Posts Tagged ‘Japanese films’

Satoshi Kon’s Last Words

August 28, 2010

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the sad, sad news of Satoshi Kon‘s passing. Kon-san was one of the greatest Anime directors in the world. He worked for the Anime production company Madhouse. Before he died, he composed a farewell letter meant for his blog as a way of saying thank you and actually explaining himself, as if anyone would demand such a thing! His family has posthumously published the letter. I came across it today in a translation by another blogger.

Before giving the link, I’d like to give a warning that if you have no particular interest in the director, or feel that the subject matter is too morbid, don’t press the link! In the post Satoshi Kon writes about how suddenly the cancer developed, about his wish to die at home rather than in a hospital and shares some of his thoughts about leaving his family. The reason I write this post is that while of course the letter is sad, it is not sentimental, and Kon-san himself meant for this to be published. He ends the letter with these lines:

“So, to everyone who stuck with me through this long document, thank you. With my heart full of gratitude for everything good in the world, I’ll put down my pen.

Now excuse me, I have to go”.

The letter is also interesting as it gives us an insight in not only Kon-san’s mindset, but perhaps also what for me seems a wider Japanese mentality, although I’m hesitant to generalize. I perceive a profound sense of duty and also shame not to live long enough to fullfill that duty. When his mother sees him for the last time, she asks his forgiveness “for not bringing you into this world with a stronger body”. But enough of me. The letter can be found here. And I’ll cease my comments now.

On a brighter side, Kon-san also left a list of his 150 favourite films, or films that had influenced him. It is a good list. Of course, I don’t agree with all the choices, but it is nice to see his love of John Ford, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder and quite some cult films. Of Japanese directors, he mentions of course Akira Kurosawa and Yasuhiro Ozu, but also Shohei Imamura and Kon Ichikawa are represented, to mention some. Anyway, the list can be found on the same blog as his letter, in this post.

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Satoshi Kon; A Sad day for Anime and Film.

August 25, 2010

This was to be my fourth entry in my summer reading section, but right now I don’t feel like writing it. Today has brought some very sad news indeed, as I have just learnt that one of my absolute favourite film makers has passed away.

The work Satoshi Kon leaves behind, while not immense, is so impressive that we must rage against his passing, for the world is a poorer place now. While I am uncomfortable eulogising someone known, as if saying that this person deserves more than the next man, I can’t help but give Kon-san some words now. He has through his art arrested my attention for countless hours, and in consequence made my life richer, better. I am grateful to him.

I am sure that Satoshi Kon himself would be bothered by too much attention on his person. From all the interviews I’ve seen and read with him, I’ve perceived him as a modest man, downplaying his own importance and achievements. I’ve watched the commentary-tracks to all his films. There he always focused on his collaborators, never drawing attention to himself or his own role.
The field of Anime, in which Kon-san made his art, is extremely stressful. Fifteen hour work days is almost the norm. For the talented, there is better money and working conditions in other pastures. As a consequence there are fewer professionals working actively in Anime than ever. The shows produced are often cheap TV-productions without any artistic merit, and it is difficult to find capable Anime directors under the age of fifty.

A brief example: In 1994, Hayao Miyazaki finally found someone younger to groom for directorial work in his Studio Ghibli, planning for him to take over as the head director of Ghibli films. He chose Yoshifumi Kondo, then 44 years of age. Kondo-san made one very good film, Whisper of the Heart, before passing away at the age of 47. The reason was said to be work excess, causing Miyazaki to announce his own retirement from the field, a threat he luckily didn’t follow up on.

Still, even with financial problems and a scarcity of talent, the Japanese Anime field manages to produce some of the best cinematic art in the world.

Satoshi Kon made his directorial debut in 1997 with the thriller Perfect Blue. It is the only of his films which he didn’t write himself, but that he is not given a writing credit might as well be a result of his modesty. A word like Hitchcockian was often used in contemporary reviews of the film, but like all stock phrases, it is used altogether too often.

Perfect Blue is not a perfect film, the animation is at times crude, but where the film shines is in the direction, the choices of angles and building of suspense. I detect more of David Lynch in the film than Hitchcock. The way the female protagonist sacrifices personal dignity for what she thinks is her art, to make it as a film star, is at times reminiscent of Lynches later Inland Empire. The fusion of dreams and reality, the dissolution of the borders between the waking world and one’s subconscious, is also very much Lynchian. In many of his films, it is clear that Kon-san was influenced by the American director, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lynch was inspired by Satoshi Kon in return.
My first experience with Satoshi Kon was through what I still consider his absolute masterpiece, Millennium Actress from 2002. It is impossible to give justice to the film by any mere description. A TV interviewer who is a big fan of a classic Japanese film actress visits the actress in her later age. It has been some thirty years since she withdrew from the silver screen, but now her old movie studio has been torn down. The journalist comes to give her back a key once given her as a teenager by a young revolutionary. As she tells the tale of how she came to possess the key in the first place, and later spent her life looking for the young man who had given it to her, her story comes alive for the journalist and for us. This gives Kon-san the opportunity to jump between realities and genres.
It also gives him a marvellous opportunity to show us glimpses of Japanese cinema history. At one moment the eponymous actress is in a Jidaigeki film, for example something by Kenji Mizoguchi, the next in a Chanbara, like a Samurai drama by Kurosawa, then in a science fiction film or in a Gendaigeki, or Shomingeki, like a contemporary Ozu-film. At the time I first watched the film I wasn’t all that familiar with these different genres, but that is not a requisite to appreciate the film, not at all. I’ve later rewatched it many times, and I always find something new there, something I hadn’t noticed before.

Let me stress in case someone would think this film is only for the specially interested, that first and foremost Millennium Actress is a great work of cinema, period. Anyone should be able to find something to enjoy here. This was incidentally the first film in which Kon-san collaborated with Susumu Hirasawa, who has made the sound tracks to all his best films. It is hard to overstate the importance of Hirasawa-san’s contributions.

Millennium Actress works on many levels, all of them worthwhile. It is a love story in more ways than one. It is at times tragic, but often very funny; it has adventure, but dares to dwell on serious matters. The film also does more for female empowerment than any feminist tract could ever hope for. It can be heartbreaking in one moment, only for the viewer to be thunderstruck by its inventiveness in the next, followed by a heartfelt laugh. Most of all, it is a great example of what the medium is capable of.
His next film was the well received Tokyo Godfathers. It is by far his most conventional film, with few of the jumps between realities that has been one of his stylistic and thematic main concerns. It takes its title and initial idea from the 1948 John Ford film 3 Godfathers. The Godfathers of Kon’s film are outsiders, to say the least: a young runaway girl, a transvestite and a former professional cyclist turned hobo. They find a baby in the trash as they scrounge for food, and decide to track down its parents. This is very much like one of those classic Hollywood films where everything can happen on a Christmas Eve, as long as it all turns out well in the end. I could well see Frank Capra concoct something like this, and that I mean as high praise indeed. The animation is just beautiful, the characters extremely well written. This is the closest Kon-san has come to making a true family film, and indeed it can stand proudly with the best of them.
Immediately after Tokyo Godfathers, Kon-san began working on perhaps his most ambitious project: a TV series of 13 episodes called Paranoia Agent. Again, it is almost impossible to give a concise description of what it is about. In some ways, this is Kon-san’s Twin Peaks, but without the filler epsiodes of that series. The use of some genuinely weird characters, and especially how they are made to grin maniacally from ear to ear at the opening credits of each episode, is pure Lynch. Paranoia Agent, though, wants much more than anything Lynch has made. It is at one time an attempt to define the Japanese psyche, at another an examination of the power of the media. It shows how stories begin and how they are changed into myth and legend, and thus changing reality itself, making reality just another story among many.

Needless to say, this is ambitious stuff, but Kon-san never makes the series into a mental exercise, focusing instead on simple human stories within the larger picture he draws for us bit by bit through the various episodes. Writing this now, I feel I must watch the series again, even though it is only a couple of months since I saw the last episode. Paranoia Agent manages to be a collection of short stories that turn out to be chapters of a novel. Each story is excellent, the novel very satisfying. Again it is Susumu Hirasawa who makes the music, giving the episodes his inimitable stamp. The full fruition of their collaboration comes first with their next film: Paprika.

Paprika, made in 2006, so unfortunately turned out to be Satoshi Kon’s last film. I say unfortunately, not because the film is bad, on the contrary, it is an unmitigated masterpiece. Rather, it shows us what Kon-san was capable of, his rich imagination and understanding of how to tell a very difficult narrative in an immediately understandable way. Without Paprika, I doubt that Christopher Nolan’s current worldwide hit Inception would have been made.
Paprika is again about different realities, about the relationship between dreams and reality. Here as well, the seriousness is offset by generous amounts of humour, which has been a trademark of Kon-san in all his films except Perfect Blue. Paprika is the character the heroine Chiba Atsuka becomes as she enters the dreams of others. She works for an agency specialising in a form of dream therapy that they perform by enabling her to enter other people’s dreams. There is a ghost in the machine, however, and soon the dreaming world, unbridled imagination, enters the waking world with potentially catastrophic consequences.

While one can detect inspiration from Lynch and Philip K. Dick in the narrative, the execution of the story is all Satoshi Kon. This must have been a labour of love for him, in which he could inject all the elements only hinted at in his earlier animation, and make a kind of hyper-Satoshi Kon film.

As an example of how well his collaboration with Susumu Hirasawa could be, one should check out the first parade of the dream creatures with its myriad of inhuman participants. While they walk merrily towards reality’s border, Hirasawa-san accompanies them with a nonsensical but highly addictive marching tune that seems absolutely perfect for the action taking place. It would be a fitting tune to play now, as Satoshi Kon is himself marching from this reality towards the big sleep, perchance to dream. If anyone will, it is him.

At times like this, I often think of Laurie Anderson’s words in the song World Without End: “When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”

Satoshi Kon loved film and film history. He had an innate understanding of the particular art of Anime, and how anime can do things live action can not. In this art he excelled. He passed away some hours ago. He was 46 years.

Studio Ghibli Part 2: the 70s

March 6, 2009

230px-pandagopanda_dvdAs we recall from last post, the underwhelming sales of Horus, Prince of the Sun, forced Isao Takahata to look for other companies in order to continue directing. Miyazaki-san stayed for a year or so more at Toei, but in 1971 left to co-direct with Takahata-san the bulk of episodes of the action/adventure series Lupin III. After this, he wrote – together with his wife – the two shorts that constitute Panda! Go, Panda! These shorts were directed by Takahata-san as well, while Miyazaki-san served as animator and chief-designer on the project. (Evidently there was a bit of a panda-craze in Japan – and the rest of the world – at the time, as China had just begun to lend out their national animals to foreign zoos).

By now, it must have been pretty clear that the two animators were a hell of a team. The biggest project they participated on during the 70s, is probably what is called World Masterpiece Theatre, a production of Nippon Animation. The concept was to take famous works of children’s literature and to tell the stories as fully as the television format allowed. With the possibility to make series into 20 or 30 episodes, Miyazaki-san and Takahata-san sharpened their knack for being able to extract true and recognizable moments from their characters. If a situation required time and reflection, the anime-team let the action slow down, introducing everyday moments in a genre that so often had – and at times still has – an inbuilt resistance to rest and inactivity.

heidi_dvd_1Very often the works of this period focuses on nature and the relationship between children and nature. Often the protagonists are girls, as in Heidi, Girl of the Alps (which technically was a precursor to Nippon Animations Masterpiece-series) and Anne of Green Gables. (Miyazaki tried to get the rights to Pippi Longstocking and even flew to Sweden to meet Astrid Lindgren, but to no avail. Not the Swedish author’s best decision…) It is clear that these early works are, to a larger degree than what was to be Studio Ghibli’s own films, meant as children’s entertainment If there is a darker undercurrent in these series, it is well hidden. Mostly the problems facing the protagonists have to do with the grown up’s inability to understand the children’s needs and how they perceive the world, usually because they have become alienated from nature and the natural world.

anime-001Of course, seeing as these series are based on literary works, most of or part of the narrative is taken from the books. But the different series almost all feel as if they are made by the same intelligence, so to say. The animation, clearly, is similar from series to series, but more than that, I find the themes and ways of presenting the world is very similar as well. This signifies -at least to me- that the directors are pursuing a definite project that actually means something to them. And, certainly, while I can easily sit through six hours of a simple peasant girl running around the alps as long as Heidi is directed by Takahata-san, I have found all other versions of the story pretty near unbearable to watch. This as well leads me to believe that there is an undeniable quality present in these series, and that Takahata-san and Miyazaki-san are pretty much incapable of making anything thoroughly uninteresting, no matter the age of the viewer.

conanAnother work Miyazaki-san did for Nippon Animation is Future Boy Conan from 1978. Here Miyazaki-san himself directed the bulk of the episodes, maybe giving him the confidence to make his first feature length animated film the year after. This series, by the way, was for some reason an enormous success in Yemen. Or so I am informed.

Thus, after quite a long apprenticeship, mostly under – or in collaboration with -Takahata-san, Miyazaki was finally given the opportunity to undertake a full-length project as director. The Castle of Cagliostro is a feature film of the Lupin III hero that Miyazaki-san had directed intermittently before in its TV-series incarnations. Here we see the Miyazaki-touch in pretty near full bloom. While the film is more violent and cynical than most of his later works, he uses his eye for directing tremendous set pieces while at the same time balancing the action with an almost archaeological interest in the natural earth his characters inhabit.

cagliostro_450The Castle of Cagliostro was voted 5th place on a list that Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs published in 2007 of Best Anime. While such a list is not terribly interesting in itself, I note that Cagliostro had to see itself beaten by two other Miyazaki-films, which gives an indication of his popularity in Japan.

The film is also famous for Steven Spielberg’s praise of an initial car chase scene (The best ever filmed!). And quite rightly so, as we can see homages to Cagliostro’s car chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released a year after, as well as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But the film is much more than the action, impressive as that is. Miyazaki-san at times goes for a kind of hyper-exaggeration in the characters, almost Bugs Bunny-like, but while this only contributes to a feel of overall fun, when the characters need to be serious or act in pivotal scenes, the animation is much more down to earth, for lack of a better phrase.

lThe plot of the film is perhaps not that important. Lupin is a kind of Mediterranean hero of the kind Jean Paul Belmondo so often inhabited (see: That Man From Rio). In the TV-series he had been rather rash and cynical, with few redeeming qualities. Now he is, as he says, no longer as stupid as he was in his younger days, meaning in the TV-series. Thus, the film at times dares to slow down to reflect this, and our rascal-hero even falls in love with the lovely Clarissa, whose bloodline holds the key to the mystery/treasure of the Cagliostros. While the plot initially seems decidedly whimsical, a more serious undertone gradually creeps into the film, making us care what happens. There is love in this film, both visible in the directorial touches, but not least in the film’s love of history and of telling a thoroughly entertaining yarn or two.

castle_of_cagliostro_the_1980_685x385On the way to the resolution, we can marvel at Miyazaki-san’s designs of aeroplanes – or baroque machines that somehow can fly, I should say – and architecture (houses and castles all seem as if they have a history, and as if the history is about to win; with cracks and wild growing vegetation trying to take over the stone world that Man has built) and his mastery of showing people and objects in motion, giving the animated cells a kind of kinetic dirty energy that has lacked in Disney films since uncle Walt left us. I shall not reveal here how the film ends, just say that the Castle of Cagliostro holds a treasure in its foundations, but it is not for one man only, and that is my kind of treasure. (At least the days I feel more benevolent and magnanimous and all around a better person than is my habit).

Oh, and I must not forget to mention the creepiest assassins in memory, animated or not!

Studio Ghibli Part 1

February 28, 2009

image147The first film I ever watched on DVD was the Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s magically excellent Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) back in 2001 (pardon the slight hyperbole!). This was also the first film I watched by Studio Ghibli, a Japanese anime studio that was formed in 1985 with Miyasaki-san and his erstwhile mentor Isao Takahata as creative directors. Needless to say I was immediately convinced about the qualities of the new technological medium as well as the studio’s storytelling abilities. I decided, with a fervour I seldom feel, to immediately delve into Ghibli’s back catalogue. It turned out that I had to wait for the Oscar-success of the studio’s next film, Spirited Away, before Disney/Buena Vista, who held the distribution rights outside Japan and the east, saw fit to grant these other films a DVD release. Well, that is yesterday’s snow under the bridge, and let’s not spoil the good mood these films are bound to instil in any human being with a more or less sound mind and soul.

I won’t be recapitulating the entire story of the company’s formation in this post. I wanted, rather, to concentrate on the films themselves, and what makes them so worthwhile entries in the annals of film (you can snigger at the word if you want to…), and I wouldn’t be too surprised if a tentative history of Ghibli’s place in anime will threaten to surface as well. In short, what are the films about, and why are they so much better than pretty much anything any animation studio in the west has produced since Bambi? (The possible exception being, of course, Pixar, a studio that has taken to heart Ghibli’s insistence upon story over spectacle).

horusAs mentioned, the creative force behind Studio Ghibli, consists of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. (I use here the western custom of not putting surnames first). They first collaborated on what has later been called the first modern anime film, Horus, Prince of the Sun (Taiyo no oji: Horusu no daiboken), in 1968. The film is also known as, among other things, The Little Norse Prince and Hols: Prince of the Sun. Horus was directed by Takahata-san and Miyazaki-san served as “chief animator and concept artist”.

While later seen as a landmark in animation, the film was upon its release a financial failure prompting the two to seek employment elsewhere, to put it carefully. (The Toei Studio only allowed the film a ten day limited release, which goes a way to explain the lack of success). While originally conceived of as a run of the mill-anime, Takahata-san decided to expand the scope of the film both in terms of animation as well as in narrative. As a result the film went over budget, over time, and, according to the producers, all over the place.

The film is the story of Horus, or Hols, depending on which translation/edition one sees, a young boy, who in the film’s very first scene is being attacked by a pack of wolves. It’s an impressive action scene that shows the considerable skill of the director at this early stage in his career. At the end of the fight, Horus is saved by the stone-giant Mogue, out of whose “hide” he manages to pull the “sword of the sun”. He is told that once he manages to reforge the sword, he will be “the prince of the sun”. So far, so Arthur. We learn that his father, who is dying, once escaped the village where they lived because it was under attack by “the demon”, Grunwald. The film then plays out as a classic adventure where the boy will have to “find his way” or “find himself” in order to destroy the evil of the land. On the way he encounters a mysterious girl, Hilda, who, it turns out, holds the key to understand what hold Evil has over the people. The battle within her is mirrored by the battle between Horus and Grunwald; both of them claiming a part of her. In the end it is herself who decides the outcome of both the internal as well as the external battle. While this on the surface is hardly a groundbreaking plot, the real meaning of the story is found in the details as well as in the more complex parts that I allude to above.

a894-12The film was originally meant to be based on the Ainu, an indigenous people of Japan who were persecuted by ancestors of the modern Japanese. For some reason, be it of a commercial or political nature, Toei Studio felt that the film shouldn’t have a Japanese setting. As a result, we are in, I assume because of the title, a Norse settlement. However, with characters called Drago, Hilda and Grunwald, I suspect a kind of pan-European placement, with Germanic sprinklings. The geographical reason for the name Horus – or Hols, which is the pronounced Japanese equivalent – escapes me. Symbolically, though, it’s probably a reference to the Egyptian god Horus. (I mean, how many Horuses are out there?) He is traditionally considered “a protector of the people” and associated with hunting through his sometimes form as a falcon. This is all fitting to the story at hand.

The name of the villain, Grunwald, is also worth a short note. On one hand, it is deeply ironic, signifying “green forest” in German. Grunwald takes the form of Winter and his weapon is snow and ice. His way of destroying the villages is to cover everything green and freezing the land. On the other hand, it might be a reference to the Battle of Grunwald, which was decisive in ending the reign of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, if memory and Wikipedia serves me. I’m sure interpretative strands can be extracted in this context as well.

The year of the film’s making is also worth a thought. 1968 bears with it many connotations, and while the student protests of Europe and USA were maybe not felt as strongly in Japan, I understand that quite severe unionist disputes were taking place there as well. This can maybe account for the communist tableaus and iconography I noticed a couple of times during the film. The music is also vaguely communist sounding, without me being able to be very clear about this point. (Let me stress that this – communist leanings – is not at all problematic to me!) The protagonist’s main message also seems to be that the people must work together to overcome an evil that has paralyzed them and made them live in fear. As I’ve hinted at, though, the resolution of the film turns out to be a personal, individual resolution as much as a coming together of the people on a macro-level. The interplay between the individual’s concerns and need and the needs of the society to which he and she must belong to, leads us away from uncomplicated dogmas. Maybe the final winner is nature, which awakening and blossoming coincides with the people’s renaissance.

The joys of the film is in its fine action sequences and “unbridled imagination“, as reviewers like to say about films that don’t contain a tenth of the creativity this film has going for it. However, considering the things that were to come from the hands of these anime artists later on, the film is mostly of historical interest as an early intent to utilize the Ghibli touch. Here as well we have benign and evil giants alike, we see the joy of flying and have a complicated female character who turns out to be at least as important in the narrative as the male protagonist. It is only natural that the animation style is not as accomplished as in the works that would appear 15 or 20 years later, but the film is also marred by the studio shutting down production before some key scenes were filmed. While two large-scale attacks on the village (the first by wolves, the second by rats), is presented in still pictures, this does not really harm the film that much. More serious is the fact that Takahata-san had to remove some thirty minutes of the film because of the shut down. As a result, the film can at times seem disjointed and without sufficient resolution of various plot threads. Also, the film is almost burdened with a cutesy side-kick bear cub. I assume this was a demand of the studio, as they probably figured they could sell some cub dolls and earn back its money in merchandise. I say the film is almost burdened with it. Takahata-san gets rid of the talking bear cub immediately after the first scene in which it appears by conveniently having it be separated from Horus. When it returns to the narrative many scenes later, it never achieves a purpose in the film and mostly just lingers in the background. I can imagine the producers were not terribly happy with this handling of their cash-cub.

little_norse_prince_006Anyhow, as they say, this was a brief introduction to the first collaboration between the creative fathers of Studio Ghibli. I chose to begin with this film not only because of its historical significance, but because it was directed by Isao Takahata. When one mentions Ghibli, most people think only of Miyazaki-san. While he undoubtedly is the more famous – and productive – of these two, I’ll try in the coming posts to make a case for the equal importance of Takahata-san. As we get past the seventies and into the eighties and the formation of their studio, I promise that most of the films under discussion will all be not only worthwhile, but indubitable masterworks of Film in general. Sayonara for now!