Movie Night - Anne of Green Gables, Ep. 3

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

I've been recovering from a week-long bout with illness, so I'll make sure to check back in with a couple posts before I pass out for another 12 hours. Here's episode 3 of Anne of Green Gables. This is another magnificent episode, one of my favorites of the entire series.

This episode features one of the most iconic sequences in Anne, possibly THE most iconic of all. It's a very simple scene, quietly poetic - Anne looking out her bedroom window and dreaming. We are treated to a series of landscape shots, some Ozu-esque pillow shots, and that remarkable transformation, as we peer into the girl's imagination, and the walls melt into trees and grass. That shot is arguably the defining shot of Anne of Green Gables.

I should also mention another essential quality to this show, and that's the music. I cannot imagine Anne without the wonderful orchestral score. Especially the music for the daydream scene; that's probably the best piece of music in the series, and certainly the most transcendent.

Again we have ample opportunity to observe the masterful pacing, the brilliant compositions, and the overall excellent direction by Takahata. His natural, neo-realist style, honed to perfection on Heidi and 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, is absolutely essential to bringing Green Gables to life. It's this focus on daily activity, set at the pace and tempo of 19th Century life, that allows you to fully immerse yourself in its world.

As with the earlier WMT series, all the locations are closely modeled after the real landscapes from Prince Edward Island. The Green Gables house is actually based on the "real" Green Gables house, that serves as an international museum to Maude Montgomery's characters. This obsessive attention to details has always been a hallmark of Japanese animation, particularly among filmmakers like Takahata and Miyazaki. I think that's one of the things that most strongly draws me to their work. Theirs is an artists' medium. Commercialism is a very distant second.

In America....well, you can see the wreckage for yourself.


The Best Thing I've Read All Day

"In all fairness, can't one enjoy boobs, guns, robots, and explosions in addition to Anne of Green Gables?"

This was just left by an anonymous visitor after the first episode of Anne. God bless America! This is just the sort of thing you look forward to after a week of being sick with a fever. I thnk I may have this one framed and hung on my wall, next to the Che Guevara poster. Hah!

In all seriousness, I don't mind a little junk food now and then, but when junk food becomes your entire diet, there's going to be trouble. All I want to do is point you towards the vegetable garden, towards some alternatives you may have missed.


Movie Night - Anne of Green Gables, Ep. 2

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

Time for another Movie Night, gang! I've decided, in between bouts of fever and coughing, that we really should plow ahead as quickly as possible, and watch as many episodes of these series as we can. We have Future Boy Conan, Anne of Green Gables, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother already. I've been trying to create an uploadable copy of Lupin III (one with English subtitles), and I'm seriously thinking of adding an episode or two of Heidi. Whew!

Fortunately, the second episode of Anne is already available on YouTube. Let's sit back and watch. If you've forgotten at all, be sure to scan back to the first episode, which was also posted here. Episode 2 continues with Anne Shirley and Matthew Cuthbert on the cart ride home. They are in for a showdown with the dominant Marilla, who, as we all know, is expecting a young boy instead of a girl. Their first fateful meeting is a magnificent scene, full of pathos and humor.

I can't say enough about Eiko Yamada, the actress who voiced Anne in Takahata's 1979 production. She plays the character throughout the entire series, always convincingly, and always full of spirit. Ms. Yamada's portrayal of Anne Shirley is, I believe, the best performance of Maude Montgomery's character ever put to film. This is a testament, naturally, to Yoshifumi Kondo, Hayao Miyazaki (who again served on layout for the first 13 episodes), the many brilliant animators, and of course Takahata. But it's Yamada herself who truly brings the character alive. Her line readings are impeccable, always weaving the right path from comedy to tragedy. Anne Shirley is a tough character to play without resorting to a motor-mouth tempo, or Harpo Marx clowning. Eiko Yamada nails it better than anyone else.

Enjoy episode 2. Don't forget to download the fansub, so you can watch on a larger screen.

Isao Takahata and Citizen Kane

A few posts back I wrote about the importance of becoming cinematically literate, of being aware of the great movies and the great filmmakers. One big reason for this is that you can learn much about filmmakers by studying their influences. Bono was right - every artist is a cannabal, ever poet is a thief.

There are a couple excellent examples we can look at here at the Ghibli blog. Isao Takahata has always sought to bring the styles of his favorite films - from artists like Fellini, Renoir, Ozu, Truffault, and Welles - to Japanese animation. From time to time he has paid tribute in his own work to his old teachers.

Here is a shot from an episode of Heidi. This comes just before Heidi's aunt returns suddenly to take the girl with her to Frankfurt, and away from the grandfather. In this dramatic scene, Grandfather and this other man debate Heidi's fate, while she plays in the background, oblivious to what will soon happen. Needless to say, it's a pretty tense moment.

This scene quotes one of the celebrated moments from Citizen Kane. It's a terrific demonstration of deep-focus photography, as the young Charlie Kane, his parents, and his benefactor all share the same frame, in focus. You can see the shot here, and I'm sure you've seen this movie countless times. This triangular composition will appear again in the movie several times, as Kane's fate is decided by others...and he is left in the background, helpless and impotent.

Takahata pays one more tribute to Citizen Kane, and it comes at the very end of the final episode of Anne of Green Gables. In fact, it's the final two shots of the entire series. Remember how Orson Welles opens his movie with a succession of shots of Xanadu, circling closer and closer? Notice that the window occupies the same position on the screen in each shot. It's a great visual motif.

If you're observant, you'll see the same thing at the end of Anne. The series ends with Anne's final speech (ahem, previous post) and then pulls away with a series of outside shots that move further and further away. Again, if you pay attention, you'll see that the light in Anne's window occupies the same space on the screen during those final shots. It's very sly, and you may not even spot it if you're not paying attention.

Takahata hasn't directly quoted other films many times, but those times that he has are memorable scenes, every one of them. Remind me to show them sometime before I forget.

Oh, and if you're wondering, the text in that final shot is from the subtitles, which are burned onto the Anne fansub.

Today's Screenshots - Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables is one of those anime series that seems most likely to break wide open in North America, if it were ever to see release here. I think the World Masterpiece Theatre could prove to be a success on our shores, if given a proper treatment and enough exposure. Takahata's three masterpieces - Heidi, Marco, Anne - are the best candidates, and I think Anne would be the best choice of the three to introduce to Americans.

We, of course, are familiar with the Canadian productions of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, popular staples for two decades. I would suggest, however, that the Isao Takahata version is the superior version, the definitive Anne.

I've also noticed that a cartoon Anne was produced (again in Canada) and broadcast here on PBS. I believe the series website includes numerous clips from many of their episodes, so you really should check it out, if only to see the enormous difference between that and Takahata's Anne. The Canadian cartoon is much more of a standard Disney afternoon cartoon, with cheaply caricatured characters, choppy animation (Westerners never really learned how to work with limited animation, unlike the Japanese), and plodding, syrupy moral lessons. What is is with all the preachy moral lessons? None of these "morals" are really worth the bother, anyway; just simple-minded drivel like "you should learn to share" and "you should always tell the truth."

Uh huh. I'll tell you what. Impeach Bush for stealing our nation's resources and lying us into a genocidal war in Iraq, and maybe I'll start to listen to your insipid little "moral lessons."

Anyway, these screenshots are from the final episode, number 50, "God's in His Heaven, All's Right With The World." This is a montage that accompanies Anne Shirley's final soliloquoy, as she writes a letter to her college friends explaining why she is choosing to stay in Green Gables and pursue her dreams. It's a magnificent sequence because it marks the return of Anne's flights of fancy, the runaway imagination from her childhood. The first shot is, in fact, calling back to that wonderful scene at the beginning of episode 3. The adult Anne has let go of this part of herself, turning towards real-life concerns like Queen's College and Matthew Cuthbert.

With this final scene, Takahata reminds us that the adult Anne Shirley is the same as the younger girl, and her imagination will always be a part of her. It's a final gesture of romanticism that ties together the two Annes in a way that Maude Montgomery never did.

Finally, it goes without saying that this would never be achieved without the tremendous skills of the painters and background artists who brought Green Gables to life as never before, realized as an Impressionistic romantic dream. The skills of character designer Yoshifumi Kondo, as always, can never be overstated. His realism enabled Takahata to achieve his vision better than anyone, and this can be seen in the later Ghibli films Grave of the Fireflies and Omohide Poro Poro.

Don't forget that you can download Anne of Green Gables from the Fansub section.


Movie Night - Future Boy Conan, Ep. 4

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

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! I hope every one of you are finding some way to continue Dr. King's work for justice and equality. Don't just pay lip service once a year. Do something. Make a real difference in your world. Peace!

Time for the next episode of Future Boy Conan! Episode 4, "The Barracuda." Conan and Jimsy sneak onboard Capt. Dyce's boat in order to rescue Lana (the first of many, many rescue attempts, by the way), Jimsy steals food and gets drunk, and many wacky events transpire. Jimsy running around drunk as a loon is one of my favorite bits from the whole series. Have I mentioned that Jimsy is my hero? He steals smokes and he drinks like a fish! What more do you want?

I'm a bit surprised that there hasn't been any more characters like Jimsy in Miyazaki's later work. His romantic hero and heroine are his standard archetypes, appearing and reappearing time and again. But Jimsy? The reckless clown doesn't really appear again. I suppose that Markl from Howl's Moving Castle kinda reminds me of Jimsy; Markl is a domesticated and civilized version of Jimsy. Or maybe the younger sister, Mei, from My Neighbor Totoro. She kinda reminds me of 'ol Jim.

Anyway, enjoy episode four of Conan. I'll keep uploading episodes, and we'll see how long we can keep the party going.


Today's Screenshots - Heidi, Girl of the Alps

Astonishingly, I still haven't finished watching Heidi. I've owned the box set for five months, but I've just been dragging my heels, only watching in fits and spurts, an episode here, an episode there. It's not that I don't enjoy the series - I think it's absolutely fantastic. It's a damned crime that Americans are literally the only ones who've never seen this show. The problem is that there are no English subtitles available, so watching requires a far greater amount of concentration to follow.

It certainly doesn't help that my Japanese is so poor. To the series' credit, I'm able to follow quite a lot via of the layouts, compositions, and overall directing. But it's still a great challenge to be engaged and take everything in as best you can.

These shots come from around episode 25 or so, I can't recall off the top of my head. It has such a brilliant Orson Welles quality to it; being a great Welles fan, naturally, I took a shine to it. The Heidi series will occasionally, every now and then, throw something in that's extrordinary. One story scene was narrated with crayon-drawn backgrounds. Emotions veer from joyful exhuberance to the depths of sorrow. Heidi drifts away into flights of imagination, the very signature style Takahata would use throughout his career.

I can't imagine why Heidi couldn't be sold in the US, although I think you'd need to put it on television if it ever has a chance of breaking wide open. If you just dropped a box set onto store shelves, it would probably be ignored by most parents (looking for the next Disney fix to screw their children over) and the anime nerds (looking for more giant robots and naked chicks). There has to be a solution somewhere.


Take Yer Kids to the Movies

A. O. Scott has a great article in today's Times about his experiences taking his children to the movies. For the most part, it's an opportunity to discuss the whole corporate-minded idea of packaging and selling the "family film." So-called family films are very often the most tame, the most timid, the movies with their very souls ripped out of them. Scott argues, as many movie lovers have done and will continue to do, that we and our children are far better served being exposed to some real movies, movies with real depth, instead of that we're being ordered to consume.

It's a common refrain of the past quarter-century, as conglomerates bought up the movie studios, as Star Wars and Jaws ushered in the teenage blockbuster age, as cable television and video games become the lingua franca of the younger generation, that the language of the movies is in danger of becoming lost. The very vocabulary itself is threatened. And today, at the turn of the century, we have a whole generation of Americans who are illiterate in visual language.

Technology always moves forward, and as you get older you become acutely aware of what Buddhists call "the impermamence of all things." The times, they are a-changin'. This has always been the case, and it will continue to play out, as long as human beings walk the earth. For those of us, however, who are artists and animators and filmmakers, it's essential and vital that we can successfully pass our traditions down to future generations.

It would be a terrible thing to discover that the movies themselves have become extinct, a faded historical artifact. We will have lost the most vital of all 20th century arts, this great, masterful means of telling stories, of revealing the inner dreams of our souls. To my mind, the movies are as important as any form of language.

Michael Sporn writes about this today in his blog, and he's the one who pointed me to Scott's Times piece. He also gets at a very important point about today's films, and especially today's animated films. Simply put, there's no imagination. There's no mystery. Everything is spelled out, SHOUTED OUT LOUD. The audience is pandered to, treated almost like infants. A great example from 2006 was Barnyard, with the udders on the male cows.

How can such a thing happen? Animation is dependent upon mystery, imagination. It's a vocabulary that pulls out symbols and archetypes from the great collective unconscious. Take away the mystery and you destroy the religion. What's left is soulless and calculating and cold.

The dumbing down of America and youth continues unabated.

It's a common refrain for my generation - age 35 and younger - that we've never watched a movie that's older than we are. We've never seen anything before Star Wars. Small wonder, then, that we're chained to the alter of plot, plot, PLOT, a mass hypnosis by way of channel surfing and videogames and bad toy commercials thinly disguised as bad movies.

If you want to understand these movies, then you're going to have to understand the language of movies. You can't just sit in front of a tv set and watch anime, and you sure as hell can't dismiss something as "old," just because it's a couple decades older than you are. You aren't more sophisticated than the kids from generations past. You'll be running even with them if you're lucky.

I've told myself that if and when a Ghibli Podcast is up and running, I'd devote time on the first show to some of my favorite movies, the essentials that helped shape my understanding of things. If you don't know where to start, I'd strongly recommend the Criterion Collection, Roger Ebert's Greatest Movies books, and anything by Pauline Kael. Oh, and take your kids with you and give them an education.

Watch a Scene From Gedo Senki

This is a remarkable little find, a three-and-a-half minute clip from Goro Miyazaki's Gedo Senki. This isn't a segment from any television broadcast; as best I can tell, this is pirated directly from the movie theatres. Certainly not a practice I endorse, but since we Americans are left out in the cold (thanks to the wonderful folks at Sci-Fi Channel).

This scene is "Therru's Song," and features the song that was a hit in Japan. As always, the color and animation is amazing, and I'm noticing the strong influence of the classic, iconic design from Horus, Prince of the Sun...Heidi...maybe the Shuna no Tabi comic. Interersting, again, to see how the younger Miyazaki is so heavily dependent upon his father's archetypal imagery. Add in their long and stormy history, and we're looking at a movie that will be dissected by scholars for years.

Here's another thing I noticed: the hands. That's a detail that really stood out for some reason. These characters really do look like the children of Miyazaki's archetypes, but more rounded.

I've been expecting pirated fansub copies of the film to start appearing for a while now, especially since a Japanese DVD release isn't in sight, and the US market is locked out until 2009. If we're patient, we'll soon get to see this movie by the time the rest of the world does.

Miyazaki Riffs #7

Imagine the things I keep forgetting during the holiday season. We haven't highlighted any Miyazaki riffs in some time, so let's get back into action. This riff, like so many others, draws back to the Toei era. The screenshot we see here comes at the end of Miyazaki's classic, hilarious pirate batttle from Animal Treasure Island. I often cite this slapstick/action sequence as among Miyazaki's very best scenes, and an essential study for all students of animation. This scene should be taught in schools.

When Miyazaki and company at Telecom went into production with Sherlock Hound, it was with the enthusiasm of recapturing the thrills and spills of Animal Treasure Island, so it makes perfect sense to pay tribute in one of the episodes. The mass crowd on a sinking ship, hurling out insults, comes from the episode, "Treasure Under the Sea."

One of the great things about Miyazaki's comedy is his use of massive crowds and his comic timing. It's the hallmark of his classic, pre-Ghibli period, and it's something I truly miss from his later work. The only Ghibli movie to really aim for that comic adventure style was Laputa: Castle in the Sky, although Porco Rosso has some short moments here and there. Part of me prays for the elder statesman to revisit his youthful style just once more, although I'm more than perfectly happy with his evolution into complexity and surrealism. Hayao Miyazaki has mutated into Frederico Fellini, and it seems to suit him these days.

Today's Screenshots - 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother

I haven't written anything about 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother in some time, so I figured we were due for another visit with this phenomenal work. I think I've mentioned this before, and hopefully I'm not starting to sound like a broken record, but I think the real masterpieces from the Takahata/Miyazaki canon come not from Studio Ghibli, but from the World Masterpiece Theatre productions of the 1970's - Heidi Marco Anne. I've told myself that would make a great title for a book or album. Heidi Marco Anne.

I'll say this is Isao Takahata's crowning achievement, if only because of its scope and scale. Of the three WMT series, it's Marco that truly feels epic. It's the Book of Job brought to the screen.

These shots come from fairly late in the series, episode 47, "Mama Lives at the Foot of the Mountain," and episode 48, "Old Lady, Please Don't Die." True to form, the episodes are tragic and emotional, packed with the human suffering of Marco's archetypal quest for "Mother." And the quotation marks are deliberate; it's the very thing that gives 3000 Leagues its mythic quality.

Little surprise, then, that the series was immensely popular in Israel. I read once or twice that the Israeli naval anthem is based on the music from Marco. I don't know if that's true, or if someone was merely pulling my leg. But I wouldn't doubt it for a minute.

Finally, I'd like to take this opportunity to make my plea for the great artistry of traditional, hand-painted backgrounds. These masterful brushstrokes are a hallmark of its era and still cannot be achieved with computers. We must be mindful and not foolishly throw away our older tools in the name of, ahem, "progress."

Movie Night - Future Boy Conan, Ep. 3

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

Time for another movie night, everybody! Future Boy Conan is still up on YouTube, so I'll keep uploading episodes. Here's episode number three. If we recall (and you can always watch the earlier episodes to catch up), Conan has built a boat and set out in search of the kidnapped Lana, after burying his grandfather on Remnant Island.

This is a pretty big episode, because we're introduced to the third major character in the show: Jimsy. Jimsy is the wacky neighbor, the court jester. Jimsy drinks. Jimsy steals smokes. Jimsy has a frog in his pocket. Jimsy even gets a pig he names "Looks Delicious." In other words, Jimsy is the coolest kid ever.

We are also introduced to Captain Dyce, the goofy, bumbling sea captain who may appear to be a villian at first, but you'll quickly see that he's too much of a goofball. There's also his infatuation with the young Lana, which is a little odd to say the least.

So, by now, most of the exposition of the show has been established, and we're going full-bore into what makes Future Boy Conan so great. Enjoy the episode, and be sure to download the fansub and share with all yer friends.


Movie Posters - Panda Kopanda

Here's the movie poster for the first Panda Kopanda movie from 1972. I've seen a Japanese website by a person who claims to be selling these movie posters. I think I've mentioned him before in the past, only briefly, but I've never determined if the site was ever legitimate. Instead of any proper online merchant, you have to email the website owner, and apparantly send a Paypal check. So I'm really not sure if he's on the up-and-up, which is too bad, because he claims to have Studio Ghibli movie posters for sale, as well as earlier ones like Puss in Boots and Future Boy Conan and Panda Kopanda.

In any case, we get to look at this and admire. Would be nicer to have hanging from a wall.


Who Are These People?!

Alright, here's a mystery that I have yet to solve. We've already seen the cameos of Yasuo Otsuka and Hayao Miyazaki (and family) from the final episode of Lupin III. There's one other major instance of cameos, and it comes at the end of the first Panda Kopanda cartoon.

At the end of the film, there's a leftward pan of a crowd waiting to see Papa Panda at the zoo, and it's packed with all the people who made Panda Kopanda. This was a beloved project, because it was the first reunion of the old gang from Toei Doga. Everyone had moved away, one after another, starting with Otsuka in 1969, after completing Puss in Boots. Eventually, everyone apart from Yasuji Mori - Takahata, Miyazaki, Otsuka, Akemi Ota, Yoichi Kotabe, Reiko Okuyama, Michiyo Yasuda, yadda yadda - had made the jump to A-Pro. After Lupin was finished, and the Pipi Longstockings project fell through, Panda Kopanda was churned out to vent all that frustration and pent-up energy.

Also, let's not forget a 22-year-old Yoshifumi Kondo, who joined the gang on Lupin. So you can see why the Panda cartoons, and especially the first one, have such a vibrant energy. The thing just pulses with life, like a pack of schoolkids let loose on a snow day.

So, here's the big question about this crowd shot at the end: who's who? You can pretty easily spot the real people, since most of the faces are simple, iconic cartoon faces. I managed to take three pictures, so everyone can take their best guesses.

This is something for John Lasseter to ask about the next time he travels to Japan. Or Ben Ettinger - maybe he knows who's who.

In the second photo, you can spot Lupin and Jigen, which is funny. Just below them, you can see the birthday boy - he's pretty easy to spot with the glasses and son hanging on him. In the third photo, at bottom right, it looks like Kotabe. He has that kind of long face, so that's my guess. Was that Okuyama at the end of the first photo? And who's the girl at the opposite end of the third picture? I see the hair and the blue outfit, so I'm thinking that's Ota, the wife. Again, I'm just guessing, and trying to plug my own Miyazaki Heroine theory into the mix.

I'm pretty stumped on this one, and I'm dying to know. Pass this among your so-called Ghibli friends and see if they can spot anyone. Use this as a benchmark to see how devoted a fan they really are. Get somebody at Pixar on the horn!

Today is Your Birthday!

Fire up the White Album, kids! It's birthday number 66 for the world's most beloved workaholic. Let's hope the folks at Ghibli can tear him away from the new movie long enough to sing him Happy Birthday and share some cake. And we'll have no more talk of "retirement" from anyone. If Miyazaki wants to work until he's a hundred, we'll let him.

Now all of these screenshots come from Ghibli's Yasuo Otsuka documentary, which I've praised and hyped on a couple occasions. The first picture is a staff photo from Future Boy Conan in 1978. You can clearly spot Otsuka and Miyazaki in the front and back row, respectably.

The second and third shots actually come from the final episode of the original Lupin III series from 1971-72, episode 23. In this episode, both Otsuka and Miyazaki make a couple cameo appearances during a crazy car chase; Otsuka next to his trademark jeep, and Miyazaki inside the busted car, and inside the house with his family. Which, I guess, would make that a cameo for the very young Goro Miyazaki as well. Somebody tell him this so he and his old man can stop their silly feud.

The fourth and fifth pictures were drawn by Otsuka, again during the Conan days. It was during this segment of the documentary that he was recounting how Miyazaki's tenure as layout and design man for every episode of Heidi and Marco truly unleashed him. Miyazaki had always been hotheaded and extremely driven, but now he had become a Hulk. So, naturally, Otsuka has a little fun, showing the younger friend bullying him around.

It's this drive and determination and forcefullness that has made Hayao Miyazaki the success he is today. Unfortunately, it's proven to be a weakness as Ghibli has searched for possible successors to the studios; anyone who can't stand up to the man is scared away. Well, if ya can't stand the heat...

You should also take note that Miyazaki is depicted as Conan. There's a self-portrait painted in watercolors from this period, which depicts the same idea. Miyazaki as his romantic hero. I long suspected that his Heroine was the avatar, much like Toshiro Mifune was to Kurosawa, but I don't believe that's the case. Miyazaki's direct representative is nearly always the male romantic lead. The archetypal Heroine? Ah, now there's something we'll have to digest.

Happy Birthday!!


Koicki Murata and Oh Pro

Very recently, the Japanese animator Koichi Murata passed away. He was one of the prominent people at Oh Production, and was also involved in many classics of anime, including most of Takahata and Miyazaki's major works of the 1970s - Heidi, Marco, Conan, Jarinko Chie, Sherlock Hound, Lupin III, Nausicaa, and finally, Oh Pro's best known movie, Gauche the Cellist. In other words, Murata was one of the essential talents of Japanese animation.

Ben Ettinger has written an excellent post about Murata and Oh Production over at Anipages, and as always, it's an essential read. Most, if not all, of my understanding of anime's history comes from Ben and his site, so I'm always grateful for his detailed history lessons. Read and enjoy.

Movie Night - Anne of Green Gables, Ep. 1

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

Such a long wait between movies! Oy, froynlayvin! Make with the nice! Pretty please! Nice layy-dee!!

Sorry. It's a bit easy to jump into Jerry Lewis mode, what with the Simpsons and Animaniacs roaming about. Anyway, I've been telling myself to hurry up and upload more episodes of Future Boy Conan, but I haven't been able to find the time (it takes a couple hours or more). Instead, thanks mainly to the immediate post below, I think we should sit down and watch the first episode of Anne of Green Gables.

Despite the fact that Maude Montgomery's children's novel is widely beloved by generations, and despite the highly popular television series from Canada, Isao Takahata's 1979 World Masterpiece Theatre production of Anne remains largely unknown. Perhaps this is just due to anime's relative obscurity, or perhaps this is because the anime crowd here in the States is much more interested in ogling naked chicks, giant robots, and endless explosions. For whatever reasons, the 70's classic animations from Japan remain unknown on these shores.

I'd say it's time to change that. An excellent fansub copy of Anne has been available online for several years, and you'll see that I include the links here on the blog. If you've missed the opportinity to watch this masterful series, then I encourage you to do so now.

This really is the definitive Anne, for far more reasons than I'd be able to summarize here. I had schemed a year or so ago to put Anne of Green Gables on DVD (entire fan-made, of course) with audio commentaries on most of the episodes. That plan fell through when I discovered how many DVD players can't run blank discs (DVD-R, DVD+R). But, at least we can watch some episodes here, and I do have the podcast project coming up.

Of Course You Can Kill a Dead Horse

Anne of Green Gables (Akage no An)

Michael Sporn has been writing a bit about the recent animated hit Happy Feet, which, like most of the recent American animated features, has drawn a degree of criticism and controversy from the animation community. Today, he tries to think of memorable dance numbers from animated films. There are, of course, the usual suspects, like Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but Michael Sporn also mentions the dance number during the closing credits of Chicken Little. I haven't seen that picture, but I'd have to say that's an interesting choice.

I have to admit, as if you haven't already guessed by now, that I'm not a fan of most American animation. I really dislike all the endless song-and-dance numbers that seem mandatory for every cartoon, and are nearly always grating on my ears. No, sir, don't like 'em. That said, I'm a great fan of the classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, and the Powell/Pressburger classic The Red Shoes. Now, kids, there is a dance movie that you need to have in your collection.

Now, this subject got me thinking. Song and dance numbers aren't something you see in the Takahata/Miyazaki canon, except for the early years at Toei Doga. That's something they and their peers were very keen to escape from. However, I can think of two brilliant moments that memorably stand out.

Anne of Green Gables (Akage no An)Here's one example from Anne of Green Gables, the 21st episode, titled "The New Minister's Wife." This is the part when Mr. and Mrs. Allen comes to Green Gables. When Anne Shirley and Dianne Berry meet them, the new couple are found dancing amongst the flowers and trees. It's a great romantic moment, and for Anne especially, since she has discovered a new soul mate. This is one of my favorite scenes from Anne, and illustrates why the series is so memorable. It's awash in romanticism.

Of course, one of the most iconic sequences from Anne is the ride through the apple orchard in episode 1. You'd have to be pretty harsh and cold not to consider this wonderful sequence a "dance" scene. And, once again, there's a heartfelt naturalism, a genuine honesty to these moments that simply do not exist in American animation. The corporatist pyramid scheme is far too interested in selling you junk and blowing out your eardrums to actually, well, entertain you properly.


Insignia Portable DVD - Play Region Free!

Many of you have been asking me how to watch foreign DVD's on our American players. It's a bit of a challenge, thanks to the region lock-outs that prevent one region's player from playing another region's disks. Fortunately, there have been many options available. Here's one solution for you.

It's becoming an open secret that newer DVD players include secret "easter egg" codes that allow you to override the region settings. There are websites that catalog the different makes and models, and the various procedures for cracking the codes. This is especially common with portable DVD machines.

Here is my new Christmas toy, the Insignia 9" portable DVD unit. Insignia makes a number of brands, seperated only by the screen size. This is one of the bigger ones, and they can easily be found at Best Buy or similar retailers.

Now, here's how you crack the easter egg code. First, we turn the machine on without any disc in the drive. We then press the SETUP button on the remote. That takes us to the following screen above.

Now, we need to hit the RIGHT ARROW three times, which takes us to the PREFERENCE screen. Now we're ready to punch in our secret code.

Using the remote, press the following code - 9653. Again, that's 9653.

Now you'll see this window appear. This window sets the region code for your player. We're going to keep things easy, so just press the down arrow and select 0. That means the unit will now be region-free.

Congratulations! You're done! Now you just have to hit the SETUP button again to exit, then put in any disc in the tray and start watching! The Insignia players, like all portable DVD's, can be connected to any TV. This code also works on any Insignia model, as best I know.

For me, this now means that I can now show all these great movies in front of audiences. There are a lot of folks who still haven't seen My Neighbor Totoro. Imagine their surprise at being able to watch Ghiblies Episode 2, or or Gauche the Cellist. This is a great little toy. Enjoy!

PS: I nearly forgot to add one important point. The region code resets whenever you turn off your Insignia player. That means that everytime you turn your player on, you must re-enter the override code. Dagnabbit! I can't really complain, in all fairness, since it only takes a few seconds, but it would have been nicer to only perform this once. Such is life.


Today's Screenshots - Panda Kopanda and the Rainy Day Circus

If you're looking for a good cartoon to show for all the kids during the holiday season (remember Orthodox Christmas still awaits), you can't do much better than the two Panda Kopanda films. I think I'm a little more partial to the second one, Panda Kopanda and the Rainy Day Circus, if only because of its slightly more meditative pace that hints at what's to come with Heidi a year later. Oh, and there's also a lot of madcap comedy. I'm impressed at how much is crammed into a 35-minute show.

Perhaps someday I'll learn why there were never any more Panda Kopanda cartoons. I'd assume that Miyazaki, Takahata, and the rest were far too consumed by Heidi and Marco and everything to come later. Still, you'd think that someone would take the reins and revive the franchise. I would think an animation studio dreaming of creating something akin to the Peanuts cartoons would jump right into Panda's world.

The two Panda movies are available in North America under the title Panda Go Panda. The Japanese DVD, naturally, is the better version, with a brighter picture, and some lengthy television interviews with Takahata and Miyazaki.

Ghibli Calendar 2007

It's time to pull out the new 2007 Studio Ghibli calendars, everyone! If you're not aware, Studio Ghibli has been publishing annual calendars since the late '90s, featuring artwork from their major films. For Ghibli fans, this is something of an annual event, a prized possession to store away and show off to the future grandchildren.

I've noticed that this year's calendar is a bit different. They're using actual shots from the movies this time. Usually what happens is that the artists render scenes from the movies, from a different angle or perspective, or they create a scene from outside the movies altogether. Mei and Satsuki playing with the Totoros, or Taeko and Toshio at a holiday celebration in town, or, if we're really lucky, a full-color illustration from the Nausicaa books.

For 2007 we're getting the iconic screenshots from the films. It's a different change of pace. I wonder, also, if this move was made because of the production of the new Miyazaki film, which will be consuming the Ghibli studio until summer 2008. Perhaps they just couldn't spare the artists this year.

In any event, you can purchase the Ghibli calendars at any major online retailer. It would be great to be able to purchase them in the States, but what can ya do? Ghibli will never allow Disney to get its greasy paws on their works, and God bless 'em for it.


A Conversations on Ghibli Podcast?

If you're wondering what I've been up to lately - and that means all 50 of you - well, here's what it is. I've been seriously looking into expanding this weblog into a weekly podcast. I think 2006 was the year when I finally started to examine the whole podcasting scene, and goodness knows there are a million of 'em. There are even a number of animation and anime-themed podcasts.

But, again, there's a large void where Studio Ghibli is concerned. It seems to me that there's an opportunity to address that.

I've done a lot of reading and research, and I happen to have a number of tools on my computer like Audacity. I have another tool which is supposed to record audio from a DVD, and this was a crucial milestone for me. I'd want my podcast to sound as professional and solid as possible, not something that was quickly slapped together with a microphone and the "record" button.

So I'm scouring through ideas for intros and exists. I'm thinking of the segments of Beethoven's Pastorale from Takahata's Gauche the Cellist; partly because I'm a terrific fan of Takahata's film, and partly because Pastorale is on my short list of most-beloved music.

In terms of the format, here's what I'm thinking right now. I think it should run for 30 minutes. The problem I've got with so many podcasts is that they run so doggone long. One hour, two hours - this is really cutting into my day, and all those other concerns for my attention. You already must deal with reading the news, perusing the blogs, listening to Air America, playing music, and then the whole deal of writing and creating your own work. Oh, and you also need to have a job and go outside and interact with others, too. So, to my mind, podcasts need to be shorter to accomodate my time better.

Perhaps I'm just afraid that no one would want to listen to some hour-long lecture on a bunch of foreign animation films they've never seen. So half an hour sounds good for me.

Another thing I'd like to do is offer audio commentaries for DVD's. I was getting this idea after listening to the MST3K alumni work their magic on Rifftrax, and I discovered that this is something that is finally feasable. The technology has finally caught up to the idea. So would audio commentaries be "special episodes" of the podcast, or should they stand on their own? I haven't decided yet, but I'd likely go with the option that's easiest for listeners to follow.

Ideally, I'd like to have one or two collaborators on the Ghibli Podcast project, but once again - and I'm truly, seriously, tired of this refrain - I have no one who can help me. I still have never met any seriously dedicated Ghibli fans in Minneapolis; don't even get me started on that anime club at the University of Minnesota. I must confess that this frustration is a key reason for my absences from this blog.

Of course, I appreciate all of you for coming to visit and take time out of your days to read my words. Even if everybody's scattered across the globe, and these are conversations that really only exist in our minds, it's a valuable endeavor. My deepest thanks and gratitude to each and every one of you. Best wishes for a happy holiday season!!

If anyone has any ideas or insights about podcasting, please please please, let me know. I appreciate all the help I can get.

Happy New Year 2007

Hey, who let all these damned cobwebs in here?!

Happy New Year, everybody! And now, for no real purpose whatsoever, here's a couple shots from the Ghibli Museum short film, Mei and the Kittenbus. We'll probably never get to see this, or any other of the museum shorts, to the great mass of wailing and sobbing from devoted Totoro fans around the world.

Hmm. I remember a year or so ago when Ghibli's Totoro exhibit made it's way to the Children's Museum in St. Paul, Minnesota. I wonder why something similar couldn't happen with the Ghibli Museum's films. It would be an interesting option.

Here's hoping that 2007 is a great year for everyone. The last several months have been rough for me. At least the shadow of death is no longer hanging over my head. Now to nurse those hangovers...

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