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By Oliver Chin
Reprinted with permission by the author
January 1, 2003
People have a tendency to speculate on what changes the new year will bring. Certainly different cultures have different expectations and openness to change. Actually in other countries, often it seems that the future happens a lot faster than in the U.S.
For example, in the Philippines a woman, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is President. In Denmark, offshore windmill farms are producing renewable energy. In Japan, hybrid cars are on the fast track and animated films are routinely the largest blockbusters and most critically acclaimed.
Taking up this last topic, now an anime movie won't win the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award for Best Picture anytime soon. But perhaps that day when foreign films are not shunned may not be too far away. In fact, one should win the Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003. That candidate is the latest masterwork by Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away, which has garnered universal praise nationwide. Here is a brief recap of that cinematic triumph as well as two other notable DVD releases.
1. Spirited Away
When was the last time an anime title landed on the year's top ten list of best films from Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Entertainment Weekly, and the New York Times, as well as winning "Best Animated Film" ffrom New York Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association? Well, the closest runner up would have to be Miyazaki's last movie Princess Mononoke.
Now that Disney finally has stopped mishandling the Western theatrical releases of his treasured library, Miyazaki is reaping the kudos worldwide that he has all but monopolized in his native land. This famed creator of Nausicaa and director of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, has continued to surprise his critics, surpass the expectations of his fans, and shape the perceptions of what a motion picture can achieve. In this story, a young girl
confronts how a complex chain of disorder arises from the simple act of moving from home.
After her parents have been transformed into pigs, Chihiro's reality becomes a strange fantasyland, and, predictably, she soon gets lost. Guided by the moody boy Haku, she gets a dirty job in a bathhouse owned by the greedy Yubaba. In a world overflowing with stink gods, sprites and dangerous spirits, can Chihiro retain her identity, her name, and her desire to go back home?
A blend of Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy in Oz, this protagonist faces a multitude of challenges on multiple levels, which makes the story that much more rewarding to the viewer. The plot is not simply about the tension between the life of a child and that of an adult (growing up, uprooting, or returning to childhood). Asking the tough questions about human nature (the blurred line between good and evil, balancing personal vs. communal desires, how the capacity to achieve is tied to wonder rather than prejudice) Miyazaki typically does not supply the answers. And for that audiences are grateful.
Published by Bandai (first DVD volume $29.98, 75 minutes), this series deals with the fate of the world. However the earth is not threatened by space invaders but by self-destructive patterns of human behavior. If only Arjuna can help us see the light before its too late for all of us.
By a quirk of fate, high-school student Arjuna lies expiring in a hospital emergency room. Moments earlier she had just been enjoyed a joyride with her motorcycle driving, would-be boyfriend Tokio. Now in an out of body experience, she is given a choice by the psychic Chris (a teenage Xavier). She can die. Or she can replace him as the Earth's protector, the "Avatar of
Time", and struggle to save the planet from environmental degradation and human folly.
Part of SEED, a secret paranormal organization, Chris revives Arjuna as the chosen one. Indeed under duress, she suddenly transforms into a Technicolor maiden with a magical bow. But who is the evil enemy? The ethereal wormlike Rahja which emanate from the earth's polluted wounds (nuclear power plants or toxic landfills) or humanity itself which has selfishly spoiled its own
Arjuna is no heroine yet. Scared and confused, she must endure an archetypal rite of passage, and mature from a careless adolescent to a careful adult. Enhanced by luscious computer animation, this series is a melting pot of genres with a twist: a new breed of anime that attempts to educate as it entertains. A warrior student of the Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is forced to fight but must divine a higher truth to choose the correct path of action. As in life, some may bridle at hearing a message of deeper responsibility. However this Arjuna strikes the target with a compelling and true aim.
A multi-disc DVD series (Mediablasters, $29.95, 125 minutes), this is one of those rare titles that lives up to its name. Indeed, for our erstwhile anti-hero, a name like "Guts" would be hard to live up to, if you didn't mercilessly swing a seven foot sword and have your blood branded by demons. Luckily, he fearlessly lives for the thrill of battle and bears an equally huge chip on his broad shoulders.
In flashback, we see how this errant youth grew up among mercenaries, and later locked horns with the rogue soldiers the Band of the Hawk. Vanquished for the first time in his brutal life by their leader, the white haired Griffith, Guts recovers from this setback by casting his lot with the inscrutable Griffith and becoming his right-hand man. Hired by the town of Midland to fight against their enemy, the kingdom of Chuder, these Hawks soon become the most feared military force in this bloody war.
If you're seeking for the last action hero, look no farther. This guy should be on Ginzu infomercials because he slices and dices so furiously. Cast in a feudal age where monsters mix with knights, Berserk blends no holds barred mayhem with period piece authenticity. In so doing, it creates mesmerizing characters (along with the female lieutenant Caska) that drive both history and fantasy fast forward.
When these guys get medieval, there's more red juice spurting around than in a tomato juice cannery. But let me tell you, this series has got guts as it unabashedly slices through the irrationality of human desires for war, sex, power, status, love, and self-actualization. All these things truly drive people berserk (see Saddam Hussein and George Bush), and this show will do the same to you.