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Archive for the ‘Saturday Anime’ Category

By Bob Clark

Though it’s been more and more infrequent in the past fifteen years or more, there used to be a fairly common occurrence of half-hour animated specials produced from American comic-strips, usually centering around some kind of holiday-related special occasion, the gold standard being the classic Charlie Brown Christmas. Those and other Peanuts specials from creator Charles Schulz and director Bill Melendez managed to translate the peculiar mannerisms of the cartoonist’s celebrated comic-strip so successfully into animation that for decades they managed to serve as the first introduction many children had to characters like Snoopy, Linus and the like. It helped having actual kids supply the voices for the young characters, of course (with Melendez himself providing grunts and howls rich in personality for Snoopy), and especially the accompaniment of Vince Guaraldi’s now standard jazz compositions. But as permanent as that special, the ones that succeeded it, and even the features and series that followed in their wake all marked themselves into the consciousness of whole generations’ worth of children, the animated form of Peanuts never quite outstepped the influence of the original home Schulz found on the comics page, where his work served as an inspiration to countless cartoonists and artists of every stripe (even Godard called him one of the best writers in America) until his death in early 2000.

The same can’t quite be said for some of the other comic-strips to have succeeded in animated form. Some easily outpaced their comics-page counterparts, only serving to remind just how superficial some of those comics were to begin with– the various Garfield cartoons came to life on television in a way that Jim Davis’ strip never approaches thanks to the addition of Lou Rawl’s music and most especially the charmingly deadpan voice of the late Lorenzo Music, such to the point that not even Bill Murray himself could follow in those horrible live-action movies. Aaron McGrudder’s anime-influenced Boondocks series has long-since outpaced the original strip that sired it, at least in terms of his own involvement. Others managed to remain true to their printed sources, but never really reach people on the same level of impact– Berke Breathed’s Bloom County made an honestly charming special centered around Opus the Penguin in A Wish for Wings That Work, but it’s strictly for die-hard fans of the strip, and Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse translated well enough into an animated version that’s sure to please anybody who still remembers the long-running Canadian strip even exists. Plenty of high profile strips have never been turned into animated forms of any kind (Bill Waterson would turn in his grave before he was even buried should Calvin and Hobbes be licensed in any way), and plenty more have been brought to television with so little fanfare it’s a wonder anybody knows about them at all (remember Tales From the Far Side? Or that Dilbert series with Daniel Stern and Kathy Griffin? I didn’t think so).

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By Bob Clark

In honor of Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s recent passing, this piece is rerun.

The wonderful thing about science fiction set in outer space is the sheer size of it all. Though the cosmos isn’t exactly as infinite as hyperbole would suggest, it’s certainly almost inconceivably vast, far too far and wide for any single traveler to circumnavigate, even with the highest of technologies and the longest of lifespans. It is also too large for any single imagination to conquer definitively– more than any other setting for speculative sagas both grounded in professional rigour and unbound in flights of fancy, the night skies of outer space have been and remain the most reliably florid landscape for enterprising storytellers to weave tales of adventure and excitement the likes of which have little earthly comparison, and unlike so many of our own terrestrial locales for such mythic spin, it’s an environment big enough for everyone to share. After a while, nearly all of the locales we tell stories in around our own provincial planet grow stale from the influence of a handful or so storytellers and artists from whose shadow even the greatest masters can never fully escape. Westerns will always carry a debt to John Ford, Noirs will always bear the tell-tale fingerprints of Lang and German Expressionism, and literary fantasy will forever carry a debt to the hallmark tomes of Tolkien and all the Arthurian tradition that came before it. But space? Ah, there’s a canvas so wide and deep it all but puts to shame even the most accomplished contributions to its legacy beyond the stars. It’s a tapestry with room enough for a diverse assembly of creators to start at whatever fringes they choose and develop their weave in full, sometimes never quite overlapping with their brethren in all but the most superficial of family resemblances.

Jules Verne can take us to the moon on page, and Kubrick to the lunar monolith, beyond Jupiter and even infinity without owing too large an IOU to the French master. George Lucas can take us through hyperspace to a galaxy far, far away and never even have to worry about paying a toll for crossing through Buck Roger’s or Flash Gordon’s territories. Hideaki Anno can send teenage-piloted robots out into the universe or world-threatening alien monstrosities down to Earth without it crossing the same tracks as Leiji Matsumoto’s express lanes. Simply put, space is a big enough territory for all of the sci-fi masters of our world or any other to share, and as such there’s a quaint charm to the idea that the myriad worlds of all these creators might be shared, in some metafictional sleight of hand. As such, one wonders where exactly the worlds of director Rene Laloux’s features would be situated in the cosmos, owing so much as they do to their respective co-writers and artistic designers. Last week’s La Planete Sauvage would not be what it is without the sketchy illustrative style of Roland Topur, and next week’s Gandahar would be hard to imagine without the crisper designs of Phillipe Caza. Of all his feature collaborations, however, none are more affected by the presence of his co-conspirator than 1982’s Les Maitres Du Temps (“Time Masters”), where celebrated French comic-book artist Jean Giraud brought his inimitable sensibilities to the big-screen and in full, living animation for the first time. Though throughout the course of this film we may criss-cross from one celestial body to the next in the breadth of the Laloux galaxy, from start to finish our feet remain firmly rooted on Planet Moebius.

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by Jaime Grijalba.

(Japan, 70 min)

For those who read manga, even the name of Junji Ito may not be the most known or talked about in the inner circles of the hell known as the otaku fanbase. It is asumed that most of the guys and girls who read manga are just generic fans of it and don’t go beyond the themes and genres that the establishment has put for people, such as the ‘fighting’ mangas like Naruto, or sport issues that keep coming years after years. Not even with the surge of asian horror films of the 00’s the manga horror genre got a leap, as the figure of Junji Ito still remains underground for the main common occidental folk who is into the reading and collecting of the mangaka. But there is a group of people that are in the know, still quite a large number, but still not the majority, for those that the name of Ito is similar to dread and total fear, unmistakeable and dreadful fear, one that crawls under your skin, disgusts you and at the same time keeps hitting way too close to home in many of the themes it relies on, beyond the things that scare, as weird and strange as they are, they keep being way too close and harmful for anyone that has taken some time to read something from the master of the horror manga, something like Uzumaki, Tomie or… Gyo.

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By Bob Clark

In honor of this film’s showing as a part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, this piece is being rerun. A schedule for the entire festival, including one morning screening for this film that’s still open as of this posting, can be found here.

For years now, writer/director Makoto Shinkai has been called “the next Miyazaki”, a kind of praise that arrives sounding more like a challenge, and for years he’s managed to do his best at avoiding it, lest he be burdened with the prospect of living up to it. Never mind the fact that his previous efforts all betray less similarities to the master’s work than that of more modern directors– Voices From a Distant Star and The Place Promised In Our Early Days especially owe a far greater debt to Hideaki Anno than his mentor in the Nausicaa days. Perhaps with Five Centimeters Per Second we began to see more of a Ghibli-esque tone, with the realistic setting and sentimental romance, but even then it feels closer to efforts like Whisper of the Heart than the epic fantasies that Miyazaki has made over the course of three decades. Well, with his latest effort, and from the looks of it perhaps his first made expressly as a work of feature theatrical-bound animation (all the rest of his work betrays their OVA roots, even at their best moments), Shinkai finally rises to the challenge and delivers on the promise of those hyperbole compliments. It may be early to say that Children Who Chase Voices From Deep Below earns Shinkai a place in the canon of anime-auteurs alongside the likes of Miyazaki, Anno, Oshii or the late Satoshi Kon, but I’d rather be early than fashionably late to the party on this one.

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By Bob Clark

Makoto Shinkai’s origins as an amateur animator, creating a pair of shorts in his off time as an illustrator at a Japanese game company, are now something like the stuff of otaku legend. There’s an inspiring quality in the way that a single artist using little more than Photoshop could produce impressive, sometimes even stunning works and quickly move to making features on the scale and scope of veteran directors like Miyazaki, to whom the young director has most often been compared to. Indeed, at 38, he’s one of the most successful and youngest animators in the modern era, surpassed only by Hideaki Anno in recent memory, who at his age had already completed the magnum opus of Neon Genesis Evangelion and its apocalyptic film finale. Shinkai’s accomplishments so far are a little more modest, but only just quite– his two features, The Place Promised in our Early Days and Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below have won droves of accolades from critics and fans around the world, who both liken the director to the older masters of Studios Ghibli and Gainax, while also marveling at his own unique sensibilities, especially the way that he manipulates light and color to create immersive and convincing expressionistic landscapes both on the ground and deep in the sky. But for all the ways his longer works have solidified his esteem in online establishments, it’s his shorter works that have both earned and continued that respect, even in their slightest of forms.

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By Bob Clark

Note: In honor of upcoming screenings for Makoto Shinkai’s  latest feature, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below at the forthcoming New York International Children’s Film Festival, I’ll be rerunning this review of his first feature this week, followed by write-ups of his OVA releases, and a rerun of my review of his new film.

Whenever a new talent in anime pops up, the first impulse among most viewers is to instantly compare them to the gold-standard of Japanese animation gone worldwide and mainstream, the storied house of Studio Ghibli. If a director proves to be worth any consideration more than just a passing mention in an online forum or a convention round-table, the next impulse is to place upon them the mantle of so many undue expectations and declare them “the next Miyazaki”, as though one were a racing commentator always on the look-out for the next Seabiscuit, the next Secretariat or so many other triple-crown figments of the imagination. Most of the time, the comparisons are interesting, but don’t quite match up– Mamoru Hosada is a great talent from the work he’s done on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and the stellar Summer Wars, but it’s a little too early to make prognostications as to his long-term status. Sometimes, the comparisons can be flat-out unfair to the director in question, and ignorant of the substance in their work– the late Satoshi Kon was perhaps the biggest anime-figure to make a big splash in the worldwide art-house circuit, but you couldn’t imagine a director farther from the childish tendencies of Miyazaki if you tried lucid dreaming.

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By Bob Clark

In the past decade or so, we’ve seen a rise in animation being used to promote feature movie franchises with short works and mini-series being produced between films. Most of the time these efforts result in anthologies of featurettes being made by multiple teams of different animators lending their own distinct styles and stories to the franchise in question, the classic example being the best-and-brightest team up of The Animatrix, which saw the creators of Cowboy Bebop, Aeon Flux, Redline and others joining forced with the Wachowskis to fill out and embellish the mythology of their burgeoning sci-fi trilogy in ways that were often more satisfactory to their audiences than the resulting sequel films were, themselves. This isn’t terribly surprising, on one hand– as CGI and digital filmmaking in general have opened up the potential for directors to unleash their cinematic imagination, their work in live action has begun to resemble animation in style and technique more and more, underlining how much of an influence it has long had on sci-fi and fantasy filmmakers. It’s almost natural that some series would almost seem more at home in the realm of drawn or computer rendered imagery, without the mediating factor of live-action performers. Star Wars is perhaps one of the prime examples of a series that thrives in a fully animated environment, especially in the Dave Filoni directed The Clone Wars series begun in 2008, but before he took on George Lucas’ creation, another animator had already been given the chance to put his interpretation on the series in the form of Genndy Tartakovsky’s 2003 to 2005 micro-serials.

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Last week I offered up my choices for the best late releases of 2011– this week, the best films that were actually released for the first time during the full scope of last year. Or at least, the films I’d pick as my favorite releases, because that’s all any “best of” list can ever really be called, if we’re to be honest with ourselves. Forget about the choices people make to project the right image for publications or to stay in with certain crowds of popularity– on a certain level you have to just plain like a movie enough to endorse it at the end of any given 12 month cycle. Even if you just wind up regurgitating the same old countdown of autumnal art-house and award-bait releases that every major published critic tends to drum up somewhere in the span between December and January, suffering from all the same long-term memory problems that tend to hit commentators when the time comes to remember films other than the ones you’ve gotten screeners for in the past couple of weeks for your proverbial consideration, it all comes down to the question of actual enjoyment. If a film was fun enough (and we all have our own kinds of fun) for you to recommend it to a whole host of readers, up it goes, or ought to. So that’s what this is, in all honesty, and if you take a careful look at the image up above then you probably know what you’re getting yourself into before you even gander at the rest of this piece (if you hadn’t already figured it out before). There won’t be any surprises here, folks.

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By Bob Clark

And so, another year goes by, and with it another selection of movies to consider as candidates for the best of our most recent orbit around the sun. But along with that comes the question of what constitutes a film from that year– one that was made during the past 12 months, released in its own country, a run on the festival circuit, or a wider international theatrical tour? It’s something our regular contributors here at Wonders have argued unceasingly at the beginning of every new year when we tally up our choices for the best films of the last one, and something I’ve tried to pay as little attention as possible while assembling my own choices. My picks from last year, for instance, included a whole bevy of entries that were in reality late releases from previous years– the controversial Dogtooth and Mamoru Hosada’s modern anime classic Summer Wars among them. It’s something that I tend to make excuses for, being a big fan of anime and having grown used to the long periods one has to wait to get official releases of even the biggest movies and television shows (yes, lots of people resort to pirating them online, but considering that’s one of the things slowly killing the anime industry in America, I’d rather exercise a little patience). But having this year enjoyed a rather nice array of late releases both animated and live-action, fiction and non-fiction alike, I thought it’d be fun to precede my countdown of the best new films of 2011 with the best old films of 2011. Now, these are all films from years prior that were given their first theatrical runs in the United States in the past 12 months– with only one slight exception, I’m leaving out retrospective screenings like the Ben Hur show at the New York Film Festival or the Studio Ghibli gems the IFC Center just finished with.

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By Bob Clark

Since its original release from 1989 to 1991, the Ghost in the Shell manga has become one of the most widely recognized franchises in comics and animation alike, living on through numerous permutations and in the hands of three principle authors over that time– Masamune Shirow, author and illustrator of the of the original manga series; Mamoru Oshii, director of the film adaptation; and Kenji Kamiyama, director of the two Stand Alone Complex television series. Though their various takes on the property range from the abstractly philosophical to the concretely physical, from fast-paced action to surreal sexual interludes, the one main thing that each iteration has had in common is its focus on the standout character of Major Motoko Kusanagi, the top agent in Japan’s Section-9 security force, a top-of-the-line cyborg who spends her time between playing hard on missions and harder on R-&-R wondering about what it all means.

However, the character of the Major recedes to varying degrees in the furthest reaches of each creator’s handling of the series. Kamiyama’s Solid State Society picks up two years after SAC’s 2nd Gig, and portrays a Kusanagi gone rogue to investigate cases that Section-9 restrains her from, including a series of bizarre deaths related to a master hacker known as “The Puppeteer”. Oshii’s sequel film Innocence picks up where the original story left off and follows agents Batou and Togusa as they try to piece together a mystery without the help of the Major, disappeared into the net after tracking down and fusing with the Puppeteer artificial-intelligence. Finally, there is Shirow’s own follow-up manga, Man-Machine Interface, which follows Motoko herself in one of the various parent-child personalities that have sprung up after her fusion with the Puppeteer and transformation into something close to god-like status as an omniscient navigator of the web. One thing that they all share is the degree to which they attempt to confront existential crises of identity through the character of the Major, and those around her. Another thing they have in common is the fact that, by and large, they don’t make very much sense.

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