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2006-10-30

Studio Ghibli's Domestic Grosses

A was talking a little while ago about Japan's domestic grosses, and how they differ from the box-office grosses in America. It's always a bit tricky to make direct comparisons, since Japan has a much smaller population, far fewer movie screens, and a far smaller domestic film industry. Like the rest of the world, their home-grown movie business has pretty much collapsed in favor of Hollywood blockbusters.

Oliver Coombes compiled a list of Studio Ghibli's domestic grosses at the appendix to his Pom Poko essay (see links). I decided to reprint the list here, with a few alterations. One, I consulted Box Office Mojo for The Cat Returns' grosses. Unfortunately, their records only go back a few years, so I couldn't obtain numbers for anything before 2002.

Also, I converted the numbers into US Dollars, using the current exchange rate of $1 = 118.778 Yen. One major caveat - I don't know if these numbers were adjusted for inflation. Probably not. I think these were the final tallies at the time, or numbers that are very close.

In any case, caveat emptor. Don't quote these numbers as if they're the Gospel. I'm only showing these numbers as a comparison, and as an education tool.

One additional note: I wasn't able to find numbers for My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, which appeared in Japan as a double bill. Coombes writes that the numbers were still below Nausicaa, and it's well known that they didn't earn a profit.

Also, I haven't found any numbers for 1995's Mimi wo Sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart). I am aware that the movie was a hit, enough so that tour guides started offering tours of the sights from the movie (set in suburban Tokyo).

The first Ghibli movie to turn a profit was Kiki's Delivery Service in 1989. Since then, every film has become the top-grossing domestic film for its year. Most of the time, the American movies drew the largest audiences, although Takahata is proud that his Pom Poko beat out Disney's The Lion King in 1994.

Ghibli's winning streak was only broken in 1999, when My Neighbors the Yamadas went over like a lead balloon. Unfairly, I might add. Again, kids, everybody in Japan preferred to spend the summer with...Jar Jar. Ugh. What were they thinking?!


Studio Ghibli Domestic Grosses (US Dollars; $1 = 118.778 Yen)

1984 - Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind - 6, 230, 110
1986 - Laputa: Castle in the Sky - 4, 883, 059
1988 - My Neighbor Totoro - n/a
1988 - Grave of the Fireflies - n/a
1989 - Kiki's Delivery Service - 18, 100, 955
1991 - Omohide Poro Poro - 15, 575, 275
1992 - Porco Rosso - 23, 573, 389
1993 - Umi Ga Kikoeru - television
1994 - Pom Poko - 22, 142, 148
1995 - Whisper of the Heart - n/a
1997 - Mononoke Hime - 162, 488, 003
1999 - My Neighbors the Yamadas - 6, 903, 365
2001 - Spirited Away - 255, 939, 652
2002 - The Cat Returns - 50, 590, 057
2004 - Howl's Moving Castle - 159, 962, 283

2006-10-29

Takahata Riffs #1


As promised earlier, I'm now going to show you some examples of reoccuring images and motifs in Isao Takahata's career. We do see riffing on occasion, though nowhere near the frequencey of Miyazaki's work.

For Takahata, this technique is used as homage to his earlier works like Heidi and Panda Go Panda, though it is also employed as a dramatic means of comparing works. The opening sequence of My Neighbors the Yamadas, for instance, is heavily based on the title sequence for Jarinko Chie. This is a way of informing the audience as to the sort of movie that awaits them.

Today, we'll take a look at Heidi, one of Takahata and Miyazaki's greatest achievements. This first shot comes from the opening scene for every episode. It's a terrific sequence, going from detailed pictures of the Alps, then moving to romanticized images of Heidi frolicking, swaying on a giant swing, bouncing on a cloud, and dancing ring-around-the-rosies with Peter.

The shots with Heidi in the clouds are recreated in Yamada-kun, during another masterfully imaginative series of events. Here, in the second shot, we see the Yamada clan perched on a cloud as it descends onto the city, while an old woman dispenses advice for the newly-married couple (the advice - have lots of kids). A terrific scene.

Miyazaki Riffs #6



Here is another one of those Miyazaki Riffs that has appeared more than once: the deathbed confession. Horus, Prince of the Sun is where is all starts, with the somber scene of the death of Horus' father. It's a somber moment, and it's very effective, because it not only establishes the emotional drive for the main character - "Horus, go to your people!" - but that it underscores the seriousness of the film.

In Future Boy Conan, Miyazaki pays tribute early on, with the death of Conan's grandfather in episode 2. As before, Conan is told the story of how they arrived at their current home on Remnant Island. As before, the grandfather implores the boy to leave and find his true calling among his people.

Also, note the surroundings. In both instances, the escape vehicle (in Horus, a boat; in Conan, a spaceship) has been converted into a makeshift home. At least this time, Conan doesn't burn down the place like Horus does.

Now here's a third and lesser-known appearance of the deathbed confession. It appears in the 1969 Toei Doga film, "The Flying Ghost Ship." It's a low-budget picture, one of many the studio started churning out during its period of decline. The reason we remember it is because Miyazaki worked on it as a key animator, and contributed many ideas.

Again, we same the same setup. Only this time, the boy has lost both his parents. The father also reveals that he is not the boy's real father; the father turns out to be the mysterious Ghost Ship captain. The fadeout is a little similar to the fish-eye lens shot at the end of the scene from Horus.

It's interesting to note that several bits and pieces from The Flying Ghost Ship reappear in Future Boy Conan. If it weren't for that, and Miyazaki's scene depicting a tank battle in downtown Tokyo (which, also, is recreated in the second Lupin III series finale, "Farewell, Beloved Lupin," in 1979), this picture would be relegated to the b-movie status it deserves.

Movie Night - Future Boy Conan, Ep. 2



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

I had to be sure to upload the second episode of Future Boy Conan, since the first one ends on such a cliffhanger. It would be mean of me to leave you hanging. Anyway, episode 2 really kicks things off. The main thrust of the story - Conan rescuing Lana and screaming very loudly - is established, most of the major players are brought onto the stage, and we have a fuller insight into the backstory of this post-apocalyptic world.

This episode of Conan is also notable for a couple reasons I'd like to highlight. The first is the death of Conan's "grandfather." If you've been following this blog for a while now, then you'll already be familiar with the groundbreaking Horus, Prince of the Sun. The death scene in Conan is a clear homage to the death of Horus' father, complete with deathbed confession, and the son being charged with the responsibility of reconnecting with the outside world. It's one of the better of Miyazaki's many tributes and riffs.


The second item of note is the very next scene, Conan's grieving. This scene was animated by Yoshifumi Kondo, and is regarded as one of his finest moments. It's beloved by Miyazaki and Otsuka and the others on the show, and for us, this is another example of Kondo's brilliant talents. I tend to associate him with a naturalistic, real-life style of drawing, but Conan's grief, and his hurling of bigger and bigger rocks, shows an exaggerated cartoon style. It's a real change of pace, and demonstrates how all the best animators must call upon many different traits.


So, for animators, there's your lesson for the day: don't become stuck in a rut. Broaden your skills, widen your palette.


I should also note that this scene slyly introduces one of Conan's reoccuring talents - his super-strength. More often than not, it's used as a comic gag, and I suppose in lesser hands, it would merely be a cheap method for the writers to get themselves out of a jam. Heroes trapped in a corner? Just have Conan use his strength. Instant Deus Ex Machina - just add water.

Plot elements like this need to be introduced before they're really employed. It's also a crucial lesson of videogame design - it's a hallmark of Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda). Of course, it's also nice to know that this is, after all, a cartoon show. There's nothing wrong with goofing off every now and then, as long as you stay consistent and honest.


Conan episode 2 also pays tribute to Horus near the end, when Conan builds his boat and leaves Remnant Island. It's a terrific bit of planning and comedy, and I'm also truly impressed with the pacing of these scenes. Conan doesn't just throw something together and set sail in one short montage (which would be the American standard). You appreciate the value of time. You also begin to discover that Conan is a lot smarter than he let on in the first episode.

Without further ado, here is episode 2 of Future Boy Conan. If there's enough of a demand, I'll continue to show episodes as long as I'm able. Enjoy!

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

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

In case you've missed it, here's your chance to watch one of the greatest of all American animated shows. For me, it's a toss-up between The Great Pumpkin and A Charlie Brown Christmas. I can never choose which one is best. Happy halloween, and don't eat too much candy!

2006-10-28

Photos: Mind Game

Photos: Mind Game
Photos: Mind Game
Photos: Mind Game
Photos: Mind Game

Masaaki Yuasa is one of the most brilliantly inventive young people working in Japanese animation today. His style as an artist, animator, and director are so unique as to proclaim him the master of his own domain. If there were any fairness in this world, he would become an inspiration for artists and filmmakers around the world.

His directoral film debut is 2004's Mind Game. Mind Game is something that, for most people, is impossible to describe. What is it? An experiemental movie? An animation powerhouse? A psychedelic Fellini trip? A collusion of everything that makes anime great? It's all of these things and more. There really is no way to prepare yourself or prepare others; your only option is to sit down and experience it yourself.

Mind Game is available in Japan on DVD, and I to believe English subtitles are included. There is also a fansub copy floating around the internet. The tragedy is that, apart from the occasional film festival in major cities, the movie is completely unheard of in the States. Goodness knows it doesn't conform to the stale, conservative expectations of the "anime nerds." But Mind Game deserves to be seen, and it deserves a proper audience.

2006-10-27

Takahata, Kotabe, Okuyama in Winter Days






Here are two excellent segments from the 2003 animation anthology Winter Days. The first one is by Yoichi Kotabe and Reiko Okuyama, a stylized sequence that's somewhat different from what you'd expect from them - it's not at all like Heidi or Marco or Jarinko Chie. And yet, it's very familiar. I think this format allows them the freedom to stretch their wings, and not necessarily follow any of the standard conventions. They're allowed to experiment with the artform.

For those of you who are new to this site, Kotabe and Okuyama belong to that hallowed group of artists, animators, and filmmakers who grew out of Toei Doga in the 1960s. They're part of a loyal gang that includes Yasuo Otsuka, Yasuji Mori, Akemi Ota, Michiyo Yasuda, and of course, Miyazaki and Takahata. They've all stuck together, here and there, at Toei, A-Pro, Nippon Animation, and Telecom, and ending with Takahata and Miyazaki's founding of Ghibli in 1985. I've written many posts about this history, and will write many more, so be sure to use the search bar if you're curious.

Now, on to Takahata. This is especially significant because, as I've recounted earlier, his last feature film was My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. There's a bit of dispute over what exactly happened during the production of that movie, which was over schedule and over budget. This is more common at Ghibli than most folks realize, but Yamadas was something of a daring break, not only with its visual style, but because it so directly contrasted with the studio's previous movie, Mononoke Hime.

Mononoke, of course, became monstrously successful, and catapulted Miyazaki into a statosphere of success that he resides today. He became the most successful filmmaker in Japan's history, by a country mile. It was also during this time that the Miyazaki name was finally spreading around the world, and hitting a critical mass.

So Takahata follows up a hugely successful movie with one that is quiet, reflective, and full of the warmth of human drama. It's a sly film, a comic Calvin and Hobbes cousin to his 1981 film Jarinko Chie. For moviegoers who crave the next epic adventure in the vein of Kurosawa, they got its opposite - an Ozu movie.

As a final, cruel insult, Yamada-kun was released to theatres at the same time as 1) the first Pokemon movie (just when that fad is red-hot), and 2) Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. A nation of 100 million people looked at the master storyteller they all grew up with, the one who gave them Horus and Heidi and Marco and Anne....and then ran off to go see Jar-Jar Binks.

The entire Japanese nation lost their minds. Yamada-kun was not a success at the box office, and never even recouped its money. For those who kept their senses and actually - gasp! - sat down and watched the movie, they loved it, and tried to bring their friends and family along. But these were few and far between.

Which brings us back to the present. There has been some dispute, particularly here in the West, since we have so little information to go on, as to what truly happened between Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli. There was talk that he had been yanked from the director's chair, that he had been forced into retirement, or even made to leave the studio altogether.

It seems the truth is much less dire. Takahata had decided on his own accord to step back from filmmaking. He simply didn't want to continue with the old system of trading off pictures with Miyazaki. We have to remember that he was almost 65 when Yamada-kun was finished. Many of his peers had retired or moved on to other things. For Takahata, it was simply time to step back a bit and take a break from making movies.

The 2003 Winter Days project finally sees his return to the screen, once again at Studio Ghibli. This is an extremely short segment, roughly one minute, but we still see that same brilliance in wit and humor, and that same reverence for his history. Takahata's contribution to Winter Days is outstanding, and only heightens his absense even more.

Will there be another Takahata film? We certainly hope so. He openly boasts of having several film projects that he is researching; knowing him, this phase could take forever. It's always worth it. The crucial challenge now is time. At 70. he doesn't have many years left. But for the greatest living filmmaker, after Igmar Bergman, that can hardly be any hindrance. Miyazaki's next movie will be completed in 2008. Give us one more movie! Onegai! Onegaishimasu!

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is Back!!

Well, sorta.

Still, the next best thing, and the best news I've heard all year. You can learn more about the movies by watching MST3K than almost anything else. It also happens to be the funniest show ever made.

2006-10-26

Miyazaki Comics - A Trip to Tynemouth (2006)



In Britain, the late author Robert Westall wrote a book titled, "Blackham's Wimpy." It was a tale about British bomber pilots in the Second World War, and was published in 1982. A Japanese translation appeared in 1990, when it caught the eye of a certain famous filmmaker. Miyazaki was already familiar with Westall's other books, and since this one dealt with airplanes and the war, he became a dedicated fan.

Just recently (within the last month or so), the Japanese publisher reissued "Blackham's Wimpy" with a new 23-page manga written and illustrated by Miyazaki. Titled, "A Trip to Tynemouth," it chronicles his trip to England in order to learn more about the airplanes and history behind the novel.

Miyazaki's comic is short but extremely detailed and varied. We wouldn't expect any less. It's impressive that even with such a short space, he collects several themes and moods in his trademark episodic style. In a sense, we're being brought along with him on his pilgrimmage.

We see reenactments, with ongoing commentary, of one of the scenes from Westall's story, only to cut away just when the British plane is spotted by the Germans. Miyazaki then cuts away, instructing the readers to read the full story for themselves. He details his own impressions when he first discovered the novel, as well as his own childhood feeling towards WWII and his own country's involvement. There are detailed cutaways of the bomber planes, nicknamed "Wimpy's" by the British, and more commentary. In the final act, Miyazaki (portrayed as a pig, of course) finally meets Robert Westall, drawn as a Scottish Terrier, and they have a conversation together.

Westall has died many years ago, so this encounter is a fictional one, the kind of transcendent imagination we see so often in Takahata's work. It's like something straight out of Heidi, one of those things that artists can do. It's something we all do when we learn and read; we search out the authors and try to learn from them. What would we talk about if we could?

I found out about Miyazaki's Tynemouth manga just recently; a dedicated fan translated most of the text into English and posted the pages on the forums at Online Ghibli. I was going to compile those pages for my own collection and direct you to them once the project was finished. Unfortunately, the lawyers stepped in and ordered the removal of the manga pages from Online Ghibli.

It seems like we've just been getting hit left and right by the suits lately. That's unfortunate, because it means we're left in the dark once again. I'd like to hope that this book could find its way to a US publisher; in fact, there are a number of smaller Miyazaki comics created through the years, going way back to newspaper comic versions of Puss in Boots and Animal Treasure Island when he was part of Toei Doga in the '60s. There's a lot out there to still discover and read, and one of these days, someone has to be bright enough to spot them.

Yuri Norstein and Winter Days



I've never wanted this weblog to focus purely on the careers of Miyazaki and Takahata. In order to appreciate their work, you also need to learn about and discover other great animators and filmmakers throughout the world. I've written much about their peers and friends back in Japan, each of whom have contributed immensely to animation. And now I'd like to discuss someone who needs no introduction.

Yuri Norstein is seen in the eyes of many as the greatest living animator. I happen to be one of them. It's an astonishing claim to make when you examine his career, only to discover that his entire creative output as animator and director spans less than 90 minutes. Most of his movies run around 10 minutes or so, and Tales of Tales, Norstein's undisputed masterpiece, runs for 30 minutes.

If you haven't yet discovered Yuri Norstein, what awaits you is one of the truly great artists of our lifetimes. His is a style of filmmaking that has nearly completely evaporated, based upon old techniques of animation from the former Soviet Union. Everyone else has moved on to the computer age; yet here sits Norstein, stubbornly resisting time and following his own path.

Most Yuri Norstein fans have been waiting endlessly for his great unfinished project, The Overcoat, which he has been working on for the past quarter-century. But many of you are not aware that he created a brilliant animation short for the 2003 Japanese movie Winter Days.

Winter Days is something of an omnibus film, a massive collection of shorts from many of the finest animators in Japan and around the world. It is based on one of the poems by the great Japanese poet Basho, in which each person (or team) animates one short stanza, and then passes along to the next person. It's a wickedly smart idea, and an immensely varied film. There probably isn't a better example of the sheer breadth of animation techniques and styles in many years, apart from Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game, which is another genre-buster.

Yuri Norstein is revered immensely in Japan, so he was given the honor of the first stanza. He created a two-minute segment as vivid, as imaginitive, as brilliant as anything in his career. Considering that his last completed film is 1979's Tales of Tales, this is a great achievement. A great relief. Any fears that the master has lost his powers are quietly put aside.

I purchased the Winter Days DVD earlier this year, and it includes seperate interviews with each of the filmmakers involved in the project, as well as considerabe air time for Norstein. Unfortunately, English subtitles are not included, although I have been tempted to throw some of these segments on YouTube and let someone else translate.

The DVD also includes paper cards of illustrations. I don't know if the same cards are included, or if (like Pearl Jam's No Code album) different cards are mixed around. In any case, my cards include those by Norstein. The above photo shows the first one, a terrific little sketch.

As a final note, I should add that Isao Takahata contributed a stanza for this movie. This was, after all, the reason I bought the DVD in the first place. It remains his only film work after My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. The husband-wife team of Yoichi Kotabe and Reiko Okuyama also created a segment; it's no surprise that these shorts are the best of the entire anthology.

How to Stiff the Competition's Loyal Fans

NOTE: Blogger is finally cooperating again. Oy vey, they've been nothing but trouble all month long! Somebody tell Google to get on the ball!

Some time ago, there once was a Ghibli fan site that compared and ranked the different releases of the Studio Ghibli DVDs around the world. It's no longer available, sadly, and it's a shame, because it was an excellent resource. It was probably this site that inspired me to seriously consider importing to build my movie library.


I wanted to continue along with our running thread, this time by looking a little closer at the American and Japanese DVDs for Laputa: Castle in the Sky. For those of you who have had to settle for the Disney version here in the States, this will feel like the final, unkindest insult of them all.

As a general rule, the Japanese Region 2 discs offer the best picture quality of all. This gap has been narrowed considerably with the later Ghibli DVDs in the US, with My Neighbor Totoro and Whisper of the Heart being excellent examples. The newer DVDs look terrific. The earlier Disney DVDs? Bloody awful. Mononoke and Castle in the Sky are the biggest offenders by far, and both are bad enough to make the entire purchase worthless.


Here are some comparisons from Castle in the Sky. The first picture is from the Region 2 disc; the second is from the Region 1. This is from the movie's opening scene. While you can appreciate the smooth detail of the artwork in the Japanese disc, the American disc is plagued with specks, dust, and an over-reliance on edge enhancement. It's a lot like watching a movie on an old, worn-down film print, and it's more obvious in motion than in still photos.


Here is another example, one of my favorite shots from the film. On the Region 2, you can appreciate the brilliant color and texture of the clouds and sky at sunset. It's very painterly and wonderfully composed. The Region 1? Again, it's splotchy and over-enhanced. Apparantly, the powers-that-be decided that everything was too soft and needed to be sharpened. This is a problem throughout the movie, and it just looks bloody cheap.


Our final example shows Sheeta and Dora in the mess hall. A great collage of texture and color and details. Again, you can see how the Japanese DVD is far superior to the American one. It's more than a little shocking when you put the two side-by-side. These are the sort of comparisons you'll see on Criterion Collection DVDs when they want to demonstrate their restorations. If you put these in the opposite order, you'd believe the original Laputa film negative was destroyed by fire. You'd never imagine that this was a movie from 1986.

And the final insult of all? Most of the extras from the Region 2 DVD were removed for Region 1. The only extra to make the transition was the e-konte (a latter version of storyboards that serve as a "shooting script"). The Japanese Castle in the Sky includes the opening and closing title credits, without any text; 2:30 worth of trailers for theatres and television; and a 17-minute production video made during the making of the movie.

Hmm. Actually, that's not the final offense. Disney actually put the production video onto the US DVD. They just buried it on the disc, without any access from the menus or any subtitles. You see, children, there's a good reason why I have such disdain for Disney's treatment of the Studio Ghibli catalog; they've earned it.

A Tale of Two DVD Covers


Continuing on the theme from the last post, I wanted to present a little compare-and-contrast assignment. We're looking at examples of poor choices for color management, balance, and overall composition in American animation. This is a problem especially for packaging of DVDs and movie posters. These are the worst offenders by far.

The first picture should come as no surprise to Studio Ghibli fans in America. It's the DVD illustration for Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky. Now, when this film was finally released, after sitting in Disney's vaults for four years, we weren't too critical of the design of the DVD. We were just happy to be able to watch the movie. Time, however, has not been nearly as kind, and in 2006 I doubt you'll find many dedicated Ghibli fans who aren't openly embarrassed by the cover design.

If you look closely, you can observe all our favorite pet peeves. Alright, MY pet peeves. Most of the standard offenses are in effect.

There are the over-saturated air-brushed characters, which seem to plague every single cartoon box in this country. I honestly don't know where this lousy notion was birthed, but it spread like the flu, and now we're stuck with it. I've never liked this style. It's just too, well, candy-like. My teeth hurt.

The composition is absolutely terrible. It's inexcusable that something like this ever left the desk of any credible art department. Don't blame them. Blame the marketing department. Remember what St. Pauline warned: there are definite consequences when conglomerates buy up the movie studios.

The concerns are about selling the product. Details from as much of the plot have to be crammed in, if there aren't enough cutesy animal characters to use. Observe how symmetrical the composition is at the center, with the characters in the middle, and the fortresses at top and bottom. The only thing, oddly enough, that is not perfectly centered is the robot at the bottom. In any case, this illustration is needlessly crowded. There is no real action and no real focus. Everything is shouting at you.

And, of course, everybody is smiling. Why does every animation illustration have to show everybody smiling? It's almost oppressive, in some warped 1950's Stepford Wives mindset. No, correct that; it IS oppressive. It almost looks like the main characters have had plastic surgery. They don't look like the characters from the movie at all, but one of those cheap knock-off cartoon videos that always piggyback on the latest Disney picture.


Now let's compare the Disney version of Castle in the Sky with the Japanese DVD. Notice a few differences? Which one would you prefer, kids?

Would it surprise you that Disney (under the Buena Vista label) is also responsible for the Ghibli DVDs in Japan? This little fact illuminates a lot about what corporate marketing dictates in this country, and what's accepted back in the home country. It should be said, of course, that Ghibli has far more say in how their DVDs are presented and compiled.

There's a far better artistic sense, a proper instinct for what works and what doesn't. The right folks are in charge. It helps that the studio, by the time they released their films on DVD, was already the most successful in Japan with Mononoke and Spirited Away. That level of success gives you a greater control over how you present your work.

This design was used for many of the Ghibli DVDs for a time, with one dominant color in the background, with the movie title on top and the illustration on bottom. This particular illustration isn't from the movie, but it perfectly captures its essence. You know what kind of a picture you're getting: an action-adventure cliffhanger serial.

This illustration comes from Ghibli's annual calendar, which they've been publishing every year since the late '90s. Each month features an illustration from one of the studio's films, beginning with Nausicaa and finishing with the most recent release. These drawings may depict a scene from the movie (or even scenes from the Nausicaa manga), or a variation on the movie, or a moment after the movie's conclusion.

Ghibli's illustration for Laputa: Castle in the Sky is one of my favorites from the Ghibli calendars (although I must admit that I've missed the last few calendars). Note how brilliant the composition fits everytyhing together; there are a greater number of objects than Disney's US "artwork," but the space is far more open. The third dimention is employed, and land, sea, and air are brought together.

This is an exciting drawing. It's full of action and movement; your mind moves through the action and delivers a sense of animation, a sense of time and motion. And angles, angles, angles everywhere. This is an area where the Japanese masters dominate, and this is one key reason why the best animation portrays a far greater sense of action, of motion, and of time than anything created by the Americans.

We're still stuck with those syrupy happy faces and boring 4/4 beats, when the Takahata's and Miyazaki's of the world have moved into modernism, abstraction, and jazz.

For those of us living in North America, this gives us a lot to thing about. We're going to have to start asking a lot of questions. And we're going to have to grab our credit cards and head over to our favorite import shops.

2006-10-24

Color Schemes of the Hideous and Garish


John K. wrote an interesting post on his blog about the garish color scheme that too often plague American cartoons, and the lack of color theory in general. I posted some comments earlier in the morning, and decided I should share them here:


If the color schemes of these cartoons are hideous and garish, there's a reason - these cartoons themselves are hideous and garish.

There's something just opressive about the way animation is illustrated on video and DVD boxes. The colors are oversaturated, with that syrupy gradiation. Everything looks like it's been pumped full of happy pills. It not only looks uninviting, it looks a little scary.

Perhaps that's just my thinking, and all that influence from reading Orwell. But I think the situation for animation in this country is somewhat oppressive, and is dictated more by corporatism and consolidation (isn't it nice when Disney owns everything?) than any true artistic sensibilities.

I wonder if artists and animators really understand the basics of color theory and composition and how to effectively use lighting and tone and texture. I think they're merely copying the accepted formula, a formula that is dictated purely by marketing. Bad Disney Video X sells, therefore everyone should copy it.

As Pauline Kael once noted, they think the grosses are proof that people are happy with what they're getting; that it's what they want, instead of what they're merely settling for. If we were given the freedom to present the public with actual choices, we'd see that play out.

I'm not sure how we'd change things, apart from re-educating every artist and animator that you work with. The medium has to stop being treated like the red-headed stepchild.

2006-10-21

For the Love of God, Buy These Movies!!

I don't know how much media exposure these two movies have received since they were released on DVD earlier this year, but I'm shocked, shocked at how completely invisible they remain. I checked the IMDb pages for Puss in Boots and Animal Treasure Island, and their vote tallies were just awful.

Puss in Boots has 58 votes, and Animal Treasure Island has 45. How is that possible? Both pages are almost completely sparse, with five user comments and five external reviews between the both of 'em. And those five reviews include one by me and two by Stewart Galbraith (the author of "The Emperor and the Wolf").

So, what's the deal here, people? And where the heck is Discotek?

Today's Screenshots - Animal Treasure Island








I know I'm going to forget about posting screenshots this weekend (since I'm working at the bank the whole time), so here's a massive weekend extravaganza of Animal Treasure Island! Seriously, this truly is the coolest movie ever made. Oh, what I wouldn't give to see Miyazaki make one more picture like this...

If you're still riding on the fence, fer crying out loud, get this movie! What are ya waiting for?

Reuters Article on Goro Miyazaki

Reuters posted an article on October 2 about Goro Miyazaki's struggles to overcome his father's shadow. It's a good article, that covers Goro's career and the considerable tension between father and son. Bonus points for quoting from the son's production diary (one entry was titled, "Zero Points as Father, Top Points as Director") in the article.

The tension between father Miyazaki and son has been written about throughout the production of Gedo Senki. I remember Goro mentioning in another article that he and his father hadn't spoken to one another for over a year. Messages between the two have been passed along by third parties, old friends like Toshio Suzuki and Michiyo Yasuda.

Anyway, be sure to read the article if you haven't yet done so.

2006-10-20

Movie Night - 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Ep. 1

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

It's time for another Movie Night...the first episode of 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, aka Marco.

The version we're watching is the fansub copy, provided by the Live-Evil group. They only subbed the first seven episodes, and haven't worked at all on the series in a year, so I'm afraid that's all I'd be able to show. Of course, I do have the entire series on DVD, and it's a terrific box set, but I don't know how to convert it into something that you could download or watch on YouTube. Ah, well, I suppose you'll have to shell out for the Taiwan DVD set.

I have this great hope that some company in America could release the World Masterpiece Theatre series, not only the Takahata/Miyazaki classics Heidi, Marco, and Anne, but other programs in the long-running series. The biggest challenge would be how to handle the soundtracks. It would cost a pretty penny to create an English-language dub, far more than almost anyone to tackle.

You could stay with the original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles, but that raises the liklihood of losing much of your audience. Even though series like Heidi, Girl of the Alps and 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother are intricately complex and emotionally demanding, they are children's shows. They were meant for a young audience as well as an older one. Would you want to risk alienating those kids? Hmm. This is a difficult prospect. I'm firmly against ever dubbing foreign films, and I'm deeply critical of most of Disney's Ghibli dubs, but if I wanted to release the WMT, I wouldn't want to lose those kids.

Again, the Americans are the last ones to learn about anything. Marco has become famous and beloved throughout the world, just as Heidi and Anne of Green Gables have, and they all deserve to be seen here as well. Well, here's your first chance to see what the whole fuss is about. Make a little experiment out of it: watch with your kids, and see how they react. Let's see if we can capture their interest a little. Enjoy!

Some Edits and Thoughts on Turning 100

I've made a few more additions to the links sections of this weblog. You'll see direct links for 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother and Animal Treasure Island, which jump back to my main website, DanielThomas.org. I've also added some animation reviews I've written over time. The Yasuo Otsuka documentary is included, of course, and I've also included links to reviews on the following films: Dream On, Silly Dreamer; Innocence (Ghost in the Shell 2); The Last Unicorn; and Ryan.

I'm not able to update my main site until Monday at the earliest, so the pages for 3000 Leagues and ATI are pretty much placeholders ("blog" entries from DanielThomas.org). Hopefully, I'll have that fixed for you.

So this is the 100th post of this website. It's a nice little achievement, and while I'd like to have reached that milestone sooner, I'm glad to be here. It gives me a chance to step back and take stock of things.

What surprises me the most about Conversations on Ghibli? The fact that we've only scratched the surface. Look at all the films and television shows on the Links, and ask yourself, how many of those have I really discussed? How many works did I really crack open and examine from six different angles? When I started this blog, I was afraid of running out of things to write about. I assumed that I would have said all that I wanted to say by now. Strange.

To a great extent, I've brought you along on my own journey of discovery. If it seems like I focus on the pre-Ghibli period, that's only because I'm just discovering them myself. If it was 2003, I'd be raving about all these Miyazaki movies I downloaded to my computer, and the joys of peer-to-peer.

In 2006, it's never been easier to discover Miyazaki and Takahata and their peers. Between the DVDs and the fansubs, we've got nearly everything covered. There are only a few notable exceptions, and hopefully everything will one day be available at your local retailer.

I can't say I'm happy with the traffic (you can see the site stats for yourself), but I always knew that this subject - Studio Ghibli and Japanese animation of the '60s and '70s - was still largely undiscovered in America. It's not something your typical teenage anime geek will be interested in, and the collapse of film studies and college film clubs have made it harder to advance the cause of world cinema. You have to educate a generation that has only been raised on Star Wars clones and brain-dead infantile culture. They've never watched a movie that's older than they are. For all lovers of the movies and animation, this remains a great challenge.

It's a challenge that I think we can overcome. If we have to enlighten every soul, one by one, then so be it. If we want to have any kind of future for ourselves and our careers, then we really have no choice. Unless, I suppose, you happen to be happy with the current state of animation, television, and the movies. You can watch all the reality television and Fox News you want.

So, to everyone, my heartfelt thanks for taking time away from your lives to visit this humble little site. I hope I've been able to enlighten you and provide you with a new source of creative inspiration.

Goro Miyazaki "Bittersweet Summer"

This photo comes from the Studio Ghibli DVD documentary, "Hayao Miyazaki and the Ghibli Museum." It includes appearances by Yuri Norstein and John Lasseter, and is narrated by Isao Takahata. Goro Miyazaki is also included, as you can see, since he was the director of the museum for a number of years. Now, of course, he's cautiouly followed in his father's footsteps with Gedo Senki (Tales of Earthsea).

The New York Times recently featured an article on the younger Miyazaki and the challenges of his first feature. It's an interesting read, and rather well researched; more often than not, American media reports on Studio Ghibli are embarassing in their ignorance. Thankfully, this time we haven't been subjected to endlessly tired Walt Disney comparisons.

I'm assuming, of course, that you already know something about Gedo Senki and Goro Miyazaki. The movie was released in Japan this summer to a warm reception and a tremendous success. I'm sure you're also aware that it won't be seen in America until 2009 at the earlies, because the Sci-Fi Channel owns the rights to Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea novels for their miniseries. Once again, the Americans will be left out in the cold, as another Ghibli movie is embraced throughout the world (Gedo Senki played at the Venice Film Festival, and will be released in Europe next year) before we ever hear about it.

Fortunately, the DVD will be released in Japan next summer, so we'll be able to import. More than likely, that will be our only option. We'll never see the film released in American theatres, and the DVD will be left to the whims of Disney. We've seen how many years it took them to finally release Miyazaki Senior's films, and you already know well enough about Umi Ga Kikoeru and Omohide Poro Poro.

In Japan, Gedo Senki has earned over $61 million by the end of September. The Times commits a typical Hollywood sin by comparing this unfavorably to the father's recent movies, which have generated $175 million (Mononoke), $200 million (Howl's Moving Castle), and nearly $300 million (Spirited Away). These are rough numbers, off the top of my head, so you may need to check the figures if you want precise numbers.

The point is that, under the Times' logic, Goro's movie is a disappointment ("the summer ended on a bittersweet note") since he failed to reach the numbers of his father. This is the same logic that holds that Pixar is washed up, since their last three features have pulled in fewer and fewer dollars. Finding Nemo made $400 million, The Incredibles made $300 million, and Cars made Therefore, the studio is running out of steam and Lasseter's movie is a failure.

If you're savvy, you'll realize the absurdity of this. It's patently rediculous, based on nothing more than the whims of the suits who can only compare numbers. In Goro Miyazaki's case, this criticism is even more absurd.

Japan has one-third the population of the US, and one-tenth the number of movie screens. The highest-grossing movies every year are comparitively very small, often around $30 million.

You really have to appreciate just how enormously successful Hayao Miyazaki has become in the past ten years. His last three films have grossed five to ten times as much as everyone else. For all intents and purposes, Miyazaki IS the Japanese film industry.

There hasn't been anything to compare that to, that level of dominance, in this country since Charles Chaplin. Steven Spielberg has maybe captured the cultural zeitgeist once or twice, when E.T. was a cultural phenomenon, for instance. But there's no one whose movies leapfrog over everything else, and do so consistently.

A Japanese movie that hits $200 million is like an American movie hitting $700 or $800 million. It's absolutely unheard of, unless you consider the highest-grossing movies of all time, adjusted for inflation. Then you'll see comparative numbers from Star Wars, Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, The Sound of Music, E.T., Doctor Zhivago, and so on.

So let's go back to Goro and his movie. Gedo Senki sits at around $60 million, and will likely remain in theatres through the end of the year. The early estimates by Toho (the distributor) were that the final tally would reach $100 million. Again, that's a tremendous success in any case, even if the movie fails to reach that number. It's by far the biggest succeess of the summer, and pretty much the year.

The twisted way of reading numbers, and destroying whole careers, is one of Hollywood's greatest crimes. If anything finally does destroy the whol apparatus, it will be that. The endless rush for greater corporate profits, that complete reckless disregard for reality, is what's killing the movies in this country. In 20 years, there may not even be movies anymore; at the rate we're going, there sure as hell won't be movie theatres anymore. There's nothing bittersweet about sny of that. Not one damn bit.

Shut Down

Well, we all knew it would happen sooner or later, and today my number finally came up. YouTube has shut down Omohide Poro Poro. I reveived a form letter this morning; 13 emails, actually, one for each segment of the movie. Nice.

I'll try to be optimistic about my little experiment. For a foreign film with no media exposure in the US, this movie generated over 13,000 views since July. The response from everyone has been overwhelming, and there is an ever-growing interest.

The reason I posted Omohide Poro Poro is simple. Disney holds the distribution rights for the Ghibli film catalog in the States, but refuses to release the movie. They have no intention of ever releasing the DVD, due to its more adult content and certain scenes that would risk a media backlash.

Disney never wanted anything to do with most of the Ghibli catalog (they really only wanted a couple Miyazaki films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service). Tough. They're stuck with the whole lot. They agreed to the terms when they signed the contract. Now it's about damn time that they hold up their end of the bargain.

Again, I'm trying to be an optimist. Our YouTube experience demonstrates that this movie can become a success. It's also showed that the public is well aware that this isn't a Mickey Mouse cartoon for children, but an adult film in the vein of Renoir and Ozu's classics.

It's one thing to shut down a movie on YouTube that's widely available, and it's another thing when it's not. If the suits and lawyers object, then fine. That's their right. Then give us the DVD, so we can actually go out and buy it. Choose one or the other, but don't shackle us without either. That's just unfair.

According to Turner Classic Movies, Omohide Poro Poro ranks #2 on their yet-to-be-released DVD list. There's a real demand for this movie. It's about damned time that Disney got off their hides and released it.

2006-10-19

Jarinko Chie - French Translators Needed


Hi, everybody. Big news here. I've found a subtitle file for Takahata's Jarinko Chie (Chie the Brat). It's already finished, timed and ready. The only catch is that it's in French. I'm looking for someone who can help translate it into French.

If you're fluent or comfortable with French, and you'd like to help, let me know and I'll send you a text file. You can then send it back when you're done.

Then we will finally have a fansub for Jarinko Chie! Yay!

I'd like this to be finished as quickly as possible. I have the Japanese DVD, so when the subtitles are ready, we can put this out there and start sharing.

There are only two Takahata works left to be translated into English - Chie and Heidi, Girl of the Alps. Let's roll up our sleeves and get the first one finished.

Thanks to everyone for helping out.

Today's Screenshots - Jarinko Chie



Today's Screenshots (I guess that would technically mean Wednesday, since I tried to post this in the morning) come from Takahata's 1981 film Jarinko Chie. It's based upon a manga series, and became successful enough to spawn a hit television series. Yasuo Otsuka and Yoichi Kotabe were the animation directors on the film.

This first shot is in the beginning of the picture, and is the introduction of Chie. The second shot is a little later, with a hilarious slapstick routine and some gratituitous violence. The third shot is the very final shot in the movie, during the closing credits.

Jarinko Chie (otherwise known as Chie the Brat in the West, and Kie, la Petite Peste in France) is another Takahata triumph, a masterful blending of ribald comedy, family drama, and the heavy regional flavor of Japan's western Kansai region. It's actually very similar, in many ways, to My Neighbors the Yamadas; the two are close cousins.

I hope that grabs your interest. I've got a surprise coming up that you're gonna love. Stay tuned.

2006-10-18

Who Did What? - Puss in Boots #2

It's time for some spring cleaning at Conversations on Ghibli, and that means finishing up some older posts that I've been putting off forever. Back in June, when Puss in Boots was released on DVD, I wrote a post detailing who was responsible for animating what. It was a somewhat unfinished listing, based largely upon snippets of information here and there, and good ol' fashioned deduction. Ben Ettinger, our beloved anime scholar at Anipages, detailed a few more scenes from the movie. Let's take a look.

Of course, I'm assuming you've all bought the Puss in Boots DVD by now, right? If you haven't yet, then step away from the keyboard, head over to the store, and get your copy. Don't worry, we'll wait until you get back. Hmm hmm....

....Alright, are you back? Good. Let's go.




Yoichi Kotabe: Here is another extended sequenced that was animated by Yoichi Kotabe. It begins with the sunset scene where Pero prods Pierre to spend some quality time alone with the Princess Rosa, then continues into the next extended scene. It's a lengthy bit that starts with Pero leading the mice in a choir (it's very Doris Day, ain't it?), while Pierre confesses that he's really a peasant, while Rosa still accepts him, then leads to Lucifer charging in, stealing Rosa away in a chariot, and finishes with Pierre suddenly losing the sleepy-eyed look and turning into an action hero.

Yes, I know, it's not that important. Just go with it. It's the lead-up to the castle chase, which is the whole reason you're watching this movie anyway.


Reiko Okuyama: Okuyama has a couple important scenes early on in the movie. First, she's the animator during the early fight scene between Pero and the cat assassins. As Ben Ettinger explains, it's the scene that begins with the chase around the table. I wonder if she took that throwing food gag from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. If anyone gets the chance, be sure to ask.

She picks up again after Yasuji Mori's musical skipping number, when Pierre and Pero arrive in town and spot the King and Princess for the first time. Pierre is more dumbstruck than usual, which is really saying a lot for him, so of course Pero heads over to the castle to spy the Princess' oddball collection of suitors.
The suitors scene at the castle is pretty funny stuff, and it marks the arrival of Lucifer, the wizard bad guy who, strangely enough, looks an awful lot like Bluto. Doesn't this whole scene remind you of an operatic Popeye cartoon? Only this time, there isn't any spinach.



These three scenes are very different, and showcase Okuyama's considerable skill and diversity as an artist. Like her husband, Kotabe, she figures strongly in the early careers of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and is an important figure in the history of anime.


It's also a good opportunity to admire the terrific visual and color style of Puss in Boots. There's something about the rich saturation, and brilliant color of the Toei Doga movies. We've never really seen anything like it ever since. The WMT productions of the '70s and the Ghibli films of today go for a much more natural, impressionistic look, while the old Toei classics are so completely immersed in color. It's really too bad that Toei couldn't have provided Discotek with a properly remastered source for the DVD, instead of this worn down, scratchy, single-layer disc. There's really no excuse for skimping out, especially in this day and age.

Yuki's Sun (1972) - Miyazaki Pilot Film

 
Here is something that I've been forgetting to write about for far too long, so there's no better time than the present to finally bring it to your attention. It's not like I need sleep or anything.

This screenshot comes from an unaired television pilot called Yuki no Taiyo, or Yuki's Sun. It was created in 1972, and was created in hopes of building into a television series. Unfortunately, the plans fell through, and the series was never developed.

This pilot is remembered, really, for one notable reason: this is Miyazaki's first time as a solo director. He teamed up with Takahata for the later episodes of the 1971-72 Lupin III series, but Yuki's Sun marked his first time solely in the captain's seat.

Yuki's Sun was based upon a popular shoujo manga (girls' comic) by Tetsuya Chiba which was serialized in 1963. It involves a 10-year-old orphan girl who is adopted into a family. The storyline is somewhat complex, and seems to play out like grand melodrama. Chiba's stories were more sophisticated and grown-up than, say, Osamu Tezuka, who of course was the godfather of postwar Japanese manga.

As to Miyazaki's 1972 pilot, very little is known. If not for the footage that aired on television a few years ago (a retrospective to promote Sen to Chihiro, aka Spirited Away), we probably would never learn anything, apart from a minor footnote here and there. I don't know who else worked on the pilot, though I would have to assume that much of that loyal group from Toei would have been involved. Many of them worked on Lupin, Panda Kopanda, and Heidi, so why couldn't they have been involved in this?

Until one of us manages to sit down with Yoichi Kotabe or Ryoko Okuyama or even Miyazaki himself, I don't know if we'll ever find the answer. The problem, of course, is that so many years have past, and there were a number of productions during this period that fell through. There's the Pipi Longstockings project which collapsed (and was then refashioned into Panda Kopanda), Yuki's Sun, and another unaired pilot that strongly presages Heidi. I still haven't learned anything about that last item, so that's another mystery.

Thankfully, someone was kind enough to upload the footage from the Yuki no Taiyo pilot to YouTube, and, hey, it hasn't been deleted yet! More good news. If you've been studying your early Miyazaki, you'll notice some influences, including Yasuo Otsuka's comic running from Lupin (did he work on this?), Panda Kopanda, and a still-shot montage straight out of Horus, Prince of the Sun. Finally, the more dramatic tone stongly predicts Heidi two years later; this also suggests that Miyazaki had a stronger creative role in shaping Heidi than I realized. As if constructing the layouts and the shots wasn't involving enough.

Anyway, here's the unaired pilot for Yuki no Taiyo. I don't know if this is the entire pilot (probably not), but at least we're grateful for what we have.


2006-10-17

Miyazaki Riffs #5




Here is a perfect example of two of Miyazaki's most important works colliding into one another. The first shot comes from the first episode of Heidi, Girl of the Alps, from 1974. On this series, Miyazaki was responsible for layout and continuity for the entire series. What that means is that he designed and drew the layouts for all the locations, and worked with director Takahata on all the camera shots. He drew endless sketches from every conceivable angle, in tremendous detail. This is an exhausting job for any one person to do for a single episode, let alone 52. It was something the endlessly hungry Miyazaki was eager to take advantage of, and is another potent reminder of the legendary workaholic drive.

Miyazaki seemed very fond of this particular shot of Heidi running up the mountainside, because he used that same shot two more times: this next shot comes from the opening of every episode of Future Boy Conan, in 1978. It's essentially the exact same shot, with a similar amount of detail.

Miyazaki served again on Layout for the first 15 episodes of Anne of Green Gables in 1979, before moving on to direct Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro over at Telecom. Here, again, he quotes Heidi in episode 9. This is the episode when Anne Shirley meets Diane Barry. This moment occurs after they've exchanged their vows in the garden.

It should be noted that Takahata was very fond of Heidi, as it was one of the great triumphs of his career. He pays homage with the occasional riff, although nowhere near as often as Miyazaki, who sometimes seems to be following Frank Zappa's idea of Conceptual Continuity. Next time, we'll take a look at some of Takahata's riffs, including some more from Heidi.

Movie Night - Future Boy Conan, Ep. 1

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

Here is the first episode of Future Boy Conan. Conan is Hayao Miyazaki's 1978 television series, spanning 26 episodes. It remains one of his signature works; it may, in fact, be his definitive work in animation, if only in that it captures all the different moods of his personality. There's the heavy slapstick comedy, the masterfully timed action scenes, the compelling characters, and the darker, more serious commentary. It's a classic cliffhanger serial, like most of his work in the 1970s, and has such a vibrant energy, such a fast pace to everything. All these elements mix together perfectly.

For followers of Serious Miyazaki, Conan is Act II, following Horus, Prince of the Sun, and presaging Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, and finally Howl's Moving Castle. It's probably the anime that he quotes most often, at least as much as Heidi. It's something of a game to spot the "Conan Riff" in every Studio Ghibli movie.

So if you consider yourself a Miyazaki fan, Future Boy Conan is absolutely required viewing. It sits alongside Isao Takahata's World Masterpiece Theatre trilogy, Heidi, Marco, and Anne, as the definitive works of Japanese animation for television. These are the long-form masterpieces that really define their careers.

Anyway, here is episode 1 of Future Boy Conan, presented in three parts. Hopefully, I'll be able to show more episodes. Don't forget to download the fansub copy so you can watch on a larger screen.

2006-10-16

Today's Screenshots - Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind




I'm really getting tired of using a camera with such a tiny lens. It's impossible to get decent shots of closeup objects like books.

All of thse panels are from the third book of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, presented in order. This details the end and aftermath of the epic battle scene that spans 40 pages, and ends on the greatest emotional climax Miyazaki has ever conjured.

I remember the first time I read Nausicaa, I stayed up all night plowing through the old four-book set (since replaced by the proper seven-book set) without any sleep. I hopped on the bus and headed over to Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown, the greatest breakfast shack in the known multiverse. On the bus, I read through the 40-page setup to Miyazaki's greatest battle scene, and then to the battle itself.

By the time I get a seat at Al's (and this means standing in line for your turn for a while), I get to that ending. Kai just drops to the ground. And at that point, I just about lose it. I slam the book down, and shout out, "That's it! I'm not reading any more!" To this day, I still get upset when thinking or discussing it.

Perhaps now it has become the metaphor, the icon, for the traumas in my life.

In any case, it was at this point that I realized that I was reading the greatest graphic novel ever written. Art Spiegelman and Scott McCloud had finally met their match.

If you haven't read the Nausicaa books, then get your ass out of here, and don't come back until you do.

More Ghibli Blog Posts To Discover