One to Beam Up! — That Amazing Anime Guy: An Interview with Illustrator, Industrial Designer and Lifelong Anime/Sci-Fi Fan, Mike Moon
Let’s Talk Turkey!
Mike Moon is the kind of well-informed enthusiast most of us run-of-the-mill types turn to when we want answers to the most basic of life’s conundrums involving all things anime, comic book or science-fiction/fantasy related.
A prolific writer and illustrator, you can peruse Mike’s handiwork, stories and art along with those of guest contributors at his Catgirl Island Website (http://www.catgirlisland). Do your interests lie elsewhere? Then you don’t want to miss the latest action-adventure movie reviews, interviews and other fun stuff at The Mew: The Catgirl Critics’ Media Mewsings site (http://mewsings.wordpress.com).
I met Mike a few years ago at the annual Animazement Convention in North Carolina. Consequently, I’ve been meaning to interview him ever since that first encounter (cue: John Williams’ score). After our second and third meetings at similar gatherings in and around town, I came away with the feeling that sooner or later our paths would cross again and that I simply had to get his views across in print.
Luckily, the timing was right for us to exchange a few questions and answers. And here they are:
Josmar Lopes—I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Mike Moon. Hiya, Mike! I want to introduce readers to your extensive knowledge and astute observations and opinions about the anime, science fiction, fantasy, action-adventure, you-name-it realms.
Mike Moon—This is so flattering and fun and I think you’ve greatly overrated my significance or knowledge, but I’ll be happy to answer your questions, and hopefully I won’t be too boring or rambling!
J.L.—Somehow, I doubt that’s possible. But first, let’s get a little background information and context. Where did you go to college?
M.M.—You’re far too kind! I went to the University of Southern California (USC), Alamance Community College (ACC), and North Carolina State University (NCSU – twice); and while I was in high school, I got to study art at the North Carolina Governor’s School East at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College in Laurinburg.
J.L.—What subject did you major in and why did you choose that particular field?
M.M.—I was in cinema school at USC, because I was fascinated by how movies and TV shows were made, especially the design, animation and FX [portions], but I later realized that what I really wanted to study was art or design. While I was there in Los Angeles I got to meet my favorite designer Syd Mead, who inspired me to later get my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Industrial Design (formerly known as Product Design) at NCSU. In between those two degrees, to further improve my skills I got a Certificate in Computer Graphics at ACC, although these days I still use traditional media in addition to the digital tools!
J.L.—This may be a complicated subject to tackle in one shot, but how has your knowledge of design helped you in your anime and sci-fi interests?
M.M.—What little I know of design has made me better appreciate my other hobbies and interests such as illustration, photography, cosplay, comics, animation, toys and collectibles. I pay more attention to how things are illustrated, designed, sculpted, molded, manufactured, assembled, stitched, painted, photographed, printed, or packaged! I scrutinize the intricacy of the sculpt, paint, seams and articulation of the action figures, dolls, prop and vehicle replicas, plushies; and I love to see the elaborate dioramas that are built for figures, dolls, miniatures and models.
I’m fascinated when a movie or TV show (live action or animated) has enough talent, money, time, technology and desire to achieve extremely believable, realistic technical or historical accuracy in their sets, props, hair, make-up, costumes and FX in serving a good, believable story. I love to see lavish spectacle and amazing sets, mecha, etc., on screen when no expense is spared.
One of the many reasons that Star Trek – The Motion Picture is my favorite movie (Trek or otherwise) is because of its epic sense of realism – and that extends to the instrumentation, buttons, consoles and graphics of the sets. I think it’s the best that Star Trek has ever looked. It looks so futuristic, realistic and enormous, as if they actually built and filmed the starships and space stations in outer space. It’s not just a bunch of blinking lights, with decks that look like distilleries, torpedo rooms and turbo-lift shafts that make no sense, or the unfortunate attempts at humor when people hit their head on something, as in the later Trek movies. Of course, Star Treks II-VI do have some very thrilling, fun and dramatic scenes, but they don’t feel nearly as realistic, expensive or futuristic enough.
However, ironically I’m also very forgiving of fan films or smaller budgeted professional productions, even if the budget and technology is not there yet, but if it’s clear that they have a lot of heart and care for their craft. I know what it’s like to be a designer having to work fast on a tight budget from being part of the stage crew in high school, my own amateur film-making, and as a design-school student. We would often search the recycle bins and junkyards for scraps and materials for things we might have to build!
J.L.—That’s all part of the fun, I’d gather.
M.M.—Look at Doctor Who, for example, especially its first 30 years. Some folks were negatively critical of the sets, monsters and FX. I’ll agree that some of them could have looked nicer, but as I watch the DVDs’ documentaries, listen to the commentaries, and learn more of the challenges faced with such a fast schedule and small budget week after week, it only increases my admiration for the show. I think the whole cast and crew did an amazing, clever, ingenious job to tell entertaining stories about characters we care about amidst the wonders of the universe. That’s part of the reason the show has endured for 50 years.
A lot of time, talent, ingenuity and money go into designing things for movies and TV shows, in hopes of creating believable characters and environments for the story. And yet it’s a shame when designers don’t get enough credit. The Oscars coverage spends more time on what actors are wearing to the show than the costumes or other things designed for the movies. Now I could ramble on about my favorite actors, but they get to appear on so many more magazine covers and TV shows throughout the year than, say, production designers, cinematographers or visual FX supervisors.
It seems like every other award recipient gets so little time to make their acceptance speeches, compared to the actors and singers. I could also ramble on about my favorite fashion, music and comedy, but I think the televised Oscars ceremony spends way too much time on song and dance numbers, and scripted comedy segments. There are already enough music awards shows as it is. I wish it was more about honoring the designers, engineers, scientists and technicians that make movies possible to begin with.
J.L.—Those are exactly the kinds of arguments worth spending time on! And I’m in total agreement with the faux glitz that passes for awards shows. Indeed, not enough time is given “on the air” to the technical/professional side of movie- or album-making. With that thought in mind, who have you and “The Ladies of The Mew” interviewed?
M.M.—Oh gosh, a bunch a folks, real and fictional! The first guests of The Mew were several cast members of my webmaster Jamie’s web comic Clan of the Cats, in August 2007. Jamie would also contribute the occasional reviews, too. Then in October 2007 we interviewed two toy collectors, Power Rangers expert Pacozord and Actionfigurologist ob1. Gosh, some of those early Mews were rather lean compared to later years that sometimes got up to six times longer!
February 2008 was the 1st annual Mew Awards presentation. March 2008 was the special cosplay edition of The Mew, with artist/cosplayer guests Crissy Teverini, Hezachan, Misty Hopkins and Tonomurabix. May 2008 was the 1st Anniversary of The Mew, and the theme of that giant-sized edition was music, with vocalist Lisa Kyle, Klingon Karaoke-singer Capt. Keela sutai-Septaric, the band Three Quarter Ale, Pink Lady fan Jeff Branch, radio DJ and Animazement staffer Phil Lee, and Jamie’s chat about Beatlemania. The August 2008 Mew included the first of several music reviews over the years by our guest critic-friend Kaiser.
October 2008 was another big month with several guests: author Marna Martin, Star Wars fan Tiawyn, Tari of Sharon Williams’s story “Osiris Rising,” blogger Sparky MacMillan, plush toy maker Igor 9, and Jeff Branch again. The November 2008 guests were Jennie Breeden who is the creator of the web comic The Devil’s Panties, and Niki Lemonade who is the creator of the web comic My Fake Heart! The December 2008 guests were artist Emathyst; artist, author and game designer Jamie Davenport; model and milliner Joei Reed; artist and cosplayer Sarah “Sakky” Hughes, comics writer/journalist Dan Johnson, and a special vignette about Sara “Glory” Baker.
Then I started 2009 off with more of the cast of Clan of the Cats in January’s Mew! February 2009 was the 2nd annual Mew Awards, with an update on our prior guests; the March 2009 guest was Alexandra Wright of Jeff Branch’s story Dark Skin Red Blood; the May 2009 guest was author/artist Ursula Vernon, and our June 2009 guest was ghost investigator and professional costumer/performer Cheralyn Lambeth; the September 2009 guests were artists Rebecca Brogden and Alan Welch; the October 2009 guest was web comics author/artist Clint Hollingsworth. That November’s guests were A Girl and Her Fed’s creator Otter, and Corrine of Clan of the Cats!
December’s guests were cousins Deborah and Devra Langsam, who were among the first pioneering Star Trek fans of the 1960’s. They were part of that famous campaign to save Star Trek from cancellation.
J.L.—I remember that campaign! I knew a guy who was so into Star Trek at the time, he even came to class sporting Mr. Spock’s haircut and a homemade pair of Vulcan ears.
M.M.—Oh, Star Trek is probably my most knowledgeable topic. I love to study the history of the fandom. Deborah and Devra helped to publish the very first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia in 1967, and were part of the committee that launched the very first Star Trek Conventions in 1972! Of course, since then they’ve been up to a lot of other things: Devra Langdam has been a librarian, a publisher, an SCA member and a bookseller at various festivals, whilst Dr. Deborah Langsam has been a botany professor, a fiber artist and a chocolatier.
J.L.—A chocolatier…? I wouldn’t let her near Tribbles if I were you!
M.M.—Well, not unless there was one of those Tribble-eatin’ Glomars patrolling nearby! Speaking of the cuisine, our guests for January 2010 included our friend Chef Ron who is quite the cook, and (Marvel Comics) Avengers expert Professor Van Plexico. That February’s Mew included the 3rd annual Mew Awards, the May guest was model/cosplayer Rainbow Fish aka Chainmail Chick; the July guest list featured comics artist/journalist Jim Amash and returning comics artist/author Andrew Pepoy! The August 2010 guests included artist/author Alexcia Reynolds and returning guest Sakky; and the September guest was journalist and book editor Eric Nolen-Weathington of TwoMorrows Publishing!
That brings us up to the October 2010 edition of The Mew, which included the Catgirls’ interviews with the members of Child-Eating Books Studio which was founded in 2007 by artists Lucy Kagan, Allison Kupatt, and sisters Natalia and Thais Lopes, who I believe you know!
J.L.—You bet I do! They’re my anime-loving daughters!
M.M.—Like so many other folks, Natalia and Thais are far more active in fandom and cons these days than I am, and I’m sure they know a lot more about cosplay and the more recent anime, manga, visual and performing arts than I do! Oh, by the way, I should mention that The Catgirl Island Mewseum of Art is graced by a lot of lovely illustrations and photos from many of our great guests and other much appreciated artists! The Catgirl Island Public Library is also honored to have a few tales of the island by some guest authors too!
There were no guests for the January 2011 Mew, but in February many past guests were in attendance for the 4th annual Mew Awards, which would be much more elaborate from then on, and take much longer to write! So would the anniversary edition of The Mew every May, with a bit more plot elements being added from 2011 on. Artist Elisa Chong was our great guest for June 2011, but 2011 and 2012 were kind of sparse years for interviews. The Mew kept getting longer, though, but it was mostly comprised of discussions and reviews.
OK, we’re up to 2012, and that February’s 5th annual Mew Awards and May’s 5th Anniversary Mew were even bigger than the previous year, with more characters, plot, and more of the past guests in attendance for both events. Performing artist and model Lady Violet Arcane was the August 2012 guest. Although he was not actually a guest of The Mew, I did enjoy a few phone conversations with AC Comics’ artist/writer/Editor in Chief Mark Heike, as part of my research for the September 2012 Mew’s Celebrity Catgirl Spotlight! That was another opportunity that I am very grateful for!
Almost done! There were a lot of past guests at the 6th annual Mew Awards in February 2013; cosplayers Rosemary Ward and Des, who I met at the G.I. Joe Collectors Convention, were the May 2013 guests; artist Lela Dowling was the June 2013, and it was so nice to see the entire Lopes family amongst the crowd gathered for the 7th annual Mew Awards in the February 2014 Mew! That’s pretty much all of the folks thus far who have been interviewed for The Mew, but that does not include all of the other wonderful guest artists and authors who have kindly contributed to the art and tales at Catgirl Island!
J.L.—That’s quite an impressive rundown, Mike! Moving right along, I understand you’ve talked to the great Syd Mead? What a thrill that must have been!
M.M.—Oh yeah, I have been so fortunate and honored to have met and chatted with him several times over the past few decades! He’s my favorite designer and has been such a huge inspiration, ever since I got his Sentinel book, not long after my favorite movie Star Trek – The Motion Picture premiered. Since then my collection of Syd Mead stuff has grown quite a bit! The first time I met him was while I was in L.A. at USC. I spoke with him briefly by phone a couple of times, and he invited me to his house! That was in February of 1983 when I visited him for a few hours, and we chatted while he worked on a painting.
That was just several months after Blade Runner and Tron were in theaters. Meeting him was part of the reasons why I didn’t stay in film school at USC, and why I was inspired to later major in Industrial Design at NCSU. I even started using an Iwata HP-C airbrush loaded with Winsor-Newton Designer Gouache like he used, although I haven’t used either in years, especially in these digital days. I spoke to him a few more times, and then met him for the 2nd time when he gave a lecture and presentation at NCSU’s School of Design. I think that was in 2001… and the 3rd time I met him was again at NCSU several years later.
J.L.—Can you elaborate for us what the gist of your conversations with Mead were about? What subjects did you discuss and which films did Mead touch base with and describe?
M.M.—When I met him the first time I think the conversation mainly pertained to his illustration tools and techniques, and his work on Star Trek, Blade Runner and Tron while I watched him work. The latter time when he was at NCSU was not long after Mission Impossible III and the publication of his Sentury 2 book. The main things I chatted with him about prior to this presentation were his anime work, such as Yamato 2520 and Turn a Gundam. It was also nice to chat with a few of my industrial design professors and the head of the department who it was great to see again.
J.L.—Not only can we tell that you’re a big sci-fi fan, but you’re a regular convention-goer as well. How did you first get involved in cons?
M.M.—As for my first interest in cons, I loved going to fairs and festivals, hobby and collector shows, car shows, organized Halloween/costume activities, but as a kid all I knew about cons were what I’d read in magazines and books. But I guess the first actual convention that I attended was one in L.A. in 1983. It picked up for me in the mid-80s as a member of the Carolina Comic Book Club, when we made the trips to Heroes Con in Charlotte. Also about that time were other Star Trek, science fiction and comic book cons popping up in the state, ranging from the student and fan club to the corporate-sponsored events.
In the 90’s, I attended more ‘n’ more cons. including some in other nearby states, cosplayed more often, and sometimes had an artist’s table. The first actual anime-specific con I attended was Katsucon, along with fellow members of the Triangle Area Anime Society. That was also the first time I helped as a volunteer at a con. Later some of us at TAAS decided to start our own anime con here in North Carolina – and thus was launched Animazement! Since then I’ve been to cons, shows and festivals of all types, either as a volunteer, staffer, artist, dealer, guest or just a regular attendee. In the past few years I’ve attended some that are further out, in Cincinnatti, New Orleans and Indianapolis.
J.L.—Along those same lines, what attracted you to anime?
M.M.—What initially attracted me to anime was the art style, and my own art style was definitely influenced by anime in the 70’s. Back then I collected the Shogun Warriors toys and watched Speed Racer, but it was Battle of the Planets in ‘78 and Star Blazers in ‘79 which totally hooked me. That was not just due to the character or mecha designs, but the storytelling, characters, serious plots and serialized stories – even when heavily edited for North American audiences.
That’s when I really started to actively search for more information about anime and stuff to collect, as If I didn’t already have enough hobbies! It was a great time for me to be a fan in that post-Star Wars era of the late 70’s, what with anime, Doctor Who, DVD, video games, the return of Star Trek, James Bond, other big SF and horror movies, plus the comics, toys and music of the time, but those would each be other big topics!
Another thing is that sadly for the longest time in the U.S. there has often been the attitude that animation (and comics) are just for kids, whereas animation in Japan is such a huge industry, like our own live-action TV and movie industry, of great diversity and genres, with shows intended for kids, teens, adults, men, women, family. Fortunately the attitudes in the U.S. have changed for the better in the past couple of decades.
J.L.—Do you have a particular favorite from among the thousands of anime out there?
M.M.—OK, as for my favorite anime… oh, gosh, that could be a very long list of movies, TV series, OVA’s and music videos! I like so much of it from the past six decades, of almost every genre from science fiction, fantasy and horror to romantic comedy, sports and slice-of-life. Of course, there’s plenty that I do not like too, but let’s not go into that! There are so many anime authors, artists, directors, composers, voice actors and characters that I like!
I’m a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, such as Spirited Away, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and so forth! To this day, his 1979 movie The Castle of Cagliostro (starring Lupin the 3rd) is the first title that I would ever recommend to anyone who is curious about Japanese anime.
J.L.—Miyazaki-san is the King of Japanese anime! There’s no one better!
M.M.—He’s my favorite director, of animation or otherwise! I’m a big fan of Space Battleship Yamato, which might be the most significant anime of all time. I especially like the Yamato movies such as Arrivederci Yamato, Be Forever Yamato, and Final Yamato which are such beautiful, dramatic, epic space operas. I also like Galaxy Express and other works by Leiji Matsumoto, and Mamoru Hosoda’s films, among them The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children.
I’m very fond of Rumiko Takahashi’s series such as Maison Ikkoku, and Urusei Yatsura’s Ranma 1/2. I like Kosuke Fujishima and Masamune Shirow’s works a lot, too. My favorite anime of the 80’s includes Ah! My Goddess, Akira, Area 88, Bubblegum Crisis, Dirty Pair, Gunbuster, Gundam, Kimagure Orange Road, Macross, Mysterious Cities of Gold, Patlabor, Silent Möbius, Transformers: The Movie, and Vampire Princess Miyu.
As for the 90’s, I’d say Battle Athletes, Blue Seed, Blue Submarine Number Six, Cowboy Bebop, Devil Hunter Yohko, Ghost Sweeper Mikami, Hyper Police, Idol Project, Nadia, Nuku Nuku, Tenchi, Weathering Continent… and I think Sailor Moon is probably the most important anime of the 90’s, because not only does it have such a good strong cast of heroines, but it is especially responsible for attracting many female fans in the U.S. – and nowadays anime fandom seems to be 50-50 male/female!
J.L.—I can vouch for that. My own daughters were lucky recipients of the anime boom.
M.M.—I was so glad when anime, manga, games and related items finally became pretty much mainstream by the end of the 90’s, and thus much more accessible, affordable, influential and inspirational, with more ‘n’ more cons, clubs and web sites popping up everywhere. But that was 14 years ago and fandom has changed so much since then – for example, nowadays if you go to a con such as Animazement or Libraricon [in Fayetteville], the younger fans are representing non-anime stuff such as My Little Pony, Doctor Who, Homestuck, Marvel and DC, etc.
I’m a pony fan too! It’s a great, positive, fun show for fans of all ages, ethnicities and genders. Kids today have grown up in a time where anime is as common here as anything else. But then, most anime fans have always been fans of other stuff too, such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, comics, games, rennfaires, the highland games, hockey, college basketball, fishing or whatever people are fans of. But I digress again!
Back to favorite anime, some of my favorites of the 2000’s are Azumanga Daioh, Bamboo Blade, Daphne in the Brilliant Blue, Genshiken, Kami-Chu, K-ON, Maria Watches Over Us, Millennium Actress, Princess Nine, Strike Witches, and Magical Meow Meow Taruto. I definitely have to mention the TV series Aria, which is an adaptation of the Aqua and Aria manga by Kozue Amano – it’s my favorite Japanese anime TV series of the past 15 years. As for this current decade of the 2010’s, ah, I rather like Cat Planet Cuties, Girls & Panzer, Lagrange, Sound of the Sky, Spice and Wolf, and Taisho Baseball Girls. Some of my recent favorite manga are Sunshine Sketch, Geijutsuka Art Design Class, A Centaur’s Life and Omamori Himari.
As you may have noticed from Catgirl Island (www.catgirlisland.net) and The Mew, I’m rather fond of anime, manga and other artistry that feature catgirls, kitsune, faeries and mermaids, but I guess I’ve mentioned enough for now. Things like comics, manga, art and books would be other pretty big topics! I still have too way many hobbies!
J.L.—Speaking for myself, I first got into anime and sci-fi after catching the original run of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy on our local New York TV station (Channel 5). After that, I remember seeing Gigantor, Kimba the White Lion, Super Car, Planet Patrol, Fireball XL5, 8Man, and the unavoidable Speed Racer. Do you remember the first anime you ever saw?
M.M.—Oh yeah, in the late 60’s our kindergarten went to the movie theater to see Alakazam the Great. I was very young at the time, and didn’t realize it was Japanese animation, but I did notice the style was different from most of the American animated movies and cartoons I’d seen.
J.L.—When did you first start writing your blog?
M.M.—Some friends and other artists thought I had a knack for critiques, and because I can be very thorough and fair in my opinions, my webmaster Jamie suggested that I write a review blog. I forget when I first started pondering and writing it, but it was in early 2007 when I determined the style, format, tone, schedule and policies for my blog, as an extension of Catgirl Island (which I created in 1998); and the Catgirl Critics’ Media Mewsings: The Mew “purremiered” in May 2007! It quickly evolved to be much lengthier, and to include the slice-of-life situations for more and more of my meta-fictional characters, their annual “awards,” the occasional guest contributions, and the interviews with artists, authors, performers, collectors and fans.
J.L.—Have you met many interesting folks thru convention going and/or blog writing? I know I have!
M.M.—I was already so fortunate to meet lots of nice folks at the cons as a fellow fan, artist, dealer or staffer, but writing The Mew definitely helped lead to a lot of acquaintances and friendships. That includes a bunch of folks who I’ve never actually met, but whose work I greatly admire, whether they are famous or not yet famous!
J.L.—Do you have any boxed-set editions of your favorite films and/or anime series in your eclectic library or collection?
M.M.—Oh yes, I have quite a few movie and TV boxed sets! I prefer it when the box is in the standard height case so that it will fit on the shelf with other DVDs, and I prefer it when the disks are secured in individual trays and not in a big stack. But I love it when a DVD includes special features such as audio commentaries, info texts, isolated music tracks, spoken language and subtitle options, storyboards, screenplays, image galleries, documentaries, publicity materials, different versions, any deleted scenes and outtakes, gag reels, booklets and so forth.
Some of my favorites are the Star Trek – The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Alien, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator II, Dawn of the Dead, Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, and the extended Lord of the Rings sets. Unfortunately, it seems like standard DVDs too often these days have fewer and fewer extras, not like they used to, especially movies, compared to Blu-ray Disks. However, there are a lot of great deals on TV-show boxed sets, especially older shows, and you can get some of the no-frills sets for pretty low prices.
Doctor Who DVDs have some great special features too. Japanese anime is so much more affordable now than it used to be, compared to back in the days of VHS, laser disks, and imports! One of the semi-annual topics of The Mew is the DVD Wish List. There are a lot of old-and-new foreign and domestic movies and TV shows that I’m still hoping to be commercially released or re-released here on Region 1 NTSC standard DVD, but every year I’m pleasantly surprised!
J.L.—Thanks so much, Mike, for your time, availability and “purrfectly” candid responses.
M.M.—Oh, it was my pleasure, you’re welcome, and thank you sir! Perhaps later on down the road the Ladies of the Mew might wish to “intermew” you too!
J.L.—I look forward to it!
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
Concluding my previous blog posts about the absurdities of opera singers and opera singing in Tinsel Town (and beyond), below are a few more examples of this egregious practice for good measure.
But What Does It Have to Do With Opera?
Everybody knows (or at least, I hope they know) that opera, as it’s been handed down to us, originated in sixteenth-century Italy — Florence, Italy, to be exact. It was supposed to be a somewhat heightened method of speech tempered with music and drama. Whether that concept has successfully carried over into modern times, or whether it’s been good or bad for music and drama as a whole, I’ll leave it to the experts to determine.
What I can say about opera is that many filmmakers and directors of Italian and/or Sicilian extraction, with Francis Ford Coppola among the more notables ones, have been obsessed by the genre from their earliest infancy. It must be in their blood. But whatever the reason, we have Coppola and his fellow paisan to thank for spicing up the medium through non-operatic methods.
One such director has been that prolific genius of the celluloid, Martin Scorsese. A graduate of New York University’s Film School, not only is Scorsese an inveterate movie buff, film historian and preservationist, but a scrupulously curious-minded individual whose fascination with how opera and the performing arts can be incorporated into such a seemingly incompatible form as film has led him down some fascinating roads. I’m not sure Mr. Scorsese has ever successfully reconciled these two art forms, to be honest, but he certainly gave it the old NYU college try!
Many of his most famous films preserve some aspect of the operatic art, whether it’s the music or an actual “staged” performance. Let’s say that opera (that larger than life way of expressing oneself through song), in the hands of master movie-maker Marty, can make you see things in an entirely different light; while adding to our understanding of a scene or plot point without regard to its sometimes gruesome subject matter.
There’s plenty of evidence for that in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning biopic Raging Bull from 1980, which should start things off nicely for us. By emphasizing the Intermezzi from both Pietro Mascagni’s one-act Cavalleria Rusticana (loosely translated as “Rustic Chivalry”) and his later unsuccessful Guglielmo Ratcliff, Scorsese featured these two pieces of music, one in crisply edited, black-and-white photographed, slow-motion action shots, and the other in a facsimile of a 16mm handheld camera, to paint two pre-MTV versions of a proto-music video in several artsy-fartsy sequences.
The film, a brutal and starkly realistic look at the turbulent life of middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta (played by Robert De Niro), and based on the fighter’s autobiographical book, no less, presented a foul-mouthed portrait of an overly jealous man behind the athletic shorts. Co-star Joe Pesci, in his film debut as La Motta’s equally forceful younger brother, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his comic-opera turn. Pesci got the nod again (and won!) a decade later for his similar assumption of a garrulous Mafia hood in the same director’s Goodfellas (1990). What’s so funny?
In a complete 180-degree turnaround from blood-sport and warring factions, Scorsese gave us a suitably lush picture of late nineteenth-century Manhattan high society in his screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Beautifully shot and elegantly narrated by Joanne Woodward, the film in its early going takes us to a “live” Metropolitan Opera Company performance of Gounod’s Victorian-era opus, Faust.
Evidencing a deft familiarity with the era’s conventions, as specifically related to this opera (thanks to his superb research department), Scorsese’s movie accurately reconstructs an Italian-language Faust, which as incredible as it may seem the opera was actually sung in. Indeed, all the operas, including most of the German repertoire, were performed by the Metropolitan in la lingua italiana, the norm for that time period.
Not to be outdone, Scorsese, in following Wharton’s lead, knew full well that most society families had the rather noxious habit of taking their marriageable-age daughters to see Faust, mostly for purely “moralistic” purposes, in that the lead female character of Marguérite (or Margherita in this version) meets a very sad fate through her out-of-wedlock relationship with the title character. Hey, that’s one way to keep your girls in line!
Continuing along this path, the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s were a splendid time in Italy for films of an operatic nature to be produced. The most unusual aspect, shall we say, of these quickie flicks was the sub-par lip-synching employed throughout, as well as the even more nonsensical practice of dubbing opera stars’ voices with… well, other opera stars’ voices! Appearances counted for much back then.
One of the earliest examples of the above was of Donizetti’s charming comic opera The Elixir of Love (1946), which starred photogenic baritone Tito Gobbi as Sgt. Belcore, bass Italo Tajo as Dr. Dulcamara, and soprano Nelly Corradi as Adina — but with the chirpy singing voice of Margherita Carosio. This made little sense, as Carosio was a pretty enough figure in real life to overcome any implausibility. Hmm, maybe she was just camera shy….
A slightly “better” (relatively speaking) production was The Barber of Seville from 1947, which repeated the successful formula of Gobbi, Tajo and Corradi, but added portly tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini as Count Almaviva (singing and acting, by the way) to the mix, along with burly basso buffo Vito de Taranto as Dr. Bartolo. The sets were rather crude and makeshift, to be kind, as they were borrowed direct from the Rome Opera, where the production was filmed. Talk about a tight budget!
Next up was a series of Verdi operas, including the bombastic La Forza del Destino (1947), with Gobbi, bass Giulio Neri, and Corradi again. This time around, Corradi was dubbed by dramatic soprano Caterina Mancini. Tenor Gino Sinimberghi appeared as Don Alvaro, but was voiced by Galliano Masini. Go figure! An even better production of Rigoletto (1946) starred our old friend Gobbi, with actress Marcella Govoni sitting in for the hugely proportioned, but vocally well-endowed Lina Pagliughi.
Golden-throated tenor Mario Filippeschi emoted onscreen, while his own sterling tones (described by his baritone colleague, Signor Gobbi, as “a splendid Duke with a ringing voice and smilingly sardonic appearance”) sang the life out of “La donna é mobile.” Mamma mia! According to Gobbi, the entire film was shot on the stage of the Rome Opera House in a span of 14 days. Always a quickie, never a longie!
Two films — one a comedy and one a tragedy — were released in 1948. Let’s start with the tragedy: Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci or, as it’s known in the ersatz American translation, Love of a Clown. Again, we have Gobbi acting the part of Tonio, while singing both Tonio and Silvio, the soprano’s love interest. A young (and I do mean YOUNG) Gina Lollobrigida appeared as Nedda. Stay with me now, for this is going to be a real mishmash. Gina was dubbed by soprano Onelia Fineschi. Her lover, Silvio, which we already know from the above was voiced by Signor Gobbi, was acted by… you guessed it, Signor Gobbi.
All right, so far so good. Here comes the funny part (funny as in, “What the…?”). Canio, the main clown (i.e., Pagliaccio), was sung by tenor Galliano Masini. You remember him! He sang in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Well, then, the actor playing Canio was none other than… are you ready for it? Baritone Afro Poli! (Sure, why not?) Rounding out the ensemble was tenor Gino Sinimberghi, now SINGING the part of Beppe, but PLAYED on the screen by… an ACTOR! And the actor’s name is? The envelope, please: Filippo Morucci. (WHO???) You got all that?
Okay, so what about the other flick? After the above comedy of errors, not even Rossini’s enchanting La Cenerentola, the Italian version of the Cinderella story, could bring as big a smile to one’s face as what transpired with Pagliacci — oh, excuse me: Love of a Clown. Nevertheless, the role of Cinderella was played onscreen by Lori Landi (whoever she was). She was dubbed by the luscious-voiced mezzo Fedora Barbieri, along with basses Enrico Formichi and Vito de Taranto. The most memorable feature of this particular production was the sumptuously filmed locations, which included the Royal Palaces of Monza and Turin in Italy.
Here’s an interesting variant. The late composer, librettist, director and producer Gian-Carlo Menotti — the man responsible for the annual Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds — directed a film version of his own opera, The Medium (1950), in his native Italy. At the time, it was considered opera’s first excursion into film noir and Italian neo-realist territory. American contralto Marie Powers gave a powerful performance of the title role, with a young Anna Maria Alberghetti as Monica, and Leo Coleman in the mute role of Toby.
The finale, where Powers mistakes Coleman for one of her phantoms and shoots him dead, is full of religious iconography and punctuated by funereal chords in the orchestra. Seldom has a theater piece so transcended its operatic origins and become a full-fledged film product on its own. For the movie, Menotti expanded his opera to 80 minutes from its original one-hour running time. Tick… tick… tick….
Hang in there. Only two more to go! Actress and singer Franca Duval, the mammoth-voiced tenor Franco Corelli (he of the mighty thighs and endless high notes), and jack-of-all-operatic-trades baritone Afro Poli all appeared in Puccini’s Tosca (1956). The gorgeous Duval was sung on the soundtrack by aging diva Maria Caniglia. Corelli sung for Corelli (now there’s a novelty), while his good friend and fellow singing-actor Gian Giacomo Guelfi dubbed in the part of Baron Scarpia. The whole film was spoiled by an extremely intrusive English narration. Stop the music, stop the music!
And now for the piece de résistance! A famous 1954 Technicolor-film version of Verdi’s Aida that starred actress Sophia Loren at the very beginning of her career. In case you were wondering, the role was actually sung by the lirico spinto Renata Tebaldi. Lois Maxwell — the future Miss Moneypenny for all those early James Bond movies, and the brunt of Sean Connery’s puns — acted the part of Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter. Lest you think that Lois was capable of assuming the vocal aspects of this part, think again: the famed mezzo Ebe Stignani sang Amneris on the soundtrack.
Our tenor hero Radames was lip-synched by an immobile actor named Luciano Della Marra. Tenor Giuseppe Campora sang for him, (though the tenor was severely over-parted). Afro Poli was the Amonasro, but voiced by the very capable Gino Bechi, while Antonio Cassinelli played Ramfis the High Priest; his voice (you knew he wasn’t going to do his own singing, now, didn’t you?) was dubbed by the noble bass of Giulio Neri. The whole show was directed by Clemente Fracassi. Unfortunately, Verdi’s most popular opera was trimmed down to about 90 minutes. Not a good day for us purists.
Cartoon Frolics and Puppet Shows
At around the same time as those Italian opera productions were making their way around the globe, Warner Brothers got into the act by releasing three unusual theatrical shorts during the heyday of animated features.
The first was “Long-Haired Hare” from 1949. With musical direction by Carl W. Stalling, it featured our favorite cartoon rabbit Bugs Bunny in a raging battle with a smarmy baritone named Giovanni Jones (“That’s the nice fat opera singer”).
The second, “The Rabbit of Seville,” released in 1950, was an animated spoof of Rossini’s opera that used the work’s world-renowned overture to produce a mini-opera in itself. Musical direction was again provided by Stalling. This one had Bugs and a perpetually flustered Elmer Fudd running around the stage trying to top each other in mayhem.
The last, and probably one of the finest animated masterpieces from this period, is “What’s Opera, Doc?” from 1957. A thoroughly hilarious takeoff on Wagner and the Ring cycle operas, this marvelous (and exceedingly expressionistic) short used music from The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, and a song, “Return My Love,” with lyrics by Michael Maltese, to fulfill our operatic needs. The musical direction was by Milt Franklyn.
It’s a classic by any definition of the word, and a highpoint for the studio — especially when Elmer Fudd expresses his undying love for the German “diva” Bugs Bunny: “Oh, Bwunnhilde, be my wove!” Oy vey, it’s enough to make one swear off opera for good. One can still feel its influence in the 2009 release of The Secret of Kells, an Irish, French and Belgian-produced feature, beautifully rendered in brilliantly colored backgrounds and art work. (And “that’s all, folks!”)
And now, for a simply delightful change of pace, we have another certifiable cult classic: the stop-motion musical adaptation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel from 1954. Revolutionary in pioneering electronic techniques, and a prototype for later CGI and stop-motion work by the likes of Henry Selick and Tim Burton, this film was aimed squarely at the kiddies.
Based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, it boasted the voice of famed lecturer, singer and comedian Anna Russell as Rosina Dainty Lips, that irksome child-eating Witch who gets to ride her broom around a candy-colored set. Broadway’s Mildred Dunnock, who acted in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, voiced the part of H & G’s Stepmother. As far as pushing the technology of the medium goes, this puppet-based “toon” earned its stripes in the visual effects department with (ahem) flying colors. Produced and directed by Michael Myerberg.
I Want My MTV – Not!
As anyone who’s ever lived through the eighties and nineties will tell you, it was the age of Music Television, or MTV for short (not anymore it isn’t). And music videos were all the rage — at least, up until the start of the new millennium. That’s when Reality TV took over, thanks ever so much to a prolonged writers’ strike. We’re still paying the price for that one.
In any case, I can wholeheartedly recommend tenor Neil Shicoff’s MTV-like video performance from 2005 of the aria, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from the grandest of French grand operas, La Juive (“The Jewess”), by Fromental Halévy. Directed by television and movie veteran Sidney Lumet (now there’s an odd choice), Shicoff appears as Eleazar, the Jewess Rachel’s father, and emotes convincingly in his Jewish rabbi garb.
In addition to being a full-throated American tenor, Shicoff is also a full-throated Jewish cantor on the side. Significantly, his stirring rendition of this difficult piece, a favorite of Enrico Caruso’s, was in homage to the late tenor Richard Tucker, also a cantor, but who never got to sing the role at the Metropolitan Opera House, his home for nearly 30 years. If anything, Shicoff knocks this out of the ballpark, so fiercely determined was he to express the full gamut of emotions.
The video is included on the DVD edition of the complete opera, released by Deutsche Grammophon and performed live by the Vienna State Opera. You’ll want to get your hands on this one quick, as it’s destined to become a classic.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
By DAVE KEHR
First Published: January 20, 2002, by The New York Times
(Editor’s Note: This is a reprint of an article that first appeared over ten years ago. Since that time, my family and I have been constant convention-goers and frequent participants in anime-related events, including lectures, panels, artist’s alleys, skits and “cosplays,” most prominently at the annual Animazement Convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, as well as quite a few others. Let this excellent article by Dave Kehr serve as an introduction, or “crash course,” to those unfamiliar with the anime genre or its basis in Japanese– and American — culture and cinema.)
It is easy to get the impression that the Japanese cinema disappeared from the world stage with the passing of its three greatest filmmakers, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Since Kurosawa’s death in 1998, a number of gifted directors have emerged in Japan, including Takeshi Kitano (Hana Bi) and Shinji Aoyama (Eureka). But none of them have been able to fill American and European art houses as their elders did in the 1950’s and 60’s, when Japanese film was in its golden age.
But in fact, Japanese film has probably never been as popular internationally as it is right now. Its popularity, though, is not grounded in live action films, but in the animated features and television series that have come to be known as anime. It has been estimated that anime (AH-nee-may) now account for 60 percent of Japanese film production. The term itself — a Japanese adaptation of the English “animation” — suggests the roots of the form, in a blending of the Japanese pictorial tradition represented by silk painting and woodblock prints with American-style character design and genre stories.
After a decade or two as an underground phenomenon in the United States — where legions of obsessive fans exchange fuzzy videotapes or, more commonly now, trade bootlegged movie files over the Internet — anime is slowly emerging into the light of day. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke was released by Miramax in 1999 in a dubbed version, featuring the voices of Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson and Minnie Driver; Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 Akira opened theatrically last year in a digitally restored edition (and is now available on DVD); last summer Columbia Pictures released The Spirits Within, an elaborate computer-animated episode of the long-running “Final Fantasy” series; and opening on Friday is Metropolis, a fascinating blend of computer and traditional hand-drawn animation directed by Rintaro and based on a 1949 comic book written by Osamu Tezuka.
Anime is not a genre in itself, but a style that can be applied to a wide variety of subject matter. The Japanese cartoon can and has embraced a dizzying number of genres, from Disney-like childhood adventure (Mr. Miyazaki’s specialty) to astonishingly violent, graphic pornography (in series like Raizo Kitazawa and Kan Fukumoto’s La Blue Girl). In fact, many anime films take pleasure in mixing and matching various genres and periods, as does the very popular Cowboy Bebop television series with its blend of westerns, samurai dramas, Blade Runner-style retro-futurism and cuddly character interactions that suggest American sitcoms.
But there are certain constants in the form. Most conspicuously, there is the look of the characters, which, while allowing for some minor variations from artist to artist, generally insists on impossibly statuesque bodies topped by huge, heart-shaped faces, themselves punctuated by gigantic, round eyes of the depth and limpidity of Beverly Hills swimming pools. Westerners are often struck by how “un-Japanese” they look, with their curly hair that comes in shades of blond, red and blue.
Part of the reason for those design choices is surely cultural, and as such beyond the reach of mere film criticism. But historically, the style began with the great admiration that Tezuka, the grand old man of Japanese animation, bore for the work of Walt Disney. Tezuka’s first widely popular character, born in a 1951 comic book, was Astro Boy, a space-age Pinocchio who substantially predates Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Astro Boy is a robot created by a scientist whose own child was killed in a car accident; when the robo-child disappoints his creator by his failure to grow up, he is sold to a circus with a cruel ringmaster (another A.I. parallel), but eventually finds happiness with a kindly professor who teaches him to fight crime (and who builds him a loving little robot sister).
Tezuka turned his comic strip into an animated TV series in 1963, and the character immediately became a worldwide success. Astro Boy’s simple, spherical construction suggests both the early Mickey Mouse and Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop, and a 1930’s Deco elegance clings to the design even today. The anime filmmakers who followed Tezuka – in the boom in theatrical and television animation engendered by the success of Astro Boy [originally titled The Mighty Atom] – imitated his style, establishing what was, in fact, a specific, strictly dated form of 1920’s-30’s graphic design as the baseline of the new medium. At times, anime figures look strikingly like the sexualized children created by the Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger.
Metropolis, the anime that opens this week, is a fantasy inspired by a still photograph from Fritz Lang’s German silent film of the same name (Tezuka claimed never to have seen it). As translated to the screen by Rintaro, an animator who worked with Tezuka on the original Astro Boy series, the film is a charming blend of Tezuka’s old-fashioned cartoon figures and the most up-to-date computer animation technology, used to generate dizzying perspectives and richly detailed backgrounds.
Though Metropolis emphasizes the contrast between the dated, naïve figures in the foreground and the high-tech design of the background, it isn’t unusual to find a similar, if unarticulated, dissonance in other anime. Originally designed for the low budgets of television production, anime — like the American style pioneered by Hanna-Barbera for Huckleberry Hound and The Flintstones around the same time — uses fewer drawings per second than the vintage Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons, which were made at a time of lower costs and greater theatrical exposure. Even so, now that computers have made it possible to create smooth, fluid animation for a reasonable cost, the Japanese films hang on to the jerky, discontinuous movements that characterized the earliest work in the field. This is something that can pose a problem for Western viewers, who risk seeing the anime style as something inherently inferior to the sleeker Hollywood product.
But there is much in the work to suggest that this jagged, flip-book quality is an effect that Japanese viewers find desirable and pleasurable. Accustomed to manga — the massive comic books published in Japan for adults as well as for children — the Japanese public does not favor movement over composition as a principle of expression. As more than one commentator on manga has pointed out, the most direct precursor of the form is ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints — themselves often erotic or rudely caricatural — published in nineteenth-century Tokyo. Here, the artists often strove to convey movement — crashing waves, raging battles, swirling geishas, kabuki performers in high dudgeon — in terms of static line drawings, in ways that powerfully suggest the contained dynamism of the anime style.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate anime is as a series of still drawings with moving details. Even a film like Mr. Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, with its clear aspirations to Disneyesque detail and grandeur, animates its characters with only slightly more grace and fluidity than a low-budget television series like Angel Tail. The figures themselves are as flat as the backgrounds, given only a suggestion of dimensionality by solid wash shading.
Where Western animators struggle to create a convincing illusion of life, Japanese animators are more interested in capturing single expressive gestures, or in evoking a particular mood through the careful use of color. Unlike Hollywood animation, anime does not aspire to the condition of live-action cinema; it remains its own stubborn self.
The range of achievement in anime is immense, from instantly disposable Saturday morning children’s fodder — like Sailor Moon or the interminable Pokémon series — to work that stands with the finest the world cinema has produced in the last 20 years. But even in its less honorable forms, anime has proven to be a rich source for cultural anthropologists, who find in it a vivid illustration of the dissolving identities and collapsing institutions that characterize life in postmodernist cultures.
Susan J. Napier, a teacher of Japanese literature and culture at the University of Texas, has published a thoughtful and carefully researched account of the social and sexual values encoded in the form in her recent book Anime from ‘Akira’ to ‘Princess Mononoke.’ For Ms. Napier, the heroes of anime are defined by their indefiniteness — by their curious tendency to shift back and forth between male and female bodies (as in the popular Ranma 1/2 series) or, thanks to bodies that have been fitted out with all kinds of high-tech refinements and super-human replacement parts, by their extremely ambiguous status as human beings.
The protagonist of Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo’s influential 1988 film, is a disaffected teenager whose massively destructive psychic powers are unleashed by a series of army experiments. The heroes of the long-running series Guyver and Neon Genesis Evangelion are young men who become monsters of destruction when they strap on high-tech body armor; they are both empowered and overwhelmed by merging with the electro-mechanical world. (Expressed already in Astro Boy, this is perhaps the most deeply embedded theme in the anime universe.)
If this view of technology is open to charges of simplification and sentimentality — not to mention obvious Freudian interpretations centered on adolescent fears of the developing body — there are other anime that seem eager to advance to the next stage in human development.
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, a 1996 feature based on a manga by Masamune Shirow, surely ranks with the finest Japanese films of the last two decades (a beautifully produced DVD is available from Manga Video). Its protagonist is Kusangi, a female cyber cop assigned to duty in what appears to be a slightly futuristic Hong Kong; in the course of investigating a criminal programmer called the Puppet Master, she begins to question her own identity. Is she human or machine, male or female, alive or dead? The film’s delirious climax finds her merging with the Puppet Master and entering a transcendent state beyond such narrow categorizations.
Still, for all of its philosophical speculations, what is most impressive about Ghost in the Shell are its purely lyrical moments — sequences in which Mr. Oshii leaves the narrative in abeyance to offer wordless images of daily life in this strange city of the future, images rendered with a serene stillness and a compositional rigor that vividly recall the wordless sequences, or “pillow shots,” that Yasujiro Ozu inserted between his dramatic segments. Even if these images add nothing to the story, they complement the film’s headlong thematic thrust into the future with an assertion of traditional Japanese values. Here again is that sense, so powerful in Ozu and Mizoguchi, of “mono no aware” — a recognition of the ephemeral nature of human life, an awareness of the ineffable sadness of things.
Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue (1997) leaves the boy’s adventure archetypes behind; its main influences would seem to be David Lynch and Michelangelo Antonioni. Like Mr. Lynch’s recent Mulholland Drive, the film is a study in mutable realities and dissolving identities, with an actress as the central figure: Mima Kirigoe is a moderately successful pop singer who hopes to move into an adult career as a dramatic performer. But her dreams are dashed when an alternate Mima appears, who — wearing the pigtails, pink hair ribbons and tutu that were Mima’s trademarks — begins brutally murdering the advisers who are supervising her transition to womanhood.
Mima’s evil twin embodies the innocent, super-cute girlishness that the Japanese call shojo (series like Sailor Moon, or the products in the Hello Kitty line of children’s toys, illustrate the concept in all its bubblegum-pink glory). Within the context of a psychological thriller, Mr. Kon explores the crisis of Japanese women entrapped by the crippling shojo image, which is seen as spreading its pernicious influence over several generations. Perfect Blue, which also contains some brilliantly executed expressionistic imagery of Tokyo at night, is one of the rare anime to venture into overt social criticism; in a medium that relies on the shojo image for much of its male appeal, the gesture is quite radical and courageous, though the film ultimately retreats into a disappointingly pat thriller.
If anime has one director with a claim to worldwide stature, his name is Hayao Miyazaki, the creator of Princess Mononoke as well as eight other features and four television series. Mr. Miyazaki has often been called “the Walt Disney of Japan,” and the comparison is actually more profound than it may appear. Like Disney in his early features, Mr. Miyazaki deals with the deepest kind of childhood trauma — the loss of a parent, the resentment of a sibling, the difficulty of belonging to a family and the difficulty of separating from it — and he does so in terms that, while sometimes superficially sentimental, also contain solid truths.
From his earliest features — The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1989) — Mr. Miyazaki has separated himself from the pack of anime artists by his refusal of technology-driven stories and techniques. Despite an increasing use of computer animation in his backgrounds, he continues to hand-draw his principal characters. Some of his work is set in a vaguely European past — Cagliostro revives the turn-of-the-century gentleman thief Arsène Lupin and sets him loose to save a Ruritanian princess from the clutches of evil counterfeiters — while other films refer to a much more specifically Japanese world (unusual for anime), such as the softly rendered early 1950’s of My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Mr. Miyazaki is no futurist, but a fantasist who re-imagines the past.
In My Neighbor Totoro, two small children, Satsuki and her younger sister Mai, are uprooted from their urban world and sent to live in a decaying country house near where their mother is being treated for a serious illness. Their father does his best to protect the girls from the gravity of the situation, but it still affects them subconsciously. Mai, wandering through a neighboring forest, encounters a lumbering creature who looks like a cross between a kitten and a bright blue walrus. Mai crawls on his stomach, pokes him awake and asks him his name. The creature replies with a growl that sounds like “Totoro,” and Totoro he becomes.
The implication is clear that Totoro is an imaginative projection of the children — a benign, protective spirit who will help the sisters through their mother’s illness. But Mr. Miyazaki also suggests that these beings are descendants of the forest-dwelling gods of the ancient Japanese religions, that they carry with them the power and magic of nature itself. Psychology and the supernatural are seen as forming a seamless whole, ultimately indistinguishable from each other in their aspirations and human values.
Princess Mononoke is Mr. Miyazaki’s finest achievement to date, and perhaps the one anime that need not shrink from comparison with the great Japanese live-action films of the 1950’s. This complex, ambiguous, thematically dense epic transcends classification as a children’s fantasy; indeed, it has become the highest-grossing Japanese film ever [surpassed, in more recent years, by his own Spirited Away], as popular and meaningful to adults as it is to children.
There are no cuddly Totoros here: this is nature red in tooth and claw. The film, set in the fourteenth-century Muromachi period, centers on a young hunter, Ashitaka, who finds himself caught up in a war between an ancient world shrouded in mystery and violence, represented by the forest-dwelling wild child of the title, and a new world of civilization, militarism and communal values embodied by a fortified village whose specialty is the manufacture of firearms. Remarkably, neither world is privileged above the other in Mr. Miyazaki’s screenplay. Rather than presenting a simple, sentimental ecological fable, the film is profoundly engaged with complex, irresolvable issues.
It is also a work of astounding formal beauty, in which elaborate, computer-generated backgrounds merge seamlessly with the vigorous, hand-drawn animation of the foreground characters. Perhaps no Japanese film has found the same sense of scale and sweep since Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress in 1958. It is tempting to see in Mr. Miyazaki’s work — if not in anime in general — the extension of the epic ambitions that the Japanese cinema, led by Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, once harbored and once realized.
If the budgets of the 1950’s are no longer available — thanks in no small part to the near hegemony Hollywood has achieved over the world’s popular entertainment — anime has allowed Japanese film-making to survive and prosper in a different way, without sacrificing the qualities that once made it so vital, so significant and so distinctive.
Princess Mononoke was released in Tokyo on July 12, 1997; Akira Kurosawa passed away just over a year later, on Sept. 6, 1998. Perhaps he lived to see Mr. Miyazaki’s film; perhaps he saw something of himself in it.
Copyright © 2002 by The New York Times