Monday, March 28, 2011

Voice Casting by Aardman Animations

I was given an old videotape of shorts from Aardman Animations. I suppose they are best known for Nick Park's work - Wallace and Gromit. It is kind of amazing to me what they did on other films though. From a documentary on the end of the tape: Aardman took recorded conversations of real people and used the tapes for their soundtracks. They basically animated around these conversations.

"War Story," above, appears to have been a commissioned interview for use in this way. It is with a British WWII vet. Other films appear to have just taken some random conversations - notably a discussion by some folks at a Salvation Army location and one of a door-to-door salesman with an older couple he is trying to get to buy something. The clip of the older gentleman giving the salesman a bit of the business is classic:

Not for everyone's taste, I guess, but I'm really fascinated at how they were able to use these voices in service of some real - and interesting - movement.

BTW - I'm not quite sure of the legality of these being on YouTube or on this blog, but I'll certainly take them down if need be. If not, they are here because they are fascinating - and really great. They deserve a wider renown!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tales From Earthsea - Voice Casting at Disney

There is something very odd about Disney's choice to cast Willem Dafoe as the voice of the villainous female Lord Cob in Ghibli's "Tales From Earthsea." Dafoe is great, creating a very disturbing villain with a very incongruous voice. Lord Cob - as you question the "why" of the character's sexuality - is a truly creepy villain.

But then you watch the film in Japanese and find she really is a woman. You also discover it makes the parts of the movie fit together just a little better when it is obvious. I can't get over the controversy about this film, but in its original language, it is even more a "real" Ghibli film than even I thought a few days ago. Dafoe is seriously unnerving, and I really wonder why Disney made the decision to go this way. It makes Lord Cob a more intense villain, but does not make the overall film better. Interesting choice to have made.

I have also wandered the internet looking for reasons people don't like this film, and I honestly can say I don't understand any of them. I had previously written that there was a confusing moment in the film, and many have written that much of it is confusing. On second watch, I thought it was seamless and wasn't sure where my confusion had come from. I can only guess that many viewers want everything laid out in front of them, but I think you have to be able to linger in a little doubt or non-clarity to really appreciate any film. By the end, you should be able to think about it. If it's still totally unclear, perhaps you have watched a film that is not so good.

But I'll say it again - "Tales From Earthsea" is a fine addition to Studio Ghibli's impressive roster. Not as good as "Totoro," but nothing is. I look forward to Goro's next one.


Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN are VERY close to their goals now - about $95 away from their Doctors Without Borders goal, near the same for Shelterbox.

Since I don't exclusively write about anime and manga, I wasn't sure I had anything to continue, but I think I'll keep trying till they get those last few donations. Below is an amazing animation short that - although absolutely nothing like what Hayao Miyazaki produces - has the same value at its core as one of my favorite films of all time, My Neighbor Totoro. Please donate a few dollars.

The Incident at Tower 37

This fine short film really caught me off-guard, being a great example of what animation can do best: show "the other" as either being more like us than we usually think, or showing "the other" as being not like us but still completely, utterly valid. So many works do the former; showing others in a non-human way is much more rare. This film from Christ Perry at Bit Films is a beautiful example of that validity.

I think this is part of what Hayao Miyazaki does so very well. Totoro, the Ohmu, his landscapes in general really, are all alive in their own way, all definitely non-human. Maintaining that non-human quality while still allowing us to relate is animation's secret weapon.

Imagining just another human piece of the puzzle is how we maintain our dominant outlooks and attitudes. Imagining a fish out of water can tell us so much more.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


As part of supporting the Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN, below please find my review, a first for me, for the anime series "Naoki Urasawa's Monster." Earlier posts for the cause are on "Tales From Earthsea" and "A Town Called Panic" - both found by scrolling down.

Bloggers for Japan are really very close to hitting their goals in support of Doctors Without Borders and Shelterbox. I think I am safe in saying my 97-year old Japanese Aunty living near Hiroshima would be really pleased to know someone reading this blog was able to help her country in some small way. Huge thanks to you for your support, and huge thanks to

Naoki Urasawa's Monster - A Different Kind of Anime

"Monster" is an anime series from 2004; the link above is to the Wikipedia page for the manga version. There is a section on the anime if you scroll down.

I had not planned on ever writing about "Monster" because there are seventy-four episodes, which I watched maybe two at a time on Funimation OnDemand. It took about a year to watch the whole series, and with so many characters, it is easy to get a little confused. Without being able to go back and re-watch, it's hard to write about the exact scenes in the right context. Those scenes are very powerful at times. There are DVD's of the first thirty episodes available, but I do believe you can watch them all on Hulu. Whatever that is. My viewing habits are pretty old school, and watching anime is pretty difficult if you want to keep up. I was glad I found this OnDemand, purely by accident. That said...

"Monster" is a really fine series, incredibly emotional and powerful. The main theme basically deals with how children are raised, and what it means to be a true, honest and loving person. The title Monster is a young boy who has grown up under rather poor guidance. He is either part of a fascist conspiracy, or perhaps he is really on his own, causing particularly violent and senseless chaos. There is no real reason to like him, other than a suspicion that he was mistreated as a young boy, so he makes a really fine villain.

Or the Monster is the one pictured above, who has lived inside the boy all through these years he has grown up.

Monster deals with adults and children as they relate to each other. It depicts the truly horrendous consequences of adults knowingly attempting to mold children in exceptionally unhealthy ways. The adult villains are truly reprehensible, which brings more emotion to the screen than even most films have. Over seventy-five episodes, there is an element of hit-or-miss, but in general, this is powerful storytelling. The plot is driven mostly by a fugitive, Dr. Tenma, so there are numerous vignette episodes in which humanity and inhumanity are explored through various situations and relationships.

There is also a revenge factor, a theme which is handled here by actually showing two sides - the reasonable and humane, against the chaotic and the despicable. It works well as it runs through the entire series.

The animation is pretty standard for anime, I think, which is not very exciting. However, this is not an action series - it is about emotion, and empathy, which is allowed to develop slowly for maximum effect. At times, there are some amazing scenes which elevate the animation and the content to a pretty high level. If you have time, and are maybe not usually thrilled by anime, this might be worth checking out. It seems to have a limited audience, but I found it thought-provokingly brilliant.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


As part of supporting the Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN, below please find my review, by request, for "A Town Called Panic." Please note: This film has nothing to do with Japan. My defense of "Tales From Earthsea" can be found below.

Bloggers for Japan are getting very near their goals of supporting Doctors Without Borders and Shelterbox to give direct support to those in need from the recent disaster. If you like the review below, can you make a small donation? If you don't like the review below, can you make a small donation?

A Town Called Panic

"A Town Called Panic" is a very silly movie. I like the animals. I like the animation. I like the backgrounds a lot.

The end made me really happy and brought a smile to my face (because of the fireworks, not because it was the end). I like the farmer.

I wish the plot was more than just one thing leading to another, because it could have been sheer genius. But since it was just silly, I guess that's ok.

I like donkey.

Available on Netflix streaming. :-)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bloggers for Japan

Below is my review of Studio Ghibli's new US DVD release of "Tales from Earthsea." It is part of Anime and Manga BLOGGERS FOR JAPAN. The folks who have had their lives destroyed will need support to get back on track, so if you can donate on the Bloggers for Japan site, I thank you. The world will only truly become one by sharing culture and kindness.

Does Studio Ghibli's "Tales from Earthsea" Deserve the Bad Rap It Seems to Have?

When I first heard Studio Ghibli was making "Tales from Earthsea," I was excited. I fondly remembered reading Ursula K. Le Guin's series of books. Ghibli, of course, makes perhaps the most wonderful animated films ever. Hmm, not perhaps. Yes, as a whole, Ghibli is the best. Though mostly due to the singular genius of Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli films by other directors that I have seen (Grave of the Fireflies, Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns) are all amazing in their own way. So as much as I believe Miyazaki to be a genius (so much so that my dissertation may be focused on him), the Ghibli magic may be that the production company he founded has a singular vision that works.

Unfortunately, reviews of "Tales from Earthsea" were troubling. It is directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao's son, and apaprently this caused problems - between son and father, but also with how the film was received by the core Ghibli fans. LeGuin herself - who had originally agreed to allow the making of the film as long as Hayao was at the helm - also found faults with the film. I will admit to not having read the details of any spat between father and son. I do believe Goro was a landscaper before being given this opportunity, though, so I assumed criticisms of the film were going to be valid. I trust LeGuin and have loved almost every word she has written that I have read.

However, I also know that film is a different animal. Faithful adaptations of books that make good films are not the easiest of projects to complete.

While recently re-watching as many Ghibli films as I could in order to ponder whether I could devote a dissertation to them (without ruining my appreciation), I was pleased to see "Tales from Earthsea" was being released. Only on Disney DVD though, which is just wrong. I recently read Miyazaki's "Starting Point," wherein it seems that early in his career Hayao was not too thrilled with Disney. I have been looking for information about how he felt when Ghibli and Disney formed a partnership - did his feelings change? I haven't yet found any comments, but I might guess he has simply stopped mentioning Disney when he doesn't have to. Maybe because Disney did not see fit to release this film to any theaters, where these films really need to be seen.

But that decision may have been based on fan's early and bad reviews. It's a shame, because this is another glorious Ghibli film that would have been that much more wonderful on the big screen.

First, is a bit darker than previous films. As the major theme is about the shadow side in all of us, this is to be expected. It includes a scene of graphic violence that I cannot recall seeing in previous Ghibli films, as well as some adult to child violence. These instances were shocking only because it is not what one expects from Ghibli. In the context of the narrative, however, they were utterly appropriate. The villain in the film - again, a true villain not often seen in Ghibli works - was for me one of the most disturbing villains I have seen anywhere in a while. The age for this film is rather higher than it was for "Ponyo."

I have also noticed criticism in some parts that the animation in "Earthsea" is not up to Ghibli standards. Specifically, some of the spectacular backgrounds we expect to see aren't present. I can't say I agree. Not only does the film look great, some of the animation is really outstanding. Toward the end, when the roof of some of the stonework is collapsing, and individual bricks are quaking and falling apart, I'd say is some of the best animation I've seen.

Some are criticizing the story, suggesting it is routine fantasy genre, or else that it's unclear and hard to follow. I found it to be a powerful story - truly mythic undertones spiking up through the disguise of placid narrative. I actually thought at one point that it reminded me of Carl Dreyer's films, which are paced notoriously slowly, languidly, but in service of powerful emotion.

Scenes in which Arren gets engulfed in what looks like black, oily water - also calling to mind the flooding water in "Ponyo" - hit a little too close to the heart, considering the ongoing crisis in Japan. This only adds to the tense drama that slowly unfolds in "Earthsea."

The calm demeanor of the character Sparrowhawk is matched here only by his genuine humility. When he apologizes to the boy Arren for an incorrect decision, choosing to leave him alone when there was every reason to believe the boy might need help, it is a moment rarely seen in any film - an adult apologizing for wrongheaded inaction. The powerful role Sparrowhawk owns makes it an even more touching scene - a leader with actual humility.

There was one moment when I was confused near the end. That confusion passed quickly, though, as I brought my own imagination to bear on what I thought had just happened. Too often everything in a film is telegraphed - we know what happened, or we are told how to feel. My ability to bring my own metaphor into this moment of confusion was a crowning achievement for a magnificent and powerfully emotional film.

I can understand Ursula LeGuin's criticisms. From what I recall of her wonderful words, this was not her story. But the Ghibli fan's outcry I don't understand at all. All in all, I'd say the son of the genius made a rather impressive debut.