Monday, July 30, 2012

Who Framed Zangief?

Seen Disney's Wreck-It Ralph trailer?

After years of frustration over how video games have been depicted in film—from the addition of incessant 8-bit sound effects to modern games, to hyperactive kids mashing every button during a turn-based RPG, to embarrassing scenes of two people holding controllers during a one-player game, and awful adaptation after awful adaptation—it's refreshing to finally see a movie that seems to "get it." Director Rich Moore's affection for and knowledge of video games is obvious from the attention to detail shown in this trailer. It's not just a bunch of gratuitous geeky name-drops. They went and licensed recognizable characters, ranging from as mainstream as Bowser to as cult as Q*bert, made sure they looked authentic to the games, and have even brought in the original voice actors where applicable. If the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality still existed, I feel like this movie would deserve it, at least as much as any of those lousy Mario & Sonic Olympic games by Sega.

That said, I do have to take exception to the movie's lumping in of Zangief with the bad guys. It's a shame that, as otherwise faithful to the games and obviously Capcom-approved as it is, Wreck-It Ralph is still guilty of making such a glaring error (or of taking such wanton liberty). The real Zangief is no more a bad guy than any of the other World Warriors (never mind that, in nearly every Street Fighter since Champion Edition, even the actual bad guys have been playable and therefore able to win the game anyway). The only times Zangief has ever been a bad guy have been the 1994 Street Fighter movie, which is hardly canonical (and, in fact, is notoriously a poster child for the "mishandled video game movie"—precisely the sort of thing Wreck-It Ralph should be distancing itself from), and the 1995 USA Network cartoon, itself loosely based on the movie.

Moreover, if you'll recall, even in the 1994 movie, Zangief was not really a bad guy; he considered himself a good guy but was just too stupid to realize that his boss, M. Bison, was the enemy of freedom and peace! In the end, however, he does come around and take his rightful place as one of the good guys.

*sigh* Oh well. This Wreck-It Ralph situation ironically may be compared to the Disney characters' appearances in the Kingdom Hearts games. The Kingdom Hearts Mickey Mouse may look and even sound like Mickey Mouse should, and Walt Disney's name may be all over the legal text, but I don't think any true Disney enthusiast would ever consider Kingdom Hearts part of Mickey Mouse canon. No siree!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pom Poko

Following the tragic Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and the poignant Only Yesterday (1991), director Isao Takahata gives us . . . a talking, singing animal picture? Indeed, on the surface, Pom Poko (1994) seems the most cartoonish entry in the entire Studio Ghibli library, and perhaps it is. But the story is also surprisingly dark and, at times, outright unsettling.

In mockumentary fashion, Pom Poko follows a community of raccoon dogs or "tanuki" (called simply "raccoons" in the Disney translation) fighting to preserve their habitat in the Tama Hills, which, in the 1960s, is rapidly succumbing to urban development and deforestation. Tanuki are characterized in Japanese folklore as mischievous creatures possessing mystical powers of illusion and shapeshifting. In Pom Poko, it is these powers that the tanuki primarily draw upon to wage their war against encroaching humanity. Mostly, this involves pranking the unwitting humans by staging ghost stories to scare them off the land, basically haunting the area in the manner of a Scooby-Doo villain. Although they make for rather mean tricks to play on the humans, many of the schemes the tanuki devise are hilarious to observe.

Even funnier is an alternative proposal of trying to blend into human society. Masters of transforming, the tanuki are even able to pose as humans, albeit with some strain. We see early on that some less gifted tanuki are comically unable to pull off the human form convincingly. Then, when a team infiltrates the city to research human society, the documentary narrator drily suggests that the dark circles you sometimes see under people's eyes actually indicate undercover tanuki on the verge of reverting due to the exhaustion of having to maintain human form.

For the first half, Pom Poko is by far the funniest movie Ghibli has ever done. Into the second hour, although the movie itself maintains the same playful tone, I no longer found the story a laughing matter. The tanuki succeed in scaring off individual humans, but these victories do little to slow the tide of civilization advancing into their home. The movie repeats a pattern, of the tanuki frightening a group of humans, then celebrating their accomplishment, only to see on the TV news that the land developers are undaunted. After a couple cycles of this, a sense of futility sets in. At that point, well before the closing credits, you realize that the tanuki are never going to be able to win the war, and then watching them continue to fight on hopelessly with the same old tactics becomes simply exhausting, even agonizing, which is maybe the point—I mean, imagine how the tanuki must feel, if even we the viewers are starting to feel worn down. But it also becomes repetitive and tiresome to watch, and I don't really buy that that was Takahata's intention. It starts to seem gratuitous after a while.

The most elaborate sequence in the entire movie involves the tanuki focusing all their collective power to stage a grand parade of spirits through the city streets. The desperate tanuki bet just about everything on this massive operation, but there's not even any message (e.g. "get off our land") accompanying it to the humans. Given that it is a parade, it comes across more fun than scary or threatening, and that's how the humans in the movie end up taking it as well. Do a little research, and you'll find that the spirits featured in this sequence (and elsewhere throughout the movie) are all nods to Japanese folklore and literature. Having this information maybe adds an extra dimension to one's viewing experience, when you realize that, in addition to the environmental message bemoaning the thoughtless advance of urbanization, Takahata is celebrating Japan's folkloric traditions while also lamenting their shrinking place in modern Japanese culture. But obviously none of that resonates with me, and so this just comes across as a very long and self-indulgent sequence that doesn't serve the main "raccoon dog war" narrative in any effective way.

The movie could have used some editing, but, when it works, it is as emotionally affecting as Takahata's previous films. In fact, I honestly think this tops Grave of the Fireflies as Ghibli's most feel-bad movie. Although their powers make them ideal tricksters, tanuki are traditionally held to be jolly by nature, also lazy and absentminded. Pom Poko emphasizes all these traits of theirs to show why they could never effectively wage a war. That only makes it feel all the more wrong as the tanuki fail and die, all the while never losing their playful demeanor. In one especially unsettling scene, a group of tanuki, freshly run over, are depicted in extra-cartoony form
—a style used elsewhere in the film usually when the characters are having a silly good time—as they address the camera for their final words: "Well, I guess we're no match for the humans." In the next shot, we're shown the road littered with very realistically drawn dead tanuki bodies.

Pom Poko is not subtle, and it's overlong by about twenty minutes in the middle. Even so, no other Ghibli movie ever made me laugh so hard or feel so terrible. And certainly no other ever did both to me in the same movie.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Inspirational Quote of the Moment #4

"Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It's harsh, and cruel. But that's why there's us: champions. Doesn't matter where we come from, what we've done, or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be."

- Chris Bosh, NBA champion

(I once paraphrased the above, actually from the TV show Angel, to some applause in real life. I didn't mention that it came from a vampire TV show, and I omitted the word "champions." It made me wonder in what real-life context one could ever include the word "champions" and not sound like a complete lunatic, utterly undermining an otherwise solid quote.)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (1992) is easily Hayao Miyazaki's most adult film, as well as his most clearly personal. Miyazaki injects a lot of his concerns and passions into each of his films—his environmentalism, his feminism, his love of aviation—but, whereas many of his other movies seem to be about imparting to his young viewers some of his values and experience, Porco Rosso plays out more like a story he wrote to himself.

Set after World War I, Porco Rosso revolves around an Italian former flying ace, who at some point became cursed with a literal pig's face, thus earning him the nickname "Porco." The movie is unexpectedly deadpan regarding this affliction. Given that this is a Miyazaki picture, one perhaps expects some fanciful adventure to ensue, wherein the characters journey to colorful locales and endure whimsical trials in a quest to break this gypsy or whatever curse and restore him to his human form. But no, instead, when people see Porco for the first time, they at most act mildly intrigued, and then everybody moves on. And it's not as if this is some fantasy world filled with animal people; Porco's pig form is the only supernatural element in the entire story, which is otherwise more precisely set in a real place and time than any other Miyazaki movie. Porco himself does not seem too overly concerned about the curse. It hasn't affected his diet, his lifestyle, or his piloting skills. He's basically just a human being who happens to have the face of a pig, and, like it or not, the movie doesn't bother to explore the how of it.

Pig or no, Porco remains a legendary aviator, and, in between-wars Italy, he makes his living as a bounty hunter, becoming the bane of the air pirates of the Adriatic. They enlist the services of an American ace and self-styled Casanova named Curtis (ironically voiced in the Disney dub by Cary Elwes) to take Porco down. Potentially complicating this rivalry (but mostly just adding some humor at the American's expense), Curtis also has his eyes on the nightclub owner, Gina, who is obviously in love with her dear friend Porco, despite that he seems mostly dead to romance.

It's clear early on that the showdown between Porco and Curtis will form the climax of the story. Building up to that, the film's middle act is surprisingly sedate and unhurried. It's the most laid-back movie Miyazaki has ever done, without an abundance of action or events or the sorts of otherworldly sights that the director is typically known for. It is more concerned with having viewers spend time getting familiar with the characters and setting.

As Porco prepares for his duel, ordering repairs and adjustments on his plane, he is disconcerted to find the local workforce made up entirely of women, the economic depression having earlier forced all the men to relocate in search of work. Also placing the story's setting is a subplot that has Porco having to evade the Italian secret police because he is not on board with the new Fascist regime. And probably my favorite scene occurs when Porco and an old war buddy still in the service meet inside a movie theater. As they talk, the projector plays a slapstick black-and-white cartoon seemingly inspired by Betty Boop and early Mickey Mouse. Porco and his friend's respective assessments of the cartoon are classic, and I'm guessing Miyazaki himself would probably agree with both of them.

Porco Rosso does have its share of breathtaking moments as well. 
In today's context, where news about "the war" conjures images of drones pounding the Middle East, the kind of aerial combat featured in Porco Rosso is already almost unimaginable. When Porco recounts a particularly grim episode from his dogfighting during the war, the flashback is presented with a muted delicacy that further imbues the scene with an eerie surrealism, as each side's fighters first form up with precision and grace, then meet in a balletic dance that seems almost choreographed. When the first plane bursts into flames and goes down, one comprehends it as in a dream. Intellectually, you understand what has happened. And yet the scene, of these machines circling far above mankind's natural dwelling place, and as unresistingly fragile as they are unrepentantly destructive, remains just slightly isolated from sensory reality. To try to resolve this dissonance is to confront some innate madness of war, or maybe even just mortality.

And perhaps that is where the film offers some clue as to why Porco became a pig. Living alone in a tent on an island, a burned-out and world-weary Bogart-esque cynic—in fact, the entire movie is designed to be as close as you'll find to a cartoon Casablanca—the mercenary Porco is unlike any other Miyazaki protagonist yet, in a way, perhaps more thoroughly Miyazaki than all the others. The implication is that, during the war, Porco experienced something horrible that changed the way he saw the world, and that change has manifested physically in his taking on a pig form, thereby changing, in turn, the way the world sees him.

Miyazaki never was a soldier, but there is little doubt that Porco is a self-portrait of the director himself. In interviews with the man, what's consistently apparent is his negativity toward this age we live in. He's down on the state of the Japanese animation industry, down on how Japan is raising its youth, down on society in general, kinda just down on everything. It's an odd attitude for a director best known for films that seemingly cater to a romantic worldview. The man and his work appear in conflict. I wonder if this tension troubles him. Porco Rosso suggests that it does.

Nearly all his protagonists are youngsters, still spirited and optimistic. Perhaps they too are self-portraits of a sort
reflections of his own worldview at that age. But Porco is the only one who is truly middle-aged, as Miyazaki himself was when he wrote this story. What we see in Porco is a realist with not a lot of faith in humanity. Yet we also get the sense that he was not always this way. No, obviously he did not begin life already disillusioned; that's something that can only come with age and experience. Whether it must come with age and experience is debatable, but that it happened to Miyazaki is certain, and perhaps a part of him sees that as regrettable. No doubt, it's not easy to live with what you've become, when you can still remember how much nicer the world used to look. And thus, while Porco himself shows no desire to return to human form, nevertheless the film's heroines, Gina and the spunky young mechanic Fio, root for his curse to be broken—essentially, for him to regain his hopefulness and vigor for life. Whether Miyazaki roots for that is hard to determine. I don't think the movie intends for Porco's happy ending to be conditional upon his regaining his human form, but maybe that's just my own interpretation through a lens of contented disillusionment. But Fio especially—clearly in the lineage of Nausicaa—seems inserted into the movie specifically to argue on behalf of the part of Miyazaki that does still hope. Yes, it's as though a struggle between two aspects of Miyazaki is playing out within a movie to serve as a message from the director to himself. Fascinating.

Following the more youth-oriented Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso comes across as Miyazaki pausing in a moment of self-reflection to consider his own stage of life. It's not too serious a survey
—he did give himself a pig's head, after all—but thoughtful and honest, self-indulgent yet humble. And, after watching it, I feel like I know and appreciate the man behind the movies better.