29 October 2006

Nana (ナナ, Episode 2. 2006)

恋?友情?奈々と章司 Love? Friendship? Nana and Shouji

The second episode of NTV’s adaptation of Ai Yazawa’s manga Nana takes us back to the very beginning of the story. Episode 1 was clearly designed as a teaser for the series of 50 episodes to come. From what I can tell this episode covers all the story information of the first half of Chapter 1. This chapter focuses on the character of Nana Komatsu, or Hachi, in the years leading up to the two Nanas meeting. Our first impressions of Hachi are guided by her as her voice-over narration leads us through her story of growing up in small-town northern Honshu. The setting is romanticized by the mountains that surround the town and by the lightly falling slow that seems to be a metaphor for lost love.

After a romanticized image of Hachi’s hometown, shown in a shot that tilts down from a clear clue sky, we are thrown into the darkness of her affair with a married man (emphasized by close-ups on his hand holding a cigarette and sporting a wedding band against a black background) in the spring of 1999 when she was a high school senior. She outlines how unlucky she had been in love prior to that fateful moment she met Asano Takashi at the cinema. During her high school years she dropped in and out of crushes very quickly: her art teacher, a guy who works at the video store, a cook at the family restaurant she works at, and even the pizza delivery boy. She even alters her appearance to try to suit the style of her crush of the moment. These past crushes are shown in manga form, with the camera panning slowly over the still images, complete with speech bubbles, as Hachi does a voice-over narration. I’ve noticed that some bloggers have objected to this format as a way of short-cutting story information, but in actual fact these scenes do not speed up or omit story detail that was in the original manga. In fact, it’s quite impressive how closely the anime adaptation is staying to the original text in this episode. I know that fans of Yazawa objected to how much cutting occurred when her manga Paradise Kiss (パラキス, 2000-4) was adapted by Fuji TV in 2005. The Nana animators have clearly decided to stick with the original story by fleshing out the character detail in much the same manner as Yazawa.

As I watched Hachi bawling in the bathroom of her high school to her best friend Junko I was worried that I would quickly lose interest in the story if the main protagonist were to turn out to be such a hysterical flake, but Hachi’s over-emotionalism is balanced out by Junko’s level-headedness. In the next scene, Junko has transformed from a typical high school girl (white slouch socks – I have never understood why Japanese high school girls wear them!! – and a school uniform complete with overly short kilt) into an elegant young woman with permed hair which she usually wears up. Hachi has cut her hair shorter but she is still going for the cutsie look. Hachi has now transfered to the local art college where Junko is also studying. Junko is suspicious of Hachi’s motives and upbraids her for coming to the school only to pick up guys. Hachi does a lousy job of disagreeing. That is clearly exactly why she has come to the school in contrast to Junko who actually has career ambitions for herself. Junko makes Hachi see that she doesn’t judge the male sex as human beings, only as potential partners, and has therefore never even had a male friend. In response to this revelation, Hachi determines that her new goal is to make first male friend. Cue the arrival of Shouji Endou, cute guy who is perfect for Hachi (also talkative, sensitive, and wears his heart on the scene).

Thus begins the will they/won’t they storyline suggested by the title of this episode. In this scene we are also introduced to Takakura Kyousuke, the deep-voiced, dreadlocked artist who quickly becomes Junko’s boyfriend. The most amusing scene in this episode is the drinking party they have a Junko’s place. Nana, determined to become pals with Shouji, drinks too much and narrates the entire sordid history of her loves and crushes to her new friends. Shouji and Kyousuke find it amusing, and encourage her to continue, but the party ends on a sour note as Nana breaks down into tears when she gets to her affair with Asano. The episode leaves us on a cliffhanger on the Shouji-Nana question but it is pretty clear that they are similar characters: they both wear their hearts on their sleeves and are vivacious, open personalities.

The author of this manga is a woman and she certainly knows how to draw female protagonists and situations that young women can identify with. Although Hachi can be a bit annoying, I think that young women can identify with her dreams of finding romance and true love. I am glad that Yazawa included the Junko character. Even though Junko can be bitchy and condescending at times, she at least is a strong female presence who has ambitions outside of romance. Her relationship with Kyousuke seems to happen upon her without her looking for it. I am curious to see how the Nana Oosaki character counterbalances Nana Komatsu. In the prologue, as well as in this episode, there have been hints that Nana will also deal with the topic of female friendship and affection between women. In the prologue, Hachi clearly felt an attraction to Nana. In this episode, she spontaneously hugs Junko in one scene, but Junko is uncomfortable with this display of affection.

Another interesting thread running through the story is the theme of superstition. The most common meaning of ‘Nana’ in Japanese is the number 7 and Hachi seems to believe that a lot of bad luck coming her way has to do with the number 7. At one point she speaks of her fear that Nostradamus’s predictions are coming true. She also often mentions daimarou (literally ‘great devil’ but often also translated at ‘demon lord’), whom she seems to think has it in for her. I am unfamiliar with the term daimarou but am curious about the colloquial history of such a figure in Japanese folklore. A cursory glance of the internet reveals that a number of anime and manga have had a character with the same name. I will look into it as I watch future episodes.

The DVD is available (no subtitles) for purchase here:

Nana / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

27 October 2006

Holiday Inn (スイング・ホテル, 1942)

I picked this up on a whim at the video store even though most classic Hollywood films on DVD in Japanese rental shops are pretty bad pan & scan versions. In fact, they have often been put together so cheaply that you can’t remove the Japanese subtitles. This film is an old guilty pleasure of mine, despite some of the more disturbing scenes such as Louise Beavers being typecast as Mamie, and Bing doing a black-faced Lincoln routine.

The film was directed by musical veteran Mark Sandrich, who helmed at least half of the Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire films including The Gay Divorcee (1931), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938). It features Irving Berlin’s songs and it is famous for debuting the song ‘White Christmas’. The plot consists of typical nonsensical musical fare: Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire star as Jim Hardy and Ted Hanover. Along with Lila Dixon (Marjorie Reynolds), they form a song and dance team whose running gag (on- and off-stage) is that Jim can sing but he can’t dance and Ted can dance but he can’t sing and Lila has trouble deciding which man she loves more. To swallow this rivalry you of course have to forget that Fred Astaire was actually a terrific singer. Some of my favourite renditions of Gershwin tunes were done by him (Imagining that Bing can’t dance is a pretty easy feat though). The Jim/Ted (Bing/Fred) rivalry is captured eloquently by the number “I’ll Capture Your Heart” in which each man claims that he will be successful in love because of his talents. In the end, Lila chooses Ted, and Jim sets off, tail between his legs to live as a bachelor farmer in Connecticut. He then comes up with the brilliant, if unlikely, plan to turn the farm into an inn that is open only on national holidays (hence the title).

But this is a musical, and no one cares about logistics in a musical. Jim ends up hiring aspiring actress and singer Linda Mason (played beautifully by the under-rated Marjorie Reynolds, who apart from this film is only remembered for her role on the 1950s television series ‘Life of Riley’) whom he of course falls in love with and steadily wins over with his swoon-some crooning (it is Bing Crosby after all). Ted turns up drunk on Christmas Eve because Lila has ditched him for a Texas millionaire and proceeds to dance a spectacular number with Linda. Hollywood legend has it that Fred Astaire really did get drunk on bourbon for this number. The crowd at the Inn is wowed but Ted was so drunk he doesn’t remember what the girl looked like (and Jim’s not about to help him for fear of losing Linda). Ted’s manager Danny Reed, played by the talented character actor Walter Abel, came to the party late and only saw what the young woman looked like from behind. This sets up a great gag for the New Year’s party at the Inn where Ted dances with girls while Danny checks them out from behind and they get themselves in a whole passel full of trouble including this amusing exchange:
Man: “Say, what is this? A Daisy Chain?”
Ted: “We’re just looking for the back of a girl we don’t know.”

In spite of a few flubs along the way, including the aforementioned racism which was sadly par for the course in films of this era as well as pretty dire musical numbers for Lincoln’s birthday (poor Lousie Beavers had to sing the cringe-worthy line: “Who was it set the darkie free? Abraham!”) and Washington’s birthday (which will in all honestly leave you squirming in your seat), the film is a fun viewing overall. I love the numbers “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” (despite a few obviously bad lines like “it’s not a watch you’re wearing it’s my heart” WTF??? it is accompanied by a beautiful dance number), ‘Lazy’, my personal favourite ‘You’re Easy to Dance With’, and of course the Oscar-winning song ‘White Christmas.’ Fred Astaire’s Fourth of July number, ‘Say It with Fire Crackers’ is pretty enjoyable viewing. It’s a wonder Fred didn’t lose a leg during the filming of it though. It looks like they used real firecrackers. 

The rapport between Bing and Fred is great and it’s a shame that they didn’t make more films together.Their only other film together was another Sandburg film, Blue Skies (1946), which was pretty forgettable apart from the title song and Fred performing ‘Putting on the Ritz.’ It’s not particularly surprising that Bing and Fred didn’t make more films together though as this film is the first time since Roberta (1935) that Fred has had to take second billing (and in that case it was to a woman – the lovely Irene Dunne). I have read that Fred Astaire was offered the Danny Kaye part in White Christmas (1954) but that he turned it down. A wise decision, as I don’t think that role would have suited Astaire. On the topic of White Christmas, I must mention that I have always thought that they recycled the sets from Holiday Inn when they made White Christmas, even though it was made 12 years later because the similarities are striking. Someone on the Internet Movie Database seems to agree with me, I really must look it up in a more reliable source at some point as this is a point that bothers me everytime I watch those two movies.
This film is fun viewing not just for the musical numbers but because of the snappy dialogue and terrific gags.  Some of my favourite lines include:

Lila breaking off her engagement to Jim: 
“It isn’t that I don’t love you, Jim, I do. I love everybody!”
Jim: “You in show business?”
Linda: “I’m Linda Mason.” (she’s pretending she’s a celebrity)
Jim: “Oh….. Linda Mason.” (he’s pretending to recognize the name)

Apart from the condescending portrayal of African Americans in this film, the only other thing I would have changed as a director would have been to give the two leading ladies more chances to shine. It might have been just the thing to turn Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale into stars instead of supporting players.Fortunately that mistake was remedied in White Christmas, but I’ll save singing the praises of Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen until December.

And yes, if you’re wondering, the Holiday Inn chain in North America did name itself after this popular movie.

[if you click on the title of this blog you will be linked to Alan Vanneman’s article “Too Much Bing, Not Enough Fred” at Bright Lights Film and from whom I have borrowed the images for this blog entry. I enjoyed the article, though I must respond that one can never have too much Bing or Fred.]

26 October 2006

Takenaka & Marlene Dietrich

I saw an exhibition this week at the Yayoi Art Museum of the work of Eitaro Takanaka (竹中英太郎, 1906-1988). The Yayoi Museum specializes in magazine illustrations - particular pre-war illustrations. I have seen amazing exhibitions there of art from children's magazines of teh 1920s and 1930s where you could see the influence of style on animation that developed after the war.

Takanaka specialized in illustrations for thrillers, horror, and detective stories. In the 1960s and 1970s, he did some amazing, vibrantly coloured surreal paintings. He also did a series of paintings inspired by Marlene Dietrich, such as the one above. The poster below advertises a performance by Dietrich in Tokyo in 1974 (昭和49). I love the placement of the moth (detail follows at bottom). It says so much about Dietrich as a sensual, transformative creature. I would love to have it as a poster to frame on the wall! She would have been in her seventies, but Takanaka clearly sees her as still being at the peak of her powers of seduction.

Der Blaue Engel is available on DVD in Japan with commentary footage from Nagaharu Yodogawa:

Der Blaue Engel / Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

25 October 2006

Mt. Head (頭山, 2002)

I was introduced to the animation of Koji Yamamura (山村浩二) by one of my students. His unique style has become famous through the many animations he has done for children. This film, Atama Yama (Mt. Head), is his first for adults and it was so successful on the international festival scene that it was nominated for an Academy Award.

The film is based on a rakugo (落語:a traditional form of comic storytelling) story and is narrated by Takeharu Kunimoto (国本武春), a musician and storyteller who is famous for pairing the shamisen with American bluegrass music. He also accompanies Atama Yama on shamisen. The story that unfolds is surreal in nature, but the animation renders it quite riveting. A stingy man living in a hovel of an apartment in Tokyo scavenges some cherries he finds lying on the ground. As he eats the cherries, he mutters to himself that it would be a waste to throw the pits away so he eats them as well. Soon, a cherry tree begins to grow from his unusually bulbous head. At first, he clips it away and saves the tiny green sprouts in a jar, but after a while, he can’t be bothered anymore and allows the cherry tree to grow. The story then descends into an even more surreal world as people gather on his head to celebrate hanami under the cherry blossoms. The people annoy him so much that he uproots the tree and throws it away, but the hole that remains fills with water on a rainy day and turns into a pond and people come again to swim in it. The ending is rather unusual and sudden, but I’ll let you find out for yourselves.

My student informed me that Yamamura has cited the influence of Estonian animator Pritt Pärn, Russian animator Yuri Norstein, Dutch-Canadian Co Hoedeman and my all-time favourite animator, Scottish-Canadian Norman McLaren. Personally, I was reminded of Terry Gilliam’s animation in Monty Python – perhaps because he often had things coming out of the heads of his animated figures.

The influence in Norstein is noticeable in the layering of images in Atama Yama. Norshtein uses multiple glass panes to give his images a three dimensional look. Unlike Norstein, however, Yamamura does use computers for the assembly of his films – possibly including the beautiful layered look – but it is clear that he mixes hand-drawn images with CGI. This allowed Yamamura to use the movement of the camera in interesting ways. The quality of light in Atama Yama was particularly stunning. In the opening scene in particular, the layering images combined with the use of light gives the impression that real sunshine is washing into the image.

Perhaps most impressive for me was the use of a point-of-view camera as the man eats the cherries. We hear the sounds of him chewing and see the plate of cherries through his eyes. When he reaches out his hand to take some more, and while he is chewing, the camera bobs up and down just as the head of the protagonist would. A brilliant sequence that had me feeling queasy at the man’s baseness.

I found myself chuckling at many points throughout the film – especially at the Japanese stereotypes that the story and animation poke gentle fun at – “Spring has come and the cherry blossoms are in bloom… the salarymen are also in bloom…. the office girls are also in bloom!” recites the narrator in that wonderful sing-song fashion of rakugo accompanied by the hilarious animation of the event by Yamamura.

If you would like to see the film, order it buy clicking on the icon below:

Atamayama - Koji yamamura Sakuhinshu / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

13 October 2006

Nana (ナナ, NTV, episode 1, 2006)

序章・奈々とナナ Prologue: Nana and Nana

When I was a kid in the mid-eighties, my friends and I loved watching Jem and the Holograms on TV. My sisters and I bought the ‘Barbie’ dolls of the main protagonists, which came with cassette tapes of music from the animated series, and sang along and pretended that we were the Holograms or the Misfits (Roxy, Stormer and Pizzazz were much more exciting than the Holograms, whose names I don’t even remember anymore). Nana, the NTV anime based on the manga by Ai Yazawa (矢沢あい) appeals to the latent Jem fan in me. The anime debuted in the spring, but I have only just started watching it. I have been reading the first manga in the series (I think Yazawa-san is up to book 16 or 17 already… it started back in 2002) at a snail’s pace since the summer as a way to improve my Japanese.

Marketing for the live action movie of the same name, Nana (Kentaro Otani 大谷健太郎, 2005) and the accompanying pop songs have been everywhere this past year and I have been fascinated by the depiction of the two main protagonists in the advertisements – two young women who meet on the train for Tokyo who discover that they have the same given name, Nana (though written differently), and are the same age, 20. When I saw the DVD of the debut episode for sale at our local convenience store for 707 yen (‘nana’ can also mean 7 in Japanese and the girls end up sharing apt. 707 on the 7th floor of an old Western-style building) I bought it on a whim and can now officially proclaim myself hooked by the series.

Like Jem, the storyline of Nana has two competing bands Black Stones (BLAST ブラストis their nickname) and Trapnest (or Toranesuトラネス). Unlike Jem, this is not a simple battle of the bands story. Nor is it a story about a conflict between the two Nanas. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find a complex coming of age tale about two young women who go to Tokyo with very different ambitions and learn a great deal about themselves and each other through the ups and downs of their love lives and careers. Episode 1 seems to have been designed as a teaser episode that starts at the point when the two Nanas meet for the first time and decide to live together. Episode 2 (which I also plan to review) takes us back to where the manga begins and gives us a bit of backstory on both of the young women.

Nana Komatsu (小松奈々) is the kawaii shoujo, the stereotypically super-cute girl with big round eyes and a round face who is the typical protagonist of shoujo manga. Shoujo (少女) means ‘girl’ in Japanese but the term is also used in English to refer to this genre of manga as a whole or also to a certain type of female protagonist. This Nana has her hair dyed a lighter shade (it often looks blonde in the anime), dresses stylishly but conservatively, talks in a high-pitched voice and is very eager to please. Early on in the girls’ relationship Nana Osaki observes that Nana Komatsu is very much like a puppy dog: eager to please but needs a lot of attention. She gives her the nickname Hachiko (ハチ公) after the famously faithful dog whose statue at Shibuya station is a popular meeting place. Her friends also abbreviate the nickname to ‘Hachi’ which means 8 in Japanese.

Nana Osaki (大崎ナナ) is the kakkoii shoujo (かっこいい少女) or super-cool girl. Episode 1 shows Hachi to be in awe of Nana and emphasizes their differences (their similarities in terms of goals, insecurities, etc. will reveal themselves in later episodes). Where Hachi is talkative, Nana is quiet. Hachi wears pinks and pastels while Nana wears black. Hachi wears a modest amount of jewellery while Nana sports lots of rings, several piercings and even a tattoo (very uncommon in Japan as tattoos are associated with the yakuza – many public baths have signs out front saying that people with tattoos are not admitted) of a lotus (we find out its meaning later). Much to the envy of Nana, Hachi comes from a warm-hearted, small-town family and has two sisters. In contrast, Nana never met her father and her mother abandoned her to be raised by her grandmother when she was only four. Since her grandmother passed away, she has had to support herself.

The biggest contrast is their reasons for coming to Tokyo. Hachi is coming to follow her boyfriend and other friends there and seems to have no ambitions for herself other than romantic and domestic bliss -- as testified by the fact that she spends her first day in Tokyo cleaning Shoji’s apartment and making him dinner instead of going sight-seeing or looking for a job. Nana is coming to Tokyo to try to prove herself as a punk rock singer by making it big in the music industry and her love life remains a mystery in this episode. The girls have been brought together by fate, but they also seem to be drawn to each other by a kind of mutual attraction. The anime really emphasizes this through the romance of the setting – I know there is a theme of the number 7 but there is no way an apartment that “広い” (spacious) could be had in the Tokyo area for only 7万 (less than $700 CAD / €500 a month)!!! Even if it is an old building (Hachi says that it was built before she was born, which is really old to young Japanese people) without an elevator.

I must admit to being seduced by the hyper-romance of anime though – the softly falling snow, the idealized mise-en-scene such as the washed-out look of their apartment with it's backlit window, and so on. The attention to detail and realistic touches are stunning in many sequences. When Hachi’s keitai (cellphone) buzzed at one point, I actually checked my own keitai because to see if I had a message because it sounded exactly the same! I am looking forward to watching the rest of the series and will report on it here. I plan to buy the DVD of the next episodes this week. So far, I am quite fascinated by the depiction of the Nanas. Hachi is a character that most teenaged girls can identify with – dreaming of romance but not really sure about what she wants to do with her future. Nana, on the other hand, is the brave, rebellious girl that young women wish that they could be more like. From what I have read about the series on the internet (I have discovered that there is quite the buzz about this anime on English and French blogs), I have a feeling that the characters are about to get a lot more complicated in the common episodes.

Click on icon below for details on how to purchase episode one on DVD (no subtitles):

Nana / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006


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