Monday, 24 September 2012

Studio Ghibli Part 4

From up on Poppy Hill

 Ghibli's latest work is one of their more down to earth pieces. This time the screenplay is co-authored by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, based on the manga by Tetsuro Sayama. It’s directed by Hayao’s son Goro, who co-wrote and directed the Disappointing Tales from Earthsea. I think he does a slightly better job here, it’s a screenplay that doesn’t lend itself so well to animation, but there are few flourishes to bring it to life. But it’s not one of the most interesting stories they’ve produced, but it does still have some endearing characters to carry enough interest. It does leave me slightly worried as to how well Goro will carry on his father’s legacy if he is to be carrying on with this for years to come. It’s a passable film, but in terms of their drama’s set largely in schools. The made for TV movie Ocean Waves does a better job. 

 Ocean Waves 

 A slightly different work from Ghibli, a film worked on by some of the more junior members of the Ghibli staff. They were given a chance by being asked to produce a made for TV movie. Although it still went over budget anyway. Still the shorter running time seems to really help this film as it tells a much tighter, more focused story. Aimed at a demographic they don’t go for as much - the teenage love triangle story and how a girl affects the friendship between two boys. It’s not able to have as strong an emotional impact as some of their major features, but what it aims to do, it does well. It seems a shame they’ve not done smaller films like this, as it allows them to try their hand at different styles.

 Whisper of the Heart 

 A screenplay by Miyazaki but the only film to be directed by Yoshifumi Kondō who tragically died of an Aneurysm a few years after making this film. It was believed to be caused by work-related stress. And you can see from the film that he was a man who dedicated himself to his work, because it looks stunning even by Ghibli’s standards. Its story falls in-between the down to earth and the fantastical stories. So it has the strong resonant character driven drama, along with some of the more childish wonder. That description may give you the wrong impression, from what I’d read about it going in, I thought the main character Shizuku would enter a fantasy world at some point. All that actually happens is we see some small extracts from the book she’s writing. There’s a sense of some other magical things going on but they’re macguffins, albeit very effective macguffins. When thinking about the Disney comparisons it occurred to me that the closest this film gets to a musical number is when the characters sit around at one point singing and playing instruments, performing a cover of “Country roads” which somehow manages to feel much more exciting and magical than any other Disney number that springs to mind. So this films goes somewhere near the top of my list for managing to combine many of the elements that Ghibli do so well. It feels different yet still does what they do best as well. 

The Cat Returns

 Loosely a sequel to Whisper of the Heart in that it heavily features The Baron from Whisper of the Heart. This is certainly one of the films aimed at a younger audience and it’s much more of an adventure story. It’s one that feels a little more ‘slight’ in comparison to their other works and it would probably be because it had been intended for a straight to video release. It’s the only film to be directed by Hiroyuki Morita. It may have had a similar intent behind it as Ocean Waves. The animation does look a little cheaper and simpler than the average Ghibli film but they were evidently impressed enough with it to give it a cinematic release. It does have a shorter, simpler running time. So it’s an enjoyable story, but not essential, one for people like me, who have become compelled to be completest. I think if there’ one problem with it, is it’s largely centred on a secret kingdom of cats. Which is cute and everything, but the internet has ruined cats for me. It does predate the proliferation of cat memes though, so that shouldn’t be held against it.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Replaying Silent Hill 2

So I’ve replayed Silent Hill 2 recently and let myself get properly sucked in to the world this time, I’ve done speed runs to get bonus endings and stuff in the past, but this time I took it in slowly, listened on headphones and played it late at night to really get absorbed into the world. One thing I’ve been reminded of in replaying is just how detailed the world is. Every time you enter a room it tells a story. Sometimes, an obscure, indecipherable story, but there’s a reason it’s there. The room in the apartment complex with all the butterflies – I’m not sure why it’s there, but there’s a probably a good reason for it. The riddles and puzzles in the game are there to explore specific themes. The hospital in particular constantly brings things back to mental illnesses. You could tell some fascinating backstories based on the puzzles and memo’s found in Silent Hill games, and indeed the plot of SH4 was based on a newspaper article found in SH2.

What Silent Hill has, and Silent Hill 2 in particular has that other games lack is that the whole experience feels like someone is fucking with you. Everything is tailored towards you. One of the differences in Resident Evil games for instance is that the world still operates without you. This is a normal world gone wrong, but one of the fascinating aspects of Silent Hill games is there’s the sense that someone has been there before you and left all these hints for you to find. But you can never tell if they’re on your side or not. You always feel that there’s some intangible presence, whose mercy you’re constantly at, and whether they’re enemy or friend you can never be certain. There’s something that actively hates you and wants to punish you and make you unhappy.
There’s also no other game world that feels so grimey and decaying. It’s irritating that the art direction in Silent Hill games would subsequently come back to the iconography of the first game as if the mist world/otherworld divide was all there was to it.

SH2 seemed more pre-occupied with things that have become rotting away. It’s harder to describe it simply because the idea of the ‘otherworld’ is much more blurred in the game. You don’t get an ‘otherworld’ until the hospital and that has more the look of a condemned, bombed building. The prison and labyrinth beneath the historical society all already feels like a nightmarish alternative world when you arrive, and it’s debatable just how real that is anyway. So the only other place with an otherworld is the hotel, which feels more flooded and burnt than anything else. [Spoiler] And the implication is, the hotel had burnt down, so the otherworld version is the real version of the Hotel [/spoiler]

So many themes and ideas are reinforced in every aspect of the game. So for any future developers that want to do something “that gets back to SH2 roots” what you need to do is think about how everything you include in the game adds to the overall piece.  You can’t just throw a load of Silent Hill clichés at the wall and hoping they stick together.  

Monday, 10 September 2012

Debunking the Phrase "You forget you're watching an animation"

I’ve become quite annoyed put by the amount of times I’ve read the phrase “you start to forget it’s an animation” This has come up quite a few times for me recently, since I like to look at some of the IMDB reviews after I watching one of the Ghibli films I’ve been going through lately. I remember seeing Roger Egbert’s comments on Grave of the Fireflies, even though he’s made some excellent comments on why that and Totoro are great, there’s always the slight sense that he’s trying to apologize and justify the film because of reservations people might have because it’s animated.

The only thing I can read into it is that these people have very narrow preconceptions about what Animation is and does. How exactly could you forget you’re watching animation? Just because something is telling a heartfelt and compelling story, is that suddenly outside the realms of what animation does? Do you feel slightly insecure about liking animation? I think we’ve proved by this point that it isn’t just for telling wacky children’s stories. I mean come on guys; it’s the 90’ for goodness sake! We’ve all seen the Simpsons.

Personally I’ve never found I forget I’m watching a cartoon because they can themselves to a specific art directions that defines the world it’s taking place in. It can do things with mood lighting in a way that isn’t always possible when relying on natural light. You can tell so much about a character through simple eye movements and even through things like the way they move and walk and other little bits of physical business that have a unique look and feel because of the way it’s animated. So no I didn’t forget I was watching an animation, because even some very down to earth stories can be best told through animation.

Studi Ghibli part 3 - Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata brings a more experimental angle to Ghibli. Not to diminish Hayao Miyazaki – He produced so much, you can’t expect him to not be more inconsistent, but seeing as he's directed so many films, you do see more of a formula emerge. Takahata goes outside the usual remit. You wouldn't get Pixar making the films he makes. I’ll be focusing on a few of his films today.

Grave of the Fireflies

Set in Japan during World War 2, we see the struggles teenage boy Seita and his child sister Setsuko. From the opening you know the two of them are going to die by the end of the film, so you can expect it to be going to be tough going. It’s not a war film about soldiers but about the struggles it puts on civilians and the callousness of adults that develops because of it. In spite of all the tragedy there are moments of levity to the film. But it doesn’t pull any punches about the horrors of war. The film was released as a double feature alongside Totoro at the time, which seems incredible. Though there’s nothing in particular about the film that is something children shouldn’t see, but we understandably want to shelter children from these things in films because we don’t want to upset them. It was a relief to read that they’d play this one first and then Totoro second. You’d at least get a charming, benign world afterwards to contrast with the traumatising, devastation of Grave of the Fireflies. So it’s an important film to see, there are moments of beauty within the film, but definitely one you have to be in the right frame of mind to see.

Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday tells the story of Taeko - a woman in her mid to late twenties, she’s lived in Tokyo her whole life, works in an office, but spends a holiday in the countryside working on a family’s organic farm. Throughout the film she remembers incidents from her life when she was 10 years old. It’s one that of all the Ghibli films could be the closest to being applied to my own life. It’s not an age group we usually see depicted. Looking at the conflict between rural and city life, and whether you’ve followed the path you wanted in your child. It’s a film that beautifully evokes childhood. I sometimes found myself having to pause and rewind the film as I suddenly realized I’d been just thinking about incidents from school, rather than paying attention. Next to Ocean Waves it’s the most realistic, and staid of all the Ghibli films. Not that I’m suggesting it’s boring because of this, a scene of ten year old Taeko and her family trying a pineapple for the first time is incredibly endearing. So it combines the beauty of countryside depictions, childhood and the small details of human interaction. It takes a very realistic story that could arguably be better performed in live-action but makes it work much better for the medium.

Pom Poko

This film probably isn’t quite what you’d expect from any images you’d see of it. A group of Japanese animals called the Tanuki. It translates as Raccoon Dogs although in the film this is simplified to just Raccoons. It was only through reading that I realized quite a bit of the film is based on Japanese folklore about the creatures. You’ll get by without knowing this, but there are moments where you might find yourself thinking “there’s a reference I’m not getting here.”
From the look of the film, it would almost appear to be a Disney or Dreamworks esque wacky adventure about talking animals. And well it kind of is in a way, but I wasn’t expecting it to have such a wry sense of humour. It’s easily the funniest Ghibli film. The plot is driven by the fact forests are being cleared in Tokyo and so the racoons have to find ways to fight back, in their desperation, they discover that many of them have shapeshifting abilities, to the extent that many of them can disguise themselves as human, and go to the city to bring back food. The humour slows down as it becomes more of a nature vs. man story that is typical of Ghibli, though it plays out through a different angle. Again it’s a something a child could probably enjoy but it’s a little more mature in some it’s humour. There are some fairly dark jokes where people die along the way. It reminds me of Arrested Development at times in the ways it uses the narrator to comment on things on-screen. There’s also the matter of the Tanuki testicles. The creatures are well known in Japan for their large testicles (yes) they aren’t mentioned in any kind of sexualized way and in the English translation they refer to them as pouches. Just so you know. (As if anyone was looking at this blog for that kind of advice.)

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Radio comedy

I went to see a recording of radio 4 show, Party tonight. I’ve tended to bypass a lot of radio comedy, which is my own loss I know, and it’s a bit of an unusual situation since it’s now in its 3rd series. And I was going in cold. It’s usual for me to be a bit more clued up on these things before going to them and writing about them.

Still it was a pleasant evening, half the audience like me, hadn’t been to see it before. I’ve been a fan of Tom Basden and Tim Key’s work so I was intrigued to see it. Tom Basden came out beforehand to explain it wouldn’t matter if you hadn’t seen it before, so not exactly the most narrative driven show then.
It’s an enjoyable show, with a good group of actors and characters playing off each other, but it’s still seems to exist in this radio 4 void where everything is a lot safer and more twee than real life. 

That’s fine really. It’s amusing tea time listening. I think that’s why Radio 4 comedy isn’t something I’ve ever really made much effort to seek out. This probably sounds dismissive towards an entire beloved institution, it’s not really meant to. But I think it suggests to me that there’s a surprising lack of really ambitious radio comedy. There’s a lack of unusual, experimental or darker radio comedy in the vein of say Blue Jam, even Podcast haven’t taken up that market much. But with Radio Comedy being more of an institution here I’d like to see more of it in either medium.