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A Fun Film
Yatterman is one of those films that is best appreciated by fans of the very funny animated television series. I can't give it more than a six for that reason, but I happen to be one of the show's veteran fans and would rate it much higher at a Yatter-convention. The story is about Gan Takada, a mechanically-inclined boy and Ai Kaminari, his cute cohort who, in the original 1977 television series and its 2008 reprise, do weekly battle against the forces of evil--namely a woman named Doronjo and her two male cohorts, Boyacky and Tonzler. Behind the scenes on the evil side, there's an unseen character named Dokurobe who sends the trio through time and space on a quest for items which, if assembled, will allow him his dream of ultimate power. Each side pits a humorous array of robots and mechanisms against each other. Besides the obvious improvements in animation technology over the last thirty years, there are other differences between the two series. Gan is lazier in the new series, Ai is more possessive, and Doronjo's outfit is sexier. However, I still prefer the original series--and I'm not alone. Doronjo is the main difference. She was a much more likable character in the '70s version--and I have to admit she was one of the draws that kept me coming back to the TV every week. Takashi Miike did his best to follow the original series and, in doing so, kept the target demographic in the teen to adult range. Miike made Donojo a very likable character--and the drop-dead gorgeous Kyoko Fukada fills that character--and (you've got to see it to believe it) costume--very well. Miike also restored Boyacky to a pathetic genius with an unrequited crush on a Doronjo who plays him like a fiddle. He also restored Gan to status of willing hero and lowered Ai's maintenance level a notch. He also restored the '70s Yatter-policy of not providing real names of people or places. In this movie, for example, they travel to Ogypt and the Southern Halps. All in all, it's a fun movie and is worth seeing if it passes through your town or your video rental store.

Gake no ue no Ponyo

Another Classic Miyazaki
Whenever Hayao Miyazaki does the "tri-fecta," (writes, directs, and animates a movie) he makes a classic film for the ages. He has done it again with Gake no ue no Ponyo.

The story is about a girl fish who is kept on a very tight leash along with her younger sisters by her father, a bitter ex-human wizard named Fujimoto. The fish escapes from her father and rides a jellyfish to shore, where she is caught up in a dredging operation and finds herself stuck in a bottle. This underwater sequence must be one of the most elaborately drawn animated scenes ever undertaken and stands on its own as a reason to search out the theatrical release. Miyazaki, who shows no fear of having a busy scene, has outdone himself. There were literally hundreds of individually-drawn sea creatures of every imaginable size all in motion at the same time.

When the fish escapes the dredging operation while still trapped in the bottle, a five-year old boy named Sousuke spots her in the water and is able to break the bottle, saving her. Since she is the result of her father's magic, she is capable of magic herself--and her father actively tries to retrieve her. The boy names the fish Ponyo. Just when Sousuke learns that Ponyo can speak, her father successfully retrieves her back into captivity.

After a war of wills with her father, Ponyo manages to escape again with the ability to change herself into a human. She meets up again with Sousuke in a storm and the story continues from there in many interesting ways. There is a cuteness factor in this film rivaling and arguably surpassing that of Tonari no Totoro. Joe Hisaishi, once again, provided outstanding musical support.

The story itself is simple--as are Miyazaki's films in general--and should appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers. While I haven't viewed it enough to be sure, the film doesn't seem to be one which will keep scholars in long discussions as Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi did. Nonetheless, this is the ultimate feel-good entertainment movie. I gave the movie a ten out of ten rating.


A Very Funny Series
The Bad Guys run a scam on unsuspecting customers when the Good Guys happen upon the scene. Surreptitiously, the two heroes listen in on orders from the villains' high boss, who tells the gang to go to a place and time where they can steal part of a special stone. The Bad Guys escape the angry customers in a new robotic vehicle and the Good Guys follow on their heels with a robotic vehicle of their own. The Two sides then do battle through surrogate tiny robots under their control. The Bad Guys get blown up and are forced to escape in a bicycle built for three.

Even though every episode follows that same pattern, this 1977 animated television series is still hilarious. The "bad guys," called the Dorombo gang, consisted of villainess Doronjo and her two male cohorts, Boyakki and Tonsler. Doronjo, the leader of the gang, is a bit over the top in her dress, resembling a dominatrix. Boyakki is a geek who devises the various mechanisms they travel in and fight with. Tonsler is the muscles of the group. The three took their orders from a remote and unseen ultra-villain named Dokurobe--sort of like Charley in Charley's Angels. Gan, a teenage boy, is Yatterman Number 1 and Ai, a girl, is Yatterman number two. Over the course of the series, they had a few different robotic vehicles (Mecha), the most prominent being "Yatter-Wan," a dog mecha. "Wan" is Japanese for "Woof."

Lately, Yatterman has returned with a vengeance--as a new animated series on television and as a live-action movie to be released in the near future. While the story lines in this new series all follow the same 1977 pattern, the characters are slightly different. The chemistry between Gan and Ai is better in the new series, but the characters on the Dorombo Gang side are less dimensional.

Land of the Blind

Captivating yet Disturbing View of Power
I have always had a certain fascination for stories which indict the abuse of power in the name of the state. After I saw this film the first time, I couldn't stop thinking about it. It had all the disturbing characteristics of an Orwellian novel, but it was not as relentlessly depressing. I believe the screenwriter was holding out the hope that the people will "get" the story.

In this film, a mythical country is beset by an endless array of despots. These despots show character traits mankind has witnessed in real life, such as Pol Pot, Mussolini, Louis XVI/Marie Antoinette, Peron, Ayatollah Khoumeni, and Kim Jong Il. In this "land of the blind," the people are more interested in popular culture than the suffering of mankind at the hands of the despots. As a result, they elect movie stars to represent them in what becomes clear as a sham system.

Those people who are politically motivated and want to see a parallel between the nasty people who are leading the poor nation in the story to ruin and the current world leaders are, in my opinion, completely missing the point. In the first place, the title of this film should provide a clue. In a "land of the blind," just about anybody could arise to a position of power because the "blind" are too easily led.

In this film, there is a heavy reliance on imagery and metaphor. The main repetitive image is that of an elephant. In the movie, the parable of the blind men and the elephant is brought out and that, in my opinion, is what this film is all about. New governments can provide their side of the story--the elephant--to the blind public by steering them to the desired part of the anatomy.

Donald Sutherland, playing a character aptly named Thorn, is one of the best casting choices ever made. You'll need to see this film to understand what I'm talking about. I gave this a nine rating out of ten.

Jarinko Chie

Very Entertaining Vignette of Japanese Life
Jarinko Chie (Chie the Brat) is the movie version of a long-running Japanese comic strip. I found the film to be very entertaining and well up to the quality of story one would expect from the great director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko, Only Yesterday). I've never seen or read the original comic, but the character development aspect of this film stands alone and ensures enjoyment whether or not one can find the comic.

Chieko (Chie) is a young girl, in second or third grade in elementary school, who lives with her divorced father in a small bar/eatery somewhere in the Osaka area in western Japan. As young as she is, she's quite capable of fending for herself and running the eatery--as her father, Tetsu, is lazy and a bit of a scoundrel.

There are several concurrently-running plots in this tale. First is the relationship between Chie and her father. Outwardly, she is in open rebellion against him. She does love him, however, and stands up for him when she must. Next is the relationship between Chie's parents. The divorced mom, Yoshie, is still in her life. It's plain that her father can't stand being around his former wife, even when she moves in again. Another plot involves her father, Chie's newfound stray cat, and some local gangsters. Chie's cat gets into a fight with the gang leader's cat and beats him handily. The consequences of this battle are profound.

While the plots are separate, they all serve to flesh out the fascinating and completely likable characters. You get to know and like everybody in the story--including the gangsters. This story isn't very deep, but it is very satisfying and easy to get fully engrossed in. I gave this film an 8 out of 10.

Arashi no yoru ni

Beautifully Rendered Fable
'Arashi no yoru ni' is a beautifully rendered animated film. It's a modern fable about wolf and a goat who overcome their natural enmity and become the best of friends.

On a stormy night, (the English translation of the title) Mei, a goat, and Gabu, a wolf, seek temporary shelter in the same barn. The inside of the barn is too dark for them to see each other. Mei thinks Gabu is a goat and, conversely, Gabu thinks Mei is a wolf. They strike up a friendly conversation and find they have very much in common. They agree to meet for lunch the next day at the same place. When they do meet in the light of day, the truth of the matter becomes mutually apparent. Instead of letting their instincts take over, they have a laugh about the mistake and agree to go to lunch together anyway.

As animation goes, this is a top-notch production. The backgrounds are colorful and detailed. More remarkable, the moving foregrounds are also detailed and rendered with subtle shades. As a story goes, it is a better than average presentation of the "your enemy isn't so bad if you get to know him" theme. There is a slight problem with the scenario, however.

Whenever the two meet, they tend to show great interest in each other. It's an attempt, within the short time constraints of the film, to depict how a strong friendship can develop between traditional enemies. From a child's-eye view, the connection between the two can be seen at face value--the two become good friends. From the perspective of a more jaundiced adult, the friendship seemed to me to have an unintended layer of sexuality. For me, it got in the way of the story.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent effort well worth watching. Presently, it is available on DVD in Japan without English subtitles. Keep your eye out for a US release of a film entitled something like, "On a Stormy Night." I give this film a 7.

Gedo senki

Surprisingly Good Film!
This is a surprisingly good film--and I'm not making the expected follow-on disclaimer, "...for a beginning director." This was a good film by anybody's standard.

Gedo Senki, or Tales from Earthsea, seems to be one episode of a series of tales where Ged (Gedo) is the central character. This 'episode,' then, would be about his encounters with a seventeen-year old prince, named Arren, and a mysterious young girl, named Therru. It's based on Ursula K LeGuin's Earthsea series which I must admit I have not read. I hope the film kept to the spirit of the original story and the author is pleased with the Ghibli presentation.

As the story breaks out, there are strange things happening. People seem to be lost in their purpose and dragon sightings are being reported. After a meeting between the King and his ministers on the topic, Arren, the King's son, assassinates his father and steals his sword. The first thing that hit my mind when watching the opening sequence was the somewhat low resolution background--most uncharacteristic for Ghibli films, which tend to be spectacular in color and detail. The color was there, but the detail looked like a watercolor in some images and paint by numbers in others. The foreground characters were slightly less detailed than what Hayao Miyazaki might have done, but they were not as distracting as the background.

At this point, Ged, who travels under the name Haitaka (the Japanese spelling of the name) encounters Arren in a battle with wolves. Arren seems possessed, and it takes a little time for Ged to calm him down. The voice actor for Ged is Bunta Sugawara, the gravelly-sounding voice of Kamajii in Spirited Away. The voice gives him the air of experience, age, and wisdom. While acted well, Bunta's voice seems a little on the old side for the character on the screen, who appears to be around forty.

The pair goes to a city where Arren chances across Therru as she is trying to escape some nasty soldiers. Therru is a completely fascinating character--and easily the best in the story. She is gentle, but very strong willed. When Arren saves her, she turns on him. They meet later coincidentally and she resumes her hostility toward him. It takes a while for her to warm up to him. When she finally does so, she becomes fiercely loyal to him.

The story develops nicely from there, though I can see it might not be fast enough for those who like lots of action all the time. Tales from Earthsea has some irretrievably evil characters, so the director's father, the great Hayao Miyazaki, would have rewritten the story and likely would have faced the ire of the original author.

Take a bow, Goro; you did good. I give this a nine out of ten rating.

Nihon chinbotsu

A Poor Remake
Nihon Chinbotsu is a science fiction story set in the near future. In this story, geologists discover that all of Japan is being sucked under the ocean by plate tectonics. It covers the ongoing disaster from the perspective of several people directly affected by the events, from ordinary people to scientists, rescue workers, and political leaders.

This movie is a remake of a 1973 film of the same title and, in many ways, is a major rewrite. While an excellent premise based loosely upon actual plate tectonics, the elements of social shock which were central to the original film are totally absent from this try, replacing the original message-laden content with Godzilla-style entertainment.

If there's any single impression one can get from a side-by-side comparison of the two films, it's just how far special effects have come over the last 30-odd years. Nonetheless, special effects alone cannot make a great film. I gave this a five out of ten rating.

Yanagawa horiwari monogatari

A Powerful Environmental Message
I bought the DVD of this film when I noticed it was a collaboration between two of Japan's giants of animation: Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. I was not disappointed. This documentary originally aired on NHK, the Japanese public television network, in 1988. Technically, I need to issue a spoiler warning as it discusses the outcome, but it shouldn't ruin the first viewing experience if this is read beforehand.

Yanagawa is a city in far western Japan with an incredibly complex system of canals and waterways hundreds of years old. As it is in many places in the developed world, Yanagawa had succumbed to the allure of modernization. As a result, its system of waterways gradually fell into disuse and neglect. The canals stagnated and became overgrown with plant life. Eventually the neglect became abuse as a convenient dump for those unneeded trappings of modernization, such as electrical appliances. The people of the city got fed up with the assault on the senses and set out to cover them over.

The mayor assigned an engineer to study the task at hand. Instead of coming up with a plan to cover the waterways over, however, the engineer had a different idea: he proposed the waterways be revived to their full historic splendor. It was a hard sell, but he eventually managed to get the town enthusiastic. Now, the entire town devotes considerable time and effort keeping the canals clean and viable. There's even an annual festival where the canals are drained and cleaned out. The payback, though, has been phenomenal. The city is now a tourist spot, drawing visitors from around the country when the canals are open and volunteers when they're being cleaned. The people now have beautiful canals and a sense of unity and civic pride.

This documentary was thoroughly fascinating. It described the mechanics of feudal Japanese waterway construction in simple terms. It documented the extraordinary efforts the engineer took to sell his idea to the town. Most importantly, it provided a convincing argument that not all things modern are necessarily improvements over the old ways. Even if the work is harder, the rewards can be far greater. I give it a ten.

Hoshi wo katta hi

Worth the Trip to Japan Just to See This
If it's a stretch to say this film alone is worth the price of a ticket to Japan, it's not a long stretch. "Hoshi wo Katta Hi" is one of the finest short animated films ever made. Unfortunately, unless you visit the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka in Western Tokyo, you will not be able to see it on the screen--or on a video--any time in the foreseeable future.

The story was written by Naohisa Inoue, the person who created the fantastical world seen in another Ghibli film, "Whisper of the Heart." It is about a boy named Nona, a city dweller who is presently living in the countryside with a mysterious woman named Nigna. While taking a cartload of very large turnips to market, he meets a pair of characters who offer to trade a gem for his produce. He takes the gem back home, plants it in a pot, and soon a tiny planet emerges. He tends to the planet and, after a few days' time, there are three moons orbiting it and life is springs forth. Soon, he is forced to return to the city and leaves the care of the planet in Nigna's hands. Subsequently, he is visited by the same characters who traded the gem. They have one final task for him...

Everything about this film is right--except it could have been a feature-length movie. It is a complete story, well written, and animated with all the attention to detail and gorgeous imagery that are hallmarks of the master. I wish Miyazaki would relent on his policy never to show his museum works outside the museum and send it to the Academy for Oscar consideration. The world needs to see it.

Sekai no chûshin de, ai o sakebu

A Memorable Romance
As a rule, I avoid romance tales and this one was nearly no exception. I didn't see it in the theaters when it was out last year, even though friends recommended it. Just by chance, I rented the DVD. It is available in Japan with English subtitles. Now, after several days, I can't stop thinking about it.

Sakutaro is a man in his mid-thirties about to marry Ritsuko, a woman in her late twenties. While getting ready to move, Ritsuko encounters an old audio cassette tape she forgot she had. Though she knew what the tape was, she had never heard it. After locating a store that still sells audio cassette players, she listens to it for the first time. It takes her on a pilgrimage to her (and Sakutaro's) childhood home town. She leaves a message telling him that she's going away for a while.

By chance, Sakutaro learns where Ritsuko went and he goes there. He finds himself on a pilgrimage of his own.

I can't proceed much further, but it can be said that this is not a frivolous love story. I deals with the permanence of love in a most touching and original way. I really hope this film finds its way out of Japan. I gave this movie an eight out of ten.

The Grudge

The Japanese Version's Not Good Enough?
If one wishes to compare the believability of the existence of vengeful spirits from beyond the grave to the believability of that many Americans somehow existing in such a purely Japanese environment, I'll take the ghosts any day.

Hollywood has always felt that an American face in a Japanese crowd would assure financial success in the American box office. In this case, the producers of _The Grudge_ apparently decided that many American faces would make the product many times more successful. I just didn't work. If they were that insistent on a large American cast, I think the producers would have had a far better product had they remade the film in America. After all, it worked for _The Ring_.

If you can get past that major credibility issue, _The Grudge_ is a pretty good tale. It weaves together the better segments of the tele-play and theatrical versions of _Juon_, a spooky Japanese tale about a murder in the past and all the subsequent people who were connected with the place where it happened. I gave this film a six out of ten rating.

The Hustler

The Definitive Movie About Pool
This is, without a doubt, the closest anything out of Hollywood ever came to touching the soul of a pool player. Paul Newman plays "Fast Eddie" Felson, a young player from California who travels east to take on the ultimate challenge: to beat "Minnesota Fats," played by the late Jackie Gleason.

Willie Mosconi, probably the greatest pool player who ever walked the Earth, was technical adviser and choreographed many of the game sequences. On technical merit alone, this film is a pool player's classic. Beyond that, however, the way "Fast Eddie" takes to his skills and relationships pushes this film out as a classic for the general audience. In one scene, he is describing what it is like to be really good at something. It is one of the best speeches about excellence I have ever heard. This is one of my top three films. On a scale of ten, I give it an eleven.

Hauru no ugoku shiro

Enjoyable but Unimaginative
First of all, I'd like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of this film and intend to see it several more times. On a technical level, Miyazaki has elevated the traditional 2-D animated film above the cheesier but more realistic 3-D Computer-generated works that seem to prevail everywhere else. Whether he used computers to simulate the 2-D look is beyond my current knowledge, but I applaud his attempt to abandon the technique that even crept into his previous work, _Spirited Away_.

The film is *very* loosely based on the original novel. In fact, only the basic premise and the main characters seem to have survived Miyazaki's scalpel. As a story, it is unimaginative and trite. Furthermore, the characters lacked depth. Unlike he did with _Kiki's Delivery Service_, Miyazaki failed to improve upon the original work.

All is forgiven, though. This is one-hundred percent pure uncut Miyazaki. I was left with the impression that he was going to have fun with a project, this was the project, and he had a great deal of fun with it. Joe Hisaishi, once again, provided excellent musical support. I gave this film an 8.

The Incredibles

The Incredibles are Incredibly Credible
This is an absolute gem of a film. John Lasseter and crew totally upended the superhero paradigm and replaced it with something far more entertaining with depth and, oddly, a strange credibility that made me feel the Incredible family was actually pretty credible. All of the family members have individual strengths and weaknesses, they bicker and quarrel a lot, yet they ultimately love each other--and you feel it all in this film.

In the periphery, there were numerous supporting characters with decidedly less dimensionality, yet there wasn't a trite character in the lot. They were quirky in new and interesting ways.

To be fair, this is no romp-in-the-park light-hearted film like Toy Story or Nemo. This film is a bit darker and more violent than other Pixar films, but it is one of the best--if not the best--of the lot. I gave this film an easy 10.

Lost in Translation

Lost Without Translation
As an American who travels to Japan frequently, I found this film parochially American. I also found it offensive.

The parochial part is the fact that the Japanese dialog is presented without subtitles. It is, of course, intended to convey the notion of a totally bewildering environment for the main characters. Unfortunately for the film, I understood the Japanese dialog almost perfectly--as do millions of Japanese, so I cannot feel that sense of bewilderment.

It's offensive to the Japanese. There is one scene in the film--at a hospital--that would never happen in Japan. No hospital--I don't care how tiny--would persist on speaking pure Japanese if they sensed the patient did not understand. They would do their best to speak understandably or find someone who can, and English speakers abound in hospitals.

Another offensive part is the notion that Hollywood is trying to present its own morality as somehow acceptable and even majestic. The principle character, a washed-up actor older than dirt, finds a normal monogamous marriage somehow draining enough to be attracted to a female child (in her very early twenties) while on a business trip away. Sorry, it may be a normal reaction for an older man to be so attracted--but it hardly qualifies at any sympathetic level. This female child, also in a monogamous married relationship and similarly drained, finds this geezer somehow appealing enough to approach him in a manner that is hard to confuse with anything but a come-on.

I'm not going to go into how far the relationship develops, but it can safely be put into the unfaithful category as far as their spouses are concerned. I would recommend viewing it--barely. I gave this film a 6 out of ten.

The Last Samurai

Check Your History at the Door and Enjoy!
Overall, I liked the Last Samurai--as a story. As a representative piece of Japanese history, though, I'm sure there are plenty of purists out there holding their noses.

Hollywood has this real penchant for producing historical figures who are uncharacteristically 21st Century Politically Correct for whatever era they live in. Tom Cruise is no exception in this film. He, with conventional wisdom no older than forty years, had no respect for Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer or his tactics. A genuine military contemporary of Custer, however, would realize he was the youngest US officer to reach the grade of Brigadier General during the Civil War. He didn't reach that rank for having a good filing system.

What about the premise of the film? Tom Cruise, a has-been hero from the wild west, is hired to help develop Japan's new modern Army. How does being an individually brave person who can handle a weapon and ride like a trick shot artists translate into being an organizer and trainer of an entire army? Had such a person demonstrated all those skills in military service, he would have been promoted like Custer was.

Beyond that, it's hard to believe his purpose for being in Japan: building the Army. The film seems to imply it is for fighting an internal rebellion. Sure, there have been people like Katsumoto in the film known to operate briefly even in modern times (Noted author Yukio Mishima, who committed seppuku about 35 years ago, is a recent example of such a person). Nonetheless, they haven't been a serious threat to Japan's order since the early shoguns a couple of hundred years prior to the Meiji era. Japan developed a modern army, all right, but the purpose was external--there were issues with the Chinese and the Russians.

I think the intent here was to turn the tables for the character in the film. He went from fighting on the side with the guns against the side with the bows and arrows to the opposite situation. In that respect, the film succeeds. The characters had depth and the story was fascinating. Unlike many American films with Japanese themes, I would have no problem recommending this film to a Japanese--provided he doesn't take history too seriously. I gave the film a seven.

Junkers Come Here

The Emotional Ride of the Year
After having turned into a Ghibli addict a few years ago, I have been a difficult person to impress. I am greatly impressed. Junkers Come Here is a jewel of a story that took me for the emotional ride of the year.

The central character in the story is eleven-year-old Hiromi Nozawa. Her parents are successful professionals who love their daughter, but have little time for her--or for each other. They had been drifting apart over the previous few years and were on the verge of divorce. She has a pet Schnauser, Junkers (pronounced Yoonkers), who has the ability to speak and, as we learn, the ability to grant three wishes.

Rounding out the central list of characters is the family's maid, Fumie, and a level-headed college student, Keisuke, who tutors Hiromi in return for room and board.

Hiromi desperately wants to maintain a normal family, but had long since given up the idea that she and her parents would do something together. When her mother casually hints that she and her husband might get a divorce, she is devastated. She doesn't want to show it, though, as she didn't want to be the source of unhappiness.

Junkers, who speaks only with Hiromi, offers to grant three wishes. Are Junkers gifts all part of Hiromi's imagination? Are they real? Get the DVD and find out. I give this a ten out of ten rating.

Neko no ongaeshi

A Slight Disappointment
Though the great Hayao Miyazaki's name is at the top of the bill in the new animated Ghibli release, "Neko no Ongaeshi" (The Cat Returns), he played little part in it. Unfortunately, it shows.

The story is set in the real present-day world. A high school girl, Haru Yoshioka, lives with her single, slightly Bohemian mother. She's not the most attractive, graceful, or popular girl in school, so she's not altogether satisfied with her life. One day, Haru eyes a cat with a small box in its mouth attempting to cross a busy street. The cat fumbles the package in the middle of the street and a truck is bearing down rapidly. Haru grabs her friend's Lacrosse stick and manages to scoop the cat away to safety at the last second and saves its life. The cat then gets up on its hind legs, brushes itself off, and thanks her very politely.

This being the real world, she is of course stunned by the cat's actions. Later that evening, the King of the cats (who, it turns out, is the father of the cat she saved) shows up in a feline motorcade replete with vassals, maidens, and Secret Service Cats. She gets invited to the kingdom of the cats and, not being too happy with her life, she is tempted into going there.

Up to this point, the movie is flawless. The artwork is great, the characters develop well, and cat lovers would eat it up. When she gets to the kingdom of the cats, however, things turn south for both the main character and for the audience. The story becomes increasingly contrived-even for a fantasy. It was like there was a shift change at Ghibli and the inexperienced night crew took over to finish up the film.

The official western title for this movie is "The Cat Returns," though the translation of the title would be "The Cats' Returned Favor." It is likely called that because the cat hero of the story, The Baron, was in another Ghibli film, "Whisper of the Heart." Until recently, it was showing in Japan with a short feature entitled, "Ghiblis - Episode 2." Hopefully, the short will be excised from the bill when it gets sent abroad--it is a stinker.

Overall, the film was quite good, but it was a relative disappointment after seeing "Spirited Away." It should make it to the states within a year. Because it describes a far more western-oriented culture than other Miyazaki films, it might find new fans over here. I give it an eight out of ten.

Kurenai no buta

It's a Miyazaki Ghibli... What else is there to say?
If somebody were to start up an all-Ghibli network on television, I'd leave the set on that channel unless I heard a nuclear attack siren. Kurenai no Buta is one of those films that could fill up much of the schedule, as I could watch it over and over again.

Set in Fascist Italy in the late twenties, the story is about a cursed WWI Italian fighter pilot, Porco Rosso, doomed to live out his life in the form of a pig. He spends his leisure hours basking on his secluded private beach with his bright red monoplane. He makes his living by tangling with air pirates, collecting rewards for recovery of valuables.

Porco Rosso has a lot to deal with in this story. He has the pirates to contend with, a swashbuckling American mercenary looking for a good dogfight, an increasingly intrusive Fascist presence eyeing his activities, a finicky airplane, and two women in love with him. Other than the vaguely appearing Fascists, there are no real villains in the film.

Mamma Aiuto is a heavy-set bearded chap, somewhat reminiscent of Bluto in the Popeye cartoons. He and his gang of bungling pirates have honor, if not exactly fastidious bathing habits.

Donald Curtis, an American mercenary, seems driven to glory and fame-and falls in love with every pretty face he sees. He's after notoriety and feels an air duel with Porco Rosso is the ticket to get there.

Gina, Porco's childhood sweetheart, runs a popular island resort. She's still in love with him, but he doesn't quite get it. All the pilots of the Adriatic love Gina, who was married and widowed thrice. Donald Curtis is right in there with everyone else vying for her attention.

Fio Piccolo, a 17-year old American aeronautical engineer, is commissioned by a reluctant Porco to fix his plane. She also falls in love with him as she gradually sees his character. He gets it, but he's not really interested in that kind of arrangement--especially with one so young.

A working, radio-controlled scale model of his plane hangs in the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan, along with photos of it in flight as proof that the airplane depicted in the film actually could fly.

This story weaves together beautifully and leads to an ending that is a topic of discussion among those who have seen it. This is a must-see film. I give it an easy 10.

The Master of Disguise

The Trailers were Funnier than the Film.
As I was leaving the theater, I overheard one 12-year old tell another, "that was a dumb movie." About the only laughter I heard during the showing of this so-called comedy were toddlers responding to Brent Spiner's flatulence. If you haven't seen it yet, it's probably best you keep it that way. I gave it a '1' because I couldn't find the zero button.

Mimi wo sumaseba

A Beautiful Film
Mimi wo Sumaseba, (English title Whisper of the Heart) is a rich and wonderful film, worthy seeing again and again (and again). It's a reality-based love story between two bright middle-school students. Shizuku, 14, lives with her elder sister and parents in a typical apartment. She really enjoys reading and, as the film begins, she is working on a school project to translate the words to John Denver's song, Country Road. Seiji, 15, lives with his parents, but we see him only at his maternal grandfather's place-where he is studying to become a violin maker. The story is based around how they meet, how their relationship develops, and how Shizuku challenges herself to embark on a major writing project entitled Mimi wo Sumaseba. Along the way, we meet some very memorable characters-including an indifferent and overweight stray cat that seems to be pulling everyone together. Japan saw more of that cat last year, as he reappeared in Neko no Ongaeshi.

As is true for most of the films from Studio Ghibli, the artwork of this film is superb. The night scenes in the city, the flies dancing in the fluorescent lighting, and the startlingly realistic clutter of a typical urban Japanese family residence all are depicted in the first few minutes of the film-and the images don't let up all the way to the closing credits. While many viewers might see the film as near-perfect and give it a 10, I give this film a 9 out of 10 rating because I'm a guy and I don't like my tear ducts filling up with joy more than once in a film. I'll probably raise that to 10 after another viewing.

Hotaru no haka

A Very Important Animated Film
Hotaru no Haka ('Grave of the Fireflies') is arguably the most important animated film ever made. One thing is a near-guarantee: after seeing this film, you will be in a different state of mind. The setting is Japan, shortly before the conclusion of the Pacific War (WWII), when the US initiated the incendiary bombardment of Japanese cities. Though not as well known as the Atomic events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the death and destruction caused by the incendiary devices against Japan's major cities was actually far greater. This is a story of two young sibling children caught up in the events, winding up orphaned and without a place to live. They must find a way to survive without the luxury of adult care, because the adults are also desperately trying to find a way to survive. There is really no way of discussing plot or even the point of view of this film without revealing too much. All I can say, with emphatic voice, is 'SEE IT.'

'Grave of the Fireflies' is available everywhere in video rental stores. The only version I know is subtitled, so my usual admonition against a dubbed version doesn't apply. I give this film a 10 out of 10 rating.

Majo no takkyûbin

Another Miyazaki Masterpiece
By the time the title credits and music have concluded, Hayao Miyazaki has gently transported you into an alternate reality where witches and nearly a century of this-worldly anachronisms coexist. In this alternate reality, witches are productive members of society and use their magical skills in a variety of enterprises. They are neither evil nor feared. In order to hone their crafts, witches need to spend a year of internship away from their families when they reach the age of thirteen.

Kiki, the central character of the story, has just turned thirteen and sets out with her black cat, Jiji, to find a place to live. We find out pretty quickly that she doesn't really have any magical skills other than flying, and even at that she's not very good.

With this preliminary out of the way, the rest of the story is a fascinating account of a person learning how to fit in to a bewilderingly new environment. Any kid who has ever had to change schools or neighborhoods, any fresh graduate who has had to enter the workforce, or any experienced worker who has had to change jobs can empathize with what Kiki was going through.

Even though the setting resembles something European, the characters are clearly Japanese in their general demeanor. This causes a serious problem for those who rely on dubbed versions, as normal Japanese conversation will sound sickeningly saccharine when translated into English. If ever there was a case for watching the Japanese language version with subtitles, this is it. I give this a 9 out of 10 rating.

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi

Miyazaki's Best Yet!!
Here's an easy one: If you come across a shop with a sumptuous spread of food and the proprietor is not in sight, do you: (a.) Start eating the food with the intent of settling later, or (b.) abstain from eating--regardless of the temptation--because it was wrong. In the film, two out of three respondents answered (a.) and were transformed into what they behaved as: pigs. Such starts out Hayao Miyazaki's finest work to date, "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi." ("Spirited Away" in US theaters) This is the finest animated film I have ever seen and is near the top of my list of films of any genre.

The main character of the story, a 10-year old girl named Chihiro Ogino, is a normal child thrust by her parents into a strange world and is immediately left to fend for herself--as she was the one out of three who chose the correct course of action by not eating the food. Throughout the remainder of this beautiful film, she is faced with numerous choices--each crafted by Miyazaki to emphasize the importance of living a virtuous life. While the specific cases use things from Japanese folklore, traditions, and culture (and Miyazaki's incredible imagination), the fundamental virtues apply Universally to all.

One admonition: the English-dubbed version, though touted as being true to the original, actually changes the nature of the film slightly.

The original Japanese language release, subtitled if necessary, is a truer rendition of Miyazaki's imagination.

On a scale of ten, I'd give this one an 11.

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