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Ray Harryhausen Centennial

29 Jun

Monday, June 29, 2020, marks the centennial of special effects genius Ray Harryhausen. I was lucky to have seen many of his films as a child when they were new and then share them as a grown-up with my daughter and nephews. I did a tribute to him on May 11, 2013, on the occasion of his death at the age of 92 and am reposting it here as a centennial tribute. Consult the original piece here for the comments that were added then.

Ray Harryhausen died on Tuesday, May 7 at the age of 92. He had a good run, starting out by animating stop-motion models of dinosaurs, inspired by KING KONG (1933), for short color 16mm movies made in his parents’ garage while he was a teenager in the 1930s and ending with the Greek mythological epic CLASH OF THE TITANS in 1981. In between, he did the “technical effects” as billed on his first feature, or “special visual effects” as they were usually billed, for some of my all-time favorite movies. I was lucky to have seen many of his movies on the big screen when they were first released, starting with THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), which my father took us to see on Lincoln’s Birthday in 1959, when I was five. Even though I’d seen Disney features in theaters before then, as well as a memorable double bill of THE ROBE and DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, I believe it was SINBAD that first triggered a love of the motion picture art form, particularly the more fantastic genres. The Cyclops was a truly formidable monster and done in such a vivid and exciting manner that there was something consistently compelling about him and the way he reacts to having his domain invaded by these pesky humans. I don’t know that I’ve seen another movie monster quite like him, not even in Harryhausen’s other films.

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VHS Memories: Discovering Anime in the Early ’90s

16 Jul

I had been following Japanese animation off and on from 1964, when I first saw “Astro Boy” and “Gigantor” on TV as a child, to the early 1980s when I saw the anime features PHOENIX 2772 and GALAXY EXPRESS 999 on the big screen, but it didn’t really take a permanent hold on my consciousness until the release of AKIRA in theaters in the U.S. in 1990 led to a trickle of Japanese animated features being shown at film festivals and repertory theaters.

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Chinese New Year: Celebrating the Year of the Pig

5 Feb

The Chinese New Year begins on February 5, marking the start of the Year of the Pig. I decided to look at some of my favorite pig characters from popular culture, most notably Porky Pig of Looney Tunes fame and the trickster pig character, Pigsy, from the classic Chinese text “Journey to the West.” In that story, Pigsy, a pig demon who lusts after human women, starts out as an antagonist of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, but is defeated by him and agrees to join Wukong and the Tang monk on their journey to India to acquire sacred Buddhist texts to bring back to China.

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Osamu Tezuka at 90, “God of Manga”

3 Nov

Osamu Tezuka, known in Japan as manga no kamisama (God of manga), would have turned 90 on November 3, 2018. The creator of thousands of volumes of manga (Japanese comic books) from the postwar years to his death, he’s best known in the U.S. for several animated series based on his works, including “Astro Boy,” “Kimba, the White Lion,” and “Princess Knight,” in all of which he had considerable input. The very first Japanese animated feature I saw was one of his, PHOENIX 2772 (1980), which played at a film festival in New York in the summer of 1982. It was, in fact, the first work of Japanese animation I ever wrote about. Since then, I’ve seen hundreds of films and TV episodes based on Tezuka’s works, many produced by him, and have read dozens of volumes of his manga that have been translated into English.

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June 29: Bernard Herrmann and Ray Harryhausen

29 Jun

Composer Bernard Herrmann and special effects creator Ray Harryhausen shared a birthday–June 29. Herrmann was born in 1911 and died in 1975, while Harryhausen was born in 1920 and died in 2013. (I did a tribute to Harryhausen here.) The two artists collaborated on four films. My first exposure to both men was THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, which I saw in a theater when I was five years old. It took a few years for me to learn their names, but I became a huge fan of both by the time I was an adolescent. Following SINBAD, they collaborated on THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963). I saw GULLIVER and JASON in theaters when they came out as well, but I would have to wait till a TV showing on Thanksgiving in 1964 to catch MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, which became my favorite of the four. I would eventually see all of Harryhausen’s films and all but two of those that Herrmann composed the scores for.

Seven years ago, I did a piece on Herrmann’s centennial on the J-pop blog I was doing then. Harryhausen was still alive at the time. I’ve pasted that piece here in its entirety:

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Our First TV Set: 1955-1962

24 Dec

This picture shows my older brother Dennis playing in front of the TV set in the living room on Christmas Day, 1955. This is the only picture I have of the family set that I did all my early watching on, from 1955 to the spring of 1962, when it broke down for good. We watched tons of movies on that set, as well as all manner of TV shows, from cartoons to the Mickey Mouse Club, the Three Stooges to Abbott & Costello, westerns, crime shows, adventure shows, sitcoms and assorted kiddie hosts. From about the age of five, I paid enough attention to remember the titles of most of what I saw, especially the movies, so I thought I’d reminisce about the viewing highlights of those years. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

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YOUR NAME (KIMI NO NA WA): Newest Anime Masterpiece

11 Apr

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.

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From Hong Kong and Japan: THE MERMAID (1965) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975)

23 Feb

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.

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Pokémon: The Animated Series Still Going Strong after 19 Seasons

22 Jul

In reading and hearing about all the fuss in recent weeks over the game Pokémon Go that is bringing players outside into the real world where they get to interact with other people and explore territory in their own neighborhoods, I was somewhat dismayed that there was virtually no mention of the Pokémon animated TV show, which is now in its 19th season and still airs new episodes once a week on the Cartoon Network. I should know because I watch the show every week and still consider it one of the finest animated series for children ever made. I was first introduced to the show in 1999, not long after it began airing on a local broadcast station and appearing in VHS volumes on video store shelves. I was doing freelance reviewing for a website designed as a consumer guide for children’s videos and since I was the resident anime expert among the site’s stable of reviewers, I was assigned the new anime shows then popping up, including the new phenomenon, Pokémon.

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Japan Journal, Part 6: Toei Kyoto Studio Park

15 May

One of the absolute highlights of my trip to Japan was the visit to Toei Kyoto Studio Park, in Kyoto, on Wed. March 30, 2016. This is a combination theme park, museum, and studio run by the Toei Company, one of the leading film, TV and animation studios in Japan. Since 1950, Toei has been turning out a steady array of Japanese pop culture staples, including samurai and yakuza movies, martial arts films, superhero TV shows, animated sci-fi and all sorts of other time-honored Japanese genres. The Toei Kyoto Studio Park offers a samurai village backlot that visitors can explore to their heart’s desire, as well as a visitors center filled with galleries devoted to Toei’s 60-year animation output, live-action tokusatsu and sentai TV series, Japanese film history in general, and the singer Hibari Misora. The backlot is in active use as a set for Toei TV shows, plenty of which I’ve seen, and I will share images from shows that were filmed there. It was an immersion in Japanese pop culture history like I’ve never experienced anywhere else.

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