Thursday, 31 March 2011

Gauche the Cellist (1982)

Trailer for Gauche the Cellist (1982)

One of Studio Ghibli's antecedents, Gauche the Cellist was written and directed by Isao Takahata in 1982. Takahata, one of Hayao Miyazaki's frequent collaborators, would join his oft-time partner as one of the studio's founding fathers. Under that label, he would go on to produce some of the company's more subtle and emotional films, such as My Neighbors the Yamadas, Pom Poko, Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies. Ironically, despite these successes, Takahata is not himself an artist and has never illustrated a single frame of animation. He is a director from start to finish, recognizing the potential of animation as an artistic and a storytelling medium.

Gauche the Cellist was one of the last projects he worked on before co-creating Studio Ghibli. It is also one of his best-remembered, easily in the same league as his television work on Heidi, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother and Anne of Green Gables. A mere 63 minutes long, the film took six years to make. This adaptation of one of Kenji Miyazawa's best-loved stories was itself a true labour of love.

This fairy tale set in early 20th century Japan revolves around young Gauche, or Goshu, a mediocre cellist in a town orchestra. Their primary employment is at the local movie theatre, adding the live score to silent films. However, this Venus Orchestra has a big show coming up. In a week they will be taking centre stage to perform Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral. Always lagging behind the melody and hardly expressing any emotion through his play, Gauche is given a week to shape up and learn to play the right way.

Each evening, as Gauche practices fruitlessly, he receives a unique set of visitors. The first is a tortoiseshell cat who offers him the gift of his own tomatoes from his own garden, in exchange for a request to play Schumann's Träumerei. In revenge, Gauche locks the cat in and forces it to endure the cacophonous modern piece Tiger Hunt in India. The poor beast escapes, but the next night Gauche is visited by a cuckoo bird who would like to hear Gauche play scales... not do re mi fa sol la ti do, but a repeating series of cuckoo cuckoo. Further and further into the exercise, Gauche gets the impression that the bird is teaching him. Angry, he scares the bird and barely manages to break his window open before the cuckoo rammed headlong into it.

The next visitor is a tanuki, the Japanese raccoon-dog. This young tanuki comes bearing a pair of drumsticks and a sheet of music he would like Gauche to play. He breaks into The Happy Coachman on strings as the tanuki begins beating the drum of the cello. Then the tanuki notices that the second string is always a little slow, but has to leave before they can fix it. Lastly, a mother mouse comes with her ailing child. It seems that Gauche's playing has a curative effect, which is unfortunate now that he's stopped. The previous evenings and the stress of the upcoming performance have been too much. Still she petitions and Gauche relents, playing as he never had before and curing the infant.

The day of the performance arrives and all take their seats. And at the end, the crowd erupts in applause. Everything was so perfect that the crowd demands an encore. Though bullying him ceaselessly, the conductor pushes Gauche onto the stage to play. Thinking he is being mocked, he breaks into Tiger Hunt in India, which he performs so aggressively and masterfully that the audience erupts again. Gauche realizes that the four animals were teaching him to play with passion.

As a labour of love, the result is spellbinding. Gauche the Cellist's animation quality wavers, as one would expect for a film made in 1982. The scenes, however, are magnificent. During the initial practice of the Pastoral Symphony, the room fades away and the orchestra begins to swirl into the air, carried aloft on the stormy melodies. A scene not in the original story has a slapstick comedy break out to Offenbach's The Infernal Galop (more famously known as "The Can-Can"). Each animal gets its own scene, from the chaotic cuckoo to the nostalgic mouse.

Perhaps it is the shared use of Beethoven's Sixth, but this films bears comparison to Fantasia. Each musical selection is played beautifully by the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Nippon Chamber Music Ensemble and cellist Mitsuo Yashima. The film in turn makes delightful use of each episode, adding a dimension that merely reading the story lacks. Miyazawa lists each piece as Gauche's visitors request them, but the effect is lost without a ready knowledge of classical music. Takahata's film adds those in, building on them and crafting it into an enchanting, multidisciplinary work of art.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Journey of Shuna (1983)

Hayao Miyazaki's creative process is one of continual refinement. Ideas committed to manga in the early years of his career become the source material for Oscar-nominated films later on. Such is the case with The Journey of Shuna, a 1983 watercolour painted manga which contains the seeds of ideas and images found in later manga like Nausicaa and films like Princess Mononoke. In it, the young warrior from a dying valley must venture out to find the hardy golden grain that will save his people. Astride his ibex-like steed he sees the horrors of the wider world before making it to the valley and the even worse horrors there.

Difficult to obtain, one blogger has provided scans and translations of about half of the book, just to taunt us and whet our appetites. Click on the cover below to visit.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Network Awesome: Finding Little Nemo

My first original article for Network Awesome went to press this past Monday, discussing the life and works of Winsor McCay in relation to the feature film Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.
The stereotype of the great artist is one who goes unappreciated in his or her own day, only to have their considerable talents and innovation recognized in retrospect. Unlike poets, painters and musicians, those who revolutionized the art forms of illustration and animation frequently remain unknown. Winsor McCay is just such a name, his work understood only by a handful of genuine appreciators while creations like Little Nemo pass through general audiences unremarked upon.

Click on the banner below to read the whole piece:

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Princess Mononoke (1997)

The road to Hayao Miyazaki's breakthrough film in the West was a winding one. After such celebrated films as Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Porco Rosso, he began to feel an urge drawing towards a grand historical epic. Great action, powerful samurai, mighty castles, and primal forests in the vein of Akira Kurosawa and the other post-war directors of note.

His first inclination was to go back to a book he wrote and illustrated in 1980: Mononoke Hime, a title translated as Princess Mononoke. However, as the 1990's edged into their middle years, he found that he couldn't bring that version of Princess Mononoke to the screen. The "Mononoke" forest spirit acting as the foil for the "Princess" was a large, rotund cat with more than a passing similarity to Totoro. While the story was replete with warriors and demons, it still felt too reserved, too typical of the work he had been committing to celluloid. He needed to look elsewhere.

One of those places was another manga he wrote and painted in 1983, The Journey of Shuna. Taking place in the future, or the past, maybe not even Earth, the story revolves around the prince of a dying village locked in a valley who mounts his Ibex-like steed and heads off to follow the legends of another valley where hardy golden grain grows, in the hopes of bringing some life-giving seed back. Released just after the start of the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga, the two bounce ideas off each other. Shuna also provides the backbone of our protagonist for Princess Mononoke, right down to his identical animal.

The ultimate result was the historical epic that Miyazaki was looking for without slipping into the mode of the samurai movie of yore. Not only does he avoid the standard tropes of the genre but he also explored new ways of working with his own favorite themes, resulting in a film that is trademark Miyazaki without being more of the same.

The first and predominant element is his environmentalist strand of neo-Shintoism. Deftly has the observer noted that regardless of a Japanese person's professed religion, to be Japanese is to be Shinto. It is a combination of practices, historical forces and mythologies that have forged an indelible part of Japanese culture, nurturing and shaping Japanese worldviews since before its ideas could be committed to writing. Shinto has also proven malleable. The nationalized, strongly imperialist take on Shinto, which emphasized the divinity of the emperor and his descent from the chief goddess of the pantheon, Amaterasu, was a relatively recent invention that reached its full head of steam in World War II. There is also a "reconstructionist" variation that looks to reclaim Shinto prior to its syncretic partnership with Buddhism.

Hayao Miyazaki's emphasis is on Shinto's animistic respect for nature. "Respect" is itself a rather light word for it. Funadmentally, Shinto outlines the inextricable connection between people and the natural world of which they are a part, bound together by "kami" or the supernatural forces frequently associated with features of the natural world. Particular rivers and mountains may have their kami, as may particular species of animal and plant. Totoro is a kami, as are the occupants of Spirited Away's bathhouse. Those spirits cleverly illustrate those relationships between nature and kami in Shinto. For example, one episode reveals that a shambling sludge monster is actually a lithe, dragon-like kami, disfigured and distorted through pollution of the river to which it is connected.

To the environmental movement, Miyazaki might hypothetically add that, through Shinto, the Japanese are the original environmentalists. It is this perspective which forms the philosophical premise of Princess Mononoke. The film is set in a definite historical era: the late Muromachi period, some time after the 1543 first contact with Europeans and their industrial technologies. Yet it is a historical time period infused with the mythological kami, with whom the humans are in direct conflict in a symbolic representation of our passing from harmony with nature into mechanised civilization.

The protagonist Ashitaka, last prince of one of Japan's last indigenous peoples, is wounded in conflict with the kami Nago. Nago, a boar-god, was himself injured by the recently-invented rifle, causing him to develop demon-like characteristics. Consumed by hatred visibly manifesting as black tendrils that consume his body and defoliate everything in his wake, Nago passes the curse along to Ashitaka, who must leave the village. Seeking out the source of the rifle and the curse, he makes his way to Iron Town, an industrial facility under attack from the kami and their human helpmate, San.

Iron Town illustrates the complexities of environmentalism as well, which Miyazaki does not diminsish. The town is levelling the surrounding forest, stripping it of trees for charcoal and soil for the ironsand they smelt. The kami have good reason to try and destroy it. But Iron Town itself is not a bad place. On the contrary, it is a beacon of social progress. Head of the town is Lady Eboshi, who has collected her workers from the dregs of prostitutes and lepers discarded by the rest of Japanese society. As the various people explain to Ashitaka, Eboshi was the only person to offer them a life of freedom and dignity. So tenacious has she been that she has actually incurred the wrath of the surrounding feudal lords, who would like nothing more than to see Iron Town ground beneath them.

The centre of the conflict between the different human factions and the different kami factions ultimately rests on the eerie Shishigami, the spirit of the forest itself. Ashitaka wants to visit this deer-like kirin because of its rumoured powers of healing, which it uses to clear away his injuries but not the curse. Eboshi wants to kill it as a blow against the forest kami preparing an assault on Iron Town. Mercinaries want to behead it because of legends that the disembodied head grants immortality. Miyazaki's nature is a source of power and rejuvenation that can, through our mistreatment and exploitation, take on our image and become a source of destruction.

One cannot wonder that Princess Mononoke was the international breakout that it was. Though anime still remains a niche market in the United States, the film garnered an arm's length list of Japanese awards and a top spot on the lists of greatest movies ever made by the likes of Terry Gilliam and Roger Ebert. Though this reviewer remains most attached to My Neighbour Totoro and Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away exemplify Hayao Miyazaki's most matured craft.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Mononoke Hime (1980)

While the film Mononoke Hime (known here as Princess Mononoke) served as Hayao Miyazaki's breakthrough in the Western world, it was preceeded by another Mononoke Hime. Rather than a film, this version is a painted fairy tale storybook about a giant cat, a loyal daughter and a duke possessed by a demon. However, it retains all the charm of a Ghibli production, with an dynamic sense of motion in the paintings themselves. This translation has been presented online by the Conversations on Ghibli weblog. Click on the cover to read Mononoke Hime.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Network Awesome: Max Fleischer's Superman

Recently I was asked to contribute to the new online magazine and media site Network Awesome. It's a very neat place and I'm pleased to have my article on Max Fleischer's Superman series reposted there.

In the future, I will be writing original content and letting you all know here. You should still keep it in your bookmarks, though. The content is top-notch!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man (2011)

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is the second in Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series. This unlikely duo - being explorer extraordinaire Sir Richard Burton and debutante poet Algernon Swinburne - were introduced to readers in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, in which a time-traveller from the distant future goes back to 1837 to stop an ancestor from making a shameful attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, the time-traveller's meddling causes his ancestor to succeed. Desperately does the time-traveller attempt to correct his mistake, failing in every instance as history diverges further and further from what was written. Albert assumes the throne and a bid for absolute control is made the Technologist caste, who have remade London into an industrial nightmare of pollution and strange contraptions. The Technologists were thwarted by Burton, acting as the king's agent, and his partner, but there remains the lingering sense that this new path is fighting against route which destiny has laid.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack's ultimate theme was that of technique, the total way of life defined by machine efficiency as defined by French Catholic philosopher Jacques Ellul. Edward Oxford, the time-traveller who became Spring Heeled Jack, initially sought to use technology to right history. Consequently, history was rewritten by the Technologists, a cadre of Eugenicists and Engineers who sought to overwrite society with their ideas of efficiency. Humanity was the malleable clay to be shaped, against its will, to the dictatorship of the test tube.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man analyses the opposite drive. Albertian England is spiralling out of control in the power vacuum left behind by the defeated Technologists. New technologies are being introduced without let or hindrance, such as giant insects raised by Eugenicists and gutted by Engineers, their organs replaced by steam engines. These vehicles, which also provide Hodder with a good groaner of a pun half-way through, reduce the streets of London to chaos. Meanwhile, an attempt to solve the Irish Famine by introducing genetically-altered crop strains have turned the Emerald Isles into a man-eating jungle unfit for habitation. Shamed, many Eugenicists have fled to Germany and are rumoured to be assisting the Kaiser in building up a biological army.

Into this mess is introduced a brassy mechanical man found abandoned in Trafalgar Square. This discovery puts Burton and Swinburne on the case of a jewel heist and into the lap of Charles Babbage. The analog computer expert tells the story of the Garnier Collection of black diamonds that resonate a peculiar frequency that can trap brainwaves. Babbage hopes that by dying in possession of the diamonds his consciousness can transfer into them, and that the diamonds can then be transferred into a delicate Difference Engine by which Babbage can live on, fulfilling the dreams of the Technologists to create an efficient society. Here, within the first chapters, Hodder makes his thematic break. Babbage wants Burton to kill him so that his consciousness can transfer, and Burton obliges... but not before informing the inventor that the diamonds are fakes.

The diamonds become the focal point of a plot surrounding the Tichborne Claimant. In Victorian England, the Tichborne Case was a media sensation: after missing for a decade, a man stepped forward claiming the identity of Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne Baronetcy. To the majority of those who knew the real Sir Roger Tichborne, the claimant was an obvious impostor. For one, the real Tichborne was mainly raised in France by his French mother and spoke English with a considerable French accent. The claimant could barely speak proper English at all, let alone French. Furthermore, the two looked little alike, with the claimant being uncharacteristically overweight. The final piece of damning evidence was the absence of tattoos Tichborne was known to have had. The claimant was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour for perjury. Nevertheless, the claimant - who was a butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia, by the name of Arthur Orton - was considered a hero by the working classes. Charmed by the idea of an aristocrat having worked as a simple labourer, he was frequently portrayed as the victim of a conspiracy and wrongfully cheated of his inheritance.

In Hodder's Albertian England, the Tichborne Claimant emerges as a disgusting, corpulent, barely sentient variation of his Victorian self. Connected in some fashion to the Rake faction and the black diamonds - which themselves harbour some strange connection to Edward Oxford - this Tichborne Claimant also becomes a touchstone for class conflict. In this alternate reality, such class conflict erupts into full class warfare. Those formerly consigned to the constraints of hierarchical English society find their minds open to the overwhelming political, social, and moral possibilities available, reacting with panicked confusion and homicidal anger.

Clockwork Man explores the problems of the efficient society's antithesis, being libertarian chaos. With all possibilities open, everything screeches to a halt and is swallowed up in nihilistic conflagration. Yet, as any such system must, there is another power at work. Neither technique nor liberté are ends unto themselves, though their most devoted adherents may believe it to be so. They are both tools to be used for an end, chess-pieces in a game of control by those with the will to power.

However the movement of the Rakes, Tichborne and the ghosts who have mysteriously begun surfacing around London may bear out, the world around them is still losing definition. Even the laws of physics seem to be on their ear. Burton's mediumistic friend delves into the aether between worlds and realizes that in Victorian England, our own 19th century, psychic powers do not exist. The acts of clairvoyance, telekinesis and scientific imagination occurring in their London should not be possible. The actions of Edward Oxford have upset more than anyone can realize.

As the second chapter of a trilogy, Hodder follows the pattern with distinction. We have been treated to an essentially complete opening chapter that tests out the author's imagination. Now we have received the intermediary chapter in which the mechanics of world are more deeply explored and an ominous cliffhanger revealed that will carry us into the forthcoming climax. Hodder excitedly sets up his alternate 19th century and certainly left this reader filled with anticipation for how, and if, the machinations of Spring Heeled Jack will be undone.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Porco Rosso (1992)

No film in Hayao Miyazaki's repetoire better reflects his love for aviation than Porco Rosso. Most of his films possess some element of it, some even quite strongly, but none are quite as involved as this paean to the Golden Age of Flight. In fact, it is so involved that the film was underwritten by Japan Airlines!

The story originated in Miyazaki's manga short The Age of the Flying Boat in Japan's Model Graphix magazine, which has since been republished in Hayao Miyazaki's Daydream Note. His manga stories for this magazine, which was itself for scale-model hobbyists, tended to deal in historical subjects and extrapolations on military and aviation technologies from the war period. Japan Airlines saw The Age of the Flying Boat as a perfect subject for an in-flight short.

Once Miyazaki becomes involved in a project, however, it has the potential to spin off into a grander scope. That is what happened to The Age of the Flying Boat. It quickly evolved into a full feature film, but because JAL partially funded it, Porco Rosso did have its debut onboard long before it premiered in theatres.

The film itself has little to speak of, insofar as Miyazaki's usual political, spiritual, philosophical and environmental themes are concerned. Our story revolves around Marco Pagot, a former World War I fighter ace in the Italian Air Force who turned his back on the country after it turned to facism. Rather than serve under Moussilini, he occupies his time as a bounty hunter chasing air pirates. Also, at some undisclosed point in the past, he turned into an anthropomorphic pig.

Vexing viewers since 1992, I believe that the question of why Marco is a pig is overthought. The answer is not found in the film. On the contrary, we must look outside the film to how Miyazaki uses the image of pigs in his other work. They show up, for example, in the Studio Ghibli Museum short Imaginary Flying Machines, which also eventually made it onto JAL flights. There, everyone in the worlds inspired by Jules Verne, Fritz Lang and Albert Robida are pigs. Swine feature most prominently in Miyazaki's own cartoonish depiction of himself. In everything from napkin doodles to the theatrically-released, self-referential Ghiblies 2 short, Miyazaki always draws himself as a pig.

While I am sure that an in-film rationale for Marco's appearance can be found, I don't think it is really important. Marco is a pig because Miyazaki is a pig and Miyazaki sees himself in Marco. Or, at least, Miyazaki sees himself in this film more definitely and intimately than he sees himself in others. Recently he has begun talking about a sequel to Porco Rosso... The only sequel he has deigned to consider. Central to the prospect, tentatively titled The Last Sortie and set during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, is that Marco is an old man passing the torch. Miyazaki describes the project as "a hobby of the old man", which he will only consider braving if Studio Ghibli is on firm footing with its next generation of directors.

There are numerous repeating names and ideas winding out of Porco Rosso. The Studio Ghibli Museum's giftshop, Mama Auito, is named after the film's air pirates. It's fictionalized animation studio exhibit, Piccolo Studios, is named for the aircraft company. Some speculate that the Italian-style term "Piccolo" is a conjunction of aircraft makers Caproni and Piaggio. Porco's plane resembles both the Caproni C-22J and Piaggio P-136. Most interesting yet, the Caproni Ca.309 fighter, which was in active service during World War II, went by another nickname: the Ghibli.

While other Miyazaki films are replete with spiritual and political insights, none seem quite so personal as Porco Rosso. Though it lacks any strong statements of meanings, it is thoroughly indulgent of Miyazaki's great affections.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Age of the Flying Boat (1989)

Ghibli fandom owes a debt to Daniel Thomas MacInnes of The Ghibli Blog for his willingness to go that extra mile in preserving rare and translated material for the rest of us. That includes The Age of the Flying Boat.

Originally published in 1989 in Japan's Model Grafx magazine, later to be included in the Hayao Miyazaki's Daydream Note anthology, The Age of the Flying Boat is the original manga that would become the film Porco Rosso. Animerica Magazine was able to publish a translated version in 1993, and it is this that MacInnes has digitized for his weblog.

Click on the first page below to read it for yourself!

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Disney Presents a Studio Ghibli Film, Wave Two

The second wave of Studio Ghibli films to be released under Disney's current run has, almost covertly, arrived in stores. Underwhelming support befits an underwhelming series that, despite one's most generous hopes, does not bode well for the future of Ghibli home videos in North America.

Disney's first wave in the new format included Hayao Miyazaki's classics My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Castle in the Sky pressed and repackaged in association with the DVD and Blu-Ray release of Ponyo. While I certainly had my criticisms of the disks, the beautiful presentation made for a handsome collection that left one excited for future releases. Those releases are now here, diminishing this excitement.

Wave two consists of only two films, the first of which is Goro Miyazaki's Tales from Earthsea. As a fantasy film loosely adapting books from Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea saga, Tales from Earthsea was sharply criticized in its home country. Though not a poor film in itself, it does lack a certain emotional pull and dramatic presentation that relegates it to "adequacy". Unfortunately, when you are the son of Hayao Miyazaki, an "adequate" film surpassing most of what is made in the United States is still an act of treason. Furthermore, Earthsea was overshadowed by the increasingly public face of the familial issues between father and son. It is hard not to draw parallels between Goro's comments about his oft-absentee, workaholic, difficult, perfectionist father and Earthsea's opening scene of a young prince assassinating the king.

Before getting too carried away, Earthsea did top the domestic box-office on its opening weekend, stayed there for five weeks, and became the fourth top-grossing Japanese movie of 2006. It is, I think, also worth mentioning that Earthsea landed in Goro's lap because Hayao was called off to pick up the pieces of Howl's Moving Castle, itself being Hayao's least-inspired picture. Still, critical opinion decried that Miyazaki the Younger's first movie is not Miyazaki the Elder's Oscar-winner.

Probably out of contractual obligation, Disney ran a very limited theatrical engagement of Earthsea starting August 13th, 2010, limping along for three weekends and showing in only five theatres in the United States. Lacking a Miramax wing through which to distribute a PG-13 film, Disney chose to quietly bury it. Which brings us to the current DVD release, which is a surprising choice in itself. With father Hayao's whole catalogue open to them, they chose to quietly pump out Earthsea. Though it retains the price point of the previous Ghibli DVDs, we are only given one disk this time. We have been spared the superfluous second disk of storyboards, but nothing of value and no savings were added in its place.

The second release of the second wave was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on Blu-Ray. Earlier this month I already wrote my observations on the film and the manga from which it was adapted. Similar to the Ponyo release, this includes a Blu-Ray packaged with a DVD and a digital copy. Unlike Ponyo, this Nausicaä is not being supported by a straight DVD copy in the new format. This is an obvious frustration for those who invested in the new format, replacing pricey copies of Totoro, Castle in the Sky and Kiki with their new versions, only to see themselves stuck at Nausicaä. Furthermore, reports have exposed that the Blu-Ray version suffers only limited circulation, being quite difficult to find in many locales.

Suffice it to say, with only Tales from Earthsea on DVD and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on a Blu-Ray of limited circulation without DVD support, the future of Studio Ghibli DVDs distributed by Disney looks bleak. Why is this? Why is Disney choosing to do what looks to all intents and purposes like smothering the franchise?

Well, a US box office pull of just over $46,000 for Earthsea (0.1% of its worldwide gross, or roughly equivalent to my student loan) might have something to do with it. That is not a fair figure though: it is evident that Disney deliberately destroyed the film. Let's consider Ponyo instead, which did receive much wider distribution (927 US theatres) and more concerted advertising. Overall, Hayao Miyazaki's last feature film drew nearly $15,100,000, debuting ninth on its opening weekend. That was still better than Howl's Moving Castle, which made $4.7 million and debuted in 14th place across 202 theatres, on the heels of the goodwill inspired by Spirited Away. Still, Howl garnered the Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination that Ponyo missed.

In other words, Ghibli is not the golden ticket that Disney might have hoped for. The marketeers are doubtless aware that Studio Ghibli is a niche product in a niche market. By contrast, the franchise-tentpole film Tron Legacy did three-times better in its opening weekend than did Ponyo in its entire run. Figures and antics like these lend credence to the suspicion that Disney did not negotiate the rights to Ghibli's Region 1 distribution in good faith, but merely so that other distributors couldn't scoop up Totoro and Kiki for the home video market. Its probable that the arrangement between the two studios will only last as long as John Lasseter is there to blow the trumpet and Mickey's accountants can afford to indulge him.

My idle speculation is that Disney is going about the problem all wrong by trying to make this niche product appeal to a wide audience. In Japan, Studio Ghibli can get away with marketing their films simply as films. Spirited Away actually knocked Titanic off the top spot for highest grossing films in Japan, and in a country where animation is taken for granted as an art-form, it took Spirited Away to knock out Princess Mononoke as highest grossing Japanese animated film. In the west, on the other hand, Studio Ghibli is itself a niche within the niche market of anime. Therefore it needs to be marketed as anime, to that market.

That does admittedly open up another set of problems, as the anime market itself is suffering thanks to torrent downloading and poor choices of content. As old-styles of home video distribution drop like flies, the anime import business is in flux. Disney, inadvertently, contributes to the problem. If the Ghibli fan is already relying on bootleg collections or illicit fansubs to acquire the material that Disney will not release, why stop there? Why not just forgo the officially licensed DVDs and just get the massive bootlegged set that includes Totoro and Castle in the Sky as well as Ocean Waves and Grave of the Fireflies?

There is no guarantee to be made, bound in iron, but there are possible solutions. In the first place, Disney has to lower expectations and lower price points. The competition for Studio Ghibli sales is not from Tangled, Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon: it's from Full-Metal Alchemist and Death Note. Don't bother aiming for blockbuster returns; aim for consistent and modest profits.

Reach out to anime fandom and treat it right. Don't give something like Earthsea a perfunctory opening in five theatres. Rather, tour it around the anime convention circuit. Build up support in anime fandom by being there, by showing the films, by showering with freebees that make the Disney/Ghibli name visible, by setting up your booth and panels and talking about it. Yes, of course, advertise Ghibli films every which way, but make Ghibli movies an event with the audience most likely to come out and see them. Make the next Ghibli DVD a must-buy commodity.

Then give them something worth buying. To reiterate my criticism of the previous wave, don't phone in some attempt at bonus features that are a non-anime fan's idea of what an anime-fan might like. Pack the DVDs with the documentaries and short subjects already being made by Ghibli and being released as their own disks in the Land of the Rising Sun. The only problem in selecting bonus features is where to begin: Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli Museum, Ghibli Artisan Kazuo Oga Exhibition: The Man Who Painted Totoro's Forest, Iblard Jikan, Ghiblies, On Your Mark, Nights of Taneyamagahara, Lasseter-San Arigato, Doredore no Uta, Yasuo Ohtsuka's Joy of Motion, Imaginary Flying Machines, The Scenery of Ghibli, the trio of music videos for the band Capsule, and The Sky-Colored Seed, amongst others, are all ripe for the plucking. Feed a hungry audience something they can really chew on.

Or, someday when the licence runs out, turn it over to someone who can.

Despite my complaints, Disney is owed a debt of gratitude for making available what they have. Without them we might not have had the reasonably good and widely available versions of Miyazaki's classics sitting on our shelves, let alone having the auteur's name be as well-known in the West as it is. Nevertheless, my faith seeing the remaining Hayao Miyazaki films migrate their way over to the new format, let alone the films of Isao Takahata and Yoshifumi Kondo, is dwindling.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Imaginary Flying Machines (2002)

The dominant theme to be found in the works of Hayao Miyazaki is a holdover from Miyazaki’s youth, when his father and uncle were in business together as Miyazaki Airplane, building parts for the World War II Japanese airforce. Flight, airplanes and all manner of creative airships appealed to the younger Miyazaki from a very early age, and for the better part of his life, his technical skill at drawing machinery surpassed his ability to draw the more natural forms of the human body.

That interest in aircraft led to Studio Ghibli productions like Porco Rosso and Castle in the Sky. It also led to a full-blown exhibit of an alternate history of flight and 19th century fictional technology to be found at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. The "Imaginary Flying Machines" section of "Castle in the Sky and Imaginary Science Fiction Machines" featured as its centrepiece a flying craft invented by Castle in the Sky's Pazu. His invention of the craft could be seen in the short film, hosted by a porcine stand-in for Miyazaki which also toured viewers through the evolution of flight in Scientific Romances.

Unfortunately for those of us in the West, this 2002 short Imaginary Flying Machines was exclusive to the Studio Ghibli Museum and has never been made available on home video. One's best chance to see it is by sheer luck while flying on Japan Air Lines. The short is sometimes shown as in-flight entertainment.

The lize-size Alcione and an animated Pazu at work on it.

A strong French influence in these aircraft, typical of Miyazaki's occidentalism.

The very early days of flight.

Fish machines!

Echoes of Albert Robida...

... Fritz Lang...

... And Jules Verne.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Castle in the Sky and Imaginary Science Fiction Machines

One of the debut exhibits at the opening of the magnificent Studio Ghibli Museum was "Castle in the Sky and Imaginary Science Fiction Machines". The exhibit not only chronicled the creation of the first official Studio Ghibli film, but Hayao Miyazaki's own love affair with flight and the fantastic inventions of 19th century fiction.

Miyazaki explains his intentions in the exhibit's planning stages:
I want to stir the imagination of children by showing the strange and fantastic machines that were imagined by man at the dawn of the machine age in the 19th century, connecting with the world of "Castle in the Sky" which carries the same tradition... [W]e would like to make it an opportunity for enriching children's historical awareness of the machine civilization.

The exhibit was more than production notes and sketches from Castle in the Sky. It did, however, make salient observations about it:
Silly and amusing machines reflect the immature knowledge of science as well as an optimistic belief in the omnipotence of technology in those times, yet they also grandly depict the wonderfulness of imagination, and the yearning towards unknown worlds.

The centrepiece of the next section of the exhibit was the lifesize model of the Alcione ornithopter, which sat unfinished in Pazu's home in Castle in the Sky. This film explored the evolution of ideas of flight, as guided by a Porco Rosso-like pig. Images recalled Jules Verne, Albert Robida and Fritz Lang.

The following section was entitled "The Imagination Even Expands into the Sea", and looked to Verne's Nemo cycle for inspiration. A small cutaway model of the Cumbria submersible was on display, echoing the craft of Karel Zeman's Fabulous World of Jules Verne. Another illustration depicted Miyazaki's ideas for a hidden volcanic base.

Miyazaki's treatment included an ominous note by saying,
Fear and insecurity could already be sometimes witnessed even in the bright, optimistic hopes given to the machine age in the 19th century. Our children are destined to live in an era when the accumulated follies of civilization must be settled.

Some of that reckoning was examined in "The Dark Shadows of Imaginary Science", depicting different engines of destruction. A film box showed images of Zeppelin flotillas, giant canons and mass devastation.

However, it would not be Miyazaki if it did not end on a hopeful note. Narration for the exhibit observed that "most of the weapons of destruction that appeared in science fiction has become a reality, and the 20th century became an era of unprecedented mass slaughter. Imagination could at times invite disaster. Yet without it, human creativity which enriches our lives will be lost."

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Mechanical Kingdom at Sci-Fi Academy

Originally Posted on August 14, 2010

This past week, the official Disney Parks blog released photos from phase two of The Mechanical Kingdom. You may recall The Mechanical Kingdom and the minor conniption that occurred around it, which I discussed back in March. Apparently, despite the kvetching of Steampunks, the line of pins was popular enough to enjoy a return engagement at the 2011 Disney Pin Trading summer event.

The theme of the 2011 summer pin trading event at Disneyland has been announced as Sci-Fi Academy. The premise, adorned with some flashy futuristic-looking advertising, is that Mickey has been off collecting relics from the Science Fiction stories of the 19th century, Atomic Age, and the early days of computing up to today. The graphic representing the Victorian Era is a helmet from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

That would heartening except that, instead of actually focusing on Scientific Romances, it seems that they'll just be running with The Mechanical Kingdom. My biggest critique of the franchise when it was first conceived was,
When Disney is serious about doing a Scientific Romance, it's usually much prettier and more visually interesting than most of what passes for Steampunk aesthetics. The complainers could actually learn a thing or two from Disney... I guess the outcome of caring neither for the Victorian Era nor Science Fiction is this drab set of sepia-toned repetitions of Cyberpunk fashion. The Fab Five have definitely stooped to get the look down perfectly.

Mickey in brass goggles is entertaining enough, if for no other reason than his capacity to frustrate people who think that being Steampunk makes them alternative and cool. It is poor compensation, however, when they could have gone with the wide array of Disney's own genuine Scientific Romances. This is especially true with their adaptation of John Carter of Mars only two years away. A pin set of Disney's Sci-Fi vehicles - from the Nautilus and Hyperion to the Moonliner and Space Station X-1 to the Lightcycle and Recognizer - would be kind of fun. Nevertheless, the first concept art from Mike Sullivan has been released, pulling Chip and Dale into the lot.

For those not satisfied with only one form of Steampunk'd Disney collectible, there is something else to collect dust on your shelf alongside Beanie Babies and Pogs. Vinylmation is the latest fad stoked by Disney Trading's marketeers, consisting of blank figurines of Mickey Mouse printed up with various assorted designs. Considering that the entirety of Steampunk art is just painting things brass, this union is hideously appropriate. Vinylmation and Steampunk: two sucks that suck harder together.

God, it's just a lump of plastic with gears painted on it...

If you're really into it, you can even wear your love of Steampunk Vinylmation on your sleeve. The t-shirt is on sale at for $8.99US.

Update March 5, 2011

Tickets for the Sci-Fi Academy event went on sale on March 1st, and the announcement on Disney's official pin-trading site includes a link to the merchandise catalogue. For Mechanical Kingdom hounds, there is the set whose concept art is seen above, as well as a $100 statue of Steampunk Mickey with a bonus pin. There is also a neat set for the "Astro-Orbitor Through the Years" (which I could conceivably want since it fits my quasi-collection of pins to do with Disney's Vernian rides, but not to the tune of $45). Click here to see the listing.

Mechanical Kingdom pin set.

Mickey statue.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Little Nemo (1984)

Another case of what could have been... An animated film adaptation of Winsor McCay's classic comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland had been caught in development Hell through the 1980's. Under the roof of TMS, it was passed around on both sides of the Pacific until finally becoming the version released in 1989. One of the earliest treatments was by some of the people who would become members of Studio Ghibli. The following short film came from the hands of animator and director Yoshifumi Kondo, who became famous for Whisper of the Heart, and Kazuhide Tomonaga, who was a key animator for Castle of Cagliostro, Castle in the Sky and many other Ghibli films. This clip and the teaser poster show the turn-of-the-century flight of fancy, literally, that Nemo promised, by way of a wonderful and typically Ghiblian flight over London and through a drowned city.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982-1994, 1984)

Originally, I was going to review the manga and anime versions of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind separately. That was partly a practical matter that more people will find the film more accessible, with its international home video release by Disney. The other part was that the Nausicaä manga was seven volumes that went extensively beyond the film. Such a thing would be deserving of a review of greater depth.

However, as I reached the end of the Nausicaä manga, it became apparent that I could not review the film without reference to it. In fact, the reach of the manga is so great that it forms what is essentially a Hayao Miyazaki urtext. The series ran intermittently for 13 years, interrupted only for Studio Ghibli's animated films (including Nausicaä), and reflects the grand arcs of the director's thoughts and themes. In interviews, Miyazaki himself has said that he did not know where the story would end up, and lo, it became what may be his deepest and most thorough work.

Oddly, though it was adapted directly into film, the closest of Miyazaki's other works to Nausicaä is Castle in the Sky. That is probably because it is more complete than the film version of Nausicaä. There are conflicting stories of how Nausicaä came into being... According to Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, the manga was begun because the climate of the anime industry at the time was not favourable towards films that did not adapt established stories. This is not unlike the drive of Hollywood films to produce endless sequels, remakes and reboots. According to Miyazaki himself, he began the manga with no intention of it becoming a film and rejects the whole idea that a manga created to become a film can be any good. Perhaps each is right from their own perspective.

Nevertheless, the film is a very faithful adaptation of the first two volumes of the manga. In many cases, the manga looks like storyboards for the film. Some panels are lifted directly into animation. There are tweaks and nudges to bring the film to a conclusion, and there it departs from the manga. As a consequence, it feels incomplete. Relative to the canon of Ghibli films, its themes are brought out more fully in Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke. We can see how much further it goes in written form.

Both begin essentially the same way. It has been nearly a thousand years since the apocalyptic Seven Days of Fire, when manmade God Warriors incincerated the planet in an atomic holocaust. In its wake, humanity clings to life on the polluted edge of a toxic fungal jungle. Humanity is still humanity, whatever the circumstances, and war has broken out. In the film, it is between the kingdoms of Torumekia and Pejite with the independent Valley of the Wind caught in the middle. Far beneath their kingdom, the Pejites found the last remaining God Warrior and began to resucitate it when Torumekia launched their attack. Nausicaä and her valley have the mess land in their lap and, in cruising towards the possibility of a second conflagration, make shocking discoveries about the nature of the fungal jungle and Nausicaä's own prophectic role.

In the manga, both the Valley of the Wind and Pejite are vassal states of Torumekia, which is at war with the Dorok kingdom. The war between these sides is far more extensive and teases out a common Ghibli theme that is latent in the film, being that war is pure horror not so neatly divided between "good" and "bad" or "us" and "them". Torumekia felt no compulsion against obliterating Pejite to obtain the God Warrior, though the Dorok Empire is every bit as vile and desire the God Warrior just as much. In addition to the God Warrior, the Doroks also weild biotechnology and genetics labs where they have developed weapon-strands of the fungal jungle.

The Torumekians are sundered from within by the machinations of the ruling family. Kushana, the military woman contrasted against Nausicaä in the film, is the odd princess out in the collusion between her father the king and his sons. Her missions into Dorok territory are, in truth, suicide missions meant to break the Imperial Guard loyal to her alone. This kingdom has the stink of aristocratic decadence, made all the more futile and ridiculous by the circumstances.

The Doroks, on the other hand, are an occultic theocracy ruled over by psychic monsters in human flesh. Nausicaä, as a tried and true Miyazaki heroine, generally sees the best of all possibilities in everyone she meets. Yet even she is forced to declare that the rulers of Dorok are pure evil. Nevertheless, this would not be a Miyazaki work if even true evil cannot be redeemed. Both Kushana and the Dorok prince regent find transformation and redemption through the unfailing kindness of our title character.

So does the God Warrior. In the film, the God Warrior is an apocalyptic boogeyman; a final card played to up the stakes with one clear path towards resolution. The manga version explores just what exactly the God Warriors are. In the process, they become less like a stock threat but even more complicated and horrifying. The clearest animated echo of the God Warrior is the Night Walker in Princess Mononoke, the spirit of devastation and judgement that a Hellbent humanity unleashed upon itself.

Nausicaä herself comes to look much like Chihiro in Spirited Away with No-Face and Boh in tow, or Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle leading the Witch of the Waste and her other assorted companions. Whether in war between nations or sisters, Miyazaki is at his most golden when he resolves conflicts through reconciliation rather than superior firepower. Much of the incompleteness of the Nausicaä film is that the conflict has a relatively unsatisfactory conclusion. The climax literally self-destructs but nothing is really resolved.

The final resolution of the manga is ripe for speculation and analysis. If anything is not resolved, it is the conflicting emotions of hope and futility that Miyazaki manages to gestate in the reader. As the series spirals to its conclusion, the situation looks increasingly dire, more and more and more and more hopeless so far as the survival of humanity goes. Miyazaki drives the knife further in by repeatedly pounding out the refrain that we did it to ourselves. However, Nausicaä's final decision is a spring of hope amidst, shaped by and even subsuming this futility.