Movies, Toons

An obnoxious reason for walking out of a movie

Have you ever walked out of a movie theater? I have. I walked out of Supari, once upon a decade ago, and I walked out after 30 minutes of that Vishal Bharadwaj film with Pankaj Kapur and Imran Khan whose name I cannot recall, it was that bad. Oh yes, Matru Ki Bijli. A screening of Profundo Rosso that was part of a double-feature, and it was so late in the night that my brain had turned to mush. I am fairly sure this number would have been higher had I not been with other people in the theater. Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, for example, and even the first Hobbit movie. In all these cases, I walked out because the films did not engage me in any way; there was some amount of revulsion involved, and the thought that if I did not allow more of my time to be wasted in that darkened theater, it would imply redemption of some sort.

When you are the only person in a movie theater. #red #movietheater #alone

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Yesterday, I walked out of a theater for another reason altogether. It’s possible that in doing so, I startled the rest of the audience. I had been the first person to arrive at the theater, half an hour before showtime, and was able to pick the best seat in that sea of red faux-leather, that perfectly centered spot that brings the rectangular screen, uh, square in the center of your vision. There I sat, indulging myself in butter-covered food of the gods, acknowledging the matinee crowd that traipsed in slowly, film buffs, couples out on dates, parents with young children in tow, or the other way round. We laughed as the ads played, and the sounds of my chewing found sympathetic patterns in the mastication of other film-goers. The film trailers got over; the passive-aggressive switch-off-cellphone ads got some of us to double-check our devices, and we clapped as the theater darkened for the main feature. And once the movie began, it took me about 20 horrific seconds to realize what I was in for. To decide I did not want to see it anymore.

The movie was Mamoru Hosoda’s Boy and the Beast, and you see, the version playing on that particular screening was the one dubbed into English.

No. No no no no.

In my head, there is a clear breach of expectation that happens when I go to watch a film in one language and get another. It does not have to be Japanese anime; I have found myself cringing when listening to Pixar movies dubbed in Spanish, or even a Cantonese film in Mandarin. For anime, it hits me in the worst kind of way; the closest analogy I can give is when you go to a restaurant and order a plate of samosas. When the waiter brings the plate in, you smell the delicious samosa-smell and your mouth begins to water. The waiter has even remembered to bring chutney, and it’s the right kind of chutney, the syrupy, tangy tamarind recipe that goes perfectly with samosas. Eagerly, you pick up one of them. It is the perfect temperature too; freshly fried and kept aside for just the perfect amount of time that you know there will be no waiting for the filling to cool down, and that your tongue is safe. You dip the samosa in the tamarind chutney and bite into it. How would you feel if that samosa, for some reason, is sweet, instead of salty?

When the opening narration in the movie began in English, in my head, I was sure that there was A Problem, and only Swift Decisive Action could solve it. I remembered that I had double-checked to see if the matinee show had the original language or not, and the website said that only the 4 PM show would be dubbed. 1 I could be that hero the rest of the audience needed. I ran outside, and the girl selling tickets was gone, and so was the manager, who had been lounging around reading a newspaper. There was only the guy selling popcorn, and he agreed with me, that the movie playing should be a subbed version. The manager came into view, finally, and he pointed out that Saturdays they only have two shows, and the 7 PM screening is when I would see the subbed version, if I wanted to come back. Unsure about my plans for the rest of the day, I got a refund. At 7 PM, however, I had come back. This time I did not buy the popcorn, and I made sure to ask about which language would play, before getting my ticket.

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The movie? It was okay. Visually stunning, like Mamoru Hosoda films are. Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai are two anime film-makers who have distinct visual styles of storytelling. More importantly, their films contain stories with an emotional depth that other, more lackadaisical animation film-makers either glaze over or dumb down. This however has the fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) of appending any discussion of the two film-makers’ work with a comparison to Hayao Miyazaki’s ouevre. I am guilty of making the same analogy when it comes to selling any of their work to my friends, to be honest. But here’s an admission — I think Hosoda and Shinkai, the latter in particular, bring in more emotional honesty and vulnerability into their work than Miyazaki ever did. Miyazaki protagonists are idealized archetypes, asexual and wide-eyed. These latter-day filmmakers make their characters more fragile and human, and that makes their work much more appealing to me.

On the surface, Hosoda’s style is much more aligned with the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli — a little-known fact is that he was tapped to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but Miyazaki took over due to creative differences. Much like the veteran film-maker, Hosoda’s work is rooted in Japanese tradition. Scenes from Wolf Children play out like extended homages to My Neighbor Totoro, and both Wolf and Summer Wars are as much about family ties and bonds with nature as any Ghibli movie you can think of. In Boy and The Beast, there are striking similarities to Spirited Away, especially with the concept of a parallel world that exists just beyond our world, and one human child that makes his way to the other side. There, Chihiro became Sen, with a flick of the characters in her name; here Ren becomes Kyuta because he is aged nine. There, our heroine was trapped in the land of the Others, who are unfamiliar and mostly horrific and unkind to trespassers; here, Kyuta willingly crosses over into a world of beasts who, though suspicious of the motives of the runaway human, mostly accept him in time. The theme of finding your family — blood or surrogate — loom large throughout the movie’s storyline, as does the idea of belonging.

My main issue is that most parts of the film feel rushed. It opens with a narrator explaining the situation, skimming through the world-building, telling us more than we can see. We never really understand certain characters’ motivations. There are too many montages — one where the characters go on a journey of self-discovery, for example, and meet a variety of powerful beasts in that world —no payoff to those scenes follow. Things get interesting when Kyuta begins his training under Kumatetsu, and the central theme of the film, that of these two unlike creatures finding themselves through each other, is cemented in this all-too-brief sequence. The third act falls apart almost completely, especially as grown-up Kyuta begins going back to the real world. Subplot brimming with threats and conflicts come out of nowhere, as do the resolutions; the romantic angle is all Jungle Book meets anime cliche, Ren’s meeting with his biological father is angst and adolescent fury, and the final boss-fight involves a character who is woefully under-explained. The only place, therefore, where Boy and The Beast really succeeds is in making us root for the titular characters right off the bat.

All in all, the movie suffers just because Hosoda’s previous work has been so good. Of course it’s a wonderful movie, full of wit and charm and moments, but it manages to not live up to expectations. But hey, this is from the guy that hated Howl’s Moving Castle the first time he saw it, and changed his mind later. If you get a chance to watch it, please do — and if you haven’t seen any of Hosoda’s previous work, check them out after this one.

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Notes:

  1. This had happened once before, you see, with a screening of a Ghibli movie, where but for an epiphany just before clicking the buy-button, I would have been sobbing through a dubbed movie after having taken a bus across town.
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Movies, Myself

The Ghibli Theater Watch: Princess Mononoke

This is easily the darkest of Miyazaki’s films, dark not only in the sense of the themes but also in that most of the film seems to happen in a twilight world, with little or no sunlight. Probably because most of the proceedings unfold inside forest canopies. The climax involves the morning sun, but the tension onscreen, with a decapitated being groping around for his head, negates its effect.

While Spirited Away had cute and quirky forest gods with the occasional gross-out creature thrown in, Mononoke’s menagerie of beings fall squarely on the malevolent side of the supernatural spectrum. The worm-infested Tatari-gami that attacks Ashitaka’s village in the opening sequence,  San’s guardian wolf-god (goddess?) Moro, the Ape gods that demand to eat human flesh – these are some scary, no-nonsense creatures. Even the benevolent deer god is a death-deity in his night-walker form.

And the kodamas? They are cute, I agree, but the clattering is fucking creepy, man. A lot of things in the film are fucking creepy. Like the part where Jiko’s men follow the wounded boar god as he stumbles blindly towards the Shishigami’s island, slithering alongside him wearing the skins of dead boars. Or the first time we see San, her face smeared in red, a feral creature of the woods. She spits out blood, and stares at the camera. Creepy.

Mononoke is also unique in the sense that it is an action movie from the Ghibli stable, and a period action movie at that. The violence is served without mercy – bullets and arrows whiz towards their targets with precision, blood flows freely, body parts fly sans concern for parental guidelines. The fight sequences are brutal and gravity-defying – San and Ashitaka’s rooftop confrontation, or the wolves leaping across jagged cliffs to strike at Eboshi’s procession. The final onslaught of the boars against the humans is a harrowing scene of destruction that makes you want to look away. Hisaishi’s score reflects the turmoil of the battlefields, one that booms to taiko drums and echoes through deep, rippling cello sweeps. There are brief moments of respite, like during the kodama sequences, but they are few and far between.

As always, it’s the details that get me. How the presence of Yakkul the elk (easily my favorite character in the movie) kind of nudges at the otherworldliness of the setting. The way we learn about Ashitaka’s outsider status (and that of his people) when he tries to buy food from a village market in course of his quest. Lady Eboshi is one fascinating non-villain, and you would be hard-pressed to really dislike her or not see things from her point of view. Mononoke, like most Ghibli films, has things to say about the relationship between mankind and nature, about co-existence and mutualism, and its lovely to see shades of grey abound in the story, instead of broad strokes of good vs evil.

The scene where Kaya, one of the girls in Ashitaka’s village gives him her Gyoku no Kogatana (and the subs say “obsidian knife”) made me smile, because I remembered suddenly the name of the gentleman who had written the dialogues for the English version. He was not as well-known then as he is now, but I remember reading his discussion about why he chose the word “obsidian” instead of something more generic, like “jade”. His name was Neil Gaiman. He wrote the dialogues to make the film, soaked in details and minutiae of Japanese folklore, more accessible to Western audiences. One such changed detail that came to mind was the voice of Moro. Japanese culture has male voices for wolves, regardless of gender – and it comes as a shock to a first-time non-Japanese viewer (umm, me, circa 2004) when you realize that San calls Moro “mother”. To remedy that, Gillian Anderson voiced her in the American dub.

While I really did not remember much of the film from my eight-year-old viewing, the memory of one particular scene lingered, and I looked forward to see how my perception of it would be altered when I saw it now. That scene – in which the deer god appears for the first time, and makes his way towards the wounded Ashitaka on the island, flowers blooming and withering in his wake – occurs in perfect silence. When it played on my PC, I was half-tempted to check if the sound system had conked off. If I remember right, the Weinsteins tried to introduce a musical score in this sequence for the US release just because audiences weren’t used to absolute silence – Miyazaki refused, obviously. I am not sure how Americans watching it in theaters in the early 2000s took it. But in the Egyptian that night, when the deer god made his appearance, I realized two things – one, I was holding my breath. And two, so was everyone else in the theater. The guy two seats away from me, who had been wheezing until then, had fallen silent. The gang of students giggling behind me, ditto. No popcorn being chewed, or shoes shuffling in the dark, or creaking seats. Have you ever been in a packed theater that has fallen silent at the right cinematic moment?

That was something to remember.

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Movies, Myself

The Ghibli Theater Watch: Spirited Away

True story.
Around 2001 or so, I heard rumblings about a Japanese film called Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi. It was not quite the pre-Internet era, just the time when you would pay through your nose to browse. But the illustrations I saw in those few stray magazines were good enough for me to go look for more information online (text-only, of course, for faster browsing). So I read all I could about Sen To Chihiro. This was years before Japan really got into my skin, but I was enthused. Happy that something non-Disney was getting recognition around the world.

Then someone mentioned a new animated movie that was coming out. Something so good that it had even been nominated for the Oscars. I was a little miffed at this. How can something as good as Sen To Chihiro be overlooked in favor of something with a name as bland as Spirited Away? Never mind that I had not seen either film, I was just taken aback at the injustice of it all. This may sound ridiculous now. (Sure does to me) It was some time before I realized that the two movies were the same. Oh well, so it goes.

I passed on the dubbed screening of Spirited Away a few days ago, opting instead to go for the Japanese version two nights ago, at the Egyptian. And I have arrived at the conclusion that Spirited Away is a flawless film.

I had a conversation with a friend a few hours before watching it. She found the film too dark – I disagreed. No denying that there are moments of darkness in the film, but nothing more than most children’s literature, where the oft-used plot pivot (as I had talked about in my review of Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet) is the loss of family, probably the only primal fear that a child has. The scene where Chihiro’s parents undergo their transformation, therefore,  is visceral.  Their squeals are like fingernails clawing on a blackboard, and her shriek of horror is terrifying. Another scene that creeps me out is when we hear Yubaba’s raspy voice for the first time along with a closeup of her lips, calling Chihiro into her inner chambers. Brrr.

But every serious moment in the film has its counterpoint, every note of menace balanced by an undercurrent of humor that unknots your stomach. The malevolent sorceress becoming a whimpering bundle of maternal concern in the middle of a conversation about skinning this impudent little human girl defuses the tension in an instant. Once you realize that the villains are not as omnipotent as they seem, that rules govern this magical world, you relax a bit. Chihiro’s parents aren’t going to turn into bacon, and the little girl will find a way.

Is Chihiro the perfect Miyazaki heroine? I find the character refreshing, sans pretension or the mores and genre responsibilities thrust upon other Ghibli heroines. Chihiro is grumpy, scared, out of her depth. And yet, despite moments of weakness, she copes. She demonstrates remarkable levels of ingenuity and spunk, be it when facing down the sorceress Yubaba or dealing with stinky river gods. She finds untapped veins of courage in herself when wanting to make amends for Haku’s transgression. Now that’s a heroine for you. The way she is animated is unreal – observe the way she petulantly hops from one foot to the other, whining at her parents to hurry up. Or the careful manner her feet make their way down the tall stairs down to the steam room.

It goes without saying that all the Ghibli films boast of exquisite visual palettes. Spirited Away takes this design opulence and cranks it all the way up to one hundred and eleven. The bath-house of eight million gods is inhabited by the most curious characters, the human-looking ones characterized by extra-large heads and a distinctive look, the non humans… The first time we see the non-human guests of this otherworldly resting place, they are blurry blobs. Then they materialize out of nothingness, charcoal-grey misty forms coalescing into a procession of monsters, spirits and kami of various shapes, sizes and emotional dispositions. Every single one of them feels made of a million stories.

And that, to me, enhances the experience of a Miyazaki story. There are no helpful sign-posts telling us what to expect out of these characters or what archetypes they represent. We do not know who No-Face is, or what attracts him to Chihiro when he (she? It?) feels her human presence on the bridge. There is absolutely nothing we know about the three bouncy heads in Yubaba’s boudoir – other than that they bounce, and that they like to eat, when they get a chance. It is a wonderful universe, this Other Realm, and it’s gratifying to know that we will perhaps never know all these stories. We won’t, but that does not mean they never happened. Wouldn’t a lesser film-maker have succumbed to the temptation of leaving a stray wink at the audience, maybe a fleeting glimpse of a beloved forest-god with a leafy umbrella, or a deer that walks on water? Hell, I would pay money to see a whole movie starring the soot creatures and Kamaji in the boiler room. Or the adventures of miniature Bo and bird-Baba, squeaking their way through this wonderland.

The main piano theme that opens the film is probably my favorite Hisaishi composition for Studio Ghibli. Though I find the first few minutes of the film undeserving of the background score that plays, the music a little too overbearing for the proceedings. Probably because I dislike Chihiro’s parents as much as humanly possible. The orchestral violins in the soundtrack rise slow, sweeping into a crescendo as Chihiro gets more and more agitated and as the world changes, . There are the playful chirps and twangs that Hisaishi employs, motifs for different characters. A dream-team, the director and his composer!

A few last memories – the scenes in the evening, where we see lights and lanterns being lit slowly. The unending stretches of water, and the sound of the train moving through it. And the sound of crickets.

If there’s an afterlife, I want it to be like a Miyazaki film.

Once upon a time, when I felt like it, I would paint. And I painted this for a dear friend. I was especially happy with the Totoro cameo.

Chihiro and Haku

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Movies

The Ghibli Theater Watch: Whisper of the Heart

Damn you, world, for taking away Yoshifumi Kondo too early.

Kondo was the man who would have taken Miyazaki and Takahata’s place as their successor, had he not passed away in 1998. Whisper of the Heart remains the only full-length work he directed, though he worked on some other Ghibli films. It is also one of the few non-fantasy Ghibli films, and a great gateway film for people who are not fans of outré stories.

I am a little sceptical of the script, however. The library card subplot segues too easily into the curious case of the subway-hopping cat. Shizuku meeting Seiji-kun the way she does makes the cynic in me want to poke my finger at those points of the script and laugh in derision. I also have a mild reaction towards the last few lines of the film, during the sunrise – while I get the spirit in which they appear, it’s not as serious as it should have been. Meh, I am being obtuse, I know. I’m sorry. (I learnt just now that the American release did not have the words that bother me in them. That means I am not the only one thinking that way.)

The remarkable use of ‘Country Roads’ – or ‘Concrete Roads’, if you prefer that version. Those fuzzy-warm little moments involving the song. Like the scene where Shizuku shows Yuki the first draft of the lyrics and both of them hum the somewhat-clunky rhymes together. The apology scene by the three friends, where the offended poet throws her nose up in the air until they beg Shizuku-sama’s forgiveness. And of course, the jam sequence always has me grinning madly and bobbing my  head along to Seiji’s violin-playing. Yuji Nomi composed just two Ghibli soundtracks, and the one for Whisper of the Heart is magnificent!

My favorite character in the film is not who you would expect – it’s Shizuku’s dad. He works as a librarian, and apparently keeps an eye on his daughter’s reading habits. “Strange to see Shizuku reading non-fiction”, he remarks, when she pores through reference books when writing her story. Quick to take control when his daughters argue, and does so without raising his voice. The hasty puff of the cigarette when his wife complains at him lighting up at the table. And of course, his consensual support of her two-month trial. Most Miyazaki dads are awesome – and Mr Tsukishima is one of the best.

Muta the cat (or Moon, if you prefer) is the epitome of feline airiness, and is probably my second-favorite character.

I like the way there are multiple love stories going on in the film – most of them unrequited. Yuki and the guy who wrote her the letter, Yuki and Sugimura, Sugimura and Shizuku, the Dwarf King and the Goat who turns into a princess, Shizuku and Seiji, the Baron and Louise, Nishi and Eloisa. There’s also Shiho and the mysterious person she writes letters to.

All in all, Whisper of the Heart brings a lump to my throat every time I see it. There’s a very strong feeling of nostalgia it evokes in me. The scenes at the library. The winding and hilly roads the characters cycle through. The school scenes. Rain. Studying for exams. The sound of crickets on a warm summer day. And most of all, the thought that sometimes, some stories begin in the most unexpected ways, in ways you could never imagine.

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Movies

The Ghibli Theater Watch: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

My biggest problem with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is that I find the eponymous lead character too one-dimensional. What we know about her is spelt out in the first 30 minutes of the film – a kind-hearted princess, explorer of the Sea of Decay, someone who knows the ways of the strange creatures that inhabit it. After that, other than one throwaway line about anger management, we get nothing. But that I guess is the burden of the Miyazaki heroine – an adolescent that is forever asexual, virtuous to the point of saccharine-sweetness, and dripping with innocence.

The only thing that has dated about this 28-year old film is the score. Don’t get me wrong, Joe Hisaishi’s work is still miles ahead of any animated film soundtrack of that vintage, especially the main piano theme and the vocal leitmotif for the Fields of Gold sequence. The seams show up with the rather ham-fisted Ohmu tracks, where sitar and santoor strains meant to evoke mysticism and awe come off as as pidgin New Age. And the cheesy drums in the action sequences scream of eighties disco.

The film is also surprisingly humorless. Unintended moments of mirth trickle out in some of the voice acting, but the only comic relief is provided by the occasional sardonic quip made by Kurotawa, the general of Tolmekia. There is a out-of-place sequence that reeks of forced humor, where Asbel of Pejite makes faces when chewing some nuts in the fossilized under-world that the two of them find.

But all complaints aside, what a film! From the first frame onwards, the post-apocalypic world is revealed bit by bit to us, in brilliant, miniscule detail. Fantastic creature designs – you can almost feel the pollen-like effervescence that covers the decaying parts. The gentle pastel and watercolor cel-shades are way more faithful to Miyazaki’s painting style than his later works. Long sequences bereft of words or music, overlaid with the sound of the wind, are bold sound design choices for the time. There was a dubbed recut version released in the 80s, called Warriors of the Wind, and I am sure they added lots and lots of discerning soundtrack choices throughout the film. Human flight is of course a recurring Miyazaki theme. The flying sequences are awe-inspiring even today, especially the parts where the airships fight in the clouds. All the other Miyazaki themes are also in place – environmentalism, anti-war and a mellow good/evil conflict.

What was going on in the US the year Nausicaa released in Japan? Movies released that year include The Terminator, Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, One Upon a Time in America and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Among animated releases, Walt Disney released a home video reissue of its 1973 film Robin Hood. The Transformers came out on TV for the first time. Did the people watching these even know about this Japanese release? Doubt it.

And I saw the trailer to The Secret World of Arrietty for the first time. It’s going to be screened at the Egyptian on the 13th, 4 days before the official US release. I may give that a miss if it’s the dubbed version, though.

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