Wednesday 30 August 2023

Toei's Puss 'n Boots

Before Antonio Banderas put his accent on the character, perhaps the most internationally renowned version of Puss 'n Boots was the animated character from Toei studios. So popular was little Pero and the three films to feature him that he became the corporate logo for the company.

Trailer for The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots.

Pero is named for Charles Perrault, who provided the source material to be embellished in The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots (1969). In the Mediaeval fantasy world of the fairy tales, Pero has been expelled from the Kingdom of the Cats for having let some mice escape his grasp. Making his way in the world of humans, he comes across a young boy Pierre and conspires to help him improve his lot in life. The oportunity arises when the king itches to give away his daughter's hand in marriage. This Puss 'n Boots is just as crafty as his literary equivalent, but a wrench is thrown into the works by the princess' other suitor: the nearly all-powerful, shape-changing Lucifer. Nor does it help that a trio of hapless hunters have trailed Pero from the Kingdom of the Cats.

Puss 'n Boots was the 15th of Toei's stellar animated films and featured some of the early work of Hayao Miyazaki. The endurance of the film is testified to by Pero becoming Toei's mascot, a Mickey Mouse for the "Disney of Japan", and it begged a pair of sequels of a sort. The next in the series was Return of Pero in 1972. Instead of fairyland, the action is here transplanted to the Old West.

Pero and his friend Jimmy arrive into town aboard a stagecoach that also brings the daughter of a saloon owner. Unfortunately she returns just in time to see her father lying on the floor of his saloon in a puddle of his own blood, clutching a Mexican peso. With that as their only clue and Jimmy taking up the vacated mantle of town sheriff, Puss 'n Cowboy Boots brings this outlaw band of counterfeiters to justice.

As the Sixties transitioned into the Seventies, cost-saving measures hit Toei and the quality of Return of Pero is not to the same level as the original. This trend would continue into 1976 with the third and final Pero film, Puss 'n Boots Travels Around the World in 80 Days.

Full English dub of Puss 'n Boots Travels Around the World in 80 Days.

In this episode, Pero is still on the outs with the Kingdom of Cats thanks to his pro-mouse political views. As a consequence, he has taken up residence in a version of the 19th century populated by anthropomorphic animals. While working as a waiter in a cafe, Pero offends the wealthy Mr. Gourmon (a massive pig) by suggesting that a person could circumnavigate the globe in a mere 80 days. They put it to a bet: if Pero can accomplish this task then he gets all of Gourmon's estate, and if he does not then he becomes Gourmon's slave for life. Puss' trio of pursuers are back again, and if that weren't enough, Gourmon has an ace up his sleeve in the form of Dr. Garigari, a Professor Fate-like mad inventor.

Despite the drop in animation quality, Around the World in 80 Days is much more fun than Return of Pero. Most of that has to do with the caper-style chase involving all manner of conveyance. First Pero goes from a little paddlewheel steamer to a horseless carriage, and from that to a balloon, then to a submarine, a windwagon, and an aeroplane. Dr. Garigari gives chase in a drill-tank-thing, a much larger submarine, and even a giant, robotic woolly mammoth. The race takes us across the Garabian desert, into Pindia and Pong Kong, under the seas in the vicinity of a lost civilization, and to America's Minikiki River. Here can be heard definite echoes of 1956's Around the World in 80 Days and 1965's The Great Race.

Though having gone for far too long in the West without a widespread release, Toei's Puss 'n Boots is an enduring and loveable furball whose exploits are worth finding in one way or another.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Cyrano de Bergerac: Grandfather of Voyages Extraordinaires

Though regarded as the father of Scientific Romances, and therefore the grandfather of Science Fiction, Jules Verne was not without his antecedents. Going far back, very far, into the earliest of literature that could be considered a forerunner of the genre, Verne looks to a fellow countryman. He is none other than the man most famous for his nose, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Published posthumously in 1657, de Bergerac was the first Frenchman to take a fantastic journey to the Moon. The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon is one of the first of the Enlightenment satires that would evolve, over the following centuries, into Voyages Extraordinaires.

The advent of the Enlightenment provided two of the most fundamental ingredients to speculative fiction. The first was a fresh breeze of scientific inquiry borne out of Galileo's celestial discoveries. Through the use of his telescope, Galileo was able to chart the motions of Jupiter's moons and Venus' phases, overturning the Aristotelian model of a geocentric cosmos. Johannes Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo, wrote up his scientific speculations in a novel entitled Somnium, published in 1634. In Somnium, an Icelandic sleeper is spirited away by lunar demons through magical processes during a solar eclipse. From his vantage point on the Moon, he is able to observe the phases of the Earth in a rousing defense of Copernican astronomy.

The second ingredient was a heady air of liberty that allowed social critics to write freely their observations on humanity. The new worlds opened up to the imagination by Galileo's telescope provided the perfect staging ground for commentary. Like much Science Fiction ever since, alien races become proxies for our own foibles and models for our own possibilities. De Bergerac's Other World is one such tale.

Cyrano de Bergerac lived fast and not for very long. He died at the age of 36 by a freak accident, after a falling beam in a friend's house crushed him and left him too sickly to survive an onslaught of disease. Before that, he was a renowned duellist and soldier during the Thirty Years War. He was a poet and possibly homosexual, which leaves open the question of the famous Roxane, for which was supposed to hold a torch. Like many details of de Bergerac's life, the love triangle between him, Roxane and Christian was fabricated by playwright Edmond Rostand. This includes his nose, which by accounts was large but not of the size suggested in later legend. Most likely, de Bergerac's great romance was with fellow libertin writer and poet Charles Coypeau d'Assoucy, after which the two viciously attcked each other with the quill. Besides writing public satirical tracts against each other, de Bergerac went so far as to send florid death threats.

De Bergerac, like so many "Freethinkers", was a better believer in Reason than a user of it. Nevertheless, he was a biting critic of his times. Making use of Galileo's new worlds, he took a fanciful visit to the Moon to observe the customs of its strange people. Like Kepler and author Bishop Francis Godwin before him, de Bergerac was less concerned with a credible means of getting to the orb. Kepler's man was kidnapped during an eclipse, and Godwin's arrived on an airship pulled by geese. De Bergerac had a slightly more difficult time of it. His first attempt was to use bottles of dew attached to his person. As the morning light rose, so too would the dew, carrying him along. This fails and lands him, thanks to the Earth's rotation, in New France, the colony of Quebec. In Quebec - which at the time of publication was on the eve of its 50th anniversary and is today the oldest continued permanent settlement in North America - de Bergerac fashioned an airship that also failed. Finally the airship was converted into a rocket, intended for the St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations, which conveys him to the stars.

Once on the lunar orb, Cyrano makes a series of startling discoveries: the Moon is, in fact, the Garden of Eden. After nourishing himself on the Tree of Life, he encounters Elijah and learns the history of Biblical spacefarers. Banished because of their culinary oversight Adam and Eve literally took flight to Earth. Enoch, on the other hand, was taken up to the Moon by bottling the smoke of a pious burnt sacrifice. Noah's daughter simply washed ashore after absconding with the Ark's lifeboat. Elijah used a golden chariot of his own construction, repeatedly tossing a magnetic ball into the air and letting the chariot soar upwards towards it, repeating the process until he arrived.

These are not the Moon's only inhabitants, however. After taking a bite from the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, with its ambiguous mix of omniscient fibre and ignorance-inducing peel, de Bergerac is introduced to spacefarers from the Sun who have set up their colony on La Lune. He is a bit more comfortable with these Rationalists than he is with the Biblical prophets. Godwin's astronautical pioneer also makes an appearance, when he is mistaken for a type of monkey and de Bergerac mistaken for a female of the species.

Several authors followed in the footsteps of de Bergerac. Voltaire elicited the help of aliens to satirize human self-importance in the face of a vast cosmos. Simon Tyssot de Patot critiqued religion and the arts via a lost world in 1710's Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Massé. Louis-Sébastien Mercier visited L'An 2440. Jonathan Swift took Gulliver around the planet to its many strange and varied societies. Baron Munchausen himself visited Diana several times. Washington Irving used The Conquest of the Moon as a parable of American expansionism. Fellow American George Tucker took the first steps in transforming these satires into Scientific Romances by taking a great deal more care in making plausible the means by which his persona took A Voyage to the Moon in 1827. Then there was Poe, and Verne.

De Bergerac was at work on a second story - The Societies and Governments of the Sun - when he passed away. What remains are muddled tales about his nose and his love life, and a classic ancestor to Scientific Romances. Disney recognized his contribution in the program Man in Space, where a history of rocketry includes an interlude from The Other World animated by Ward Kimball. Karel Zeman also paid respects to the poet by including him as one of the denizens of the moon, along with the explorers of Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and Baron Munchausen in the film Baron Munchausen (1961).

For us, the intrepid Donald Webb has provided an English translation and annotations to The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon.

Wednesday 2 August 2023

One Hundred Years Hence

The following samples of merchandise premium cards is an English-language version of the same art used for the set by Hildebrands Chocolate that we previously posted about. Makers of these cards - in this case likely Kuntsdruck-Friedberg of Berlin - would happily replicate art and designs for companies in different markets. Why mess up a good thing? At the turn of the century, it was highly unlikely that someone buying chocolates in some remote city in the US or UK would have previously seen the same set in chocolates from Germany, and even less of a chance that they would really care all that much.