles for a fansub one of these days.  Let's put that on our to-do list.

Ghibli Short Films at Carnegie Hall - A Report

Reader and Ghibli Freak Otto chimes attended the screenings of two Ghibli Museum short films at Carnegie Hall on March 26.  Many thanks to him for writing a detailed report on the experience.  His report from New York continues after the jump:

Riffs - For My Sister, Panda Kopanda

Hayao Miyazaki's 1983 picture book, For My Sister (Imoto He) is a short story, but does feature a couple of riffs on other works.  In this early panel, we see a stuffed panda in the sister's room - a nice reference to the two Panda Kopanda films from the early '70s.  Nice.

Speaking of which, now that I've finally figured out how jump breaks work, I'll be adding more Miyazaki comics to the blog.  That should be fun.


The History on Miyazaki's Mononoke Book

We've been getting a ton of traffic lately because somebody discovered Hayao Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime image boards from 1980 (thanks, everybody!), and there has been a bit of confusion about this story and what it has to do with the 1997 Studio Ghibli movie of the same name. So I'd like to explain it all as best I can.

The period of 1979-1983 marks the bleakest days of Hayao Miyazaki's career. Future Boy Conan, his 1978 TV series at Nippon Animation, is today considered a classic, but at the time was not a great success. In 1979, he directed his first feature film, Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, at TMS, or Telecom. Like Conan, Cagliostro is today widely regarded as a classic, but the movie was a failure at the box office. With Yasuo Otsuka, Miyazaki-san oversaw the final dozen or so episodes of the second Lupin television series, and directed two episodes himself, but under a pen name - very telling. In 1981, he worked on the Meitantai Holmes (Famous Detective Holmes, which is what Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are called in Japan), series at Telecom. Sherlock Hound, as it's known in the west, was scrubbed with only six episodes in the can. This would be Miyazaki-san's last work in animation for three years.


Happy 5th Birthday, Ghibli Blog!

Happy birthday!  The Ghibli Blog turns five years old today!  March 29, 2006 was my first post on this humble blog, and it's been a long and wild roller coaster ever since.  I am very thankful and humbled for your support and dedication.  The level of success I've achieved would never be possible without you.  This project has been a learning experience for us all, as we explore this unique slice of movie history and the visual arts.  The beautiful part is that we have only scratched the surface of all the possible topics to discuss and share, all the movies to watch, and all the comics to read.  Carly Simon was right - these are the good old days.  Cake for everyone!

And since I'm a child of the '70s, here's a classic Sesame Street tribute to the number 5.  I was probably five years old when I saw this:


Hayao Miyazaki Discusses His Next Feature Film

At Monday's press conference for Kokuriko-Zaka Kara, Hayao Miyazaki discussed the movie's theme song, Sayonara no Natsu, and reveals details into the pre-production of his next feature film.  If Ghibli is still following their "Five-Year Plan," then Miyazaki-san's following movie will be in production for two years, and be released in 2013.

I'm going to let T. Ishikawa describe what Miyazaki-san had to say.  Take it away:

According to Hayao Miyazaki, when he listened to Ryoko Moriyama's CD by chance.
he thought "Oh, the theme song was completed."

Miyazaki says "Because my script was two months late behind a plan, the production is the severe situation."

Yukiko Marimura(the song lyricist) says "I saw the trailer. My heart is filled with emotion." (kokuriko-zaka trailer seems to be released soon.)

Miyazaki says "In fact, I have alredy begun the next (feature film) preparations.
I think I can stick out my chest 'The plan does not have to change it at all'(by this disaster) I intend to push forward this plan."  Miyazaki talks about the fantasy, game, and The Hobbit. but I cannot translate it.

Anyway, according to Miyazaki, his next film is not a fantasy, but draws a life-sized human.

And Suzuki revailed that Studio Ghibli put Miyazaki's next film main staff member into Kokuriko-zaka production because now is emergency. Ghibli puts computers to the cafe for breaks of the first floor, and gathers the staff from the outside.

Sayonara no Natsu

T. Ishikawa, brilliant and essential as always, sent along this Youtube video of the song Sayonara no Natsu, which is the theme song to Studio Ghibli's upcoming Kokuriko-Zaka Kara.  This song was originally written in 1976, and this recording is sung by Ryoko Moriyama.

This is not the 2011 version sung by Aoi Teshima, but an older recording.  Studio Ghibli's rendition will be released on June 1, and the soundtrack CD on July 1.  The song is already available for mobile phones.

Kokuriko-Zaka Kara Press Conference

Studio Ghibli's Kokuriko-Zaka Kara press conference was held in Japan today.  In attendance was Goro Miyazaki, the director, Toshio Suzuki, the producer, and Hayao Miyazaki, among others.  Much of the focus of the day was on the recent earthquake, which has severely impacted Japan and Kara's production.  However, despite the recent tragedy, Ghibli insists they will meet their July 16 release date.

In a telling sign of the times, Ghibli's press conference was held without microphones in order to save electricity.

Toshio Suzuki revealed that Kara is currently 50% complete and is "considerably late." He explains: "Because all of the data of the server may vanish by a blackout, we do the computer work at night, but it does not progress at all. The influence of the earthquake is serious. But it's our duty to release the film on July 16. We will do it somehow!"

Hayao Miyazaki delivered a moving speech to the people of Japan, of their resolve, and the need to continue to create art.  This is his first official statement since the earthquake struck Japan.  You can read his complete remarks (in Japanese) here.  Some translated notes of his remarks are as follows:

"In this country which have many people who are not yet buried and is losing the part of the country, we continue working with awareness making an animation."

"Now is not the time talk careless about civilization from the high place. Hundreds of thousands of people shake with starvation and cold, and I feel thanks and boastfulness for much sacrifice of the people still working by nuclear power plant and other place." (Miyazaki wipes tears)

"Our island has been attacked many times by an earthquake, a volcano, a typhoon and a tsunami. I think that this land is worth making an effort to do in the beautiful island where a human being lives in once again even if there is much difficulty."

"Now is not the time to make a fantasy. Must be drawn life-size human now."

"I'm thinking now that this project (Kokuriko-Zaka Kara) was not a mistake. A wish of Umi (heroine) is necessary in times from now on."

"It is the pride of Ghibli not to make popular things. The person of the mail carrier continues sending mail, and a busman continues running in a traffic jam(under this disaster). Therefore we make a movie."

The highlight of today's press conference was the debut of the movie's theme song, "Sayonara no Natsu: Kokuriko-zaka Kara (Summer of Good-bye: From Kokuriko Hill)."  The song, originally written in 1976, will be released on June 1, and the soundtrack CD, "Kokuriko-zaka Kara Song Collection," will be released on July 1.  The song is now available for mobile phones.

The song was performed live by singer Aoi Teshima.  Also in attendance were the songwriters, Koichi Sakata (music) and Yukiko Marimura (words). Ms. Teshima's performance visibly moved the audience - reporters, staff, and Miyazaki-san - to tears.  It was a touching moment of beauty in light of the tragedy.

One extra note: Koichi Sakata was the music composer for 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, the 1976 TV series of the World Masterpiece Theater.  I can testify that the rich music, spanning from Italy to Argentina, is one of the show's highlights.  This is a gifted songwriter.

Diana Wynne Jones Has Died

Diana Wynne Jones died on March 26 after a two-year battle with lung cancer.  She was 76 years old.  A successful author of fantasy novels in the vein of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, her novel Howl's Moving Castle was adapted to the screen by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in 2004.  Our condolences to her surviving family and friends, and all her many fans around the world.

The 1980 Mononoke Hime Book Meets Spirited Away

Well, thanks to io9, for sending a boatload of traffic to this site to read Hayao Miyazaki's 1980 Mononoke Hime book.  Now that I've got your attention - well, the few of you who chose to stick around - I'd like to show you something you may have noticed.

First, the quick backstory on Mononoke.  In 1980, Miyazaki published a book of image boards he drew for a story project that never got off the ground.  Titled Mononoke Hime, it told the story of a giant cat, named Mononoke, who kidnaps a girl and demands that she become his wife.  The girl's father is possessed by the spirit of a demon who turns him into a bloodthirsty warrior and a brutal tyrant.  She convinces Mononoke to take her home and save her father.  By the end of the story, the girl discovers that Mononoke was actually a young boy who was wild and greedy.  He behaved like an animal and was cursed to live like one - echoes of Beauty and the Beast.

This unfinished Mononoke Hime bears no real relation to Studio Ghibli's 1997 movie of the same name (the title was Toshio Suzuki's idea).  But the story's climactic sequence is echoed again, interestingly, in 2001's The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro.  I'll assume that you've seen Spirited Away a few times, so you'll spot these shots right away.

In this scene, the unnamed girl confronts her father in his castle.  Notice the patterns on the walls, which is a useful bit of foreshadowing as well as an impressive piece of Japanese art.  Alone in the chamber, she succeeds in freeing her father from the demon, who then inhabits a suit of samurai armor.  Mononoke (that's the giant Totoro-ish cat) rushes in to block a wall of flame, and charges out of the room and down the hallway at the monster.

This just also happens to be one of my favorite scenes in Spirited Away.  It's the sequence where Sen confronts the bloated and greedy No-Face creature.  Sen offers something which begins a chain reaction, causing No-Face to regurgitate and bellow and smash down the hallways in a violent rage.  It's a smashing bit of directing, perfectly tense, masterfully timed, and climaxes in an explosive rush.  It's one of my favorite Miyazaki action scenes.

Take a look at these Mononoke Hime image boards and see for yourself.


Poster - Shonen Sarutobe Sasuke

Toei Doga's sophomore feature, Shonen Sarutobe Sasuke, was the first Japanese anime to be shown in the United States.  MGM picked up the rights to this and many other Toei pictures, providing faithful English-language dubs, new titles, and sometimes new songs.  Here are a pair of posters to the MGM version, Magic Boy, for the US and Latin American markets.  These are really enjoyable posters, and the US poster sells for a princely sum these days.  It may not have the pedigree of a Walt Disney, but its place in animation history is secure.  I can't remember who sang the Magic Boy song to save my life.  It was some popular crooner from the '50s...

My favorite poster, of course, remains the Japanese original.  There's something about the design of Japanese movie posters in the 1950s and 1960s, that crowding of image and text, the bold colors, the minor details that require you to examine closely.  Toei is clearly advertising Sasuke as a boys' adventure movie, but the animals are given equal attention on the page.  The adult characters are more to the side, even the villain.  This is really more about having fun and going on exciting adventures than anything.

And is it just me, or is that woman pointing at the kid's butt?  Maybe he should have worn pants.  At least Sasuke doesn't have that creepy Michael Jackson face that you see on the other posters.

Finding the Toei Doga poster is going to be a challenge.  Your best bet is Ebay, and even then, auctions are rare.  If you do find one, expect to pay a princely sum for your bragging rights.  If Toei was smart, they'd sell prints of their classic movie posters.  It's an idea that I always bring up from time to time, and I think it's a good one.  Everyone you went to school with had the same Pulp Fiction poster.  Why not try for something a little different for a change?

Trailer - Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke (Toei, 1959)

Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke is Toei Doga's second animated feature film, which followed on the success of Hakujaden a year earlier.  This is a much more ambitious picture, not only in its presentation (widescreen), but also the content.  The animators, led by Akira Daikubara and Yuji Mori, are pushing themselves to their limits, all while continuing to learn their craft.  One of the joys of watching the early Toei Doga pictures is seeing that creative process in action.  To a great extent, the artists are mastering the craft as they proceed.

I really enjoy the scale of this picture; there are many set-pieces and moments that could work as cartoons in their own right.  I love the scenery and the vivid color, which is always a Toei trademark.  It's a really solid movie that cements Toei's growing ambition and reputation.  Sasuke is a portrait of the studio in its growing phase, for good and bad.  I think of this movie as a learning experience, which will hit serious paydirt in Toei Doga's third feature, Saiyuki.

I just uploaded this trailer to Youtube, and I'll be adding a few more Toei trailers in the coming days.  Enjoy!


Anime in Russian - Animal Treasure Island & Ali Baba

Okay, you'll really like this.  On my post featuring the trailer for The Flying Ghost Ship, I remarked how Toei's anime movies sound really good in Russian.  So I scored a couple of great examples from Youtube.  Give these a spin and see what you think.

The first is the pirate song from Animal Treasure Island, one of my favorites.  Doesn't this just make you wanna be a pirate?  Look at how much fun they get to have!  Action, adventure, cool fights, treasure galore, and root beers in the basement!  Oh yeah, ohh yeah!!  I've never really been a fan of song numbers in cartoons (I was more into Bugs Bunny or Rocky & Bullwinkle), but I really like the Animal Treasure Island songs.  Heck, the whole movie is wonderful.  I can't believe I'm the only one who really loves this movie.  Make it your goal this year to send DVDs to your family and friends.

The second video is the big song number from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.  As with the previous clip, the Russian dub doesn't change the original song, which is very nice (take that, Milt Delugg!).  It's a catchy melody and you can tell the animators had a lot of fun with this scene.  This is, for me, one of the best scenes in the film, along with the Ali Baba flashback scene (animated in a clever storybook cut-out style), and of course, Hayao Miyazaki's wild and zany chase through the castle ramparts.  And the syncopation of the Russian singers is spot-on, which is very nice.  But, of course, the Russians are masters of animation themselves.  There's another country with a rich history that we need to explore.


The Thousand Dollar Totoro

And now, in the spirit of commercialism and good cheer, here is a very large stuffed Totoro from Japan....selling for a thousand dollars.  Yes, that really is 92,000 Yen.

In all fairness, merchandising isn't always the epitome of pure evil.  Studio Ghibli's first three feature films - Castle in the Sky, Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro - did not turn a profit.  The first picture to do so was Kiki's Delivery Service in 1989.  What turned Totoro into a Japanese institution?  All of these wonderful little stuffed toys.

"It Didn't Have Enough Toys"

Bad news for animation fans here in the States: Cartoon Network has canceled Genndy Tartakovsky’s Sym-Bionic Titan, not for low ratings, but because of merchandising:

“Genddy’s moved on to Sony Pictures Animation. Titan got competitive ratings with other action shows, but what shut it down was it didn’t have enough toys connected to it. If you don’t have the, the studios don’t want to renew for another season.”

This echoes a point I had made over a week ago, just around the time the Japan earthquake hit.  People are under the assumption that Hollywood is in the movie business.  It's not.  The corporate conglomerates who own the Hollywood studios aren't in the movie business, they're in the toy business.  And this is never more true than when you're dealing with animation.

Remember that Pixar's stock price took a hit because of UP, not because it was a box office disappointment or a failure with the critics, but because 8-14 year old boys weren't about to swarm the toy stores of America in search of Carl Frederickson dolls.

George Lucas is always the guy who gets blamed for Why Today's Movies All Stink, because Star Wars muscled out the complex, personal movies of the 1970s and ushered in a wave of popcorn escapism.  That's not really the case.  What really changed the business of making movies, the new paradigm shift, wasn't Star Wars itself, but the mountain of Star Wars toys and merchandise.  That's where Lucas made his billions.  And once Hollywood was gobbled up by conglomerates, the game was over.

This is why you get the same fake, formulaic junk out of movies and television today.  This is why you see the same five movies being made over and over.  This is why animation in this country, for the most part, stinks.  Pixar, as always, has been the exception to the rule, but have you noticed that even they have now succumed to the game?  Three sequels in rapid order?  Cars merchandising pulls in $2 billion a year for Disney.

How much money from merchandising does Studio Ghibli make in America.  Zero.  You can't put an Ohmu stampede on a Happy Meal box.

Trailer - The Flying Ghost Ship (Toei, 1969)

On my bulletin board, I have a checklist of all the Toei Doga movies from 1958-1971, and the two Puss in Boots sequels.  I'm on a mission to one day chronicle all of these films on The Ghibli Blog via four categories: Reviews, Posters, Trailers, and Screenshots.  Tonight, during my latest research on Youtube, I've succeeded in scoring a whole truckload of movie trailers, and I'll be sharing them here over the coming days and weeks.

Tonight, I'd like to share the trailers for Toei's 1969 movie, The Flying Ghost Ship (Sora Tobu Yureisen).  This is considered a "minor" film in the Toei Doga canon, and I confess that I wasn't too impressed upon my first viewing six or seven years ago.  But it has a certain charm and it does grow on me from time to time.  I think it's important to enjoy The Flying Ghost Ship for what it is, an escapist B-picture.

By the late 1960s, Toei was under pressure from rivals like Osamu Tezuka's Mushi-Pro studio, and there was something of a race to produce cheaper, lower-budget anime in the "limited" style.  The Flying Ghost Ship is one of those movies.  The budget and production values are nowhere near the lush, full-animation classic from Toei's golden years, classics like Hakujaden (Legend of the White Serpent), Saiyuki (Journey to the West) and Wankapu Oji no Orochi Taiji (Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon).  It's also a fairly short movie, just over an hour.

That said, Flying Ghost Ship has a few really memorable scenes and a sly bit of satire (I still say Boa Juice was the inspiration for Slurm).  Yoichi Kotabe served as Animation Director for the first time, and
Hiroshi Ikeda, a veteran Toei member of the director's staff, had his debut as feature film director.  Ikeda was also the director on 1971's Animal Treasure Island, which is just about my all-time favorite anime movie (it's my favorite Toei movie after Horus).  And, as everybody knows, Hayao Miyazaki worked on storyboards and key animated a terrific action scene of tanks battling a giant robot in a crowded metropolis.  Yeah, totally Japanese B-Movie stuff.  This scene was recreated years later in 1980's Farewell, Beloved Lupin.  A couple plot points were also copied in Future Boy Conan, as we'll discover next month.

Anyway, those are a few notes on Flying Ghost Ship.  I should also note that this movie was released in the Soviet Union shortly after its run in Japan.  I think it may have been a joint production, but don't quote me on that.  For years, the only fansub copy in circulation used the Russian soundtrack.  Anime actually sounds pretty good in Russian.  The current fansub (sorry, too minor a movie for any Western DVD release) contains both Japanese and Russian soundtracks.


Studio Ghibli Production Diary Resumes

Studio Ghibli's production diary has finally resumed after the Japanese earthquake-tsunami. The entries reveal the studio's activities during the crucial days after the tragedy. The latest entries are as follows:

March 14 - An emergency meeting was held. It was decided that Ghibli would have a temporary holiday (as a result of the earthquake).

March 16 - A meeting was held again. The combination the working hours of the staff (to work in double shifts due to rolling blackouts) was decided.

March 17 - At 11:00 am, all staff members gathered in the first floor and gave a silent prayer of one minute. Hayao Miyazaki spoke a powerful message and all staff members promised to commit to Kokuriko-Zaka Kara's completion.

(March 18) No calls or e-mails from outside companies will be answered. (Miyazaki and Ghibli will make a statement at a future time.)

Thanks, as always, to T. Ishikawa for his tireless work. He's really hustling for that Hickory Farms gift package, isn't he? We'll be sure to send him something nice.

Castle in the Sky, My Neighbors the Yamadas - UK Blu-Ray Available May 9

As the Ghibli faithful across the pond are already well aware, Castle in the Sky and My Neighbors the Yamadas will be arriving in the UK on May 9.  Now the cover designs are available on their respective Amazon pages, so I wanted to post the images here on the blog.

The Japanese BDs look absolutely fantastic.  Picture quality and detail are stunning, color tones are rich, glowing, luminous.  I was always pretty satisfied with the DVDs, but these new discs just smash the old ones to pieces.  You're going to love these Blu-Rays, and once again the Americans will be the last ones to the party, left waiting until the Twelvth of Never to get their discs.


In Defense of Goro Miyazaki's Earthsea

I liked this comment from W.Eric so much that I decided to give it a post of its own.  It's a passionate defense of Goro Miyazaki, and his Tales From Earthsea, and debates like this are the very reason this blog is a success.  Welcome words for the Earthsea defenders out there:

Goro Miyazaki swung for the stands and he made it! His father had decades to develop his opinions and theories on direction and timing. Goro had maybe a year? Earthsea was a triumph in its own right. To take a totally green director with ungodly time constraints and throw a project at him based on beloved novels that have been around for generations is crazy. Of COURSE he’s going to break some rules, take some much needed shortcuts and step on some toes. Yes, it pays homage and takes inspiration from earlier works, yes it is missing some of the quiet moments and extra bits of animation familiar with the bigger studio works. However, it has a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, the colors and details of the drawings are very unique – Goro even wrote Therru’s song! What a risk taker Goro was in scripting the prince to murder his father. Yes, it offended some, but he was making the story his own and THAT took TRUE LEADERSHIP.

I make less than 30k per year, but my wife and I were so taken by the footage of this new director’s project that we flew to Japan to watch it in the theater. We cried at how beautiful it was. So taken were we that two years later, we flew to Calcatta Italy, the town Goro researched for his architecture. None of Hayao’s works have had THAT much influence.

You and my wife and I are clearly all worship at the altar of Ghibli. You have an incredible site and wonderful information. But please, have some faith in Goro, I truly believe he’s going to bring the heat soon.

Behind the Scenes at Studio Ghibli for Kokuriko-Zaka Kara

Here's the video of NTV Japan's behind-the-scenes look at Studio Ghibli, featuring the first in-depth look at the upcoming Kokuriko-Zaka Kara.  Have you ever wanted to see what the Ghibli building looks like?  Now's your chance.

Goro Miyazaki is interviewed and he offers his insights.  He certainly is an interesting character; he has a personality, but it's still uncertain whether he has inherited his parents' artistic traits, or their drive.  There's no question that he's under a great amount of pressure to conjure a blockbuster hit, and it's easy to sympathize with him.  Like I said yesterday, Goro-san is the backup quarterback who has to win the game on a two-minute drill.

It's great to see the artwork in the studio, and they are communicating that this is a romance picture.  Ghibli is playing to its base.  I wonder what it would take for a Western animation studio to embrace and specialize in girl's movies?  Such a concept doesn't even exist here, unless you're recycling fairy tales and princesses in prom dresses.  But that would require a movie business that was focused on movies, not merchandising toys to 8-14 year old boys.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, yes, that is the actor Ken Watanabe narrating at the end of the video clip.  Nice!

Ghibli Teases Kokuriko-Zaka Kara on Japanese TV

Studio Ghibli teased more footage from the upcoming Kokuriko-Zaka Kara this week on Japanese network NTV.  The program snuck a peek inside the studio, spying a few images of character designs and background paintings.  Everything looks terrific, very much in the Ghibli tradition.  Goro Miyazaki tried top copy his father's style with his first directoral feature, Tales From Earthsea.  Now, it seems he is following Isao Takahata's neo-realism.  We will no doubt see more at the Kara press conference on March 28.

T. Ishikawa just so happened to have a camera handy, and snapped these photos of the television set.  Yes, it's pretty old fashioned, but it works.

Earthsea, Horus, and Ghibli at the Crossroads

I wanted to include a few more posts about Goro Miyazaki's Tales From Earthsea for the sake of those of who who have bought the newly-released DVD and are fans.  I'd also like to go a little more in depth on some of the movie's influences and where Goro-san looked for inspiration.

When he was assigned to direct Gedo Senki, the first movie Goro looked towards was, interestingly, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun.  There are a few sequences that steal from Horus outright, and while this was something that made me cranky years ago, I aim to feel more generous and understanding today.  When discussing Tales From Earthsea, it's always critical to observe that, in 2006, this was the only movie Goro Miyazaki was ever involved in.  Literally, his first movie in any capacity.  Anyone in his shoes, with no experience nor any developed artistic voice, would resort to stealing everything from the back of trucks.

Here's an example of what I'm thinking about - the fight scene with the wolves.  This is an early scene in Earthsea, just after the title credits roll.  Arren, the hero (of sorts), on the escape after his little Jim Morrison stunt of "killing his daddy" (ahem, cough), is being pursued by a pack of viscous wolves.  Arren is chased over the sands, he is knocked off his horse, he is surrounded and outnumbered.  Then, suddenly, an unknown agent intervenes.  The wolves scatter and disappear.

Any true anime fan knows where this scene comes from.  This is the opening scene in Horus.  It's just about the greatest action scene in anime history.  And it was key animated by Yasuo Otsuka....and Hayao Miyazaki.  Ding, ding, ding!

I've mentioned this scene more than a few times on this blog over the years; I don't think I've ever done a shot-by-shot analysis, but this is a sequence that demands to be studied shot-by-shot, almost drawing-by-drawing.  It's not just a fast, thrilling moment of action.  It's the fluid, three-dimensional lines of motion, the way Horus and the wolves run across the frame, into the background, charging the camera, rotating in circles, up hills, around boulders.  Isao Takahata, the revolutionary director, treats his camera as an object in physical space, and moves with an eerily 3D quality that seems almost impossible in a pre-CGI world.  Every time I watch, I'm astonished.

The Horus opening also carries a sound musical rhythm, like all great action sequences do.  You don't simply throw as much junk at the screen and blind the audience.  No, that's the cheap method, the fallback position of hacks and poseurs.  Action must have a musical quality, a fast beginning, a slow refrain, pauses to build tension, and then explosions of energy at the climax.

I don't think the wolf scene in Earthsea is nearly as well conceived or laid out.  The compositions are relatively simple, basic, functional.  Movement is purely one-dimensional, a pan, a point-of-view angle.  There's one shot where Arren is knocked off his horse, and he tumbles and spins to the ground, then skids to the ground below.  I think that's a terrific movement, but it's the only really thrilling part of the scene.  The wolves look scary, but they're never really menacing.  There's no real tension, no real sense of danger.  Arren shares none of Horus' wild recklessness, and that's a very odd omission, now that I think about it.  After all, here is a character with a murderous side, an obsessive side.  But Arren never brings those qualities out.  He just mopes about and feels sorry for himself.  If he had an iPod, I get the feeling it would contain nothing but Morrisey songs.

This scene only serves to highlight Earthsea's fatal flaw: the director has absolutely no experience.  He's a third-string quarterback suddenly thrown onto the field in the middle of the game.  The poor guy can barely hold onto the ball.  This is a desperation move by the coach, in this case, Toshio Suzuki - can't you see that?

Yes, I think both action scenes define, to a great extent, the character and nature of these two movies.  Perhaps it says something about the talent of the respective teams, and if that's the case, then Ghibli is in more trouble than we realize.  Look at the talent pool behind Horus - Isao Takahata, Yasuo Otsuka, Hayao Miyazaki, Yoichi Kotabe, Reiko Okuyama, Akemi Ota, Yasuji Mori.  True, Horus is Takahata's film, his vision, but he had group of peers possibly unequaled in anime history.

Studio Ghibli, on the other hand, is Miyazaki's house.  The staff is remarkably talented, but they're anonymous, they don't stand out.  There isn't an equivalent of an Otsuka or a Takahata or a Mori to seek inspiration and, yes, rivalry.  Miyazaki-san is the shogun of his castle.  I think this cuts to the very heart of the studio's crisis, as they have struggled for years to find a suitable successor.  It's a struggle of identity.  When Miyazaki is in charge, everything gels.  When he's absent, everything falls silent.  You can see it on the screen for yourself.

If Ghibli can become nothing more than Hayao Miyazaki's backing band, then what happens once he's gone?  The band has no reason to exist, because it has no voice of its own.  And now you know why the studio is standing at the crossroads.  The one man who will decide Ghibli's fate?  None other than Goro Miyazaki.


Trailer - Hakujaden (Toei Doga, 1958)

For my next essay to conclude this week's Japan Cinema Blogathon, I'd like to take a look at that movie trailer to Toei Animation's inagural 1958 feature film, Hakujaden, or The Legend of the White Serpent. If you're a regular reader of The Ghibli Blog, you're likely already familiar with this and many other Toei classics. For everyone else, here's a short history lesson for you.

Toei Doga was founded in 1956 when Toei bought the animation studio, Nippon Dogasha, or Nichido. In 1957, the new studio created its first cartoon (in black-and-white), Kitty's Grafitti. The next year, Toei embarked on its first full-length animated feature, in full color. The first waves of hirings began, as prospective artists and animators were trained in the craft by the studio's two masters, Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara.

This movie trailer is impressive for me because we are given a behind-the-scenes look at the Toei Doga studio, its many artists and animators, and we sense the importance of the project. Toei president Hiroshi Okawa aimed to make his studio the Disney Of The East, and with Hakujaden he succeeded brilliantly. With a successful launch, the studio created one full-length film per year, each one growing in scale, bursting with ideas.

I really love this movie. It's a testament to Toei's skill and ambition that Hakujaden looks as impressive today as it did in 1958. All of the key animation was drawn by Yasuji Mori (animals) and Akira Daikubara (humans). That's right - two people! It's an astonishing thing when you see the variety and breadth of the movie, the vivid imagination and creativity on display. These people were proud of their skills and eager to show off to the world. This movie demonstrates an influence by Walt Disney, but it learns the important lessons from Disney, the importance of craft and attention to detail. Toei intends to follow their own path. And Toei's young generation of animators will slowly forge their own identity, create their own language of icons. And this will one day result in the great, revolutionary break: Horus, Prince of the Sun. But that story is to come later.

Hakujaden is a Chinese folk fable, and it's in the spirit of reconciliation with Japan's neighbors, after the long and brutal war, that Okawa sought to engage the world. Hakujaden strikes a blow not only for Japan, but for all of Asia. This spirit of kindness and generosity is present in this film from start to finish, and it resonates with us today, 60 years later. The history of anime, for all intents and purposes, begins here, at Toei.

Hakujaden was exported to the United States under the title Panda and the Magic Serpent, and many of Toei's animated features were imported by MGM and given the star treatment - new song arrangements, new voice dubbing, the whole lot, and they were very impressive for their day. This film has never been released on DVD in North America, which is unfortunate, as I feel that all the classic Toei animated films deserve to be seen. Fortunately, there is now a Hakujaden fansub available - head over to the Ghibli Blog Downloads to find the link.

Up in Minecraft

This was too cool a sight to pass up.  Somebody created, in painstaking detail, Carl's house from Up in Minecraft.  I'd actually like to see an animation in this style, it would really work in a retro sort of way.  Is CG old enough now to have a retro scene?

In case you've never heard of Minecraft, it's the best video game to come along in ages, an indie sensation, and a colossal time sink.  Also, it's the scariest thing ever - I'm probably going to have a heart attack from all the monsters zapping me from out of nowhere.  Ah, good fun.


Omohide Poro Poro - The Musical?

First Grave of the Fireflies gets spun off into two live-action movies.  Now Isao Takahata's Omohide Poro Poro has been turned into a stage musical in Japan.  Uh....yeah.  Cueing up Troy McClure: "I hate every ape I see, from chim-pan-a to chim-pan-z..."*

It's interesting to see that people are finally making due on that old threat against Takahata's films: "These might as well be live-action!"  Unfortunately, when Grave of the Fireflies was filmed with live actors, the results were terrible.  Paku-san's belief that animation is the stronger medium was vindicated.  Will it be vindicated again with this stage adaptation?  It's a fun experiment, if nothing else.

Thanks to The Studio Ghibli Weblog (from Spain) for the news tip.

(*Note: Hey, since I brought up the Troy McClure "Planet of the Apes" spoof, doesn't that song steal a melody from the Castle in the Sky theme? "Oh, no, I was wrong, it was Earth all along..."  That part.)

Studio Ghibli's Plans For Kokuriko-Zaka Kara

What is Studio Ghibli's present situation, and what are their future plans for their current production, Kokuriko-Zaka Kara, in the wake of last week's earthquake and tsunami?  Toshi Suzuki broke the silence yesterday on his radio show.  Defiant and confident, he declared, "We will do what we should do now."  According to Suzuki-san, both he and Hayao Miyazaki have decided on three major points:

1) Production of Kara will not be delayed or postponed.  They are still committed to their July 16 release date.

2) The computer work will now be around the clock, with a second team working from 8:00pm to 8:00am.  Rolling blackouts have stopped production on the computers this past week, prompting the studio to work doubly hard to meet their deadline.

3) Studio Ghibli will remain quiet until the current crisis has safely passed.

Suzuki-san also announced the date for the Kokuriko-Zaka Kara press conference - March 28.

T. Ishikawa, our Tokyo correspondant, elaborates on Suzuki's remarks during his radio program:

According to Suzuki, he was objected to by many people who say "It (Kara press conference) is inappropriate for this situation." But Suzuki says "I will carry it out. All Japanese motion pictures are damaged now. Probably many people want to know how Hayao Miyazaki thinks about the Japan earthquake. I asked Miya-san for attendance. Then Miya-san said 'I see, I will think what I say while working.'"


Wan Wan Chushingura - The Ponyo Connection

(Note: This blog entry is my daily contribution to the Japanese Cinema Blogathon. Please click on the above banner to donate for the victims of the Japan earthquake & tsunami. The blogathon continues all this week.)

Toei Doga's 1963 animated feature, Wan Wan Chushingura, is a terrific cartoon adaptation of the fabled Japanese tale of the 47 Ronin, told with dogs and cartoon animals and one really mean tiger. Sadly enough, this film is only known in the West as the first movie that Hayao Miyazaki worked on, after being hired to the studio in 1963.

Miyazaki began as an in-betweener, and at this point in his career, he's basically working in the mail room. He only gives Wan Wan Chushingura a passing mention in his memoirs, Starting Point, lamenting how his superiors would correct his drawings so much, that they were completely unrecognizable from what he drew. So while this is another entertaining classic from the Toei stable, it's more of a footnote for the Miyazaki biology.

Or, that's what I thought. I sat down to watch the film this evening, a terribly worn-out VHS copy of the Spanish-dubbed version, Rock el Valiente. One key scene managed to leap out at me, and it completely took me by surprise. I've snapped some screenshots as best I could - you can see how lousy the picture quality is on this old tape - so you can judge for yourself.

In this scene, the dog hero, Rocky, has been knocked into a barrel and thrown into the open sea. Caught in a storm, he struggles to hold onto the barrel as he approaches shore. As the waters strike the cliffs, Rocky's barrel is broken into smaller pieces, Rocky hangs on for dear life.

A young girl stands at the top of the cliff. She sees something in the water and carefully climbs down the rocks. She reaches the shoreline, and seeing the helpless puppy in the water, she tries to rescue him. Resisting the crashing waves, the girl successfully grabs the puppy and drags him onto the shore, and to safety. The scene ends in a warm embrace.

This scene just leapt out at me. Ponyo! This is almost identical to the early scene in Ponyo where Sosuke rescues Ponyo from the ocean, trapped in the glass jar. Even the cliffs look quite similar. It's not an exact shot-by-shot remake, so I don't know if I'd place it into the "riffs" category. But this does appear to me that Ponyo used the similar scene from Wan Wan Chuushingura as an inspiration. And when we remember this was also Miyazaki's first animation film all those years ago, the realization strikes. It makes a lot of sense.

I'll leave it for you to decide if these two "on a cliff by the sea" scenes match, or if I'm just reading into things. It would help tremendously if we had a DVD fansub to watch; this Rock el Valiente torrent was damned near impossible to find. And the picture quality is just dreadful...Ah, the good 'ole days of anime fandom!

Jolly #@&%ing Great

I see I made it on Al Jazeera's "Listening Post," that's nice.  But they didn't bother to mention The Ghibli Blog at all.  I'm only listed as "writer."  Great, just jolly effin' great.  For this I shot a crummy webcam video while looking haggard from lack of sleep.  Next time, I'll have to make sure to wear a logo or something.

Italy Gets a Kick-Ass Ponyo DVD

Well, well, it appears that Italy is getting a kick-ass Ponyo DVD, too.  This package includes the two-disc DVD, along with the Ponyo plushie that we all know and love.  Disney dipped their toes in the Ghibli merchandising waters last year with the American DVD release, but it's been impossible to find ever since.  This might prove to be a compelling alternative.

One thing that really impresses me with this release is the packaging.  There's a considerable effort to use as little plastic as possible, and the cardboard box and disc booklet is very attractive.  It reminds me a lot of the early days of disc-based media like CD-ROM.  Cardboard covers were dismissed as cheap, low-grade junk, and the sturdier plasic cases were far more popular.  Today, however, I think we're well enough aware of the greater costs of adding mountains of indestructible plastics to this planet.  Frankly, I'm happy to see CD cases go extinct...those things were sooo incredibly fragile.

No doubt reducing costs is a primary concern for DVD and Blu-Ray publishers, and doubly so for anime publishers.  If they can cut costs where it counts, while still offering a compelling product - say hello to more merchandise, kids - I'm more than willing to sign up.  It will be interesting to see how this competes against the rise of non-physical digital media and platforms like the iPad.  I want to be able to watch movies on my TV, desktop computer, laptop, iPod, iPad...the consumer market is diversifying rapidly, and this is going to become the major challenge for physical media.

Here are some more photos of the Italian Ponyo DVD box from all sides. Enjoy:

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