Overnight Thread ("Orford String Quartet, Beethoven String Quartet Op.130)

For the Sunday (weekend) overnight video, I wanted to pick something a little different, and so I chose one of my "needle drop" audio recordings available on my YouTube channel. A "needle drop" is a recording of a vinyl recording; years ago, one would record to cassette tape or create a mix, while today, most everything is recorded to digital, for transfer to smartphone or burning to CD.

This album is one of my favorite records, a 1976 LP by Canada's Orford String Quartet of Beethoven's String Quartet Op.130. This is one of Beethoven's very last pieces of written music, and shows the emotionally-turbulent master at his peak, full of sound and fury, but also a delicate beauty and clarity.  I found this LP for 50 cents, which is common for classical albums. It's very easy to build a record library of classical music for less than the price of a sandwich. Thankfully, the price inflation that has accompanied the Vinyl Revival has yet to extend to classical.

I recorded this LP in 2010 with a Sony PS-X5 direct drive turntable (1977-79), an Ortofon 2M Blue phono cartridge, Musical Fidelity V-LPS phono stage, and Harmon Kardon 330c stereo receiver. This was never my favorite audio line-up, but it was very effective and it got the job done.

My current setup: Sony PS-X600 Biotracer turntable, Shure M91ED cartridge, Pro-Ject Tube Box SE II phono stage, and Marantz 2235b stereo. I really love my stereo system, especially the Biotracer deck and the Tube Box. The humble Shure cartridge - one can easily be found for $20 these days - is the weak link in the chain, yet it has a musical, full-bodied sound that is quite effective. A Jico Super-Analog Stylus is available for $130, and dramatically improves the performance of the cartridge. Jico makes a similar stylus for Shure's M97XE cartridge, and is widely regarded as a killer combination for the budget minded music lover.  It is nice to know that one need not spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on their stereo systems.

Anyway, enjoy the LP recordings. I've often toyed with the idea of writing hi-fi audio reviews on Saturdays or Sundays here on the blog, but weekends tend to be my "down time." I'm also quite busy running around all the time. We'll see if I get around to that.  Back to work on Monday!

Art Gallery For the Day

St. Scholastica Blues (2003)
St. Scholastica Orange (2003)
Digital Media

These two pieces are part of a very large series of digital artworks created in 2003. Everything was done on Paint Shop Pro, utilizing the various filters and effects.

I chose the title because St. Scholastica was where I spent my first year of college. It's a private Catholic university on the hills of Duluth, Minnesota, across the street from the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus. It's a small school, one very old castle, one newer building for the science departments, and one building for the dorms, where I lived for a time. The Catholic nuns live in their own quarters on one wing of the main building. It was a fun little school, but focused mostly on medicine, so I later transferred to the U of M.

I also thought of St. Scholastica when creating the "orange" piece, which reminded me strongly of 1970s pop art. One would find these kind of rounded-curve patterns on walls everywhere in the late '70s, and so it had a certain nostalgic pull for me.  I also created these pieces as texture-map tiles for video games such as Quake III and Unreal Tournament; I would use those games to "test" the digital artwork, so ensure that no seams were present, and the tiles flowed smoothly.

I'm not sure, exactly, how to achieve that feat in the real world, since the resolution for the 2003 Digital series is all too low (my mistake). I suppose solutions could be worked around it somehow, if the funding were available. It would be cool to make wallpaper out of these patterns for an art gallery show, especially for Orange.

Overnight Thread ("3000 Leagues in Search of Mother")

Okay, somebody out there has to upload some Marco clips to YouTube. I could barely find anything at all. I was lucky enough to find this clip video.

3000 Leagues in Search of Mother was the 1976 follow-up to the enormously successful Heidi, Girl of the Alps. As before, the trio of Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki and Yoichi Kotabe were the creators, although Takahata was clearly the dominant player, whereas Heidi was very much a team effort. This dominance, however, strained relations with Kotabe and Miyazaki, who both left after the series conclusion. The old band, together since the Toei Doga days, had broken up.

Miyazaki broke out fully on his own, creating one of his iconic masterworks, Future Boy Conan. It's quintessential Miyazaki, perfectly fusing his love of cliffhanger adventure serials with the sense of social conscience learned from Paku-san. And his obsessive work ethic on Heidi and Marco resulted in absolute creative dominance on Conan. Everything was his vision, his direction, and one often gets the sense that if Miyazaki could have animated and painted every single drawing himself, he would have.

Fortunately, relations with Takahata remained on good terms, even asking him to guest-direct two episodes of Conan. Miyazaki would return one final time for Anne of Green Gables in 1979, before departing the series after episode 13 for the Telecom studio and Lupin the 3rd: Castle of Cagliostro.

For Kotabe, his career proved more difficult in the late 1970s, working freelance animation jobs. His greatest achievement during this period was as the animation director of Toei's 1979 animated feature, Taro the Dragon Boy (it's a very good movie, btw). In 1981, he joined with Takahata once again, serving as co-animation director with friend and fellow Toei alum Yasuo Otsuka. He contributed key animation to Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind in 1984, before retiring from animation completely to work at, of all places, Nintendo. All those Mario drawings over the years? Pikachu? Yeah, that's Kotabe-san.

Of those three World Masterpiece Theater series of the 1970s - Heidi, Marco, Anne - Marco/3000 Leagues has always been my favorite. I can understand why it doesn't hold the same universal appeal of Heidi, which exploded with such energy and vitality. Marco is pure emotional melodrama pushed to its absolute limits. Heidi might remind you of Studio Ghibli movies such as My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki's Delivery Service. Marco is Grave of the Fireflies. It's 52 episodes of that. It's also the best-written of the three series, with the best cast of characters, most interesting locations (spanning two continents and an ocean), and the most emotionally involving.

Imagine The Book of Job, starring James Dean, directed by John Ford, Frederico Fellini or Sergio Leone. That's 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. I'm sorry I couldn't find any complete episodes on YouTube, but this short clip video is a nice glimpse. We really ought to upload some episodes. Fortunately, a fansub translation has been available for some time, so it's easy to track down and download.

Discotek once asked me what new anime titles they should pursue. My answers? Heidi, Marco, Anne. These are the best animated films Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki or Yoichi Kotabe ever created. Ever.

Photo of the Day

Rendered drawing of the Portland Tower, a 17-story mixed-use building (retail and condos) in downtown Minneapolis, near the site of the Minnesota Vikings stadium, Wells Fargo headquarters, and "commons" park, all of which are currently under construction. The Portland site broke ground yesterday in a public ceremony, and is expected to be completed by Summer 2016.

Slowly but surely, the open sea of empty parking lots are being filled in, and the old city of Minneapolis returns to life. Like so many American cities, it was crippled by post-WWII suburban sprawl, urban renewal, and our obsession with cars. A booming economy and young Millennial Generation are fueling an urban renaissance.

Now if we could do something about the eight miles of hamster tubes ("Skyway") that keep people hidden inside of buildings and away from the streets.

Quote For the Day

“Rather than paintings that declare ‘I am the real thing, I prefer paintings that say ‘As you can see, I am not the real thing, but please use me as a means to imagine or remember in a vivid way the real thing that is behind me. My intent was to have the viewers be there at the moment when the sketches were being drawn and to have them share in the emotions. I want to make sure that we don't forget the great power of paintings drawn by lines on paper to stir our imaginations and memories.”

- Isao Takahata, on the iconic, symbolic power of visual art in animation.

Isao Takahata Discusses Winter Days and Princess Kaguya

Wired.uk spoke to Isao Takahata recently, touching upon his insights gained from a revolutionary 50-year career. The interviewer, Matt Kamen,, to my pleasant surprise, knew his subject's work, and brought up the 2003 anthology movie, Winter Days, in which Paku-San contributed a scene. That was very nice; Winter Days is one of those animated movies championed by animators and artists, playing in museums and festivals on a regular basis. Instead, it remains almost completely unknown outside of Japan. I guess it doesn't fit within the established genres of "Anime," "Disney," or "Pixar." That needs to change.

Takahata also comments on the freewheeling, impressionist art style of Princess Kaguya, which first emerged in his 1999 feature My Neighbors the Yamadas (and a number of Studio Ghibli short films), and was very strongly influenced by the films of the late, great Frederic Back.

Kamen speaks of Kaguya as Takahata's "final" movie, and this is a common mistake, probably owing to Hayao Miyazaki's retirement from feature films. Paku-san has never announced any retirement; indeed, he has recently spoke about future film projects he might pursue. Will those plans come to fruition? It's hard to say. The clock's ticking, in any event, a fact that Paku-san will happily point out.

Here are the key segments from the Wired.uk interview:

Between My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999 and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, you were involved with Kihachirō Kawamoto's Winter Days anthology. It's probably your least known work in the west, so could you discuss how you became involved on the project?

 Winter Days is a collection of collaborative linked poems hosted by BashōMatsuo, the renowned seventeenth century haiku poet. Creating renku, collaborative linked poems, is a highly cultured amusement in which several people take turns composing extemporaneous short, linked poems to jointly create a long poem. Humour was an essential aspect of this form of haiku, or the playful form known as haikai.

Kihachirō Kawamoto, to whom I owe much, came up with the idea of creating a film of Winter Days by assigning each poem to a different animation director to realise this project. He asked me to participate in this effort. I thought this was a rash attempt, but I wanted to applaud Mr Kawamoto's foolhardiness as he knowingly took this on. I first cooperated with Mr Kawamoto in turning the old and difficult language of the linked verse collection into modern Japanese. This was distributed to the participating animation directors. While we were working on this, from the expectations I had and respect I felt for mutual friends of ours, the Russian Yuri Norstein and the Canadian Frédéric Back, I decided to take on one of Bashō's haiku. Unfortunately, Mr. Back was unable to participate as his schedule was too busy.

The result was a unique and interesting film. But, unless one understands the meaning of each poem, it might be hard to comprehend. I was especially impressed by Mr. Norstein's segment in which he showed such a Japanese poetic sentiment and humour, far beyond what Japanese people can express.

Visually, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is closer to Yamadas than your earlier movies. What appeals to you about this more impressionistic style?

 It is interesting that you describe the style as impressionistic! I have been strongly influenced by Back's Crac!and The Man Who Planted Trees. His animation style can truly be called impressionistic.

In order to have people believe in a fantasy world and characters that no one has seen in reality, it may be best to present the space, objects, and characters in a three-dimensional manner. It is as if that world existed right there, in a trompe l'oeil fashion. The current American animation films utilise 3D CG to aim in that direction.

But I wonder about the representation of the world we know well, how to depict very ordinary daily landscapes, nature, and people. I have long thought that it is better to appeal to the viewers' memory and imagination but this was impossible to express through animation. The initial act of sketching has been the best method for carving onto people's minds and memories the true impression of objects and figures.

Convinced that it was unnecessary to draw in scrupulous detail the everyday world that everyone knows, I used this style forMy Neighbours the Yamadas. I thought that the gifted Hisaichi Ishii [creator of the manga Nono-chan, thatYamadas was based on] had captured a distinct reality of Japanese people in his graphic renditions, and I believe I made the characters move with greater reality than in the usual animation films.

How did you apply those techniques and styles to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya?

 With [this film] I went further along this direction to have the audience vicariously experience the instant the artist rapidly sketched what was occurring in front of his eyes. I aimed to have the audience vividly imagine or recall the reality deep within the drawings, rather than thinking the drawings themselves were the real thing. This would allow the viewers to feel moved by the actions and emotions of joy and sorrow of the characters, and sense nature teeming with life, in a more evocative way than through a seemingly real painting.

For this effort to succeed, it was essential to have the collaboration of a brilliant animator and an artist with special talents. Without Osamu Tanabe, who created the character design, animation design, and layout, and Kazuo Oga, who created the artwork, "The Tale of The Princess Kaguya" could not have been made. This work is the crystallization of the efforts of these two and the entire staff who supported our vision.

Art Gallery For the Day

My Picnic Was Hijacked by the Ant-Hill Mob (2000)
Watercolors and Liquid Paper on Canvas, 18" x 24"

One of the goofier titles, I'll freely admit, playing off the old Wacky Races and Laff-a-Lympics cartoons. I think the name came to mind because of the Wacky Races on Sega Dreamcast, which arrived in the summer of 2000. It was also one of the early videogames to feature "cel shading" graphics, which aimed to recreate a hand-drawn animated look to polygon graphics. It was a pretty innovative idea at the time, best utilized in Sega's own Jet Grind Radio (Jet Set Radio in Europe and Japan).

The painting continued the "watercolor on canvas" series, with multiple layers and quantities of paints, with a couple layers of correction fluid as the final layer. If I remember rightly, I didn't use the Kinko's brand this time, but one of the other major "Liquid Paper" brands. I discovered that they were not the same; this brand didn't dilute with water very well, preferring to clump together. It resulted in some interesting patterns, which helped make this painting stand out from the pack. But after this piece, I immediately went back to the Kinko's brand.

I'm not sure if that Kinko's fluid even exists anymore. I should have bought a 20-year supply and put everything into storage. But one can never anticipate the future, knowing what will stay, and what will disappear forever. Your only solutions are to make peace with the impermance of life, or become an obsessive hoarder. I don't have that much closet space.

Overnight Thread ("November 22, 1963" by Errol Morris)

Errol Morris is one of America's finest documentary filmmakers, and I consider his 2003 The Fog of War one of my all-time favorites. He has a remarkable talent as an interviewer, in knowing how to draw details out of his subjects, of bringing us closer to the truth...or the "truth," which is often evasive, elusive, dark. No other subject matches that description better than the JFK Assassination, which continues to haunt us half a century later.

I have no patience for conspiracy theories, which Terence McKenna once described as eschatological cartoons - "As soon as I hear the words, 'ex-NASA scientist,' I reach for my revolver." If you bring up Area 51 or Bigfoot, I'll head for the exits. And if you bring up 9/11, I'll probably hit you with a rolled-up newspaper. But JFK...something dark and sinister went down in Dallas that morning. What, exactly, and why? I couldn't answer those questions to save my life. I only know that the quote-unquote, "official" story is absurd and logically impossible. Beyond that lies an infinite morass of half-truths and half-lies.

This short film, a "doc-ed" for the New York Times website, discusses that day in Dallas with noted author Josiah Thompson, of "Six Seconds in Dallas" fame. It does not entertain conspiracy theories or offer fantastic solutions to the great puzzle. It quietly reflects a few basic facts, contemplates their meaning, and meditates on they mystery. The more one examines a crime, the clearer the events that transpired become. This crime has only become murkier, darker. We witness a titanic shift of history, but cannot explain it.

Ah, well. A bit of a speech for an arts and movie blog. But that's what the arts are supposed to do.

FLASH SALE: Studio Ghibli T-Shirts

Pop culture shirt designers Unamee is having a flash sale for their series of Studio Ghibli themed shirts. The original designs are based on a number of Hayao Miyazaki films, including My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle.

There's only 12 hours left on this sale, so be sure to hurry if you're interested.

Photo of the Day

The newly-completed CHS Field, the home for the St. Paul Saints, a minor-league baseball team. The stadium lies in the heart of lowertown, at the end of the "green line" light rail to Minneapolis (which ends, nicely enough, at the Minnesota Twins Target Field Station).

The previous Saints stadium was a shambling mess, hidden in the middle of nowhere, like so many attractions in the Twin Cities. Building a new stadium in downtown was a whip-smart move. This field looks spectacular, offers superb views from all seats, and is easily the best thing to happen to St. Paul in ages. Best of all: cheap-seat tickets are five bucks. Tickets to the new Minnesota Vikings stadium will run five thousand. Ouch.

ProTip: Actor Bill Murray is a part owner of the St. Paul Saints. He can be seen at games on rare occasions.

(Photo: The Minnesota Skinny)

Goro Miyazaki's "What is Animation Layout?" - French and English Translation

In 2008, Goro Miyazaki drew a one-page comic for Studio Ghibli's layout exhibition in Japan. The comic, "What is Animation Layout?" shows us how layout and storyboards fit into the production of animated movies. I wrote a post about this in 2012, showing the comic in its original Japanese. Now, thanks to the fine folks at Buta Connection, Goro-san's piece is now fully translated into French and English.

I continue to be amazed at how Goro-san draws himself: an almost-entirely empty face. He looks like Charlie Brown after one too many plastic surgeries. He's a blank slate, receding into the background against the dominant personalities of his father, Hayao Miyazaki, and the great Isao Takahata. The reluctant director as a living enigma...just who is Goro Miyazaki? This is the question he must answer, for himself and the outside world, if he is to become a successful filmmaker.

You will need to click on the comic panel to view in full-screen. It's a bit scrunched up as part of the post, as you can see above. Much thanks to Buta Connection, as always, and enjoy!

Angry Birds Movie Coming in Summer 2016

Smartphone video game developer Rovio is producing a $180 million Angry Birds Movie, set for release in theaters on Summer 2016.

Ghibli Blog has received an early draft of the script, including the explosive ending. Here, below, is a worldwide exclusive from The Angry Birds Movie:

(Ext. Scene)

Mouse: Hey, Angry Birds, you look like you have something to say? Do you?

Red Angry Bird: We certainly do!

Black Angry Bird: We have to go now. Our planet needs us.

(Fade to black.)

(Text on screen: "Angry Birds died on way to their home planet.)


Overnight Thread ("The McBain Movie")

"McBain" was The Simpsons' spoof of 1980s action movies, openly parodying the likes of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Dirty Harry, James Bond, and anything starring Gov. Arnold. Some years ago, as I'm sure you've heard, some enterprising people realized that all of the bite-sized McBain clips could be assembled into a "full-length movie," and stitched everything together. It's actually quite entertaining; not exactly an intended hidden film, but more of a happy accident. You could probably do the same with all those '80s action movies.

Kids today are probably scratching their heads at that '80s Rambo culture. It was everywhere, in our movies, our video games, even our foreign policy. The old geezers in the Ronald Reagan administration certainly watched too many McBain movies, that's for sure. Ah, well. Time to punch up the Konami code for 30 lives, sit back, and have a few laughs with The Simpsons (insert tired "when they were cool" joke here).

Photo of the Day

Another Cat Bus photo. You'd think there would be a whole cottage industry around this.

(Photo: Imgur)

Lupin the 3rd: Castle of Cagliostro Blu-Ray Arrives in April...and June?

Discotek Media, hot on their heels after releasing their excellent DVD of Lupin the 3rd: Castle of Cagliostro, is ready to unleash the Blu-Ray edition. This new version includes all of the features from the DVD, including the Streamline Pictures and Manga Entertainment US dubs, newly-translated English subtitles, audio commentary by Lupin scholar (and project leader) Reed Nelson, restored trailers, a reversable cover design, and a slipcase cover.  All new BD-exclusive features include a mini poster, and interviews with voice actors Bob Bergen and David B. Hayter, who played the role of Lupin in the aforementioned dubs.

When will the Cagliostro BD be released? Well...that's a bit tricky. Discotek originally announced an April 28 release date on their website earlier this year. This month, however, the release date for "wide release" was set for June 23. According to sources, the official word is that Discotek will have the movie available for sale exclusively on their website in April, with the wider release (Amazon, major retailers, etc.) in June.

This is an interesting wrinkle. Perhaps this is simply a matter of resource management, as Castle of Cagliostro is hotly anticipated on Blu-Ray. Or perhaps Discotek is experimenting with a tiered release schedule in order to promote their own site's store. Because of wholesale prices, their take from direct sales will be much higher than sales via third-party retailers like Amazon. It is for this reason that I often advocate buying DVDs and BDs directly from the publisher store, if one is available.

I don't know if this is, in fact, Discotek's strategy. As they remain a two-man operation, handling direct sales will strain their limited resources (they really need to hire a staff, ahem...sliding resume under the door...). But those sales will result of greater revenues for the company, which is crucially important for a niche market as anime. This could be a very fascinating experiment, and I'm looking forward to the results.

As for the so-called anime "fans" who have held back from buying the DVD, now you'll have no excuse. If you're waiting for the Blu-Ray, here it is. Pony up the cash. This is a great movie, and a terrific company that deserves your support.

Disney Announces New Studio Ghibli Blu-Ray Titles

Disney has announced their final wave of Studio Ghibli titles on Blu-Ray Disc: Spirited Away and The Cat Returns. No release date has yet been announced, but we can rest assured that both titles will be available in the coming weeks.

With this announcemnet, Disney will complete their collection of Studio Ghibli feature films Blu-Ray. However, there is one glaring exception: My Neighbors the Yamadas, Isao Takahata's 1999 animated feature. Yamada-kun was one of the first Ghibli BDs released in Japan, and its endless delays on American shores puzzled fans. Today, with Disney's announcement, and given their history of grouping together several titles in a "release wave," it appears that Yamada-kun will not be released on BD at all.

As always, the relationship between Ghibli Freaks and Disney has been a challenging one, to say the least. Critics will point to endless foot-dragging, painfully slow release schedules, and an uneven track record in the quality of English language dub scripts. But there is much to celebrate: a decade ago, none of these movies were available in the US, apart from My Neighbor Totoro, which was held by Fox and available in a dub-only, pan-and-scan DVD. Today, nearly all of the Ghibli features are available at any major retailer.

Is it puzzling and a little frustrating that My Neighbors the Yamadas won't be released? Of course. But I don't believe Disney is doing so out of spite. Okay, maybe just a little. Their relationship with Hayao Miyazaki was also, shall we say, challenging. I don't think they ever got over the "Godfather"-esque incident with the samurai sword in Harvey Weinstein's mailbox. But I'm thankful for what we do have. And Miyazaki-san has two Academy Awards.

And, of course, it goes without saying that I would love to see Ghiblies Episode 2 included with The Cat Returns. The Yoshiyuki Momose-directed anthology short film played in Japan on a double bill with Neko no Ongaeshi ("The Cat Returns the Favor"), and the two make a fine pair. Left on its own, the main feature is a bit lacking. Oh, well, another reason to add the Japanese import to your library.

Apart from Disney, the following Studio Ghibli movies are available on Blu-Ray: Grave of the Fireflies, from Sentai Filmworks; From Up on Poppy Hill, The Story of the Princess Kaguya, and When Marnie Was There, from GKids Films. Omohide Poro Poro and Umi ga Kikoeru remain unlicensed, and unlikely to ever see a US release. Ghibli's many short films, and particularly the 2005 DVD Ghibli ga Ippai Special: Short Short, have never been released outside Japan.

Art Gallery For the Day

Midnight Magic (1999)
Watercolors and Liquid Paper on paper, 20" x 30"

The title "Midnight Magic," comes from a Broderbund video pinball game for the Atari 800 back in the early 1980s. It was amazing in its day, I loved it dearly. An Atari 2600 version was created sometime around 1987, and was one of my favorite "go-to" video games that year. Atari and the Minnesota Twins, what a year!

This painting was the first full-scale watercolor painting I created, in several sessions during the summer months of 1999. I believe I moved to watercolors and paper after working with acrylics and canvas, just to experiment and stretch my wings and play around. I was working to learn my craft and having a lot of fun.

I always felt that this piece had a certain 1960s "Jetson" quality to it, in the funky shapes and colored polygons and dashing lines. The use of Liquid Paper, the Kinko's (now Fed Ex) brand of correction fluid, was a common tool in my arsenal for many years. I created my fanzine covers with this stuff back in '94 and '95. As I studied and practice fine arts and abstract paintings, I worked to incorporate those skills into these more conventional tools, such as acrylics and watercolors.

Above all, I was trying to create something new, something unique. I wasn't interested in copying what all the other University of Minnesota students were doing, and it seemed that so much of their art had a same-ish quality. The students were learning from their teachers, after all, and had yet to develop their own voices.

I think this is probably why I enjoy the great musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. I enjoy that relentless searching for the new frontier, for the new discovery. I'm probably still that way, although time and experience has a way of forcing you into a groove. When you're 21, everything is wide open and new; when you're 41, you're already building your castle on the hill.

Ah, well. I still like this piece. Hopefully it doesn't look too messy. It's a testament to the idea that anyone can create. Even you and I.

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