Life Goes On…

Ozu Yasujiro was one of the most consistent directors one could think of when it comes to the principles he applies to his framing, his cutting, and his circle of cast and crew. Between his 1949 feature Late Spring and his final film in 1962 An Autumn Afternoon, the only notable amendment to his comfortable aesthetic was the inclusion of colour in the late 1950s. This does not restrict any of those films from feeling less than perfect masterworks of a confident filmmaker or from feeling indistinct from one another. Because it may have been obvious that the man was using the same formal tools over and over again (and even the same themes), but different combinations of them were constantly applied to different moods, simply by perhaps a shift in the duration of certain shots or an uncharacteristic change in blocking or a drop of a smile establishing the difference between the tragedy of Floating Weeds and the comedy of Ohayo.

In the 13 movies ‘round that mature phase of his prosperous career, Tokyo Story is perhaps the most effective utilization of these features and most illustrative of his interests in deepening the stories he and frequent co-writer Noda Kogo would draft. In this particular instance, inspired by Leo McCarey’s 1937 elderly classic Make Way for TomorrowTokyo Story gives us a picture of Japan just at the cusp of blowing off all of the ashes left from World War II as elders Hirayama Shikuchi (Ryu Chishu) and his wife Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) prepare for a trip from their hometown Onomochi to visit the titular city and see the nuclear families of their son Koichi (Yamamura So), daughter Shige (Sugimura Haruko), as well as seeing daughter-in-law Noriko (Hara Setsuko), who remains a reminder of the son they lost in the war. This trip leaves behind their youngest child Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko) in the Onomochi home they reside in and hopes to pass by their second-youngest child Keizo (Osaka Shiro) who resides in Osaka.

Tokyo Story of course has a premise that notoriously lends itself to much sadness in the form of Shikuchi and Tomi observing the sort of distance that has grown from the children that have left to their own lives (little distance at all with Noriko however, as the loss between the three of them appears to have amplified their need to remember their late son and husband Shoji together). And being a movie with very little incident in itself, it’s through the reliability of Ozu’s regular troupe and the script’s chilly pleasantries that they must enact that the movie can communicate the sort of annoyance and guilt that the characters hold as Koichi and Shige try to impatiently figure ways to fill the parents’ time after coming all this way.

But what about the places where they don’t speak and just sit? Because Tokyo Story is a movie filled with those types of scenes, recognizable from our own life of moments where we just don’t know what to say, where our body language betrays our intentions, where our smiles might What does Ozu do to actively involve in the stillest and most muted moments of this domestic drama?

One of the two signature characteristics of Ozu’s filmmaking – collaborating here with Atsuta Yuharu as he occasionally did – would be the elevation of the camera at the eye level of the characters if they were to sit down on tatami mat that made up the flooring for most traditional Japanese households, as though to establish the camera as an inhabitant of these domestic spaces joining in on the interactions that make up the film and often at an angle that takes note of the empty spaces surrounding these characters, especially if it’s only one of them in the room at the time. This decision would be quite complementary to the other signature characteristic in which Ozu often framed shot-reverse shot sequences of dialogue with the camera specifically placed in the middle of the people involved in those conversations with each of the conversants centered in their own shot.

The style specifically rejects arguably the most fundamental of Western cinematic staging and cutting, the 180° rule that stresses a clear definition of every character’s geographical relation in scenes. But by breaking that rule, Ozu uses direct address to force us to see every nuance in the performers’ faces, stresses the shallow smalltalk and the shallow reactions to that catching up, and specifically places us in the middle of that intangible empty space between these characters growing more and more distant to each other, taking one box of them all sitting together and dividing them artificially. Editor Hamamura Yoshiyasu does just as well to arrange these shots in a manner that provides this function and yet allows the conversation to smoothly run as though the breaking of that line is unnoticed, while also taking great patience in drawing out the sort of gaps between each character’s statements before moving on to the next close-up with a response to give, betraying the conversation as dull and betraying the characters as having to take time to construct banter under which they hide their true thoughts.

Ozu’s Tokyo Story is precise filmmaking without the slightest bit of conspicuousness to itself, in spite of its rule-breaking, and effectively delivers on devastating domestic tragedy that way enhancing the already brilliant work of its cast. The notoriety with which Tokyo Story effortlessly perfects all the aspects of film possible for little more than honest character drama and makes it count is undeniably the reason why that movie ended up voted by the Sight & Sound Directors’ Poll in 2012 to be the Best Film of All Time (and Third Best in the film critics’ poll). And yet it’s also easy to imagine that it may not be the actual strategy through which its constructed but the bullseye way that Tokyo Story KNOWS how families talk (or don’t talk) and the simple pain that is left from those talks that just hits its viewers on a gut level and brings it to those accolades. Who knows? Maybe it’s just left unsaid.

The Princess Bride

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I would love to hide behind the fact that I am still – 7 months later – not ready to say goodbye to Takahata Isao as the excuse that I was sooooooooooo tardy with this retrospective and this final entry is last-minute. No, I shall be transparent about the fact that a mix between laziness with this site and an overwhelming amount of real-world responsibilities arresting me with anxiety was why this 5-film goal took way longer to complete than I intended.

But the fact IS that I am not ready to say goodbye to Takahata and it’s frustrating not just because of how long its been since his death, but because with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata pretty much made the perfect film with which to say goodbye to the world. Even while Takahata worked until the very end (as he had later as artistic producer for The Red Turtle, the latest of Studio Ghibli’s releases), it’s hard to imagine him not being aware that his age at 78 when the film premiered in 2013 and the large 14-year gap in between his last two films spelt the end of his directorial career. So he made it count in more ways than one.

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Let’s tackle The Tale of the Princess Kaguya outside of that context for a second, because it is an emotionally moving film even outside of that retrospect. Adapted by Takahata and Sakaguchi Riko from what is believed to be the oldest surviving Japanese prose monogatari “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, a bamboo cutter (Chii Takeo) discovers a tiny baby girl residing in one of the stalks he cuts down (this resembles a sequence in My Neighbors the Yamadas so well that I expect Takahata was planning this film for longer than the 14 years between) and brings her home to his wife (Miyamoto Nobuko), believing the child to be of a divine presence. The baby’s accelerated growth into a child and the discovery of gold and silks within more bamboo only furthers this belief on the cutter’s part, so in no time they make for a life of nobility in the capital with the girl they have since named Hime (Asakura Asi). It is much to her dismay that she must leave behind the rest of the village children she had grown with, including the strong and mature Sutemaru (Kora Kengo), and learning the sort of restrictions and demands a life as a princess forces upon her only adds to Hime’s blues, later to be re-named Kaguya by a priest.

The 137 minutes that make up The Tale of the Princess Kaguya are certainly not of a brisk sort (particularly a middle sort involving numerous unappealing attempts at courting the then adult princess start to drag in a repetition of punchlines), but it is nevertheless one that recognizes the ephemeral sweep with which this girl must live her life: growing and going through stages with barely enough time to recognize and adore this world she’s been brought into with the sparse and direct nature of storytelling that folklore grants itself. At the same time, Takahata and Sakaguchi import a lot of contemporary depth via Kaguya’s feelings on her drafted princess-hood, the deft inherent talent she has at the position fighting against her desires to live a normal human outside back in peaceful rusticity. Likewise, her adoptive parents have their own emotions driving the story: the bamboo cutter’s desperate resentment at his previous poverty and the denied legitimacy of his ascension among the upper class and the wife’s attempts to help Kaguya feel comfortable with this life without willing to sacrifice their gained wealth.

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This dichotomy and conflict is – as would be for any animated film, especially one by a master such as Takahata – a visual one just as much as it is a narrative one. Once again, Takahata’s valued minimalism where the image is just fading at the edges into white is utilized to shape the image into something like a painting, aided by the elegant and traditional hand-painting that makes up the animation style as though illustrations to a storybook. Moving illustrations with a vivid fluidity to them that rejects the formal roots of its aesthetic, particularly in a later sequence where we watch Kaguya zoom out of the palace and the city and into the field as a flurry of thick black lines in one direction, lifted by the romanticism Joe Hisaishi’s score elevates the tale to (shockingly his only collaboration with Takahata in their careers, even despite the fact that Takahata was the one who brought him to Studio Ghibli in the first place). Meanwhile, the forests are a very appealing bunch of watercolor greens and browns while the city goes for a muted white-based lack of personality that explains Kaguya’s lack of belonging in that place, without losing the grace of those hand-drawn lines that build up the image.

This is overall a scenario that affords a lot of different bittersweet observations about the human experience in such a limited time: the satisfaction of simple lives, the performative nature high-class society and its attempts to flaunt their wealth, the balancing act of parenthood where one must prove clairvoyent in knowing what’s best for their children, the certainty that things will mess up regardless, toxic men filling up more and more with hot air when they can not enamor a woman and going beyond their boundaries, women having no choice in their place in life and trying to make what they can out of the rapid changes thrown at them. All of these themes with wisdom and patience as the film scratches at them. Nothing within its observations on these matters is entirely positive, though it does afford a few respites of happiness where Kaguya can free herself an inch and it is heartbreaking when she must return to her princess status.

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There is one final observation The Tale of the Princess Kaguya has to give us before it ends and, while I don’t want to spoil it in detail, I can only say it is one about how hard it is to say goodbye to the world and the people who make up your world. Introduced at the very last leg of the film is an indomitable conclusiveness to all of Kaguya’s worries that also means a lot of sadness and emptiness in the lives of the bamboo cutter, his wife, Sutemaru, and everyone else that Kaguya cared for in her very short time on Earth, only accentuated by this abrupt obstacle. The beauty with which this is carried out – looking and sounding akin to a festive celebration rather than anything else – gives the promise of things feeling right by what’s occurring but the emotions behind the characters having to go through this and the fact that they are the ones we’re familiar with makes it all the more devastating despite this. It entirely ties up the bittersweet nature of the writing and the comprehensive manner of its plot as a portrayal of life itself, ending the film and Takahata’s career with a poignant final shot that feels as much of a tearjerking comfort as the titular fireflies in Grave of the Fireflies.

And having that moment be the one that sees Takahata off as a filmmaker only makes things feel like he was setting us up for that goodbye. It only seems fair to deal with his departure in as graceful a manner as Kaguya suggests one can. But, for a filmmaker whom I’ve never met that lived in a country I’ve never been to and so could only admire from afar, it can just be so hard to have to deal with the fact that he’s not going to make any more art for one to admire. In any case, I’m forever grateful to Takahata for what he did leave us with and they will continue to be my comforts in the years to come as life goes on.

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29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

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Yamada So Fat…

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Around the final two films of Takahata Isao’s time with Studio Ghibli and his career overall* – with a Kubrick-ian 14 years in turnover time between them – the animation director finally opted to do entirely away with the refined manga-inspired cel animation style that was Studio Ghibli’s default mode. In his decision to adapt Ishii Hisaichi’s long-running comic strip series ののちゃん (Nono-chan) under its original title となりのやまだ君 – literally translated to My Neighbors the Yamadas – Takahata had decided to undertake a new more hand-drawn look to the pictures that would resemble the comic strip much further than if it were solid blocks and perfect color fills and full backgrounds. The result was a movie full of personality within its rough handiwork, something that implied a direct tangibility to the image that gave a beating involved heart to the film.

But also because Takahata was not crazy, this was the first entirely-computer animated film in Ghibli’s output. Which does a lot for flattening the image so that we buy the characters and whatever background they have being on the same dimensional plane without losing the sketched texture of the lines.

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Despite that strong dedication to depth, My Neighbor the Yamadas is indisputably the most cartoonish of Takahata’s films since his early television specials of Panda! Go, Panda! and that gives it a lot more of a pleasant aesthetic for viewers of any age. Particularly given that it seeks to make its viewers relate to its subject, the Yamada family – child daughter Nonoko (Uno Naomi) who is the namesake of the comic, teenage son Noboru (Isobata Hayato), matriarch housewife Matsuko (Asaoka Yukiii), patriarch breadwinner Takashi (Masuoka Touru), and Matsuko’s elderly mother Shige (Araki Masako). All of them as wacky and broad as the round designs on them which affords an endearment to the film as well as the easy faded colors that inhabit the line drawings of each shot. Not to mention the steps My Neighbors the Yamadas takes to ease us into its cartoon styles by having Nonoko casually explain away the shape of Shige’s by drawing a pair of cosmic objects and then filling it out with her beloved grandma’s features, helping us to quickly associate the simplicity of Yamadas‘s design with shapes.

Which works out wonders for the sort of broad comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas is attempting to do.

May as well not beat the bush any further about the loose structure Takahata’s screenplay has: there’s no plot to My Neighbor the Yamadas. It’s all vignettes of various length and the film does nothing to truly suggest a true logic to the arrangement of the segments, although it is easy to sense the beginning and the end as a viewer. It’s remarkably easy viewing in general for something lacking a story, none of the segues to the next vignette feel abrupt and a lot of it feels like vague association with something that came up in the last vignette. Like maybe dinner might be a large part of one vignette and that drives us to the next vignette or two sequences in a row where one of the male members of the family forgets something while rushing to work or school. Takahata has somehow just cracked a flow out of segments and I’m sure there was a logic to his choices but it’s not apparent to the viewer and I don’t think it should matter.

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Though, if one actually sat down and noted the reasoning behind it, it could be remarked upon that the two major bookends involve a speech given by a character as affirmation and encouragement for a marriage, one of which hilariously remains fixed on the speaker as he fumbles and grasps for his forgotten words and his family watches in horror, the other giving way to a fantastical epic portraying the creation of a family as a Homeric adventure where the family is constructed through plants and fruits narrated warmly by an old woman (who I sadly cannot identify in the cast). That latter is the artistic peak of the film as it abandons the empty white spaces and fills the frame with depth and detail with pastel seas and stalks and fruits, but it’s not the only moment where Takahata decides to be ambitiously versatile: late in the film, a non-threatening but still tense moment of confrontation with a few juvenile bikers involves more lines and a darker palette with less (but impressively deliberate) lighting to knock the “fun” out of the moment without losing the cartoon aesthetic, followed by a kinetic “fantasy” action sequence akin to superhero movies.

But it must of course be constantly acknowledged that this is just as well aided by the fact that My Neighbors the Yamadas is gutbustingly funny in a very endearing and relentless sense with those above moments cushioning a familiarity with the family we have accomplished just by innocent and silly but wholly relatable incidents before tying it with a bow by a very celebratory musical number of “Que Sera, Sera” just to bring all its admiration of the Yamadas and how well they represent us right home as they laugh along into the sunset. It is near impossible to pick a “sweetest” moment in a film like this, but Takahata definitely selected quite a note to say goodbye to this family with.

Earlier this year, I’ve been privileged enough to rewatch the entire feature canon of Studio Ghibli (including the precursor Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and frustratingly excluding the Belgian co-production The Red Turtle) on the big-screen in the presence of an audience, most of whom (including my friend) were getting to experience this for the first time. My Neighbors the Yamadas was decidedly not the most packed house but it was possibly the most responsive I’ve seen the audience throughout the whole run. It is not as widely-seen (at least in the United States, I cannot speak to its popularity in Japan but I expect being based on beloved comics indicates commercial success), but I absolutely think this film deserves to be regarded as much of a crowd-pleaser as anything by Miyazaki. My Neighbors the Yamadas is certainly a gem of a picture that is infectiously affable and assuredly humorous in all its color and shape.

NB: I was finishing this essay on a flight to New York (after having a draft sitting here for months – sorry, readers) and I had playing in the background The Death of Stalin, where I recall a similar joke occurs as My Neighbor the Yamadas involving wearing pajamas underneath your suit.

NNB: LOL, that fucking NB was from an earlier attempt to complete this draft. If y’all ever want to hold me accountable for deadlines…

*Barring a single short segment made for the anthology film Winter Days, inspired by that favorite poet of Takahata’s to reference in his movies (including and especially this review’s subject), Bashō.

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There Cannot Be Good Living Where There Is Not Good Drinking

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There is one problem with the animated comedy Night Is Short, Walk On Girl and it’s not a tiny one, but I wonder if it would be something I could easily have dismissed if I had seen the anime series, The Tatami Galaxy, of which it is a loose spin-off (though all indications point to this probably not happening). Both of these projects are Kyoto University-based stories of student lives adapted from novels by Morimi Tomihiko, brought to bold life by director Yuasa Masaaki, writer Ueda Makoto and Yuasa’s animation company Science Saru. And mind you, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is just another blip on a great year for Yuasa and Science Saru, having also produced and released Devilman Crybaby and Lu Over the Wall stateside earlier this year (The Tatami Galaxy, meanwhile, was produced back in 2010). It is a very big blip and possibly the greatest thing they’ve produced yet.

I’m not even sure that if my thing is a problem, it is a problem for me. Because Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is a very wildly speedy film that doesn’t allow you to linger too long on the details of what’s going on. In fact, it’s very tempting to call the movie “manic”, but that’s an aggressive word to use. It’s more like a looney whirlwind (which eventually becomes quite literal by the third act) of colliding incidents and the people who get spun around by those incidents. And yet it is narratively coherent in that stream-of-consciousness manner – Ueda’s script tightly packs incident into 93 minutes, is episodic enough to chop it into three distinct acts based on its characters’ objectives (though spoiling the later objectives would be a total crime), nearly everything that comes up at the beginning of the movie (which acts as an expositional dump of four characters and their hilarious madcap lives) returns full circle, and every single character appears to generously have their own arc though there are varying levels of importance to their arc.

It is also aesthetically coherent, especially if you’ve encountered Yuasa’s rubbery flash animation style before where figures are flat but bold at the same time without losing a sense of depth (mostly Yuasa deliberately eschews shading for depth) and colors come in distinctive blocks that define the shape of a character or object more than any outline could. It makes for a great mirror to the narrative’s feverish absurdity, such as when characters take part in a wacky crouched ritual known as the sophist’s dance or a boat-train will peel out practically leaning in the direction of its voyage as though it were pulled. The only deviation from this style is moments of internalized fantasy or memory from characters, where the backgrounds become brightly monochromatic and defined by lines while characters are totally filled in by their primary colors with no features whatsoever. It’s a nice establishing of how unformed the thoughts of these characters rushing through an exciting night would be.

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There is a central driver of the breakneck momentum. She is a floral and bubbly presence, a girl identified solely by her Junior class and black hair color as “Kohai Kami no Otome” (Hanazawa Kana). And she burns with anticipation of feeling like an adult, which apparently means drinking a whole lot of brilliantly colorful and large drinks. I am myself a teetoler and yet Yuasa has  brought such spirited vibrance out of the colors of the alcohol and turning the different shapes of glass into feeling like characters that I feel pleasantly just watching Kohai take ‘em down with her new friends. But what she is truly driven by is a potent dose of id. She feels like drinking, so she gets a drink. She feels like dancing so she dances. She wants a book. She wants to challenge someone. She wants to act. A character acknowledges that she’s always in motion and it’s so fast to keep with her both physically and intellectually. One of the first things we see her do is tighten up her arms and chug her body like she’s being wound up as she decides what she’s going to do for the next while before marching forward, a gesture repeated. Even before Ueda reveals what this gesture means to her, it’s clear that Night Is Short, Walk On Girl will be following her.

In particular, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is the story of her extremely festive night on the town, as she runs into and makes friends with all colorful manner of folk like the bar-crawlers excitable Hanuki (Kaida Yūko) and crafty long-chinned yukata-donning Higuchi (Nakai Kazuya) or the pessimistic diminuitive gremlin-esque crimelord Rihaku (Mugihito), who shrinks further and further within the expansive space of his boat-train. Even when one of the first things happening to her is a creepy old Todo-san (Yamaji Kazuhiro)*, she takes care to give him a “friendly punch” (that still knocks him across the room) because she finds him harmless and doesn’t want to fight anybody. And meanwhile, it appears to be an eventful night: a wedding, a book fair, the school festival, a series of guerilla pop-up musical theater performances.

It’s arguably overcomplicated and definitely exhausting by the end of it all, but the peppy attitude of nearly every character is infectious and it’s always interesting to witness how the movie will twist itself into a new style. An early drinking battle involving Imitation Denki Bran alternating between a character collapsing in a growing nihilistic blackness as he espouses aged fatalism while another sips the same alcohol and has flowers apparate in her confident profile with yellow and pink surround her, parrying his statements with youthful cheer. This moment is the strongest of many battles made between the relentlessly joyful anticipation of entering adulthood and the resigned regretfulness of late age and the young always win out.

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There’s also the hilarious meta-textual element of the theatrical performances that keep occurring all around the festivals despite the best attempts of the Festival Leader (Kamiya Hiroshi) to shut it down and jail them all, commenting on events we just saw occur and eventually just taking the film over outright to turn it into a late musical. Or the existence of the weirdly steadfast (and appropriately square-headed) Don Underwear (Akiyama Ryuji) saying he will not change his underwear until he reunites with a girl he had a passing fancy with, showing another side of this film’s idea of determination, or the impish Spirit of the Book Fair (Yoshino Hiroyuki) trying to sabotage unfair prices for knowledge.

Anyway, I came here saying there was one problem and it’s that there is one character whose arc Night Is Short, Walk On Girl gives as much importance as Kohai and it’s the man who is romantically interested in her, likewise identified solely by being an upperclassman “Senior”** (Hoshino Gen) and who spends the night trying to catch up and follow her are attempting to arrange their paths enough to make their pairing seem like destiny. And the frank fact is that Senior’s side of the story is not AS interesting as Kohai. That may be the point and the movie does give him a lot of wacky shenanigans to go through (especially when they collide with Kohai’s story as expected), but the character isn’t as dynamic as his castmates. He’s a straight man in a movie I don’t think needs one (Kohai functions well enough as one).

But his story does have purpose and it feels like two separate paths – one based in resoluteness, the other based in spontaneity – reaching the same point in the end because that’s just fate. And while I don’t think Night Is Short, Walk On Girl wants us to overthink any deep commentary on destiny or chance, the observations are there. Mainly though, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl just wants to barrel through the most exciting boisterous explosive night one can put oneself through and if I may end anecdotally, watching it on a very tiring and uncertain night made me walk out of the theater with renewed vigor and energy for at least the rest of the night.

*And mind you, this character and his fetishism of Japanese erotic wood paintings along with some other developments makes Night Is Short, Walk On Girl feel like Yuasa’s most reflexive look on his own perversions.
**Or “senpai” as the movie calls him, but fuck you if you’ll catch me saying that.

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Raccoon City

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Out of probably any other movie in all of Studio Ghibli’s canon, Pom Poko is probably the one most likely to be lost in translation between its Japanese audience and its international audiences. It all starts from the very U.S. title, which one would assume is supposed to the translation to something but is quite frankly just an onomatopoeia representing the sound a tanuki’s belly makes when it is beat. And when we reel back to the superior Japanese title 平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ and give it a literal translation, it goes Heisei-Era Tanuki War Ponpoko, a great epic mouthful helps settle the concept of this decade-spanning story being an ancient historical record for an intense period of time, treated the same manner as those feudal eras in Japanese history and narrated with period-based verve by Shinchou Kokontei.

Which is a charming joke because Heisei-Era is what Takahata Isao was living in when he was writing and directing Pom Poko and it’s an era we’re still living in today based on which Emperor is currently in the Chrysanthemum Throne, currently Akihito*. And it would be easy to tell even without that title, from all the modernized elements of Pom Poko‘s cities that make for one side of its conflict, that it’s taking place in a time of aggressive industrial growth… one that intrudes and interrupts on the lives of our tanuki protagonists.

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And in the tanuki is another thing that’s been lost in translation regarding Pom Poko‘s release on the other side of the Pacific, as they are a species indigenous specifically to East Asia and most especially prevalent in Japanese folklore. And because of their lack of presence in the west, Disney saw fit to decide to simply identify them as “raccoons” for the U.S. release, either because “raccoon dogs” (a closer approximation) is too much or they don’t realize that some kids will easily call those creatures tanuki without skipping a beat**. That Japanese folklore is the basis of their characterization in Takahata’s script where they are magical and agreeably mischievous, capable of shape-shifting and utilizing their expandable testicles as tools. I’m not sure if their tribalism early in the film or their traditionalist practices throughout are also rooted in folklore, but it nevertheless ends up becoming the very crux of the tanuki’s struggles from the moment where stern matriarchal Oroku (Kiyokawa Nijiko) interrupts the opening battle between two tribes over an already shrinking piece of land within the Tama Hills of Tokyo and insists that the tanuki unite and battle the humans.

In a world that is progressing beyond old means and attempting to optimize every square inch of itself, reverence towards culture is being muted. At least, that’s in the abstract sense. In a literal sense, the forests and nature in which the tanuki have thrived and made their home is being imposed upon by construction expanding the nearby cities. And so the tanuki spend the entirety of the film utilizing every possible trick in their arsenal to try to save their livelihood and resources. It’s pretty easy to assume that the ideal viewer will take this conflict seriously, but Pom Poko especially wants it to be understood how epic and desperate the stakes are for the tanuki so as to recognize the gravity of moments such as when tanuki use their testicles to cause apparently fatal car crashes or the wise elders of the resistance end up putting their future generations through grueling practices to continue the year-spanning fight.

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And Takahata certainly does well enough to establish that the Hills are worth the battle, how sacred they are to the tanuki, the casual flippancy with which the humans are attempting to occupy it in a dismissively utilitarian way. The Hills, when portrayed in robust abundant greens, are serene and tranquil before the imminent intrusion of noisy construction vehicles smashing through. The scale of certain scenes marry themselves to the tanuki’s perspective but the narrative is fluid enough for us to join the humans’ wonder at moments where the tanukis go all in on their powers of illusion. Like a parade of ghosts, demons, and spooks that’s the most eye-catching part of the entire movie. Or the grand finale of the film, responding to the melancholic and inevitable result of this fight with a warm look at the land the tanuki fight to preserve, which have now slowly muted into rustic but unlively browns as the movie has progressed, with enough persuasive power behind rich arbor to shift the ending note to an unexpected bittersweet place.

Anyway, this is not by any means a joyless film despite that intensity and lack of subtlety in its environmentalism. The music by Japanese band Shang Shang Typhoon is a bouncy flutey source of fun, giving the conflict a wild lack of edge without deflating the seriousness and updating on traditional-sounding motifs. And, like Takahata would as an animation director, he’s playing with a function of the medium and this time around focusing particularly on shifting the designs of the tanuki themselves (being creatures that lend themselves such a dynamic through their shape-shifting ability even when they don’t disguise themselves as humans) in three separate styles, depending on the tone or point of view of a moment.

The most amicable of these designs is a round cartoonish bipedal look of them when happiest or laziest or just plain knocked out, used for comedic punctuation and inspired by the work of Sugiura Shigeru.

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The most common-form was more detailed anthropomorphic forms with tufts of fur resembling hair and a more grizzled rough and patchy edge to imply wear to their bodily coats. Just enough information to feel complete and whole, but also broad enough to not lose a sense of humor.

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And then, there’s the most aggressive and realistic manner – usually used in direct contact with the humans – where they are reverted to much more detailed quadruped animals, inarticulately growling or standing in headlights.

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Takahata’s deft control between the demands of each scene are probably what sells the nuance behind this bleeding-hearted appeal for humanity to preserve the generosity of nature while recognizing the inevitability of change and the necessity for mankind to grow. It’s essentially a lot better at selling the complexity of the situation than Miyazaki Hayao’s much admired conservationist more straightlaced jidaigeki Princess Mononoke, which leads to an enlightened desire to sell progress and reverence in the same breath. And in that approach towards Pom Poko, it’s clear that Takahata was easy to admire alongside his long-time friend not only on account of his fluid aesthetic decisions but also on account of honest humanity towards all areas of life.

*Akihito has expressed an interest in abdicating next year thus ending Heisei jidai.
**I am certainly not helping with that review title but you have no idea how long I tried to figure out a pun to “tanuki” before giving up.

And because I am me, I could hardly live with myself if I didn’t drop a DEEZ NUTZ!

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Girlhood

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If you’re ever dealing with somebody who pretends misogyny doesn’t exist in the film industry and somehow reminding them that Blue Valentine got an NC-17 rating over the fact that women can get orally pleasured doesn’t convince them, consider using this example: Takahata Isao’s second directorial film for the now-in-full-force Studio Ghibli (and 7th film overall, roughly if you consider the Panda Go Panda shorts one whole feature), Only Yesterday, took almost 15 fucking years to get a U.S. theatrical release despite being among the many films purchased by Disney in their landmark 1996 deal with the animation studio. It received only one quick television broadcast in 2006.

The reason being that apparently Disney was unwilling to release a film that featured scenes where girls learn about and deal with menstruation, while they were legally contracted not to edit any of the Ghibli films they purchase*. Meanwhile, Takahata’s next film Pom Poko got released in the US with scenes revolving around big-balled raccoons.

Oh well. Their loss because Only Yesterday stands tall as a masterpiece in Studio Ghibli’s history. Although without the benefit of hindsight, it might have looked as though Takahata Isao was not taking as many risks as one would associate him with.

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For like Grave of the FirefliesOnly Yesterday is based on autobiographical material on the part of Okamoto Hotaru, who co-wrote with Tone Yuko the manga source おもひでぽろぽろ (Memories Come Tumbling Down, the title which this film released under in Japan). And again like Grave of the Fireflies, the main focus of the story happens to be the childhood memories of human characters. Not entirely however, as Okamoto and Tone’s series was strictly focused on a year in the life of ten-year-old Taeko (Honna Youko) while Takahata’s screenplay takes the liberty of framing it from the perspective of a now-27-year-old Taeko (Imai Miki) as she takes a break from her office job in Tokyo to head down to the countryside of Yamagata to help her sisters’ in-laws harvest safflower. And it feels like the flashbacks embedded in the adult storyline take Taeko aback just as much as they had to have taken the authors of this film aback, but there’s a connective tapestry between the two stories that re-frames everything as looking on how our younger origins and yearnings inform the personality and decisions we might make in our later lives even if by surprise.

We learn almost immediately that Taeko’s desire to visit and be part of the country life came from an early life where her family was unable to acquiesce to her desire to take a school vacation out of the city, ostensibly because they had nobody they knew in the area. And I would say “that’s it” as far as how those memories tumbling down end up connecting to WHY Taeko is going to Yamagata and yet they do so much more to shape her personality in a manner that never fails to progress the story in some way: it’s almost Tarantino-esque how a scenario or tale adult Taeko is going through or talking about during her stay opens up to an episode of kid Taeko’s time, except it calls the least amount of attention to itself that a movie can while including the line “I didn’t intend for the ten-year-old me to come along on this trip”. It’s essentially the brain’s free association as a narrative structure. It’s smooth and organic and the lack of escalating incident for the movie beyond a late romantic development doesn’t make Only Yesterday feel strained in the slightest.

There’s also how exciting the film is visually, like all of Takahata’s other films, without flaunting it the same way that his later films would. In fact, the development of Takahata’s style between Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday is incredibly subtle, but I’d argue nested in the lines and colors of Only Yesterday is the genesis of all the stylistic habits that Takahata would spend the rest of his life exploring. And those habits are embedded in the distinct designs of each timeline.

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The one that would probably catch a viewer’s eye at first glance is the faces: the faces of adult Taeko’s storyline have more defined cheeks while childhood Taeko’s storyline has a flatter cartoon shape. Not too flat, mind you, just enough to really call attention to the dimension in the adult storyline (established to be the present as far narrative perspective is concerned). And Only Yesterday is very proud of those muscles: the first shot that introduces us to Taeko is her smiling loud enough for dimples and the film is more than happy to give her or one of her farming guides Toshio (Yanagiba Toshiro) scenarios where they flex those faces with smiles and such.

Not that young Taeko doesn’t also have scenes to show off character designs, namely in moments of bliss where her eyes expand into starry happiness like talking to a crush or entertaining a future as an actress. And her reactions to her situations are more cartoon exaggerations, including a moment of her face constantly morphing to appalled looks when teased during the infamous period storyline. In general, the whole aesthetic of the younger storyline allows for more fantastical freedom – both of those blissful moments are given big rainbows and literal flights of fancy – and while I’m not sure how close that is to the aesthetic of the manga itself, I’m glad Takahata and his crew found a space to use as a playground. It’s interesting to see how these fantasies play in the mind of adult Taeko, as we witness her quote her meeting with childhood crush Hirota (Masuda Yuki) and roll around in bed in happiness.

The other big trademark of Takahata is his exploration of using the blank white empty areas of the canvas to translate a narrative mood. Out of the three movies where he exercises this, he never uses them for the same purpose. In Only Yesterday‘s case, it’s solely applied to the 5th grade timeline where the backdrops are constantly fading at the edges, as though the memory is only barely grasped to and the locations (constantly in the most transparent watercolors) aren’t really being regarded by Taeko, only the event in question. It’s a distant look into the past that the film constantly calls attention to, including a shot where the image pulls away from us to fill the frame with more and more white until I leave the shot altogether and return the present, like an awakening. And yet that distance doesn’t prevent the flashbacks from having a pleasant nostalgia to them in the way of their soft colors and designs, much more pleasant and relaxed to look at than the full information of the adult timeline.

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And the adult timeline nevertheless keeps itself busy with landscapes of rural life: farms and fields and rivers abound in lush, full tones. It is clear that while Miyazaki Hayao was probably the most famously environmentalist of the two within Studio Ghibli, that attitude rubbed off very much on his friend Takahata with all the bright colors of the safflowers being picked (remarked by the narration consciously) and one majestic shot where we slowly witness morning sunlight landing on the workers of the safflower field (this is a very patient film despite never feeling slow, using spans of silence for atmosphere). Toshio mentions it’s important to be ecstatic about your work as his motivation for becoming a farmer and it shows that Takahata believed in that philosophy and wanted it to be prevalent throughout Only Yesterday: the harvest and the green and the dye and the lands are wonderful to be around and we get Taeko’s ecstasy at being able to accomplish her childhood dreams and her fascination with this world.

Which is a pleasant attitude that fuels all of Only Yesterday‘s breeziness, aided wonderfully by Hoshi Katsu’s graceful musical score and adult performances that sound like they’re emerging out of smiles. Obviously, Only Yesterday isn’t all pleasantries when it’s rooted in the turbulence of growing up, but the confusion from those memories simply prove to strengthen Taeko’s feeling of agency in the present and her wisdom, feelings that Takahata translates to us efficiently. Sure, Only Yesterday is probably the least radical film in his arsenal, but it’s also his most unassuming and confident about its own perfection.

*There is a famous legend regarding this clause where Suzuki Toshio or Miyazaki Hayao – depending on who’s telling the story – mailed Harvey Weinstein a katana with a note reading “no cuts” in response to Weinstein’s desire to re-edit Princess Mononoke for U.S. release.

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September 21, 1945… That Was the Night I Died.

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R.I.P. Takahata Isao
29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

1988 – 30 years ago from this very day, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli was not yet the worldwide phenomenon it has formerly grown to be but it was in the middle of significant success on the wings of co-founder Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (pre-emptively a Ghibli production before Ghibli even existed) and Castle in the Sky. 3 years after its inception in 1985, they were in the midst of releasing what the future would see as their flagship film – Miyazaki’s cuddly and fuzzy My Neighbor Totoro. And yet doubts were made unto the box office potential of the affable children’s film so the second of the co-founders Suzuki Toshio made the decision to attach it as a double feature to the adaptation being produced around the same time for publishing house Shinchosha on one of their novels by Nosaka Akiyuki.

That adaptation was written and directed by Ghibli’s third co-founder, veteran animation director Takahata Isao, and it was called Grave of the Fireflies. And side by side with My Neighbor Totoro, the two stand as not only the greatest films of a studio that seldom produced anything but great films, but among the greatest animated works of all time.

And despite this superlative, Suzuki’s tenure as in-house producer of Ghibli had a lot of brilliant ideas, but this was unfortunately not one of them. While the films did not end up box office failures outright, Fireflies received a chilly reception towards family audiences because it meant following up on the movie that stars a giant furry benign forest God with two young children suffering horrifying severe afflictions from the aftermath of World War II. Or not, depending on which order the uninstructed theaters played them, though I can’t imagine being in the mood for something as jovial and harmless as Totoro so soon after witnessing Fireflies either. And so while it remained praised by critics and made enough money that combined with Totoro’s exploding merchandising sales continued the sail of Ghibli, the uninhibited starkness of Grave of the Fireflies‘ material alongside the fact that it was one of the movies which Disney did not purchase North American rights en masse from Ghibli’s parent company Tokuma Shoten (who did not own the rights) left Grave of the Fireflies to fall not into obscurity but a state of being underseen nevertheless.

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Those who did see it would begin faced with the image of a teenage boy in monochromatic reds and a baggy oversized military uniform facing the audience as his voice hovers over announcing his date of death before we watch him have to witness and relive that moment that his gaunt, broken body in rags collapsed in the middle of an apathetic and dismissive crowd in Sannomiya Station. His last words before his life leaving a corpse practically swept away by janitors is a name “Setsuko”.

Setsuko (Shiraishi Ayano), we will later learn, is the name of the young girl we meet quickly after in the same reddish sepia tone surrounded by the warming light of fireflies practically dancing to the first cue of Mamiya Michio’s delicate lullaby score, watching the boy’s death before being met by his spirit in an exuberant manner that implies long awaited reunion as we also learn that boy is her older brother Seita (Tatsumi Tsutomu).

This opening death of Seita is the most notable major liberty one can know taken by the novel’s author Nosaka in what was a semi-autobiography and self-condemnation of his inability to save his sister Keiko from dying of malnutrition in the wake of the Americans’ devastation of World War II and we watch Setsuko and Seita live out his story from the waning months of the war, starting out by their ill mother’s side* with their father absent fighting in the Imperial Navy afar. Having not read Nosaka’s novel, I cannot know the extent to which informs the writing of Seita as a well-meaning but irresponsible and unfairly unqualified guardian (there is a moment very early on where Seita attempts to cheer his sister through playing on playground bars foregrounded by Setsuko’s unbated tears that illustrates just what Seita is not prepared for), but it feels as though the literal directness of Seita’s failures are Nosaka’s blunt lack of forgiveness for himself while Takahata brings in a humane sympathy to Seita for trying to desperately make it out a situation he should never have been thrown into by a war he’s not very much involved in (though his father being in the war does give him investment and we do witness later in the film his response to the war’s results).

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That’s part of the ghostly element of Grave of the Fireflies: while we soon after witness the effects of war laid on undeserving lives, the fighting’s always at a distance and it makes the unnecessary element of the casualties we and the children witness wound us deeper. Even the early firebombing of their home in Kobe that opens the story proper violently (in more than a few ways, the film’s serene opening credits of the peaceful spirits on the train is interrupted by a smash to the loud American B-29s on their trail) is too oppressively one-sided with not a single Japanese shot fired on-screen back, just people running and hiding for their lives (there is one particular Japanese soldier who stands defiant shouting “Long Live the Emperor” that Takahata frames at a distance from heads keeping down from incineration and it only screws in Takahata’s vehement anti-war attitude in the film, portraying an action intended as defiant nobility to futile imbecility. That irony towards Japan’s doomed patriotism continues in a later Navy procession scene interrupting the children’s sleep.).

Amongst those casualties being their mother rendered in upsetting deep reds soaking over bandages dark enough to look dirty from the soot and smoke still suffered in an atmosphere of harsh browns and ash grays, a palette Grave of the Fireflies will visually maintain except in moments of peace like a major beach respite or a glowing yellow speckled image of fireflies comforting Setsuko in their . This death forces the two children into a hopeless situation of drifting over to an aunt that passive-aggressively points out the hardship of life after wartime being multiplied by mouths to feed, leading to the children’s departure into homelessness from their only possible shelter and their slow demise by malnutrition.

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For the most part, this doesn’t sound like material that necessitates an animated production perhaps but Takahata is not just using animation because he happens to work in that field. Seita and Setsuko are generally defined cartoon children (with unmistakably young voices), barely enough to recognize them from a crowd of suffering and to facilitate any emotions of joy and sorrow the film needs to weave through (especially Setsuko’s design, whose tears are the glassiest out of fairly big baby eyes), moving through photorealistic landscapes, either ruinous or wild or industrial in dark tones that make it look like a Totoro nightmare. Those contradictory elements only make the danger to these characters who are easy to look at much more real and at least me as a viewer more anxious**. And it’s outright dreadful to witness them slowly develop coarse lines showing the toll the situation is taking on their bodies, in last cases accentuating their emaciation and only populating more and more of their designs until their basically the very shell we watched die at the beginning of the film.

No, it is very much because Grave of the Fireflies is animated that it feels so very devastating and heartbreaking as a picture, animation used to remind you of the fragility of its characters in the immediate knowledge of their fate. With all that deliberation in the visuals, it just makes moments like a group of girls in bright dresses laughing oblivious to a child mourning a heavy loss or a delirious moment of solid rocks being mistaken as rice cakes feel somewhat like redundancy to the anguish and sorrow the film puts us through, except in its final images and moments Takahata’s humanism takes a restorative turn to suggest a form of release from the suffering Seita, Setsuko, and their companion ghost fireflies faced and a sense of completion that while not optimistic maintains a peaceful sense of absolution to a story told by a man who could not find himself to get it from his confession.

So Takahata generously gave it to him by re-telling it.

*That is perhaps the most prevalent similarity between Fireflies and Totoro: Both of them focus to some degree on siblings dealing with the distressing state of health of their mothers, though I think one can easily guess that Totoro has a significantly happier ending about it.
**If I may lose some credibility with readers, I feel Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (Pixar’s CCO John Lasseter is notably a Ghibli fan and possibly the biggest credit to their stateside exposure, though his creative input on the movie was probably not that much) attempts this as well and actually accomplishes it for the most part and I am as a result an inveterate apologist for it.

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25 for 25 – E.X.P.L.O.D.E.

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Man, when I think about Otomo Katsuhiro’s 1988 anime adaptation of his own manga Akira these days, I feel bad. Once upon a time, as a teenager watching this movie in the middle of the night to avoid sleep, everything about it blew my mind and opened me up to exploring animation in film further than any moment of my life beforehand save for when I was a child and really ate that stuff up. And obviously, I don’t need to indicate that it was the same for most people here in the West long before I even had a chance to watch it. For the majority of American filmgoers, Akira is THE anime – the one that kept cyberpunk still rolling past its 1980s rule of science fiction culture to its optimization in the end of the 1990s by The Matrix and, more importantly, the one that introduced North America Japanese animation in cinematic packaging with all the storytelling elements that entails, including world-building, moral complexity, and gore, yo. Big time gore that 16-year-old me thinks makes the movie is the most mature piece of animation to ever exist and, to be sure, Akira is a hella mature film in a medium that was previously widely considered juvenile (something that always grits my teeth thinking about). Sure, the west didn’t need to go very far to find mature animation because Ralph Bakshi but there’s a clear difference between the puerile element of Fritz the Cat making it look too sexy for kids and the story-driven violence of Akira giving the environment a real sense of devastation and tension.

Anyway, later exposure to the works of Anno Hideaki and Kon Satoshi and, hell, even Takahata Isao has pulled me away from thinking of Akira as the best of even Japanese anime (as well as just subsequent viewings of the movie where it starts wearing out on me), let alone world animation. I think the only movie I’ve grown even more severely away from is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but in the end, nothing can take away from Akira‘s watershed moment in anime exposure to us Americans or from making me suddenly want to get into animated movies again and so here we are squaring with what Akira is outside of what I owe it for my cinephilia.

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And what it is is, all the wear still on it, a very solid science fiction junked-future story. One that follows Kaneda (Iwata Mitsuo), the leader of the Capsule biker gang, as he witnesses his childhood friend and lieutenant Tetsuo (Sasaki Nozomu) get kidnapped by government agents in the aftermath of a heavy battle with their rival gang The Clowns and Tetsuo’s bike being destroyed in an encounter with a very sickly looking child who seems aged to corpselike form (Nakamura Tatsuhiko). During his arrest, Tetsuo would be the subject of tests by Doctor Onishi (Suzuki Mizuho) under the oversight of the grim Colonel Shikishima (Ishida Taro) and discovers that Takashi, the child responsible for his wreck, is among two other similar looking children Kiyoko (Ito Fukue) and Masaru (Kamifuji Kazuhiro) in being tormented by Onishi’s experiments into having psychic powers. Powers it seems Onishi is intent on unlocking inside of Tetsuo himself utilizing Tetsuo’s already existent angst and stress from his tragic life. Meanwhile, Kaneda is trying to find a way to rescue Tetsuo, aligning himself with a group of revolutionary terrorists intent on overthrowing the government, though that is almost accidentally through his attraction to the young woman Kei (Koyama Mami) involved with them.

It’s a complicated plot summary trying to compact way too much material from a medium that could handle that to something like film where it’s all limited to a little over two hours, but somehow that doesn’t lose me at all. In fact, it’s exciting for a while to see a movie try to figure out what to appropriate from its supposed genre (there’s moments of biker gang action, moments of political thriller, moments of horror, etc.) and stream into Kaneda and Tetsuo’s stories. From what I understand, Otomo and Hashimoto Izo’s script adapts the first three volumes loosely and it’s every man for himself from there. But, it honestly feels like the storytelling strands really come apart once those volumes are completely brisked through (by the time Tetsuo unlocks his power close to the level of the mysterious “Akira” entity which has close to no presence in this movie and more in the manga), Otomo was lost in a story he still hadn’t completely finished and had the opposite effect as George R.R. Martin, rushing instead to find some satisfying ending point to most of the precious plotlines he retained and that’s kind of where Akira sputters out for me as a tale.

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Anyway, Akira is not a movie I watched for its story even when I thought it was the best thing in the world (and mercy to those who do), but there was a clear though I had watching the opening biker battle/chase for the first time through the streets of a fully detailed rich-in-color (especially red) and textured background post-destruction neo-Tokyo in all of its urban age and tear desperately trying to keep some industrial metropolitan identity even though not a single building seems devoid of cracks and it’s not hard to picture areas of the city abandoned. And that was in the motion of the bikes zooming through the streets and the beatings and crashes occuring, all so very fluid (including an iconic shot of Kaneda braking to turn around that is one of my favorite moments in animation, covered in lightning to give it extra kineticism included in his intense acute diagonal angle) that it felt too fast to be real life and yet it was so easy to buy within the world of the film itself.

I’d later discover that the animation was done one frame per drawing (as opposed to traditional 2 frames) which gave it such energy that I honestly didn’t know I’d ever see in another animated film again and made me more aware of the process than I had been before (and I haven’t really seen it done elsewhere, save for maybe Kon Satoshi’s work). And that gives more impact to the violence and grotesqueries at hand, especially round the middle nightmare sequence that has an arresting and frightening vibe because the stuffed bear growing more and more monstrous is so swift we barely have time to register. There’s a particularly small moment of an innocent bystander in a restaurant being killed by crashing motorcycle landing on his head that shocks the hell out of me to this day and to say nothing of Tetsuo’s final mutation in a coliseum to the demise of his poor girlfriend Kei (whose presence is just to be the victim of some really severe nihilism).

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Add to that the incredible lighting design for the late 1980s animation and the ability of the facial features to distinguish characters so clearly in attitude (we’re obviously meant to like Kaneda a lot more than Tetsuo and that’s done easily by Kaneda’s big boyish rogue feature and design with his cool red jacket and souped up motorcycle; Tetsuo on the other hand looks sad from the very get go and when he becomes outright villain wearing a red cape, it’s kind of laughable and reminds me of One Punch Man) and Akira stands right next to My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies as an argument for 1988 as the best year for Japanese animation.

It’s a shame I don’t have the love I once had for it and I had over the years been exposed to works that I felt accomplished what Akira wanted to do even more fully (even before I saw AkiraBlade Runner was already a movie near and dear to me and Akira probably owes its greatest debt in design and atmosphere to it), but in the end it still means something to be the first. And Akira absolutely gets to hold clear to that claim, standing might proud at its place in animation history and the history of my personal canon, marveling at the ambition of Otomo as its creator whether or not I think it really works out.

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Isn’t Life Disappointing?

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You know, I have no clue how to address what I feel is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. I really don’t. I’m not skilled enough with my English vocabulary to feel I can actively address the beauty that comes through in Ozu Yasujiro’s work, much less the movie I feel is his masterpiece.

It’s the same I would feel about any movie I feel is competently made in any way, whether I liked it or disliked it. Ozu has taken the same amount of care with Tokyo Story as he has with every single one of his films, to a point where you know the distinct signature of every element that can differentiate a work like Late Spring to Ugetsu and help you tell the difference from Ozu and all the other great filmmakers, Japanese or otherwise. When you watch enough Ozu, you know he’s the guy with the level shots from the seated level, the camera joining the family on the tatami floor like its a member too. Paced cuts from close-up to close-up only taken as necessity for knowing how each character feels about the moment at hand. Some of these close-ups featuring very tired smiles while the words from the crescent lips betray the attempts at pleasantry. All of these composed in industry grade 1.37:1, like a little picture box. And he wasn’t as varied with his cast as most directors try to be.

But familiarities are not as damning when done right by a filmmaker and Ozu was damn well the best filmmaker to make something to an audience seem more like a home than a bore. He didn’t base himselves on adventures like Kurosawa Akira or the uncanny like Mizoguchi Kenji. He was based in very personal tales. Very well cushioned in Japanese custom and tradition. On families and friends and localized societies rather than the great big world that Kurosawa hoped for or the beyond that Mizoguchi gave us a look into.

This contentment is what makes Ozu the hardest to approach objectively for me as a reviewer, but Tokyo Story‘s 51st anniversary was a few days ago and as such, as a complete fan of Ozu, I feel compelled to comment on something. So I will comment on the subjective experience of how Tokyo Story makes me feel as a viewer and hope it comes off as best as possible.

The story in the title is quite frankly a simple plot frame in which the complexities come from the characters within themselves. The two people we follow – Elderly couple Hirayama Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) and Shikuchi (Ryu Chishu) are about to take a trip they finally have a chance to make: to visit their many successful children in Kyoto and Tokyo. They bid the one daughter to stay with them in their little town, Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko), farewell and head to meet with Koichi (Yamamura So), Shige (Sugimura Haruko), and even their daughter-in-law Noriko (legendary Ozu collaborator Hara Setsuko), wife to their late son Shoji. Ironically, the first son they meet on the way to Tokyo, Keizo (Osaka Shiro), who is stationed in Kyoto, is the last person we meet on their way back.

When Tomi and Shikuchi make it to Tokyo, it’s at first somewhat warm and accommodating. The accommodation doesn’t deliberately falter, but the warmness weakens gently but still noticeably. Koichi and Shige have clearly made their own lives in the new city and have found it a lot more of a burden to make time for their visiting relatives. Noriko is the one person who takes it in stride to simply spend time with Tomi and Shikuchi. As a result of this, the relations turn embarrassing and sometimes extremely hard to handle. It never gets unpleasant  (Not to say the movie is undramatic, but its more meditative than most pictures that come around), but it gets to be more and more of a challenge for the younger generation to entertain their elderly guests and the parents get more and more aware of this.

It’s a story inspired by Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, regrettably one of my larger classic film gaps that I look to fix as soon as possible (my familiarity with McCarey is instead in his Marx brother vehicle Duck Soup, which always cracks me up). However, from what I understand Ozu hadn’t seen the original when he made Tokyo Story either (and given his death a little over a decade after this film was made, I have no clue whether or not he eventually did)… the co-screenwriter Nada Kogo had made himself familiar with the film and, we are to understan, included the emotive elements of the similarly elderly-focused tale into this Japanese reciprocal of the experience.

But you don’t need to know about the source to feel how much of a dissection of family and how it separates and grows in different contortions Tokyo Story becomes, just as much as it is a tale made to get your sympathy for the two sides of the story. And it is indeed a tale without any complete blame – at least that is how I read it constantly. There’s a reason why, even despite the brilliantly nuanced performances of Ryu and Chieko, the majority of the strife seems to be expressed on the part of dynamic turns by Yamamura and Sugimura. Yes, it sucks that the children do not have as much time and energy to take care of the older Hirayamas’ whim, but that’s exactly it. They DON’T have time. And the film makes certain to showcase that their neglect is a matter of force rather than simple wishes to laze about.

Both Koichi and Shige are married, as the film takes the time to point out, and we especially get an introduction to Koichi’s family with two children that would maybe come off as obnoxious to anybody extremely impatient with sudden or stubborn behavior, very broad expressions, but they are children. They are in need of care and nuture and Koichi’s job as a doctor is just as demanding. Shige as well gets the rotten end of the stick having a particular scene where she receives her father drunk after a night on the town and, after a brief moment of monologuing her frustrations to the unaware Shukichi, takes her time to provide what she can to allow her father a comfortable sleep without disturbing him.

But in the end, this is the first time the elder Hirayamas get to see how their children and grand-children have done for themselves and they barely get to spend anytime at all. In fact, they are practically disposed of, sent to Noriko (who makes the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist from the younger generation, with Hara and Chieko having an especially telling scene late in the film) or a resort with great haste at points.

All generations get the short end of the stick, lives are derailed by the responsibilities that suddenly occur with the Hirayamas’ arrival. It is with this sensitivity that Ozu is known for that Tokyo Story becomes more of a heart-touching movie, there is little solution to the matter at hand when so many interests conflict but we just want everyone to be happy or satisfied by the end of the film. No fistfights, no giant explosions, no lawsuits, no angry arguments even, just a need for simple sophisticated interaction with the people we love most and how sometimes even that can just about leave some bruises in a family. And despite the blatantly Japanese stylization that stamps the nationality and basis of the film more than anything, we recognize this as a universal situation. It’s not that the concept of families being inconvenienced by being a family is just a Japanese thing, but simply that, to carry the theme, it had to be given a spot to call home first.

Which anyway, Japan’s architecture in Tokyo Story is most accommodating for the settling of a ne’er-do-well environment of happy little homes and trees, a nice gracious community of harmony, industrialized to make itself look like a more Westernized spot that even a small Americana from the 60s could become, that allows the subtle dissonance in the family to just bleed into the storytelling without being balls-out jarring like David Lynch. No, this is a far damn sight from David Lynch. It’s when things go too right.

It’s not a particularly judgmental film or even largely resentful, thankfully, but it is a great big sigh of a picture. Ozu’s awareness to present the touching story without bias but also without hiding any of the truths of the scenario from the audience. It is a film that wears its heart on its sleeves and doesn’t entirely have any answers, but never acted like it did and that’s quite a feat for Ozu to do without coming off as an incomplete storyteller. No, Ozu was a master because he saw all of humanity and life’s struggles through to the bitter end and Tokyo Story is the magnum opus, the most able and potent of all of Ozu’s tales to talk about the true human condition.

There have been filmmakers since who have been close to as humanist as Ozu is, but none can match him. Ever. He’s just as replaceable as a parent to any of us, however faulty all will be.

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 20 – Welcome Home

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. And here I am late again. If nothing else, it is because the next installment is to come out later this afternoon and will be another video. Until then, I was recalling movies that I think would be a fun little watch as I continue work further on the double feature style film. And the one that particularly popped in my mind is something I find very terrifying to think about putting into words, but here I go…

So, a lot of movies really try too hard to be this way. There is a significant percentage of films in the world that will swear by Odin Allfather that they are so wacky and weird and immune of any form of rational analysis that they dare you to accurately and reasonably critique them and to be honest, only a handful of them are worthy of that swagger and attitude. Bong Joon-ho’s films, Love Exposure, Phantom of the Paradise, maybe the works of Don Coscarelli, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento…

So I decided to take a deep plunge and finally directly address one of those films. Possibly the most outlandish and unchained of all of these films.

House. Which, before I should dig deeper into this flick, I should note that I love unabashedly. It is a gloriously fun movie that I expect one to either leave it shrieking their heads off or laughing themselves silly. Which is kind of fine by the film either way, which you find the more you get into it. Not because it seems to willingly allow itself to mix in its horror and comedy elements, but House seems to be the type of anomaly where each and every bit of it serves as an avant-garde Rorschach blot to the audience and filmmaking playground for director Obayashi Nobuhiko. I’ve witnessed both reaction to the film many times as well as other reactions. There’s just no sensible approach to it, ideally.

So how the fuck did the science of moviemaking bring us to such an astonishing celluloid creature?

Well, through JawsJaws came out in 1975 as a huge international hit and Japan, which had just snugly placed itself in worldwide consideration as a cultural source of cinema, decided they wanted to get in on that blockbuster feel. So, they looked to the best place to grab fresh and upcoming directors for a film – television advertisements. No, seriously, stop laughing, I’m not trying to make this subtly comic. At the time in Japan, television ads were a good source for directos honing their craft and establishing a certain style to themselves. So, Obayashi was the name out of the tv ad wizard hat that Japanese film empire Toho picked to create a film that would be able to rival Jaws as a blockbuster for all the local hooligans and whippersnappers to race into theaters to see.

Ok, I know this is getting more and more ridiculous, especially in consideration of the fact that a movie like House could possibly be considered even slightly similar to Jaws, but I haven’t even started talking about the premise of the movie. Please hold on a little longer.

Anyway, Obayashi had a habit with his then pre-teen daughter Chigumi and decided “well, why not play that game with her where I ask her to shoot me ideas and I use them in a film script?” Which is what he did. The majority of House is direct from the mind of the 13-year-old girl who was playing an imagination game with her moviemaking dad. So what kind of child’s mind fable did we get out of it?

Well, we got a film that follows Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and her six friends Prof, Kung Fu, Sweet, Mac, Melody, and Fantasy to visit her aunt’s home in the distance of Japan. The reason for this trip comes from Gorgeous’ own spite for the woman her father proposed to, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi). Gorgeous finds this an outright insult to the memory of her late mother and refuses to spend her summer with Ryoko, so off she goes to meet and stay with her distant aunt (Yoko Minamida). And from there weird stuff starts happening to the girls that gets really threatening really quickly.

Although, to be honest, from the very first seconds of the films, the weird things have already begun. It’s only within the titular house where the characters actively become aware of the absurdity that wraps itself around this film.

A good portion of this surreal essence of the film comes directly from how the entirety of the film declares artificiality. It’s a movie that thrives off showing off the techniques of the camera and playing around with it, similar to how Bram Stoker’s Dracula works except without really letting the techniques dissolve into the storytelling. Indeed instead the techniques accent the elements of the story, the attitude, the tone, but it still stands out in itself like the strings to a puppet being visible – a Man with the Movie Camera with a plot, if I may say so. From the very saturated lens and colors on the picture, switching back and forth however the mood suits, to the beautifully painted backdrops, these are all things we are meant to notice and consider just a part of experiencing the movie.

Admittedly, this approach to material could go either way in the end and nobody could really hate anybody for finding the movie stupid or just plain wrong. It wouldn’t matter.

To me, though, it’s an outstanding triumph that the movie is able to get away with the randomness and the frank display of its content within itself as a film and still not only retain its horror sensibilities, but to also strengthen it. I know a lot of people like to talk about how immensely fun and joyous it is as the creation of a 13-year-old mind (and it is undoubtedly), but I’m also very moved by how stunningly dark it is.

The movie holds onto a number of themes within it that are not exactly connected by themselves and wouldn’t ideally be placed in such a whimsical context, but still carry emotional weight when the stock characters do not – hate, fear, bullying, missing a deceased loved one, the inability to move on with change, responsibility, and so on… In particular, I’m really stunned by how maturely the film at least deals with the devastation of war – since it’s Japan in 1977, the war in question will undoubtedly be World War II, but tragedy does not get old. Before we even meet the aunt, there is some anchor of emotion in the form of the girls telling the story of her lost love during the events of World War II and it’s quite the poignant moment in the middle of a film that doesn’t really bother poignancy too much.

In all honestly, though, the film’s entire sensibility is based solely on its audience’s attitude to it. If there is ever a movie to be considered subjective at any approach, it is simply going to be House. But it does plant its feet firmly on the ground of a horror film – featuring blood sprays and focusing on the massacre of trapped young girls in a dark house for evil intentions – as well as a comedy film – providing visual jokes and physical comedy at any turn.

The result is a fable, a fairy tale mixed with nightmare. Some people will giggle at it, some people will stay awake at night thinking of what the story says, some people will just consider themselves outgrown for the tale and just turn away. But it’s not something that the film can reject, nor does it prefer to.

It’s a complex film, but in the end, its complexities and all its drive comes from the mind of that one young little girl who decided to dream up a haunted house story and its approach by a director whose filmmaking style is based entirely on using the filmmaking practice as his own toy box that brings about one of the most unique experiences ever provided to the world (the US didn’t get a release for the film until 2009, believe it or not) and how well those two approaches from two related people mesh makes the Obayashis the best father-daughter team in cinema. Suck it, Hustons, Argentos, and O’Neals!