Toons

It’s Time to Blow The City/ Get Everybody and The Stuff Together

Once upon a time, a decade and a half ago, to be precise, I was introduced to the work of composer Yoko Kanno, and spent endless hours swimming in her music. The soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop was one of the foundational albums of my life. It became not only as my favorite anime OST album of all time, but was high on the list of genre-bending musical works that have inspired me to keep looking for, and appreciating, new music. (Other names in that list, you ask? The OST of Kill Bill. Gangs of Wasseypur. Dev-D. Susheela Raman’s Love Trap.) Oh, lookit, I used to rave about her music so much, back in the day.

Yoko Kanno’s music never really faded from my life, but like other artistes I enjoy and have heard in depth, I would return to the fountain of her album with delicate steps, drinking lightly, trying not to let the taste get too over-familiar. There is a joy to traversing half-forgotten pathways in your brain, when you find yourself being able to anticipate the harkat in an instrumental solo milliseconds before the fact, or when your body tenses at the aneurysm-inducing chorus that is about to hit. It also helped that her music, specifically the Cowboy Bebop OST was not on Spotify, my music application of choice.

That changed in July this year, when all the Seatbelts’ (which is the name of the band that Kanno got together to produce the Bebop OST) work was finally up on Spotify. Here are the complete albums, all seven of them in a single playlist.

But the intersection of Cowboy Bebop and 2020 began before that, with the Seatbelts getting together on Youtube to produce a set of live virtual sessions for charity, called the Starduck Sessions. Yoko Kanno makes special appearances in them, a dancing shadow on ‘Tank’, person sleeping in bathtub on ‘Lion Sleeping’, helmet-wearing pianist in ‘Space Lion’. A particular favorite is the smoky, intimate version of ‘Real Folk Blues’ by Mai Yamane, stripped down to voice, guitar, and bass. All eight videos are here. I swear I blinked back tears at ‘Space Lion’, all over again.

But that was not just it. You see, during the pandemic, a bunch of musicians, with the blessing of Sunrise, the original producers of Cowboy Bebop, and Funimation, the US distributors, produced a virtual session of “The Real Folk Blues”.

The musicians really take it to the next level, especially the combination of singers Shihori and Uyanga Bold, along with guest vocalists Raj Ramayya (one of the voices on both the Bebop movie and OST). The list of musicians is staggering, as is the production quality. The main vocalists do their thing with the original Japanese lyrics, alternating lines among themselves, while the chorus goes into overdrive with a bunch of backing vocalists. Listen to how Uyanga jams with the saxophone at 2:56.

The fun begins when the original song ends. That’s when three rappers get in and add their layers of poetry as the music continues. While the performance in and of itself was enough to get my nerd juices flowing, it’s the appearance of the original Seatbelts line-up in this final part that got me teary-eyed again. Look, there’s Ms Kanno too, being weird and cute and so full of all the coolness. Mai Yamane says hello too.

The full lineup of musicians, from the Youtube description.

Mix / Additional Guitar: Masahiro Aoki (Legendary former composer at Capcom with credits on Megaman, Street Fighter V, Astral Chain, and more)

Organ: Robbie Benson (Band leader, Super Soul Bros)

Keys: Ed Goldfarb (Series Composer, Pokémon: The Animated Series)

Guitar: David McLean (Guitarist on Beyblade Burst, One Minute Melee, host of Animyze)

Synth/Additional Sound Design: Jason Walsh (Senior composer and sound designer at Hexany Audio with recent credits including Overwatch Contenders, PUBG Mobile, and League of Legends)

Bass: Matthew Hines (Touring bassist with recent gigs including the Jonas Brothers, Ledisi, Summer Walker, Kiana Lede, Bazzi, and more)

Drums: Kevin Brown (Touring drummer with recent gigs including Jason Hawk Harris, the Southern California Brass Consortium, and more)

Saxophone: Zac Zinger (Composer and woodwind player for Street Fighter V, Jump Force, Mobile Suit Gundam: Side stories, and more)

Flute: Kevin Penkin (Series composer, Made in Abyss, Rising of the Shield Hero, more)

Lead Vox 1: Shihori (J-pop singer and song-writer on shows like Fairy Tail, Macross Frontier, Irregular at Magic Highschool, and more.)

Lead Vox 2: Úyanga Bold (Lead vocals on things like Mulan (2020), League of Legends, and multiple projects with Hans Zimmer/Pinar Toprak etc.)

Lead Vox 3: Raj Ramayya (Lead vocals on Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Wolf’s Rain, Made in Abyss, and more)

Backing Vox 1: Dale North (Composer for Dreamscaper, Wizard of Legend, Sparklight, Nintendo Minute, and more)

Backing Vox 2: Dawn M. Bennett (Voice actress for anime and game series like Dragon Ball Super, Fairy Tail, RWBY, Borderlands 3, and more)

Backing Vox 3: Kaitlyn Fae (Filipino-American singer, actor, writer, director, co-host on the nerd video podcast, PanGeekery)

Rap 1: Substantial (Legendary jazz-hop rapper, Nujabes’ collaborator, with dozens of major placements and projects)

Rap 2: Mega Ran (Critically-acclaimed nerdcore legend)

Rap 3: Red Rapper AKA Zaid Tabani (Rapper with credits on Street Fighter, the EVO worldwide fighting tournament’s main theme, and Rooster Teeth’s Red VS. Blue)

Poem: D.B. Cooper (Voice Actress and director on Hearthstone, Bioshock 2, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Ghostbusters (2016), DC Universe Online, and more)

Spoken word: Beau Billingslea (Voice actor from Cowboy Bebop – Jet Black)

Ending Tag: Steve Blum (Voice actor from Cowboy Bebop – Spike Spiegel)

String Director/String Arranger/Orchestrator/Disco slide king: Lance Treviño (Film composer for titles like Beyblade Burst God, Hanazuki, Chef’s Table, and more!)

String Copyist/Orchestrator/String Mockup: Dallas Crane (Multimedia composer and personal assistant to Austin Wintory)

Strings: Our string section is composed of brilliant artists whose individual credits include grammy nominations, tours with artists like Eminem, Sting, and Hans Zimmer, and recordings for soundtracks like Steven Universe, God of War, The Lion King (2019), and many, many more.

Violins – Molly Rogers, David Morales Boroff, Felicia Rojas, Jeff Ball

Violas – Joe Chen, Molly Rogers, Isaac Schutz, Jeff Ball

Cellos – Andrew Dunn, David Tangney

Upright Bass – Travis Kindred

After all the tears had fallen, it was time for me to go back to basics, and re-watch the series and the movie. 20 episodes in, and I can’t get over how timeless Cowboy Bebop remains. ‘Asteroid Blues’ is the episode I must have seen at least 20 times in 3 years, giving friends the initial hit of the show. ‘Jamming With Edward’ and ‘Mushroom Samba’ still get me laughing hysterically. The poignant episodes with Faye and Jet still hit that perfect note of melancholy and wonder. The boy from seventeen years ago would approve, I think.

Footnotes

  • Guess what, The Yoko Kanno Project is still online, a rarity in a world of rapidly decaying links from two decades ago.
  • I never knew that the character of Ed was based on Kanno herself, according to director Shinichiro Watanabe. I found that out a few days ago.
  • Of course, it’s but natural that after watching Bebop, I will be jumping on Samurai Champloo, followed by Kids on the Slope, both of which I have seen before. It’s Watanabe’s newer ouevre that I haven’t seen, including Terror In Resonance and Carole and Tuesday. To be remedied soon.
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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.

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.

the-boy-and-the-beast

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.

hosoda2

 

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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Toons

Steamboat Willie, Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney

Steamboat Willie, for those who came in late, was the third Mickey Mouse short developed by Walt Disney and his two-man team of animators after they were kicked off the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. The first two, Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho were fairly straightforward gag reels. In the first, the cheeky little mouse tried to build a plane, succeeded and asked Minnie to ride with him. While in the air, he tried unsuccessfully to kiss her, a somewhat disturbing sequence because you don’t really expect to see the iconic character forcing himself on his soon-to-be-constant girlfriend. Galloping Gaucho has Mickey as a cowboy ( riding a bird, which wikipedia tells me is a rhea, and not an ostrich as I believed), encountering arch-nemesis Peg Leg Pete for the first time, as he abducts bar dancer Minnie. Cowboy Mickey sets off in hot pursuit on a thoroughly-sozzled bird, indulges in a stylish swordfight with Pete and rides off with Minnie into the sunset.

The two failed to evoke much interest because they were too similar to other funny animal cartoons of the time. Disney therefore began work on a third Mickey Mouse short, ambitiously decided to add sound to it, voicing the lead character himself in a falsetto that jars the first time you hear it. With Mickey as a jaunty sailor aboard a steamboat, it had recurring characters Peg Leg Pete as the ill-tempered captain and Minnie as a musical-minded passenger. Though billed as a “talking toon”, none of the characters have much to say. Minnie and Mickey squeal at opportune moments of distress and astonishment, Pete brays in anger and a mischieveous parrot laughs sarcastically at Mickey’s ill-treatment at the hands of the captain. What must have captured the popular imagination at the time, because Steamboat Willie was a roaring hit, unlike its predecessors, was the seamless use of music in the narrative. That, and the zany humour of Ub Iwerks.

Iwerks was one of the animators who stuck with Disney after the botched Oswald deal. Willie is billed as ‘a Walt Disney Cartoon, drawn by Ub Iwerks’, and it’s without doubt Iwerks’ magical hand that makes for much of the charm of the cartoon. At the peak of his career, he was rumoured to be drawing more than 600 figures a day, with Disney and Les Clark both chipping in, of course.  While Disney is creditted with coming up with the Mickey Mouse character, after a pet mouse named Mortimer he had, Iwerks was the guy who fleshed out the familiar iconography – the circular ears, the short pants, the scraggly tail. Biographers portray Disney as the ambitious extrovert, the business-minded brains of the organization, while Iwerks was the sturdy work-horse artist chained to his table, demanding the most of his apprentices as Disney Studios began to expand.

A lot of weirdness pervades the six and a half minute Steamboat Willie. Pete barges in on the happy mouse whistling a tune to himself, infuriated by his carefree attitude at the rudder, he pulls at Mickey’s midriff, stretching it out like rubber. Which Mickey stubbornly rolls and puts back in his pants. Pete chews a wad of tobacco, a tooth magically slides open to allow him to spit the juice out, and the spittle richochets back into a hanging bell. Much amused, Pete tries it again, turning to the bell to see it ring again; the juice lands squarely on his face. Seventy years later, the sequence still manages to make me ( and the eleven-year-old son of a friend, who is watching it with me ) double up in laughter. Much unpolitically-correct hilarity follows when Minnie boards the boat – actually, Mickey helps her board with the help of a rather bashful hook, and a goat chews up her sheet music. The scene then becomes what Disney productions would soon be famous for – their song and dance sequences. Mickey proceeds to make music out of the most unlikely instruments – a washboard, squealing piglets, a cow’s teeth, even by whirling a cat by its tail.

The groan-worthy bit is that Disney evidently found that the song and dance sequences were more crowd-pleasing than the completely irreverent humour in the short. The flurry of Disney shorts that followed – sixteen in 1929, with twelve of them featuring Mickey, including The Barn Dance,The Opry House, When the Cat’s Away, The Karnival Kid – were all productions that showcased some musical set-piece with the characters. In most, notably The Opry House and The Barn Dance, the music was the only glue holding it all together, the gags far apart and  added almost as an afterthought. They evoke an occasional smile, but do not enthrall you the way Steamboat Willie did, with its frenetic pace and no-holds-barred humour. Needless to add that Mickey Mouse, having become the official “face” of Disney, would no longer be the rascally Iwerks version he was in Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie. Ultimately he would become a mouthpiece for energy conservation ( in a free comic distributed by Exxon in the late 1970s) and even a presidential candidate. One might argue that Disney’s clear-cut, family-friendly animation that kept the American cartoon industry stuck in a rut until the 90s, until the likes of Groening, Lasseter and Parker/Stone made the medium relevant again with their seminal vision, but financial success never eluded Disney and his legacy well until the eighties.

Ub Iwerks had a fall-out with Disney in 1930, just two years after Mickey Mouse came into being, when he chose to found a short-lived animation studio of his own with the help of a financier who was on the verge of bankrupting Walt Disney. Nothing much came out that venture, while Disney went from strength to strength. Over time, it’s not even evident that Mickey Mouse was a co-creation, not just one man’s vision, especially because latter-day releases on video and DVD avoid Iwerks’ name altogether. Iwerks did return to the Disney studio later, and worked on some visual effects for the company, but a host of talented newcomers had taken over most of his old ground.

This is one of the failed collaborations that bring to mind ideas of what might have been had the two friends remained partners – would Disney have come out of the song-and-dance template that it sank into in the decades that followed, had Iwerks been around?Or would Iwerks have faded into obscurity anyway, the way non-business-minded halves of partnerships seem destined to be? ( think Kirby/Ditko and Lee, Waeerkar and Pai).

( thoughts brought about after downloading a 36 GB gigatorrent of Disney shorts)

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