By Daniel Zelter
When I heard through Nausicaa.net about screenings for Isao Takahata’s films, I instantly RSVP’ed for the event(s). So the first day, I was on Hollywood again, except that I ended up in a theater which was so dilapidated, they had to take the gate apart in segments so you could enter the building. While waiting in line, I noticed a few otaku with anime-themed backpacks and t-shirts, but an overall smaller crowd than the one which showed up for the Miyazaki-hosted Spirited Away event a few years earlier, and even smaller than the number of people at the Director and producer-hosted screening of the Cat Returns the year before. And I guess I could say that there were a lot more teens and college students here than there were at the former screenings, where the gathering for Spirited Away mostly consisted of parents and young adults, and the crowd for Cat Returns was mostly made up of children. I almost felt sorry for Takahata that he wouldn’t be getting as lavish a reception as Miyazaki, but when I later met him, he seemed like the kind of guy who’d prefer a more rustic welcome.
(Still, the people behind the Japanese cultural studies course at USC who co-sponsored the event were very polite, pleasant, and organized, which I appreciate, given the location they were assigned. Unfortunately, either they didn’t know how to run the projector, or they got the prints were too big for the screen, as the films would occasionally shift upwards, cutting off the top, or shift downwards, cutting off the subs. Nonetheless, it still worked out better than the BAAF screening of Tokyo Godfathers, during which the projectionist would frequently shut down the film.)
In the beginning, I learned that Takahata wasn’t going to show up until after the last show, which was fine by me, because up until then, I only had seen Grave of the Fireflies, and couldn’t judge his work across the board enough to ask him any questions. Speaking of Grave of the Fireflies, that was the first show of the day, which I guess, in retrospect, seemed appropriate, since I don’t think audience would want to end the evening on a downer. For those who still haven’t seen it, Grave of the Fireflies revolves around two Japanese orphans living during World War II, and trying to survive American air raids. It’s a touching and tragic film, which apparently was close to Takahata’s heart, as he was the only animator at Ghibli he knew of who survived a bombing. (Of course, if you actually enjoyed Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, then Grave of the Fireflies may not be for you.)The crowd I was with seemed affected by it, and I might have even heard a few sniffles. As for myself, I probably would’ve appreciated it more if they hadn’t used a print which lacked accurate subtitles. (In certain places, lines were attributed to the wrong people.) Still, I will admit that Fireflies comes off more gripping in a theatrical setting-possibly because of the lights being off-than on home video. It also obviously seemed to garner the most questions later at the Q+A.
The next film to be shown was My Neighbors the Yamadas, which I’d been wanting to see for a while. Apparently, it’s based on a quirky family comic strip similar to the Family Circus, but with more believable characters. I guess the closest visual style I can think of is Crayon Shin Chan, but with better animation, including cel-shading, and obviously more taste. Based on the daily lives of the Yamada family, a grandmother, two parents, and two kids, the film consists of a series of interconnecting shorts where you learn more about members of the family. While amusing and cute, I didn’t find it hilarious, but that could be something I don’t “get”, as two Japanese girls in front of me seemed to be really enjoying it, and were laughing harder than me. Still, it’s a whimsical time-waster that doesn’t wear out its welcome.
The final film of the day was Pom Poko, which is about two warring groups of tanuki who settle their differences to deal with human encroachment. They eventually split again, when they can’t decide on the appropriate methods. Some tanuki settle their problems with violence, some believe in blending in as humans, and some just want to move out and look for another forest dwelling. I guess you could describe Pom Poko as a modern-day Princess Mononoke, but with more comedy and complexity. Plus the cultural elements in Pom Poko are less dumbed down than they were in Mononoke, particularly with a climactic parade scene which eclipses the one in Innocence with its variety of colors and images. The audience apparently seeemed to agree, as Pom Poko got the most applause of the three.
So when Takahata finally showed up, he obviously seemed worn out from his trip. (If I recall, he’d just gotten in L.A. the same day.) The Q+A started off light with me inquiring what samurai films influenced the way the tanuki in Pon Poko dressed, to which he replied that he was poking fun at Nemuri Kyoshiro.
I do know that, as I said earlier, Grave of the Fireflies got the most inquiries. But the only thing I(barely) remember is that he seemed to be indicating an anti-war stance, and that he accepted the fact that Japan was the aggressor, when it invaded China, which in today’s climate where certain manga is revised for politically correct reasons, is commendable for someone from his generation. After that comment, I had to settle for a question in which I inquired if he was trying to make a social statement, by having the children of prominent soldiers living in a shanty-town. He replied that he was just depicting the awful living conditions across the board. I wish I could remember everything else which was asked and answered there, but it’s been a while. Hopefully, Disney will actually live up to its promise of releasing the filmed Q+A on dvd in the near future. But I do know that it wasn’t over, as Takahata was signing Pom Poko posters, to which I declined, partly in favor of the catering, and partly because I felt him being there and letting me see his work for free was enough. (Although I did shake his hand, before I left.)
The next screening was a little bit trickier to attend, because I was unfamiliar with the street, and apparently, I had to sign in for the Only Yesterday panel which preceded the film. (I think the lecture had to do with women’s roles in Japan, how women are presented in anime, and other topics I probably should’ve stayed to hear. ) And since I didn’t do that, I had to hope that I could find a seat for the show, or just sit on the floor, because this venue at the Robert Zemeckis school(?) was smaller, albeit cleaner. Plus I was either too early, or they were running late. So while I waited, I talked to a guy who would later interview Takahata for a USC radio show, and noticed the audience mostly consisted of older women between their 20’s and 40’s. And I’d guess it’d be appropriate, as Only Yesterday is a chick flick in the vein of Beaches, except without the sappiness. (Although it does have its bitter-sweet moments, they all come off as relevant to the story, and not forced like whatever by-the-numbers romantic comedy(which is usually neither) is hot in Hollywood.)
Only Yesterday takes place in Japan during the early 80’s, and revolves around a woman named Taeko who reflects on the decisions she made in her childhood, as she focuses on the decisions she has to make as an adult. And like real people, not Hollywood people, Taeko’s choices aren’t always pleasant, but they enhance her world-view, and help add to her maturity. I think what I particularly like about Only Yesterday is the way the film gradually shifts from the city to the countryside. And you really get the opportunity to reflect with the main character, and not just sit on the sidelines. Maybe even connect with her. People used to Hisaishi’s epic scores might be slightly disappointed, as the film is mostly quiet, but that adds to Only Yesterday’s introspective nature. And the animation is top-notch, considering it was shown on tv. It’s definitely a class act like Millennium Actress.
While there wasn’t much applause by the end, I do feel that the film seemed to captivate the audience. In fact, I noticed a Japanese woman who was just chatting away with Takahata after the show, while he was just occasionally puffing on his cigarette. (She later told me how she really appreciated the depth of the characters, to which I agreed.) It almost seemed surreal. So I figured that I might as well get one more question in before I left, so after she was done, I asked him why his films tended to be in more realistic settings compared to Miyazaki, who emphasized fantasy. Takahata replied that he prefers real-life settings, and feels that fantasy is overplayed in movies(such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) and even anime. With that, we parted, me hoping to hear more about his next project he told me he was doing the day before, and him hopefully enjoying his visit in L.A.