Happy Birthday to Me!

It's my birthday, dagnabbit! Time to chug a giant mug of beer and shout, "madadayo!"

To make this post properly Ghibli-related, I'm headed over to my father's this weekend, to give my sisters brand new DVD's of Animal Treasure Island, My Neighbor Totoro, and Whisper of the Heart. If they weren't completely thrown off course when I gave them Porco Rosso and My Neighbors the Yamadas for Christmas, then this should be a real trip.

My apologies for not posting this past week. I've been too exhausted from working the crummy day job, and reading things like Plato's Republic, quantum mechanics and theoretical physics can really wear your brain out. My thanks to everyone for all their kind words, all their suggestions, and, yes, all their criticisms. Now go and get yourselves some birthday cake, eh.


Sherlock Hound

Sherlock Hound, as it's known in the West (in Japan it's simply "Meitantai Holmes," or Famous Detective Holmes) doesn't have all that much to do with Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. The whole setting is really just a framework to create an fast-paced adventure show, with slapstick comedy bits piled onto spectacular car chases. In other words, it's a terrific piece of animation, a giant ball of fun.

Sherlock Hound was started in 1981 at animation studio Telecom, with Miyazaki at the helm, and an amazing amount of talent; chief among these include Yoshifumi Kondo (animation director), Kazuhide Tomonaga, Tsukasa Tannai, Nobuo Tomizawa, Masako Shinohara, Koichi Maruyama, and Atsuko Tanaka. The great Yasuo Otsuka even makes an uncredited cameo for one episode.

The series was very clearly an homage to Animal Treasure Island, the 1971 Toei film that largely cements the "Miyazaki Style." The Telecom staff was thrilled at the opportunity to create something with the same boyant energy, and it shows in nearly every frame. This is the perfect example of just how effective animation, hand-drawn animation, can be in the right hands. I don't think anything in the CGI age has yet matched it.

There's something of an instant, pick-up-and-play feel to Sherlock Hound, very lightweight, that marks it as the end of an era. Miyazaki's worldview was becoming more clouded, more complicated, as middle age approached. Future Boy Conan carried serious, somber undertones just under the surface; by the time Nausicaa made its way to the big screen in 1984, that darker side was taking over. His inner conflict is something that defines the Ghibli era, that battle between youthful idealism and adult cynicism; note for example the third acts of Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro, and the crises of identity in Kiki's Delivery Service and Porco Rosso.

The "Classic Miyazaki" period of Puss in Boots and Animal Treasure Island and Lupin has long passed, and Sherlock Hound is kind of an Abbey Road to the era; in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Now on to the history lesson. Six episodes were created at Telecom before the series was put on hiatus. As far as I understand, this was due to conflicts with the Conan Doyle estate, who apparantly weren't too pleased with this unorthodox treatment of the Sherlock Holmes characters. The series was shelved, until Miyazaki refashioned two of the episodes as the opening short film for Nausicaa in 1984. The public was enthralled, so the series was revived, with 20 new episodes set in production. However, these new episodes were not created by Telecom nor any of the principle players (apart from the actors), but at another Japanese studio, and the difference shows. The original six episodes were integrated into the TV series as follows:

Episode 3 - A Small Client
Episode 4 - Mrs. Hudson is Taken Hostage
Episode 5 - The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
Episode 9 - Treasure Under the Sea
Episode 10 - The White Cliffs of Dover
Episode 11 - The Sovereign Gold Coins

In 1984, Tomonaga, along with Kondo (director), Tomizawa, Tanaka and Nizu created the famous Nemo pilot, which is one of the greatest pieces of Japanese animation ever devised. This was Tomonaga's baby, and he masterfully packs all the excitement of Sherlock Hound into a four-minute action classic. It's just another example of the amazing talent at that time. If only their version of Nemo was the one that finally made it to the screen. If only Miyazaki and companay could have made more Hound episodes. All part of the great "what ifs?" of life.

Here in the States, Sherlock Hound is available on DVD from Pioneer; the entire series spans six seperate DVD's, but the original Telecom/Miyazaki episodes are on the first three. Those discs should be part of your collection and put into heavy rotation. The later episodes? Eh, not so good. I'll go into greater detail on later posts.


Reconsidering The Cat Returns

One of my recent DVD purchases was the Japanese R2 DVD of Neko no Ongaeshi, "The Cat Returns the Favor," or simply The Cat Returns, as it's known here. I bought this largely to fill out my Studio Ghibli collection and not much else. This was a film that I enjoyed, but never really loved, and I've discovered that my enthusiasm for it waned over time. Last year's DVD release in the US did little to change my mind, and I assumed that would be the end of it.

So perhaps it's just being a little older and a little wiser, or having a greater understanding of cinema and Japanese animation; maybe it's the 21" widescreen monitor (my old monitor was 15" square). Whatever. Mere excuses. The point is that now I'm finally able to realize what many others already know: The Cat Returns is a really good movie.

The script by Reiko Yoshida was taken from Aoi Hiiragi's graphic novel (she also wrote the original Mimi wo Sumaseba comic), and it likewise has that loose, episodic feel that's common with a lot of Ghibli films. The misadventures of Haru, a 17-year-old student who rescues a cat from a runaway truck, dips and veers and changes gears several times before finishing. It begins in Tokyo as a realist teenage drama, in the vein of Mimi, aka Whisper of the Heart, focusing on Haru stumbling through her day. There's even a pretty boy she has eyes for, in the tradition of Japanese romance comics, though, oddly enough, nothing ever comes from it. Only a couple wistful glances.

It's well known that the idea for The Cat Returns came from Miyazaki, who wanted to spin off the two cat characters from Mimi into their own movie, and it's in the second act when they make their appearance. The picture itself shifts gears to meet them, visualizing a world where cats walk on hind legs, talk, and organize parades whenever people aren't looking. The rescued cat is revealed to be a prince of the Cat Kingdom (how un-American!), and the King, himself something of an oddball, makes it his business to shower his favors upon poor Haru.

It's these scenes, when the magical world of the cats meet the everyday world, that I like the best. I enjoyed them on my first viewing, too, and felt slighted when the story wouldn't stay put, just where it was. The endless series of surprises - those tall cattails, the locker room full of lacrosse sticks, the endless assault of catnip-crazed cats, and the live mice that bring everything crashing down at once - is the highpoint of the movie.

Finally, Haru is introduced to Muta and The Baron, who seems decked out like a pocket-sized Sherlock Hound in his tiny Victorian home. End of part two. An army of cats from the kingdom wisk away with Haru, and sets off one of those speedy, well-paced chase scenes that's practically required in Ghibli films. It's the kind of crowd-pleaser that audiences still clamoring for Spirited Away would enjoy, and even if it's a sop to the masses, so what? It works, and goodness knows how many movie directors can't construct a decent action scene.

Parts three and four take place in the Kingdom of Cats, which, if nothing else, is a beautiful place to visit. The endless green meadows, the clay-and-rock huts, and the tall patches of cattails (always with the cat puns, oy!), all drawn with that fresh, painterly look that Ghibli's artists do so well. It's only one scene set outside, and that's a shame, because it's much better to look at than the king's dreary, run-down castle. Surely, a Kingdom of Cats would rather play in the grass than sit in some boring throne room, or bumble through that Rube Goldberg maze en route to the tower leading back home.

Of course, if that happened, then we wouldn't be able to go through all the goofy fight and chase scenes, a very thinly-veiled homage to the greatest of all anime comedy bits, the castle seige from Puss in Boots. Small surprise that Miyazaki (along with Yasuo Otsuka) was responsible for that; small wonder that he and everybody else have been robbing it blind for the last 40 years.

Again, I appreciate this second half much more now that I know what's being quoted, even I still have to heckle the screen for some of the more shameless theft. Cough, ripoff! At least Haru doesn't get dropped into the middle of a cattle stampede. I'm also not much of a fan for the you-should-just-be-yourself moral preaching; it's just the sort of dewey schmaltz I expect from Disney. You'd think a movie loosely spun off of Mimi, which thouroughly demolished such dishonest cliches, would do better to avoid this.

So The Cat Retuns isn't a perfect movie, or even a modern classic. Big deal. It's an impressive work for a first-time director, Hiroyuki Morita, who was still in his early '30s. He clearly has room to growto better understand editing and rhythm, and he needs to master comic timing. That only comes from experience, and endless watching of the Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny cartoons. There's a lot of talent at Ghibli, including a number of people who have experience directing short films, so I honestly don't know where Morita fits in 2006. I hope he has the chance to direct another feature, although I cannot expect him to carry the studio on his shoulders. He's not an A-list director yet, but he someday could be.

Here's what I like best about this movie: the artwork is terrific, the character designs are sharp, the pop song at the end is irresistably catchy, and the length, 75 minutes, is just about right. Its patchwork quality would come undone if forced to stretch to a full two hours. It's perfectly suited for its double bill with Ghiblies Episode 2; they really compliment each other, and it's a damn shame that Disney would seperate them for the US DVD. But I'll have plenty of time to rant about that another time.


Two New Ghibli DVDs July 7

The next pair of DVD's from the Ghibli ga Ippai label are coming this summer, both commemorating the 100th birthday of famed Japanese poet, Kenji Miyazawa. The first film, titled "Tameyama ga Haru no Yoru" is the directoral debut of Kazuo Oga. Oga has a long a fruitful tenure at Studio Ghibli, most famously as the background painter for such movies as My Neighbor Totoro, Omohide Poro Poro, and Pom Poko, among others. Traditionally, a short film would open for the main feature (On Your Mark/Whisper of the Heart; Ghiblies Episode 2/The Cat Returns); taking the straight-to-video route is beneficial for us in the West. We get to import the DVD instead of waiting however long it takes for Disney to bother sweeping Tales From Earthsea under the rug in America.

The second DVD is one of Isao Takahata's greatest films, Goshu the Cellist. I was lucky enough to buy the 2002 DVD from Pioneer, just before it went out of print. That old release included the film and 80 minutes of interviews on a single disc. This new version will put the extras on a second disc, the Ghibli standard. Expect the picture quality to be notably improved; this will be the best Goshu has looked since its theatrical premier in 1981.

It's interesting to note that the studio has been steadily capturing the rights to Miyazaki and Takahata's pre-Ghibli era films. Panda Kopanda, The Castle of Cagliostro, Jarinko Chie, and Sherlock Hound are some examples. Official storyboard and art books are also available. In a perfect world, they'll be able to secure the DVD rights to the three WMT productions (Heidi, Marco, Anne), and the motherlode of them all, Horus. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Ghibli ga Ippai Special: Short Short

Short Short is an excellent DVD anthology of Studio Ghibli's short animations for film and television. It was released in Japan late last year alongside Howl's Moving Castle, and can be either purchased seperately or together as a box set with Howl's. I'd recommend the box set, which looks terrific will prove a valuable part of your DVD collection.

The shorts on this DVD were made from 1992 to 2005. The most famous, of course, would be Hayao Miyazaki's On Your Mark, the music video for pop duo Chage & Aska which played alongside Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart. This was Miyazaki's first animation since finishing the Nausicaa manga, and it can be seen as an attempt to "say goodbye" of his Heroine, to let go. It also happens to be a great visual feast, a self-contained universe of Miyazaki's various moods and styles. Too bad the music stinks.

Kondo's shorts are also present on Short Short, including The Sky-Colored Seed, which exuberates all the charm and vitality 90 seconds can muster. There are a number of commericals for Ghibli merchandise, Yomiuri Shimbun (the major newspaper) and House Foods; directors include Miyazaki, Kondo, Orami Tanabe, Shinji Hashimoto, Takeshi Inamira, and Yoshiyuki Momose. Momose, in particular, is one of the rising stars at Ghibli (he also directed Ghiblies Episode 2 in 2002). His three music videos for techno group Capsule in, 2004 and 2005, are likely my favorites of the whole anthology. I'll be sure to go into greater detail in future posts.

Bonus material includes Miyazaki's drawings for On Your Mark, a series of interviews with Ghibli animators, including Momose, and a long conversation between Toshio Suzuki and Meiko Kaigo. An illustrated 34-page booklet goes into detail on all the animations, and it's really the icing on the cake. All in all, an excellent DVD that no animation lover can do without.


Short Update

I spent the past couple day trying to find a better template for this blog than the standard ones offerd by Blogger. I found one that looked pretty cool, and I spent this evening making the necessary alterations and trimmings. You can see the results here, and I have to say this is pretty impressive.

I have to give my thanks to, the graphics design site that graciously offers a solid collection of blog templates. They also offer a short tutorial for the benefit of those without web design experience; thankfully, all my HTML lessons from 2001 still apply. There's a graphic link to their site, so feel free to pay a visit if your weblog needs a good tailor.

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