Dr. Slump: Hello! Wonder Island (1981)

About six months ago, I had one of the biggest parenting surprises I have ever had. Our son was looking for something new to read, and I handed him the first volume of Akira Toriyama’s epic of slapstick and toilet humor, Dr. Slump. When they were around his age, his older brother and sister loved it. I have long advocated for every home in America with under-tens to have at least the first eight volumes in stock. Like many comics from every nation and every genre, Dr. Slump ran far longer than it should have – weekly for five years in this case – and the law of diminishing returns set in around its halfway point, but those first eight collections are solid gold. When it comes to comics, every under-ten should have free and clear access to Peanuts, Mad, Melvin Monster, and Dr. Slump.

I didn’t hear a chuckle from upstairs. This comic has a super-powerful robot girl named Arale causing absolute chaos while running around with poop on a stick. It is everything this child – that any eight year-old – should want in a funnybook. However, half an hour later, he came down with a sour expression and said he couldn’t get into it. That’s cool; kids should make up their own mind. We’re just here to introduce him to old stuff, and he likes what he likes and doesn’t like what he doesn’t like. But how in creation this kid didn’t like that Dr. Slump book, I have no idea.

A few years previously, I picked up Discotek’s collection of the first five Slump movies. There was a cartoon adaptation that ran throughout the eighties on Fuji TV and spawned eleven theatrical specials. Most of these are really short and aired as additional features to longer movies or at festivals. Hello! Wonder Island is just 25 minutes long, and only one of them, the second, is longer than an hour. Discotek’s collection doesn’t have a dubbed option, so it’s been collecting dust on the shelf for a while now, waiting for him to be confident enough to read subtitles. Since, thanks to Criterion’s Godzilla set, he’s willing to read ’em, I decided this morning to strike.

Naturally, of course, he loved it. Dr. Slump is colorful, unpredictable, and absolutely ridiculous. One recurring gag in the comic is that the little community of Penguin Village is filled with muscular wanna-be superheroes and action men waiting for their moment of honor and glory, only to have some child dressed in a fox costume knock them over on her way to something funnier. This story begins with the Superman parody and the Tarzan parody yelling in each other’s face about whether the movie should be about them, and those little gears in our kid’s head finally clicked into place and he understood how gloriously absurd this is.

Maybe it also helped that I drew some comparisons to other media that he already loves. Senbei’s utter inability to land a date with anybody is not unlike Jon from Garfield and his endless wacky inventions might remind him of Wallace from Wallace & Gromit. That said, some cultural differences between the US and Japan mean that there’s probably a thing or two that some American parents might find shocking. Senbei routinely cusses a blue streak and keeps a stash of girlie magazines, and Arale routinely mocks him with a chant of “Pervert, pervert!”

But is this for under-tens anyway? Yes, absolutely. A vampire bites Senbei and Arale bites the vampire right back, she picks up fire-breathing dragons, and she smacks demon lords in the shin with gigantic bats. Even the little aliens who look like butts and are stuck on Earth make a short appearance. This is glorious, goofy comedy for kids and he had a ball. I told him we’ll watch the next one in a couple of months.

And who knows, he might give the comic another try as well. Stranger things have happened!

Galaxy Express 999 (1979)

Galaxy Express is a weird, strange and really entertaining film from a period of animation that I look at with a lot of nostalgia. I’ve mentioned here before that there were a heck of a lot of interesting animated movies hitting the big screen from around 1977-83, from studios in Japan, the US, and the UK, and Express is a perfect example from that period. Directed by Rintaro from a storyline by Leiji Matsumoto, the movie is a retelling of key elements from a much longer television series, itself an adaptation of a weekly comic written and drawn by Matsumoto and his studio. The theatrical version actually wrapped up its version of the narrative about two years before the TV show reached its climax in a quite different way, so there are a few versions of the story, depending on how audiences chose to view it.

In the world of Galaxy Express, most of the planets and moons have been colonized, and humans who want to live forever can trade in their humanity for mechanical bodies. These are available for free on a distant planet, and that’s where our pre-teen hero wants to go. Years before, his mother had been murdered by the villain Count Mecha, and this tough kid, named Tetsuro, wants revenge. A mechanical body might give him the upper hand, but at what cost?

Unfortunately, the body might be free, but getting to the planet is something only the wealthiest can afford: by purchasing a ticket on a space-faring ship called the Galaxy Express that looks like an old-fashioned steam engine. A mysterious and beautiful woman named Maetel helps Tetsuro get a ticket, and seems like she’s on his side, but she keeps her secrets, and Tetsuro is warned to not trust her.

I enjoy Galaxy Express for lots of reasons, but one that shined this morning is that this may sound like a science fiction story, but it’s really more of a fairy tale than anything else. Incredibly strange things happen in this movie, and they’re explained with poetry, not with science. At one point, approaching the planet Pluto, the temperature inside the train drops. This isn’t because of a problem with the heating or because it’s Pluto, and therefore cold, but because Maetel reasons that this part of space is haunted by the souls of all those who died trying to get here. It isn’t rational, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s an explanation from a bedtime story and it’s lovely. And then there’s the way that absolutely nobody knows where Count Mecha’s Time Castle will materialize next, except for the only people that Tetsuro asks about it.

Our son continued his habit of being entertained and amused by the oddest things. He especially liked Count Mecha’s castle, which has room for “ten trillion games of hide and seek” and which the count decorates by leaving piles of skulls on the staircases. There are all of the trappings for an adventure movie for kids, right down to a bridge way, way above the ground that disintegrates once Tetsuro races back across it. Supporting our heroes in this story are two other Matsumoto characters from his interconnected stories: Captain Harlock and Emeraldas. They help out in the great big space battle at the end, which is the sort of billion-explosion spectacle that live action movies just couldn’t do in 1979, and our son was in seventh heaven. He said he liked the characters just fine, which is good, because he might just see ’em again a time or two.

Galaxy Express is a film that’s looked better and better to me over the years. Back in the mid-eighties, I got to know it through nth-gen bootleg copies. One of Roger Corman’s companies released an incoherently-edited dubbed copy that chopped out almost a quarter of the movie, Tetsuro was renamed something like Joey Hana-canana-be-bi-bo-fana Smith, and the guy doing Captain Harlock’s voice spoke like the talking cowboy hat in Lidsville. A little later, somebody found a subtitled copy, but the copy was so far down from the source material all that I could hear on mine was tape hiss. Viz Media put out a new dub on VHS in the mid-1990s. My own tape was sold or traded or snatched or lost years ago. I upgraded to Discotek’s DVD recently, and their Blu-ray’s said to be even better. If you’ve got anybody aged eight to thirteen in your house, I’d say this film’s a must. Grownup viewers might grumble at the strange science, but kids understand magic a little better and they’ll probably like this movie a lot.

Additional readin’: Check out Dave’s report at Let’s Anime from a few years back. You watch this film at home and you’ll wish you could’ve seen it on a big screen in Toronto with him!

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Here’s an example of the real world interfering with the experience of watching a movie, and I think that’s okay to report that, because this is a blog about experiences and not a review blog. I had been looking forward to seeing Isao Takahata’s final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, for most of the year. It’s the last in this year’s Ghiblifest from Fathom Events, and if you missed it last evening, you can see it subtitled in many cities on December 18.

But then, you’ll notice the blog went dormant for a few days earlier this month. That’s because I had surgery on my spine. Since returning from the hospital, we haven’t all three been curled up on the sofa watching things together. Marie and our son have been curled up on the sofa, while I’ve been sitting up straight in a fairly comfortable chair, squirming because, after half an hour or so, it isn’t comfortable enough. And The Tale of the Princess Kaguya isn’t a short film, it’s nearly two and a half hours long. Two and a half beautiful hours, mind you – the film’s design deliberately evokes the picture scrolls where folk tales in Japan unrolled a thousand years ago, with expanses of white skies, careful drops of color for the leaves, and delicate, intricate linework for the figures – but that’s a long time for a fellow with little steel rods in his back to sit still.

With a palette and look that’s unlike any other movie in Ghibli’s library, Kaguya is an unusual standout that doesn’t seem to attract the attention of that studio’s American fans. Every other Fathom Events screening that we’ve attended, even of other Takahata films, drew a far bigger crowd than this did last night. The big names sell out, and even Arrietty was about two-thirds full. Last night it was just us and a group of about eight guys and girls in their twenties. What a shame; I hope more people see it tomorrow night, because it’s a beautiful experience.

The movie is an adaptation of a classic folk tale. An old bamboo cutter finds a tiny, doll-sized girl dressed as a princess inside a stalk. She turns into a human baby, growing very fast, and a second visit to the forest gives the old man gold and beautiful robes. He believes that whatever spirit brought them this child wants the couple to raise her as royalty. So he buys a mansion in the capital and hires servants to train her in the formality of proper behavior. When she comes of age, she is given the name “Kaguya” and attracts wealthy, noble suitors. But nobody asked her what she herself wants, or where she came from, or how long she’ll be staying on Earth.

Well, I completely loved it. I think it’s a gorgeous film and I love the way the style and the speed of the editing changes so radically at key points. It’s a classic fairy tale with an inevitable end, and so spending two and a half hours in the company of kind-hearted people with good intentions, rather than the five minutes it might take to just tell the story, means that the ending is very depressing despite its honesty and beauty. Our son thought it was extremely sad and it left him in low spirits for a while, but some occasional light gags and mild comedy kept his attention even though this experience was a little outside his wheelhouse.

And you’ll be glad to know that I was all kinds of sore but I made it out of the comfy Regal seat all right. We’ll go back to the same theater in a week and I’ll be in even better shape next time.

Image credit: Film Ireland

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

Fathom Events usually has three screenings of the Studio Ghibli films that they present: the first and last are dubbed and the middle one is subtitled. We always go to a dubbed showing because our son reads very slowly. But this time, they made a mistake and started the subtitled edition of 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty. We shrugged; just have to deal with it. About eight minutes in, somebody had alerted somebody to the mistake, and after a short pause, they started over with the right print.

Our kid grinned. Within those first eight minutes, we get to see a big, fat, lazy cat chase off a pestering crow and charge, unsuccessfully, at our tiny young heroine, a teenage “borrower” who is just a couple of inches tall and lives under a house. He leaned over and quietly said “Good! I wanted to see that cat twice!”

The film is an adaptation of Mary Norton’s novel for children The Borrowers. It’s been adapted before, but live-action versions can’t linger on the beauty of gigantic green gardens that look like jungles, with rain drops forming huge crystalline globes that catch the light. It’s a world where some insects are menaces and pests, and some, like roly-poly pillbugs, are just little distractions that you bounce on your knee.

Borrowers are tiny little people who try to live by a creed to only take what they need from the world of human beans. Arrietty lives with her parents Pod and Homily inside an old house in the country with just one elderly caretaker. There have been stories about little people in the walls and under the floor for many years, but nobody really believed them. Arrietty has turned fourteen and it’s time for her to make her first borrowing expedition, but there’s a strange new complication: a teenage boy with a heart condition has come to recuperate at the house for a week, and he doesn’t seem to follow any of the borrowers’ expectations about human beans.

Arrietty was the first film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who’s since made a couple of other movies that I’d quite like to see. It was a big hit when it was released, though I confess I wasn’t paying much attention to the genre in the early 2010s and its impact missed me entirely. It’s a beautifully animated film with some fun characters and big surprises. All three of us enjoyed it very much, and I probably need to pick up a copy for the shelf sometime.

Image credits: Entropy Mag.

Alakazam the Great (1960)

For this morning’s movie, we enjoyed a Toei film directed by Taiji Yabushita. It was called Journey to the West when it was first released in Japan in 1960, one of several dozen adaptations of the old folk tale about the monkey king and his companions. In the US, a quite heavily rescripted adaptation was released by B-movie distributors American International Pictures, and featured voiceovers by Jonathan Winters, Arnold Stang, and fandom legend Peter Fernandez, along with five new songs sung by Frankie Avalon.

Alakazam the Great did the rounds of second features and dollar kiddie film matinees in the 1960s before finding its way to every UHF station that didn’t have a lot of money for movies, and most every kid who saw it found it completely charming, funny, and full of action. But it largely vanished from circulation in the 1980s. There was a VHS release through Orion, but the only way to legally see the movie in North America these days is to stream it through Amazon Prime or possibly Netflix or wait for an old, beat up print to make its way to a revival house.

Our son just had a ball with it. Alakazam starts the movie as a coward who gets scared by crickets and spiders, which makes him endearing to a female monkey who really does put up with a lot of crap from him after that. It’s predicted that he will become king of all the animals, so he summons up the courage for the initiation test, and quickly becomes an insufferable, power-mad creep who needs to be taken down many pegs and learn the values of humility, mercy, and wisdom.

So he gets put in his place by a very powerful magic-using king of a higher realm, and sent on a quest with that realm’s prince. Along the way, they have a pair of squabbles with some unpleasant villains, but rather than killing them, Alakazam shows mercy and asks them to join the quest. There’s slapstick comedy, lots and lots of fighting, weird magic, and erupting volcanoes. It’s pretty much everything an eight year-old kid would want from a movie, except possibly swapping out one of the lame Frankie Avalon songs for another fight scene.

Taiji Yabushita directed several animated films for Toei, including 1958’s Panda and the Magic Serpent amd 1967’s hallucinogenic Jack and the Witch, which I’d like to show our kid sometime, so somebody put that out on Blu-ray, please! I really enjoyed this movie’s visual language and attractive artwork, though I’ll blame a bad night’s sleep for contributing to me nodding off a couple of times this morning. Maybe someday, somebody will give this film a nice restoration and a more accurate script and I’ll give it another try without my eyelids getting heavy. In the meantime, our kid liked it enough for both of us.

Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968)

Here’s a movie I’d been intending to get around to watching for… well, three decades or so. After its largely unsuccessful theatrical release in Japan, a dubbed copy of Horus, Prince of the Sun made the rounds of American UHF channels throughout the 1970s under the name Little Norse Prince. Kids who saw it during that sweet spot age of about eight to ten fell in love with it and never forgot it. Seems a shame that I missed it, but I’ve certainly heard enough people raving about it over the years to quietly pick up a copy to see whether my own eight to ten year-old might fall in love with it.

He really didn’t, but there were a pair of scenes that he enjoyed tremendously. It’s an old-fashioned feature, but one that still has a few tricks up its sleeve to resonate with today’s kids.

Horus – his name is pronounced “Hols,” which cleared up a little confusion about why a Norse myth adventure would star a kid named after an Egyptian god – was the first feature film directed by Isao Takahata, who’d later go on to form Studio Ghibli with a few choice associates and friends. I reminded our son that we’d seen his film Pom Poko last year and hope to see another in a few months. It’s a pretty straightforward good vs. evil adventure, as Horus, after the death of his father, returns north to the land of his birth to have it out with the frost giant Grunwald.

I was mostly pleased and impressed. It’s a movie full of movement and surprising choices, with some absolutely beautiful imagery. I particularly loved a scene where the camera tracks around some winterdead trees, and I loved the colors when Grunwald’s endless forest tries to swallow our hero. About the only quibble I have is with the old English language dub, which Discotek Media included on their 2014 DVD. Like a lot of dubs from its era, the voices are just fine, but technically it all sounds quite lifeless and flat, with no highs or lows to the dialogue or the music. (Actually, the neatest thing about the DVD is that it contains a commentary track by our old pal Mike Toole, which was a pleasant surprise to find, because I know so little about Japanese animation fandom that I didn’t know Mike did commentaries on these things. I’ll have to give this another spin to hear that soon.)

The neatest surprise of all comes with a little trick the movie plays in its second act. Like a lot of children’s films from the 1960s and 1970s – Willy Wonka and Pete’s Dragon are the first to mind – the movie stops dead in its tracks for a slow song, this one sung by a strange girl called Hilda. I was past the point of drumming impatiently on my knee and wondering whether I could get to the metaphorical concession stand and back and not miss anything when I realized this was deliberate. Hilda has an inevitable and unsurprising secret, and her song doesn’t just interrupt the experience of watching the film, but it interrupts the work within the film itself, as everybody who’s supposed to be working stops their labor and goes to listen to her. It’s still a dirge, but it’s a neat trick.

The second act was a little long for our son as well. It brought him around in the end with a splendid climax, but everybody made the mistake of presenting the best action sequence quite early on. Horus goes out to kill this enormous river pike that’s been eating all the smaller fish and starving a village, and our son was amazed by this scene. He was on the edge of the sofa and kicking furiously and held his security blanket tightly as Horus gets dragged underwater. And the very next scene was his second favorite, as Takahata went for a comedy relaxation point and the local kids chase Horus’s newly arrived pet bear with bows and arrows and the skeletons of fish that the ravenous people have quickly eaten since the pike was no longer blocking the stream. It kind of ran a little long for him after that, but I thought it was a pretty satisfying 80 minutes and I’m glad I finally sat down to see what all the fuss was about.

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

We jumped a little outside our son’s comfort zone for tonight’s trip to the theater. Those great people at Fathom Events added 1995’s Whisper of the Heart to this year’s lineup of films from Studio Ghibli. It’s the only film that was directed by Yoshifumi Kondō, who died senselessly young after a very busy career as an animator and designer, and it lacks even a single explosion. The kid’s been all about car crashes and mortars and giant monsters lately, and then we made him sit still for 111 minutes about schoolkid crushes, first love, teen angst, demanding to follow your dreams when you’re all of 14 years old, and over there on the fringes where grownups stop noticing it, magic.

And indeed he did sit still, for the most part. Most of Whisper of the Heart is a pleasant and honest little coming-of-age romance, but there’s a little bit of comedy here and there, and when it’s our young heroine Shizuku’s turn to suffer the embarrassment gauntlet of everybody in her class freaking out because a BOY from ANOTHER CLASS has come to their classroom’s door, he was roaring with the rest of the audience. I say it’s her turn because the whole movie is a brilliantly-realized depiction of how fourteen year-olds act, and you know perfectly well that exactly the same thing happens in this schoolroom twice a week at least.

Speaking of schoolrooms, this class has just been told that a complex math formula is going to be on tomorrow’s test. That melodramatic fellow standing up in the back was me at age 14.

I like how this film emphasizes taking a break from madness and chaos and demands to just slow down, enjoy a beautiful sunset, catch how the light reflects off a statue’s crystal eyes, or take a few weeks and write a book. The film is set during that period where Japanese junior high students undertake what I’ve read is an incredibly stressful series of tests that determine their career track, which comes right as teenage hormones start making kids deeply stupid.

There’s a wonderful scene where Shizuku’s father tells her that it’s okay to take some time to focus on personal goals instead of studying for her next killer exam. I love that decision, because everyone, even crazy teenage girls, needs to take a break from stress and just breathe, no matter what demands life is making of you. That’s good advice from a lovely film that you all should see.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I think I’ve probably seen Nausicaä – or at least 85% of Nausicaä – more times than I’ve seen every other Miyazaki movie combined, but I’ve never seen it on a big screen before tonight. There’s one off the bucket list.

Nausicaä is Miyazaki’s prog rock movie. He started developing it in the late 1970s, around the time he was working on the TV series Future Boy Conan and going through some issues with the rise and fall of civilizations, cycles, rebirths, that sort of thing. This feel is enhanced by one of my favorite scores to any movie, ever. Joe Hisaishi spends parts of this film channeling Rick Wakeman and other parts channeling Nick Rhodes. Hisaishi has scored all of Miyazaki’s movies since this one, and they are all wonderful and memorable, but there’s such an odd mix of styles in this movie that it stands out as the most unique and weird. It kind of has to be heard to be believed.

When I was fifteen and sixteen, I inhaled this film. I had a copy of the original English language dub, which was called Warriors of the Wind, and I watched it constantly. To the disgust of purists, Warriors was edited by twenty minutes, down to a lean 100, so that after it finished its theatrical run, New World Pictures could sell it to TV stations for a two-hour slot. So sure, tampering with Miyazaki is eee-eeeevil, but that original voice cast was so much better than the one they got to perform the contemporary dub. It’s not just that Patrick Stewart just phoned in his lines and sounds like he wasn’t in the same country, never mind the same studio, it’s that everybody in the original sold the hell out of it.

The original English voice for Nausicaä – well, they renamed her Zandra, and I can’t defend that and won’t try – was Susan Davis, who was the original English language voice of Pippi Longstocking in Fred Ladd’s dubs. She was perfect. There’s a scene in the Warriors cut where Nausicaä slides backward on the shore of a lake of acid. She’s been shot twice and her ankle, wounded and bloodied, slides into the acid and she lets out a scream that still makes me shiver. This new girl sounds like she stubbed her toe.

This might be where the purists might add that I could just watch the subtitled version, and they’re not wrong, but our son is still too young to happily go along with reading movies. Once he’s ready, I’ve got some subtitled Dr. Slump cartoons for him. I’m still steamed those aren’t dubbed.

Our son was mainly in it for the fox squirrel. He had a great belly laugh when three old codgers steal a tank, and he joined in with the rest of the theater chuckling when a soldier tries to rally his troops to kill the planet’s best swordsman, but the cute animal is all he wanted to talk about afterward. There’s probably a plush cuddly toy if he wants to save his allowance. They’ve merchandised everything else with Miyazaki’s name on it.

He didn’t like it as much as Castle in the Sky and Marie didn’t like it as much as Spirited Away and I didn’t like it as much as Warriors of the Wind, but I got to see it on a big screen and it was beautiful. Fathom Events has another good lineup this year. We’re going to see three more new-to-him films in this year’s Ghibli Fest by some of that studio’s other directors. Might watch Totoro again, too. Hard to pass that one up on a big screen…

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Every once in a while, I’ll enjoy seeing a thread on a forum or Twitter where people will reminisce about the mountains we used to scale to watch old TV shows, or cartoons from other countries. Uphill in the snow both ways, you remember. In the mid-eighties, I watched a fair amount of Japanese animation, enjoying the camaraderie more than the cartoons it must be said, and lots of it was untranslated. Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 film Laputa – that’s what we called it then – was one of those movies. I think you had to either get it on a T-160 tape or get a SLP/EP copy of it because the darn thing’s a hair too long to fit on a proper T-120 on SP speed.

My SLP copy looked like garbage and had lots of tracking errors, not – this time – because I was too lazy and cheap to buy nicer quality tapes, but because I’d had one of those BASF T-160s in the red cardboard case snap when I rewound it. But I watched the heck out of it anyway, wondering what the dialogue was, and particularly baffled by the scenes deep down in the mine with Uncle Pom.

Certain films and shows possessed a real power to thrill me even despite the language barrier. I’ve always been interested in Miyazaki’s movies and shows even if I was watching them in the original Japanese. I figured out early on that lots of what we could get our hands on was either junk to sell toys and candy or it just wasn’t going to appeal to me in any language no matter how popular it was. I couldn’t get into Iczer One or Bubblegum Crisis or any of the many and varied forms of Gundam, but eventually two of my best friends went in on a laserdisc set of all 26 episodes of a 1978 TV series that Miyazaki directed called Future Boy Conan and I jumped. Seven tapes of that (SP, thank you, TDK E-HG) and I was set for weeks, leaving my college roommate absolutely baffled why I was watching a cartoon in a language I didn’t speak. They were such nice copies, too. Not a hint of a tracking error.

(Strangely, one of those said best friends doesn’t seem to have written an article about Conan at Let’s Anime, possibly because he seems to suffer from some major Miyazaki malaise. So read his story about Horus, Prince of the Sun instead.)

Anyway, so I’d struggled through the tracking errors and washed-out colors of my lousy copy of Laputa seven or eight times in the late eighties, and suddenly I had this beautiful old show which basically had the character dynamics between the young heroes that would be echoed in Laputa already in place eight years earlier. It was such a neat feeling, figuring out similarities in character and theme when I didn’t even know the names of most of the characters. Nowadays, Wikipedia figures it out for you.

Eventually, Streamline would release a dub of Castle in the Sky, as it would be renamed, and then Disney would redo it with James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, and Mark Hamill doing his Joker voice, and Cloris Leachman being absolutely amazing as the air pirate Captain Dola. I’ve always felt that Leachman is channeling Billie Hayes! Tell me that her Dola doesn’t sound like Witchiepoo. You’d be lying.

Fathom Events wrapped up this year’s run of Studio Ghibli films with Castle in the Sky this weekend. On my right, I had my son, who was probably more wired and more amazed in a theater than he’s ever been before, literally hopping in his seat during the train chase. On my left, a teen girl who started the movie insisting to her father that no, he had not seen this one, because she doesn’t own a copy, and who spent most of the two hours plus a hair quietly saying “Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God.”

And they weren’t the distractions. It was just me, wondering why the heck I can’t get a nice English dub of Future Boy Conan on Blu-ray in this day and age.

Pom Poko (1994)

The great people at Fathom Events have been sending a monthly cartoon feature from Japan’s Studio Ghibli to theaters nationwide, a mix of both dubbed and subtitled selections. Today, we went to see Pom Poko, a 1994 movie directed by Isao Takahata, who passed away earlier this year.

There’s a hint of Watership Down in this story about magical raccoons trying to defend their forest against real estate developers in Japan, but this is a very different, and much lighter experience! Many of the raccoons have the power to change their form, and they try lots of amusing tricks to drive families and construction crews off their land, but their successes are all short-lived, and they might need to look into the strategies suggested by some wily foxes. If you can’t beat ’em…

The dub of this film features some unmistakable voices. The movie is narrated by Maurice LaMarche, and Clancy Brown plays one of the short-tempered raccoons. That’s right, Lex Luthor and the Brain teamed up. Somebody should make a movie about that. The movie’s sweet, but very long at a full two hours. Our son said that he liked it, but he doesn’t know that he needs to see it again. I kind of agree, actually. A good experience, but not a great one.

Click the image above for more anime films and features coming to US theaters this year, including Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies in August and My Neighbor Totoro in September!

Image credit: All Your Anime

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Our son does mostly well with staying quiet while we watch things together. We’ve been working on this for several years now, in no small part because we want him to be quiet and still and respectful of the audience when we see a movie in a theater. Most of the time he does a great and commendable job, especially when he sees that the program is pitched a little higher than his age level and he needs to pay attention.

Lately, though, he’s been a complete motormouth whenever we’re not watching something together. He’s started humming, constantly, at all hours. We used to walk down the toy aisles in a shop and he’d be largely silent, but now every box prompts him to shout “OMG, look at this! And this! And this!”

And this morning, Phil Hartman, in his final acting performance, had him talking and yammering through the film Kiki’s Delivery Service like he’d never seen a movie before. I think that he had to repeat every single one of Hartman’s lines at least twice, after he finished laughing. It wasn’t just Hartman’s dialogue, though. Whenever Jiji the cat did anything, he jumped out of his seat to imitate him. The cat curls up on the bed, our son curled up on the floor. The cat shakes itself dry, our son shook himself dry, and each time he added “He’s just like –” and then the imitation. At one point, Jiji tries to stay perfectly still, and I wished our kid would have taken the clue.

Well, he wasn’t a truly well-behaved boy this morning, but he certainly had a great time. Kiki’s Delivery Service was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and was released in 1989. It’s based on a popular children’s novel by Eiko Kadono that was written a few years previously, though I understand that Miyazaki beefed up the slight story a good deal and gave it the dramatic climax, which is the downright definition of breathtaking.

Last year, we enjoyed My Neighbor Totoro and I mentioned that my copy of that film is the first American dub, done by a company called Streamline. For Kiki, I upgraded my older Streamline dub for one that Disney put together in 1997, using the talents of Hartman, Kirsten Dunst, Tress MacNeille, and Janeane Garofalo. I’m glad that I did, and evidently our son agrees. He really loved this film.

The story is about a thirteen year-old girl in a nebulous fantasy European country in the middle of the 20th Century. She’s a witch and the world doesn’t seem to have ever known war. At some point during a witch’s thirteenth year, she must leave home on a clear midnight full moon for a year. Kiki makes her way to a large port city. She’s very lonely, but she finds a home and starts a delivery business. She eventually allows herself to make friends in time to get some encouragement and inspiration when she loses her powers and isn’t able to fly anymore.

Like several of Miyazaki’s other movies, I really enjoy it even though it’s so slight that it’s not a world I want to come back to every week. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure this won’t collect too much dust on the shelf before our kid wants to see it again. Hopefully he’ll tone it down a little next time!