Ledford, a college dropout, started Gametronix, the predecessor to ADV, in 1991, importing Japanese videogames and hawking them out of a small storefront in Houston. The following year he bought the rights to the movie version of the videogame hit Devil Hunter Yohko. The Japanese company that owned the show, Toho, which also manages the career of a veteran star named Godzilla, expressed surprise that any American would be interested in a show about a 16-year-old Japanese girl who fights an army of demons trying to kill her family and take her virginity (which would somehow stop her demon-slaying skills). Ledford spent around $55,000 licensing the work and producing it for the U.S., hiring a local anime fan named Matt Greenfieldówho would become ADV's co-founderóto subtitle it. Ledford made his money back in 90 days and never looked back at videogames: "I said, 'Hey, that's pretty good, let's try it again.' "
I've uploaded a couple more reviews: Interstella 5555 and Tenchi Muyo!. The former, a collaboration between Daft Punk and Leiji Matsumoto, is an hour-long music video; the latter is the archetypical "harem comedy."
I've posted another batch of brief anime reviews here. The titles are Birdy the Mighty, Original Dirty Pair (OVA), Shinesman, Video Girl Ai and Voices of a Distant Star. None of these are Masterworks of Western (or Eastern) Civilization, though the first two are fun and the last is noteworthy for demonstrating that you don't need an army of artists to tell an animated story worth watching.
The unthinkable has happened. Hayao Miyazaki made a lousy movie.
If you like the book Howl's Moving Castle, skip the movie. It will disappoint you or make you angry. If you've never read the book, skip the movie. It's the worst possible introduction to either Miyazaki or Diana Wynne Jones. Transferring a complicated novel to the screen involves simplifications and omissions (and is usually not worth the effort, but that's a rant for another day); however, there is a difference between making necessary adjustments and trashing the story.
The good news: visually, the movie is splendid, the castle in particular. And, um, that's about it.
The bad news:
The plot doesn't make much sense.
The characters aren't interesting, and their motivation is often less than clear.
John Donne's Song is gone.
So is Wales.
Howl is less a disreputable sorcerer than a bishounen.
In the book, Sophie and Howl express themselves largely through insults and sarcasm. This satiric persiflage, one of the pleasures of the book, is entirely missing from the movie.
However, there is a war in the movie, which in the book was a merely distant threat. Miyazaki intended it as editorial comment, demonstrating once again that propaganda is the enemy of art.
... and lots more.
One fundamental problem is that Miyazaki has a different understanding of evil than Diana Wynne Jones. It's been often noted that there are few villains in Miyazaki's movies. I can only think of two and a half: the count in The Castle of Cagliostro, Muska in Castle in the Sky (Mark Hamill's greatest role), and maybe the Wizard Suliman in Howl. Sometimes the absence of an unambiguous villain is a strength. For instance, in Princess Mononoke, however misguided Lady Eboshi may be, she's not evil. The conflicts ultimately arise from the intractible problems inherent in the meeting of technology and nature. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to consider those who do choose to do evil. In the book, the Witch of the Waste is not only a constant threat to Howl and Sophie but she also illustrates the danger of Howl and Calcifer's contract. When Miyazaki turns Witch into a dear old infant, the plot no longer makes sense.
The book Howl's Moving Castle is a favorite of mine, and I recommend it to anyone who is old enough for Harry Potter. Miyazaki has made some excellent movies. Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are first rate, and all of his others -- until now -- are at least very good. If you do see Howl, please bear in mind that it's not representative of either Miyazaki or Diana Wynne Jones.
By the way, I saw the movie with a highly intelligent friend who hasn't read the book, and who has enjoyed Miyazaki in the past. She also found the plot incomprehensible and the motivation murky. It's not just me and my dislike of movie adaptations.
(The best part of the show was the preview of Mirrormask.)
Soundtrack: Mors Syphilitica (who need a better name): "Fountain of Tears"
Addendum: A few minutes after posting this review, I discovered that MamaT has been reading Walker Percy's Lancelot:
"Evil" is surely the clue to this age, the only quest appropriate to the age. For everything and everyone's either wonderful or sick and nothing is evil......
The mark of the age is that terrible things happen but there is no "evil" involved. People are either crazy, miserable, or wonderful, so where does the "evil" come in?
I spent some time this weekend organizing an addition to my main website devoted to anime, The Crow and the Pig. The crow is from yoshitoshi ABe's extraordinary series, Haibane Renmei. The pig, of course, is Marco from Miyazaki's Porco Rosso. Most of the material there I originally posted here, though some of the reviews have been expanded. I'll be posting several more reviews soon -- if my neighbors let me. (There was a "block party" featuring a variety of mediocre bands in the street in front of my house yesterday. I spent the afternoon at the office and the evening at a friend's house to get away from the noise. It was not a productive day.)
Iím too frazzled to do anything productive tonight, so here are a couple of quick anime reviews. (If you are not interested in Japanese animation, thatís okay. Just skip on down to the tunes of the day, or visit some of the sites listed at right.)
The Castle of Cagliostro was Hayao Miyazakiís first feature film. It was part of a series of teevee shows and films about master thief and adventurer Arsene Lupin III, and, unsurprisingly, Miyazakiís contribution is considered the best of the Lupin stories. It begins with Lupin and his associate Jigen successfully robbing a casino only to find that the cash that fills their car is all counterfeit. Lupin decides to go to the source of the counterfeit bills, the tiny country of Cagliostro. There he and Jigen see a young woman in a car trying to escape from thugs and try, unsuccessfully, to rescue her. The young lady is the Princess Clarisse, and her captor is the exceedingly evil Count of Cagliostro. The count intends to marry her so he can get his hands on her ring, which is the key to a great treasure. The rest of the movie concerns Lupinís adventures sneaking into the countís castle and his attempts to rescue Clarisse. There are no great depths to explore here; what this movie is, is nearly perfect entertainment. Whatever you want in a movie ó humor, action, a resourceful hero, a gutsy heroine, a villain worth booing and occasional violations of the laws of physics ó itís all here. Itís a Miyazaki movie, so you also get lush backgrounds, vertiginous perspectives, a room full of giant gears and an autogyro. Some of the countís minions are probably too scary for the very young, and thereís a fair amount of fighting, and would the Vatican really send an archbishop to officiate at the wedding of such an obvious creep as the count? Otherwise itís fine for most audiences.
The Castle of Cagliostro was first released in 1980. I think you can reasonably say that it marked the moment that Japan took the lead in animation. Itís only recently, with the emergence of Pixar and Brad Bird, that Americans have begun making first-rate animated movies again.
Porco Rosso may be to Miyazaki what The Loved One was to Evelyn Waugh: the most perfect of his works, and the slightest. For Waugh, the target was too easy and not really worthy of his venom. For Miyazaki, the movie came dangerously close to being pure self-indulgence ó I gather that he is slightly embarrased by it nowadays. Neverthless, just as The Loved One is a pleasure to read ó It's beautifully vicious fun and makes an excellent gift for a bright high school student ó so Porco Rosso is a pleasure to watch, from the opening sequence in which aviator Marco, the ďCrimson Pig,Ē rescues a gaggle of giddy schoolgirls from air pirates (and pirates from schoolgirls) to the final showdown with a hotshot American pilot. Marco really is a pig, though itís his airplane thatís red. The story is straightforward: air pirates operating in the Adriatic before WWII, frustrated by Porco Rosso, hire an American ace to shoot him down. Engine troubles bring Marco down in their first dogfight. He has his plane rebuilt in Milan, returns to his island hideout with the engineer daughter of the airplane builder and faces the American pilot again in a high-stakes duel. Although itís a simple story, itís not a dull one. The characters are all engaging, and the tone varies smoothly from humorous to dramatic to elegaic to farcical.
And thereís lots and lots of flying. I canít think of any other contemporary artist who is as obsessed with flight as Miyazaki, except maybe for photographer Paul Bowen. Although thereís nothing really objectionable about Porco Rosso, itís probably better suited for older audiences. Itís the Miyazaki movie my father is most likely to enjoy.
I want to see Nausicaa again before I write about it, and I should probably watch Princess Mononoke again as well. I will say at this time that itís very good and worth seeing by anyone of high-school age or older, and thereís lots of flying here as well.
Miyazaki may be the best there is, but there are other animators of note. Thereíll be more reviews soon.
Hereís a scene from a Miyazaki work I havenít seen:
Itís from a six-minute music video called ďOn Your MarkĒ that he animated for a couple of Asian singers. Itís not currently available in the USA. I had hoped that it would be included as an extra on one of the recent Studio Ghibli/Disney releases, but no such luck. Grrrr.
(If you donít have a broadband internet connection, or if you pride yourself upon your refined, exquisite taste in all matters aesthetic, skip this post.)
There are some serious disadvantages to having DSL. It used to be that when I was online, no one could interrupt me. Now the phone is liable to ring at any time. I used to have to wait a minute or two for the modem to establish the connection and another minute or five for the page to load. Now, if I want to waste time, I can do so instantly. Worst of all, I can conveniently download really big files. 100 megabytes? No problem; start the download, then go to the kitchen and fix a snack. When I return to the computer, the downloadís done.
So it was a major disaster when I discovered AnimeMusicVideos.org, by way of Ambient Irony. The site is devoted to amateur music videos, similar to what I remember from MTV, but with repurposed anime for the visuals. Thereís quite a bit of work involved in making these; in reading the notes on the videos, you find that the auteurs spend months assembling the clips and matching them to the music. There are some how-to guides on the site, if you want to try your own hand at the craft. (Fortunately for civilization, I just donít have the time to acquire yet another obsession.) The quality varies wildly, but the best are better than anything I recall from the early days of MTV. Some are funny, some are surrealistic works of art, and some are just plain fun.
Pixy Misa thoughfully put several on the .mu.nu server that you can download here. My taste differs a bit from the Rev. Pixyís, but I can recommend these:
Elvis vs. Anime ó Nothing terribly sophisticated, just various anime characters dancing to an Elvis Presley song.
Excel Pop-Up ó A poisonously sappy Jewel song paired with scenes from the deranged ďExcel Saga.Ē
The Bounty Hunters Who Donít Do Anything ó A very silly Veggie Tales tune illustrated with ďCowboy Bebop.Ē
Stop the Rock ó Just your basic rock Ďní roll.
I Wish I Was a Lesbian ó A funny Loudon Wainright song illustrated with various anime. Itís not for everyone, as the title suggests, but itís not particularly offensive.
N.B.: these are all large files, about 50 to 75 megabytes each.
The time I didnít spend fiddling with my websites this past weekend I wasted by watching anime by auteurs other than Hayao Miyazaki. My conclusion: Miyazaki is still the best. Here are some quick reviews of the DVDs I saw this weekend and a few I watched earlier this year.
Akira: Please donít ask me to explain what this one was about. I donít think the film makers themselves ever quite decided what they had in mind. Letís see: there are motorcycle gangs, a corrupt government ripe for a military coup, a bitter, angry punk with immense psychic powers, aged children with similar powers, speculation on the next stage of evolution, shattered windows, demolished buildings, the ruins of Tokyo, and blood. Lots of blood. If this had been a live-action movie it would have been nauseating, and, well-drawn and smoothly-animated though Akira is, itís an ordeal to watch. Four stars for ambition and art, minus one for incoherence and minus one for extreme violence. For anime obsessives only.
Cowboy Bebop: the Movie: This one feels like a western, even though itís set on a highly-urbanized Mars. In it a quartet of bounty hunters look for a madman who plans to wipe out life on Mars. Thereís an actual story that mostly makes sense and interesting, often sympathetic characters. The art and animation look good to my non-expert eyes, and the pop/rock soundtrack works better than I would have expected (unfortunately, despite the title, thereís no bebop). Anime aficionados often declare that the TV series is better than the movie; if thatís the case, then it must be one of the best television shows ever broadcast. Four stars. Too violent for youngsters.
Dragon Half: Astoundingly silly. Mink, a half-human, half-dragon girl, has a crush on a singer who is also a dragon hunter. It makes very little sense, but sense is beside the point. Some of the humor is a bit vulgar, and Mink, who doesnít wear much clothing, wears even less by the end. If mindless fun is what you like, here it is. If you love Beethoven, skip the theme music. Three stars.
Ghost in the Shell: This one reminded me of early, noir-ish William Gibson. The main character is a cyborg, wtih a human brain in a human-looking but inhumanly strong ďshell,Ē and the central story concerns artificial intelligence developing self-consciousness. Thereís quite a bit else, including a lot of violence (though not to the Akira extreme). Four stars. Definitely not for kids.
Those Who Hunt Elves: Thereís a fine line between silly and stupid, and this series is generally on the wrong side. A trio from Japan ó an idiotic martial arts expert, an actress and a little girl skilled with guns ó are stuck in a sword-and-sorcery universe, along with a tank. To get back to their own world, they must find pieces of a spell that appear as tattoos on the bodies of certain female elves. Do the three ask nicely and secure the cooperation of the elves? Of course not. I was surprised when an anime-enthusiast friend handed me these DVDs, and having watched them, Iím still surprised. Itís not as prurient as you might expect from the synopsis, and some of it is clever, but I canít recommend it. Two stars.
The Wings of Honneamise: I wish I liked this movie more ó it looks beautiful and the story and characters have potential ó but I canít. Itís excruciatingly slow-paced (I ended up fast-forwarding through much of the first 20 minutes, something I almost never do) and painfully earnest. After the first half-hour or so this story of the space program in an imaginary world picks up the pace sufficiently to hold your interest. It remains grimly sincere, though, and ends with a ten-minute exhortation to pray. Two and a half stars. Not for youngsters.
I wrote about Serial Experiements: Lain back in April. It remains the most interesting thematically of the anime Iíve seen and would merit a full five stars were it not quite so diffuse.
None of the above are as good as the best of Miyazaki. If youíve never seen Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, rent them before you look at the others mentioned here.
In other anime news, Spherical Fred praisesMillennium Actress, which is on my to-see list.
1. (tie) Monkey Business or Duck Soup. The first three-quarters of the former is the funniest of all Marxist works, though the big fight at the end belongs in a different, lesser, movie. The latter is nearly as good all the way through.
3. The Wrong Box. Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Michael Caine, Julie Christie, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, all in perfect form with a good script and director. Peter Sellers turns up, also.
4. The Lavender Hill Mob and
5. The Ladykillers. Alec Guinness' smile is one of the great works of 20th-Century art.
6. Big Business. Laurel and Hardy demonstrate that for pure hysterical comedy, nothing beats mindless destruction.
7. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. No comment necessary.
8. Animal Crackers. The first great Marxist comedy.
9. A Night at the Opera. And the one that marked the beginning of their decline. It's still very good, but the plot starts to matter more than than the silliness.
10. Tampopo. All about food; a "Japanese noodle western."
11. Hope and Glory. Multiplication tables and gas masks in WWII London.
12. The Producers.
13. Young Frankenstein.
14. Take the Money and Run. I haven't bothered to see any Mel Brooks or Woody Allen movies in years, but once upon a time they were funny.
15. This Is Spinal Tap. Once again, no comment necessary.
16. Airplane!. The less said about this, the better.
17. Bread and Chocolate. A pathetically funny movie about an Italian out of place in Switzerland.
18. The Life of Brian. For the Latin lesson.
19. Dr. Strangelove. For Peter Sellers' variation on the Guinness smile.
20. Raising Arizona. If this list had 25 entries, this would be in 25th place, but any movie that lists a "baby wrangler" in the credits deserves recognition.
... And that's all I can confidentally name. I remember thinking that A Shot in the Dark was the best of the Inspector Clouseau movies, but it's been decades since I last saw it. I have similar fond-but-dim memories of the original Bedazzled and The Mouse that Roared, and there are undoubtedly many good movies that I've missed.
Soundtrack: Metamora: "Little Potato"
Addendum: How could I forget Local Hero?
Hope and Glory belongs on more than just one list of outstanding movies. While it is a "poignant memoir," it is also often broadly funny enough to be called a comedy. (I also consider Hamlet to be Shakespeare's funniest play -- to my ears, the prince of Denmark sounds like an Elizabethan Groucho Marx.)
I spent 4.5 hours of the past week watching the anime Serial Experiments: Lain. In the USA, animation usually means kids' stuff or funny stuff. In Japan, animation can be as serious as Ibsen. Although the central character of Lain is a girl about 11 years old (the program notes say she's 13, but she seems younger), it's not for kids. Forget Walt Disney, or even Miyazaki; this extravagantly bizarre tale's affinities are with Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. I'm not going to try to summarize the story. It has to do with the virtual world impinging on reality, and memory and identity, and friendship; imagine a cross between Neuromancer and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch featuring Japanese schoolgirls. (There's also some silly talk about God, which has more to do with geeky hybris than theology.)
Lain consists of 13 20-minute episodes (25 minutes, if you count the opening and closing music) that originally aired late at night on Japanese television (so, in a sense, I do watch tv). The drawing and animation is not as lush as in a Miyazaki film, but the art, which features a generous use of computer effects, is adequate to tell the story. And there is a story, though it might be hard to follow for the first few episodes.
Lain is not a complete success. I didn't mind the deliberate pace, but the series overall is too long and repetitious. The explanation of the riddle of Lain is not as interesting as the mystery. Loose ends are left dangling. And there's the unforgivable lapse in a later episode when storytelling is halted for a lecture on Vannevar Bush and John Lilly.
Nevertheless, Serial Experiments: Lain is probably the closest dramatic equivalent of a Philip K. Dick novel ever made, and I recommend it to all connoisseurs of woozy realities. (Let me emphasize again that this is not for children; it will either bore them stiff or give them nightmares.)
Soundtrack: Richard Thompson, "Shoot Out the Lights"
No, I haven't seen The Movie yet, and I'm in no hurry to. Victor Morton's review is the only one I've read thus far (and I've read a bunch) that makes me at all interested in enduring the film:
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST isnít a drama with a plot (it lacks the usual narrative hooks and assumes you know the basic story already), rather it's more like a ritual -- a real-time Stations of the Cross. If the Roman soldiers doing the scourging behave in a flamboyantly evil style, like the rednecks in DELIVERANCE, it serves to underline that this isn't a story about some arrogant, privileged yuppies learning a lesson about intruding on nature. Nor are the Romans beating up some thieves. Or the English executing some foreign rebel. To act in a realistic, human register *in this story* would be false to the profanity of what the soldiers are doing. This is why the complaints about how the film is too violent are so utterly misguided. This is the Son of God atoning for all the world's sins, dammit.
I did see a movie yesterday, though. The Triplets of Belleville not only came to Wichita but stayed long enough for me to actually see it, even though the theatre couldn't be bothered to advertise it. It's good; it's bizarre; and, although it's animated, it's not for children, or frogs. The art is mostly pen and ink rather than computer-rendered, and the figures are exaggerated and stylized to the point of grotesquerie. It's a long way from both Pixar and Miyazaki. Although it's in French, there are no subtitles. They aren't necessary, though. There is very little dialogue, and the story of the kidnapping of a Tour de France bicyclist and his rescue by his indomitable grandmother is easy to follow without words (it does help if you can read a little French). More than in most movies, the soundtrack matters -- the eponymous triplets are the outstanding exponents of the music of refrigerator racks and vacuum cleaners, after all. I particularly recommend this idiosyncratic movie for those who've heard of Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt and to anyone who has ever trued a bicycle wheel.
T.S. O'Rama has a somewhat different take on the movie The Return of the King:
Lord of the Rings should get the Oscar for Best Documentary given its accurate portrayal of our spiritual geography. The film was a sequence of non-stop physical battles, which pretty much mirrors the interior life of Christians: non-stop tiring battles to follow Christ rather than self. (Btw, according to our old Dominican priest, the ring might symbolize comfort which he said Americans crave/worship.)
I perhaps overemphasized the negative in my review of the movie below, and I should note that, for all its shortcomings, Jackson's trilogy comprises three of the best movies made in recent years. (This isn't such high praise as it may seem. Most of the movies I've seen in my life were not worth the time it took to watch them, and I seldom visit the cinema any more.) Steven, in his comments on my review, suggests that Jackson's innovations improved the movie. Perhaps. But I'm not convinced.
I have a particularly difficult time with movies based on books I've read. Blade Runner is considered a classic; when I saw it many years ago, I left the theater furious with the betrayal of Dick's vision. (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? poses the question, does an entity possessing human-level intelligence necessarily have a soul? Dick suggests not; Ridley Scott says, sure (at least in the version I saw; possibly the "director's cut" is more thoughtful). Androids is far from Dick's best, but it deserves more respect than that.) I'm not an utter Tolkien fanatic -- I only read The Lord of the Rings three times in high school, and I don't speak either Quenya or Sindarin -- but Middle Earth is part of my interior geography. It is a measure of Jackson's extraordinary achievement that I didn't leave the theatre angry.
I wonder sometimes just what the point is in making a movie from a novel. The pleasure of a good book lies largely in its author's language, which is not translatable into pictures and a soundtrack. The characters and the plot might survive the transition to the different medium, perhaps, but the author's voice won't. You might as well make a novel from a piano concerto as make a movie from a book.
Last night I watched the DVD of Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky. This afternoon I saw Jackson's The Return of the King. I enjoyed Miyazaki's movie more.
Jackson's project went off the rails in The Two Towers with his refashioning of Faramir. Until then, the changes from the books to the movies could be justified as simplifications necessary to make the movies work. However, robbing Faramir of his nobility was inexcusable, and at that point the movies ceased to be translations into another medium of Tolkien's work and became independent fantasies loosely based on Tolkien -- very loosely. While watching The Return of the King I was occasionally startled by something that actually happened in the books, but mostly it's Jackson's vision, not Tolkien's, on the screen.
Some miscellaneous observations:
-- Battles in movies, no matter how spectacular, get boring quickly. If Jackson had cut most of the fighting, the movie would have been half as long and twice as good.
-- Liv Tyler ain't no elf.
-- Having characters sitting around laughing instead of talking is lazy screenwriting.
-- A few things were exactly right: Eowyn; the New Zealand scenery; the final image of the ship sailing to the west; Gollum.
-- The lowest point in all of the three movies was Frodo on the steps of Cirith Ungol ordering Sam to go home. Couldn't Jackson et al understand how wrong this was?
Final verdict: skip the movies and read the books.
Viewing The Return of the King was a grim duty. Castle in the Sky was a pleasure. If you've seen Spirited Away I don't need to tell you about Miyazaki (if you haven't, check it out the next time you rent videos). Castle is one of his earlier films. It's set in a world in which aircraft developed differently than in ours and in which exists the flying island of Laputa (aside from the island and its name, there are no other obvious Swiftian elements; Miyazaki is a storyteller, not a satirist). The heroine floats down from the sky and the hero catches her; there are flying pirates, bad guys and worse guys, a magic (or very high-tech) crystal, a robot that picks flowers, vertiginous perspectives, intricate mechanisms and clotheslines, implausible flying machines and much else, and it all fits together.