See "Ginga Tetsudoo 999" below. This is an English translation that cuts about 15 minutes--principally, the fact that the Queen dies because Crystal kills herself--but two of the songs are intact, and the Pluto sequence is still stunning.
Gall Force: Earth, Chapter One
Later in the "Gall Force" saga. Earth was largely devastated by its political wars, until only sentient war machines were left. Earthlings regrouped to Mars, but a few stayed to try to take back the earth.
Some of these were military, including Sandy Newman. She tries to coordinate an attack on the machines using the last 30 atomic missiles, but is opposed by the Geo Chris, a quasi-religious group that lives to transplant the Tree of Revival once the war is over. Another example of Japan's pop culture asking its audience to choose nature over civilization, while removing that choice so far into the future that it's for all practical purposes meaningless. Subtitles; again directed by Kazuhito Akiyama.
Gall Force: Eternal Story
I used to wonder if they meant "Gal Force" or "Gale Force"; thanks to Helen McCarthy's "The Anime Movie Guide", I can now say that "gall" is short for "gallant". A pretty good way to describe this space opera about an all-girl crew. During a war between the Solenoids and the Paranoids, a crewmember of the force is impregnated with the beginning of a pacifist third race. Interesting idea, but the character designs are just a bit too cutesy for me to accept it all. Dubbed into English. Directed by Katsuhiko Akiyama.
Genesis Surviver (sic) Gaiarth
An interesting 3-part OAV. Ital, a young warrior out to avenge his mentor's death, and the pretty, hard-bargaining Sahari, take on the assignment of slaying a dragon, but that's just the beginning. The dragon was guarding an artificial-intelligence "elf" who hints that Ital's robot companion Zaxxon has a secret past. Nice mix of action and intelligent plotting. The series kind of lets down at the end.
Ghost in the Shell
In the far future, when bionics are taken for granted, we will have Japanese sci-fi to thank for getting adjusted to it--for good or ill. The question of how much humanity can rest in a machine body has been a common theme since Tetsuwan Atomu, but has seldom been explored as strikingly as in this film. Based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, it features Major Motoko Kusanagi of a secret operations unit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. More machine than human, she and her crew are on the trail of The Puppetmaster, who hacks into people's memories (their "ghosts") and implants suggestions. All of this would be at home in the world of cyberpunk author William Gibson. Fascinating treatment of a classic theme; screenplay by Kazunori Ito, who also wrote "Nausicaa". Just under 90 minutes; not rated, but violent and with nudity and obscene language. Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Dubbed into English; also subtitled.
Actually a 1992 series that resurrects an old 1960s giant robot series (shown in the west as "Johnny Socko and His Flying Robot"). The animation techniques have been updated somewhat, but all the basics of the original are still there as Daisaku, the 12-year-old boy who controls the robot of the title, works with the Experts of Justice in combatting the criminal organization Big Fire. A 7-part sequence called "The Night the Earth Stood Still", which might more accurately be titled "The Week the Earth Stood Still": an inventor creates the ultimate power source, capable of making all other power obsolete, and mankind gladly converts everything to being run by the Shizuma Drive. Unfortunately, a Big Fire agent disables all Shizuma power around the world. Can the Experts get their act together to save the planet? Can they survive the revelations of hidden identities and distortions of history? (The Experts include Ginrei, the prototype martial-arts-babe-in-a-very-short-Chinese-dress, who we find out midway through the series is around for more than window dressing.)
I spent the first six installments of this series trying to describe it all adequately. Having seen the seventh and final episode, I realize that there is only one apt adjective: Wagnerian. It's not just because of the exceeding length or the use of snippets of opera in the very bombastic score by Masamichi Amano. It is because director Yasuhiro Imagawa pulls out all the visual stops in a production that some have described as "retro", because of its decidedly cartoon-y look. The style may owe more to manga artists such as Dr. Tezuka and Shotaro Ishimori than to the post-Akira generation of films, but that doesn't stop this series from using every trick in the book within that older style. There is also the leitmotif of the conflict between fathers and sons, which plays out constantly on several levels. Yes, there are a lot of over-written speeches that may even sound silly to some, especially when declaimed at the top of a character's voice, but there is much here (including the fate of Ginrei in the final installment) that is genuinely moving. Highly recommended.
Ginga Tetsudoo 999
Regarded as the masterwork of cartoonist Reiji Matsumoto, this film sounds most of the major themes of Japanese science-fiction. The future is divided into classes who either can or can't afford the most desired replacement of flesh and bones with eternal robot bodies. This leads to spiritual dehumanization as well. One street urchin, whose mother was killed by a robot for the trophy of her skin, teams up with Princess Meiteru, who bears a strange resemblance to his mother. They cross the universe to the home of the robot bodies, along the way encountering several other Matsumoto characters (Captain Harlock, among others). The sequence on Pluto, where castoff bodies are stored in the ice of the planet's surface, is a stunning image. In Japanese. Directed by Taro Rin. Three songs; brief nudity. The more recent English dub, when showed on Sci Fi Channel, cut the songs; finally, something good to say about Galaxy Express.
One of the earliest giant-robot series. In Japanese
Green Legend Ran
A future Earth is dried-out, an ecological disaster. Giant extraterrestrial craft, the Holy Mothers, land and provide water and greenery--at a price. It takes the orphaned Ran and the silver-haired Aira to undo the plot of the Rodo cult.
Based on the manga by Yoshihisa Tagami, this film is more like Three Days of the Condor in that nothing is what it seems, and you get comfortable with one version of reality when it suddenly shifts on you. It's one thing to witness a future in which the elite who have are played against the middle who want. But then we find out who's doing the manipulating and why. One logical consequence of this kind of storytelling is the most blatant "cheat" ending in moviedom. Sit through all the credits. Subtitled. Some nudity.
The GS stands for Ghost Sweeper. Reiko Mikami is a far cry from Demon Hunter Yoko; older, sexier, more skillful and much, much more mercenary. She claims she doesn't even know what love and justice are. I fell in love with Mikami and her crew in Takashi Shiina's long-running manga in "Shonen Sunday", and was gladdened to see an OAV and four episodes based on the team. To say nothing about the jazziest theme song in all of anime.
The OAV has the ghostsweepers with their hands full, as the demon spirit Nosferatu comes back to life (although they say Nosferatu possessed the shogun Oda Nobunaga). A brilliant fight-scene between Mikami and a spider-samurai spirit. On the other hand, Mikami makes a typical rallying speech to the troops, who are busily playing "Go Fish".
The first four eps of the tv series are based on the earliest manga episodes. (1) Mikami and Yokoshima go to a hot springs to exorcise a mountain spirit and end up hiring a new apprentice, the ghost Okinu-chan; (2) the Ghost Sweepers are hired to exorcise the spirits of bank-robbers but, since the bank is unwilling to pay the fee, Mikami decides to help the robbers; (3) Mikami takes on a freebie(!) to help a little girl find her Moga-chan (Japan's answer to Barbie; "Moga" comes from the first syllables of "Moderl Girl"); (4) Yokoshima goes out-of-body to get a gremlin away from a telecom satellite.
This franchise has been around for ages, but it hit a lot of Americans like a bomb when Cartoon Network's Toonami started running it. A 49-part adventure: 5 teenage boys pilot giant robots, while Relena Peacecraft and other talking heads debate the fine points of pacifism(!) It works.
This series is literally one of a kind. It retells the legend of a woman required to marry a dog; she lives with it in the hills and magically gives birth to its eight sons. Assorted episodes of the series tell of the sons growing up and fulfilling their respective destinies. Fascinating art style and minimalist dialogue retell one of Japan's classic legends on its terms; no concessions to western filmmaking or narrative here.
Actually, a haunted high school (complete with ghost principal) which has to be monitored by its Holy Student Council: the kids of a Buddhist monk, a Shinto miko and a Christian cleric. The latter is the "star" of this 12-week comic series, since he clearly doesn't get it and is ultimately shown the error of his ways. Includes parodies of other Japanese TV programs, including Iron Chef.
Here is Greenwood
Think of this as a dormitory version of Mezon Ikkoku. A variety of types in a high school dorm get caught up in a host of strange problems, everything from ghosts and girl-gangs to having to make a movie for the school talent show. And is there a girl in this boys' dorm, or is it a boy with long hair and a high voice?
Heroic Legend of Arslan
Interesting swordplay in a minimalist style (occasional talking-heads against pure white background) but the charas are well-designed, and the complex competition for a throne is neither too melodramatic nor too cluttered. The British dub changes the title to "Arislan" and makes the whole thing sound rather Arthurian. Still, this one occasionally pulls out the stops and overwhelms like few other epics can.
Hi no Tori 2775
A Dr. Tezuka feature. The story of Goro, born into a sterile scientific environment in the future, and brought up by a robot-nanny. Ultimately, he is reborn and the robot becomes human to be his mother (a Freudian theme found in several Tezuka works). Very impressive visuals as well as food for thought. In Japanese.
Hotaru no Haka (The Fireflies' Grave)
Or, Your Tax Dollars At Work, Part Two. This animated memoir of World War 2 is based on an incident in the life of Akiyuki Nosaka. American firebombing of Kobe forces a boy and his little sister to live with relatives, then by themselves. Visually brilliant, with fireflies at times being echoed in the stars, in the cinders of burning buildings... Years ago, watching it for the first time, I thought it was a pure and simple tearjerker. Now that I have a niece the age of the girl in the movie, this is very hard to watch. Directed by Isao Takahata, who adapted the story for the screenplay, and produced by Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. Subtitled.
Iria: Zeiram the Animation
Iria is a teenaged apprentice bounty-hunter, studying under her big brother--until he gets absorbed into a monster. The question is, is he dead or still alive within the monster? The monster itself is kind of a cross between a medieval Japanese pilgrim and the title character of Alien. Nice design, but the band of orphans is a bit too precious. The title is because this is an anime version of a live-action sci-fi film, Zeiram.
Irresponsible Captain Tylor
If the name of the Soyokaze isn't a giveaway that this isn't your usual spacegoing battleship, ask yourself: how many starships have you seen with a tanuki statue on the bridge? Several TV episodes and the first OAV.
Kamui no Ken (Dagger of Kamui)
A very impressive blend of ninja and Wild West genres. The orphan Jiro is framed for the murder of his foster family, and begins an odyssey which takes him to America and back, meeting Mark Twain and freeing a black slave while he's avenging the murder of his father. Directed by one of the true masters of anime, Taro Rin.
Kaze no Tame no Naushika
This film, and its attendant manga, are the calling-card for Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps Japan's greatest living anime director. His fondness for fantasy machinery doesn't get in the way of good character and story development. In this case, Nausicaa and her people, in a sheltered valley, have been working to reverse the post-Apocalyptic ecological disasters caused by giant demons (a nuclear metaphor). They get caught up in a neighboring kingdom's war to exterminate the giant insect life; life which is helping restore the earth. The flying sequences are stunning, and have become Miyazaki's trademark. I have a copy that's letterboxed, in raw Japanese, and the raw copy is not always the best visual quality, and a subbed copy, as well as the awful dub; this film will blow viewers away in any incarnation.
Key the Metal Idol
A twist on Pinocchio as Key, an (apparent) android girl shunned by her human peers, learns that she can become human if she gets the admiration of 30,000 people. In Tokyo, the emotionless naive Key is taken under the wing of homegirl Sakura, a mercurial pizza driver/video clerk. They stumble onto a plot for one man to control dozens of robots at once, and a concert plot that gives a whole new meaning to "the starmaker machinery". Dubbed, plus a few episodes subbed. An altogether singular work, running about 8-1/2 hours in 15 installments, produced to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Pony Canyon Studio, written and directed by Hiroaki Sato.
Kimagure Orange Road: "I Want to Return to That Day"
Three teens caught in a romantic triangle. Did you ever wish that you had psychic powers, to explain things when words are too clumsy? Well, one of these teens is psychic, but that only compounds the problems. One of the most popular series ever, manga spawning movies, and television animation.
Kiki's Delivery Service
In September 1998, Disney finally released a dubbed version, the first in its commitment to dub a bunch of the Miyazaki masterpieces. This is a delightful fantasy as well as an object-lesson for adolescents. The title character is a 13-year-old witch who, according to tradition, has to leave home for a year and make it on her own. In doing so she and her black cat Jiji start a business delivering items (by flying broom), meet a teenaged artist who talks about the nature of talent, and rescue a boy from a dirigible accident. (The rescue makes Kiki a celebrity, and leads to a wonderful throwaway scene at the end, in which Kiki is window-shopping for something fancier than her black frock, while a mother walks by with her 3-year-old dressed like Kiki!) Based on a couple of children's books by Eiko Kadono. Kiki works out of a bakery with the name Guchiokipanya, which I translate as the "Wake Up Yer Mouth Bakery". Required viewing in whatever language.
Speaking of which, there already was an English dub of this film before Disney did theirs, and I suspect that there are enough similarities that indicate that Disney's people, notably Jack Fletcher, "borrowed" the earlier translation to a greater or lesser degree.
There's been a lot of talk in anime discussion groups about what scenes got cut from this one to keep it from meeting the legal definition of child pornography. Apart from the absurdity of the whole question, fans of Tarentino-style ultraviolence should find something of interest in this story of a sleazebag who recruits teenaged hitmen. The last scene is poignant and reminds us of what's valuable (in life and in anime), but that's about all that's special here. Directed by Yasuomi Umetsu.
Laputa (Castle in the Sky)
Miyazaki made this one after Nausicaa; before his Ghibli features, he directed the Mei Tantei Hoomuzu tv series, and its use of London bobbies as Keystone Kops carries over here. This one has more comic relief than Nausicaa, which helps balance a powerful and exciting story. Pazu, a young mechanic, has a girl drop in on him--literally, out of the sky. A mysterious crystal saves the girl, Sheeta, and gives them clues to her origins. In running from the army and a government agent with his own agenda, the children encounter Ma Dola and her pirate crew, get caught up in one of the best battle scenes (in any movie) and finally reach Laputa, which--let's just say it makes Myst look pedestrian. Funny, sad, exciting, moving, beautiful. Scheduled to be dubbed by Disney in 1999, pushed back to 2000, but not released to DVD until 2003 when "Spirited Away" won the Oscar. Disney actually brought Jo Hisaishi to the US to oversee supplemental scoring.
One of Rumiko Takahashi's brilliant horror stories. Two distant cousins are betrothed as children; he goes away to the city, forgets the engagement and gets interested in a classmate, while she comes into a psychic inheritance that makes it unwise to betray her affections.
Legend of Lemnear
An early teaming of Kinji Yoshimoto and Satoshi Urushihara. A lot of sword and sorcery we've seen a dozen times before, including the final sequence of Heavy Metal. This might be interesting for the beginning collector or for the Urushihara completist; otherwise, skip right to Plastic Little. Dubbed; more than a little nudity, and almost totally humorless.
Leo the Lion
The first color cartoon to be produced for Japanese television; another of the milestones of Dr. Tezuka--and I've got 25 of the 26 episodes. [Blame the missing episode on Pat Robertson, and thereby hangs a tale. I taped this series while it was running on Robertson's Family Channel, known at the time as the Christian Broadcasting Network. During one episode, the audio suddenly cut out, and was replaced by what sounded like the story of a football player telling how he was "born again". Rather than save the visual, I decided to wait for a refeed--which never came.] Still, this is an eloquent statement of Dr. Tezuka's philosophy--call it Buddhist humanism. Also known as "Kimba the White Lion" and based on Dr. Tezuka's "Janguru Taitei" ("Emperor of the Jungle") manga. Sounds like it was dubbed by the same guy who did "Princess Knight".
Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro
One of the first feature films directed by Hayao Miyazaki; his entry in the "Monkey Punch" sweepstakes is definitely more Ghibli than James Bond, as our hero tries to rescue a princess and track down a counterfeiter. Dubbed.
Lupin III: Golden Treasure of Babylon
The popular thief/hero of the manga by "Monkey Punch" gets involved with a Miss International Policewoman pageant in Paris and a hunt for buried treasure a la Indiana Jones. Some possibly racist images. In Japanese.
Macross: Do You Remember Love
This is essentially a feature version of the episodes of the Macross series that were shown in the west as Robotech. The only real difference here is that the movie restores what American tv cut out: Minmei's Obligatory Shower Scene during the "Zero-G Love" number. It was an audacious format: come up with a story line that would mix Star Wars with pop song idols.
Macross II: Lovers Again
A Nineties revival of the Macross ideas. This time around, a reporter named Hibiki becomes a space pilot battling the Mardukes. He manages to capture their priestess, Ishtar, who sings the Mardukes into battle. Of course, by the end of the movie, she changes her tune.
Macross Plus: The Movie
As opposed to the 4-part OAV which was edited down to a feature. And what a feature: a genuine feast for the eye, even if the plot is a bit bizarre, but the creators felt they had to keep up the Macross "tradition" of romantic triangles. In this case two test pilots (Earthling Isamu Dyson and Zentradi Guld Bowman) continue their boyhood rivalry to include Myung Fan Lone; the traumatic consequences cause Myung to abandon her singing career to be the programmer of virtual idol Sharon Apple. Directed by Shoji Kawamori, but the real stars are Sharon Apple and young composer Yoko Kanno; the score was one of her first efforts, and she truly made fans sit up and take notice. Subbed VHS.
Magic Knight Rayearth
Raw eps from the first and second series. Needless to say, wandering into the middle of this one without even subtitles is disorienting. The shojo manga company CLAMP gave birth to this story of three teenaged girls (who fortunately studies martial arts) who are summoned to another planet to do battle with evil. Generic plot and obligatory cuddly mascot; watch for the character designs and mecha battles, with more than occasional humor.
Magical Girl Pretty Sammy
What started as a Sailor Moon parody in the Tenchi Muyo Mihoshi Special OAV takes on a life of its own in 3 OAVs; it has since become a weekly TV series under the name Magical Project S. The OAVs are pleasant in their own right, and offer a parody of the magical girl genre as much as an homage to it.
We begin with the setup: the planet of Juraihelm has two sorceresses competing to be ruler. Tsunami (good) is actually a little dim, Ramia (evil) is ambitious, and they agree to have a proxy war between two magical girls living in Tokyo. Sasami (Tenchi's kid sister in this universe) is tapped by Tsunami to be Pretty Sammy; her introverted friend Misao is enlisted to be Pixy Misa. The first tape has Misa turn the still-feuding Aeka and Ryoko into monsters resembling Macy's Thanksgiving parade balloons(?).
2: Revenge of the Imperial Electronic Brain is actually a wicked send-up of a certain computer guy with a certain OS software that seeks to take over systems all over the world. He may be called Biff Standard and his competitor may be called Pineapple, but you get the idea. Sasami and Tenchi go to the Akihabara district of Tokyo to look for software that runs a karaoke program for Tenchi and Sasami's karaoke-addicted mother. Sasami finds that Biff has allied with Pixy Misa to destroy the planet; Pretty Sammy saves the day. (BTW, Pink Pineapple is a hentai anime studio.)
The third OAV has an asteroid land on the beach near where the crew is vacationing. It scrambles everyone's personalities. We get to see a human version of Ryo-Ohki. All 3 OAVs are dubbed.
An interesting dilemma. The title character was genetically engineered to survive in the post-apocalypse. But what happens to the ultimate warrior when peace finally comes? Lots of borrowing from Mad Max, "The Terminator" and "Apocalypse Now" (including a Colonel Krutz!) Very violent, with profanity and nudity.
Mei Tantei Hoomuzu
Six of the 26 episodes in Japanese of a 1984 series by Hayao Miyazaki in Japanese, no subtitles; other episodes translated into Engish as "Sherlock Hound". In this take on Sherlock Holmes, all the characters are dogs, and this London is more Edwardian than Victorian, but that just gives Miyazaki an excuse for his signature fantasy machines (usually used by Professor Moriarty). Most impressive of the raw six to me is "Thames River Monster", not for its pseudo-Godzilla but the emotional intensity of the characters.
An anthology film by Katsuhiro Otomo, but the first of the three parts is so magnificent that the others pale by comparison. "Magnetic Rose" (in Japanese "Madame's Wish") shows us space salvage operators on October 12, 2092 (600th anniversary of Christopher Columbus!?) blundering into an elaborate spaceship. They find that it was once the home of Eva, a prominent opera diva from the beginning of the 21st century. However, her ghost seems to have taken over the computer, and the audio and visual imagery preys on the visitors, especially on one who has reasons to want to live in a dream-world. The whole thing scans like the best "Twilight Zone" episode ever made. In contrast, "Stink Bomb" is one extended "silent-but-deadly" joke, while "Cannon Fodder" is a depressing day in the life of a nation that has come to take war for granted.
Rumiko Takahashi's approach to mermaids has nothing to do with Disney. She created a mythology in which eating the flesh of a mermaid confers immortality--if it doesn't kill you or turn you into a monster. This time the plot turns on a live mermaid and the dispute between two sisters.
Same horror-story material, but even scarier. Several immortal mermaid-eaters clash in this one, including a "child" who decides to change guardians in mid-stream.
Mimi wo Sumaseba (If You Listen Carefully)
A/k/a "Whisper of the Heart", this would seem to be an anomaly in the Ghibli canon: a movie totally grounded in real life in modern-day Tokyo. Its lead character is a 13-year-old girl (like so many Miyazaki heroines) trying to find her way in life. She has a talent for writing (she translates song lyrics for classmates, and the song "Country Roads" runs through this movie like a leitmotif.) That talent doesn't really kick in until she meets a boy who at first she doesn't like. Gradually, though, the magic of everyday life and the printed page come alive for her as she challenges herself to write something special for him. Most delightful sequence in this movie, or just about any other: she sings her "Country Roads" lyrics first accompanied by a solo violin, joined in the middle by a group of old men who add a Baroque consort back-up. Through it all, the heroine doesn't become a lovestruck bishoojo, but demands to be treated as an equal. Like all Miyazaki films, required viewing. Director Yoshifumi Kondo was a key animator for Ghibli; this was his first film at the helm, and his last, dying of an aneurysm in 1998.
This movie was nominated for Best Foreign Film. This movie was surpassed at the box office in Japan only by Titanic. This movie is the one Hayao Miyazaki reportedly chose to retire on (changing his mind later), and it sets the bar that all animation will have to meet in the 21st century. This movie also draws plots full circle from the Miyazaki canon, bringing this story into line with Nausicaa and Ponpoko in its clash of magic, nature and technology. Prince Ashitaka slays a wild boar-monster in 15th century Yamato. But the fight fatally infects his arm; he must journey incountry to find the origin of the monster as well as a cure. In doing so, he meets Miyazaki's ultimate heroine: San, a literally feral child. Amazing. As with Laputa above, Disney dubbed this one in 1999 (script reworked by American comics author Neil Gaiman) but went for a limited theatrical release before issuing the cassette. (In Chicago for a weekend? Stop by the Village Theater on North Avenue, near Old Town, where Mononoke has replaced The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a midnight feature.)
My Neighbor Totoro
At first this seems like a kids video along the lines of Pollyanna
or a Shirley Temple flick; telling about a child's life which is too good
to be true. Get past that, and you'll see that Hayao Miyazaki spins a story
set in a pastoral rural Japan earlier in the century that plugs right into
both the primal joys and primal anxieties of childhood. Nine-year-old Setsuko,
her kid sister Mei and their father, a university professor, move out to
the country to be near their mother, who's in a tuberculosis sanatorium
(as was Miyazaki's mother). While her precarious health hangs over the
children's lives, they find joy in exploring their new surroundings, both
the real (vegetables never looked so good) and the unreal: the title beast
lives near a giant camphor tree and, while he looks like one of Maurice
Sendak's Wild Things, is as comforting as Auntie Beast in Madeleine L'Engle's
"A Wrinkle In Time". Like those literary connections, this is a movie that
transcends age limits. Even the brief nudity (dad and the girls in the
same bathtub) is cozy and familial rather than sexual. Don't pass this