2013-03-31

Studio Ghibli's 2013 New Years Day Card


Every year, Studio Ghibli issues a New Years Day card, usually hand-drawn by Hayao Miyazaki.  2013 is the Year of the Snake, and serves as the mascot for this year's illustration.

Have you noticed how Miyazaki's drawing style has become more loose and free in recent years?  It's become more prominent in his anime films like Ponyo and Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess, and continues (to a lesser degree) in Katsuya Kondo's character designs in From Up on Poppy Hill.

Finally, can I point out how masterful an artist Hayao Miyazaki continue to be?  Observe how he can achieve character and movement with simple lines.  His youthful ambition was to become a manga illustrator, and his work as design and layout artist on such productions as Peppi Longstockings, Panda Kopanda, and Heidi are legendary.  It's fascinating to see the debt Japanese animation owes to comics.  Perhaps this is something animators in the West could learn.

Let this be the art lesson for the week: Study This Illustration.

Apache Yakyuugun (Baseball Academy) Ep.2 - Isao Takahata Directs



"What, exactly, did Isao Takahata do between 1968 and 1971?"  This has long been one of my great questions on the life of the great director.  After Horus, Prince of the Sun failed at the Japanese box office in 1968, Takahata was sacked from the director's chair at Toei Doga, never to helm another feature at the studio.  His period of exile wouldn't end until the early 1970s, with Lupin III and Panda Kopanda and, ultimately, to Heidi, Girl of the Alps.  So what happened to him at Toei?

Now we have an answer: Takahata was moved back to television.  His directorial career began as an assistant director on a few Toei features, but he really cut his teeth on the early TV anime series, Hustle Punch and Ken the Wolf Boy.  After Horus, he was sent back to the small screen, as a "director-for-hire" on a number of series.  Some work here, a little work there, nothing really steady, and no real creative input.  One can understand why Paku-san would quickly grow tired, and begin to plot his revenge with his friends Hayao Miyazaki and Yoichi Kotabe.

One such television show was 1971's Apache Yakyuugun, or Apache Baseball Academy.  This short-lived series (it ran for 26 episodes), about an athlete who rejects a professional baseball career to become a high school coach in a small village, has plenty of comic book action and melodrama to go around.  In 2002, a DVD set was released in Japan, and it's currently out of print.

By sheer luck, I found a copy of Apache's second episode, which was directed by Isao Takahata.  Subtitles are not included in these videos, but Japanese transcripts are included, so a fan translation is easily doable.  I will admit that I haven't yet watched this episode, so I'll be enjoying it along with you.  This may be a good opportunity to study the young Takahata's directorial style, his sense of timing and compositional skill.  It's always thrilling to see a master at work, even if it's just a work-for-hire.  Admit it, you'd pay good money to watch Martin Scorcese make sandwiches.  So would I.  Enjoy.

Michael Sporn Reviews From Up on Poppy Hill


I hope Michael Sporn will forgive me for posting his review on From Up on Poppy Hill here on Ghibli Blog, but I thought it was a terrific read and would help spark some discussions among the Ghibli faithful.  As an animator and filmmaker, he brings a unique insight into these films, and whenever a new Ghibli movie arrives in the States, he's the first person who's opinions I seek.

As always, I highly recommending his Splog, which is a treasure trove of animation history and full of wit.  I learn something every time I visit, and so should you.

Enjoy Mr. Sporn's review, and let the debates commence:

This week I saw The Croods (and reviewed it here) and From Up on Poppy Hill. I really wanted Poppy Hill to be a small masterpiece, but it wasn’t. It was just a trek. I wanted Goro Miyazaki to have a glimmer of the old man in him; it’ll be hard to let go of Hayao Miyazaki when he retires or decides to end his enormous career. This film was supposedly written by Hayao in collaboration with the son, Goro. I didn’t feel the spirituality of Goro in this movie; That’s what I love about Hayao’s films; there’s a spirituality. All those films (at least since Totoro) are about so much more than what’s on the surface. What’s on the surface is usually good, too. And lately the animation has been getting better. If there’s any spirituality in Goro, it didn’t make it to the big screen, and the animation was first class TV work. No magic there, either.

It’s the second film directed by Goro Miyazaki. Tales from Earthsea should have jump-started a new career. The film was just dull. I assume the artists at Studio Ghibli want things to go on, as well. Poppy Hill had some of the elements of a Ghibli production; it just lacked the magic. First rate styling, fine character design (they all do look a bit like, at times), and a human story.

Although the story had too little in it. It was quite subtle and for a sophomore director to pull it off was too much to ask. The animation rarely had a spark. The characters always did what they were asked to do, but they didn’t really have much of a lifetime within them. The director needed a LOT of experience within him to pull it off, needed a lot of animation experience to be able to pull stronger performances out of his animators and needed a stronger connection to the story to make us care about those characters. Zer0 for three.

Don’t get me wrong; I’d take this over The Croods any day, but I’d prefer to have something good rather than either of these movies.

My Neighbor Totoro, Howl's Moving Castle - Blu-Rays May 21


As many of you are aware, Disney has announced a release date for My Neighbor Totoro and Howl's Moving Castle on Blu-Ray in North America, May 21.  Great news for Ghibli Freaks over here.

For everyone at home keeping score, Howl's Moving Castle BD was released in Japan on November 16, 2011, and My Neighbor Totoro BD was released on July 18, 2012. The American market woefully under-served, as Japan and the rest of the world see the Studio Ghibli films released in a timely fashion.  Disney continues to do the absolute, contractually-obligated minimum.  Hmm...my lawyer is exactly the same way, now that I think about it.

In any case, we're finally getting Totoro and Howl on Blu-Ray, both of which look and sound spectacular, and a considerable improvement over the DVD.  Greater color saturation and uncompressed audio?  Sign me up!

Meanwhile, we're waiting for news from Japan on Ghibli's next BD release, which would arrive in the summer to coincide with Hayao Miyazaki's Kaze Tachinu.  I say it's going to be Porco Rosso, so put me down on the office pool.

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind - Box Set


In late November, Viz Media released this spectacular Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind box set.  It contains the entire 1,110+ page graphic novel in two volumes, includes numerous color illustrations, a full poster, and packages everything in a wonderfully-stylish case.  For the true Miyazaki fan, this set is the crown jewel of your collection.

There's only one small problem: The Nausicaa box set may already be out of print.  It's difficult to tell, because as much as I appreciate and applaud Viz for publishing Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli books, they do a lousy job selling them.  Even their website is a dismal mess when you want to find something.  For now, however, I must assume that the original print run has finished, and it's up to the publisher to decide whether to invest in another run.

Obviously, I will insist on more pressings of Nausicaa, a graphic novel masterwork that rivals Art Spiegelman's Maus for brilliance.  It remains criminally overlooked by Miyazaki fans here in the US; I daresay that most folks don't even know these books exist, or that one could find them at the local bookstore...that is, if Viz could actually be bothered to stock them.

It's times like this when I wish I had the money to start a publishing company and just do it myself.  I don't know about you, but I'd love to read Miyazaki's second volume of memoirs, Turning Point.  I'd also like to read Isao Takahata's and Yasuo Otsuka's memoirs, Yoshifumi Kondo's posthumously-released art book, Michiyo Yasuda's book on color theory, and pretty much all of Miyazaki-san's comics.  If I ever come into a large amount of money, I'll definitely give it a try.

In any case, Viz still has the seven-volume Nausicaa books, which are available separately.  If you haven't discovered this novel, I strongly urge you to get your hands on some copies.  And we'll cross our fingers and hope this terrific box set reemerges soon.  Viz needs to get on the ball and start doing their damned jobs.  There's no excuse for this.

2013-03-30

Kokuriko Zaka Kara - The Manga


After seeing From Up on Poppy Hill last night, I wanted to secure a copy of the 1980 Takahashi Chizuru manga on which it was based.  No luck, as no English-translated versions exist anywhere, legit or otherwise.  Fortunately, Sgt. Tanuki wrote this very helpful blog post detailing the differences between the manga and the Studio Ghibli film.

Interestingly, it is Hayao Miyazaki's change of setting to 1963 Tokyo, the coming Tokyo Olympic Games looming as a marker of Japan's rebirth in the modern world, that is the largest change.  A nation, and its people, caught in the fault line between history and modernity - this is the quintessential theme of the Studio Ghibli films.

Despite that, Sgt Tanuki highlights some criticisms that resonate with me:

Taken on its own terms, it's an utterly typical shōjo manga.  Average.  I guess I mean that as both a pejorative and a mere descriptor.  That is, I don't find the manga really remarkable in any way;  but there's a certain value in reading unremarkable works, too, because they help you appreciate the excellent ones.

The art:  it's undistinguished.  Very few compositions struck me as being memorable or arresting.  At the same time it's obviously using the visual vocabulary of girls' comix circa 1980 in typical way:  the flowers, the floating-in-space emotional moments, the dizzy-angle closeups of eyes, mouths, etc.  It's kind of a primer on the genre.

The story:  same.  Puppy love presented with an accent on beautiful boys just out of reach, and the endless internal sufferings of a girl in love.  Just enough complications to keep the plot going, and a resolution just in time to bring tears to your eyes.  (Theoretically.)

Read in terms of the movie, however, it's fascinating, precisely because Ghibli was able to make such a deeply resonant movie out of such average source material.  They kept the basic outlines of the story (Mer and Kazama's relationship, the boarding house, the school), but changed the setting from "contemporary" (in 1980 the manga was set in 1980) to "past," and thus the tone from up-to-the-minute (in the manga the boys all have Shaun Cassidy long hair) to nostalgic.  Furthermore they drew out the emotional, almost mythic power of the dad-lost-at-sea motif.

I'm not yet sure where I stand on the movie.  I'll have to watch again, this time with the Japanese soundtrack, before deciding where I stand.  My feelings so far?  Impressed by the art direction and design, but often frustrated, and surprisingly bored.  Goro Miyazaki continues to improve and disappoint in equal measure.  But perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind?  I'll give it another go before making any formal declarations.

2013-03-29

From Up on Poppy Hill Opens in Minneapolis


Update 4/1/13: In addition to the English-language version, a Japanese-language soundtrack should be included when Poppy Hill moves to the Lagoon Edina Theater on April 5.  Thanks to GKids for sharing the news.

Goro Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli movie, From Up on Poppy Hill, arrives today at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.  It's working its way through the indie circuit, courtesy of GKids, the fine folks responsible for the Studio Ghibli Film Festival last year.  It is also playing in select cities in the coming weeks.  I honestly don't know if or when the Blu-Ray (already available in Japan) will ever see an American release, so this is your only chance to see this movie in 2013.

As far as box office performance, it's probably best not to think about it too much.  This movie will barely make a million or two during its (very limited) theatrical run in the US, far less than the average Hollywood studio cartoon will make on any given showing.  It's fairly clear that our best chance for seeing Studio Ghibli reach mainstream success in our country has passed.  Ponyo was about as good as it gets, and it's all niche from there.

Don't let that discourage you.  Millions of people mindlessly slog through another season of American Idol, while ignoring the Miles Davis records on your shelf.  The fun stuff, the truly interesting stuff, that's hidden away, harder to reach, off the beaten path.  It has always been thus.  And part of the joy of discovery lies in seeking out these hidden gems.

If you're able to see Poppy Hill, I strongly encourage you to do so.  I'm looking forward to seeing how far Goro-san has progressed from Earthsea, if he is closer to finding his own unique voice, for seeing the latest chapter in the Miyazaki Family Saga.  Personally, my favorite Ghibli movies are Omohide Poro Poro and Mimi wo Sumaseba, so I have high expectations for this film.  I still find it astonishing that naturalist, neo-realist animation does not exist in the West.  Why is that, I wonder?  And what would have to happen to change that equation?  Right now, I'm pretty much out of answers.

I always tell people to run to the theaters anytime a Ghibli movie plays there.  We won't know when, or if, we'll have another chance.  Hayao Miyazaki's Kaze Tachinu and Isao Takahata's Kaguya Hime open in Japan this year, but there's little to no chance that Disney will pick up either title for distribution.  These aren't Disney cartoons, and there are no toys to sell.  So don't take anything for granted, kids.  Get to the theaters and see this movie while ya still can.  Mozel tov!