Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Red Turtle



The Red Turtle is a relentlessly beautiful animated film. However, its beauty and craft sadly do not make it a great film. I had high hopes going in, excited that I might be seeing the best film of the year. But its narrative perspective was rather depressing and maddening for the choices it made. The story: a man is presumably shipwrecked and luckily finds himself on a small island. There is some food and water, but lacks all else, making his desire to leave understandable. He tries to leave twice, but each time his hand-crafted raft gets destroyed by something from underwater. The third time, he discovers a giant red turtle is determined to keeping him stranded. When the turtle foolishly climbs up on the beach, the man bashes a stick into the turtle’s head, then flips the turtle on its back to enable it to cruelly dry out, slowly into death, even as he jumps on the underbelly to add insult to injury. He then keeps tabs as the sun kills the animal, cracking its underbelly to signal the final death. The dead turtle then turns into a beautiful woman. The man somehow nurses her back to health, wins her heart, and they have a child. Apparently the turtle/woman is in love with the man – even after his extreme cruelty.

I can understand his anger at being prevented from fleeing the island. But the man is not very intelligent: in all three attempts to leave, he never brings fresh water or food with him. The red turtle actually saves him from a quick death on the water. The turtle/woman’s continued love for him after his cruelty was difficult to believe as the story proceeded. I expected eventual retribution, but it never comes. No clarity at all comes in the narrative and I was left with the lingering question of why the turtle wanted to be with this man. Yes, he expresses some regret, but it is through one, quick, slumping motion when he sees the beautiful, nice woman in front of him. This was way too little, way too late for me.

The turtle could have come out of the water a woman. The turtle could have transformed on the beach into a woman as she originally crawled up. The turtle could have been hurt and the man nursed her into health and then become a woman. Make up your own story – it will probably make more sense and be more satisfying.

And this is maddening, because the film is stunning in its technical skill, its color palettes, its naturalistic animation, and even its music (which showed the hand of Studio Ghibli more than any other element for me). The animators’ skills are clear. My favorite example is virtuosic, a scene showing the depth of water as it changed as the water neared the beach – in the sun – capturing light, depth, and color perfectly. There were many more such scenes. Yet, when combined with the narrative, even such skill and beauty becomes somewhat tedious. With little alignment between the animated natural beauty and the strangely unappealing narrative, the film disappoints.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Everything I Needed to Know About Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics)

I recently self-published "Everything I Needed to Know About Life (I Learned from Marvel Comics)" through Lulu.com. You can read an excerpt, “The Hate-Monger, the Myths of Marvel Comics, and Our Current Political Landscape” here. It's self-published because academic publishers found it too personal and publishing with the majors these days is almost by invite only. Focused on five Marvel Comics (Thor, The Invaders, What If?, The Human Fly, and The Eternals, as well as the Marvel house 'zine, FOOM) from the summer of 1977 through 1978, I explore how Marvel stories functioned as myths for me. The time frame follows a school year and the Marvel comics are examined in the context of other myths being transmitted into my seventh grade life; for me, these included myths of religion, history, family, neighborhood, and popular culture. The book came out of one chapter in my dissertation in which I examined how superhero comics used the structures of comics to create very specific kinds of myths.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Animation for Adults

My posting output here at Beyond the Veil has been sporadic rather than "periodic" as my tag-line suggests! My writing - when I have gotten to it - has been mostly about animation. This is because one of my goals has been to open a cinema dedicated to screening animation. Naturally, I have been calling it The Animation Theater. But finances available to open a specialty theater - which is really a unique idea - and one featuring animation - an art form that in many ways is under-represented and perhaps somewhat misunderstood - have been hard to consolidate. So, though I still hope to achieve it someday, the opening of The Animation Theater is not happening any time soon! (If you are interested in the idea, email me...)

In the meantime, I have begun doing some writing for the Animation for Adults blog and hope to continue to do so for as long as they will have me! This is a natural fit, as all the folks associated with the blog and associated podcast are interested in animation as an art form and for the stories being told in the form. Please come by and check this site out. For Beyond the Veil, this is probably a hiatus, possibly permanent, but we shall see.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Upon revisiting "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya," I must admit to thinking mostly about how the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature - and did not win. It lost to Disney film "Big Hero 6." Though I don't care all that much about awards, winning sets the budgets for what might be made down the line. I had hopes that the artistic quality of Isao Takahata's final film would be recognized and possibly get more 2D projects budgeted and produced. But this was not the case. Computer animation is fine - but to my eye, many of the CG animated films here in America look somewhat similar. Worse, many have too many similar plot points along the way. I guess that is what called "formula." "Big Hero 6" was better than some, and I enjoyed it, but "Kaguya" is unique in its beauty.

If 2D Hand Drawn Animation is truly on the way out, we are losing a medium that defined the art form of feature animation. For me, hand drawn  has produced many more scenes of awe on the big screen than all the CG effects have done in their much shorter existence. I suppose - or hope - that will change as the technology progresses. Any way...

"Kaguya" is a visual feast and the unique qualities of the images are present throughout the film. Based on a Japanese folktale, the story starts rather simply, but gets deeper as it opens up. The gist of the narrative is being who you are - who you want to be - whether you are told it is possible or not. Princess Kaguya, born of bamboo, is at home in rural Japan and happy. She wants to remain there. Her adopted father has other ideas and wants her to be royalty and live in the city - and if he gets a position in society because of it, even better.

However, the Princess is miserable in the city and wants little to do with the lords and ladies there. She does try to obey her father's wishes, but only at the expense of being who she would rather be. As it turns out, Kaguya actually comes from the Moon, and wanted to experience why existence on Earth was yearned for by someone she knew that had lived there. When the Buddha comes down from the Moon to take her back----

--- and I'll admit that on first watch this got me confused. The scenes of the Buddha and his flying entourage, including musicians, was spectacular, but very odd. I left the theater originally guessing Takahata was expressing some sort of Buddhist beliefs and wanted to end his career with this expression.

But on watching again, Kaguya really is telling the Buddha that he needs to chill out. Life on Earth is just as beautiful as living on the Moon, or Nirvana, perhaps. Her choice to be herself was wasted by allowing her father to push her toward the big city. She regrets none of it, however, because the life she found at first, in rural Japan, was who she was, and it remained with her always. Instead of working toward the after life, or achieving spiritual enlightenment to remove one's self from the world, the Princess suggests that living every day to the fullest - something we hear from many wise places - is truly the way to live life. And if we do that, what we have and what we achieve are less important than the actual living we do.

And though I suppose sometimes that message gets across in Disney CG features, I don't think it ever looks so good as it does in this film.




Saturday, July 4, 2015

Revisiting The Secret World of Arrietty

Upon revisiting Hiromasa Yonebayashi's directorial debut for Ghibli, "The Secret World of Arrietty," the first thing that struck me was how "Arrietty" - just as Goro Miyazaki's debut on "Tales of Earhsea" was a project that Hayao Miyazaki had always wanted to do - with wonderful scenes of insects and a general "insect perspective" of the Borrowers, was also something H. Miyazaki had wanted to explore on film.

Though "Arrietty" was much better received than "Earthsea," the lack of enthusiasm for these films from stateside Ghibli fans made me wonder how - if under the hand of Miyazaki on pet projects of his - these films would have been different and perhaps been welcomed with wider arms. However, "The Wind Rises," Miyazaki's last feature film - a historical drama - though reviewed well, also didn't seem to stir the hearts of the fans who loved his earlier films.

"Arrietty" is a charming film though, and when viewed as the first film of the director of "When Marnie Was There," becomes even more interesting, suggesting that an introspective perspective might be a defining characteristic of Yonebayashi as a director.

The pace of this film is slow, not forcing any action and allowing the superb animated scenery to unfold. Whether it is the lush vegetation outside the house or the otherworldly innards of the house magnified for the tiny Borrowers, the film suggests a whole new world around us and under our feet.

Even more - the relationship between Arrietty and Shawn is similar enough to Marnie and Anna in "When Marnie Was There" that the parallel struck me. Shawn believes he is going to die from a heart operation, and has seemingly resigned himself to sighing in bed, or slowly walking around the house. Anna in "Marnie" feels like she has died already, hating herself and wishing she might disappear. Arrietty - as the only young person of her kind - is similarly alone, though she does have a loving family life. Her parents have nurtured her own independence out of necessity and made her brave and ready to take on the world, though she still feels alone for the lack of any other young people. Marnie has no family to take care of her, but her own will is enough to make her brave enough to face life squarely on her own. Though outwardly fine, both Arrietty and Marnie yearn for others - or at least another - to share their world with.

Both films explore how we can help others to emerge from shells, not by ditching an inward perspective but by embracing it and letting it be seen better. Arrietty teaches Shawn to be brave and live life, no matter if it might end soon; the trouble Shawn causes for the Borrowers by discovering Arrietty eventually leads her to meeting Spiller, who we can only surmise will become her husband some day; Marnie teaches Anna that she is special, allowing her to make real connections to the people already in her life; Anna shows Marnie that her own bravery was something to be proud of, as it lead to Anna, a talented kid who just needed someone to say it.

Other comparisons can be made, but for now, I'll say that Yonebayashi's two-film body of work is needed - slowly paced films affirming the introverted side of life are not the usual films you can see at the cinema. Kids that feel alone because they are not interested in the mainstream of popular culture (perhaps like many Ghibli viewers here in America) - shouldn't be prodded into extroversion, but guided toward paths on which they might make connections that allow them to emerge as who they are, not who culture wants them to be.

In the first scene of "Marnie," if a young boy had not slipped in the playground, Marnie's teacher would have seen her beautiful artwork and perhaps given her encouragement to be happy about her self. In chance moments, lives are made. Let those moments take their time slowly and develop fully.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Fine On the Outside


"Fine On the Outside" is the English language theme song of Ghibli's "When Marnie Wa There." It plays over the end - and the end credits. This was the first English language song chosen for a Ghibli film and I think there is a great story behind it.

The singer/songwriter is Priscilla Ahn and this is a song she wrote when she was younger. She did not necessarily want to release it - it was very personal, maybe too personal. But Ahn was a fan of both the original book as well as of Studio Ghibli films in general. When she heard Ghibli was making a film version - knowing the themes of the book - she submitted her song to the Studio. It's quiet and introspective, and it has really grown on me.

And Studio Ghibli eventually chose it as the theme song for the film.

I think it was pretty audacious for her to submit it, and that is the real point of this post. My guess is - she never thought they would select it. They had never used a song in English before - why would they do it for this film? But she sent it in. Her personal song, that she avoided releasing, because it fit so well with the inward and melancholic perspectives that run through the film. And Ghibli saw that and made it their own.

I can relate to Ahn's belief in herself, attempting something with very little real hope of success. Heck - I went to get a degree in Mythological Studies. And I consistently try and find my way in to the things I want to be involved with. One project in particular I am working on that I really have no idea of how to get it done - but I'll be posting about it soon because I really believe in it.

But this isn't about me. It is about the effect a story like Ahn's should have on everyone. It should be an example and give everyone the spark they need to submit - to try - to poke your nose in somewhere you want to be - and see what happens.

It may turn out that you belong there.

Here is a pretty cool short essay that Priscilla Ahn wrote about her love of Ghibli films.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tales From Earthsea redux

I seem to be unable to stop thinking about "Tales From Earthsea" and move on to explore other Ghibli films yet. What has kept this film on my mind has been reading "The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga," a beautiful art book and history of Tezuka, a superstar of Japanese manga and animation. His output is one of the most amazing amounts of work I have ever encountered from any artist. The variety of work is astounding as well - from Unico, a cute little unicorn (which I have only heard about) to Ayako, a completely adult manga about a woman who has been locked up in a basement by her incredibly brutal family. The little guy on the cover here is of course Astro Boy, one of the first anime series to make it to the USA, maybe even the first. There is so much more.

One of Tezuka's major themes is the cycle of life - we are born, live, die - and then rebirth, perhaps. This is generally the core of Buddhism. Showing respect to all life is the hopeful theme that many of Tezuka's works center around. In fact, he has an eight volume series, Buddha, which I highly recommend - and I have only read the first two volumes so far. Comics at their finest. I particularly enjoy his cartoon style figures living in the most detailed worlds - a really beautiful style.


It was this major theme of Tezuka's that kept reminding me of "Tales From Earthsea" as I read the book about him. The cycle of life is the major theme of the film - and the reason, I wrote earlier, about why this film may not have been so well received in the States. In thinking about this, I was wondering if the director, Goro Miyazaki, had been influenced by Tezuka's work. I was also wondering if the reason he had the young prince in his film kill his father, the King, had anything to do with his relationship with his father, Hayao Miyazaki.

In searching for some insight into these questions, I found an excellent blog post at Manga UK: "Tales From Earthsea and Family Feuds." There is not much more to add as this covers it really well. From this and other sources, though Hayao was not the best father as far as being around - which both he and Goro acknowledge - they seem to get along to some degree now. They even worked together on Goro's next film, "From Up On Poppy Hill," which I would say was a great film.

And though the themes of "Earthsea" are similar to some of Tezuka's work, there does not actually appear to be any connection. Other than perhaps coming out of Japan! an interesting additional point for me is that, though there is some controversy over Miyazaki talking smack about Tezuka's work, this seems completely overblown. When I read Miyazaki's "Starting Point," it seemed to me he just wanted some freedom to create in his own direction - no disrespect to an older master, but the need to do what he wanted to do. As any artist would feel, I think.

And of course, I would suggest this is what Goro did when making "Earthsea."

A couple of links:

This is a weblog, translated, of Goro's while he worked on "Earthsea." From what I have read, very interesting.

And here is a link to the website Tezuka in English. Where you will get all the info you need to find what works of Tezuka's are available here. I suggest you read some. And if you want to help make more of his works available in English, well, they have a little campaign to print Tezuka's "Storm Fairy" on Kickstarter - $20 gets you the printed manga when its ready. Well worth it.