“Death Valley Days” was TV’s first and longest-running western anthology series. Every episode was based on a true story from western history and tried to stay as close to the facts as possible, although some compression was required for some of the more complicated narratives. Famous figures were often the subjects of these episodes, but more often the stories focused on ordinary people settling the west and some of the common problems and conflicts they would face. Only a handful of episodes took place in Death Valley, but the series took its name from that location because it was the source of the product manufactured by the company which sponsored the series, Pacific Coast Borax Company, which used the show to advertise its cleaning product, 20 Mule Team Borax. The show wasn’t the property of a single network (CBS, NBC or ABC), but was instead syndicated to stations across the country which aired it when and how often they deemed suitable. The series had begun as a radio program that ran from 1930 to 1945, before being revived as a TV series in 1952 and running until 1970. It started out in black-and-white, but shot some episodes in color in its 12th season in 1963 and went full color in its 13th season in 1964.
YOUR NAME is a Japanese animated film that was the biggest hit in Japan last year and has now opened at about 300 theaters in the U.S., including several in the New York area, where it can be seen in English-dubbed and English-subtitled versions. It earned $1.6 million this past weekend, which is pretty damned good for that number of theaters. The Japanese title is KIMI NO NA WA, which might be more accurately translated as YOUR NAME IS… I actually prefer the Japanese title to the more prosaic one chosen for the English version or even the Japanese title with the English one in parentheses, like this: KIMI NO NA WA (YOUR NAME), although that might get a bit unwieldy for multiplex marquees. In any event, it’s a magnificent film by any name and it deserves credit for the simple fact that it doesn’t look like any other film that’s out in the marketplace right now. For one thing, it’s 2-D animation at a time when Hollywood seems to make only 3-D CGI animated films now. It’s also filled with light and color, two elements seemingly absent from just about every science fiction/fantasy film made by Hollywood these days. And YOUR NAME is indeed a science fiction-fantasy film, but, more importantly, it’s a contemporary romance.
Since the new big-budget Hollywood Power Rangers movie opens in theaters this Friday (March 24), I thought it would be a good time to celebrate the long-running TV franchise on which it’s based, especially since the 2015 and 2016 seasons, “Dino Charge” and “Dino Super Charge,” were among the best in the series yet. The first Power Rangers series, “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” premiered on local TV stations in the U.S. on August 28, 1993 and the franchise has continued with new seasons every year since. The most recent season, “Power Rangers Ninja Steel,” premiered on Nickelodeon on January 22 of this year and is currently up to episode #8.
One year ago today, on March 8, 2016, I arrived in Japan for a four-week stay, a dream trip that I’d waited until my retirement to take. I’ve written about the trip in seven previous installments in the Japan Journal series, mostly from a film and pop culture orientation, but I had so much more material to cover that I decided to put together an album for the one-year anniversary using mostly previously unpublished photos covering the full span of my trip. I spent three weeks in Tokyo and one week in Osaka, with day trips from there to Kyoto and Nara. I took thousands of photos and had to spend a couple of days going through them. I’ve devised some broad categories with which to group them.
Two of the loveliest films I’ve seen in a long time are THE MERMAID (1965, Hong Kong) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975, Japan), which I watched a day apart. It was my very first viewing of THE MERMAID, a Shaw Bros. Huangmei Opera, while I’d previously seen THE LITTLE MERMAID, a Japanese animated film, only in a poor-quality, severely cropped English dub on VHS. Seeing the widescreen version on DVD, in Japanese with English subtitles, was like seeing it for the first time. The two films have some elements in common, although I’m not sure if the Hong Kong film was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale or by a much older Chinese folk tale. I’m guessing that the screenwriter drew on elements of both. The title mermaid in the Hong Kong film is not, technically, a mermaid as we’ve come to know this creature. Instead, she’s the spirit of a golden carp, a fish living in the pond adjacent to a garden in a Prime Minister’s villa in Old China. The carp takes on full human form, while retaining her magical powers, in order to console a poor scholar who’s been shunned by the family of the maiden to whom he was betrothed. The animated Japanese film is a direct adaptation of Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who trades in her fish tail for a pair of legs in order to live on land and try to win the favor of a prince and was made in 1975 to commemorate the centennial of Andersen’s death. Unlike the later Disney adaptation of the same title (1989), the anime version retains the tragic ending of the original story.
LATITUDE ZERO, directed by Ishiro Honda, is an unusual film in Toho Pictures’ filmography of sci-fi monster films. It features four Hollywood stars among the main cast members and one American newcomer in a significant role. It has a Jules Verne-style science fiction setting located underwater far from Japan. There is no central monster to be fought, just a series of smaller, lesser monsters, all rather unformidable and all in the employ of a mad scientist who can’t quite make the best use of them. Production-wise, the film’s most unique feature is the decision to shoot the entire film in English with synchronized sound, which meant all the Japanese actors with speaking parts had to be competent enough in English to make themselves understood. There may have been some post-dubbing to correct a rough patch here and there, but what you’re hearing on the English soundtrack are the actors’ actual voices, mostly recorded live on the set.
Last month I watched three films on Turner Classic Movies that made think about the relationship of music to movies and music to audiences. What struck me about all three films was the way music was part of the fabric of the society portrayed and played an integral role in community life. In two of the films and most of the third, the music is presented as performances in places and venues where it made perfect sense to perform songs and instrumental musical pieces. Only one of the films, IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN (1947), directed by Richard Whorf, featured people breaking into song amidst the settings and activities of everyday life, although this only happens two or three times in the movie. Every other number in the film is a performance number in places where it was perfectly logical to perform music. The other two films starred the great American tenor Mario Lanza: THE GREAT CARUSO (1951), directed by Richard Thorpe, in which Lanza played opera legend Enrico Caruso, and SERENADE (1956), directed by Anthony Mann, a grand melodrama based on a novel by James M. Cain about an opera singer’s rise, fall and rise again in contemporary America. One can make the case that THE GREAT CARUSO and SERENADE are not, strictly speaking, musicals but instead are films about music.