GROWING PAINS: THE BOY AND THE BEAST

March 1, 2016

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The animated films of Mamoru Hosoda are all about the practical aspects of the fantastical. Wolf Children (2012) begins with the transcendent love between a city girl and a werewolf, but instead of ending at their union, it begins there, with the bulk of the film concerned with the hard realities of raising two rambunctious lycanthrope kids. Summer Wars (2009) uses a video game virtual reality to tell a story about getting along with your prospective in-laws, while the girl in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) uses her powers to perfect a karaoke routine. His new film, The Boy and the Beast, is about a child runaway who discovers a secret world of warrior animals, where he is mentored by a splenetic bear-man. Though there are universe-shaking implications, the core of the movie is about how a kid fills in the emotional lack left by his absent parents. Opening in limited release on March 4th, The Boy and the Beast is another of Hosoda’s gorgeous spectacles that finds beauty and pain in the minutiae of existence.

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The Boy and the Beast is the first film on which Hosoda has received sole screenwriting credit, and the second produced by his small animation Studio Chizu (or “Map”). With each project Hosoda has acquired a little more independence. He graduated the Kanazawa College of Art with a degree in oil painting, and nabbed a job at Toei Animation, making minimum wage and working under veterans like Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara. His first directing job was for Digimon, the virtual pet and TV show. Some of his segments were edited into what became Digimon: The Movie in the U.S.. Studio Ghibli was sufficiently impressed to offer him the directing job on Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) — Hosoda was to be the first company outsider to direct one of their films. But he clashed with the producers, and, according to Screen Daily, Hosoda quit the project “after failing to come up with a concept satisfactory to his Studio Ghibli bosses.” He would move on to Mad House studio, where he worked from 2005 – 2011, contributing to the long running One Piece series. He paid enough dues until he could adapt the bestselling novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which takes place at Nakai Station in Shinjuku, 20 minutes from the Madhouse studios. He received his first story credit on the Mad House production Summer Wars,  which was conceived after Hosoda got married and discovered his in-laws’ city of Ueda, Nagano. He became fascinated by the family’s  easy rapport and deep connection to the area.

Studio Chizu was formed to make Wolf Children, which was set in the rural area outside his home town of Toyoma. Hosoda told New People Travel that, ““To tell you the truth, I built Studio Chizu because it just had to be done. I used to make movies under the big umbrella of large companies like Toei Animation and Mad House. However, I thought that from here on, the product is the main priority so I will need to have the best environment for myself in order to continue creating movies.” It has often been stated, but it looks to be coming true: with Wolf Children and now The Boy and the Beast, Studio Chizu is establishing itself as the heir to Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.

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The Boy and the Beast begins with the tousle-haired kid Ren running away from home and into the streets of Shibuya, a heavily trafficked shopping neighborhood in Tokyo. Ren’s mother passed away when he was 9, and his father intends to pass Ren off to his late wife’s family, who arrive to take him away. Instead Ren bolts into the unknown, resentments swirling through his heart, which Hosoda visualizes as a glowing dark orb inside his shadow. While ready to give up hope in a rain soaked alley, Ren picks up a pet in an adorable mouse-like hairball he calls Chico. And then a hooded, blustering stranger walks by, asking if Ren if he would like to be an apprentice. Ren follows him through a maze-like series of alleyways, and then finds himself in the Beast Kingdom (Jutengai), a secret world led by a civilization of refined hind-legged animals. The Kingdom’s lord has decided to reincarnate as a God, and so a new Lord will have to be named. The two contenders are the noble Iôzen, an intellectual warthog-looking gentleman and Kumatetsu, an asocial bear-like creature with a hair-trigger temper.

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It is Kumatetsu who Ren followed into this bewildering world, and their relationship is one of agitation. Kumatetsu is an orphan himself, one who prefers to drive others away before they have a chance to leave. But Ren identifies with this self-protective anger, and decides to follow through with the whole apprentice thing. Ren accepts the new name of Kyûta, and learns to fight in the world of beasts. He focuses his anger into the training, becoming a formidable fighter. But he is a boy split in two – both Ren and Kyûta. When he returns to Shibuya he reverts to becoming sullen teenager Ren, and there he meets Kaede, a bookish girl who tutors him  through a Japanese translation of Moby Dick. While Ren is romancing Kaede with Herman Melville, he continues training in the Beast Kingdom as Kyûta, though he is unsure to what end. All that is clear is that he and Kumatetsu seem to complete each other through barking insults and thwacking each other with broom handles.

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I was only able to view the English dub of the feature, but I’d love to revisit the film with the original Japanese voice cast, which includes Koji Yakusho (CurePulse) as Kumatetsu. That may help more of the humor land than in the English dub, which makes Kumatetsu’s voice a ragged over the top growl. But the visual splendor of the film still shines through in the English dub, a marvel of hand-drawn animation with CGI goosing the traveling shots. The Beast Kingdom is a bright, big village arcadia, an expanded vision of the Ueda of Summer Wars, while Shibuya is a dark urban bowl with pricks of neon. When Ren is about to leave home, his relatives are depicted half drawn in the background, literally faceless. As Ren/Kyûta and Beast Kingdom/Shibuya draw closer together, the visual scheme also shifts.  Ichirôhiko, Iôzen’s son, is consumed by resentful anger – that swirling shadow orb Ren had been battling — and it threatens to consume all universes. Ichirôhiko transforms his shadow into Ahab’s white whale, and projects it into Shibuya, aiming to destroy both Ren’s world and his own. These are the most bravura sequences in the film, which link the long nurtured hurt of abandoned kids with the fantastic imagery of Melville’s ego devouring beast.

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The result is a spectacle of overpowering sadness. As with most of Hosoda’s characters, both Ichirôhiko and Ren/Kyûta are isolated and lonely. Ren is ready to accept Ichirohiko’s pain into his heart and commit suicide, a gift, he thinks, for them both. There is a sincere, lasting depression to Hosoda’s films that lingers past their ambiguously happy endings. The Boy and the Beast was the second highest grossing Japanese film of 2015, behind only Yo-Kai Watch: The Movie 2.  It is not as starkly moving as Wolf Children or deliriously inventive as Summer Wars, but The Boy and the Beast is an emblematic Hosoda film in how it shows the thin border between fiction and reality, and how much we need of the former to stay sane.

JUST VISITING: STARMAN and THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA

December 9, 2014

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Inside each hand, a miracle. Starman (1984) and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) both envision the ineffable, of presences that transcend our earthly domain. But both also celebrate the joys allowed to those bound in flesh, of Dutch apple pie and a frolic in the woods. Odd things happen when movies are viewed in quick succession. As I watched Starman and Kaguya, their stories seemed to be the same story. Both features follow an alien lifeform adapting to Earth. In Starman it’s a crash-landed alien anthropologist trekking back to his rendezvous point, while in Kaguya it’s a princess who was discovered inside of a bamboo shoot, and presumed to be a gift of the heavens. There are comic fish-out-of-water segments in adapting to their new environments, as well as doomed romances that spark and snuff out due to the whole long-distance relationship problem (it’s tough when you’re in different galaxies). But they are bittersweet films, ones that make the transcendent visible, only for it to disappear in the end.

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Starman (1984) was a cursed property at Columbia Pictures. It was the project the studio chose to make instead of E.T. They were developing both, but the head of the studio at the time, Frank Price, prioritized Starman. Spielberg moved E.T. to Universal, where it became the highest grossing film of all time up until that point. Trying to escape the stink of lost money, Columbia shelved Starman for a year, until it was resurrected by John Carpenter, who had just directed the Stephen King killer car adaptation Christine (1983) for Columbia. It was a change of pace for Carpenter, who had not strayed too far from his horror wheelhouse. He was a student of film history though, and admired how the studio directors could have a go at every possible genre, often in the same year. On Starman, Carpenter tried to make his Capra movie. He told New York Magazine that:

Starman meets this widow, played by Karen Allen, and falls in love. But he’s an alien, and she doesn’t know how to react. It’s like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. I wanted to create that same kind of romantic tension.

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Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) is speechless to discover her dead husband alive in her living room. The “Starman”  had crash landed in the field outside her house, and taken on human form by melding itself with her husband’s DNA.When she recovers from the shock, she realizes that this is an impostor.  The eyes are glassy and blank, his movements ungainly and staccato, like a baby bird. His English vocabulary was gleaned from the album included in the Voyager satellite, their communication reliant upon body language and intuition. Jenny, still in mourning, is hypnotized by this specter, and reluctantly helps him on his trip from Wisconsin to Arizona — where he will rendezvous with his mother ship and return home. Despite the sci-fi trappings, the bulk of the film is a road trip romantic comedy in the It Happened One Night mold. They are a duo thrown together by circumstance who flirt their way across the U.S., with Jenny initiating him into United States culture. He learns to kiss from studying the late show on TV of From Here to Eternity. Shot on location in Monument Valley and the Meteor Crater in Arizona, along with stops in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, it’s Carpenter’s most American movie. And he doesn’t move the camera too much, keeping things in medium shot and letting the landscapes and actors do the work. And Jeff Bridges, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, is entrancing. He’s an actor that allows you to see him think – which is essential for the part of a quickly adaptive alien being. He’s constantly computing, weighing and evaluating, conveyed in his bird-like head bobs and the gentle querying in his gaze. Karen Allen is quite moving as his straight woman, her arc from exasperation to indulgence to affection demonstrated in her wide-set searching eyes. For a feel-good romance, Starman is awfully downbeat. The government is an exploitative war machine chasing Starman to use him as a lab rat, while the romantic union is an impossibility. They live on separate planes, the gorgeous heartbreaker of an ending closing in on Allen’s face, expressing a terrible kind of wonder and loss.

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the latest and probably final film from anime master Isao Takahata, is another tale of a fantastic visitor who embeds themselves in human concerns. It is based on a tenth century Japanese folktale, one of the oldest narratives in the culture. It concerns a lowly bamboo cutter who finds an infant the size of his thumb inside of a glowing stalk – named Kaguya. He brings her home and raises her as his own. She grows at an exponential rate, so the local children nickname her “Little Bamboo”. The bamboo cutter is convinced the gods desire the child to become a princess, and feel confirmed in that fact when he is gifted with a treasure. He tears his family away from their country home and tries to raise her as a noble, with plucked eyebrows and deference to her elders. Instead, Kaguya would rather be chasing kittens and tending to her garden. She pines for home and her childhood love Sutemaru, until one day she is forced to return to her real home, a place not of earth or of heaven.

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The animation is drawn in with colored pencil and watercolor, a vibrantly beautiful aesthetic. The lines are loose and flowing, and the delicate, minimalist aesthetic seemingly leaves landscapes half formed, as if developing along with Kaguya. When she dreams of escape from her gilded city cage, the form deteriorates into rough sketches. As she imagines herself running away, bull-headed through the city streets and back to the country, her body is formed by a few strokes, the forest rendered in thick lines of charcoal, the world seemingly convulsing around her. It’s a tour de force sequence, and one that shows Kaguya’s control. Starman is a victim of circumstance, but Kaguya can shape the environments in which she lives. When required to take a husband, she puts them off with impossible tasks, guaranteeing herself a preferred life as a spinster, tending her gardens and living inside her head.

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Kaguya’s departure to her home world is remarkably similar to that of Starman. There is an approaching cloud that resolves into an interstellar conveyance, one which elicits awe and dread. This is the final departure, the end of transcendent possibilities. In both we are granted the POV of the humans who are left behind, left with our conflicted emotions and vulnerable bodies. Starman is an essentially optimistic film, Jenny left with a hopeful gaze into the future.  The ones Kaguya leaves behind are bereft, left with nothing but memories of their miraculous child, now gone forever. What in Starman is a possibility, in Kaguya is a rebuke.

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ANIME GOES WEST: MAGIC BOY (1959)

July 29, 2014

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In the 1950s Hiroshi Okawa wanted to make Toei Company the Disney of Asia. Toei had already become a prolific producer of jidaigeki (period drama) movies, focusing on cheaply made programmers to fill out double and triple bills. They made 104 features in 1954 alone. Toei president Okawa had grander designs, and acquired the animation company Nichido in 1956 in the hopes of competing in the international cartoon market. Toei followed the Disney formula of selecting local fables and fairy tales for adaptation, and adding on a menagerie of cute animals. They also followed the Disney edict of making only one film per year. In a test of the receptivity of the U.S. market, they released their first three films there in 1961, all through different distributors. Their first animated feature was The Tale of the White Serpent (1958), an iteration of the Chinese folktale “Legend of the White Snake”. It was dubbed and released in the U.S. as Panda and the Magic Serpent by the independent Globe Pictures. The first Japanese anime to receive substantial stateside distribution was Magic Boy, completed in Japan in 1959 and released by MGM in ’61. Alakazam the Great (1960) was released stateside by exploitation experts American International Pictures.  The overseas theatrical experiment failed, though Toei’s animation wing would start a pipeline into U.S. television, becoming a staple on Saturday afternoon matinees. Now the Warner Archive has given the U.S. version of Magic Boy its first DVD release, allowing us to examine part of Okawa’s grand plan (it also airs on TCM on Monday, October 6th at 3AM).

magic_boyThe story of Magic Boy is an archetypal hero’s journey. Sasuke and his sister Oye live in rural harmony with a parade of adorable woodland creatures until a witch and her enthralled goons terrorize the countryside. Sasuke leaves the hearth to train with Hakuun, a renowned wise man and teacher of magic. After rigorous training montages, Sasuke has to rescue his sister from the evil clutches of the shape shifting demoness witch. Any rough details in the Japanese original are sanded down in the generic U.S. version, with each character given one attribute and chirpy vocal tone.  Though if the plot is simple to the point of inanity, the images thrum with vibrant color and life. Sasuke is an annoying little moppet, but the landscapes he inhabits shift from the pretty, delicate watercolor of his wooded home to the pulsating hellish reds of the witch’s domain. The artists really go to work on the witch, who can transform into a giant sea lizard and appears in Sasuke’s nightmares as a fire-breathing wraith, as the abstracted backgrounds pulsate around her.

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The senior staff at Nichido at the time they were acquired by Toei were Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara, who had the unenviable task of rapidly ramping up the size of the Toei Animation department so they could complete a full length feature. In the Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2, Helen McCarthy writes that the lack of experienced animators “created opportunities for other artists, like painter Koji  Fukiya (1898 – 1979).” Fukiya drew lushly romantic photos for girls’ magazines like Shojo Gaho (Girls’ Illustrated) and Shojo Kurabu (Girls’ Club), detoured in Paris for a failed attempt at “fine” art, and ended his career as an illustrator for children’s books (for more on Fukiya see this fascinating article). His elongated, dreamy figures became the house style at Toei after Fukiya made the original designs for their short Dreaming Boy in 1958. His influence shows up in the design of the witch, who has a snake-like fluidity, and the Modigliani-necked Oye, who could have been plucked from one of Fukiya’s magazine covers.

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If Fukiya was the elder statesman, the young firebrand was Yasuo Otsuka, who would later mentor Studio Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki. In order to get the job at Toei, he had to pass the animation test: draw a man striking a steel hammer against a spike, in five frames. Otsuka would be animation director for the first time on the seminal The Little Norse Prince (1968), which was Studio Ghibli standby Isao Takahata’s directorial debut, and on which Miyazaki was an assistant animator . Otsuka’s early style tended towards naturalism, and his images of a skeleton in Magic Boy were considered unintentionally funny because of how realistic they were looked in the fantastical world of the movie. He would later move on to a more malleable style, what he called “constructed realism”. He used frame rate modulation to heighten a specific action. Where Disney would use 1 frame of film for 1 animation cell, Otsuka would use three frames for one cell to add weight to movements, as detailed in this post by Daniel Thomas MacInnes.

Though highly recommended by both the trades  (the Independent Exhibitors’ Film Bulletin wrote: “Delightful Japanese cartoon fantasy in color. Will entertain youngsters and many of their elders”) and the newspapers  (The New York Times : “Walt Disney has no cause for abdication or even alarm. But he can jolly well move over and make room.”), Hiroshi Okawa’s plans for world theatrical domination never materialized.  Toei would, however, became a dominant force in animation in Japan, thanks to the amazing influx of talent required by Okawa’s gamble.

NATURE AND NURTURE: WOLF CHILDREN

May 21, 2013

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One of these images is from James Benning’s long-take experiment in landscape photography, 13 Lakes (2004), and the other is from the hit Japanese anime of 2012, Wolf Children. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Outgrossing Pixar’s Brave in its home country, Wolf Children crowned director Mamoru Hosoda as a legitimate heir to Hayao Miyazaki (for whom he initially developed Howl’s Moving Castle), and is now available to English speakers on Hong Kong Blu-ray and DVD. Both directors are concerned with the relationship between nature and civilization, but while Miyazaki’s eco-parables soar into faraway lands, with Wolf Children Hosoda had directed his focus on the miniature dramas of everyday life. Wolf Children uses lycanthropy as an excuse to mount a gorgeous melodrama about the hard work of motherhood, and the resulting heartbreak when children heed the call to the wilds of adult life, away from home.

Mamoru Hosoda was born on September 19, 1967 in Toyoma Prefecture, Japan. His father worked for the railroads, while he spent much of his time indoors drawing. He recalled to New People Travel that, “When it rains and snows a lot you don’t go outside, bekins07_MamoruHosoda-artbonaturally. You read books, become introverted, and you face yourself.” He graduated from the Kanazawa College of Art with a degree in oil painting. His first job was at Toei Animation, where he made what he calls “minimum wage”, but learned his craft from veterans like Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara. It was there he made his first feature, Digimon: The Movie (2000), adapted from the popular TV show and “virtual pet” toy. The following year he was tapped by Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but departed the project after a few months. Mark Schilling reported that Hosoda failed  “to come up with a concept satisfactory to his Studio Ghibli bosses”. It was the first time an outsider to Ghibli was tapped to produce one of their films, and Hosoda did not fit their mold. Eventually Miyazaki would come out of retirement to direct it himself. Hosoda says he didn’t get along with the staff, but that he learned a valuable lesson:

When I worked at Toei, I had a teen state of mind: I wanted to direct complicated things, really dark. I thought to deliver a message I had to make tortured works. But in fact, while working on Howl’s…, I’ve realized being simple and clear was more satisfying.

His career seems to be a series of paring downs and simplifications. From Toei he would go to Madhouse animation, where he worked from 2005 – 2011. He chipped in on long-running film series One Piece before he finally wrested creative control of a project from start to finish. Instead of the castles in the sky of Miyazaki, Hosoda was inspired by the views outside his door. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), although a loose sequel to a 1967 novel, takes place at Nakai Station in Shinjuku, 20 minutes from his Madhouse studios. Summer Wars was conceived after Hosoda got married and discovered his in-laws’ city of Ueda, Nagano, and became fascinated by their deep family ties and that it “always has blue skies”, so different from his extreme weather home of Toyoma.

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He would return home for Wolf Children, setting the feature in the rural areas of Toyoma, and using its varieties of precipitation as an elegant visual metaphor. Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her Wolf Man husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.

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Hosoda left Madhouse to make Wolf Children, the first film his own Studio Chizu (meaning “Map”). While set in his hometown of Toyoma, he got the idea for the film in the Kichioji district of Tokyo. he told New People Travel that:

There is a Starbucks by the park with a terrace that allows me to smoke, so I go there often. One time I was sitting there gazing at the people walking to the park. There were certainly many people with children and dogs… and I came up with that idea while watching the kids and dogs, who were about the same height, coming and going, crisscrossing in front of my eyes. That is how it happened.”He returned to his home of Toyoma to tell the story of single mother Hana and her two werewolf children, Ame and Yuki.

It is this grounding in observable fact that makes Wolf Children so powerfully moving. The supernatural is incidental to Hosoda, a delivery system for the brute facts of life. Whether it’s Hana nodding off at the dinner table from overwork or Ame asking to be “comforted again” after one his numerous frights, the film is lined with the sympathetic details of raising children (Hosoda’s first child was born soon after the film was completed). This ability to simplify and focus on behavior instead of grand mythical back stories is what makes Wolf Children work so well, rich in sentiment without being sentimental.

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