The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: April 15 - 22, 1999

[Movie Reviews]

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Anime: Japanese Animated Films

American notions of Japanese animation tend toward the black and white: either it's the squeaky-clean Speed Racer or Kimba the White Lion my generation was weaned on or it's violent science fictions like Akira and the controversial contemporary cartoons full of guts, gore, and gratuitous sex (not to mention women with huge breasts used as fodder for cannibalizing robots). But as any true otaku (anime fan) will tell you, anime is an artform defined by many different genres, styles, and industry proclivities. It's not all big eyes, big hair, and bad dubbing.

The Museum of Fine Arts, in cooperation with the Japan Society of New York, is offering a wonderful program of anime over the next month. The first week (coinciding with Spring School Vacation Week) features family fare. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) is Hayao Miyazaki's charming story of a 13-year-old witch and her talking black cat. Seiji Arihara's Kayoko's Diary (1991) describes the life of an eight-year-old boy and his loving family in a working-class district of Tokyo during World War II. Yoshio Takeuchi's Lion King-style epic Jungle Emperor Leo (1997) is based on the '50s Osamu Tezuka comic-book series that later became the model for the Kimba series, and the similarities in art direction between Leo and The Lion King are too numerous to be coincidental -- but it's not clear which came first.

A program of three shorts includes "Princess Sapphire" (1967), also by Tezuka and based on a popular manga (Japanese comic book) about a young princess who pretends to be a boy to keep predatory invaders at bay. It shows with Arihara's "On a Paper Crane" (1993), about a sixth-grader visiting Hiroshima, and Katsuhiro Takayanagi's "The Goblin and the Snow Hare" (1995), about a goblin boy who finds a ball lost by a human girl. Shinichi Nakada's The Adventures of Pipi (1996) is the cute story of a vertically challenged firefly and the bugs who befriend him. Kiki's Delivery Service is in English; the rest of these films are subtitled.

Not so suitable for young children is "The History of Japanese Animation." Part one covers the 1920s through the 1940s, with experimental animation techniques and wartime propaganda clips. This program includes Kenzo Masaoka's 1943 "Spider and Tulip" (controversial for supposed racist content), as well as Noburo Ofuji's phenomenal "Whale" and "Ghost Ship" (dreamy seascapes in Ofuji's famous colored cellophane). Part two covers post-war animation through the 1970s and includes Yasuaki Nakajima's "Hand and Egg" (one of the earliest Japanese claymations) and "Synchronization," Mitsuhiro Haraguchi's clever story of evolution.

Osamu Tezuka's seminal work gets its own program of five short films, including the delightful "limited-animation" (eight frames per second, as opposed to the standard 24) Tales of the Street Corner, where European-style wall posters come to life with vivid humor. The hilarious, sublime "Jumping" was an award winner in the 1984 Tournée of Animation, back when that venue was the norm and not the sick, twisted stoner silliness we animation fans must now endure.

Rounding out the series: Eiichi Yamamoto's One Thousand and One Nights, an impressive erotic tale based on The Arabian Nights; Nagisa Oshima's Band of Ninja, based on a serial cartoon about a medieval samurai that became wildly popular in the '60s; Osamu Dezaki's Black Jack, based on Tezuka's manga series about a renegade surgeon; and finally, "Inside Experimental Animation," a varied program featuring works spanning 1967 through 1991 by some of Japan's most talented anime artists, including Tadanari Okamoto, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Yoji Kuri, and Taku Furukawa. At the Museum of Fine Arts through May 21.

-- Peg Aloi
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