Grumpy Jii-san’s Journal

Old men can watch cartoons, too.

Grumpy Jii-san Hears the Sea

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Good morning. This is Badger Springs. You may even be able to hear some of the spring runoff flowing through the creek down there. I’m going to break here to talk about an anime.

Umi ga Kikoeru (I Can Hear the Sea)
aka Ocean Waves

title screen

Umi ga Kikoeru”, “I Can Hear the Sea” officially titled “Ocean Waves” in English is a very low-key and quietly serious high-school romance anime, a short movie made for television.

The story is told mostly in flashback by Taku Morisaki, a pleasant young man attending college in Tokyo. He’s waiting for a train on the day before his high school reunion when he thinks he sees Rikako Muto, a pretty former high school classmate of his, standing on the opposite platform. The next day, as Morisaki is getting ready to head for the airport on his trip to that reunion, he spots an old picture of Muto. So, he spends the flight reminiscing about the girl he briefly knew in high school.

Back then, Morisaki’s best friend was Yutaka Matsuno, a sturdy and serious teen. Morisaki remembers one summer he spent washing dishes at a local restaurant earning money while his friend attended summer school. One day, Matsuno calls Morisaki to school to show him the new transfer student, Muto, who he finds very pretty. Matsuno is overjoyed he was chosen to show the cute new girl around the school. Matsuno’s crush on Muto takes quite awhile for him to reveal, because Matsuno keeps his emotions closely hidden.

It soon becomes clear Muto isn’t just a pretty face. She’s very smart and very athletic, quite a competitor. She’s also having some problems fitting in with her new classmates. Muto has moved to Kochi with her mother because her parents separated, but she’d rather have stayed in sophisticated Tokyo with her father. Since her mind is on getting back to Tokyo, she doesn’t make any effort to make any friends at her new school, which her classmates interpret as Tokyo snobbishness toward to provinces.

As for Matsuno’s crush on Muto, it seems to drift around, not going anywhere in particular. The story’s main character, Morisaki, doesn’t seem romantically interested in Muto either, and not just because he doesn’t want to poach the girl his best friend called dibs on. He does, however, have some sympathy for her family situation, and respect for her top-notch grades.

Still, Morisaki’s path will cross with Muto again, partly just because Matsuno introduced them. Muto will ask Morisaki for a loan, secretly planning to use it to run away from her mother and return to her dad in Tokyo. More or less accidentally, Morisaki will end up accompanying Muto on that secret trip to Tokyo, mostly because he’s just too nice a guy not to. That two-day trip pretty much defines the pair’s relationship.

Muto and Morisaki on plane flight

These students don’t act like your typical anime high school kids. They act more like real people, often very mature. The story is based on a book of the same title, and while it’s not a story of huge import to the world as a whole, it takes its characters’ lives quite seriously. The characters are often subtle, not readily displaying their emotions.

The story takes place in Kochi, by the way, which is a Pacific coastal city on Japan’s Shikoku Island. Apparently the natives there have a distinctive accent, which several characters in the anime comment on, either directly or by referring to Muto’s Tokyo accent. That aspect of the story is lost on me as I read the subtitles. That may be a big loss, because it may be the only humor in this drama.

Muto is the focus character, but the story is told entirely from Morisaki’s point of view. This makes Muto a difficult and distant subject. On the one hand, she’s sympathetic because she’s been unwillingly moved from Tokyo as her parents separated. Muto now lives with her mother in Kochi, but she seems to side more with her father, though its hard to tell whether its him or the home in Tokyo she really prefers. When she re-visits Tokyo, she finds both her father and her old school friends disappointing; both have moved on without her.

However sympathetic that may make her, she reacts to it by pushing away her new classmates. She deceives and manipulates those few people who overlook her seemingly snobbishness and act sympathetically towards her. She doesn’t mind lying to her few new friends she does have in order to get what she wants. That makes her hard to like.

Morisaki and Matsuno

Umi ga Kikoeru” is a rare TV movie by Studio Ghibli, best known for Hayao Miyazaki’s work. The animation clearly has a smaller budget than their theatrical films, and even the art style seems a little different. That’s probably because Ghibli brought in Tomomi Mochizuki to direct the movie. Mochizuki had previously directed the “Orange Road” movie, “I Want to Return to That Day”, among others. He was then directing the “Here is Greenwood” OVAs with Studio Pierott, which is a very low-key high-school comedy instead of a low-key high-school drama. In fact, the final Greenwood OVA was produced about the same time as this film. It’s also about a relationship with a girl who refuses to expose to her emotions. Some strange similarities there. By the way, Mochizuki’s most recent project was last year’s “House of Five Leaves”.

Director Mochizuki also used his Greenwood OVA composer, Shigeru Nagata, to create the soundtrack for “Umi ga Kikoeru”. The musical score has a light touch, avoiding melodrama. It works well enough, though I thought the main staccato theme was slightly overused for a movie of only 70 minutes long. I also thought it sounded similar to the Greenwood score.

I found “Umi ga Kikoeru” hard to really like. Like Muto, it holds its audience off at a distance. The characters never connected emotionally with me enough to make me real care about them. And in the end, it didn’t seem to have any particular destination in mind, no real point it wanted to make. It’s a rather antiseptic character study, serious in its purpose, but ultimately uninvolving, like some after-school special. I give it 3 1/2 stars. I thought it needed more charm, or at least a sense humor, to add some contrast.

Umi ga Kikoeru” has never had a US release. Unlike other studio Ghibli films, it wasn’t included in the Disney license. We used to just translate the title into English as “I Can Hear the Sea”, but Ghibli belatedly decided to give it the English title “Ocean Waves”. I don’t deal well with change.

Ocean Waves” does have an Australian and a British DVD release, under that title (“Ocean Waves“). Both have English subtitles for the original Japanese dialog. It’s just as well there’s no dub, since the grandkids wouldn’t really be interested in this story. And, I wouldn’t get the references to the characters’ accents if they were played out in British voices; doubtless this is why “My Fair Lady” never took off in the colonies, either.

Anyway, the British DVD is a real bargain at 7 Euros, even with trans-Atlantic shipping. It doesn’t have any extras, but neither did my old laserdisc.


Several of the rocks over here in the shade actually have some old Native American petroglyphs on them. Usual to find those out so accessible where someone hasn’t gone all Banksy on them.

Well, thanks for listening.

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Written by grumpyjii

May 19, 2011 at 6:48 am

Grumpy Jii-san remembers love

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Good morning, this is Tule Mesa on the way to Cedar Bench over there. And I’m going to break here to talk an old anime…

SDF Macross – Do You Remember Love

Macross - DYRL title

Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love” is the
1984 anime theatrical re-versioning of the space-faring science fiction TV series of two years before.

The SDF Macross is a huge human city inside an abandoned alien spaceship, slowly making its way back to Earth from the outer solar system. Hikaru is a junior pilot of the human’s new convertible fighter plane: it’s a fighter jet; it’s a robot; no, it’s both a fighter jet and a robot. When a squadron of aliens attack, one penetrates inside the human habitat. Misa Hayase, a by-the-book tactical control officer on the bridge, orders the fighter squadron outside to leave the intruder to the interior defenses. Hikaru disobeys and follows them inside, anyway. As a result rescues Minmay, a pretty pop idol singer. But after the fire-fight, Hikaru and Minmay find themselves trapped together behind a bulkhead. They spend some quality time together, alone together, getting to know each other, and when they’re finally rescued, the gossip magazines are all atwitter over the pop star’s new pilot boyfriend.

So, what’s the deal with these aliens, anyway? Well, they look a lot like giant-sized people. There are two different fleets, with a long war against each other, but strangely, the division is strictly male vs female. They can’t even imagine the two genders co-existing with one another. So when they learn the humans have male and female living and working together, it seems impossibly disgusting. “Yak de culture,” as the aliens would say.

That isn’t the only part of human culture that amazes and intrigues the aliens. It seems they’re sadly lacking in the arts. Music really brings them up short. They have an even worse reaction to singing that’s even worse than I have to the crap you kids are listening to these days. I bet they’d like Beethoven, though.

All this leads the aliens believing that humanity is a related species of their own, a branch perhaps closer to the original, common “protocuture”.

Luckily, humanity has just the pop idol singer to dazzle these aliens. And she just happens to be dating a heroic military pilot.

Minmay in freefall

In the course of the story, pilot Hikaru and bridge officer Misa will end up marooned, alone together, on what’s left of Earth after the aliens finished bombarding it. Poor Hikaru keeps getting stranded on deserted islands with pretty women. At first, Hikaru and Misa have a rather frosty relationship, especially since he disobeyed her orders earlier. She’s all duty and regulations, and he’s more into winging it. But, after some quality time as castaways together, they grudgingly learn to respect each another, and even more.

By the time everyone is back aboard the Macross, there’s now a romantic triangle among Hikaru and Minmay and Misa.

The movie was directed by Shoji Kawamori, who was the mechanical designer for the TV show. He also re-imagined the movie’s alternate storyline that’s different from the TV show. Despite Kawamori’s reputation as a mechanical designer, when he writes and directs, he often does a great job at developing these kinds of interpersonal relationships, for example in his later work directing “Escaflowne” and “Arjuna“. OK, not so much with “Aquarion“. In the Macross movie, he does a nice job without a lot of direct dialog. For example, when Hikaru and Minmay have a reunion with Misa at a concert, there’s a very public discovery of how relationships have changed among them since they last met, and it’s pretty much dialog-free.

Hikaru, Minmay, Misa triangle

Hikaru is such a thoughtless pig. Well, they’ll always have Paris. Well, no, actually, Paris has been destroyed, along with the rest of the planet. All that’s left of the human race are the thousands of refugees aboard the Macross. “I’m no expert on being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill beans in this crazy world.”

The relationship between Hikaru and Minmay is based on dazzle. She’s a rock star, and he’s the heroic pilot who rescued her from aliens. Hikaru and Misa have a more intellectual relationship, based on mutual respect for each other’s talents. We see the contrast when Hikaru goes out on the town, first with Minmay, and later with Misa. At the start of the movie, Hikaru and Misa are at odds, bickering over orders and chain of command. But later, we see that, like the aliens, man and woman are learning to work with each other. The movie uses some quick graphic overlays to show how well synchronized they’ve become in the final battle.

Misa, in sync

SDF Macross” was the third such durable anime franchise created in the span of just a couple of years, following the star-hopping space-opera of “Space Pirate Captain Harlock” and the closer-to-home story of humans fighting each other around Earth with “Mobile Suit GUNDAM“. The TV show also spawned two other “super-dimensional” series titles, “Mospeada” and “Orgus“, neither of which was as long-lived.

Macross is also notable to English-speaking fans as source material for the Americanize “Robotech” TV version of the show, which spawned an early generation of American anime fans. Believe it or not, TV shows with plot lines that continued through the episodes and actually came to a conclusion just weren’t done on old-fashioned American TV.

The theatrical movie was released two years after the TV series ended. This wasn’t a compilation movie, though re-cutting a TV shows into a movie version was a popular, low-cost way to milk a popular franchise at the time. It was’t a sequel, either. Instead, it was a new version that took the characters and situations of the TV show and reworked them into a similar yet different story.

The movie borrows the basic premise from the TV show without repeating it. It sort of assumes the viewer will just catch on the which pieces of the TV show’s premise it’s taking as read: How did humans get out in deep space on the Macross, anyway? In the TV show, the alien spaceship crashes to Earth. Men study the ship to exploit its technology and repair it, creating a small city around the crash site. A decade later, when other alien spaceships appear near Earth, the Macross automatically, on its own, folds space to jump to the edge of the solar system, taking along not just its human occupants, but also most of the small city that had grown up around it. The SDF Macross thus becomes a refugee city floating through space, heading back to what’s left of Earth after the invasion. At this point, the two stories go their separate ways.

The Japanese voice cast from the TV show reprise their roles for the movie, too. Hikaru’s old buddy and squad commander Roy is still part of big part the story. There are also some brief nods to some of the other characters from the TV show, without much explanation. Another pilot, Max, shoots down a green-haired alien female who he then calls beautiful. Sometime later, we see him teamed up with that same alien, except now she’s converted herself to human size and joined the Macross team. I’m pretty sure she never even gets named in the movie; it’s just a quick guest appearance by Milia and Max from the TV show. Its fans can easily fill in the blanks, and for those not familiar with the series, well, it didn’t last long, so you weren’t that confused.

Micron Millia from TV show

That’s just one example of the way the movie’s plot both differs from the TV show, yet borrows heavily from the TV background whenever it pleases. That keeps the new, main story focused and moving forward.

In 1984, “Do You Remember Love” was made with state of the art animation. The artwork still looks good today, but some of the animation techniques are dated, and its budget sometimes shows its age. Its huge space battles aren’t as impressive as they once were. Which is not to say they’re bad, it’s just not dazzling to modern CGI-enhanced audiences, anymore. You still gotta love those old-school missile-storms, though.

As you might expect from a movie involving a singing star, not to mention one in which the songs are actually plot elements, music plays a huge role in this movie. Many of the songs were later collected in a video called “Macross Flashback 2012“, a date that once seemed incredibly futuristic, I’m sure. In two more years, 2012 really will be a flashback. Flashback borrowed animation from the movie plus some new animation to create an animated Minmay concert video.

Space battles fought to vocals, and love songs at that, may not seem as dramatic as heroic orchestra scores, but this one work for me. You might not be entirely willing to buy into the show’s premise that a song can be used as a weapon against aliens. Yes, it’s corny, but they do their best to make it plausible.

The movie had two English versions, of sorts. The producers commissioned an English dub for international sales, re-titled “Super Space Fortress Macross.” It used a British and Australian voice cast, except it retains Minmay’s original songs in Japanese, leaving her singing an octave higher than she speaks. It also has Japanese subtitles. Here’s how Hikaru meets Misa, in English.

Hikaru learns women are in charge

Actually, that dub is why I decided to talk about this movie now. I was told to throw out a lot of old boxes of alleged junk, and I found the old import PAL VHS release. It was never released in the US, since the TV series was licensed by Harmony Gold for their “RoboTech” series. A few minutes of listening to that convinced me to get out my old Japanese laserdisc instead. (I’m also supposed to get rid of a lot of my laserdiscs.)

Sadly, “Do You Remember Love“‘s sole American release was a hack-job re-edit titled “Clash of the Bionoids” that’s best forgotten. It’s original version has never had a North American release. Apparently too many people have claims on the copyright, or something.

Strangely, I find this movie and its characters still entertaining today. I enjoy its ending, however schmaltzy and corny, in much the same way I still enjoy “Gunbuster“. I give “Do You Remember Love” 4 1/2 stars as a milestone in anime. But stick with the Japanese version.


Thanks for watching.

(Return to video)

Written by grumpyjii

May 11, 2011 at 7:03 am

Grumpy Jii-san Slumbers

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Good morning. This is Badger Creek, and as you can see, it’s dry right now. I’m going to see if I can get out of this wind and talk some anime.

Little Nemo (Adventures in Slumberland)

Little Nemo title screen

Little Nemo, Adventures in Slumberland” is an animated fantasy movie from 1989 that’s aimed squarely at young children.

The title character, Nemo, is a young boy who seems to spend all his time sleeping. In his dreams, he’s taken off to a series of fantastical adventures. The movie begins, in fact, with Nemo fast asleep as he dreams that his bed flies off to a mysterious land. One day, Nemo watches the circus arrived in town with a grand parade. That night, Nemo dreams that he is visited by a very officious man [Prof. Genius] who delivers a royal invitation from the King of Slumberland; Nemo is to become the official playmate of his daughter, Princess Camille. They fly off together on a dirigible to this dreamland place. Of course, Nemo isn’t going anywhere without his constant companion, Icarus the flying squirrel.

Unfortunately, along the way, Nemo meets Flip, instead. He’s called a frightful fellow by the officious man. He’s a cheerful and charismatic rogue and a troublemaker of the kingdom. Those two wander off together for a bit, having fun by making mischief.

Eventually, Nemo meets King Morpheus himself, who turns out to be a jovial, rotund man who seems to be modeled after Santa Claus. The King plans to make Nemo his heir, and a Prince of the kingdom. Ask why. He gives Nemo the royal scepter, very powerful, and the keys to the kingdom, also very powerful, with instructions that there is one door that he is never, ever to open.

Well, I think you can guess what happens next. I think I read this story in Genesis.

The Princess Camille turns out to be a likable sort, and she and Nemo get along well, playing with the palace’s collection of incredible toys.

Princess Camille frolics in Slumberland

Slumberland seems like it could be a pretty fun place to hang. Alas, Nemo will also need to take lessons in royal etiquette at the Palace, delivered as part of a major song and dance production number, by the way. The schooling just bores Nemo. So he eventually he wanders off with Flip again, to get into trouble and have “fun”. So, what do you think they run into? Yes, that one door he’s not supposed to open. And, what do you suppose Flip wants to do?

So, they open the door to Nightmare land and let the nightmares escape. And, what do you think they’ll do about that? Pretty much the same thing any of us would do. They go back up to the palace and hope that nobody notices. It turns out the Nightmare King is pretty hard to ignore.

Naturally, it will be up to Nemo, along with the Princess, the Professor, and a very reluctant Flip, to rescue Slumberland from the Nightmare King and lock all the bad dreams back in their place.

Predictability on a large scale is just a small part of “Little Nemo”’s plot problem. On a smaller scale, the plot relies on far too many convenient events, often illogical or without preparation. For example, if Nemo needs to know something, a letter will conveniently arrive at just the right time for the story to proceed. That’s okay, I suppose, because it’s a dream, so anything can happen. All these plot manipulations may be acceptable to children, but adults will find them grating. While “Little Nemo” is billed as a “family film”, it’s really a children’s movie, with very little to either charm or interest adults.

Nemo and Flip

Little Nemo” descends from a long line of stories about protagonists whisked off to odd, outlandish alternate world. “Alice in Wonderland”, “Peter Pan”, or “The Wizard of Oz”, come to mind; so do a number of anime titles. Much like “The Wizard of Oz”, everyone Nemo meets in his Dreamland adventures will look and act just like someone he knows in the normal world, especially the people saw in that circus parade at the beginning of the movie.

Unfortunately, the title character, Nemo, isn’t very interesting himself. He doesn’t seem to have a will of his own, and he seems a bit thickheaded. Okay, so he’s asleep; I’m a bit thickheaded myself when I’ve just woken up. But, that means for the most part, Nemo playing second banana to the so-called supporting cast, such as Flip, the Professor, the Princess, and King Morpheus, all of whom are smarter and more charismatic than Nemo. In effect, Nemo is a tourist in his own dream. Having such a dull and easily led main character handicaps the excitement. I think Nemo needed to be established as a more sympathetic and interesting person in the real world before the movie dragged him off into the main adventure.

Anytime things get too intense, Nemo can invoke the ultimate deus ex machina, and simply wake up from his nightmare and find himself safely back in his bedroom. Or can he? In one late scene, he seems to have returned safely home, a lucky wake-up escape from an attack by the creatures of the nightmare kingdom. But when the scepter of Slumberland’s King and a couple of goblins suddenly appear in his bedroom, well, perhaps the border between reality and dreams is breaking down.

Nemo and Icarus escape a nightmare

Could Nemo be having a dream within a dream? Nah, that’s totally absurd, nobody would buy a plot like that.

Little Nemo, Adventures in Slumberland”, is based on an old comic strip by Winsor McKay that ran in American newspapers from 1905 to 1915. That’s even before my time, by the way. Like that comic strip, the movie set in the very early 20th century.

The idea of making an animation came from TMS producer Yutaka Fujioka, who licensed the rights. From there, he envisioned a joint Japanese-American project, sort of a half anime. What followed was a “difficult” production history, as they say, made more interesting by the now-famous people involved.

In 1982, Isao Takahata [“Grave of the Fireflies“, “Only Yesterday“] and his partner Hayao Miyazaki began the project for TMS, a year after Miyazaki had completed his first theatrical movie, “The Castle of Cagliostro”. Miyazaki left a year later; he later described it as the worst experience of his professional career. Miyazaki collaborator Yoshifumi Kondo [“Whisper of the Heart”] completed the two minute pilot animation for the movie, before leaving himself.

Eventually, the movie would be directed by Masami Hata [“Legend of Sirius”, aka “Sea Prince & FIre Child”]. The credits list far too many story consultants, but the final script was penned by American Chris Columbus, who’s probably better known for his work on the “Home Alone” movies, “The Goonies“, and the first Harry Potter film.

Part of the visual design are credited to French comic artist Jean Giraud (who works under the name of Moebius, usually), though I personally find it hard to see his influence here.

To give you an idea just how long this production process took, consider that between the time Miyazaki, Takahata and Kondo left the project in 1983 and the movie was finally released in 1989, Miyazaki and company worked on “Sherlock Hound”, made “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”, formed Studio Ghibli, then made “Castle in the Sky, Laputa”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Grave of the Fireflies”, and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”.

But what really matters is what ended up on the screen. In terms of animation, the work here is really splendid, very fluid. TMS made this movie shortly after finishing “Akira”, and they seem to have wanted to extend themselves even further.

Artistically, the character designs provided some modernization to the originals designs from McKay’s comic strip. The writers even made sure to include a scene with the classic walking bed that famously carried Nemo off to Slumberland in the original strip.

The character designs look a touch more like Disney than anime. But, really, someone on the American side of this production should have told was walking in the famous slugger is the Japanese artists that drawing Flip like a blackface refugee from a minstrel show might have been acceptable in 1905, it’s uncomfortable in 1990 or 2011 America.

Dreamland itself as been drawn in bright, vibrant colors, though instead of original, imaginative architecture, it seems to have settled for borrowing from “Alice in Wonderland”. In contrast, Nightmare Land is illustrated in a dark and menacing pallet; the Nightmare King himself, with the Satanic horns and glowing red eyes, seems to be a refugee from “Fantasia” “Night on Bald Mountain” segment.

In fact, a lot of this movie seems to want to be a Disney movie. “Little Nemo” was made in the two decade interregnum between the death of Walt Disney and the 1990 rebirth of the studio, so at the time, a Disney cartoon didn’t seem like a very high bar. By the way, I know it’s fashionable in anime circles to trash Disney, but I like Disney cartoons and animation. The same way I like both sushi and enchiladas. (Not at the same time.) How many anime have characters who break into song and dance numbers?

A song for Nemo

Little Nemo” features a couple of song numbers like that, from the prolific team of Richard and Robert Sherman, who wrote “It’s a Small World” for Disney, as well as some of my favorite songs from “Mary Poppins”. I didn’t find their music and lyrics here quite so memorable.

Little Nemo” also relies on a lot of old jokes and familiar concepts. Some things that might seem clever for the kids will just seem tired and familiar for adults.

Little Nemo” was made to be dubbed in English, and features a standout voice cast.

As a children’s film, I give “Little Nemo, Adventures in Slumberland” 3.5 stars. There are enough bright colors and cute characters to entertain the grandkids for a little bit. But for adults, other than watching some well-done classic animation, the story doesn’t offer much to hold your attention.

Despite being a joint American/Japanese production made for an English dub, the film was actually released in Japan three years before was released in America. Still, when it was released to American theaters, it had a wider release than any previous anime movie, including “Akira”. Not that it set box office records, though it did make an impressive home video debut on VHS.

The current North American home-video releases from a Funimation sub-label and it offers only the English soundtrack. It also lacks subtitles, which you may think is unnecessary for a English-language DVD, but which I think of as close captioning (thank you, please.)

The North American DVD is also disappointing in that it doesn’t include the original pilot footage I mentioned earlier from 1982 created by Takahata, Miyazaki, and Kondo. The old Japanese laser disk box set included that. If you’re interested, I’m sure you can track it down someplace.


Thanks for watching.

(Return to video)

Written by grumpyjii

May 3, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Grumpy Jii-san hides & seeks

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Good afternoon. This is the Hell’s Canyon wilderness area, and I’m going to break here to pull some cholla links out of my pants, and talks some anime.

“Hide and Seek”

Kakurenbo title

Kakurenbo” is a short, suspenseful urban horror OVA from 2005. It’s also the Japanese name for the game we know as hide and seek.

If you believe the ancient fables, it’s dangerous to play hide and seek after dark; the demons in the woods may spirit you away. If you believe the urban legend, somewhere in the heart of the city there is a very special game of hide and seek going on, o-to-ko-yo, with much the same risk. To find the game you must be wearing a fox mask and follow a set of clues on sputtering neon lights, until seven children have gathered to play in the darkness. Only the brave or foolhardy dare to risk it.

On the night of our story, the kids who’ve gathered to find the game do so mostly to prove their courage or to satisfy their curiosity. One boy has a special motive, though: his sister was disappeared only a few days ago, he thinks spirited away while playing this game. As the kids make their way through the narrow, poorly lit alleyways of the city, they trade their childlike barbs with each other, calling each other ‘chicken’, or some of them bluster in false bravado.

It turns out, the demons are real. That’s not really a spoiler, we meet the first one about eight minutes into the video. It’s a large one, a sort of giant puppet or statue come to life. It looks very mechanical, a bit like a creature on a parade float. But it hardly seems friendly as it begins chasing after the kids. Soon other demons appear; at one point we see a wall poster that suggests there are five demons in total, though the last one is a mystery.

Kakurenbo” tells a creepy, short, original story. The horror comes more from suspense and imagination, rather than relying on blood and gore. The OVA begins with a long, two-minute long pedestal shot that descends from the rooftops down into the city’s alleyways. While the unseen children explain the urban legend that forms the premise of this OVA, this sets the mood as dark and foreboding. The video ends with a matching pedestal shot ascending back up to the roofs, looking down on the conclusion from above.

Fox-masked players of game

Kakurenbo” tries hard to be spooky, in the best tradition of children’s ghost stories. It has a few problems overcome, though: after credits and exposition, there’s less than 20 minutes of storytelling time left and over half a dozen characters, not counting the demons. The OVA simply doesn’t have time to introduce the all the kids properly, to make us invest in their fate. That task is made even more difficult because they’re all wearing fox masks, eliminating all facial expressions, relying on only eye movement and body language to express tension, fear, or determination.

Also, for a horror video, it shows the demons very early on, instead of relying on hidden and mysterious menace to build suspense. It makes up a little for this with the climax, which also seems to be trying to add a rather muddled moral or social allegory to the contest.

The OVA is directed by Shuhei Morita using computer imaged cell shaded techniques. It’s that use of computers that allows him to create such impressive camera movement: trucking the camera through the alleyways or pedestaling up and down through them. The computers artwork is very detailed, however, providing a dirty, rusted, well-worn urban labyrinth for the story. The director uses flickering florescent and neon lights to provide dark, moving shadows, and they enhance the mood.

Morita’s only other anime credit is the more recent “Freedom” OVAs, which use a similar cell-shaded computer animation technique, but not as dark.

Indeed, it’s the art and animation that is the star of this OVA, rather than the characters. What few personalities emerge from the cast are simple, one-dimensional, and generic. The setting, in contrast, is rich, deep, cluttered, and very detailed, splattered in shadows and menace. Short running time, and lack of faces drain the story of human emotion. Instead, we’re left with a spooky setting and then cutting-edge computer animation, made more impressive by the very small staff involved in its creation.

Unfortunately, what was cutting-edge six years ago doesn’t seem so impressive today, and the lack of human connection to the story hurts the OVA more as time goes on. I give it four stars; it short and worth watching for the visuals, but I’d rent it rather than buying.

The OVA was originally released in North America by the now defunct Central Park media, and so it’s now out-of-print. The English dub worked out very well, in part aided by those fox masks, which eliminated the need for lip-synching. That DVD also included almost an hour of extras, more than the video itself, including a commentary track over the video shown at three stages of production, and interviews with director Morita and the art designer.


And speaking of monsters you wouldn’t want to run into in the dark, here’s a Gila monster I ran into today. About 18 inches long, poisonous, and very stubborn, too: once they bite on to you, they just keep their jaws clamped until they’ve made a meal of it.

Thanks for watching.

(Return to video)

Written by grumpyjii

April 27, 2011 at 6:05 am

Grumpy Jii-san talks in Whispers

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Good morning. This is the route to Signal Mountain, and I’m going to break here to talk about an anime.

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart title

Whisper of the Heart” is a gentle coming-of-age anime theatrical movie from Studio Ghibli. And yeah, that did sound like a John Denver pop song from the 70s, yet it was from the Japanese soundtrack. Just accept it.

The movie’s central character is Shizuku, a Japanese school girl with good grades and good prospects. Her main extracurricular activities are reading lots of fiction and writing new lyrics for that old John Denver song. for her girlfriends to sing with her at some school function or something. But her world is about to be open to a larger number of new possibilities.

First, she meets a young boy. They get off to a rough start when he finds a book that Shizuku has left behind and returns it to her. Unfortunately, he also teases her about those song lyrics she left folded inside the book that he found. It’ll take awhile, but they’ll get along better later on.

Then one day, Shizuku decides to follow an enigmatic cat she spots on the subway. It leads her, like Alice chasing the white rabbit, to a marvelously cluttered antique shop where an interesting old man collects and repairs treasures from yesteryear. It seems almost everything in his shop has a story behind it, and unlike American children, it seems Japanese children actually enjoy listening to old men tell their silly stories.

That boy turns out to live in the same neighborhood as the shop, and so Shizuku discovers that he has a very interesting hobby, or perhaps it’s a career avocation: he makes violins down in the old man’s basement. In fact, he’s trying to get accepted as an apprentice at a prestigious Italian workshop.

That boy’s focus on what he dreams of doing with his life makes Shizuku realize that she really hasn’t come up with an ambition for her own life. yet. (For the record, I haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow up, either.)

Shizaku and Kenji

Between the new boy friend and the old man, Shizuku is inspired to take up a creative hobby of her own, and it isn’t John Denver filk. She sets out to write a short fantasy story of her own. For her subject, she uses her imagination and one of the old man’s special figurines, the one of a cat in a tuxedo, which the old man calls “the Baron”, as the star for her story.

Shizuku’s parents and teachers are surprised to find her reading something other than novels as she researches her book, and her parents are first surprised by the change in her study habits, then a little worried that her new obsession is affecting her grades. Still, they are amazingly supportive.

This is a charming story of a few of appealing characters engaged in real life. Most of Shizuku’s world is completely ordinary, at home, at school, and in her relationships with her friends. There are no magical powers, enchanted forest creatures, or improbably heroic feats. Instead, it’s chock full of everyday details, a life made real through the constant intrusion of the trivial and banal. It’s her very ordinariness that makes Shizuku so likable.

Shizuku also has her share of adolescent challenges, from helping her best friend attract the attention of another boy, to balancing her schoolwork with her special projects. And now that she has her own crush on a boy, she has to deal with the possibility he’ll be going to school somewhere else – in Italy – next semester.

The issue of friends separating infuses “Whisper of the Heart” with sentimentality throughout. It begins with the story behind an antique grandfather clock that plays out a story, when it strikes twelve, of separated lovers. It continues with the figurine of the Baron, who had a figurine mate that got lost decades ago, and of the story the old man tells Shizuku about his own lost love.

Shizaku and old shopkeeper

Whisper of the Heart” was based on a 1989 shojo manga by Aoi Hiragi. The storyboards were drawn by animation giant Hayao Miyazaki, but it was directed by long-time Studio Ghibli contributor Yoshifumi Kondo, his first work as a film director. He’d worked with Miyazaki going al the way back to “Future Boy Conan“, and with Isao Takahata on “Grave of the Fireflies“. Sadly, Kondo died two years after “Whisper of the Heart” was released, at the age of just 47, so he never had a chance to direct a second film. But in “Whisper of the Heart“, you can see why he was talked about as a possible successor to Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli.

The artwork here is gorgeous, as inspired and detailed as any Studio Ghibli production, creating a very lived-in real-world. Tokyo’s streets and stores, and Shizuku’s apartment, are busy and cluttered and very natural, which matches the movie’s portrayal of Shizuku’s life.

The story that Shizuku writes, the story within a story, allows “Whisper of the Heart” to insert a brief fantasy sequence illustrating her cat fantasy, and that brief segment was created by Hayao Miyazaki in a slightly different art style from the rest of movie; not surprisingly, that sequence involves flying. Incidentally, that figurine of The Baron and the odd cat that led Shizuku to the antique shop, both return in a later Studio Ghibli movie, “The Cat Returns“.

The characters of Shizuku, her boyfriend, and the antique shop owner, are nicely portrayed here, as is the richness of the world they live in. Their friends and relationships – with schoolmates, parents, and each other, all have the ring of verisimilitude.

But, of course, its the old bearded antique shopkeeper who steals the show.

Years ago, when I talked about Makoto Shinkai’s “Five Centimeters per Second“, I mentioned that it made me want to watch “Whisper of the Heart” as a chaser. While the artistic styles are quite different, the two share a quiet, gentle sensibility of adolescence, and the stories of separated friends, and offer a soft emotional caress that’s soft rather than melodrama. And they have the same love of detail in their artwork.

For my taste, I give “Whisper of the Heart” 5 stars. It’s sweet and charming, emotionally effective, and suitable for all ages (though the very youngest kids might be bored.)

Disney’s has provided its US release with a solid dub; since the main song was already in English, they didn’t have to change it. Though they did have to do some alterations with Shizuku’s alternate lyrics, since she was writing them in Japanese. The original Japanese soundtrack is still there if you like.


I have both John Denver’s and Olivia Newton John’s version of “Country Roads” on my iPod [because I listen to both kinds of music, country and western]. Strangely, Olivia Newton John’s performance is from her Disco album. On my iPod, it’s filed under anime.

Thanks for watching.

(Return to video)

Written by grumpyjii

April 20, 2011 at 9:44 am

Grumpy Jii-san on the Cowboy Way

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Good morning. We had some early-morning shade here in Long Canyon. This looks like a good place to take a break and talk some anime .

Cowboy Bebop (TV Show)

Cowboy Bebop title

Cowboy Bebop” is a future scifi action anime with a small but engaging cast and a slick style. The DVD box boasts it was voted “Greatest anime of all time!” Lord knows by whom. I won’t praise it to that extent, but it is a fun anime. It’s distinguished by trio of very engaging, adult characters and a smooth storytelling style driven by a jazzy soundtrack.

It’s 2070, and mankind now lives spread out across the terraformed inner planets and Galilean moons, connected by jump gates. Earth, not so much anymore. Civilization is a mix of the ultra-modern and the old, beat-up space ships, small settlements and big gleaming cities that mix the rich with the poor, and the honest with the criminal. “In short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Spike Speigel is a spacefaring bounty hunter, a so-called space cowboy, bouncing around the universe, eking out a living hunting down criminals for the police. He’s got a cool vibe going on, more laid back than Sam Spade, a little closer to Bret Maverick.

Jet Black is his current partner, and owner of the well-worn interplantary spaceship they live in. Jet’s a bit more focused on the job than Spike.

After a couple of episodes of the impoverished Spike and Jet trying to collect bounties to pay for some food, they run into another wandering bounty hunter, the lovely Faye Valentine.

After a few more episodes, they’ll pick up Ed, a young computer hacker. She serves as a minor character and information provider via the galactic internet.

They all live together in the same space ship, but separately, sometimes partners, sometimes competitors, more like it was a spacefaring apartment building.

The stories are mostly self-contained and episodic. Some are action-oriented: adventures hunting down criminals; some are more quiet character pieces: exploring people from the characters’ past; and some are mostly for amusement. All 26 of these episodes are stylishly told.


The major charm of the show is the characters, both individually and in their dynamic interactions. They don’t play as best friends, nor as bickering rivals. Nor to they do a lot of cheap banter like a Hollywood buddy flick. Each is just as comfortable in a story individually as they are working together.

Unlike a lot of anime, “Cowboy Bebop” stars adults who’ve been around the block and gotten their lives all messy. The series will spend a few episodes poking into each character’s past.

Spike is the star, and has the cool factor going for him. He also has a secret past from the criminal world, centering on an old flame for whom he still carries a torch, and a man who done him wrong, with the unlikely name of Vicious. Spike’s past will pop up a few times over the course of the series. If there is a central plot running through the series, this is it.

Jet’s past is as a cop. He doesn’t discuss the reasons why he walked away from the job, nor how he came to need an artificial arm. But, those elements will pop up in the show as well.

Faye has an even more mysterious past, because even she doesn’t know it. She doesn’t have any memories of her early life. She won’t admit it, but she’d really like to know where she came from, and why she lost all those memories.

Ed’s a minor player in the show, and much younger, but she’s got issues, too. And there will be an episode devoted to her as well.

All these back stories will get a couple of episodes each over the course of the series. The motley collection of misfits proves capable of sustaining the light action that’s the series bread & butter, and also support the occasional change of pace into light comedy or sentiment, or even some drama.

By the conclusion, we’ll learn that the three of them really do come to care about one another, though none of them would ever admit it. In an unusual move, as we draw near the end of the 26 episodes, the story will actually start to dissolve the partnerships it established in the first half dozen episodes.


Cowboy Bebop” is directed by Shinichiro Watanabe [Macross Plus, Samurai Champloo]. The artwork has some nice, clean drawings with plenty of detail and some interesting choice of viewing angles and lots of imaginative scene cuts. The off world cities’ designs downplay the scifi aspect of environment, depicting streets and buildings that are largely indistinguishable from a current city. The same is true of most of the weapons; though Spike’s ship has an energy cannon of some sort, he mostly sticks to very normal looking gun and some knives. While we visit half a dozen inhabited worlds, and each retains specifically unique structures, there’s a very terrestrial sameness about all those world as well. That fits with the film noir mood of the stories, though it’s disappointingly unimaginative for a futuristic scifi series. Anticipating the future isn’t what this series is about.

The animation [Sunrise] is fluid, though no longer as spiffy as it seemed a decade ago when the series was released, it still holds up very well today. I enjoyed some of the space details, such as an attention to gravity, even though it isn’t always consistent.

Yoko Kanno‘s music [Escaflowne, Jin-Roh, Arjuna] adds a lot to the show. It’s mostly jazz, with a touch of other genres. It fits the film noir stylings perfectly. And unlike a lot of shows that have just a few tunes, there are a lot of different compositions spread over the episodes.

Cowboy Bepop” rates 4 1/2 stars. No, I don’t think it’s the best anime ever made, but its high on the list. It’s a collection of entertaining stories whose engaging characters, slick style and cool music all hold up well after a decade.

Bandai’s English dub came off well, too, with the major voices getting the characters just about right. In fact, I think it may be one of the best anime dubs made. Just because the first times I watched this in Japanese, I still have a sentimental attachment to the original Japanese voices.

Cowboy Bepop” is 26 episodes available in the US on 6 DVDs from Bandai. It also had a successful run on the US Cartoon Network several years back.

A movie came out a few years after the TV series ran, which I’ll get to presently.


For watching.

(Return to video.)

Written by grumpyjii

April 13, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Grumpy Jii-san is out at the Old Ball Game

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Good morning. It’s spring out here in the desert, and the temperatures are already in the mid-90s. And that means, it’s time for baseball. This year I went looking for a baseball anime, and found one with an interesting little twist.

Taisho Baseball Girls

Taisho Baseball Girls title

Taisho Baseball Girls” is a 2009 anime TV series about a group of schoolgirls forming a baseball team in 1925 Japan.

In the Taisho era, Japan was adopting some Western culture, and a part of that was baseball. Nonetheless, schoolgirl Koume never really thought about the sport. Her traditional family runs a small restaurant, and she tends to her studies and after school chores like a proper young lady of the period.

But, Koume’s best friend, Akiko, abruptly proposes organizing a girl’s baseball team. It seems Akiko was at a party thrown by her wealthy parents when a young suitor suggested that further education would be wasted on a mere girl. All women had to do was stay home to cook and raise children. This, we call the good old days, before all that title IX stuff. A spark of women’s liberation ignites in Akiko, and since the boy is a baseball player at his high school, she chooses that sport to make her statement. Naturally, she cajoles her best friend Koume into joining her.

Unfortunately, neither girl really knows anything about baseball. To succeed, they are going to have to recruit some teammates, learn the game, and overcome a number of other obstacles. Luckily, another classmate, Kawashima, decides to help. She’s not a player so much as she’s a natural-born organizer, the perfect manager. Luckier still, one of the teachers at their girls Academy, Anna Curtland, is an energetic and liberated American visitor who knows something of baseball and is all too happy to help these girls with their unconventional goal.


So, these young girls assemble a team with the usual assortment of personality types: the natural athlete, a shy girl, a slugger, a klutz, and so on. While the character mix is conventional, they aren’t over exaggerated. The story is low-key, as the girls’ gentle determination drives them to learn the game and overcome many obstacles. Among these obstacles is the headmistress of the girls school, who doesn’t think baseball is an appropriate activity for young ladies in her charge.

As I mentioned, the story takes place in 1925 during the Taisho era in Japan, and the anime makes every effort to reproduce the fashions and style of that period, in dress and technology, food, baseball uniforms and equipment, and even the black-and-white 8mm film of baseball games the girls study. That places it firmly in an age that considered the woman’s place to be in the home.

The new “sailor suit” school uniforms were one of the recent Western styles to come to Japan. You can tell which of the girls come from more traditional, conservative families by whether they wear the kimono or the sailor suit uniform to school.

One of the girls other challenges will be to find someone to play against. Since they’re pioneers, there are no other girls teams. They’re going to have to play against boys. That not only challenges social norms, but requires finding a boys team willing to play mere girls, and novices at that.

Koume has her own problems. Her father is very traditional, which is why she still wears a kimono to school. Naturally, he thinks girls playing baseball is just plain weird. So, she takes the easy solution, and hides it from him.

Koume is the main character of the story, and the only character with a story outside of the baseball field. But she has eight other teammates, plus the manager and coach, each of whom is different but likable in their own way.


Taisho Baseball Girls” is based on a previous manga [Atsushi Kagurazaka] which I haven’t read. It’s directed by Takashi Ikehata, who also directed “Genshiken“. As with that series, the anime has great affection for its characters even when it’s gently poking fun at them. While it draws its personalities from many anime stereotypes, it avoids the excesses of exaggeration or bombast.

The music [Takayuki Hattori] may not be exceptionally noticeable, but it fits nicely with the idea of a period story, sounding vaguely old-fashioned even from the opening theme song. It’s certainly not 1925 old-fashioned, but certainly nothing modern enough to distract us from the old setting.

Taisho Baseball Girls” is about setting your own goals and marching to your own beat. It’s also about baseball the way it should be, the ideal: study, learn, practice hard, and compete, all with good sportsmanship. Learn from mistakes and, naturally, work together as a team. And of course, always strive to do your best: gambatte.

Taisho Baseball Girls” has a quietness to it. It doesn’t really go for drama, but has a sincerity and earnestness that I found really compelling. It also has a sense of humor. Granted, some of these jokes are a little old. We’ve seen the bit where the player isn’t paying attention and gets hit on the head by a pop fly in more than a few shows. But it also has enough of more subtle other humor to be forgiven the cliché.

Taisho Baseball Girls” is a familiar story of a new generation quietly but determinedly challenging both their parents’ and society’s expectations. It’s “Breaking Away”, “Whip It”, or “A League of Their Own”, an inspirational story aimed at youngsters. Despite treading well-worn ground, it’s populated with likable, if familiar, characters, has a sense of humor about itself, and most importantly seems sincere rather than contrived. In some ways, it reminded me of the characters in “Aria” in their earnestness. I enjoyed watching it, and give it four stars.

Taisho Baseball Girls” is currently available streaming from Sentai Filmworks’ Anime Network.


By the playoffs, maybe I’ll have finished watching “Cross Game”. Meanwhile, play ball.

Thanks for watching.

(Return to video.)

Written by grumpyjii

April 6, 2011 at 8:10 pm


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