Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu Comments

(Image from Amazon.com, used for review purposes only.)

In the last blog entry, I mentioned that I'd received 2 DVDs for Christmas. The second one is a collection of short anime from Osamu Tezuka, entitled, The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu (2009). It contains an 18-minute interview with Tezuka, which you should watch first if you get this DVD. In it, he says that Japanese anime is hitting a wall, focusing only on the domestic market. He thought that anime studios should be developing more international-friendly works. But, since no one else was doing that, he'd had to do it himself. His approach was to create anime that would win awards at international film festivals. This DVD contains 12 "experimental" anime shorts for a total of 152 minutes (annoyingly, the clamshell wrapper doesn't give a total play time. The Amazon page says it's 151 minutes but that doesn't include the time for the interview).

Back in the 80's, I was getting heavily into animation and the history of animation studios. The best of the entries for each year's International Animation Film Festival would be collected into one movie that would play in the U.S. during the summer at specific small theaters. Later, some of the movies were released on video tape, and I bought each one as they came out. One specific short that really blew me away was Jumping, which featured all-hand-drawn cells of someone jumping along a street. The jumps get higher and higher, with the main character getting entangled with a crow, and dropping down into the spout hole of a whale. Each jump featured a different gag. This was my first real introduction to Osamu Tezuka.

In the interview, he talks about how the TV stuff was boring, and created specifically to raise money to fund the experimental works. (So much for the ground-breaking nature of Atom Boy and Kimba the White Lion.) There's actually 13 shorts on the DVD, but one is just his logo and is only 13 seconds long. Essentially, the shorts can be divided into two era's - 1962 to 1968, and 1984 to 1987. The first collection are rather simplistic, idealistic looks at how humans treat the environment and each other, while the second set is more mature and cynical.

Tales of the Street Corner (1962, 39:04 min.)
A look at a street corner in what could be an east-European country, where the main players are some posters on the walls of a street, a moth, a tree seed, a small girl and her teddy bear, and a family of mice. One poster is of a violinist, a second is a female pianist and the third is a jealous girl dancer. Initially, it's just a simple love triangle between the three posters, with side stories involving the mice, the dolls, the moth and the tree seed, until the city goes to war and the other posters are torn down and replaced with images of Fearless Leader.

Male (1962, 3:09 min.)
A black comedy short with a male cat complaining that the stupidity of human men is interferring with his romancing of a cute female cat. It ends with the tom wondering why humans can't be more like cats.

Memory (1964, 5:40 min.)
A gag short showing how people's memories fade and distort reality. Some topless nudity.

Mermaid (1964, 8:17 min.)
A young boy finds a fish and claims it's a mermaid. He lives in a land where the people don't allow fanciful thinking like this, and he's subjected to something akin to electro-shock therapy to cure him of his "delusion".

The Drop (1965, 4:18 min.)
A gag short about a shipwrecked castaway stranded on a wooden raft on the ocean, trying to get the last drop of clean water suspended from the mast of his raft.

Pictures at an Exhibition (1966, 32:56 min.)
An interpretation of the classical piece by Mussorgsky, with segments including "The Critic", "The Boxer", and "The TV Talent". Most of these lampoon specific personality types, while "Gardener" has a honey bee entering a metal and plastic garden in the middle of a city and starving to death.

The Genesis (1968, 4:02 min.)
A retelling of the first book of the Bible, with God creating Eve first, and man being made from one of her breasts.

Jumping (1984, 6:22 min.)
An unseen character jumps up and down in the middle of the street, with the jumps getting higher.

Broken Down Film (1985, 5:42 min.)
A parody of old movie films, where the hero, an American cowboy, has to deal with scratches, jumped sprocket holes, hair balls, and a villain trying to steal his woman.

Push (1987, 4:16 min.)
The last surviving human on Earth drives around the ruins, visiting various cities and pushing buttons on still-working vending machines to get food, clean clothes, a replacement car, and mechanical replacements for the dead animals he's found (each time, a recorded voice says, "Thank you for your patronage"). Eventually, he gets to the gates of heaven and asks God to give him a replacement planet. God tells him, "Sorry, you guys pushed the wrong button, there aren't any new Earths to give you". As the camera pulls back, a recorded voice says, "Thank you for your patronage".

Muramasa (1987, 8:42 min.)
A samurai finds a katana (Muramasa) stuck into the chest of a bamboo practice dummy. He takes the blade, and starts out by cutting bamboo practice dummies in half. Eventually, even people start looking like bamboo dummies, and soon he's on the run from the authorities as a serial killer. Behind him, his pursuers look like bamboo dummies, which he cuts down mercilessly.

Legend of the Forest (1987, 29:25 min.)
Arguably Tezuka's masterpiece, this is set to Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. In the first part, a lumberjack cuts down trees in a woods, and a flying squirrel sets out to stop him, with disasterous results. The squirrel falls in love with a female flying squirrel, but she gets hunted by the lumberjack. The story ends with the squirrel making a final last stand. The second part has a land development company coming into a different forest and clear cutting everything. The creatures of the forest try to present a peace offering to ask the Hitler-like owner of the company to stop the destruction. He rebukes their offer. Then nature gets ugly.

I've already mentioned Jumping, and I've long been a fan of Broken Down Film. The rest of the shorts were new to me, and I like them all. Many of them are bittersweet, such as Street Corner, Muramasa and Legend of the Forest. Most are pro-environment, anti-war and are still a stinging commentary on Japanese and world politics even after all these years. Pictures at an Exhibition combines Night Gallery with classical music, and is pretty funny (the TV talent is a beautiful woman that the TV crew swirls around just in order to shoot an ad for anti-fungal foot cream.) Legend of the Forest is really well-made, with influences from Disney's Fantasia. But I'd have to say that my favorites are still Jumping, Broken Down Film and now, Push.

The production on the DVD is by KimStim and could use some improvements. Some of the English subtitles show up 2-3 minutes after the Japanese text is displayed, and having subtitles turned on during the Tezuka interview caused the audio track to misalign from the lip sync. In fact, the only complaints I have about this DVD are about the poor subtitle timing.

Overall, I'd recommend this DVD to anyone that likes animation. I'm happy now, because I finally have Jumping and Broken Down Film in my hands.

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