animé

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: The Endless Eight

“Hello, Mr Mouse. I’d like to make a donation to your blog.”

“MOUSE LIKE MONEY.”

“Would you be willing to do a blog post setting out your thoughts on the latest developments in the field of Quantum Chemistry?”

“Well I don’t know anything about Quantum Chemistry and in fact had never even heard of it before but I’m sure an hour or so of research on the internet should be all I need to get up to speed.”

“I’ve made a HUGE mistake.”

Replace “Quantum Chemistry” with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and that’s pretty much where we’re at, folks. I…I misjudged this one, not gonna lie. I thought “Sure, I’ve never heard of it, but it’s a cartoon! I can review cartoons, I do it all the time!”. But The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a cartoon show in the same way the Bible is a novel. I didn’t know what it was before, and after many hours of research I still feel like I’m missing pretty vital information. This is a show with no clearly defined genre packed with references to advanced scientific and mathematical concepts. This is the kind of stuff I was coming across when researching these episodes:

Ah. Of course.

Okay, let’s start with the facts. The Melancholy of Haruhi Susumiya is the animé adaptation of Naguro Tanigawa’s series of light novels featuring the eponymous schoolgirl. Haruhi is really bored with her everyday life and the boring people around her and founds a school club with her friend, Kyon, to find aliens and other supernatural creatures and…just…hang out with them. Oh, and Haruhi is actually an all-powerful reality warper  who has to be kept in the dark about her abilities in case she does untold damage to the world around her.

Ah, that old saw.

The TV adaptation was first broadcast in 2006 and became one of the biggest hits in the history of animé, achieving worldwide success and becoming an unstoppable cultural behemoth. Apparently. Because, as I hinted before, I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THIS THING AND NOW I THINK I’M GOING CRAZY. DID I SLIP INTO AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE?

“WHY DOES NO ONE REMEMBER THAT NELSON MANDELA DIED IN PRISON AND WHY CAN’T I FIND SHAZAAM ON NETFLIX?!”

But apparently yes, this show was huge. So after the first season was released the show seemed unstoppable. The second season was announced in 2007 and the fandom was whipped into a frothing lathery frenzy. And then…

Hooooo boy.

What followed was one of the most spectacularly misjudged testings of fan loyalty that I have ever heard of. Within a single story arc, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya managed to piss away every last drop of audience goodwill it had accrued over the years. The franchise carried on after this for a while but it was a dead toon walking. No third season has been announced, and the franchise is now effectively dead. The arc in question was called The Endless Eight. So, what did this animé about a Japanese schoolgirl do to honk off its fanbase to the point that they abandoned it en masse? Did it involve tentacles? Surprisingly, it did not.

The Endless Eight is a story that sees Haruhi, Kyon and their friends trapped in a time loop in the last week of summer. The first episode ends with them still in the timeloop. The second episode is the first episode repeated. Because they’re still in the time loop, y’see. And each week, increasingly bewildered and enraged fans would tune in, only to be forced to watch the same episode again and again and again and again and again and again and that is not hyperbole because no lie they did this EIGHT GOD DAMNED TIMES. For real. Eight weeks of the same episode. And here’s the thing, it’s not like they just re-screened the same episode. Each episode was re-animated from scratch, each line of dialogue recorded eight times but the script remained the same with a few changes here and there. Every time.

I…just…that’s brilliant? Is it? No? I…no. It’s stupid, isn’t it? It’s real stupid. But at the same time…the balls that takes, right? But still, no. That’s just…no. But, isn’t it brilliant? But…GAWD. That’s the kind of reckless, devil-may-care creative choice that I can’t help but admire.

So here’s the thing, I know nothing about this franchise. I do not have the time to devote to exploring its mysteries and subtleties and its place in animé history. So I’m just gonna throw myself into this headfirst and review all four hours of the The Endless Eight because, fuck it. You only live once. Or eight times. Whatever.

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Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (2003)

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)

So one day Music was walking down the street somewhere in early twentieth century America and he was feeling on top of the world. Thanks to fancy new technologies like the wireless and phonograph, and this crazy new thing called “Jasz”, more people were listening to Music than ever before and that suited Music just fine.
“Hey there Mistah Music!” the newspaper boys would call as they heard him pass by and Music would tip his hat to them courteously.
Occasionally a bum would yell “You think yer so big! With your phonygrams an’ ragtime! I remember when you was bein’ spit out of a harmonica!” And then Music would drag the loud-mouthed drunk into an alley way, knife him repeatedly, and leave his body as a warning to the other bums.
He stopped on a street corner to roll himself a ludicrously expensive old-timey cigar. It was then that Music saw a tiny, starving artform, no more than a few years old, flickering and shivering on a filthy doorstep.
“Hey kid.” Said Music “What’s eatin’ ya?”
“Golly gee!” Said the infant artform “Who said that?” (Because of course, Music cannot be seen, as Music is an eight legged dragon covered in hooks and shimmering scales that go up and down, up and down and anyone who saw him would instantly go mad.)
“What’s your name, son?” Music asked kindly.
“Animation, mistah.” said Animation “I was just born and ain’t got no cultural relevancy. And I wants cultural relevancy so bad!”
“Well Animation.” Said Music “I’ve been looking for a smart young visual medium to help me expand my business ventures. I like you kid, ya got moxie. You got razzmatazz comin’ out the hooey. You and me could do great things together, kid. Whattya say?”
And so Music and his young new protégé formed a partnership that would stand the test of time. So influential was the fusion of music and animation that it even wiped out other artforms that were hugely popular at the time but have now been almost totally forgotten, like smell sculpture, colour-dancing and Grand Schmopera.
Animation has grown up a lot since the early days and can now stand on its own two feet as a medium. But if you look at the very early animated shorts from the twenties and thirties, you see that animation was almost solely used to give a visual component to music. There’s a reason those series of cartoon shorts have names like Looney Tunes, Silly Symphonies and Merry Melodies. And the link lasted long after animation had started maturing into a more narrative based style with its own way of telling stories. At Disney, even after Snow White and Pinocchio we still had movies like Make Mine Music, Melody Time and Fantasia where the animation is very much guided by and in service to the music.
Animation and Music, to put it plainly, are tight. They go way back. They’re best buds. When Film kicks Animation out of the house, he crashes on Music’s couch. Music was the best man at Animation’s wedding, Animation is the godfather of Music’s child…Music…Junior…okay the analogies are breaking down in a big way, moving on.
 
Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem is French electro act Daft Punk’s 2003 album Discovery. Daft Punk are a band who…
Um…
Shit shit shit. Okay, I really didn’t want to do this, but I’m going to have to ask for some help from by evil brother, The Unscrupulous Mouse. See, he may be a twisted maniac, but he’s also a pretty awesome musician and he knows more about house music than anyone else I know.
"Ha" I knew the day would come when you would bow before my greatness, brother!"

“Ha! I knew the day would come when you would bow before my genius, brother!”

"Oh just get it over with."

“Oh get on with it.”

"Wait a minute, Mouse."

“Wait a minute, Mouse.”

"What is it, Nit?"

“What is it, Nit?”

"I thought The Unscrupulous Mouse was your brother Eamonn? Donal's your brother who's a musician!"

“I thought The Unscrupulous Mouse was your brother Eamonn? Donal’s your brother who’s a musician!”

"Eh...he's...look, he's a composite character. I have three younger brothers. He's based on all of them."

“Eh…he’s…look, he’s a composite character. I have three younger brothers. He’s based on all of them.”

"Younger? But TV Tropes said he's based on your OLDER brother!"

“Younger? But TV Tropes said he’s based on your OLDER brother!”

"Yes. Sometimes TV Tropes can be wrong."

“Yes. Sometimes TV Tropes can be wrong.”

"Gasp!"

“Gasp!”

"I thought The Unscrupulous Mouse was your brother Eamonn? Donal's your brother who's a musician!"

“Look, are we doing this thing or what?”

"Enlighten us, Maestro."

“Enlighten us, Maestro.”

"A person can talk endlessly about Daft Punk's music career. Their iconic house tracks revolutionised dance music in the mid 90's and their re-imagining of funk music brought it roaring back into the mainstream until pretty much right now."

“A person can talk endlessly about Daft Punk’s music career. Their iconic house tracks revolutionised dance music in the mid 90’s and their re-imagining of funk music brought it roaring back into the mainstream right up to the present day.”

"But the main reason for Daft Punk's success is that they are completely anonymous. That means that it is impossible to hate them! They have no opinions, attributes or features and so can be judged solely on the merits of their music. The hipsters can't hate them because they're earlier music can be compared to what is popular in the underground scene at the minute, and all of the main stream listeners can't dislike them because....well I honestly believe that social media has brainwashed these people so they will like anything they've heard more than fifty times in the one day (Example: Get Lucky)."

“But the main reason for Daft Punk’s success is that they are completely anonymous. That means that it is impossible to hate them! They have no opinions, attributes or features and so can be judged solely on the merits of their music. The hipsters can’t hate them because their earlier music can be compared to what is popular in the underground scene at the minute, and all of the mainstream listeners can’t dislike them because….well I honestly believe that social media has brainwashed these people so they will like anything they’ve heard more than fifty times in the one day (Example: Get Lucky). “

"You don't like Get Lucky? You monster!"

“You don’t like Get Lucky? You monster!”

"In conclusion, the only reason you can hate Daft Punk is because they're French and have silly names."

“In conclusion, the only reason you can hate Daft Punk is because they’re French and have silly names. Now if you’ll excuse, my dark genius is needed elsewhere.”

 

Interstella 5555 is certainly not the first attempt to turn an album into a full length movie (you’re got The Wall and Yellow Submarine to name two), nor is it the first time Japan and France have collaborated in animation (Uly-seeee-eeeeeeeeee-eeeee-es). You might not know this (I certainly didn’t), but manga is absolutely HUGE in France, making up around half of all comics published there.

Likewise, animé has had a big presence on French TV for many decades, with most young Frenchlings having grown up watching shows like Dragon Ball Z and Robotech. Little wonder then, when Daft Punk were looking for a studio to animate their album, they looked East, not West. Specifically, they turned to legendary animator Leiji Matsumoto (the guy behind practically every animé TV series from the seventies and eighties) and Interstella 5555 is the product of their creative union. How did it turn out? Let’s take a look.
So the movie begins with footage of an interview with Matsumoto, flanked by Daft Punk in their robot costumes, discussing the origin of the film. Although, what with the grainy black and white footage, it looks more like the bit in a fifties sci-fi movie where the mad scientist announces to the world that his robot army will destroy them all.
“Fools! You called me mad! You denied the beauty of my children! But now the whole world shall bow before the steel legions of Doctor Matsumoto!”

“Fools! You called me mad! You denied the beauty of my children! But now the whole world shall bow before the steel legions of Doctor Matsumoto!”

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Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

(DISCLAIMER: All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
I sometimes get asked for advice on writing by desperate people who’ve got nothing left to lose and I usually give them some pap about being true to your art and letting the story flow naturally and blah blah blah. If I was honest, there’s really only one rule with writing; “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” Trite? Yes. Cliché? Absolutely. But also true.
I feel I owe you all an apology. Last time I tore into From Up on Poppy Hill because of its story problems, it’s lack of payoff, its glacial pacing. And it has all of those things. But this is the truth of the matter: I watched that movie and had an emotional reaction to it. I didn’t like it. And then I used those problems I mentioned before as justification for why I didn’t like it, both to myself and to you. And this is not just me. Every critic does this. We have subjective, emotional, often illogical reactions to movies and then use film theory to present those reactions as objective, dispassionate and perfectly sound. This doesn’t mean that From Up On Poppy Hill is a good movie, it just means that when I depict the movie as being bad because it breaks Law X of good screenwriting I’m being disingenuous. On the most fundamental level, I didn’t like it because I didn’t like it.
This was brought home to me rather powerfully by today’s movie, Tokyo Godfathers. This movie breaks two rules that are supposed to be pretty ironclad. Firstly, the action of the plot is largely driven by coincidence. Secondly, the ending only misses out on being a literal deus ex machina because it doesn’t involve a machine. And yet, it works. It really works. It works like German ants.
This the third of only four moves directed by the legendary Satoshi Kon before his tragic death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 46. I haven’t seen any of the others (although after seeing this you can bet your left buttock I am going to check them out). Even more unusually, each film in Kon’s tiny filmography seems to be wildly different from the others; Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller, Paprika is concept-heavy sci-fi,  Millennium Actress is a time-travel historical romance and Tokyo Godfathers is a straightforward caper movie. I went into this movie fore-warned that Kon was the “David Lynch of animé”, an idea that seems to promise weirdness so potent that even staring at it would drive you to gibbering madness. Tokyo Godfathers is most definitely not the movie that I expected. It’s actually one of the least alienating and most accessible animé movies I’ve ever seen, which is impressive as my DVD has no English dub and I watched this one in subtitled Japanese. The story is actually grounded enough that there’s really no reason the movie couldn’t have been made as a live action feature (although we would have been missing out on some fantastic animation if it had been).

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From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Remember how, ages ago, I did that list of my favourite non-Disney animated movies? Yeah, that list is probably due an update. There are so many fantastic films that I’ve discovered or re-discovered since then: Coraline, Prince of Egypt and of course Princess Mononoke. Still the highest scoring animated movie I’ve ever reviewed on this blog (or tied for first place if you count Who Framed Roger Rabbit). So when I was asked to review From Up On Poppy Hill, another Studio Ghibli film by Miyazaki that I’d never even heard of I was pumped. 

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

More

More.

Again.

Again.

Yes.

Yes.

More please.

More please.

So this is the 17th Studio Ghibli film, released in 2011 after Arrietty and before Miyazaki’s final film as director, The Wind Rises. Aaaand that’s about as much as I know about it. I’m going into this one completely cold.
I mean, c’mon. What else do I need to know? It’s a Studio Ghibli film directed by Miyazaki. The only question is; Great Movie or the Greatest Movie? Let’s take a look.

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Akira (1988)

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
When it received a limited release in US theatres in 1988, Akira was by no means the first exposure Americans had had to Japanese animation. Animé had a small but continuos presence on American television screens since at least Astro Boy in the early sixties. But it’s undoubtedly true that no one in the West had ever seen anything like this movie before. Shows like Astro Boy, Battle of the Planets and Kimba the White Lion were exported to the West because they were children’s shows, and they fit into Western perceptions of animation as being entertainment for the man cubs. Darker, more mature animé for adult audiences simply did not have a market outside of Japan, and in fact even Akira only received a limited release after Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas passed on it, considering it “unmarketable” to American audiences.  While there had been a fandom for Japanese animation in the States since at least the seventies, Akira was a seismic event, massively swelling the ranks of fans in the US and other Western nations and hugely increasing the genre’s visibility in mainstream pop culture. Why? Well, the animation for starters. Over a quarter of a century later and it’s still one of the greatest technical achievements in cel-animation ever drawn. It’s jaw-dropping. When fans of animé want to induct new members into the church, Akira is more often than not the movie they reach for. Now, I know I’ve already reviewed one animé movie on this blog before, but honestly Studio Ghibli are very much their own little sub-genre with very distinctive tropes and styles that don’t really hold true for the rest of animé. Akira is much closer to what people picture when they hear the word “animé”, which is not surprising given how big a role it played in shaping the genre. With that in mind, and since this is a blog usually devoted to Western animation, now is probably a good place to talk about animé in general and address some of the more common questions.
“Manga”, “Animé”, what’s the diff?
Short version: Manga is comics, Animé is animation. The two industries are much more closely linked than in the West. Many comicbook writers work in animation and vice versa, and the director of Akira was no exception, the movie actually being Katsuhiro Otomo’s adapation of his own manga series.
Why does everyone in animé look white and how guilty should I feel about it?
All animé owes a debt to the work of Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy. Tezuka’s was hugely influenced by Western animators like the Fleischer Brothers and of course Walt Disney.
"Did you really think you could escape me?"

“Did you really think you could escape me?”

The big round eyes of so many animé characters are not  as a result of some kind of ethnic inferiority complex, but because they’re drawn in a style influenced by Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse. Also, everyone has different colour hair just because it’s more interesting visually. Not all animé comforms to this however. A lot of more naturalistic animé will have characters that are more recognisably Asian (Akira for example).
So much of animé seems obsessed with huge explosions and the end of the world. What’s up with that?
Oh wow. I can’t imagine why that would be. Let’s just sit here for seven days and nights and see if we can crack this inscrutable conundrum.
Animé seems to be so full of sex and violence. Won’t somebody please think of the children? Also, the Japanese are clearly all perverts.
Thought experiment. If you sat an alien down and screened for him all the movies made in America in any given year, their first question would be “why do most of these have close up shots of dicks going into various orifices?”  See, a huge percentage of films made in North America are hardcore porn because it’s cheap as chips to make and very lucrative. But when we think of “American cinema”, My Ass is Haunted is not usually part of the conversation. We compartmentalise porn and regular cinema, while filing Japanese hentai simply under “animé”. Japan’s porn tends to be animated, but other that there’s no real difference. The Japanese are no more “weird” or “sick” than we are.
Um…tentacles?
Yeah, okay, that shit’s pretty weird and sick.
What’s good against steel-type Pokémon?
I don’t know. No one does. And anyone in the comments who says they do is a liar.
That’s the basics. Keep in mind though, I’m just a casual fan, not an animé expert by any stretch of the imagination. If you do want to go deeper down the anime rabbit hole allow me to recommend Anime Reporter. Oh, and while I usually don’t put up spoiler warnings (it’s a blog where I recap the entire plots of movies in detail what do you think is going to happen?) I should mention I’ll also be discussing plot points from the manga as well, so fair warning.

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Princess Mononoke (1997)

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
Alright, let’s deal with the elephant in the room, shall we?
I watched the dubbed version.
マウスの死亡! (Death to Mouse!)

マウスの死亡!
(Death to Mouse!)

Yes. Yes. Yes. Illiterate. Ignoramus. Buffoon. Yada yada yada. Look, to a certain degree I sympathise. When it comes to live action movies, I cannot STAND dubbing. Der Untergang is one of my favourite films and if you ever suggested watching it in anything other than the original German, I’d accuse you of being the first person to ever talk about Der Untergang who was actually worse than the main character. But that’s for live action. Animation is slightly different. One of my big problems with dubbing over live action is that even when the characters are outside in a forest or whatever the voices coming out of their mouths always sound like they’re in a recording booth. Which of course, they are. Also, you just can’t make the lip movements synch up, it’s just not possible. With an animated film, however, everyone, original voice actors and unwashed gaijin alike are in a recording booth anyway so it doesn’t matter. It’s also easier to make the lip movements more closely approximate the new language in animation. So basically, when it comes to animé, subbed or dubbed, I’m easy. For Princess Mononoke I’m reviewing the dubbed version for the following reasons:
  • It is a phenomenal dub. Great cast, fantastic performances, wonderful adapted script by Neil Gaiman, just amazingly well done.
  • Miyazaki himself prefers his movies to be watched rather than read and supports his films being dubbed into foreign languages.
  • I don’t want subtitles clogging up my screencaps when I’m makin’ mah dick jokes.
  • It’s easier for me to come up with jokes for the American voice actors. “Perhaps I wasn’t clear, I’m Hisaya mother fucking Morishige” doesn’t quite have the same ring.
  • Watching the subbed version means I don’t get to hear Gillian Anderson’s voice. I want to hear Gillian Anderson’s voice. Why don’t you want me to hear Gillian Anderson’s voice? Try and take it away from me and see what happens. Just. Try.
I’m not arguing for the superiority of the dubbed version over the original Japanese, or vice versa. What I’m saying is; it doesn’t matter. Watch either. Watch both. This movie is so damn good it will not make a lick of difference.
Monoke-Hime “The Spirit Princess” was released in Japan in 1997 and almost immediately became the most successful Japanese film of all time against a budget of 2 billion yen (aka around $20 million dollars or a third of what it cost to make Foodfight!). Following that, Miramax, a tentacle of the vast Disney octopus, purchased the rights for distribution in the West. Now, it’s a tired old truism that the big difference between animation in Japan and in the West is that here, animation is seen as being “just for kids” and I really hope we can put that one to rest finally. No, animation in the West is no longer seen as being children’s entertainment. The most successful television show in American history is The Simpsons. The airwaves are full of animated series specifically marketed towards adults. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncutwas one of the biggest grossing movie musicals of all time. It’s done. Grown ups watch cartoons now. War is over.  If you want it. Having said that, it’s certainly true that animé can be…well, pretty shocking to Western audiences used to animation being almost totally comedic. Animé is into some messed up shit quite frankly, and I’m not even talking about their lax stance on schoolgirl/tentacle relationships. There is an intensity to the violence and body horror in animé that’s like nothing you’d see in Western entertainment. Which, of course, is why it’s so popular here. Even Miyazaki, who is about as far as you can get from Fist of the Northstar, can serve you up some pretty disturbing imagery and Mononoke is probably the darkest movie in his filmography (I’ve heard Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is even darker but I haven’t seen it yet). We got decapitations, monstrous transformations, severed limbs, giant bleeding boars turning into worm monsters of pure hatred and all kinds of dark horror that Disney just doesn’t do.
Ahem. Anymore.
HELLO!

HELLO!

So legendary Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein wanted to make heavy cuts to the movie to have it more in keeping with American expectations for a full length animated film. Studio Ghibli’s response was simple and eloquent, sending Weinstein a katana sword with a note saying “NO CUTS!”. It’s my blog, so I will add to the story that it was delivered to Weinstein’s room in the dead of night by a ninja weeping a single tear as he crouched silhouetted in a window while behind him, cherry blossoms fell in the moonlight. But of course, the sword was probably just delivered by some FedEx guy (ah, the days before 9/11). Weinsten got the message and the film was released without cuts, thereby ensuring that Studio Ghibli did not have to take things to the next stage.
Horsehead
Miyazaki may well be the greatest animation director who has ever lived. Princess Mononoke is widely considered his greatest work. Just how good is that? And can I actually make any jokes about a movie this excellent? And will you actually laugh at them?
"Why start now?"

“Why start now?”

Let’s take a look.

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