anime

Is When Marnie Was There the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I am really tempted to call out that this is the second anime within my first ten of these and to undercut the premise. Most of what I watch is not anime. Anime is not so critical to film as to merit 20% of these posts. But today I want to talk about Studio Ghibli, so here is When Marnie Was There.

I recognize that I have two hills to climb, here. The best movie of all time isn’t an anime, right? What’s even the point of this if we aren’t talking about Citizen Kane or The 400 Blows or something? I think you need an open mind, here in paragraph two, and I don’t know that I can make a case for “anime as an artform” if you aren’t willing to take that step. I’m just going to assume you’re willing to come that far. The second hill is the taller one, anyway, and that’s ranking the Studio Ghibli movies.

One thing I find frustrating about the pace of discourse now is that people often assume you are as deep in the subject as they are. This is how you have impassioned responses to things normal people aren’t even aware are positions. You can find yourself watching a YouTube video about how people are wrong about saying people are wrong about being wrong about something. I saw a comment yesterday where someone said they wouldn’t watch anything in black and white and said that people liking old movies were “virtue signaling.” I don’t even know where to start with that one.

I think When Marnie Was There is the best movie Studio Ghibli made because it’s a tougher nut to crack than the others. I think this is a defensible opinion, but I also think people will, maybe rightfully, call that a hipster opinion. I’m going to cut my preamble here, but you’ve got to believe anime is a defensible form of film to even get into the layer where you probably don’t agree with my niche opinion. I’m assuming you’re willing to hear me out.

For most people, it’s My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. They’re all masterpieces, but nearly everything Studio Ghibli touches turns to gold. I keep coming back to When Marnie Was There and until my last watch, I really couldn’t tell you why. Totoro is the greatest children’s story ever told, but it’s simplistic. I’m not going to condemn it because that’s insane, but everything works out, more or less, because magic is real. You don’t feel that when you watch it, which is why it’s so transcendent. I’ve seen Totoro a half-dozen times and every time it wins me over, but I don’t find myself thinking about it after I see it. It’s an experience.

When Marnie Was There sticks with me. It’s the story of Anna, a young girl with asthma who has to go to the countryside to heal and chill out. Her doctor says that it’s all stress-based, which seems to be the inciting conflict of a hundred different stories like this. What sets this apart is the unspoken truth about Anna’s depression. She’s a foster child and she has resentment for her parents even in death, and she’s willing to even say that. A lot of these stories ask you to feel that about their character, but few are willing to take this additional step.

Anna is hard to like. In the few interactions we see, she calls the only person who extends friendship to her a “fat pig” and runs away. It’s a brash way to make a main character’s pain feel real, and Anna is tough to root for until she gets lost in fantasy. She spends less time in the “real” world than many characters in Ghibli movies and we get to know her less as a result. She’s only in “the big city” for ten minutes and she’s only in the countryside town for one scene. She spends almost all of When Marnie Was There in the fantastical marsh house where the mysterious Marnie lives.

When Marnie Was There plays with expectations. I don’t want to spoil the turn, but it isn’t the romance that it sets up. You’re led to believe that Marnie and Anna are both outsiders in different worlds and they fall in love in the way that teenagers fall in love. They hold hands and have picnics and it’s young love, how we all remember it. That isn’t what’s happening here, but those emotions drive much of what you see until they don’t.

You can’t talk about an anime without talking about the art style. Marnie and Anna have bright blue eyes, to the degree where other characters comment on how striking this is. That’s a tell, and one I can’t get into without ruining it, but it’s interesting that it is commented on at all. Hayao Miyazaki, the iconic head of Studio Ghibli, said that Marnie’s appearance on promotional material was “cheesy” and that using a blonde, blue-eyed girl to promote the story was “outdated.” The original story was moved to Japan but the fantastical character remains very clearly white, to the point where other characters talk about how unique it is.

Marnie and Anna are mirrors of each other and they need to look similar, at least in some fashion, for that to work. There’s been some solid work done by other writers that I won’t crib from, but it is a very weird detail in the middle of the movie that stands out more and more on rewatches. Why move the setting but leave the characters unchanged? It’s clearly intentional, but it never feels that way. Studio Ghibli films are marked by the attention to detail, down to the beautiful animation in quotidian Japan, but the best explanation I can come up with here is that it’s supposed to be distracting. It’s a clue, I guess, to the ultimate mystery, but then you wonder about Miyazaki’s comments. It is very strange and you could chalk this up to part of the whimsy, but your mileage may vary.

Art aside, the story is slow and curious. We keep getting led down paths that end up with our main character passing out or getting lost, which is fitting for the story at the heart of the thing. It’s not a straight line, but that’s part of the point. Anna has to change for this to matter, and some of that is more complicated than learning to be nice to strangers. It’s about learning to forgive and to understand that other people’s lives had details that you never get to see.

Or do you? You, personally, won’t get to see them, but Anna does. There are two reveals, one to the audience and one to Anna, which leads to a climax that then gets explained again. The second one doesn’t have the narrative punch of the first one, but even on a fourth watch I found it really cathartic. There’s something in When Marnie Was There that really winds you up and lets it all out at the end, which is storytelling done the right way. It never feels like it’s going anywhere, especially with all of the wandering and secondary characters essentially guessing and getting it wrong. It’s only once you get there that you realize this was the story all along.

So what makes it the best Studio Ghibli movie? I think you have a strong case if you disagree with me, but the payoff is what does it for me. Other worlds are more fantastical (Spirited Away) and other characters are more interesting (Kiki’s Delivery Service) but I think this one is more satisfying. The journey is the same as so many other stories the studio has told, but I’m so much happier for this character for going through it. Anna needs this, really needs this, and that ending is what you crave when you watch a story like this one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Targets is a personal favorite but it unravels at the end in a way that I don’t find satisfying. When Marnie Was There is the exact opposite. Both movies make some weird choices but are the better for the aesthetic they cultivate. I think When Marnie Was There is a better story, but these two are really different and I might change this answer depending on the day.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I still think Badlands holds on to this crown. I think there’s a strong case for a few other Studio Ghibli movies being better than this one even though this is my personal favorite. I know it’s the style now to go hard and to demand your opinion is the only one, but When Marnie Was There doesn’t even make a strong case for why one of the main characters is a blonde British girl, so I can’t in good faith say it’s better than a masterpiece. It’s an incredible story and it will really overtake you if you let it, but it’s not perfect. It doesn’t need to be.

You can watch When Marnie Was There on HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Major Issues: Wayward #1

Wayward02A-585x900-web.jpg

In Major Issues, we look at one newly-released comic book each week. Updated Mondays.

Gardner Mounce

Wayward #1
Written by Jim Zub
Art by Steve Cummings
Colors by John Rauch and Jim Zub
Letters by Marshall Dillon
Published by Image Comics 8/27/14

My high school English teacher taught me that it’s bad form to begin an essay with a quote, and that’s why I’m saving it for sentence two. Someone once said that anyone can write a first act. It’s fun and easy to come up with a group of characters and establish a conflict; it’s in act two where things get tricky. Even so, a first act can be told poorly. Wayward’s problem is that it sets up its pieces so quickly that it doesn’t seem to enjoy its own premise.

Issue one falls into the trap of trying too quickly to get to the action. It assumes readers don’t have patience for the setup and are rolling their eyes until someone draws a sword. Protagonist Rori Lane, an Irish-Japanese high school student, lands in Japan to start a new life with her mom. For some reason, her mom doesn’t pick her up from the airport, which conveniently allows Rori to discover her new superpower–the ability to see her literal future path displayed for her in a red line (exactly like Donnie Darko’s ability to see his future path in a blue line). She catches up with her mom over dinner and explores Japan a little. Three men in an alleyway accost her. She’s saved by a ninja girl. They fight them off. The guys end up being turtle monsters, she discovers she can jump buildings for some reason, etc, etc.

This would be too much for one issue anyways, but writer Jim Zub dumps additional exposition on us in gobs of narration. Comics are a combination of words and pictures, but I’d argue that they’re a visual medium first. I hold them to Alfred Hitchcock’s standard that, like film, if they are played “silently” (without narration) the story should still work. It’s the cliche: show don’t tell. Narration should never do the work that the visual element could do. Most of the narration in Wayward could have been relayed to the reader visually, but oftentimes the narration just parrots what the comic is already showing. For instance, in one scene Rori struggles to take an afternoon nap, but is unable to do so due to jet lag. There are three frames. In frame one, Rori is lying down, staring at the ceiling. The narrator says, “I wonder if my brain will stop whirling long enough to take a nap.” The second frame is the same shot, to show that time has passed. The third frame shows Rori sitting up, indicating that, no, her brain won’t stop whirling long enough for her to take a nap. The reader understands this and needs no further indication, but Zub provides two additional layers of narration. First, Rori says, “Nope!” Second, the narrator says, “I guess it’s time to go exploring!”, which is an unnecessary line since the next panel shows Rori exploring. Zub commits this crime of over explaining constantly in issue one. The overall effect is that it reads like a rough draft, like Zub is still in the process of learning what his characters want and hasn’t yet found a way to tell the story in an interesting visual way.

Artist Steve Cummings and colorist John Rauch created this comic for a niche audience: the anime-ers. Skin is translucent. Hair is green or blue. Everyone’s dressed like they’re in attendance at Anime Expo. I’m not an anime or manga fan, so the art doesn’t feel like an homage to a Japanese style so much as it feels derivative of it. However, Cummings’s perspectives are noteworthy. Wide shots distort like wide angle lenses, giving the effect that the comic is filmed. It gives issue one a slick cinematic feel that definitely catches the eye. Now, if only Zub would trust him enough to take that camera eye and show us Japan and Rori Lane’s knotty relationship to her parents rather than tell us about it.

Should You Get It?

No. Unless manga is an obsession for you, and you’ve read all the manga, and you need anything that looks like manga or anime right now.

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

Space Dandy Needs Women: Anime’s Feminism Problem

Dandy6-620x

Alex Russell

When I first talked about Space Dandy a month and a half ago, I praised the animation and commented on how odd it was to see the New York Times commenting on it. I mentioned that it really needed to learn how to balance the absurd humor of parody and the interesting nature of a universe worth exploring. It’s now seven episodes in, and so now I feel more comfortable evaluating what Space Dandy is rather than what it could be.

The show is broadcast in the United States and Japan on the same day, which allows for the US broadcast to proclaim that you’re watching the “world premiere” of every episode. It’s definitely a unique show in that regard, and the narrative elements of the show prove why they took that risk on this show.

A traditional anime series is 26 episodes long per season, with a lot of shows only getting that one season. Since not every story merits a 13-hour uninterrupted telling, one of the big tropes of anime is the “filler” episode. You meet everyone for 11 episodes and then everyone goes to the beach, or rides a train, or visits a friend in a far-away land. It’s either that or a recap show (imagine if every single sitcom had a clip show, whether they had the history to pull clips or not) and the “filler” episode is just an accepted part of the genre.

There’s no “filler” on Space Dandy, because every episode is equally unimportant. On a normal show those episodes can help explain characters by taking them away from a grinding story and forcing them to develop without advancing the plot. Space Dandy is absolutely not interested in growth, so no need to worry about getting too deep in the story to examine everyone. Everything is one plot and nothing carries over from episode to episode enough to bother with characters.

Or does it? The most compelling part of the show is the loose continuity. In one episode they surf away through space on lava coming from an exploding world. The next episode opens on a throwaway line about surfing, and then they’re done discussing it. It leads instantly into a Wacky Racers parody. It is forgotten, because it doesn’t matter.

It is easy to use this decreased emphasis on character to explain the problem with what Space Dandy is not: a reasoned discussion of the role of sex and gender in anime. Space Dandy is built to make fun of every single thing traditional anime does — right down to the hapless bad guy that doesn’t even seem to be trying very hard to catch the good guy — but it handles women so poorly that it’s tough to tell if it’s failing at the joke or legitimately doing a bad job with the topic.

There is an aggressive dedication to parody in this show. The lava-surf-riding episode ends with a nonsensical song about what happens after the end of forever. It’s impossible not to see this as a send-up of some of the more fantastical elements of animation. They nail this so hard that anyone who recognizes the joke will love it. Why can’t they also spoof anime’s gender problems that well without adding to them?

Space Dandy the show is about Space Dandy the character hunting aliens down to register them in order to make money. His crew is a genderless robot (voiced by a female, but the gender never matters in the show) and a cat whose gender is established but never really matters. Lest I be labelled as looking for a problem here, let’s look at the only thing that happens in every single episode of Space Dandy: he tries to find the closest Hooters-clone restaurant.

200px-Honey_portal

Honey, essentially the only female on the show, is in every restaurant. After 3.5 hours of the show she still does not have any real character elements; she’s mostly played as a pleasant-but-simple person who likes that Space Dandy keeps coming to the restaurant. Her outfit is absurd. She’s a waitress at outer space Hooters. Use your imagination, not your Google.

The argument here is if it is “joking” with the ultra-masculine pompadoured-Dandy and his approach to women. At a certain point, does it matter? Sure, naming the restaurant “Boobies” shows that you’re trying to be a little sly with the attitude towards it, but if you keep going back to it what does it matter what the intent is?

Other than Honey, who has absolutely no character to speak of, the only time the show has dealt with gender at all is in the episode “A Merry Companion is a Wagon in Space, Baby.” Dandy meets an alien that he can make a buck off, but the little girl has the power to turn someone into a stuffed doll once a day. The plot of the episode works as a “journey” while the two have to learn to get along on the way, but the slow development of the little girl as a character that matters feels glacial. She finally earns Dandy’s respect as a peer, but it is entirely dashed when it comes out that she just wants to grow up and “hang out” with Dandy. After working so hard to develop a character — a rare attempt for the show — they finally decide she is only valuable as she relates to the male protagonist.

dandy

Space Dandy the show is rarely about anything other than the absurdity of Space Dandy the guy and how much he wants to find some women, but that lens is no excuse for the way this show excludes half of the world. The creators of Grand Theft Auto 5 went on the record saying that their game features three playable male characters and no female characters because “the concept of being masculine was so central to this story.” People didn’t buy that and people shouldn’t buy this. Anime has plenty of powerful women, but it’s largely a space occupied only by women defined as sexual objects. If Space Dandy wants to mock the genre, it would honestly have to get even more absurd to handle the topic this way. As is, it comes off a lot like GTA 5: part of the thing that it’s supposedly making fun of.

There’s a lot to like about the animation and narrative risk to Space Dandy, but the world is hollow because it’s half empty. It’s a phenomenal show because of what it lampoons and the success with which it does so, but it’s hard to imagine this show couldn’t take down the sacred cow of anime: the limited role of women. Hopefully, it will. It might want to start with itself.

Image source: Space Dandy wiki

Space Dandy: The New York Times is Reviewing Anime Now?

Alex Russell

In 1998 Shinichiro Watanabe created what turned out to be a very accessible anime series for American audiences when he developed Cowboy Bebop. Bebop was a big hit in the United States, even for people who weren’t devotes of the artform in general. It was an easy to watch, action-packed show with a soundtrack that was “cool” in the way “cool” is supposed to be used. It was flashy, but not bright like Dragonball Z or Pokemon. It was soaked in booze and smothered in cigarette smoke and it was a perfect introduction in style and content to a world that a lot of Americans had never given much thought.

The show ran on the very first night of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of shows in 2001 and continued to rerun through the end of last year. It would be a mistake to say that Watanabe took America by storm and became a household name just as much as it would be a mistake to blindly assume everyone knows the first damn thing about Cowboy Bebop. It’s just more likely that you’ve heard of the show that was supposedly going to be adapted to a live-action version with Keanu Reeves than you have heard of, say, His and Her Circumstances.

You don’t need to know everything about the world of anime to understand Watanabe’s new show that runs on Adult Swim on Saturday nights, but it’ll certainly help. Space Dandy is the story of a man named Dandy who travels the outer reaches of space in search of new species of aliens. He needs to report them to a more-than-global database to make a living and to fuel his real purpose in life: visiting every location of a Hooters-parody restaurant called, well, “Boobies.”

Stay with me.

Bebop isn’t super-serious all the time. The series begins its 26-episode run with episodes about chasing a dog through busy street markets and cheating dealers in casinos. As the story develops the emotional core of the show grows darker and darker until it’s so gritty it gets almost maudlin. Around the sixth flash of a character dropping wrapped roses to the far-away tune of a music box, it brushes against the line between sad and sappy. It doesn’t cross it, though, and in that line lies the ability to make an animated show feel more real than a live-action one.

It’s assuredly unfair to compare Dandy and Bebop. For one thing, Bebop is done. It became much more than the sum of its episodes by the end. Dandy has only had one episode air so far (“Live With the Flow, Baby” which you can watch here) and has a long way to go to develop into whatever it’s going to be. Should you watch it develop? That all depends.

The New York Times praises the animation and calls the worst of the humor “cringe-inducing.” There’s two important things to mention here:

  1.  The New York Times is talking about what is essentially a style parody running at almost midnight on Adult Swim.
  2.  They (for the most part) are doing so correctly.

Dandy (the show and the character) is ridiculous. It’s designed as a parody of traditional anime, which the Times gets right and you can read their piece to read about influences. The first half of the first episode is some of the broadest television that’s ever been broadcast. Dandy’s sidekick (an android vacuum cleaner…kinda) shrieks and worries that they are “breaking the fourth wall” too early. The characters are all ridiculous and if you don’t constantly remind yourself that they’re ridiculous to mock an existing style then they might feel too slapstick to handle.

The parody is so direct that it reminded me of a terrible movie I saw as a kid. Mafia! was ahead of its time in a bad way. It’s also a genre parody that’s the same joke as the Scary Movie franchise. You know mob movies? Here’s every mob movie. That’s the joke! If you don’t know the source material it can feel like it’s just bad jokes.

You should stick around for the second half, though. Dandy captures what he thinks is a rare breed of cat alien, but it’s just a cat. The cat takes Dandy to where the real weird creatures are and the episode picks up from there. There’s no need to ruin the ending, but the variety of creatures and inventive art style are worth the price of admission that the weird opening charges you.

If it sounds like I’m wavering it’s because I am. The bad jokes in the first half are really bad at times and I’m hesitant to recommend this to people as it stands right now. I can do so only because the final animation sequence got an audible “wow” out of me, and it’s really not that often that animation does that anymore. If the show strikes a better balance between the goofs and the interesting universe itself, it will probably find an audience on Adult Swim. For now, though, it’s odd territory on American television that you should still see to believe.

Space Dandy airs Saturday nights on Adult Swim.

Image source: awn.com