Monday, May 28, 2012

And the service was excellent

Dreamed that working fast food, retail, etc. was compulsory for young adults. And they called it "the service."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Not For Profit

Do you think that, when someday some guy cures cancer, that guy will have done it for the money? Of course not! Now how about we all follow that guy's lead. Maybe it'll even be a girl. (And maybe I shouldn't say "even." More like "probably." Yes, "maybe it will probably be a dame." That sounds adequately PC.)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My Neighbor Totoro

It's unbelievable to me that someone actually thought it would be a good idea to release the joyous My Neighbor Totoro (1988) as a double bill with the harrowing Grave of the Fireflies. My Neighbor Totoro has since become one of Ghibli's most beloved and profitable movies, but the experiment was originally a failure at the box office. I wonder in what order most theaters screened the two films. I thought perhaps it would be better to have My Neighbor Totoro play second, to let audiences leave on a more uplifted note. But I suppose it's a bad combination either way.

And yet the films are not entirely dissimilar. They both feature two children as the main characters. In both cases, the parents largely absent, it is the older sibling who primarily looks after the much younger, although the job is more than they can be expected to handle on their own.

In the case of My Neighbor Totoro, the kids' mother is in the hospital for some unnamed condition. Based autobiographically on Miyazaki's own mother, who was sickly with tuberculosis, it's just a reality of this family's life, never played up for manipulative tragedy, but the uncertainty of her recovery provides an undercurrent of tension throughout this otherwise most gentle and unaffected of Miyazaki movies. I must admit, however, watching this after Grave of the Fireflies, and thinking back on what horrible thing happens to the mother in that one, I could not help feeling somewhat jaded at the sick mother subplot in Totoro. Nevertheless, while Grave of the Fireflies is surely the more powerfully moving film, Totoro is more personally resonant, and occasionally powerful in its own way.

When I was growing up, my parents worked every day into the night. As long as I didn't have to get up early the next morning for school, I would often stay up waiting until they got home. Sometimes they would be a little late, and, a few times, my mother came home very late. On those nights, even if I had to be sent to bed before she got home, I would just lay there unable to sleep until I heard the sound of the garage door opening to announce her arrival. She always did make it home, and I would never have anything to say about it the morning after, but those were some of the scariest nights of my childhood.

I recognized something of those moments during parts of Totoro. When the girls are waiting for their father at the bus stop, they don't discuss their worry at how he's late; they just continue waiting patiently. As they wait, Totoro—that strange, monstrous, possibly imaginary bunny-bear creature—keeps them company. Similarly, those times I was waiting, I would try to read, watch TV, or play my Game Boy—whatever I could find to try to keep myself distracted and my imagination occupied by anything other than what was really on my mind.

That said, it is odd to me that, of all creatures to help these girls cope through their sad and scary moments, they would turn to Totoro, who himself seems kind of scary to me. Seriously, I'm not sure how this thing, with his Chewbacca voice and Cheshire Cat grin, ever came to be perceived as cute, to the extent that sales of Totoro merchandise alone could probably sustain Studio Ghibli, and he has even become their logo. I can only attribute his popularity in Japan to cultural differences. Even freakier is the magical Catbus, with its caterpillar-like legs and that same Cheshire Cat grin. I think these designs show off the playfully eccentric side to Miyazaki's imagination.

Otherwise, My Neighbor Totoro is not the most diverting watch. Never in a hurry to get anywhere, it's not driven by plot, but by the same sort of senseless and unscripted games that kids play with their imaginations when they don't have TV. There are no bad guys, no wisecracks, and not a lot of moralizing. Even when it is tense, it is quiet. I find it a tad boring, and yet perhaps more utterly genuine and even a little poignant among Miyazaki's films. To me, Totoro himself resembles the content of a nightmare, but, in its strongest moments, what the movie does is capture those feelings of child anxiety that give rise to my nightmares.

Inspirational Quote of the Moment #2

Some child: You're so good at what you do, Mr. President. Is presiding simply in your blood? Or did you ever imagine that you would be doing something else?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: You're asking, could I have been a flower seller somewhere. I say absolutely. In another world, I might have been the best damn flower seller that world had ever seen. But that's not my life. This is my life.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Drive (2011)

I quite loved the first third or so of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, at once both familiar and refreshing. Although the story is set in the present day, the electronic tones of the synthy soundtrack lend it a retro feel, as does the startling pink font employed for the opening credits. And I appreciated the meditative mood of the film, which eschews needless dialogue to instead express itself through its sound and visuals.

In the early parts of the film, we see "The Driver," played by Ryan Gosling, working as a wheelman, stunt driver, and mechanic. There is also some suggestion that he might become a stock car racer. But it doesn't really seem to matter what specifically he does; who he is is simply The Driver. Alas, after a heist gone wrong, the movie degenerates into cartoon violence and conventional crime noir narrative, but, up until that point, I really didn't know even what genre of film it was going to be. The rest of the movie could have been spent pursuing the stock car subplot, which seemed no more tangential to the character's identity than any of the action elements. And, frankly, I don't think it would have made a great deal of difference.

The film's real turning point comes, not when the heist goes wrong, but a little earlier, while The Driver is taking his neighbor Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, out for a peaceful nighttime drive. As they stop at a traffic light, she breaks the pleasant silence by quietly mentioning to him that her husband is due to return home from prison soon. The Driver remains stoic as ever, and nothing more is said for the rest of the scene, but I felt even my own heart dropping a little at the news. I imagine it's a kind of defining moment in one's life--not in a good way, but one of crushing finality, as you feel your future coming into focus upon a resignation that the life you wanted is no longer on the table, and whatever tomorrow brings doesn't make a great deal of difference.

But the show must go on, and it does. The understated authenticity of the moment shortly gives way to graphic violence and the exaggerated personalities of the bad guys played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.

Before he heads off to finish the fight alone, The Driver makes one final call to Irene. It's a cliche of the genre: the solitary hero, thinking he's not coming back, leaves behind a message containing his true feelings to the woman he loves. Meanwhile, she might be listening on the other end but unable to find words to say back, or maybe she'll be sitting at home and letting the machine pick up, or maybe she really was away from the phone at the time and is only later playing back the message.

I've always felt uncomfortable with such scenes. In a way, it seems like kind of a jerk move, unfair to the girl, to burden her with a message that basically amounts to "Hey, I know we can't be together, but I've decided to go get killed now, and so I wanted you to know that I love you." What is he looking for? Encouragement? Closure? A witness? It just seems to me that it's too late for any of those things, and the nobler course would be to let her move on. On the other hand, I can understand the impulse, and I suppose that, while it's not a moment that any man can ever be said to have the right to, it's one that we must always forgive them afterwards because they are human.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies originally opened in Japanese theaters in 1988 as part of a double bill with My Neighbor Totoro. I considered watching the two films together myself but ultimately had to drop the idea, owing to the reality that I have neither the stamina nor the attention span to sit through 3 straight hours of moving pictures. So Totoro will have to wait until next time.

Back to Grave of the Fireflies, this was the first film that Isao Takahata directed for Studio Ghibli. Although no less esteemed than any of Miyazaki's pictures, it is quite a different work. Takahata's most prolific days apparently came before his time with Ghibli, as he has, to date, directed only four Ghibli movies, compared with Miyazaki's eight. What's interesting is that, whereas Miyazaki has always kept the kids foremost in mind when making his movies, Takahata's works have seemed to aim for older audiences. Only Yesterday (1991), about a 27-year-old office worker reminiscing on her 1960s childhood as she comes to a crossroads in her life, was geared toward adult women, while I imagine that My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), a series of comic strip-style vignettes about an unremarkable middle-class Japanese family, could only be of amusement to mature middle-class parents. Even the more broadly appealing Pom Poko (1994) evinces a sort of “old folk” nostalgia for bygone times. As for Grave of the Fireflies, although it was originally marketed toward families (obviously, since it played together with My Neighbor Totoro), I think it fair to say that that was a miscalculation, as it is too intense for younger children, and far too stark—the opposite of a feel-good movie—for “family movie night.”

Also in common with Takahata's other Ghibli movies, Grave of the Fireflies is set in the real world in Japan, in this case during the end of World War II—perhaps not the proud nation's finest moment (nor anybody else's, I suppose). It opens on a grim note, presenting us with the dead body of the protagonist, Seita, in a train station, where passersby complain of the starving vagrant boy's disgraceful appearance. The rest of the movie then flashes back to tell us the story of Seita and his four-year-old sister, Setsuko. From the beginning, however, we already know that there will not be a happy ending, and, with Seita evidently having proven unable even to provide for himself, we can imagine that his efforts to take care of his young sister will not make for the most cheerful viewing experience. And, boy, it sure isn't.

The movie was based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, who blamed himself for his sister's death due to malnutrition during WWII. Some viewers have interpreted Grave of the Fireflies as being an antiwar story, and certainly the ravages of war are horrifyingly depicted; despite being animated, the movie presents chillingly graphic images of victims of bombings, and thereafter the planes that cross the sky evoke feelings of foreboding far removed from the romanticism of Miyazaki's aviation sequences. But, as much as this movie shows us the misfortunes of innocent civilians caught in the middle of wars between nations, it is also a story of personal failure.

It would be difficult for any viewer to watch these kids deteriorate toward their miserable outcome, but the pain is magnified considerably when you find yourself able to identify with Seita. If you have kids or younger siblings, or if you've ever otherwise been thrust into a position of responsibility for others' well-being, then perhaps you know how crushing it can be when you feel like you've let them down, even if only just in a small way.

Given charge of his sister when he is only a kid himself, Seita is dealt a poor hand. Even so, his and Setsuko's story need not have ended the way it did. Having lost their parents, Seita and Setsuko at first stay with an aunt. But, fed up with the aunt's resentful attitude toward them, Seita decides to fend for his sister and himself while living in an abandoned bomb shelter. Quickly, they run out of food, and Seita hasn't the means to provide for them. A farmer, barely able to produce enough even for himself, advises Seita to swallow his pride and return to his aunt. But Seita can't. He doesn't even acknowledge the suggestion.

For me, it is this moment in the film that sticks out most painfully, which I think is saying a lot. But so often is it that, when we finally fail, we cannot help but obsessively revisit all our mistakes leading up to that failure, too late owning up to those pivotal moments when we went one way but could have, should have gone another. And, as much as I want to criticize and point out Seita's mistakes, ultimately the movie makes me reflect on my own—the many times I've fallen short. Deep down, I know from experience and self-knowledge that, put in his position, I might likewise place personal pride and selfishness ahead of sense and responsibility, and that's what hurts most. Seita and Setsuko's story is almost unimaginable for those of us fortunate enough to be living free from war and destitution. But guilt is universal, and, in this case, I think it is Seita's (and Nosaka's) guilt that resonates to make Grave of the Fireflies an especially penetrating film.

One other thing that notably distinguishes Grave of the Fireflies (and also Takahata's Only Yesterday) from Miyazaki's films is that the material does not seem obviously suited for animation. The movie depicts a real place and time, with no fantastic elements. Takahata, whose shot composition, dating back as far as Hols: Prince of the Sun (1968), always seemed inspired more by great live-action pictures than by other cartoons, perhaps chose to do Grave of the Fireflies as animation because he never saw animation as necessarily segregated from live action in terms of the subjects that it was fit to tackle. That said, this story could have been done in live action (and, indeed, there has been a live-action adaptation of the novel). But would it have been better in live action? Would it have been worse?

The one thing that the animated Grave of the Fireflies does that perhaps no live-action version could ever do as well is its portrayal of the four-year-old Setsuko. Although, in the Japanese version, Setsuko was voiced by an actual five-year-old, it's hard to imagine any child actress being able to fully act out her heartbreaking arc as convincingly as this hand-drawn character, especially as she progressively physically and emotionally diminishes over the course of the film. It is a testament both to the animators' craft and the medium's potential that so many viewers have been so profoundly moved over the images of this girl who is, after all, “only a cartoon.”

Oh, and if you're wondering why the DVD doesn't look all nice on your shelf next to your other Region 1 Ghibli movies, that's because this is the only Ghibli movie that Disney has never had the US distribution rights to. When Disney arranged to distribute the Studio Ghibli back catalog, it was actually dealing with Tokuma Shoten, which had published all of Ghibli's movies in Japan, with the exception of Grave of the Fireflies, which was produced by Shinchosha, the publisher of the original Akiyuki Nosaka novel.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

It's Time To Avenge

Concerning the Marvel superhero team the Avengers, my sister asked me, "What are they avenging?" It's not a new question, and, frankly, there's never been a good answer. I think the name never made sense but was just supposed to sound cool. But, with the movie coming out in mere hours, I was struck with a sudden bolt of inspiration.

Now, I don't know much about marketing, but I came up with this concept for an ad image to accompany an opening day campaign in the tradition of "Mortal Monday." Not to toot my own horn, but I do believe it's quite the slam dunk.

As I envision it, when the clock strikes midnight tonight, they would unfurl the wallscapes of this image in Times Square; set up billboards, signs, posters; even promote a nationwide "cover the night" campaign among fans.

Alternatively, I considered the following, but I decided that it was a little too obvious and cute, which was not really what I was going for:

Alas, it's probably a bit late for Marvel to arrange this for the movie release. But I would even propose that Marvel should retire the "Avengers Assemble!" battle cry in the comics, instead replacing it with "Avenge somebody." Here are some mockups I put together as examples to show how well this could work: