I occasionally watch animated films, but am rather unfamiliar with Japanese anime.  I recently viewed a film available through the Alameda County Library System entitled “Millennium Actress.”  This film was named the “Best Animation Film” at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal in 2003 and awarded the Grand Prize at the Japan Agency of Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival. 

“Millennium Actress,” directed by Satoshi Kon, deals with the career of a fictional actress named Chiyoko Fujiwara.  Extremely successful in romantic and action films during the 1930s through the 1950s, she disappeared from the set of a space film right after being rescued by a camera technician during an earthquake.  Decades later, she is being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker and a cameraman in her home in a mountain village. 

The action of the film shifts to different periods of Chiyoko’s life and the films she starred in.  The interviewing filmmaker and cameraman find themselves part of these different realities either as participants in the action or as onlookers.  The other constant in the film is Chiyoko’s attempt to find a political activist / artist she rescued from the police in the late 1930s. 

This film, and anime in general, shifts between realities in a way that would be expensive or next to impossible to shoot in live-action films.  Fans of typical anime films might be surprised to find they can enjoy a melodramatic love story in anime.  I would recommend this film to adults who are curious about Japanese animated films. 

Millennium actress [videorecording] = Sennen joyu / Go Fish Pictures presents a Chiyoko Committee production , Genco Inc. ; producer, Taro Maki ; writers, Satoshi Kon, Sadayaki Murai ; directed by Satoshi Kon

Universal City, CA : DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2001    DVD Fiction MILLENNIUM 

Other selected anime films I’d recommend are:

Spirited away [videorecording] / Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Tohokushinsha Film and Mitsubishi present a Tokuma Shoten, Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network and Dentsu ; producer, Toshio Suzuki ; written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki

[United States] : Walt Disney Home Entertainment ; Burbank, CA : Buena vista Home Entertainment, [2003], c2001                                              DVD Fiction SPIRITED

Cowboy bebop. Session 1 [videorecording] / [directed by Shinichiro Watanabe ; a production of Sunrise, Inc. & Bandai Visual Co. Ltd  (There are 6 sessions of this series.)

[S.l.] : Bandai Entertainment, c1999         DVD Fiction COWBOY

Ghost in the shell : Stand alone complex. Vol. 01 [videorecording] / Shirow Masamune-Production I.G/Kodansha ; producers, Yuichiro Matsuka, Tsutomu Sugita, Charles McCarter, Kaoru Mfaume ; director, Kenji Kamiyama ; English adaptation produced by Bandai Entertainment, Inc    (There are 7 volumes in this series.)

[S.l.] : Bandai Entertainment : Manga Video, c2003-2004               DVD Fiction GHOST

Tokyo Godfathers [videorecording] / Mad House Ltd. ; producer, Masao Maruyama ; screenplay, Satoshi Kon, Keiko Nobumoto ; directors, Shôgo Furuya, Satoshi Kon

Culver City, Calif. : Distributed by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, [2004]    DVD Fiction TOKYO

ranmaI’m continuing my review of the Dublin Library’s anime and manga collection this week with Ranma 1/2, a classic comedy anime series by the creator of Inuyasha.Ranma 1/2 skillfully combines appealing characters, fantasy, slapstick adventure and romantic comedy.

The series revolves around Ranma Saotome, a teen-aged boy and lifelong martial arts student. While on a training mission with his father, Genma, in China, Ranma and Genma fall into a set of cursed springs. As a result, Ranma turns into an attractive girl whenever cold water touches him, and Genma turns into a giant panda.ranma5

As the series opens, Ranma and Genma show up as surprise houseguests at a martial arts dojo owned by Genma’s old friend, Mr. Tendo. Mr. Tendo’s youngest daughter, Akane, is a tomboy and skilled martial artist. Poor Ranma and Akane both get the shock of their lives when their fathers announce that the two teenagers are betrothed.

Not at all ready to settle down, but also unwilling to defy their fathers, Akane and Ranma reluctantly agree to try being engaged. Thus paired off, the two of them begin to spend time together, a rough road considering that Ranma is frequently rude and arrogant, and Akane has a hair-trigger temper.Their relationship is both strengthened and made more difficult by the challenges of enrolling Ranma at Akane’s high school.

With a childhood spent following his father from place to place in search of martial arts training, Ranma is anything but a well-behaved student, and he quickly becomes notorious at school for pulling pranks and getting into brawls.Although he’s initially horrified by his tendancy to turn into a girl whenever he gets wet, the cunning Ranma quickly learns to use his gender-switching powers to play tricks and manipulate the other boys at the school. Akane is usually mortified by her fiance’s antics, but she soon comes to realize that life with Ranma, while noisy and frequently aggravating, is also a lot of fun.Slowly, they become friends and then even more slowly, they begin to develop deeper feelings for one another.

ranma3In addition to Ranma, Akane, and their family members, the series has a well-rounded cast of secondary characters: the panty-stealing, old scoundrel of a martial arts master Happosai; the rich, handsome, and extremely pompous high school athlete Tatewaki Kuno (who falls in love with Ranma’s female alter-ego, leading to many comic complications); the Chinese Amazon warrior Shampoo, who swore to wed Ranma after he beat her in a martial arts contest; and Ryoga Hibiki, Ranma’s rival in both martial arts and romance.

ranma4Ryoga also fell into one of the cursed springs, and is cursed to turn into a cute little piglet when wet. Directionally-challenged, tongue-tied around girls, and head-over-heels in love with Akane, Ryoga is humiliated at first by having such an unmanly alter ego. But, like Ranma, Ryoga soon finds ways of turning his situation to his advantage. To Ranma’s displeasure (and jealousy), Ryoga’s piglet form is adopted as a pet by an unwitting Akane and named P-chan. This situation of course leads to more hilarious complications as Ryoga tries to keep Akane from discovering his secret, and Ranma tries to keep P-chan out of Akane’s room and bed.

ranma6All in all, Ranma 1/2 is a light-hearted romp with some hysterically funny scenes (including a martial arts figure skating competition that left me howling with laughter). Unlike many anime series, including Inuyasha, Ranma 1/2 is episodic, with continuing characters and situations, but no real season-long story arcs.

So, is Ranma 1/2 appropriate for your child? The series was originally intended for pre-teens and teens, and it’s got bloodless slapstick violence, some tastefully-done nudity in non-sexual contexts, occasional references to sex, and panty raids.

Haibane RenmeiThis week, I’m departing temporarily from the Dublin Library’s collection to review Haibane Renmei, a gorgeous, thought-provoking anime series available at the Bookmobile, Castro Valley, and Union City branch libraries.

Haibane-Renmei is one of those series that’s utterly engrossing but difficult to describe.

A fantasy turns poignant and gently humorous, it begins with a sequence of a young girl falling from the sky. She awakens from her falling dream, only to find herself hatching from a cocoon, into a world both strange and oddly familiar to her.

Her first few days after emerging from the cocoon are bewildering. She is shown the ropes by a group of teenagers and children living on the grounds of an abandoned school where she emerged, grows a pair of angel’s wings in a painful and messy process, and is given a halo (which, in one of the funnier sequences, refuses to stay straight, so the kids make her a contraption consisting of a headband and an old wire hanger, to keep her halo aligned).

As the days pass, and she settles into her new life as part of a little commune of angel-winged kids, the girl, who can remember nothing of her old life, is named Rakka (“Falling”) by the others.

Venturing away from the school grounds on an outing to a nearby town with her companions, she learns that the winged kids are called “Haibane,” and they occupy a special place in this world. They are permitted to work for food and clothing and other necessities, but are not allowed to handle money. They are also forbidden to buy or have anything new, so their clothing comes from thrift shops and from charitable organizations. Most of the townspeople treat the Haibane like charming nuisances, and a mysterious organization, the Haibane-Renmei, pays for rent and utilities at the old school.

The town itself, set in the midst of a gorgeously-animated landscape of fields and windmills, is reminiscent of a medieval German village, with cobblestoned streets and neat, gabled houses. Oddly, the village and its immediate countryside are surrounded by high walls. It is forbidden for anyone, human or Haibane, to cross over these walls.

The series presents many mysteries: who are the Haibane? Why is the town walled in? Who are the Haibane-Renmei? What lies on the other side of the wall? None of these questions is answered directly, but by the end of this short (13 episodes) series, enough hints have been presented for the viewer to make some guesses. 

What guesses? That would be telling, and given the magical, lyrical quality of this series, it’s almost beside the point.

Haibane Renmei is an excellent example of an artsy fantasy anime series. There are no Haibane Renmeidragons, giant robots, magical swords, or spaceships here. Instead, the story unfolds in a series of beautifully-animated, charmingly-characterized vignettes.

So, is Haibane Renmei appropriate for your children? Although rated 13+ by its publisher, Geneon Entertainments, this series contains no sex or violence, and is appropriate for all ages (though younger viewers may not appreciate the leisurely pacing and philosophical themes).

On a related note, the Alameda County Library’s web site also provides a listing of anime and manga-related sites on its Teen Scene Entertainment page: http://www.aclibrary.org/teens/default.asp?topic=Teens&cat=Entertainment#anime