Monday, July 28, 2008

Wall-E comes to your house (fan video)

This is awesome. Not stop-motion, but clever puppetry of a Wall-E toy.

I want a Wall-E, darn it! Particularly one that can help with the household chores. I'll give him plenty of quality time with my MacBook...if he liked EVE he'd like my R2D2. I'll let him adopt my gumstick iPod Shuffle. I'll even sit down and watch Hello Dolly with him!!! And that's saying a lot about how much I want a Wall-E. My tastes in musicals run more towards Sweeney Todd.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Holy cow we will have two awesome podcasts coming!!!

We talked. And we talked. And we talked. We now have enough material for a double-wide podcast. So we'll be doing this as a two part deal. Batman, Wall-E, Kung Fu Panda, and a beautiful Stranger. I just realized I wanted also to talk about Evangelion: 1.0 but we got carried away.

Look for it soon. I promise.


Post 101: Extreme Makeover in Little Tokyo

The Linda Lea theatre, dubbed such by Black entrepreneurs during the wartime era when Little Tokyo was called "Bronzeville" and Black owned businesses kept things going while Japanese-Americans were in internment camps, has been vacant since the '80s. Then in a flurry of activity, the old Toei-run theatre was transformed into the sleek, dare I say sexy new space by The ImaginAsian Channel, a cable channel/film distributor based in New York. The ImaginAsian Center of Los Angeles is now running movies again, and promises to show plenty of first-run anime. With Anime Expo permanently homed at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and Little Tokyo a hotter place for the LA Otaku-zoku than ever, having a movie theatre committed to showing first-run anime and Japanese dorama (dramatic live-action) movies is a welcome thing.

Thanks to the good folks at ImaginAsian Channel, I got a pass to see Sword of the Stranger this past weekend. I wouldn't say that Stranger is a great moment in anime history, I would even rate Evangelion: 1.0 a bit above it in spite of my fondness for Samurai anime and drama. However, it's fun enough, with some really breathtaking fight sequences. Animation-wise and character design wise it reminds me of second-string Studio Ghibli. You'd be disappointed if Miyazaki-sensei's work descended to this level. But for Bones Animation, who played a major role in making Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' On Heaven's Door and the fan-fave series Fullmetal Alchemist, this is some solid work.

Stranger asks a question of its native Japanese audiences that it wouldn't dare ask of outsiders: "What makes a person Japanese?" This is something that is currently being wrestled with in Japanese society, as birth rates decline, the population greys, and the question of whether to open up immigration in one of the most closed and homogenous cultures is discussed. The eponymous hero is the classic "Man With No Name" trope which entered American film as a Japanese import, thanks to Mifune Toshiro, Kurosawa Akira, and Sergio Leone. However, he might or might not be Japanese. He speaks the language, and fights in the traditional Samurai style. But he is concealing something about himself, something which might be a mild spoiler if I reveal.

The main plotline has to do with an expedition of Ming Chinese who are in Japan to recover the most important ingredient in an alchemical recipe for the Elixir of Life. It seems that the Emperor is not content with his life's mortal splendor: he wants immortality. And those searching in Japan for the missing ingredient are more than willing to procure it. That it might be distasteful to almost any human being is an intriguing little element of the story, because the Chinese seem to not have any squeamishness about it. Do I detect a note of ambivalence about the Chinese, perhaps brought on by their current economic expansion in the face of economic stagnancy in Japan?

The Chinese expedition is guarded by a blond haired, blue eyed hulk of an Aryan uebermensch, in this case an uebermensch who can speak Chinese fluently and Japanese fairly fluently, and who also has superior Kung Fu. His ease amongst his Chinese companions is only matched by the hostility he raises among the Samurai assigned to assist (and watch) the party.

Anyway, our Stranger anti-hero finds himself having to deal with another icon of world fiction: the Boy and his Dog. The boy is a brat, the dog is a cute Shiba-inu with a singularly deadly ability to defend his companion. However, this movie does not descend into cute overload. This is a two-fisted tale of Kung Fu versus Kenjutsu, and much blood spills as the quest moves on.

Is the question answered, though? Who is Japanese? Not really. It's left open, something to chew on over an after-cinema meal and conversation. And it's really not a question meant for us: would we appreciate the question "Who is an American?" raised by Brits or Italians? It is interesting nonetheless to be a spectator at such a discussion.

One last thing: the last post, about the short "In Memory of Walt," was our 100th post. w00t. Oh yeah: we are recording tomorrow...too much has happened between when we recorded last and now to where we have to freshen up the podcast before releasing it. Hopefully we'll get it out soon. After all, we aren't going to be at Comic-Con this's a little refresher about why. However, if you are going, there's lots of Animation-related panels this year just like always, and there's plenty to enjoy. Have a taco at the Tin Fish for us, please.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

A little food for thought about the age of drawn animation...

I think this is kinda neat, although very Disney-centric. And hey wouldn't have been able to DO this short had it not been for your friendly plastic pal who's fun to be with, aka your computer. I am willing to wager that either ToonBoom or Flash was used in the production of this short. One need only see the trailer for the recently released Sita Sings The Blues to see just how computer tools have made it possible for one sufficiently motivated auteur -- Nina Paley -- to animate a whole movie solo. It took her five years to do it, but damn that looks awesome.

I also think the dis of Bakshi was totally undeserved. Raunch was not the only thing he pioneered in cartoons. One need only look at "Wizards" to see how far he raised the bar technically. Also Miyazaki got a tip of the hat, but not the rest of the Japanese animation industry. People like Anno Hideaki, Oshii Mamoru and Watanabe Shinichiro are taking drawn animation into the future. And that's only a few names. The scene is struggling there, make no mistake. I was at Anime Expo and it's clear that Japan and also the American companies who distribute Japanese animation are in trouble. The global economy is in trouble, what else is new?

Still, this is a great short. I hope this gets in theatres so it can go into competition for the Academy Award best animated short race.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

A second chance to make a first impression: Evangelion:1.0--You Are (Not) Alone

In 1995, the bad boys of Japanese animation, Gainax, created nothing short of a phenomenon with the TV series Shin Seiki Evangelion, literally "New World of Evangelion." Gainax's preferred English rendition of the title was the one ADV Home Video gave it: Neon Genesis Evangelion. It was very unlikely hit material: a near-future science fiction series set 14 years after "Second Impact," a cataclysm which is first portrayed as being identical to the comet or meteor strike that killed the dinosaurs ("First Impact") but which is later revealed to be the first encounter with the supernatural pan-dimensional beings called "angels" who seem to be bent on the destruction of humanity. The "angels" have been attacking humanity's last stand on Earth: the fortress city Tokyo 3.

The only effective weapon humanity has against the "angels" are psionically-controlled Mecha called the Evangelions. Only a small group of children born on the day of Second Impact can control these Mechs. The first is Ayanami Rei: a bizarre, almost zombie-like girl with red eyes and blue hair. She is obedient to Ikari Gendou, the Evangelion Project leader, in almost a robotic way. Ikari's own son, Ikari Shinji, is the second child who can control the robots. Rei and Shinji are joined by Asuka Langley, a half-German, half Japanese girl, and towards the end of the series a mystery boy, Nagisa Kaoru.

As the story unwinds, things get more and more complicated. What are the "angels?" What is the real nature of the Evangelions? And what is Instrumentality, the shadowy goal that Ikari Gendou is working toward? The full meaning of what the series actually means is still under debate 12 1/2 years after the series' premiere in Japan. It can be argued, however, that Neon Genesis Evangelion is a key moment in Japanese pop culture. Since NGE, anime has experimented with deeper, more psychological themes. NGE proved that the Anime audience was ready for heady fare. And it appealed not only to higher interests, but to the traditional Anime fans as well. The popularity of Rei and Asuka toys, pinups and whatnot bespeak the Gainax knack for attracting the attentions of red-blooded Otaku males. There is action galore. Plenty of room for stuff blowing up real good.

While we all wait for the NGE live action movie which is not likely to happen until WETA Workshop cuts the seemingly doomed ADV loose and goes looking for deeper-pocketed and less dysfunctional production partners, Gainax has not slept on the laurels of its greatest achievement. Evangelion: 1.0 is the first of four "Rebuild of Evangelion" movies, which will recapitulate the story of the series plus the movies made because creator Anno Hideaki was not entirely satisfied with the last two episodes of the series. However, they are not just remaking the series beat for beat as the older Evangelion: Death and Rebirth movie did. They are going back and tightening the narrative, and also improving the battle sequences that are at the heart of the first part of the story. The "angels" are fiercer and more dangerous looking. Tokyo 3 inspires more awe. Unlike George Lucas, who did his CGI defacements of his original movies because he could, there is actual rhyme and reason for the enhancements.

The final battle of the movie, against an "angel" made of what can only be described as "living glass," is way more impressive than what you see in the original TV series. In 1995, CGI was very limited and was out of the hands of all but a few with the deepest of pockets. Now CGI is available to people with off the shelf computers. The original version of the "angel" was a solid polyhedron of gleaming blue glass. Now the "angel" changes shape, morphing into geometric forms and shapes. It's more dangerous and formidable looking.

It is time for a major Hollywood production company to step up and help Gainax get this movie in US theatres. An art-house subtitled release, followed by an English dub with a bit of star power behind it, would be great. You would have to have a brief crawl in the beginning explaining what Second Impact was and what the "angels" were, because NGE is so popular in Japan there was no need for a lot of exposition up front. Everyone knew the mythology. America might need a little bit more hand-holding before unleashing the attack of the Third Angel. However, I think it's time for the rest of the Sci-Fi loving American audience to find out what the Japanese (and American Otaku) already know.

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