Movie Night - My Neighbor Totoro

This week's movie is starting a day late, but I hope everyone won't mind too terribly. I'm noticing that a lot of the Ghibli movies - the ones available in America on DVD - have been removed, which greatly diminishes out viewing choices. Thankfully, there's still one film available for us to watch, and it's Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro.

Totoro was made in 1988 under a double bill with Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies. This fact is often mentioned, especially since the two pictures are so unlike one another. However, if we examine more closely, we can see some similar threads between the two. It's not as cut-and-dry to simply say that Fireflies is the "the sad movie" and Totoro "the happy one." Both contain a considerable emotional range, from happiness and nostaligia to sorrow and tragedy. Both are firmly rooted in Italian Neorealism and Yasujiro Ozu.

It's interesting to note that neither Fireflies nor Totoro made a profit during its initial theatrical run. Only after Studio Ghibli agreed to license stuffed Totoros does the movie become popular. It's fame grew by word-of-mouth, and thanks to home video, is now universally accepted as Japan's most popular children's movie.

My Neighbor Totoro is available in all regions throughout the world, so I would encourage you to purchase the DVD if you haven't done so already. Like all Ghibli films, it requires to be seen on as large a screen as possible. If you haven't discovered Totoro yet, then pull of a chair, grab some popcorn, and prepare to be amazed.

NOTE: I'm afraid that the person who uploaded Totoro to YouTube has disabled embedded viewing, so that means you'll have to click the links to go directly to the YT page.

My Neighbor Totoro - Part 1

My Neighbor Totoro - Part 2

My Neighbor Totoro - Part 3

My Neighbor Totoro - Part 4

My Neighbor Totoro - Part 5

My Neighbor Totoro - Part 6

My Neighbor Totoro - Part 7

My Neighbor Totoro - Part 8

My Neighbor Totoro - Part 9

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro is the finest children's film ever made, and sits alongside Nausicaa as Hayao Miyazaki's best directoral film. In addition to being the most beloved family movie in Japan, Totoro has become a favorite in America through videotapes and the occasional theatrical screening.

I have only seen this movie in a theatre once, two years ago at the venerable Oak Street Cinema (I'm headed there after this post to watch Citizen Kane tonight). The audience was perfectly mixed between children, parents and grandparents. Every person was enraptured from beginning to end.

With Totoro, Miyazaki captures the essense of childhood with an emotional honesty and a wistful nostalgia. This is essentially a movie about his own childhood in the 1950's; the family home in the movie is modeled after the house he grew up in, and his mother battled serious illness for many years (much like the mother in the film).

The only person who dealt with children as honestly as Miyazaki is Charles Shultz. Both tell stories that are endlessly funny, full of wit and imagination, yet also confront doubt, fear, sadness and loss. Children inhabit their own world, one of spirits and magic and exploration; a world where a giant, furry Catbus makes the wind blow, and small Totoros collect acorns and live in a sacred tree. Adults deal in facts, in rationality, in "the real world." They cannot see Totoros or Soot Sprites. Only the children can, because they have not learned to close their eyes to the wonders of life.

My Neighbor Totoro is so perfectly paced, so casual, so willing to pause and quietly reflect. This is the polar opposite to American animation, and Disney in particular, which is loud, obnoxious, over-crowded, over-hurried, drowned in cheap melodrama and stifling "moral lessons." Pauline Kael was right. We are caught in a culture warp. You can keep your Helpless Little Princess videos; leave me alone with the trees and the Catbus.


My Plans to Take Over the World

My apologies for the light posting this past week. I've been busy with a number of things, mostly writing-related. Rest assured that I was thinking of you all when I was watching "The Great Dictator" and "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" at two in the morning.

Some important highlights:

I've been going through a major DEVO phase right now, pouring through all their albums and having the time of my life. I'm writing essays on the first five Devo records on my main website, It's on the home page at first, and then moved to the Digital Artwork 2004 pages (I really don't feel like building a database and weblog for the site).

A review, or essay, or whatever, on the Nintendo DS games Pac 'N Roll and Super Monkey Ball are available on the main website. Don't those names sound like '80s New Wave bands? The whole DEVO world is crashing around me.

I have a games blog called V - The Next Generation, which I use for writing every now and then. It's been hosted at Digital Press, but I've moved it to its own site on Blogger. As far as priorities go, it's third, behind Conversations and DanielThomas. But I need another venue for writing, because all my writing has a goal in mind.

Which leads me into the main topic - I'm putting together several books. I'm currently looking things over before I start hunting for a publisher. Perhaps I should find a book agent first? In any case, here's what I want to publish:

  • Art Gallery books - a single compilation of my artwork, or seperate volumes by genre. This would include: 1998 Works, Model Portraits, Acrylics, Watercolors, Watercanvas, Curious George and Coloring Books. If you visit my galleries, you'll see that each piece is accompanied by a commentary; so essentially, everything is already written and ready to go.
  • "No War For Empire" - This is something of a "kitchen sink" book, taken from various writings on the website. Essays on politics, cultural events, music, and videogames. I'm inspired by Hunter Thompson's books, but particularly my favorite albums; I'd like to put out one of these "album" books every couple years. This is my primary project right now. Currently, I'm weeding the garden and figuring out how many other essays should be written before it's finished.
  • "Videogame Classics" - Collection of essays from my "Classics" column on the website. I have around 25 reviews written so far, enough to show to a publisher. The final book should be a larger number, depending on whether or not there would be more than one volume. Total count: 50 or 100.
  • "Conversations on Ghibli" - Really, this is still too far along to be finished anytime soon. I want these other projects finished before I completely tackle the Ghibli book. The good news is that means more blogging here.

If anyone has any advice or insights to offer me, it would be deeply appreciated. Thanks for your help.


UK Channel 4 Screening Ghibli Movies

Channel 4 from the UK is showing Studio Ghibli films this month. For those of you living across the ocean, this is a good chance to catch a few great movies. This week, Channel 4 has been showing the dub version, and next week will be given to the subtitled versions. That's a pretty good idea, certainly a lot easier than showing the subtitled movie after the dubbed one, as TCM did during their Ghibli run.

And, yes, I'm aware that we're at the end of the first week of shows. I'm just not a big fan of dubbing - aside from the French-language version of Porco Rosso, and Pixar's dubs for Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. The rest of the dubs range from merely tolerable to downright painful. So let's watch these movies next week the way they were intended, in the original language. It'll give us a chance to bone up on our Japanese. I'm up to the level of Ralph Wiggum; I have a pencil!

Fri, 8/11 - 4:45 pm - Princess Mononoke
Sat, 8/12 - 2:05 am - Grave of the Fireflies
Sat, 8/12 - 5:05 pm - My Neighbor Totoro
Sun, 8/13 - 4:55 pm - Laputa: Castle in the Sky
Mon, 8/14 - 12:45 am - Grave of the Fireflies
Mon, 8/14 - 5:05 pm - Kiki's Delivery Service
Tue, 8/15 - 4:45 pm - Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind
Wed, 8/16 - 4:45 - Porco Rosso
Thu, 8/17 - 5:10 - Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro


Omohide Poro Poro Tops 1,300 on YT

Omohide Poro Poro - the first segment, to be precise - has been viewed on YouTube over 1,300 times since it was uploaded on July 25. 1,317 as I write this. An impressive number for a movie without any promotion or attention beyond, of course, Conversations on Ghibli.

Continue to pass along to all your friends, and send them over here to watch. Also, don't forget that you can download the newest fansub copy of Poro Poro from the Download links.


Movie Night - Ghiblies & Ghiblies Episode 2

(Update: This video has since been removed from Youtube.  Sorry.)

This week we're having a double feature of two Studio Ghibli short films. Ghiblies is a 12-minute short created in 2000, and aired on NHK as part of an extended program about the studio. The drawing style is similar to My Neighbors the Yamadas, with its zen approach and cartoonish, iconic characters. Ghiblies is a parody of the studio, and the characters are based on the actual people, including Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. A number of short episodes are collected, showcasing some impressive diversity; Ghibli continues to dip its toes into computer-animated waters.

Ghiblies Episode 2, made in 2002, was released in theatres on a double bill with Neko no Ongaeshi, or The Cat Returns. This 30-minute short film was given the big-budget treatment, and quite often overshadows its full-length partner. Like the first Ghiblies, this is an anthology of shorts that spoofs the Ghibli studio. It's directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, one of the elder statesmen of Ghibli who has also directed three excellent Capsule videos. Ghiblies 2 is another opportunity for the staff to spread their wings, and the results are outstanding. Here we see a mastery of computer technology that works in tandem with traditional animation.

We Americans would have much to learn from studying this film. Sadly, Disney cut Ghiblies Episode 2 from the US DVD release of The Cat Returns; both movies are packaged together on the Japanese region-2 disc, so you may want to consider importing. Happy viewing!


Miyazaki Riffs #4

I knew I spotted this face somewhere before. Small world, that. Here we see the sidekick from Miyazaki's comic Sabaku no Tami (1969-70), and Peter from Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974). He's probably better suited in Heidi's world; his comic face seems a little out of place among all the carnage and destruction in the Tami comic.

Sabaku no Tami

Sabaku no Tami, or "People of the Desert," was a weekly comic drawn by a young Hayao Miyazaki from 1969 to 1970. Published in Shonen Shoujo Shinbun, this comic provides an interesting look into Miyazaki's more serious, dramatic side. Dark, violent, and relentless; Sabaku no Tami examines humanity's destructive nature, following a trio of heroes over the course of war.

Aside from Horus, Prince of the Sun, this really is the first time we see this serious side from him, which will evolve and mature over later animations like Future Boy Conan, and obviously Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. We also see Miyazaki's clear love for romanticized cliffhanger serials, but the adventurous appeal of a Puss in Boots or an Animal Treasure Island is tempered heavily with a sense of the tragic. Blood is spilt, bodies fall, and one major character is killed in a dramatic escape attempt. The overall tone of the story is very grim, reflective of a young man whose early life was shaped by the aftermath of the Second World War.

The entire story, told in 26 episodes, is available online, thanks to an anonymous fan who has also translated much of the original plot. You won't follow every line of dialog, but you'll get the general thrust of it. The scans of each page are enormous, something I'm sure we're all grateful for, since it allows us to closely examine Miyazaki's complex and hyper-detailed compositions. Already by this point (as if Horus hadn't already established the fact), he has become greatly skilled as an artist.

It's also interesting to note how the look of the comic evolved. It begins with a few panels balanced with text, but over the course of weeks and months, the text is continually squeezed out, as more and more panels crowd their way onto the page. Eventually, we're left with that hyper expressionist arrangement of 8-12 panels that is Miyazaki's trademark. By comparison, most Japanese manga (comics) feature a small handful of panels per page. Miyazaki's approach is more Western-inspired - Mobius is an excellent example - and this also reflects his own deeply restless nature. He's literally bursting at the seams with endless ideas, champing at the bit to just completely take over. You can grasp his mindset just by examining the layout.

Of course, Miyazaki would get the chance to work himself to the bone, especially as the layout artist for all 52 episodes of Heidi, and all 52 episodes of 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. But the work load doesn't break him, or drain away his energy, but fuels him. Yasuo Otsuka claimed that his tenure on Heidi and Marco turned him into The Hulk. I don't think he's diminished one iota in 40 years.

One last note on this panel that I've added below. It's a great illustration, so perfectly Miyazaki, with all the action in the background and the romantic heroes in the foreground. I'm sure you'll notice that the boy is the clear hero in this story, and the girl, while showing some strength, is taking a lesser role. All part of Miyazaki's own role-playing, in a sense. Watching his films for the first time several years ago, I naturally assumed that his Heroine was his avatar, Toshiro Mifune to his Kurosawa. But I don't think that's the case. I do believe the filmmaker inserts himself into the stories, but as the male romantic lead.

By the end of the '70s, the Heroine has completely taken over center stage, and the romantic lead, the adventure-minded boy, takes the supporting role on the side. It all leads, of course, to his great, androgynous Heroine in blue, and his greatest achievement - the 1,100-page Nausicaa manga. We're going to need a dump truck to plow through that one.

Read Sabaku no Tami here.

The Anne of Green Gables Connection

Yoshifumi Kondo was Takahata's right-hand man during the Ghibli years, and was absolutely essential to the naturalist styles of Grave of the Fireflies and Omohide Poro Poro. He had honed his own natural, realist drawing style over the years, drawing inspriation, and inspiring, the likes of Otsuka, Kotabe, and Miyazaki. That style reached something of a peak in 1979 with Anne of Green Gables, where Kondo served as character designer.

For Poro Poro, Kondo reached back to Anne for a number of the film's characters as something of a tribute. Miyazaki isn't the only one to pull out riffs from his past. As a reference, we'll use this screenshot from the pineapple scene in Poro Poro. It's a great little scene that happens to have the whole family together in the same shot.

If you're familiar with Anne (and at least a few of you should be by now), you'll immediately spot Taeko-chan's two older sisters, and recognize them as Ruby and Jane, Anne Shirley's pair of inseperable friends. Throughout the series, they're nearly always joined at the hip, to the point that you may just start thinking of them as "Ruby Jane." At least, that's my experience.

Thankfully, Ruby Jane aren't as mean or distant as Taeko's sisters, but I have to remind myself that we're seeing things squarely from Taeko's point of view, and memories are not objective history. Then again, history is just an agreed-upon lie, right? And how can truth be really known when men cannot be honest with themselves? Great. Now I'm getting into a Rashomon mindset. Best to move on.

Next up, we see that Taeko's mother bears a striking resemblance to another mother-figure from Green Gables, the minister's wife, Mrs. Allen. As with the sisters, we're not merely seeing characters with similar hairstyles, but characters serving similar roles in both stories.

At this point, it becomes more of a gentleman's guessing game. This boy from Taeko's school room, really only appears in one scene, the class parliament. He's appears on camera a couple times, reciting some punch-line he heard on television - this scene is loaded with references to '60s pop. Now, it may be just me and my lying eyes (and who are you gonna believe?), but this boy seems to be the spitting image of one Moody MacPherson. Something of a cameo, I would suspect. Moody has a larger role in Anne of Green Gables, but we only see him in or around the schoolhouse.

Also. it really needs to be said. Moody MacPherson looks just like Ralph Wiggum. You almost expect him to blurt out, "Hi Lisa! Hi Super Nintendo Chalmers! I'm Idaho! I bent my Wookie! Go banana!"

Finally, the wild card. At this point, the temptation is to pour through every character in Omohide Poro Poro and pin them to anyone from Anne who looks vaguely similar. With that in mind, I've wondered to myself, once or twice, if Charlie Sloan shared more than a passing resemblance to Abe, the troubled boy from Taeko's childhood. They do share the haircut, but anything else? Probably not. As we have seen, these characters follow a parallel path, and Charlie Sloan is a somewhat likeable kid; not the brightest, but, hey, he managed to get into Queen's College and graduate. See if your average American teenager can pull off that stunt.

That reminds me, I really have to get back and finish college.


Please Let Takahata Make One More Movie

There's been a lot of speculation in the West as to why Isao Takahata hasn't directed a feature film since My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999, and until a year or so ago, he barely said anything about it. But Takahata is working hard on a number of projects, and is buried endlessly in the "research" phase, which, as we all know, could take forever. The amount of depth he puts into his films is astonishing. There's a reason for that three-year gap between Grave of the Fireflies and Omohide Poro Poro.

Takahata has insisted that he wanted to step down from directing for a while after Yamadas was completed. Whether or not there was pressure from within the studio, I cannot say, but he firmly denies it. It would seem to be odd, and more than a little cruel, for Suzuki and Miyazaki to take away his director's chair simply because Yamadas wasn't a hit. When we look at their careers, the films and tv shows that failed to become instant hits looks like a roster of their greatest hits - Horus, Lupin III, Cagliostro, and the first three Ghibli films, Laputa, Fireflies, and Totoro. So, as far as I can muster, that just wasn't the case.

I'm completely beside myself that the Japanese public, which grew up on Takahata productions like Heidi (which is absolutely fantastic, the subtitles be damned) and Marco and Anne, would ignore Yamada-kun. For all the brilliant qualities of that film, for all its subtle nuances of human nature and endless laugh-out-loud jokes, the movie went over like a lead balloon. Japanese moviegoers preferred to spend their hard-earned money on...Pokemon? Jar-Jar Binks? Didn't they get the word from America? What were they thinking? Were psychedelic mushrooms still legal in 1999?

I also wonder how much more difficult it is for Takahata to make a film, now that all of his best collaborators are gone? Yoshifumi Kondo was his best sidekick (character designer on Anne, character designer/animation director for Fireflies, Poro Poro, and Pom Poko), but he's gone. Otsuka - retired to teaching. Kotabe, Okuyama - kart-racing around the Mushroom Kingdom. It's harder for a writer/director who doesn't draw; he needs artists of a similar stripe. So while my morning prayers always include the petition, "please let Talahata make one more movie*," I'm aware that this is more difficult than it sounds.

Still. Now that I have all of his directoral works, I'm only left wanting for more. Oh, that and some English subtitles for Heidi and Jarinko Chie. Those will be in my evening prayers.

(*Yes, I am aware that the minute after my plea to the supreme being is granted, the very next question out of my mouth would be, "Oh, by the way, could you let him make one more after that?"

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