Tag Archives: Anime

246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

Kanashimi no Beradonna

“With all of this splendid weirdness—Michelet’s occult/feminist novel, Fukai’s ravishingly beautiful, X-rated illustrations, and Satoh’s brain-shredding score—what could possibly go wrong? Everything, according to director Yamomoto.”–Dennis Bartok, explaining Belladonna of Sadness‘s commercial failure at the time of its release in the liner notes to the Cinelicious Blu-ray release.

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Eiichi Yamamoto

FEATURING: Voices of Chinatsu Nakayama, Aiko Nagayama, Tatsuya Nakadai, Katsuyuki Itô, Masaya Takahashi

PLOT: In medieval Europe, peasants Jean and Jeanne go to their local Lord to bless their unconsummated marriage, but the royals gang-rape the bride instead because Jean cannot afford the outrageous matrimonial tax. Later, Jeanne is visited by a demon who promises to give her power to oppose the Lord’s might and get revenge. At first she resists, but as the Lord’s outrages mount, she finally gives herself to Satan fully and becomes a powerful witch.

Still from Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • This film was the third part of a trilogy of adult animation features on Western themes commissioned by legendary anime pioneer Osama Tezuka (famous for the television manga adaptations “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion”) and his Mushi studio. The first in the series was 1969’s erotic version of “The Arabian Tales,” A Thousand & One Nights (also directed by Yamamoto). Nights was a commercial hit (although it remains unavailable on home video), so the studio went ahead with Cleopatra in 1970 (which Yamamoto co-directed with Tezuka). Cleopatra was a commercial and artistic flop, but the studio went ahead with Belladonna of Sadness anyway. Tezuka left Mushi before the final film was completed, and Belladonna bombed even more than Cleopatra. Mushi went bankrupt soon after. Belladonna was exhibited in only a handful of lower echelon theaters in Japan and only lightly released outside of that country until 2015’s rediscovery and reappraisal.
  • The unlikely source material for Belladonna of Sadness was Jules Michelet’s 1862 non-fiction book “Le sorciere” (AKA “Satanism and Witchcraft“), a sympathetic treatment which cast the practice of witchcraft as a protest against the feudal system and the power of the Church.
  • “Belladonna” literally means “beautiful woman” in Italian, but it is also the name of a toxic hallucinogenic plant thought to have been used in ancient witchcraft rituals.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without a doubt, the initial rape scene. Although the movie contains shocking, unforgettable, wild and weird imagery throughout, the expressionistic violation of Jeanne, showing her being split in twain like a wishbone as her crotch emits a bloody geyser that morphs into crimson bats who fly away, was the only one that made me mutter out loud “wow”!

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Bloody rape bats; Satan is a dick; surrealist daisy chain orgy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Belladonna of Sadness is like watching Saturday morning cartoons mixed with high art mixed with hentai, laced with acid. It’s some damned thing that you’ve never seen before.


U.S. release trailer for Belladonna of Sadness

COMMENTS: We a huge debt of gratitude to whoever’s idea it was Continue reading 246. BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

Tenshi no Tamago

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mako Hyôdô, Jinpachi Nezu, Kei’ichi Noda

PLOT: In a desolate city, an angelic young girl cherishes an egg.

Still from Angel's Egg (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This haunting animation more or less entirely forgoes dialogue and narrative for a large helping of theistic symbolism and rich visuals.

COMMENTS: It’s often said that we anime fans fetishize the “otherness” of anime—or, put less pretentiously, it’s often said we like stuff simply because it’s Japanese.

To be honest, there’s some accuracy to that. But can you blame us? As one of the only non-Western entertainment mediums to gain measurable popularity here, anime represents, for many of us, the one substantial deviation from our entertainment norms. Hell, for many people, it’s more or less the only reminder that a norm even exists.

Of course, it’d be obscenely simplistic to say that’s what makes a work like Angel’s Egg so deeply engaging—but it’s definitely a factor.

Released in 1985, this 71-minute OVA (non-theatrical video feature) is the brainchild of director Mamuro Oshii (best known, at least around here, for his sci-fi philosophy-fest Ghost in the Shell) in collaboration with artist Yoshitaka Amano. One of the earlier efforts—and his second OVA—on Oshii’s extensive resume, Egg showcases that familiar blend of surrealism, introspection, and distinctly grit-flavored sci-fi that defines not only Oshii’s own work, but also a great deal of anime’s other “weird” offerings (End of Evangelion and “Serial Experiments Lain” come to mind).

Like so many of the movies featured here, Angel’s Egg largely supplants narrative with hefty symbolism and visual indulgence. Set in a grey and empty city of desolate Victorian/Gothic architecture—every single frame of it rendered with almost dizzying artistic excellence—the film follows a young girl who ekes out a lonely existence scavenging among the ruins and, for reasons known only to her, collecting hundreds of glass bottles of water. The girl tends to a large egg, carrying with her everywhere, believing that it holds a beautiful bird within it.

One day, a young man wielding a cross-shaped staff intrudes on the girl’s lifeless world, following her to her lonely abode. Other stuff happens, but really, to try and describe any aspect of this film with words is to sell it short.

Angel’s Egg is—again, like so many of the List’s films—a work of cinema defined by more than what happens on screen. It is defined by its atmosphere; a heavy, heavy atmosphere. The Gothic elements of this animation extend well beyond the architecture. Every frame of this film oozes ghostliness and desolation. The girl and the young man exist in a world of crumbling greyness and deafening silence, and every moment of the film’s striking visuals, ominous choral soundtrack, and heavy, lingering shots ensures that the viewer shares in every bit of the characters’ haunting isolation. Some may Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

“It was a strange time in Japan: just after the Kobe earthquake and in the midst of Aum’s sarin attacks. Helicopters flying overhead at all hours, police on the streets, yakuza killing cult members on television. Weird with a big W. But my friend had a good manga collection and I was getting bored, so I asked him for a recommendation. And, without stopping to think, he handed me the just-released books of Tekkon… that was it. Hooked. Even the first illustration of Black and White looking over the city – it just felt so real, felt like what I was doing, staring from above at the construction in our neighborhood, listening to helicopters at night, searching for something solid to hold on to in those pre-apocalyptic days.”–Michael Arias on why he decided to adapt Tekkonkinkreet for the screen

DIRECTED BY: Michael Arias

FEATURING: Voices of Kazunari Nimomiya, Yu Aoi (Japanese); Scott Menville, Kamali Minter (English dub)

PLOT: Black, a master fighter despite his young age, and White, a naïve smaller boy given to prophetic pronouncements, live unsupervised on the streets of an urban district nicknamed “Treasure Town.” A gang of yakuza move into the area with the intent of tearing down much of the district to create an amusement park, which requires them to get rid of the powerful Black. As he consolidates his power, the leader of the yakuza sends three superhuman assassins to kill the two boys; but when White is placed under protective police custody, can Black survive without him?

Still from Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story was adapted from a manga (comic) by Taiyô Matsumoto.
  • The title is a mispronunciation (presumably by White) of the Japanese phrase “Tekkin Konkurito” (steel and concrete). The phrase also evokes the Japanese word for “muscle.”
  • Director Michael Arias is an American, the first non-Japanese director to ever helm a major anime film. The screenplay adaptation was also written by an American, Anthony Weintraub. The graphics were done almost exclusively by Japanese artists.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although we chose Black’s fall to Earth from the climactic cosmic battle as our illustrative still, the most striking imagery in Tekkonkinkreet are the baroque urban backgrounds. When you think back on the film, what arises in your mind is some non-specific impression of the phantasmagorical cityscape of Treasure Town, like the raven’s-eye view we get of the district in the opening credits. Treasure Town is a lived-in home town neighborhood in a larger megalopolis, a maze of alleyways cluttered with neon signage. It’s a multicultural never-never land where a peek around the next corner is as likely to reveal a shrine to Ganesha or Betty Boop graffiti as a Shinto pagoda or a noodle stall.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eyeball-wallpapered saloon; the Minotaur; fall to Earth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Anime, which often takes place in obsessively invented fantasy worlds built from the ground up, is an almost inherently weird genre. It takes a lot to impress us, both in terms of imagination and in terms of quality. Tekkonkinkreet may not offer much in the way of philosophical depth, but it more than makes up for it with eye candy. If you’re looking for superhero-type action in an unreal world, and you value weirdness over cameos by Hollywood stars and comic book moguls, don’t turn to the costumed mutants of the Marvel Universe; come to Treasure Town, where orphans battle yakuza real estate developers and their alien assassins. No half-baked origin stories here, just teenagers battling Minotaurs in space, with their psyches hanging in the balance.


U.S. release trailer for Tekkonkinkreet

COMMENTS: Tekkonkinkreet is as thematically simple as it is visually Continue reading 239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

Ginga-tetsudo no Yoru; AKA Night on the Galactic Express

DIRECTED BY: Gisaburo Sugii

FEATURING: Voices of Mayumi Tanaka, Chika Sakumoto

PLOT: In a fictional town in a fictional universe during the annual star-worshiping festivities, a boy and his friend find themselves on a metaphysical train that takes them on an existential journey through space. Oh, and everybody is a cat.

Still from Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Even without delving into the film’s brutally in-depth takes on loneliness, death and depression, Railroad is a tripper’s paradise, filled to the brim with such weirdness as glowing, candy-flavored herons, self-replicating apples, stairways that lead to the center of the universe, and beaches where each grain of sand is a jewel filled with fire. Rich in imagery and philosophy, it treads that always intriguing line between children’s entertainment and adult existentialism.

COMMENTS: A little background is very useful when approaching Night on the Galactic Railroad, else it might sucker punch you into hating it. Based on a 1927 book by Kenji Miyazawa, the film takes many liberties with the foundations of what was a very personal story to turn the novel into something with a distinctly anime flavor. The most controversial of these decision is to have (almost) everybody in the film drawn as a cat, an early indication that realism and logic will be thrown out the window despite the fact the film follows a very human path in regards to its character’s crises. The explanation for this decision has never really been given, but some have suggested it was simply due to the fact that it was easier to animate a cat than a human. Who knows if this is true, but nevertheless this town of star-worshiping felines all have very human characteristics. It isn’t difficult to sympathize with Giovanni, our young protagonist, as he is ostracized by his peers, bullied and insulted; he has no time to socialize due to his commitment to pick up milk for his sick mother.

Esoteric creative decisions lend even the relatively dull first fifteen minutes of the film an undeniable beauty. Tilted camera angles and close ups as Giovanni goes about his work in a publishing house after school turn the mundane into the mysterious, the bland into something otherworldly. The opening scenes’ dedication to create an alien world out of the familiar, along with the stillness and quiet tension on show, is closer to than anything else I have seen within (or outside of) the animation genre.

The film doesn’t stay on this route, though, and soon whisks us out of the medieval town. Giovanni and his only friend, Campanella, leave the occult stargazing festivities (complete with Carnivale-style masks) and find themselves on a train hurtling through space.

While the audience sits in a mild shock at these events, the two cats Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE HUNTER D (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Toyoo Ashida

FEATURING: Voices of Kaneto Shiozawa, Michie Tomizawa, Seizô Katô

PLOT: Millennia in the future, vampires rule over much of the land; one woman fights back, enlisting the aid of a mysterious stranger in her quest to kill Count Lee, a vampire of great power.

VampireHunterD1985

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Vampire Hunter D is undeniably a groundbreaking classic of Gothic anime that conveys a wonderfully realized retro-future. However, aside from some unlikely Bakshi-an monsters and a couple of bursts of eyebrow-raising gore, Toyoo Ashida’s film rests firmly in the realm of the traditionally fantastic.

COMMENTS: It seems only right that I admit to the reader from the start that this movie stands as the only anime film I have ever seen. Through all my years of pursuing leads on offbeat movies, I have somehow missed what is perhaps one of the largest figurative boats ever launched. That said, my experience with Vampire Hunter D has done much to open my eyes. With a limited budget and an unlimited tap of imagination and artistic talent, Toyoo Ashida and Ashi Productions created a stellar vision of a far-flung future world tormented by Dark Ages evil.

Beginning with the title card, “This story takes place in the distant future—when mutants and demons slither through a world of darkness”, the action quickly takes off as a young Hunter—armed with a cross, electric whip, and bayonnetted laser gun—pursues an obviously infernal beastie. The encounter quickly goes south when her horse is slaughtered and, from nowhere, a humanoid creature appears and bites her on the neck. Now she must find a way to destroy this powerful being before becoming a vamp herself. Fate provides her with the assistance of a mysterious stranger, whom she comes to learn is also a Hunter of considerable strength.

From that introduction, the movie proceeds apace with run ins with eldritch creatures, the haughty vampire “nobles,” as well as human scum in the form of a mayor’s son and his cronies. To ward off the nasties that lurk outside, city-dwellers have made barriers combing both the Old and New World Techs, using crosses and energy fields to repel the undead. As with all townsfolk living in the shadow of great evil, they are wary both of strangers and those possibly afflicted. This leaves the heroine, Doris, and the eponymous “D” with scant safe havens. Unsurprisingly (but still very satisfactorily), they seem to need none.

There are splashes of weird to be found throughout the movie. That “D” has two personalities (and, one learns, two faces) adds a compelling layer to his character. On the one hand he strives to maintain an honorable existence while fighting the scourge of vampires around him; on the other (in this case, left) hand, he harbors a secret about his true nature. His scuffles with a flippant space-warping mutant, a Golem that really likes the word “Golem,” a three-headed sex medusa, and ultimately the sinister Count Lee provide brushes with the strange. Particularly worth noting is the Count’s castle: a forbidding heap of ancient ruin atop a massive industrial wasteland.

With its little nods to Stoker’s original work (e.g. a property known as “old man Harker’s” and a strangely Victorian-looking portrait of an unspecified “ancestor”), neat twists in the vampire genre (the local sheriff sports a six-pointed badge with an overlaid cross), and its temporal mélange, Vampire Hunter D provides a unique take on the legend. Be warned, though: do your best to stop the movie after it fades to black on the final scene. Somehow, this chilling adventure is capped by what stands as one of the worst end-credits songs I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The middle of the film features a wonderfully hallucinatory journey across wasted landscapes into the chief vampire’s labyrinthine castle… the rest, especially the showdown with the chief vampire, is anticlimactic in comparison.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

“It was just too bizarre.

“Honestly, when I watched Spirited Away for the first time back in 2008, I didn’t like it for the same reason as you. I just found it too weird.”

–IMDB message board dissenters on Spirited Away

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki; , Jason Marsden, (English dub)

PLOT: While moving to a new town, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents take a detour to a seemingly abandoned amusement park in rural Japan. Once the sun sets, the park transforms into an otherworldly resort for spirits and gods overseen by the cruel witch Yubaba. Now separated from her parents, Chihiro must learn to survive among an array of weird creatures as she attempts to reunite her family and return home.

Still from Spirited Away (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 1998, after completing Princess Mononoke. He came out of retirement in 2001 to make Spirited Away.
  • Disney Studios had distributed Studio Ghibli’s previous film, Princess Mononoke, in the United States, with disappointing results. They put little money into marketing the film, but strong reviews and word of mouth turned it into a hit, and Disney’s partnership with Ghibli was cemented from that point on.
  • Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (along with 52 wins granted by other organizations).
  • Spirited Away is the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan.
  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 2001, after completing Spirited Away. He came out of retirement in 2004 to make Howl’s Moving Castle.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lured into the park by a delicious scent, Chihiro’s parents come upon a vacant restaurant filled with sumptuous, exotic dishes. The two immediately begin to fill their plates, ignoring their daughter’s worries that they’ll be punished for taking the food. After the park begins its transformation, Chihiro returns to find her parents bloated and hunched over piles of scraps. She tries to warn her father about what is happening, but when he looks at her she sees only the sweating, engorged face of a pig. The grunting pig ignores Chihiro and climbs over the restaurant’s counter, only to be swatted away by an unseen figure’s reptilian arm. The pig then crashes to the ground with a primal squeal, frightening Chihiro as she cries out for her parents and runs into a street filled with tall, anonymous ghosts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pig parents; “No Face” eats; three heads and a giant baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki plays on the normal fears of lost children as the basis for an outlandish, frightening fantasy about a young girl being thrust into the incomprehensible life of an adult. The imagination of the setting is so immense that it seems to dwarf the film itself, suggesting a fully realized universe of magic and monsters with borders that extend far beyond the frame of the story.


Disney Trailer for Spirited Away

COMMENTS: Spirited Away begins with the main character, Chihiro, Continue reading 222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

199. CAT SOUP (2001)

Nekojiru-so

“Many animators participated in the creation of Nekojiru-so, but I wonder how many of the animators fully understood the concept and manifested that understanding in the animation. When Yuasa and I explained things during animation meetings, we really didn’t understand it ourselves either.”–Tatsuo Satō, Cat Soup director, DVD commentary

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tatsuo Satō

FEATURING: Not applicable (the film is animated with no dialogue)

PLOT: After nearly drowning in a bathtub, a young anthropomorphic cat sees his sick older sister being led away by a purple figure, follows it, and engages in a tug of war in which he recovers part of her body. He then returns home where he finds the sister still ill and convalescing, and gives her the part he recovered from the purple figure. She recovers from her sickness, and the pair embark on a series surreal adventures throughout the cartoon cosmos, although the sister is only half-alive until they eventually locate a mystical flower that restores her.

Still from Cat Soup (2001)
BACKGROUND:

  • Cat Soup is based on a series of manga by the artist Nekojiru (a pseudonym that actually translates as “cat soup”). Although Nekojiru’s stories were also dreamlike, they were more structured than this adaptation, and little of Cat Soup is taken directly from her works. Nekojiru committed suicide in 1998.
  • Technically, the Japanese title translates as something like “Cat Soup Flower.”
  • Director Tatsuo Satō specializes in television anime and has directed episodes of “Martian Successor Nadesico,” “Ninja Scroll: The Series,” and “Bodacious Space Pirates.”
  • Co-writer Masaaki Yuasa also produced and was the animation director; he has since directed his own feature (2004’s Mind Game) and several shorts and TV episodes, while continuing to work as an animator on other projects.
  • Because it was an OVA (“Original Video Animation” in anime parlance, meaning direct-to-DVD with no theatrical release), Cat Soup was not eligible to compete in many film festivals, although it did take honors at a few (including recognition as Fantasia’s Best Short Film of 2001).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Choosing a single image from Cat Soup, which is a 30-minute barrage of insane, enchanting, and frequently disturbing visions made by animators who had been freed from almost any constraints on what they were allowed to imagine, is a tall task. We selected a still from the scene which literally enacts the title. Making this “cat soup” involves dressing up in mouse dominatrix gear and chopping up the yummy kitties with a giant pair of scissors.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In some ways I envy the reviewer who was the first to get to Cat Soup and dub it “Hello Kitty on acid.” (Although I actually haven’t been able to track down the critic who first said that; perhaps the description is so obvious that everyone just assumes someone else came up with it before they did). I think a better description, perhaps, would be “Hello Kitty goes to Hell,” because the acidic hallucinations here all occur in the context of cat spirits wandering a weird world halfway between life and death, a place where God appears as a carnival magician and cuts planets in half and slurps their molten cores like soup. The brisk 30 minute runtime is the perfect length for this nearly plot-free pageant of morbid feline surrealism, which hits your surreal receptors hard, but doesn’t last so long you build up a tolerance to the insanity.


English-language DVD trailer for Cat Soup

COMMENTS: Cat Soup is a short feature that flummoxes even anime Continue reading 199. CAT SOUP (2001)

CAPSULE: PORCO ROSSO (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Susan Egan (English dub)

PLOT: A bounty-hunting pig-man (a victim of an unexplained curse) flies his seaplane through the Adriatic between World Wars, battling air pirates and a hotshot American rival.

Still from Porco Rosso (1992)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has its strange, and its sublime, moments, I would rate this as flying pig oddity as relatively minor Miyazaki—which, of course, means it’s still well worth seeking out.

COMMENTS: Porco Rosso is set in a precise, but unreal, historical place and time: the Italian Adriatic, in between the great wars. But its pig-man hero isn’t the only fantastic element here. In this alternate history, the Adriatic sea is its own far-flung multi-island kingdom with its own political intrigues, a realm where seaplane pilots are legendary demigods, like the mythologized gunfighters of Westerns. The local hot spot is a floating hotel only accessible by watercraft, with a valet to parks seaplanes. There are Italian fascists and references to WWI, but this universe evolves out of old movies rather than history: it’s a mixture of Casablanca and romantic aviation movies like Wings or Hell’s Angels, a world where you expect to see the Red Baron and Mata Hari sharing a drink in the corner of a flyboy saloon.

Although with its Humphrey Bogart-esque antihero Porco Rosso often seems more adult-oriented than Miyazaki’s usual fare, at other times the drawing style and caricatures are more indebted to Saturday morning cartoons than his later work. Observe the big-mouthed, howling anime schoolkids, and the cartoonish, kid-like antics of the pirate buffoons, who are drawn as goggles and pillars of teeth surrounded by bristles. Despite the flying duels and machine guns, the danger level here is minimal: no one dies onscreen, and the abducted schoolgirls treat their capture by pirates as a fantastic adventure, hanging out in the gun turret with their captors and screaming “whee!” as they dive off the stranded plane into a giant life preserver. The mixed tones are odd, but Miyazaki makes them harmonize well.

Clearly, the weirdest element of Porco Rosso is its hero’s porcine curse, which is never fully explained and is scarcely even wondered at by the movie’s denizens. Perhaps his piggish visage only reflects the way Porco sees himself. Perhaps the curse is the result of a mystical vision he saw after he was the only survivor of a massive dogfight, where he saw dozens of fighter pilots soaring upwards to heaven. Whatever the cause of his condition, symbolically, his bestiality sets Porco apart from ordinary citizens: “laws don’t mean anything to a pig,” he explains. Still, his snout and porky complexion can’t keep this charismatic pig from having two love interests, and there is an ambiguous suggestion at the ending that he may regain his humanity. I doubt Miyazaki was aware of the English-language idiom “when pigs fly,” meaning something so exceedingly rare as to be impossible, when he conceived Porco Rosso. Still, it’s probably safe to say you’ll enjoy this movie when pigs fly.

In 2015, Disney upgraded Porco Rosso to Blu-ray.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“That a pretty great adventure movie can rest comfortably alongside a strange tale of identity and morality that is itself set against the rise of Fascism is proof enough that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller…”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: POM POKO (1994)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (Disney dub) voices of Maurice LaMarche, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, , Tress MacNeille

PLOT: A community of shapeshifting “racoons” struggle to deal with suburban encroachment on their forest homes, inventing schemes that range from arranging hauntings to all-out war.

Still from Pom Poko (1994)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: To Westerners, much of the weirdness in Pom Poko comes from their unfamiliarity with Japanese folklore; however, there is a far deeper and more affecting strain of strangeness here than can be explained simply by culture clash. The hallucinatory “monster parade” sequence alone could be enough to put Pom Poko over the top.

COMMENTS: Written by and directed by Isao “Grave of the Fireflies” Takahata, Pom Poko was an all-star effort from Studio Ghibli. It’s also one of their most Japanese productions, made with no eye for how it might play for Western audiences, and it’s richer for indulging its indigenous roots. The epic story tracks the struggles of a band of tanuki (translated in the English dub as “racoons,” although the species is more closely related to dogs than to racoons) against the deforestation of their homes by the suburbs expanding outward from Tokyo. The tale embodies Miyazaki’s environmentalist concerns, although the mood is not so much one of activism as it is of melancholy. Since tanuki are spirit creatures, ancient tricksters who transform to play pranks on humans, their decimation symbolizes not only the degradation of the natural world, but also of the spiritual world, whose frontier continually recedes in modern times in the name of progress. The eventual fate of the tanuki is reminiscent of the Elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as they cede their turn as the dominant culture to Men with reluctant dignity.

The tanuki are famous shapeshifters, and Pom Poko‘s creatures come in at least three forms: the quadrupedal state that we humans are familiar with; the anthropomorphic bipedal form in which they spend most of their time for exposition purposes; and, when they’re in a partying mood, the animals spontaneously shift into happy-faced teddy bears. That’s not counting the infinite variety of shapes gifted tanuki can take with practice; the best of them can even pass among us as humans. Watching their transmogrification training regimen, as young male tanuki show an unflattering aptitude for shifting into female forms, provides much of the comedy in the first few reels. Tanuki, though noble creatures, are also the buffoons of the spirit animal world. The helpful narration explains that they are basically lazy and hedonistic, somewhat gullible (Japanese children are able to trick them into revealing themselves by singing songs), and that they find hamburgers irresistible. Obviously, not all of this is strictly folkloric, but the mixture of legend and anime tropes makes for a surprisingly rich milieu: comic, tragic, and alien all at the same time.

Of course, it’s difficult for Westerners to discuss Takahata‘s tanuki without addressing their oft-prominent testicles, depictions of which have infamously given rise to the movie being described by immature sorts as “that raccoon ball movie.” Even worse than seeing the cartoon testicles is the fact that male tanuki occasionally stretch their scrotums to enormous proportions, large enough to serve as a parachute or a welcome mat for dozens of their fellows. That’s the perfect example of the film’s culture shock value. Other sequences from the film show cross-cultural weirdness, however, like the tanuki’s Nintendo presentation on their shrinking habitat, or the time they lured corporate functionaries into their Escher-esque flying cat shrine to steal a million dollars worth of yen. And the five-minute phantasmagorical “monster parade” of skeletal horses, fire-breathing tigers, and various misshapen yokai must be seen to be believed. Overall, Pom Poko is a remarkable adventure in Japanese mythology that is all the more involving because it makes no concessions to Western audiences.

Disney upgraded Pom Poko to Blu-ray in 2015. The film can be watched in the English dubbed version or in the original Japanese with subtitles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Quite frankly, if you’re over the age of 12, you’ll be impressed with the animation and creativity, and howling at the weirdness.”–Norm Schrager, AMC (DVD)

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mamoru Oshii

FEATURING: Voices of Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi (original Japanese); Mimi Woods, Richard George, Abe Lasser (English dub)

PLOT: In 2029, a government cyborg tracks down a terrorist hacker nicknamed “the Puppet Master,” who has the ability to “ghost-hack” to possess cyborgs and brainwash humans.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (1995)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The plot is so intricately confusing that it approaches the surreal, and the visionary animation occasionally verges on the hallucinatory; but once you really dive into it, you’ll find that at bottom Ghost is nothing especially weird: just good, hardcore science fiction. Director Oshii has done weirder.

COMMENTS: Ghost in the Shell begins with a political assassination of an accused terrorist hacker after police who have just stormed the building under the direction of a secretive government agency are held off by a diplomat asserting political asylum. The naked female cyborg dangling tumbling past the skyscraper window blasts his head off so good that we catch sight of the victim’s spinal cord sticking out of his headless body. That’s the kind of story we have here: a complex plot punctuated by bursts of graphic sex and violence. (Smooth Barbie-doll cyborg crotches get around Japanese taboos against depicting pubic hair or genitalia, although it’s never quite clear why female agents need to do so much of their jobs in the buff). The mix of fantasy and fanservice are très anime, although to its credit, Ghost is less exploitative and far more thoughtful than most of its kin. In between firefights and car chases, conflicted heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi delves into questions of what it means to be human—or cyborg; whether, for example, resigning from Section 9, which would involve decommissioning her titanium-reinforced skeleton and augmented brain, would change who she was, or return her to who she is.

The plot involves diplomatic intrigues between countries that don’t yet exist, turf wars between underground intelligence agencies we don’t know (“don’t forget, we’re Section 9” says one helpful Section 9 agent to another), and speculative cybernetic technology the viewer is largely required to figure out on his own. By design, the movie never directly explains the central concept of a “ghost” to us—is it a natural human brain, an “augmented” cybernetic brain, or a pure artificial intelligence? Or is it simply whatever inhabits and motivates a body (the “shell”)? Despite this obtuseness, the plot is ultimately comprehensible, with a couple of watch-throughs and a study of either the original manga (which contained thirty pages of footnotes explaining Ghost‘s sociopolitical and technological background) or an online wiki set up for this purpose.

Despite not explaining too much, Ghost keeps our attention. For some, it will simply be the beautifully drawn scenery, trippy Akira-inspired synthetic tribal soundtrack, and ample action breaks that enable them to float by without wholly grasping the plot. Others will be thrilled by the challenge to engage intellectually with the story and to deduce the nuances of a data-obsessed future setting that becomes more and more believable with each passing year. Regardless which camp you fall into, Ghost in the Shell is an invigorating animation for the mind and eye.

Ghost in the Shell has gone through numerous home video iterations, most of which failed to satisfy its picky fanbase. A “2.0” version released in 2008 updated some of the graphics and the soundtrack with the latest digital effects (and predictably alienated purists, which anime fans tend to be). The 2014 “25th Anniversary Edition” (questionable arithmetic there) Blu-ray release comes from Anchor Bay; the video remastering is praised, but there are naturally complaints about the complete lack of on-disc extras (it does contain a nice booklet with several essays). The 1998 Manga Video DVD release contained numerous extra features, but the picture was not as clear. Interested parties may want to shop around for the version that best meets their needs.

Dreamworks Studios has plans for a live-action adaptation of the original manga in the works, with Rupert (Snow White and the Huntsman) Sanders to direct.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for sheer mind-expanding sci-fi strangeness this is hard to beat.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (2014 re-release)