Sunday, April 29, 2012

Castle in the Sky

Director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) once said that he liked Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) best among Ghibli movies. Considering that Oshii's own films have always evinced an affinity for darker and more adult themes, it's surprising to me that his favorite Ghibli movie would be arguably the studio's most straightforward boy entertainment. It's a swashbuckling adventure, full of sky pirates, airships, lost cities, chase sequences and daring rescues. If this movie had been available to me as a kid, I'm sure I would have cherished it and watched the VHS tape over and over again. Probably it would have joined the likes of Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone, as one of those cartoons that I would reenact together with the bossy girl at the family day care, who happened to be my only playmate there, even though I kind of hated her.

Castle in the Sky makes for an enjoyable viewing experience, but not an especially provocative one to stay with you afterward, unless you are of an age to be contemplating floating castles in earnest. There is a definite romanticism to this story and this world, among the most universally appealing (read: least discernibly Japanese) of all Miyazaki's. The main boy and girl are perfectly ordinary children, almost nondescript, that any young viewers who wish should easily be able to see themselves in those roles. The bad guy here is Ghibli's most unambiguously evilthe sort of monster that my child self would always relish role-play slaying, except that this one is just slightly unimpressive-looking.

Coming to it as an adult, I can still appreciate the craftsmanship but never get swept away by the story, which is rather by-the-numbers. To spin all that I've said above another way, Castle in the Sky is narratively conventional, the characters are generic and entirely forgettable, and I don't know that there is anything thematically of substancecertainly nothing for adults, but probably nothing for kids to meaningfully apply on growing up either. And as I re-watch these Miyazaki movies, I'm realizing how utterly devoid of comedic wit they are, which makes for some pretty bland casts. I think perhaps Miyazaki equates cleverness with insincerity. With the exceptions of the villains in this movie, every character, however rough their exterior, is almost insipidly gentle at core, and I'm betting that I'll only be seeing more of that as I get further through his catalog.

But there is room in cinema for gentleness. Castle in the Sky is also a beautiful film, an exciting one, and it has robots! Indeed, the robots were my favorite part, and I wonder if they weren't Miyazaki's as well. The old man claims not to own a computer, says he writes letters instead of emails, and rarely even watches TV. And yet this nature-lover also reveals through his works an affection for technology, so long as it's of the imaginary steampunk variety.

Late in the movie, when our young heroes finally arrive at the lost city of Laputa, they are met by a robot. It can't speak, but it reaches for their glider. Knowing how strong the robot is, the kids fear that it will destroy their craft. But the robot carefully lifts the glider to reveal a bird's nest underneath, which the humans had thoughtlessly landed upon. We also observe that the robot is covered in moss, and birds and the little fox-squirrels from Nausicaa rest and play upon its shoulders. Apparently, after generations with no humans around, Laputa developed into an idyllic paradise of robot and nature existing in perfect harmony together. And I might ask, what's the point if there are no people? But, of course, things literally fall apart once the humans do arrive.

One last note regarding the soundtrack: For the English version, Disney had Joe Hisaishi rework the score. He replaced the original synthesizer soundtrack with symphony orchestra recordings for a much fuller sound, also adding music to scenes that had none in the Japanese version, so as to make it more suitable for American markets. Hisaishi and Miyazaki were both reportedly quite pleased with the results, and I personally wished Disney would have made similar arrangements for its Nausicaa release. Instead, on Disney's most recent 2010 DVD of Castle in the Sky, they apparently ditched the new music and reinserted the original score into even the English version. Frankly, I find it baffling that all that work would just go abandoned now, especially given that the Japanese audio track has always been there as an option for anyone who prefers it. I'm hoping that they'll include the re-score as an option on the upcoming Blu-ray (I understand that it's on the UK and Australian Blu-rays, not released by Disney).

Saturday, April 28, 2012

FYI, it's spelled "bestiality"

Now how long before this post ranks among my most viewed?

John Lasseter Presents Studio Ghibli

In January 2006, Turner Classic Movies and Pixar's John Lasseter hosted a month-long, nine-film festival of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Here's their intro to Nausicaa:

I've uploaded the rest of the intro segments to my YouTube channel here. They're rather thin, but I thought maybe some people would find them of interest.

Excuse the video quality; these were taken off years-old VHS tapes, originally recorded SLP mode off TV.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I first saw Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) when Disney released the North American DVD in 2005, after having already seen Spirited Away (2001), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Castle in the Sky (1986). At the time, I was pretty disappointed with it, and I thought it looked and sounded incredibly dated. Now, going through the Ghibli movies in order, and a few years removed from my last having viewed any of Miyazaki's later works, I am better able to appreciate it in context and with more reasonable expectations, although I would still consider it among my least favorite of his films.

Although released a year before Studio Ghibli formally existed, Nausicaa's success is what led to the studio's establishment, and it is nowadays usually included as part of the Ghibli catalog. For the animation work, Tokuma Shoten Publishing contracted Topcraft, a studio which had previously done a bunch of Rankin/Bass features, including The Last Unicorn (1982). Many of the artists and staff at Topcraft would afterward join Studio Ghibli and work on Castle in the Sky.

I wish there were more to say regarding that lineage from The Last Unicorn to this, but Nausicaa is clearly Miyazaki's show, and I think Topcraft probably just followed along with his directorial style and specifications. A pre-CGI animated film, it's not as technically sophisticated as more recent Ghibli movies, and I found it somewhat visually bland overall. It's not a bad-looking film by any means, but the palette seems more limited than even the earlier Castle of Cagliostro (1979), and the settings—desert, valley, jungle, and cave—are dull and repetitive, which perhaps befits the barren, post-apocalyptic world of Nausicaa.

Nausicaa also marked the first collaboration between Miyazaki and composer Joe Hisaishi, although the eclectic, synth-heavy score is by far the most jarring part of the viewing experience. It isn't bad, but it definitely dates the production more than anything else.

But it's the storytelling that I find most problematic in Nausicaa. I tend to group Miyazaki's stories into a couple different categories. Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle are the “adventures.” My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo are “kid stuff.” And Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke are his “message” movies. And that message, which is also present, though to a less heavy-handed extent, in nearly all his other movies as well, is always the same—basically, human beings are screwing up the planet with their destructive ways.

Nausicaa takes place in a post-nuclear holocaust world where the land is being overtaken by a “toxic jungle” swarming with gigantic mutant insects called Ohmu. And yet who are the bad guys in this story? It's us, of course! It's always us! First, human beings, with their war and pollution, brought the earth to its ruinous condition. Fine, I can go along with that. But, not only that, now that we've come to this point of having a cancerous forest of death and these insane, monstrous bugs bearing down on us, we are the ones still in the wrong to be fighting back? You mean these deadly and disgusting Ohmu are really naturally peaceful creatures, who only go a little nuts when we humans disturb their tranquility with our hostile aura? And that toxic jungle is actually a good and vital part of the ecosystem, even though it's completely lethal to us and kills all the things we depend on for life? And all our attempts to fix things will only lead to planetary death, because we don't know what's good for us or for the earth, but the earth itself does, so we should just submit ourselves to its will, as though it has one?

The story is not made any less insufferable by the character of Nausicaa, young princess of the Valley of the Wind, who is apparently the one good and capable person in the entire world of this movie. In The Castle of Cagliostro, the Clarisse character could have been seen by some as a “Mary Sue” type—an improbably immaculate heroine inserted into someone else's already existing fiction, to win the heart of the hero, charm all the other guys, and otherwise dominate the spotlight. Here, in a world that is entirely Miyazaki's own creation, Nausicaa almost comes across the same way. Unerringly wise and pure, Nausicaa strains the viewer's willing suspension of disbelief, while her humorless preachiness tries one's patience.

It's almost as if the characterization of Nausicaa is overly idealized in order to compensate for the film's otherwise pessimistic outlook. Indeed, it's always struck me as one of those odd contradictions of Miyazaki, that the guy who gives us such consistently crowd-pleasing family movies should also just as consistently come across as a cynical grump in interviews. But the cynicism is there in his movies as well; remove Nausicaa from this story, and it becomes bleakly fatalistic. Perhaps that's how Miyazaki really sees things, and a hardened adult viewer might agree with that part and declare Nausicaa an out-of-place unrealistic element. On the other hand, one has to remember that Miyazaki writes for children. At the age that he's speaking to, kids probably shouldn't be feeling any sour grapes toward cartoon characters, but maybe they can actually look to Nausicaa's example as something to aspire toward. Maybe inserting these triumphantly optimistic characters then is Miyazaki's way of inspiring and giving hope to the kids who are his own small bit of hope.

But, for me, it's far more amusing to observe how quickly things unravel whenever Nausicaa is not around. Early on, her village is subjugated by troops led by Princess Kushana of Tolmekia. Before Nausicaa is then sent away as a hostage, she asks for her people's cooperation. It's not long after Nausicaa is gone, however, before rioting breaks out in the Valley of the Wind. Later, when a stampede of Ohmu threatens both the villagers and the occupying Tolmekians, and Nausicaa is nowhere to be found, everybody is just resigned to depending on the strongest leader figure around, who happens to be Kushana. And what is her plan? Why, she's going to unleash a “Giant Warrior,” one of the living nuclear weapons that previously ravaged the earth. Things go about as well as you would expect from a hopeless bunch improvising one inadvisable strategy after another. But these are the parts that totally ring true to me!

Speaking of Kushana, it's also interesting that, as little faith as Miyazaki seems to have in humanity, he is also known for eschewing flatly villainous characters in his movies. Although the closest thing the story has to an antagonist, Kushana's not really evil. She's not conflicted like Hilda from Hols: Prince of the Sun either, but she's an adversary who sees herself as the good guy. To me, that makes her a far less emotionally resonant character than Hilda, but she is nevertheless my favorite in this movie. Voiced by Uma Thurman in the English dub, she gets all the best lines. Remarking on the left arm she lost to the insects (and which perhaps drives her Ahab-like crusade against the Ohmu), she says, ever proud, “And whatever lucky man becomes my husband will see worse than that!”

She also plays a key part in one of Nausicaa's more memorable scenes, the aforementioned unleashing of the Giant Warrior, which provides the most visually striking image in the movie. The creature is something out of a nightmare. It is monstrously powerful and menacing in appearance, yet straining just to hold itself together, its flesh oozing off the bone, as though its mere existence entails the most agonizing exertion against biological limitations imaginable. I was strongly reminded of the similarly grotesque Eva Units from Neon Genesis Evangelion, and it came as no surprise to learn that the animator in charge of the scene was none other than a young Hideaki Anno, later the creator of Evangelion.

There is at least one other scene in Nausicaa that might fairly be called “great.” Occurring about an hour in, it's animated in a stylized manner resembling pencil sketches, and accompanied hauntingly by the sound of a young girl's humming. It features a child Nausicaa trying in vain to hide a baby Ohmu from her father, who insists that humans and insects cannot live together. Half a dream, half a memory, it lasts two minutes and afterward is not remarked upon. But those two minutes manage to convey all that the story intends for the viewer to understand about the quality of Nausicaa's character and about the Ohmu, and the scene nearly redeemed both those elements for me. If only Miyazaki could have shown a little more restraint throughout the rest of the movie.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sherlock Hound

It may have been premature to call The Castle of Cagliostro the end of an era for Miyazaki. Before going ahead with Nausicaa, he returned, under a pseudonym, to TV and to Lupin in 1980, directing two episodes, including the finale, of the Lupin III Part II series. His next TV anime after that was Sherlock Hound in 1981.

Miyazaki directed six episodes of Sherlock Hound, before the project was shelved over a dispute with the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was not until 1984, when Miyazaki edited together two episodes to serve as the opening cartoon to Nausicaa, that the material resurfaced. It was a hit with audiences, and, with the earlier dispute since resolved, Tokyo Movie Shinsha decided to expand it into a full 26-episode series, although, by this point, Miyazaki was working on his movies and no longer involved with the show.

The entire series can now be found on TMS's YouTube channel. Most viewers today would probably only be interested in Miyazaki's episodes, and the YouTube channel features them as the first six (beyond that, I don't know if they're in any particular order, but I don't get the sense it much matters). FYI, the two episodes that aired with Nausicaa were "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" (episode 2 on the YouTube) and "Treasure Under the Sea" (episode 3).

I only watched those two episodes, and I'm not really interested in seeing more, because, to be honest, I didn't find it all that captivating. But it's definitely a Miyazaki work, particularly resembling Castle of Cagliostro. Although more clearly aimed at children, Sherlock Hound is similarly a fast-paced and lighthearted slapstick action program, full of car chases and aviation sequences, as highlighted right in the opening credits sequence. Other Miyazaki-isms include the Victorian ambiance and a number of steampunk contraptions.

For me, the most amusing bit was a scene in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," where Sherlock Hound, driving a primitive automobile with no mirrors, shifts into reverse in pursuit of some bad guys. The episode ends with another thrilling chase sequence. Otherwise, the show is interesting mainly because, even as it bears many of his hallmarks, it's hard to imagine Miyazaki making anything so outright playful and wide-eyed idealistic today.

On the whole, the show seems well-crafted. An unmistakably 80s cartoon, it's kind of cute, kind of charming, but also a little juvenile and a little boring for me. Probably best enjoyed watching with kids.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro

Since viewing Hols: Prince of the Sun, I've been inspired to slowly go back through my collection of Studio Ghibli movies to see how Miyazaki and Takahata grew as artists. Before even getting to the Ghibli movies, however, I decided to re-watch Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), the first feature film that Hayao Miyazaki ever directed.

The Castle of Cagliostro came out over ten years after Hols: Prince of the Sun, so I'm actually skipping over a significant chunk of Miyazaki's development here. But, to provide a context, following Hols, Miyazaki had continued to hone his craft as an animator on a couple more Toei productions, including Puss 'n Boots (1969) and Animal Treasure Island (1971). After leaving Toei, he mostly worked in television together with Takahata on a number of series, including Future Boy Conan (1978), and three acclaimed adaptations of classic children's stories—Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976), and Anne of Green Gables (1979)—which aired as part of Nippon Animation's pioneering “World Masterpiece Theater” program on Sunday evenings. I've never seen any of this stuff, as it's all pretty obscure or unavailable in the US.

Americans may be slightly more familiar with Lupin III, originally a 1967 manga created by a guy writing under the name Monkey Punch. The Mad magazine-inspired comic followed the raunchy adventures of the world's greatest thief, Lupin, supposedly the grandson of French author Maurice Leblanc's gentleman thief character, Arsene Lupin, although Monkey Punch's work was completely unauthorized by the Leblanc estate.

In 1971, Lupin III was adapted into a 23-episode TV anime. This too has never been available in the US (although that is scheduled to change in June), so I've never seen it. But many Ghibli fans perhaps know that most of the episodes were directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. So, although Miyazaki did not create Lupin, he did have a history with and probably a certain feeling of proprietorship over the character when he later co-wrote and directed Castle of Cagliostro. By some accounts, this movie was the culmination, not only of Miyazaki's involvement with Lupin III, but of his entire body of work in animation up to that point.

Most people checking out Castle of Cagliostro today probably do so after hearing that it was Miyazaki's first movie, and so they approach it as though seeing his beginning. But, in another way, it may also have marked the ending to a chapter in his career. Certainly, Castle of Cagliostro is unique among Miyazaki's films.

It still looks and feels in many ways like a Ghibli movie. Miyazaki and his mentor Yasuo Otsuka handled the character designs, which are a little softer and gentler than some other interpretations of Lupin and his gang. Miyazaki also finds a way to insert an autogyro into the film, indulging his love of flight. And, like Miyazaki's later works, Castle of Cagliostro is a family-friendly crowd-pleaser. And yet, watching it, one gets the sense that there was, not necessarily a less mature director at work, but a younger, more optimistic man at the helm. What Castle of Cagliostro lacks that is common to Miyazaki's later works are the old man's preachiness and condescension.

Maybe it's because Lupin III was not his own creation, and so his authorial voice was limited by the original source material. Or maybe he just hadn't grown into such a pessimistic grump yet; Nausicaa (1984), although the proto-Ghibli work, actually came out after Miyazaki was already in his 40s. In any case, Castle of Cagliostro is, in my opinion, the most purely fun movie Miyazaki ever directed, feeling rather like an animated version of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It's a caper film that is high on adventure and light on logic. When Lupin and his buddy Jigen meet Princess Clarisse fleeing from men working for her husband-to-be, the villainous Count, it's up to the rascally yet chivalrous Lupin to sneak into the Count's castle and pull off, not a theft, but a rescue. Lupin's swordsman friend Goemon, femme fatale Fujiko, and nemesis Inspector Zenigata all get involved as well.

Yeah, the film experience probably loses a little if you're not already acquainted with these Lupin III regulars, but it's not as big a deal as you might think. Castle of Cagliostro was my introduction to Lupin III, but it didn't take me long to feel like I knew these characters. Their histories are only about as relevant as James Bond's is to most 007 movies; longtime fans will find more to appreciate, but the film is also self-contained, and the personalities are not overly complex. Nevertheless, this is, without a doubt, the most charismatic cast of characters Miyazaki ever had to work with (no kids!), and it's easy to see why Lupin III's popularity endures even apart from his involvement. Cowboy Bebop is largely just a futuristic Lupin III, coupled with a bunch of references to Western cinema.

There is an interesting tension here resulting from the intersection of Monkey Punch's characters, more madcap and roguish than any found in Miyazaki's Ghibli works, and the character of Clarisse, most likely Miyazaki's own creation, who seems a sort of prototype of the strong, independent female protagonists of his later films. The two seem like they should be a poor fit, as though they shouldn't be able to coexist in the same story without compromising one or both, which is arguably the case here, with some critics contending, on the one hand, that the Castle of Cagliostro Lupin has been emasculated from his original incarnation, while, on the other hand, Clarisse is disappointingly weak compared to later Miyazaki heroines. With Lupin starring in the gallant hero role, the gentle Clarisse is left somewhat as a damsel-in-distress character, rather subdued compared to Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke's San. But she is also virtuous with a latent inner strength, and, as Lupin's heroism steadily instills her with confidence in him, she gains confidence in herself as well, even saving Lupin's life on multiple occasions. Meanwhile, those acquainted with the Lupin character outside of Castle of Cagliostro might note that it is a departure for Lupin to play the gallant hero at all. Taking that into consideration, it may be that, as much as he inspires Clarisse, she likewise inspires him to become more than what he has been.

Since watching Castle of Cagliostro for the first time, I've seen a handful of episodes of the second Lupin III TV series (1977) (no Miyazaki episodes), and what struck me was how irreverent it was, and what bastards Lupin and his gang were, out only for money and themselves. Yet this was reportedly much truer to the source material, and also how the characters are usually portrayed. That the Castle of Cagliostro Lupin, actually anomalous, is so much tamer is usually chalked up by detractors to the fact that Miyazaki is more comfortable producing for children, and so he watered the character down for young audiences. Except that, within the movie, Lupin actually reflects disapprovingly upon his younger, more reckless, more money-driven self. This was not just a flashback; it was a reference to the Lupin of the TV series that Miyazaki had previously worked on. Yes, the Castle of Cagliostro Lupin was different from the Lupin that fans knew; he was older, maybe a little weary of the thief's life, as perhaps Miyazaki himself was growing weary of silly cartoon adventures. Maybe Miyazaki was, in a way, preparing to lay to rest the part of his life that Lupin represented, by depicting a Lupin now susceptible to being tamed by Clarisse, who embodied Miyazaki's new direction and values going forward (though mercifully no sign yet of his tiresome, heavy-handed environmental messages).

Again, none of this context is really necessary to enjoy the film just as a fun adventure—maybe the most effortless Miyazaki ever directed. But it did enhance my appreciation for Castle of Cagliostro as the sendoff to a more innocent chapter in Miyazaki's career. He never made another one quite like this.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Strong Second Half

Somehow, three years after an unceremonious end to a once promising NBA career gone ignominious, irrelevant, and finally ignored, Stephon Marbury's story has turned around to become, for me personally, the most refreshing narrative in sports this year. Two weeks ago, in his third season playing in the Chinese Basketball Association, the former New York Knicks point guard led his Beijing Ducks to their first ever championship, also his own first championship of his professional career.

When Marbury announced that he was taking the 2009-10 season off, following several tempestuous seasons with the New York club he had grown up watching and loving, and which ultimately exiled him while he was still technically on the team, I figured, as did a lot of people, that he was finished. His career demise appeared confirmed when, in 2010, he returned to play, not in the NBA, but in China instead.

It seemed a pathetic end to one of the NBA's more tragic stories. Drafted in the first round in 1996, this was a guy who had been a starter right out of the gate, and quickly grew into a two-time NBA All-Star and one of the league's top point guards. It was all downhill, however, after Marbury was traded to his beloved New York Knicks in 2004. Marbury publicly feuded with his coaches, while the team continually underperformed as one of the league's losingest over the next several seasons. New York fans, the press, coaches, and teammates pointed fingers at Marbury (and everywhere else) to lay blame for the team's embarrassing descent into becoming the biggest joke in the NBA. An overpaid, ineffectual star on a non-contending large-market team, Marbury surely deserved his share of criticism, though I doubt that made it any easier to take. Even in the face of the millions he was making, I don't imagine life was anywhere near as sweet as he might have dreamed the NBA should have been. But his hard days must truly have hit a low point on December 2, 2007.

Although it was a home game, the crowd at Madison Square Garden may have been more hostile than any other arena to Marbury. Knicks fans were booing him even during the pregame introductions. Perhaps the only person on his side was his own father, who was in attendance. At least for the first half. Around halftime, Marbury's father suffered a heart attack, and he was declared dead at the hospital before the game was over. Marbury stayed in the game and played on, however, unaware that his father had even been taken to the hospital. Marbury had no idea until after, because apparently his own family felt he didn't need the "distraction" while he played this meaningless regular season game, which the Knicks ended up losing to the Phoenix Suns anyway.

After that, thinking about Stephon Marbury just made me sad. I could no longer laugh at him, not even as he decided to get in front of a webcam to host a 24-hour live stream/meltdown, whose bright spots included scenes of him smoking marijuana and swallowing Vaseline, amid far more aimless stretches of him responding to viewer questions or even just taking his meals. This was during his break from basketball, after no NBA team would pay him his asking price, and before he set sail for China.

I expected that move to a foreign league to be just another sad stunt in a protracted flame-out. I expected that to be the last I would hear of Stephon Marbury, barring the possibility of some "Former NBA star arrested" story somewhere down the line. I didn't expect a happy ending. I didn't expect him to turn his life around. I certainly didn't expect his story to inspire me. But he has.

At the age of 32, his game clearly in decline, his life seemingly having unraveled, Stephon Marbury left to play for a Chinese league that most Americans remain unaware of. At age 35, Marbury, playing on his third Chinese team in three years, after having failed to make the playoffs with the first two, was still sticking with it, while guys like Bonzi Wells and Rafer Alston apparently hated playing in China so much that they just went AWOL in the middle of their contracts. Not only that, but Marbury seemed happier than he had ever been in the NBA. He was growing accustomed to the climate, the cuisine, the culture, maybe not the language. Chinese basketball fans were far quicker to embrace him, and maybe that made all the difference for Marbury. After having endured the boos of his fellow New Yorkers for five seasons, he was now met by a people that didn't know or didn't care how badly he had screwed up before. Ironically, he had had to leave America to get a clean slate, in a land that allowed him the second half to his life that he needed, and he was determined not to waste this one. He broke down in tears after leading his Beijing Ducks into the championship series against the favored Guangdong Southern Tigers, a team that had played in the last nine CBA finals, winning seven of them. And then came the exultation when he finally got to hoist that trophy over his head, his expression to be immortalized with a statue that over 1 million Chinese fans campaigned for online.

Admittedly, the level of competition in China is not comparable to the NBA, despite a temporary influx in the CBA this season of American players who turned to China during the NBA lockout. This is a league where the points-per-game league leaders list is completely dominated by imported players. And I'm talking guys you've never heard of, like Marcus Williams (32.0), Charles Gaines (29.1), and Josh Akognon (28.2). This is a league where J.R. Smith, always a good shooter but perennially a backup in the NBA, was able to score 60 points off the bench in one game this season, en route to leading the CBA with a 34.4 points-per-game average, before bailing to sign with the New York Knicks, once his Chinese squad failed to make the playoffs.

But that's not really the point, as I see it. No, Marbury isn't champion of the world. His victory probably won't inspire any Coney Island kids to set their sights on playing in the CBA. Maybe New York, the NBA, the United States never even deserved Marbury. Or maybe he didn't deserve them. Whatever. For me, what I'll take away from this story is that the game is not won or lost in the first half, or even the first three quarters. It's a story of second chances. Of getting a clean slate in your 30s, when you're not sure even what your life has been. Of becoming what you were meant to be, when you feared your best years were already lost to you. Of having to wake up after the dream has died, finally to find a life that is better than the dream.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Hols: Prince of the Sun

Browsing through Hulu's free movie collection to see if there were any gems hidden among the piles of Lifetime Movies on offer, I came upon an old cartoon titled Little Norse Prince Valiant (1968). It sounded vaguely familiar, and, on reading the description, I realized that this was a localized version of the Japanese anime Hols: Prince of the Sun, the first film ever directed by Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies). Fellow Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki also worked on the film as an animator.

I had never seen Hols, but I had heard it described before by anime historians as a landmark work and essential viewing for Ghibli buffs. Although it was a commercial flop upon its original theatrical release, it sparked a move away from the mostly Disney-esque fare that Toei had been putting out at the time. Many would credit this movie as the turning point that opened Japan's eyes to the broader artistic potential for animation as an auteur's medium. The version on Hulu is maybe not the best way to view Hols; it's pan-and-scan, and the print shows its age, looking like someone's personal copy taped off TV (and, this being Hulu, there are also commercials). But, hey, it's a free presentation of a movie that's hard to come by in the US, and there's still enough there to appreciate beneath all the grain.

Yes, it's a charming film, if also dated and somewhat juvenile, better appreciated with some context and historical perspective. Ironically, for all that is made of how this picture established anime as something distinct from the Disney formula, in a lot of ways it more closely resembles classic Disney animated movies than it does, say, Akira or Ghost in the Shell. Of course, I would also contend that the Ghibli movies have a lot more in common with Disney than with almost anything else out of Japan. But Hols even feels somewhere between a Disney and a Ghibli film, with its musical numbers, its talking animal characters, and its heroic hero and villainous villain.

Takahata's direction helps the film to stand out. His framing is dynamic, and the opening action sequence, wherein our ax-wielding hero Hols does battle with a pack of wolves, is more sophisticated in its composition than anything found in contemporary Disney movies. The most inventive shot in the movie is a point-of-view shot from Hols's perspective, as he teeters on the edge of a cliff, hanging on by a rope whose other end is held by the evil sorcerer Grunwald. As Hols and the camera focus on Grunwald, the rope between them becomes a blur.

The characters are somewhat simple and crudely drawn, but the animation is smooth, notwithstanding that the story's two busiest action scenes are no more than slideshows of pans across static images.

Cinephiles can more closely dissect the film's visual aspects, but the narrative doesn't really get going until about halfway into its 80-minute run time. For the most part, this is a simple kids movie (well, actually, a little convoluted and nonsensical, but broadly conventional) about good versus evil. About halfway through, however, viewers are introduced to the character of Hilda, who (SPOILER) is Grunwald's sister, sent to sabotage Hols by pretending to be his friend. It is upon Hilda's arrival that we begin to see the more Ghibli, less Disney side to Hols. Hilda is the only interesting character in the story, and I would say that, beyond anything Takahata contributes to the film's technical aspects, it is Hilda particularly that makes Hols: Prince of the Sun a historically noteworthy and memorable movie.

For the historian, Hilda is notable for two reasons. First, she prefigures the strong, independent female characters that audiences have since come to identify with Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki's works in particular. No mere damsel in distress, she is a pivotal agent toward the outcome for either side. Second, in a story that is otherwise fairly black-and-white, with a very Disney-esque villain, Hilda occupies a gray area. She is not either wholly good or wholly evil by nature, but she operates according to a continually developing set of perceptions and values, with good or evil results.

It is that latter dimension to the Hilda character that most distinguishes Hols from a Disney movie. It challenges its young viewers to try to understand why good people might do bad things, which actually isn't that hard a concept to convey when you respect your audience. I don't imagine, for most kids, that it's very long after they learn the rules before they start knowingly breaking some of them. Maybe the real lesson is that it's hard to be good. Maybe real life is, to some extent, a good-versus-evil narrative, only, instead of it being you versus the bad guys, the struggle is more internal within each of us. That is the struggle within Hilda that the movie openly and earnestly depicts. In this way, Hols manages to engage kids on a poignant level beyond most kids cartoons even over 40 years later, by speaking to parts of them that most cartoons would prefer to ignore or deny.

I wouldn't say Hols is a very intellectually challenging kids movie; most of it is inexplicable fantasy nonsense, somewhat clumsily told. But it's more emotionally complex than most American cartoons, its darker layers perhaps its most resonant. Although it's a tad crude by modern standards, in its raw earnestness, it also feels more sincere than most stuff today out of either the US or Japan. It doesn't abuse the trust of its young audience to try to sell it much more than the artists' own values and vision.

Of course, this all doesn't make for an especially entertaining or enriching experience for more casual adult audiences today, but if you've got 80 minutes (plus commercials) to spare, maybe check it out and see where Takahata and Miyazaki kind of got their start, in the process also setting anime down its path toward something truly distinct from what cartoons had been up to that point.

Hulu also has Miyazaki and Takahata's Panda! Go Panda! (1972), although that one may be a little too kiddy even for me . . . .

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Inspirational Quote of the Moment #1

"With all due respect, Mr. President Abraham Lincoln, get the hell off my battlefield."

- Ulysses S. Grant