Adieu Galaxy Express (1981)

A couple of days ago, the delightful @PulpLibrarian made an insightful little observation on Twitter while celebrating Space: 1999. “Harshing on Space:1999 for not being hard sci-fi misses the point: the show is about space being weird and frightening, not about physics and engineering.” And I thought that was particularly interesting because we were coming up on watching another Galaxy Express movie, and this isn’t a world of science fiction, despite the spaceships and laser guns and robot men, it’s a world of allegory and poetry and hero’s journeys and maturity. It’s a strange and occasionally really weird world because it’s so on the nose, but that’s the point of the way this narrative is told: all the ray guns are distractions and fantasies, this is specifically about a boy growing up.

So Adieu Galaxy Express is an arguably unnecessary sequel, told at emphatically unnecessary length. Marie, who really has better things to do than watch boys grow into men in cartoon movies, shook her head from exhaustion and said they could have told this story in half the time. She’s right. There are some things I like and admire about this one, but considering how much more entertaining the original one was, they could have sped this along. There’s a lot to look at in its 130 minutes, and some of the animation is extremely good, but it’s very, very slow.

So how on the nose is this one? It’s so on the nose that Testuro has to kill his father, who is also the devil and is named Faust, before he can grow up. The movie starts with four unimportant side characters sacrificing themselves so that Tetsuro can have his journey, because they know that they are the supporting cast and we’re watching to see the kid. Maetel is back, answering as many questions as a cloud might, refusing to address the rumors that she is now the ruler of a galactic empire of machine people who use humans as soylent green energy capsules. Maetel and Emeraldas share a moment on the platform at the end acknowledging that they’ll never see Tetsuro again but their own journeys never end, even as Tetsuro’s does. After all, somebody else’s story is going to need a mother figure and a mysterious femme fatale.

I like the way the story completely subverts expectations with Harlock and Emeraldas. They each get a very quick little “save the day” moment cameo to remind viewers that this series can use them, and then they’re gone again, completely cut off from the story until they’re needed in the end to help blow stuff up. Unfortunately, our son also has better things to do than watch boys grow into men in cartoon movies, and only really paid attention when Harlock and Emeraldas were blowing stuff up.

His only real spoken complaint about the film was an odd one: there’s a trippy and psychedelic bit where the animators smoked all the grass they could find as they visualized the arrival on the planet Great Andromeda, and the kid grumbled “This is making my eyes hurt.” Otherwise, he was very restless and squirmed quite a lot. There are fights and shootouts, but there’s also no sense of danger or fear, and nothing to really engage him. So this was a big disappointment for two-thirds of this morning’s audience, but even though it’s not as good as the first one, I still like it a little.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

This was not the first time that my meticulous, and perhaps faintly ridiculous, preplanning for this silly blog has been thrown off by our son getting bedtime reading with his mom. On one hand, we are thrilled that, at age nine, he still wants bedtime stories, and hasn’t dismissed it as kiddie stuff. On the other hand, Marie unpacked Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle in January, when the movie wasn’t on the calendar until May. This took whole minutes to fix, but I’m very glad I did.

Castle is not among my favorite Miyazaki movies, despite its gorgeous animation and wonderful design, and what I might think is Joe Hisaishi’s finest score since Nausicaä. There’s a whole lot to love here, but there are other movies that I love much more. I also think the climax is very nebulous and ultimately disappointing. The problem of the war is apparently resolved, but offscreen, and the antagonism between the wizard Howl and the witch Madam Suliman barely gets started, much less finished.

But it worked out very well that they finished reading the novel a few weeks ago. It was very fresh in our son’s mind, and he told us that the book was “real different, but I loved both.” I haven’t read the book myself, so I relied on him to give me a very lengthy rundown of the changes and differences. Among many that he mentioned, Jones apparently had a much more satisfying resolution to the story in mind; her book had two climaxes, according to the kid, and while the character of Suliman is radically different in the original, there’s a lot more meat to Howl and Suliman’s rivalry. Also, the book apparently detours to Wales, while the movie is set emphatically in one of Miyazaki’s signature middle-European never-neverlands.

While the novel gave him lots to chew on as he tried to relax enough to sleep, the movie gave us a very funny fire demon, a hopping scarecrow, a ramshackle castle that walks on bird legs, and basically two mostly satisfying hours. Our son had been looking forward to it all week, and it didn’t disappoint at all.

Dragon of Doom (1994)

A couple of weeks ago, somebody on Twitter made the observation that the Lupin the Third franchise has a whole lot in common with the Scooby Doo franchise. I’d tell you who, but it turns out this is not a particularly original observation, and whatever I saw and enjoyed was lost in search results dating back many years. But it was new to me, and I laughed, and then we watched this morning’s Lupin film, and I laughed a lot more. So it’s nice that there was a Scooby comparison for me to roll around in my head, because it kept me going while this story failed to excite.

It really should’ve been a little better than this. Dragon of Doom was the sixth TV movie for the gang, and even with my limited knowledge of Lupin III, it struck me as really by-the-numbers. There’s a hilarious moment of cartoon physics when Lupin is about 4000 meters down at the bottom of the ocean, and the bad guy is so over-the-top with his Bond villain headquarters that I had to chuckle at the chutzpah, but on the other hand, I think this series had given us Bond villain wannabes prior to ’94. The animation is about on the same TV-cheap level as the previous movie we watched, but it’s laid out much more competently than that, and none of the action sequences left me confused as to what was supposed to be happening.

You can see the seed of a good plot in it, which makes it more frustrating. Lupin and Goemon end up wanting the same ancient treasure for themselves: Goemon because it belonged to his ancestral clan and Lupin because his granddad failed to pilfer it eighty years ago. But their antagonism is too shallow and unconvincing in the first place, and this becomes incredibly frustrating when Goemon doesn’t point out the real problem later on: Lupin’s selfishness in holding onto the dragon seems to have got an ally killed. It’s like the producers wanted to bend the rules, but were afraid to bend them anywhere far enough to give the story some bite.

Our son adored about 99% of it, and absolutely lost his mind laughing when Zenigata shows up with five boats packed from stem to stern with gun-crazed cops, only for our heroes to escape in something so unlikely that even the ICPO’s finest can’t help but close his eyes and giggle. On the other hand, Fujiko strips down for a shower scene, which had our kid closing his own eyes and hiding. Okay, so the Scooby Doo comparison isn’t flawless. Fairly sure Hanna-Barbera / Warner never let us see Daphne do that.

Here’s a thought: since the Lupin gang are ageless and always set in “the present day,” shouldn’t Lupin be referring to the 1910s-era Arsene Lupin as a much older ancestor than his grandfather by now? Our hero’s got to be a great-great grandson by 2021. Maybe he’s really Lupin the Fifth.

Porco Rosso (1992)

Shout! Factory and GKids have been releasing director Hayao Miyazaki’s films for Studio Ghibli in these beautiful steelbooks with minimal design and bright, solid colors. I told myself years ago that I would not, would not, would not let myself be tempted down the steelbook path, but all of my Ghibli films were badly in need of upgrades, and I prefer uniform design, and they’re all so gosh-darned pretty.

I was a little concerned and discouraged, because Miyazaki is not the only director with that studio, and their other output deserves the same treatment. Happily, they have announced that the next two in the series were directed by other people: Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns, coming in March. I’m very glad to see them shift the focus to the rest of the really talented directors at that studio, and while it does mean that Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, as well as The Wind Rises, will have to come later on, I don’t mind waiting. After all, I’d waited 29 years to watch this one already.

I sincerely have no idea why it took me so long to get around to watching this movie. It’s been on my get-around-to-it list for decades, but when I decided to introduce our son to old and beloved films together around the structure of this blog, I just picked up a copy seven years ago (DVD, from the Book Nook in Marietta GA, the receipt tells me) and let it collect a little dust until it came up in the rotation. It was worth the wait; we all enjoyed this tremendously.

“Porco Rosso” is the unflattering nickname given to a man originally named Marco. He was a seaplane pilot in the 1910s with many friends, but somehow – and I love how this is not detailed at all – he was cursed by a witch and now has a pig’s head. So he keeps to himself and works as a bounty hunter in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, which are beset by dangerous, albeit lovably stupid, air pirates. One of his old friends runs a hotel and restaurant nearby and he goes to see her occasionally, and another old pal is a mechanic in Milan who occasionally gives him a small line of credit to repair all the massive damage his plane takes.

So one day, a hotshot American contracts with the pirates and shoots Porco out of the sky while he was on his way to Milan for repairs. Milan isn’t safe anymore, and all the young men have joined the army and the air force, but the mechanic insists that his seventeen year-old granddaughter is a great engineer and his all-female crew is perfectly capable of rebuilding his plane. But can he get out of Italy before the secret police find him, and do something about that American flyboy?

So no, I shouldn’t have waited so long to watch this. I really enjoyed it, probably even more than our son, who chuckled and laughed all the way through over the pirates’ dumb shenanigans and people refusing to back down from escalating situations. Miyazaki pulls out several tricks he’d used in earlier movies about flying, including the lever-pulling tech within cockpits, and planes moving in and out of clouds, so it’s familiar in many ways but it’s such an interesting story. It’s set in someplace broadly like our history, but at kind of an odd angle.

I like the characters of Porco and Theo quite a lot, and just love the way the story is told, especially the ending. Perfectly, it sets up a possibility or two after the climax and lets the audience wonder about them. It’s a very, very good film. When Shout! announces the steelbook, I’ll have a preorder in at RightStuf immediately.

Dr. Slump: The Great Race Around the World (1983)

More for the sake of completeness and posterity than analysis, this morning, we watched the ridiculous third Dr. Slump feature, a 50-minute story released in 1983 called The Great Race Around the World. Honestly, I didn’t think that it was a patch on the sublime and hysterical Space Adventure, but our son ate it up and laughed like a hyena all the way through it, so what do I know?

I like how it takes just enough elements from media you’ve seen before and gives them all an irreverent and immature Slump spin. In this one, the princess of the nearby Radial Kingdom doesn’t want to be forced to marry the winner of an around-the-world Great Race, so she tries to enter it herself. The king shoots her down, but since she’s the spitting image of Penguin Village’s school teacher, she can do a switcheroo. Meanwhile, the space villain Dr. Mashirito is in town to compete, and since Senbei and Arale’s car has been feeling suicidally depressed lately, they figure winning a big race would give him some needed confidence. There are certainly a few good gags, but the kid loved it more than I did, which is how it should be. He still hasn’t embraced the original Slump comic series, but we’re going out this afternoon; I’ll try dropping a collection in the back seat and see whether the darn child won’t finally take the bait.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)

I suspect that the question “will there always be a Ghibli” keeps some people up at night. After all, Isao Takahata has passed away, and Miyazaki is working on what must surely be his final movie, unless of course he un-retires again after it so that some other people can make more documentaries about him. Hiromasa Yonebayashi must have once been seen as the hope of a new generation. 2010’s Secret World of Arrietty had been successful and promising, but then he went and co-founded another studio, called Ponoc, after his second Ghibli feature.

And what he took with him, I was disappointed to see, was basically a great big box of Ghibli tricks. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is basically what happens when you throw Totoro, Kiki, and Laputa in a blender and make the inside of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter movies look like Howl’s Moving Castle. When Mary tries mastering her broomstick, our son quietly said “This looks a lot like Kiki.” Visually, there’s not a single surprise in this movie, and the same goes for the script.

Ehhh, the kid was pleased. This is just a simple family adventure movie by the numbers, so just right for elementary and middle school-aged audiences. Strong teen girl protagonist, relative with a secret, magical world just on the other side of reality, danger that threatens our world, villains who talk too much, annoying boy who needs rescuing, merchandise-friendly animal familiar, you’ve seen it all before, although possibly not animated quite as well as this. It certainly looks like they spent millions on it to make it move and breathe with clarity, but the story’s so slight that I don’t imagine that our son will be in a big hurry to revisit it, or remember it very much down the line, when all the movies that are in this one’s DNA are crying out to be rewatched again instead.

On the other hand, I’ve got Howl’s Moving Castle on the calendar for the spring. Who knows, when we watch it, he may just quietly say “This looks a lot like Mary.”

Napoleon’s Dictionary (1991)

I enjoyed revisiting Lupin III by way of a couple of his feature films so much that I decided to pick up a few more of his cases. About every year, there’s a made-for-TV special. 1991’s Napoleon’s Dictonary was the third of 28 and counting in this series. It’s entertaining, but also very, very flawed. Even understanding that something made for television is naturally going to have a smaller budget than a big-screen film, this was still a big surprise to me. Slapdash animation, poor modelling, and downright indifferent direction all conspire to almost ruin this story. There’s a bit where two trains are about to collide in a tunnel, crushing a police car between them, which should have been the funniest thing in the whole movie, but it falls so flat that I wondered whether they even storyboarded the thing or if it just happened by accident.

Another weird flaw: it’s a given that Goemon is the greatest swordsman who ever lived and his sword can cut through anything. This is the sort of thing you need to deploy very sparingly, so it has maximum effect. For example, the actual funniest thing in the whole movie is this: Lupin and Jigen are locked in an RV by some CIA agents and they’re grumbling that the only thing American vehicles are any good for is their sturdiness, at which point Goemon cuts the RV in half. But by the end of the movie, Goemon has cut everything in half without challenge. He stops being a comic time bomb and turns into Superman. Goemon should never, ever be boring, but that’s what this movie makes him.

Despite this, the story does have a few very funny gags, and I liked the very real-world setting. It’s 1991, the Gulf War has just finished, and now the G7 nations are in a recession because they’ve all been nearly bankrupted by their Middle East misadventures and unemployment is high. The member nations start leaning on Japan – again – to buy their way out of this, until somebody points out that Lupin’s grandfather somehow buried a fortune worth about $200 billion, and so they should probably finally arrest the pest and impound the loot for themselves.

Meanwhile, Lupin’s also aware of this story, but he doesn’t know where the treasure is. He knows where there’s a clue: Napoleon Bonaparte once had a dictionary that passed into the family hands, and somebody wrote some details on a page, but the dictionary vanished years ago. Now it has resurfaced: it’s the prize in a Great Race, using antique cars to motor from Madrid to Paris. And Lupin just happened to snatch a 1908 Packard in New York City. Lupin’s stated reason why he wants the dictionary has nothing to do with a fortune, is a great big lie, and is the second funniest thing in the whole movie.

It’s a good setup and there are some fine gags, but overall I was still underwhelmed. As I mentioned in these pages previously, as much as I like the characters, I haven’t seen a whole lot of their outings – looks like I’ve seen three features, five or six TV episodes, and two of the TV specials before this – but this is the weakest installment that I’ve seen so far. When it worked, it worked very well, and our son absolutely loves Lupin and Zenigata’s eternal game of cat-and-mouse. When it didn’t, it was crying for a new animation studio to take over, and a different director to make this script sparkle. Still, they can’t all be winners, and we’ll look at another TV special soon.

Arcadia of My Youth (1982)

Last summer, we sat down to watch Horus, Prince of the Sun and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my old pal Mike Toole had done a commentary track for Discotek’s release, so I got to pop back and watch it again the following week to hear that. This morning, I learned that Mike’s also got a commentary track on 1982’s Arcadia of My Youth, which I haven’t seen in about thirty years. Reckon I’ll be watching it again next week!

We used to call the movie My Youth in Arcadia. It’s the origin story of Captain Harlock, a space pirate who gives no quarter to Earth’s enemies and who occasionally appears in TV series and makes cameo appearances in other series created by Leiji Matsumoto. It’s one of those movies that I used to enjoy very much and watched a dozen or so times in three or four years and then didn’t need to see it again for decades, until I had a kid who needs space battleship action.

Whatever you call it, it’s a very, very good film, albeit one I’ve always felt is simultaneously a little long while also calling out for a little more space and explanations. It was directed by Tomoharu Katsumata, who did a lot of animated films and TV series for Toei in the period, and the earthbound material in the first half has a weird pace to me; it seems like far too much happens offscreen in what is depicted as only minutes between incidents. Throughout, there’s the recurring theme of a pirate radio broadcaster, the Voice of Free Arcadia, giving hope to the people of Earth as the population suffers under alien occupation.

Fortunately, the main villain is one of those awesome baddies who believes very strongly in honor. As Harlock and his allies start working together and gathering strength, he gives him enough rope to lead to a really brilliant climax. And along the way, there are massive casualties among the supporting cast and grievous wounds to carry. Like many other Matsumoto stories, this is very much science fantasy and magic despite all the hardware and tech. At one point, the last survivors of a dead race sacrifice themselves to a fiery space witch that pulls down the life essence of travelers in her sector of the cosmos, which doesn’t make much sense, but gives the story grim purpose.

The kid was restless in places, but once Harlock, Tochiro, and their allies leave Earth in their big green flying battleship, he was on the edge of his seat, and that brilliant conclusion I mentioned had him wide-eyed and laughing in excitement. I told him this movie would have space battleships blowing everything up and it delivers. I love how the spaceships of the 30th Century are designed with windows for the captains to salute each other before pivoting around for broadsides.

Anyway, the kid had a complete ball and was swept away in the end. Just as casual as you like, I pointed out that they made a follow-up 22-episode TV series with the characters, and he wants me to order that as well. This darn blog’s gonna break me, I tell you.

The Mystery of Mamo (1978)

It has been an extremely long time since I’d watched the first Lupin III feature film. It’s been such a long time that it’s been dubbed three more times since the one I remember. And I remembered the immortal lines “Only a laser beam can cut through my vest” and “Once again, I cut a worthless object,” but I completely forgot all the cartoon nudity. “Oh, yeah, so there’s some nude scenes in this,” I said, sheepishly, as our favorite nine year-old critic raised an eyebrow.

But there’s also the usual chaos and chase scenes. It’s a very weird movie in that regard. Some of the shenanigans look like they’re being played for high comedy but have a serious and deadly edge. It’s most evident in a scene where the villains send a helicopter to attack our heroes in a Parisian cafe. It’s the sort of overkill that’s funny because it’s so ridiculous, and indeed our son was roaring with laughter, while innocent bystanders are clearly not avoiding the bullets. It wouldn’t have been funny at all if they’d pulled up in a van. Bringing a helicopter is silly, which prompts laughing, and the subsequent murders are serious. Our heroes are up against one of the most cold-blooded villains they’ve ever faced.

The Mystery of Mamo was released in Japan as simply Lupin III, but American fans started calling it The Mystery of Mamo to match the alliteration of the second film, The Castle of Cagliostro, which we watched in the spring. The name stuck, even though it’s not accurate and “Mameaux” is misspelled. It is one of a small handful of movies directed by Sōji Yoshikawa and it’s a lot more faithful to the lecherous spirit and gangly style of the original comics by Monkey Punch than all the movies that followed.

As for the plot, it’s in a class by itself. The original dub – more on that in a second – isn’t very clear on this point, but Lupin gets word that he’s been executed and DNA testing has proved that the body was his. Zenigata, the Interpol inspector obsessed with Lupin’s capture, doesn’t believe it either. This puts the adversaries at odds again while Lupin starts targeting treasures believed to grant immortality. The trail of clones and eternal life leads them to a stunted, absurdly resourceful, and rich villain called Mamo, who claims to be 10,000 years old. Lupin III’s adventures are usually a little bit more down to earth than this.

Mamo has been released in North America several times by different companies, resulting in four separate English-language dubs. Discotek Media compiled all four, along with the original Japanese language track with subtitles, on a DVD released in 2013. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I remembered. I think I was wrong to choose the original dub that I was familiar with once upon a time. It is said, by people who know these things, to be a good and accurate translation, but it feels incredibly clunky and confusing, and the voice actress for Fujiko sounds too much like a helpless damsel in distress. But the kid still prefers dubs to subs, and I’d like him to be happy when we’re watching stuff together.

To be sure, there’s a lot for a kid to like here, even if his parents may have wished for a little less of Lupin dropping his pants. He absolutely loves Zenigata’s furious, single-minded obsession to arrest Lupin and just cackles at the sight of him. The slapstick violence and action is always amazing in these movies. At one point, they’re being chased up a twisty mountain road by the biggest eighteen-wheeler ever built, and at another, Goemon gives a henchman the sort of wound that even Daffy Duck would have trouble recovering from, so he was in heaven.

So you wouldn’t expect Dr. Anti-Fun, who we met last month complaining about the physics in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, would start grumbling, but at the end, the villain reveals a rocket with a dome instead of a cone top and he just had to interject “that wouldn’t fly!” Well, it wouldn’t hold a brain the size of a ranch house, either, Dr. Anti-Fun, so just hush and go with it. Kids!

Dr. Slump: Space Adventure (1982)

A few months ago, when we watched the first of the Dr. Slump films, I talked at length about how I firmly believe every home with under-tens should have a stack of the books and whatever cartoons you can find. The comics still haven’t tempted our son, but he was thrilled when I told him we were watching the second of the Slump movies this weekend. 1982’s Space Adventure is the only feature-length film of the eleven theatrical releases – all of the others are under an hour – and while the first one is grandly funny, this one is next-level. He and I laughed our freaking heads off.

Space Adventure is a goofy lampoon of all the sci-fi stuff that was really popular in Japan in 1982 – Star Wars, Yamato, Mobile Suit Gundam – and introduces a nefarious villain named Dr. Mashirito who’s the spitting image of Queen’s guitarist Brian May. The fiend, who makes his entrance singing his own theme song, has abducted Penguin Village’s beautiful teacher. Our heroes blast into space to track her down. Along the way, they deal with the fact that Dr. Senbei forgot to include toilets on his spaceship, battle a space armada of robot bug ships, and flick boogers through cameras to land on the person on the other end, which just about made me stop breathing.

Either you get this lunatic brilliance or you don’t, and for whatever reason, my wife’s one of the ones who don’t. So she retreated to the bedroom to have a video chat with some nerdy girlfriends, and I swear I didn’t intend to interrupt her, but in round one of Arale’s big battle with Dr. Mashirito’s giant needle-nosed robot, they end up knocking each other through and around a moon and the kid and I were howling so loudly that one of my wife’s pals suggested she needs to check this show out. I didn’t think that I had a lot to write this morning, but I’ll say mission accomplished and think all you readers should follow her example. Bye-cha!

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

So for those of you who don’t know, Lupin III is the world’s greatest thief, and in The Castle of Cagliostro, he and his gun-totin’ buddy Jigen decide it’s time to do something about an international counterfeit operation that’s been going on for decades. They get involved with a runaway bride in a tiny European country and are in for the fight of their lives. I told our son that there would be hijinx and he said “Good. I love hijinx.” He found the experience completely satisfying.

Because it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Cagliostro is probably most Americans’ first introduction to Lupin III. Some people have a tendency to want a starting point when they’re looking at a big media franchise, and Lupin, with a couple of hundred TV episodes and close to thirty films, is a pretty big one. Nobody ever asks where they should start with James Bond or Law & Order, though, do they? I wonder why that is.

Anyway, I’m far from an expert on the subject. I’ve probably only watched a combined ten hours of Lupin myself, and I don’t like the original comics by Monkey Punch at all. I like the heroic Lupin of Cagliostro; I think that the previous movie, Mystery of Mamo, which we’ll watch later this summer, might be the better of the two, but I like seeing Lupin not being a thief and a creep for long enough to play Robin Hood and save the first decent member of a centuries-old crime family.

I gave our son a quick potted history of the gentleman thief trope, and how the original character of Arsène Lupin was created by Maurice Leblanc in the 1900s, amid a wave of similar characters created by Simon Boothby and EW Hornung. In the 1960s, the trope resurfaced in film and TV (The Pink Panther, Topkapi, It Takes a Thief), and Monkey Punch seemed to create his comics as a reaction to those. Punch’s thief was well-dressed, but certainly no gentleman. His Lupin III, allegedly the grandson of Leblanc’s original, was a protagonist but not a hero. He got toned down massively for television, and tamed further still for some of the features.

So while Cagliostro might be the tamest version of them all – it certainly has that reputation, anyway – it’s still a hugely fun ride, full of car chases and underwater brawls, slapstick violence and real bullets, intricate schemes and hilarious improvisations. Everybody enjoyed the movie hugely and I’m looking forward to the next couple of films that we’ll see later in the year.