2006-03-30

3000 Leagues in Search of Mother - DVD Box Set



3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (Haha wo Tazunete Sansen Ri), aka Marco, was the 1976 season of World Masterpiece Theatre, the groundbreaking television series that was the jewel of Japanese animation. WMT became an annual tradition in 1974 with the Heidi, Girl of the Alps, directed by Isao Takahata. Marco was his second WMT production in 1976 (their third and final production was Anne of Green Gables in 1979), and also includes all the major players from Toei: animation director/character designer Yoichi Kotabe, screenwriter Kazuo Fukuzawa, art director Mukuo Takamura, color designer Yasuda Michiyo, and layout/continuity by Hayao Miyazaki.

While Heidi carried a naturalist tone with flights into fancy, Marco was fully immersed in neo-realism. Imagine De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, painted with watercolors. If you've noticed the European neo-realist streak in the Ghibli films, this is where much of that comes from.

The story focuses on a poor Italian family in the late 1800's, and specifically the young boy, Marco, who is traumatized when his mother departs for faraway Argentina, in search of work. Over the course of 52 episodes, Marco struggles to grow up, often arguing with his family, while dreaming of bringing his mother back home. He eventually sails for Argentina along with a family of travelling performers (think Fellini's La Strada).

By this point, Takahata's creative genius has already been cemented (with Horus, Prince of the Sun and Heidi), his masterful sense of control, his understanding of the camera and formal composition, and his ability to present an emotional intimacy to his characters that is matched or surpassed by only a handful of great filmmakers. Much of it comes from his training - Takahata is not an animator, but a director who chose to work in animation, and brought a filmic sensibility that - together with Miyazaki - revolutionized the medium. They've proven that over and over with Ghibli.

Now, a little about this DVD set. This is the official Chinese release, packaged in 10 discs in two boxes. Each box includes a booklet, with a synopsis on the characters and each episode (which is in English), and the second box includes three illustrated postcards. This is the only version of 3000 Leagues with English subtitiles, aside from a shady bootleg version that's unfortunately more easily available.

I bought this set online at JSDVD Mall, based in Taiwan. They also have for sale a number of other WMT series, including Anne of Green Gables, Heidi (although both don't include subtitles), and some of the later series, packaged likewise in two box sets for roughly $100.

Thoughts on Miyazaki's Narrative Style

I think one of the things I really enjoy about Miyazaki's work is his narrative style, which reminds me greatly of serial cliffhangers. It's episodic, but not especially in the way American movies or tv shows are episodic. The stories evolve, mutate, and grow in their own directions. There's always an overall story arc, a beginning, middle, and end, but they're far less linear than what's expected in the West.

I think this is something that can cause confusion, especially with Howl's Moving Castle, which seems deliberately designed to throw off viewers who expected a Harry Potter clone. It's something that only became obvious to me the further I delved into Miyazaki and Isao Takahata's work.

His narrative structure was largely shaped by television: Lupin III, Future Boy Conan, and the landmark World Masterpiece Theatre productions of Heidi, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, and Anne of Green Gables. The two Panda Kopanda shorts (which, aside from Takahata's directing, is mostly his work) also fill out at around 35 minutes. It's not surprising, considering that his first directoral film was Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro in 1979, that the Miyazaki style had already solidified.

Conan, especially, is a signature Miyazaki anime, as it was purely his child, as well as his directoral debut. An adventure serial straight out of old Errol Flynn pictures, with generous doses of slapstick comedy, romanticism, action, and his own obsessions about human nature, civilization vs the natural world, yadda yadda, all wrapped up in 26 episodes. Hmm. It may be the definitive Miyazaki, situated perfectly between Horus and his Nausicaa graphic novel, which to my mind remains his masterwork.

His Ghibli films become less obviously episodic as the years go by, but I think he just became more skilled at scrubbing away the stitches. The last time I watched My Neighbor Totoro was when I was making come copies for family members for Christmas (I have the Hong Kong DVD, haha), I was struck by its darker, more somber tone in the final act. The movie revolves around the older daughter's growing awareness of her mother's illness; her awareness of death. It's not something Mei, the younger sister, can yet understand, and when she suddenly disappears, Satsuki's inner fear of loss is made manifest.

This, of course, is Miyazaki's personal filmmaking at work, and perhaps on one level the movie was his attempt to come to terms with his own mother's serious illness, his own childhood. Is it any wonder that Totoro is at once so nostalgic and yet so idyllic?

I don't think this awareness could have come about if a complete script was written at the very beginning; it had to come out during the act of creation. In the hands of most filmmakers, I don't think this sort of thing could ever work, but to Miyazaki, it's perfectly natural. It's just how his creative process has always worked.

We see this process play out similarly in many of his films, and I think that's why I like it more than the standard, American-style episodic structure. It doesn't merely spin its wheels in perpetuity, playing out endless scenarios like television, but evolves, serves an overall point, and often finishes at a different place than you expected from the beginning. It's either used dramatically (Castle in the Sky, Howl's) or comedically (Porco Rosso).

I should also point out that Isao Takahata's storytelling is similar, in films like Pom Poko and The Story of Yanagawa Waterways, his brilliant 1987 documentary. But I'm afraid I'm rambled on long enough. We'll save that for next time.

Trailer for Gedo Senki (Tales of Earthsea)

Gedo Senki Trailer (5:00 - 173mb)

This video is made available courtesy of Peter at GhibliWorld, and he has my deepest thanks. Pay him a visit and send some words of gratitude. Domo arigatou.

The theatrical trailer for Studio Ghibli's upcoming Gedo Senki premiered today on Japanese television. This is an eagerly anticipated film, not the least because Hayao Miyazaki's son, 39-year-old Goro, is directing (this is his first film).

The three-minute trailer is quite promising, but it also confirms a suspicion of mine. The real drama isn't going to be the story of the movie itself, but the private conflicts among the Miyazaki clan. The trailer, in a sense, feels like a collage of Miyazaki's greatest hits, from Nausicaa to the World Masterpiece Theatre days. Clearly, Goro is openly grappling with his own identity, his family relationships, and what it means to be the son of Japan's biggest filmmaker.

Father Miyazaki became an amazingly prolific animator and filmmaker, but his legendary workaholism came at a personal cost. His wife, Akemi Ota, had to sacrifice her career as an animator (she was part of that legendary gang from Toei Doga that unleashed Horus, Prince of the Sun) to raise their children, and Hayao, to a great extent, missed out on his sons' childhood.

Goro, according to his online dairies at Ghibli, was reluctant to follow his parents into animation; a recent entry details his mother's long objections, and his father has bitterly opposed his directing Gedo Senki, to the point that the two keep a measure of distance (it's helpful that Hayao directed three short films for the Ghibli Museum). Goro has yet to really make peace with his father, and that's something that really surprised me. His diary entry yesterday noted, "Hayao Miyazaki, for me, gets 0 points as father, full marks as director."

So, the movie promises to be really great fun (there's so much talent at Ghibli, how could it go wrong?), but we're really here to watch the family drama. It seems impossible for me to seperate the two. But this is to be expected; if Goro is being annointed as successor to the studio, without any real experience, he'll need to pass his test of fire.

2006-03-29

The New Studio Ghibli Film - Gedo Senki


(Note: I wrote this on danielthomas.org on December 13, 2005)


Today, Studio Ghibli's next feature-length film has been announced, and it's not without a degree of surprise and controversy. The title of the film is "Gedo Senki," or "Gedo War History." It is an adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, and is set for release next June. The director for this project is Goro Miyazaki - the son of the master filmmaker.

This is where much of the controversy stems from. Hayao Miyazaki's son, to the best of my knowledge, has no experience in animation, either as an animator, a writer or a director. He has been in charge of the Ghibli Museum since its 2001 opening, and is listed as a Planner for this year's Hayao Miyazaki and the Ghibli Museum documentary.

Now, one does not have to be a craftsman to become a great filmmaker in animation; Isao Takahata is the greatest example of that. However, I have to admit to feeling, well, a little skittish. The elder Miyazaki has been very vocal in his opposition; he is fiercly against the idea of having his son dropped in charge of a major Ghibli production.

There's something of a feeling of privilege in this that I just cannot shake. Miyazaki dragged himself through the ranks the old-fashioned way, with endless hard work and a relentless drive that is legendary. The democratic environment in place at Toei Doga in the 1960s enabled this, and young Hayao ran at the opportunity.

There's a famous story of the 1965 animation film Gulliver's Space Travels, where a young in-betweener (essentially a starting position in animation) boldly suggested a completely different ending to the story, one which completely changed the context and tone of the movie. The story originally involved Gulliver rescuing a robot princess, but Miyazaki suggested that the princess, and all her people, should be humans trapped inside the machines. That the new kid could essentially walk up to a director, make such a suggestion and then animate the scenes, is extrordinary, and speaks volumes about Miyazaki's spirit that carries through to the present day.

For Miyazaki, who started with nothing and became the highest-grossing filmmaker in Japan's history, the idea that his son could be hand-picked for the role of film director cannot be deeply offensive. It's goes against everything: his work ethic, his politics. At least, that's my theory.

I have no doubt that Goro Miyazaki can possess a degree of talent; he has to have inherited something from his parents (his mother, Akemi, worked as a key animator on Horus, Prince of the Sun, Puss in Boots, Animal Treasure Island, and Panda Go Panda. But, I ask myself, why not simply work up the ranks first? Shouldn't he have to pay his dues?

My own suspicion is that this relates to the looming crisis for Studio Ghibli. Namely, what will happen to the studio when the old masters, Takahata and Miyazaki, finally retire? Both have projects in the pipeline, but they are getting older; Takahata, who's last Ghibli film was 1999's My Neighbors the Yamadas is 70, and Miyazaki is 65.

There are many brilliantly talented senior animators at Ghibli, and several who have directed short films, incliding Yohiyuki Momose (Ghiblies, Episode 2), Hiroyuki Morita (The Cat Returns) Katsuya Kondo. and Kitaro Kosaka (who directoral debut was the 2003 film Nasu: Summer in Andalusia). These are all clear candidates for successors at Ghibli. The clear successor was once Yoshifumi Kondo (Whisper of the Heart) but he died suddenly in 1998. This has been a growing problem ever since.

So now, we suddenly have the son of Miyazaki in charge of a major film, and that may be enough to keep the public interested. It makes great press, and everyone will want to see if Goro can follow in his foosteps. No doubt Gedo Senki will be a good film, but this feels so much like a gamble.

It would be foolish to expect the younger Miyazaki to create the same kind of emotionally complex, personal films as his father. So much of Japan's greatest animation comes from that post-war generation, whose explosion of freedom and creativity revolutionized the medium. Can a new generation create classics in the vein of Horus, Heidi, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Nausicaa, Porco Rosso? Or will they be safer, more formulaic, more committed to the cliches and conventions?

The thing that strikes me about the new movie poster is how much it looks like the last one. It looks just like Howl's Moving Castle, and is likewise adapted from a series of Western children's fantasy novels. But what made Howl so great, what I really loved about it, was how Miyazaki threw away the book after introducing the major players, and told his own personal story about war, his marriage, and growing old instead. It's the sort of bold thing you expect from a great filmmaker. Imagine someone taking similar liberties with C.S. Lewis or Harry Potter.

What kind of risks would Goro Miyazaki take? Where would he take animated film? Does he possess that love and respect for Italian Neo-realism, that awareness of Japan's rich history and culture? How much of his personal life, his inner turmoil, will appear on the screen? Or will we simply see a calcluated, audience-friendly cartoon fantasy, set within the confines of the quote-unquote "Ghibli movie?" The Cat Returns had these same problems, and to a degree it is to be expected; these are movies made by young people who are inexperienced, learning their style, learning to hear their own voices.

That sort of thing takes time. I'm not sure that this is the wisest path to take; sometimes being the child of a famous artist, and being asked to continue their legacy, can prove a heavy burden. Think of Julian Lennon. Perhaps, again, this is why Miyazaki pere is against the idea. I don't know. I'm only an American artist and writer who's still digging through all that history and trying to make sense of it all. Next June should prove very interesting.

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (1990)



I finally had a chance to sit down and watch a thouroughly enjoyable, but overlooked, anime film from 1990 called "Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (Kumo no You Ni, Kaze no You Ni)". The story is set in China, and centers around a teenage girl who, almost on a whim, decides to compete for the chance to become the new Emperor's first wife. Ginga has a salty tongue and an independant disposition, much like the Miyazaki heroines; she ruffles feathers and makes impressions with everyone she encounters.
This film is often mistaken in the West for a lost Ghibli production, thanks largely to the character designs (which remind me a lot of Yoshifumi Kondo's drawing style, as well as Miyazaki's) and strong feminist bent. If that's your guess, I'll give you half-credit. Kumo Kaze
(as it's also known) was the work of Studio Pierre, but the Animation Director and Character Designer was Katsuya Kondo (no relation), who's been a leading animator at Ghibli ever since its inception.
 
I think the 80-minbute running time is a little short, as there are so many characters, and so many different episodes; halfway through, a pair of comic theives decide to start a rebellion (again, almost on a whim), and wind up leading a successful revolution that overthrows the Chinese Emperor. It tends to clash with the first half, and the final act becomes needlessly rushed.

But perhaps I'm being picky. Kumo Kaze tries to tie together multiple anime genres - comedy, historical drama, shojo romance, coming-of-age - and for the most part, it's successful. And it still manages to stand apart in its own little space after all these years. That's not a bad achievement.

Currently, the only DVD available is the Japanese Region 2, and I'm unaware of any efforts to bring it Stateside. So for the time being, your options are to import the DVD (which, as far as I know, doesn't include subtitles), or track down the fansub copy on the internet.

What This Blog is All About

I'd like to share a few words about this weblog, why I'm writing it, and what I hope we can all accomplish together. My name is Daniel Thomas MacInnes, I currently live in Minneapolis, and I have a three-year-old website dedicated to my artwork and writings. It's a fairly successful little site (600K hits/month), much more than I ever expected, but it's not something I'm liable to brag about. I've written about my art and photography, politics and current events, videogames, and the movies.

That last point is the reason we're here. Over the years, I've become a great fan of the works of the Japanese animation filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Over time, I've managed to discover all the films of the great Studio Ghibli, as well as films and television productions from the 1960s and 1970s. I'd like to think I've learned a few things, and my endless, obsessive curiosity always leads me to learn everything about the people responsible for these modern classics.

One of the things I wanted to do was spread the word of Ghibli, of Miyazaki and Takahata's great careers. Americans have only discovered them just recently, over the course of the past few years. The DVD's have slowly made their way Stateside, so that awareness is slowly, and steadily, growing. There's a lot to see and a lot to learn, and I'm eager to share what I know, and share my own thought processes as I continue to put all the pieces together. It's one of the great joys of the arts.

If you want to learn about Ghibli on the internet, there still aren't many options available, apart from the indespensible website nausicaa.net, Ben Ettinger's AniPages, the French website buta-connection, and a few scattered message boards. It's something that really surprises me, considering the explosion of blogs. So I'll do my best to educate everyone as best I can.

"Conversations on Ghibli" has been a book idea of mine for some time, and it largely came from the fact that, despite my enthusiasm for these films, there wasn't anyone to talk with about them. Certainly not anyone who knew them as well as me, and even now, I'm not sure if anyone else, even the American animators who look upon Miyazaki as God, really sees them the same way that I do. So that sounds like a perfect idea for a book, and a weblog is the perfect vehicle for getting a lot of those thoughts out in the open. It's also a good way to kick me out of my terrible procrastinating. Writing weblog entries on my main website is a bit of a pain, since it's all done with old fashioned HTML, and it tends to lead to my putting things off.

I'd like this weblog to become something of a community for Ghibli fans, for people to connect with one another. I'm also hopeful that this becomes a valuable resource of information, history, film theory, yadda yadda. I've already added links to my reviews from danielthomas.org, and I'll be adding to the encyclopedia as steadily as I can. We'll see where this goes.

First Post

Hello? Is this thing on? Anyone here? That's alright, this is just my standard-issue beginning post. Don't pay it much mind. Much more to follow, hopefully.