Friday, January 12, 2018

Only Yesterday

(1991) Written and directed by Isao Takahata; Based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuko Tone; Starring: Miki Imai, Toshirô Yanagiba, Yoko Honna and Mayumi Izuka; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“To be a butterfly, a caterpillar has to become a chrysalis first, even if it never for a moment wanted to become one. Was I remembering these days so clearly because I needed to become a chrysalis again?” – Taeko (Mimi Imai)

“Live action films are so commonplace these days, they’ve become part of reality. I don’t think audiences ‘watch’ live action features carefully. But in animation, they’re forced to because it’s drawn out. It reflects more solid reality than what actually is. That’s what we do! It makes people realize. I believe animation provides such opportunities.” – Isao Takahata (from making of documentary)

Only Yesterday was released back in 1991, but didn’t see a release in the U.S. until a couple of years ago. Without commenting on the quality (okay, it’s an exceptional film), it’s easy to see why this introspective drama didn’t make it to our shores sooner. There’s nothing flashy or fantastical about the subject matter or the film’s protagonist. It’s about an ordinary person in a mundane existence, on a quest for meaning and fulfillment. Her primary conflict doesn’t exist with other characters but within herself. Hayao Miyazaki initially considered creating a film based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuko Tone, but felt he couldn’t quite bring it to life. Miyazaki decided to produce the film version instead, offering his colleague/business partner/rival Isao Takahata the opportunity to direct. It’s a simple story, told with a level of complexity and care that few animators could handle as deftly.

After breaking off her engagement, Taeko decides to take a vacation in the country, far from the pressures of her big city life. She returns to the same sort of bucolic setting that’s brought her comfort in the past, working on a farm. This time around, she arrives in Yamagata Prefecture to work on a safflower farm. But is farm work nothing but a lark, a mere diversion from her humdrum urban existence, or what she was meant to do?

The story shifts back and forth between the past and present, as 27-year-old Taeko unwittingly takes her 10-year-old self along for the trip. Even if the ramifications aren’t entirely clear, it’s apparent that 1966 was a pivotal year for her. Like turning pages in a book, the scenes gradually reveal a little bit more. Taeko questions why she keeps revisiting her past, but it becomes apparent her younger self is there to call attention to something that’s eluded her. Amidst heartbreak and disappointment, we live with our past selves. Our early experiences, positive and negative, shape whom we were and define the person we will become. Takahata encapsulates how the disapproval of an adult can be devastating to a child. As children, we place tremendous weight on what our role models say and do (i.e., her parents failing to recognize her unique talents, or her teacher’s indignation because she ad-libbed in a classroom play). The film also captures the arbitrary nature of parents’ decisions, and their hurtful consequences, as experienced through the eyes of a child. Viewed via the perspective of her younger self, Taeko experiences her checkered history with boys, and how her fear of connection closed off opportunities for meaningful relationships. Her experiences carry over to her present-day fear of having a romantic relationship with Toshio, a young farmer. Until the final scene, we’re not sure how this is going to play out. Is she doomed to be a prisoner of her fears, or will she benefit from the lessons of her past?

Why did Takahata choose to animate* such a seemingly ordinary story? Animation affords filmmakers unprecedented freedom to express their unique stories with a virtually boundless canvas. There is a crystalized intentionality in animated films that’s difficult, if impossible to duplicate in live action films. One thing I remind myself when I watch animated films, is that everything onscreen exists because someone wanted it there. There is nothing extraneous in Only Yesterday. Everything has a place and a purpose. We feel the immediacy of Taeko’s dilemma, and for that reason, we’re more invested in the outcome. There’s a hyper-realism in the details, as in the film’s depiction of the painstaking process of harvesting the flowers, allowing the petals to ferment, and extracting the dye, which is used for fabric and rouge. Seemingly insignificant moments have a serene, contemplative quality, rendered with meticulous attention to detail, such as a tiny frog hopping among the safflowers.

* Fun Fact: According to the making-of documentary, the animators used 370 different colors of pigment for the film, 10 times the amount typically used in television anime productions.

Only Yesterday caters to Takahata’s strengths, as a master of balancing bittersweet elements in equal measures – depictions of family life that was neither oppressive, nor idyllic, capturing the sadness and joy of youth. The film takes its good old time telling the story, but it’s never dull. There’s so much life in every frame that engages our intellect and our emotions. Takahata encourages us to work with his film, not as a passive observer but as an active participant. As Taeko confronts her memories of her 10-year-old self, you might be prompted to re-examine your own childhood experiences. Only Yesterday lives in the quiet, reflective moments. In many ways it’s the antithesis to the big, bombastic American tradition of animated films of the past few decades. There are no crazy action scenes, wildly eccentric characters, goofy sidekicks, or non-sequitur musical interludes. Only Yesterday represents animation as a meditative experience, not a thrill ride. Fidgety audiences accustomed to having their senses overloaded in every scene need not apply.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Mysterians (aka: Chikyû Bôeigun)

(1957) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Takeshi Kimura and Shigeru Kayama; Story by Jôjirô Okami; Starring: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata and Takashi Shimura; Available on DVD (Region 2)

Rating ***

“The space station is flying 42,000 kilometers above Earth. What we call flying saucers are their space ships. They can reach New York, London, Moscow and Tokyo at any time. They have command of the air. Will Earth be ruled by Man or Mysterians? No, only science can rule.” – Ryoichi Shiraishi (Akihiko Hirata)

The 1950s represented a golden age for science fiction films, producing some of the finest films of the genre. One of the staples that emerged was the alien attack sub-genre, notably, The Thing from Another World (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953). In Japan, many science fiction films focused on domestic threats, with Gojira (1954) and Rodan (1956), both directed by Ishirô Honda. Honda threw his hat in the alien invader ring with 1957’s The Mysterians (aka: Chikyû Bôeigun, or Earth Defense Force). Filmed in TohoScope (Toho’s answer to Cinemascope) stereo sound and in color, The Mysterians aimed for a more epic perspective, placing not only Japan, but Earth in jeopardy of annihilation.

On the eve of a harvest festival, a series of fires and cataclysmic events rock the city of Fuji. In an early scene, and one of the film’s highlights, a massive robot, Mogera (don’t look for its name in the movie), wreaks havoc and lays waste to the countryside, signaling the arrival of aliens from the planet Mysteroid. The Japanese military takes swift and decisive action to counter the threat. Meanwhile, the aliens, who call themselves Mysterians, establish a stronghold in their enormous burrowing spacecraft. An uneasy truce is proclaimed, as a band of top scientists are called upon by the aliens (clad in color-coded capes and giant helmets) to hear their requests: a plot of land three kilometers in diameter, and the right to mate with Earth women. The whole land thing gives the human leaders pause, but Earth isn’t ready to give up their women. In a multi-national operation based in Japan, Earth leaders plot to combat the Mysterians.

Considering how the Mysterians waste no time with hostile displays, it’s puzzling that they claim to come in peace. By contrast, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu arrived in peace. Gort didn’t unleash his intergalactic fury until the foolish Earth people fired first. On the other side of the fence, the Mysterians practice a sort of extortion, claiming they won’t attack the Earth if they’re allowed their plot of land and the women. Upon their arrival, however, they’ve already caused untold destruction and (probably) death, abducted several women, and settled their spacecraft under the ground. There’s nothing to suggest their intentions are honest or noble from the beginning. They also don’t have anything to offer humanity, giving no indication the wish to share their technology.

An ongoing theme in many of Honda’s films is the threat of atomic holocaust, and the ensuing dangers of radiation. In the wake of destruction from the Mysterians, Japanese officials must deal with an irradiated landscape, as exemplified by dead fish in a stream. The Mysterians, themselves, are refugees from a devastating nuclear war on their home planet, which has driven them to search for a new place to live, and rendered them unable to produce healthy offspring. When one official proposes attacking the Mysterians with nuclear weapons, Dr. Adachi is quick to suppress this dangerous line of thinking (“We must not use H-bombs under any circumstances.”), fearing the terrible consequences of using such a powerful weapon. It’s a message we could still benefit from.

Veteran actor Takashi Shimura, alumnus of Akira Kurosawa films such as Ikiru and Seven Samurai, lends a quiet gravitas to the film as Dr. Adachi, who believes in taking a measured, but demonstrative approach to the threat of the Mysterians. Akihiko Hirata, perhaps best known as the conflicted scientist Dr. Serizawa in Gojira, plays physicist Ryoichi Shiraishi, who first discovers the existence of the Mysterians, and collaborates with them to achieve their goals. Considering how he’s touted as a brilliant researcher, it’s perplexing that Shiraishi is slow to pick up on the fact that the Mysterians are only in it for themselves. Kenji Sahara, a familiar face in many Honda films, plays Joji Atsumi, Dr. Adachi’s eager assistant. He’s the nominal hero, although he doesn’t really have much to do.

Few people are likely to walk away from The Mysterians with distinct memories of the performances, but the impressive effects and art direction are certain to linger. Eiji Tsubaraya supervised the creation of detailed miniatures and pyrotechnic effects, to simulate a credible battle between Earth and alien invaders. One of the most impressive effects depict a giant World Air Force rocket craft,* employed to attack the Mysterian base. The film predates Thunderbirds by almost a decade, but the flying ship effects could have given Derek Meddings a run for his money. Illustrator Shigeru Komatsuzaki designed the alien costumes, and interior of the spacecraft that has a passing resemblance to the Krell laboratory in Forbidden Planet (1956). While there are similarities, the alien control room interiors differ significantly, with the ample proliferation of red and blue neon accents.

* The flying effects/craft design share many similarities for the title craft in Honda’s later film, Atragon (1963).

The Mysterians deserves credit where it’s due, for depicting worldwide cooperation against a common foe – an enlightened view during the escalating Cold War. We also get to see an effective military effort for a change (these things often end up being one-sided affairs, with only a deus ex machina intervening to even the score). On the other hand, compared to some of Honda’s better efforts, it’s a rather dull affair. Each action scene is followed by talky scenes with the characters sitting around, deliberating about what should be done about the alien invaders. And on a different note, the male-centric perspective of the film may be off-putting to some. There are no substantial female characters in the film. – the women are little more than a commodity, existing only to be kidnapped or saved. If you can put up with the preponderance of XY chromosomes and some draggy spots, however, it’s still not a bad way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Documentary December Quick Picks and Pans

Burt’s Buzz (2013) Director Jody Shapiro shines the spotlight on reclusive inventor of various honey-infused products and reluctant corporate spokesperson, Burt Shavitz. The cameras follow him around as he visits Taiwan on a promotional tour, and we witness his unease at his status as an accidental celebrity. Shapiro traces Burt’s humble roots, as he inherited and subsequently walked away from a family business, experienced a second life as a photojournalist in the ‘60s, and eventually adopted a minimalist existence, living off the land. Along with his ex-significant other/business partner, he developed a line of natural products, and quietly built a multi-million-dollar empire.

The twist to the story isn’t how Burt gained or lost millions of dollars, but how he has eschewed the trappings of wealth or material possessions. He seems happiest when he’s away from other people, tending to his small farm and spending time with his dog. It’s an insightful, surprisingly affecting portrait of an irascible, cantankerous loner who fell into something big, but stuck to his ideals. Burt’s Buzz is also an existential meditation on the nature of success, and retaining integrity in the face of it. 

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Video and Hulu

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) Penelope Spheeris’ landmark 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization was a warts-and-all examination of the L.A. punk scene. Spheeris returned several years later to scrutinize the world of heavy metal. Even if the follow-up doesn’t seem quite as immediate or as focused as its predecessor, it’s a worthy sequel. This time around, the film looks at the performers, along with a handful of groupies. There are a couple of oddball interviews not directly associated with the music scene, featuring a metal-themed strip club and an out-of-touch probation officer who wants to deprogram kids from the metal lifestyle.

While the second film doesn’t achieve the same balanced approach or depth as the original, there’s much to appreciate. Veterans Alice Cooper (easily the most articulate of the bunch) Ozzy Osbourne, and other metal luminaries are contrasted with the musings of some hopefuls who have yet to make it big. The Metal Years takes a dim view of the excesses in the industry, particularly sexism and alcohol abuse. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, we hear from some artists who have something worthwhile to say, beyond the trappings of fame, wealth and sex. The film loses direction along the way, with some uncomfortable scenes in an L.A. strip club, with an amateur competition presided over by a lecherous elderly owner/M.C. of the aforementioned strip club. Quibbles aside, it remains an essential snapshot of an era not too long ago, and a cautionary tale about visions of fame, wealth and sex overwhelming the art.   

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011) Philadelphia-based underground artist Justin Duerr has held a lifelong fascination with the mysterious proliferation of tiles with enigmatic descriptions that have somehow appeared in traffic intersections throughout the northeastern United States and parts of South America. With only a few sketchy clues as his guide, Duerr, along with a couple of other dedicated amateur sleuths try to decipher the purpose of the tiles. They also attempt to discern what would compel someone (or a group of individuals) to embark on such a long-running, cryptic project. They assemble a short list of possible suspects, which appear to yield few tangible results. Their greatest clue, however, leads to an amateur radio show that briefly ran in the early ‘80s. The answers they uncover are not nearly as compelling as watching Duerr and his colleagues follow the trail of bread crumbs to unravel a mystery. Although we may never know the true intent behind the tiles (Conspiracy cult? Mental illness?), John Foy’s documentary is a fascinating trip.

Thanks to the blogger Stabford Deathrage for the recommendation (follow his blog at or on Twitter at @SDeathrage).

Rating ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Mule Skinner Blues (2001) Stephen Earnhart’s bittersweet documentary spends time with a group of colorful individuals in a Jacksonville, Florida trailer park. The community’s nominal leader, Beanie Andrew, is an aging ne’er do well who dreams of making a horror movie about a swamp ape. He teams up with a middle-aged aspiring horror author to create his dream project. Some other notable denizens include: an elderly country singer (stick around for her music video at the end), a Vietnam vet dealing with personal demons, who still hopes to make it big as a folk musician, and Ricky Lix, a rock guitarist. Their individual stories are amusing and sad in equal doses – for most of them, their exposure on this film is about as much fame as they’re likely to acquire. Unlike the superior documentary American Movie, it’s tough to shake the feeling that Earnhart views his subjects with a modicum of condescension. The film distances us from the subjects, displaying their artistic expression as something laughable. We don’t feel their struggles, as much as view them as specimens for our pity or entertainment.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Cropsey (2009) Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman explore a long-running urban legend in their Staten Island neighborhood about a boogeyman known as “Cropsey,” purported to lurk in the shadows and abduct kids. We soon learn that the legend has a kernel of truth, when Brancaccio and Zeman discuss the case of a local girl, Jennifer Schweiger, who was murdered, while other children remain missing. They trace the facts behind the fiction through interviews with neighborhood residents (some of whom are still searching for the possible victims), vintage articles and clips from news programs. All signs seem to point to Andre Rand, a mentally ill drifter who was incarcerated for Jennifer’s death. But many questions remain. Did they jail the right person, or was Rand a convenient scapegoat for an outraged community? If Rand was responsible, did he act alone, or did he have an accomplice (or accomplices)? What was the link to a religious cult in the area? These questions remain unanswered, and by the film’s conclusion, you get the feeling the filmmakers are just as disappointed as we were. While it’s not quite a “slam dunk” of investigative journalism, Cropsey is worth a watch, if only to remind us that sometimes the monsters of our childhood fears are real.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD, Hulu and Amazon Video