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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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The Passing of Two Manga Greats: Kazuo Koike and Monkey Punch

25 Apr

Earlier this month, two great manga creators died six days apart. Kazuhiko Kato died on April 11 at the age of 81 and Kazuo Koike died on April 17 at the age of 82. Both died of pneumonia. Kato was best known by his pseudonym, Monkey Punch, and was the creator, writer and artist of “Lupin III,” a long-running manga about a not-so-gentleman thief and his band of uniquely skilled sidekicks, that formed the basis for numerous animated TV series, movies and specials made from 1971 to 2018. Kazuo Koike was a writer responsible for some of my favorite manga series, including “Lone Wolf and Cub,” “Crying Freeman” and “Lady Snowblood.” These titles and others he wrote were made into live-action films, TV series and animated films. The two men were sometime rivals whose careers ran parallel to each other and they even collaborated once, as indicated in this paragraph from Anime News Network featuring Koike’s reaction after Kato’s death had been announced:

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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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The Last Video Store in the Bronx

4 Sep

On May 27 of this year, my local video store, a branch of the once-thriving FYE (For Your Entertainment) chain, closed its doors for good. Construction began immediately on the site for a new business and just last week it opened, giving our neighborhood for the first time (shudder!), a Starbucks. I had been a regular customer of FYE for 15 years, starting in 2002 when it replaced a previous video franchise on the site, Coconuts, from which I only have one record of a purchase, in August 1999, of three VHS tapes—a Jackie Chan movie and two Godzilla movies, all dubbed in English. I’m sure I must have purchased more there, but I hadn’t noted down any others. I can’t prove there are no more family video stores left in the Bronx (as opposed to those in the X-rated business), but I’m betting this FYE was the last one. (There aren’t many video stores left in Manhattan either.) I used to go to a FYE in Manhattan, but I don’t remember where it was or when it closed. According to a news story on the Bronx FYE closing, there is still one branch open in Queens.

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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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Japan Journal, Part 8: Japan Anniversary Album

8 Mar

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.

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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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