Feasting on ramen, “Oishinbo” style

There’s a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple, uncomplicated things often actually requires a lot of thought and work. It’s especially intriguing with something you’re a fan of or that you particularly enjoy.
And so enters the manga “Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza.”
eagerly drink up
In Japan, the manga “Oishinbo” clocks in at a whopping 100-plus volumes, and it’s still going.
because of the way viz decided to bring out this series in the U.S. — taking stories from different parts of the entire manga and compiling them into volumes by subject — this manga is something that needs to be enjoyed carefully and digested slowly.
Numerous notes at the back of the book explain the (vagrancies, quirks) of not only Japanese cuisine but the Japanese culture. While such notes are becoming more common, I really have to give props to Viz for also including numbers on the majority of its pages. Many other manga released in the U.S. lack this basic feature, which makes it very difficult to figure out what page the notes refer to.
There’s a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple, uncomplicated things often actually requires a lot of thought and work. As someone whose ramen feastings are either prepackaged instant noodles or steaming bowls brought to the table that are immediately devoured, I certainly had no little thought left for the care that goes into just the creation of the raw noodles.
I love ramen, but that love is mostly limited to either prepackaged instant noodles at home or steaming bowls brought to the restaurant table that are immediately devoured — forget about all the meticulous work that went into making the noodles perfect or the char siu tender or the broth not too salty.
If you’re not already familiar with many of the basic noodle dishes or common ingredients served in Japan or China, the terminology might cause your eyes to cross as you keep flipping back and forth to the end notes for their descriptions. Most of us in Hawaii have been immersed in Japanese culture one way or another from small-kid time without realizing it, so things like miso and nori are everyday items here that need no explanation.

(Jason’s note: The monthly Manga Movable Feast virtual gathering of manga bloggers usually celebrates series and artists. This month, though, the Feast, hosted by Khursten Santos over at Otaku Champloo, is hewing a bit closer to its name and celebrating … food. Or, to be more specific, Oishinbo and other food manga. With that in mind, here’s our contribution to this month’s potluck.)

There’s a fascination with delving into the nitty-gritty of everyday things and realizing that what you may take to be simple and uncomplicated often actually requires a lot of thought and work. It’s especially intriguing with something that you particularly enjoy.

And so enters Oishinbo, a manga written by Tetsu Kariya and drawn by Akira Hanasaki that’s been serialized in the pages of Big Comic Spirits since 1983. The story follows Shiro Yamaoka, a journalist with the Tozai Times and a serious foodie who’s been tasked by his editor to come up with the “Ultimate Menu” as part of the newspaper’s 100th anniversary. The meal is meant to embody the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, so Yamaoka and his partner, Yuko Kurita, set out to discover the best of the best.

oishinbo ramenThe books being released in the U.S. by Viz are actually only a small part of the entire Oishinbo series. There are more than 100 volumes in Japanese, so rather than taking a chance with a relatively niche subject and publishing as is, Viz has instead taken highlights from the overall story and compiled them into so-called “a la carte” editions on one topic. And the particular one that caught my eye was the Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza volume.

I do love ramen, and in fact I’ll urge my ever-patient fiance to out-of-the-way places to try a shop that I’ve been told has good stuff. (And by the time I finished this review, my keyboard just barely managed to escape the destructive slobber of a stomach made ravenous for hot noodles topped with tender char siu and crunchy menma and garnished with green onions and … I’m going to have to stop there. My keyboards have come much too close to destruction lately.) But with those ramen feastings consisting of either prepackaged instant noodles or steaming bowls brought to the table that are immediately devoured, I certainly have far more interest in the delectable finished product before me and have little thought left for the care that goes into the individual elements.

But that very enjoyment is also what leads me to appreciate the detail that “Ramen & Gyoza” goes into regarding the many factors — including the science! — that can influence the taste and texture of each ingredient and, therefore, the entire product as well. Despite the title, the book centers on ramen and has just one story on gyoza, although, like an Iron Chef episode, that story is just as dramatic and insightful as the others.

Because of the way Viz decided to publish the series, readers miss things like people’s introductions and backgrounds, interactions and story progression. However, because the manga is episodic, brief descriptions of the characters and a synopsis of the overall story at the beginning are sufficient enough to grasp the plot. The only part that needs explanation — which is given in the numerous notes at the back of the book — is the sudden declaration of Yuko being out on maternity leave and the situation surrounding that.

Those notes also explain the intricacies of not only Japanese cuisine but the Japanese culture. So if you’re not already familiar with many of the basic noodle dishes or common ingredients served in Japan or China, the terminology might cause your eyes to cross as you keep flipping back and forth to the end notes. Most of us in Hawaii have been immersed in Japanese culture one way or another from childhood without realizing it, so things like miso, nori and even the Obon festival are well-known here and need no explanation. Aside from that, the notes aren’t required reading, but do give more background for those interested.

While such commentaries are becoming more widespread, what I really have to give props to Viz for is including numbers on the majority of its pages. Many other manga released in the U.S. lack this basic feature, which makes it very difficult to figure out what page the notes refer to.

One thing that remains obvious despite the omissions is Yamaoka’s advocacy of pure, natural ingredients and farming methods to make healthier, better-tasting food. This focus on organic methods — with all the assertions made by both Yamaoka and his father, Yuzan — isn’t annoyingly preachy and definitely opens your eyes to all the additives and shortcuts that go into making food these days that you don’t realize, and that may not necessarily be great for your health.

The characters are likable enough, and there’s enough conflict among all involved as well as non-food plot to keep things interesting. Yamaoka’s humorous stubbornness is clear throughout, and we see the hint of the romance starting between him and Yuko. Still, the main draw of Oishinbo is the depth at which they explore food and the discerning palates of Yamaoka and his cohorts. The series isn’t geared toward gourmets so it’s easy to follow along and doesn’t make you feel like a food fool. Oishinbo is a manga that is ultimately thoroughly enjoyable.

“Ace Attorney,” the review: Turnabout perception

Ace Attorney theatrical posterIt makes sense that the person emotionally closest to a particular subject is both the best and worst person to write about it, whether it be a eulogy or a movie review.

So the argument applies when I leaped at the chance to review the movie Gyakuten Saiban, based on Capcom’s video game of the same name that was released in the U.S. as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for the Nintendo DS. In case the analogy isn’t clear, I am a fan of the game, which is why I allowed myself two viewings of the movie — renamed Ace Attorney for U.S. audiences — before I was ready to render my verdict.

Sometime in the future, crime is so rampant that a new judicial system has been instituted: Prosecutors and defense attorneys go head-to-head in trials that last a maximum of three days and in which solid, physical evidence is the key to getting a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict. Enter newbie defense attorney Phoenix Wright, who is under the tutelage of lawyer Mia Fey and whom we meet as he is getting trounced in his first trial, which is being held in a backwater courtroom that is apparently the headquarters of the janitorial staff. With Mia’s last-minute help, Phoenix wins the trial and saves his client, childhood friend Larry Butz, who has a knack for getting into trouble.

Phoenix doesn’t have time to savor his victory, though: Mia is murdered in their law office not long afterward, and accused of the killing is her younger sister, Maya, who happened to be there that fatal night. Phoenix takes up Maya’s defense and discovers that Mia was close to a breakthrough in an old case — and that something just might have been what got her killed.

When Maya goes to trial, Phoenix has another blast from the past when he ends up facing the young, infamous prosecutor Miles Edgeworth. As pointed out by other defense attorneys and even by Edgeworth’s role model Manfred von Karma, the young man will go to any lengths to speed up the trial and get a guilty verdict. Phoenix will need to be on top of his game to defend against the shady tactics that Edgeworth will be certain to throw his way.

Hiroki Narimiya as Phoenix WrightThe movie’s visuals play well to the envisioned crime-ridden future, with a mostly desaturated, slightly off-color look that mingles at times with bright colors, giving it a post-apocalyptic feel despite the outlandish costumes and hairstyles. The use of screens projected in midair to show evidence in court is another nice futuristic touch.

The subtitles use the English names of the characters rather than the original Japanese, so those who haven’t played the games before and are listening carefully to the spoken dialogue might be thrown off by hearing, for example, “Haine Koutarou” instead of “Yanni Yogi,” “Naruhodou” instead of “Phoenix” and “Chihiro” instead of “Mia.” Some errors also make their way into the subtitles in the preview version of the movie — the word “prosecution” is used at one point when it obviously should be “defense,” and typos like “trail” instead of “trial” pop up. Whether the actual movie has these errors remains to be seen.

Those who’ve played Ace Attorney the game will appreciate the cameos of familiar characters, the re-creation of the courthouse, and the parodies that Phoenix’s first trial makes of the game’s courtroom antics.

Let me first speak as a fan and previous player of the Ace Attorney game: I was highly disappointed with the movie upon initial viewing. The characters’ personalities don’t seem to have been captured very well, and in the filmmakers’ attempts to do so, they were instead reduced to ridiculous caricatures of their game selves — as silly as that may sound, considering the game personas were already caricatures themselves. Phoenix is even more of a bumbling incompetent, with his “cornered” expressions making him seem as though he has a bad case of constipation, and it’s painful to watch what feels like interminably long periods in which he’s in a jam and trying to figure out what to do. His composure is on the meek side, with a slight hunch as he approaches the judge or witnesses or when laying out his deductions.

While I’m sure such acting is meant to portray that Phoenix is indeed green when it comes to courtroom trials, it’s his burgeoning confidence and stature as he closes in on the truth of the case that originally made him such a powerful character in the games.

Takumi Saito as Miles EdgeworthThe prosecutors, interestingly enough, go the opposite direction. Von Karma comes off as far, far too much of a father figure, while Edgeworth is simply cold and unfeeling. Both their movie portrayals miss the full extent of the calculating ruthlessness with which they approach their trials and use to crush the opposition into quivering puddles.

Meanwhile, in the movie’s worst turnabout, Redd White’s flamboyant, blinged-out, purple-and-pink game character is now a long-haired druggie type who looks like he just crawled out of the sewers. And the development of bungling police detective Dick Gumshoe is almost completely overlooked, so the devotion he shows for Edgeworth comes across as odd.

A big part of this disappointment is the fact that the very silliness that made the game so fun and the characters so memorable simply cannot be translated well into live action, partially given the laws of physics and partially because of the unwelcome intrusion of realism. In a game, you KNOW you’re in for crazy facial expressions, impossible body movements, over-the-top reactions and such. But when you put the stamp of reality on it, you expect realism — and that eliminates half the enjoyment of the original game. The characters’ signature actions just can’t be pulled off with any plausibility, and much of the comic relief is lacking and instead comes in unexpected, scattered bits that seem to have been tossed in randomly.

However, after a second viewing, Ace Attorney played out better, partly because I began appreciating more how the movie managed to squeeze so much background into so little time — two out of the game’s four interconnected cases are focused on while the other two are stripped down to pretty much the announcement of their verdicts — but also because I tried to rid myself of any preconceptions and see the movie from a non-fan’s eyes. I stopped trying to identify who was who and stopped trying to compare them to the game.

But I also have to admit that it was better mainly because familiarity breeds a kind of liking, and so I was no longer surprised by what I originally saw as the movie’s flaws.

What will a non-fan notice first? The silliness, that’s for certain — the confetti and the exaggerated audience reactions. Possibly the painfully long times when Phoenix displays his constipated countenance. Some scenes that are a few seconds too long (do we really need to focus on the parrot for such a length of time?) and the lack of much logic to the defense’s investigations.

Otherwise, if one can get past the video game absurdity and instead focus on the mystery behind the cases, then this becomes an engrossing court drama. You find yourself sweating bullets as much as if you were in the defendant’s chair or in Phoenix’s shoes — after, of course, suspending disbelief enough to allow for some of the more eccentric witnesses and their behaviors. Some aspects of the game’s original story are changed for a more dramatic turn, but the revelations behind each crime are still just as tragic.

The one thing I could not get over, no matter what mindset I was in, was the feeling of, “What, you mean there’s still MORE to this movie??” about three-fourths of the way through. Ace Attorney weaves in and out of the cases, slowly connects the dots and then finally reaches a climax in court — or so it seems. Once you realize this isn’t the end of things, not by a long shot, there’s almost a sinking feeling. Rather than a happy surprise that there’s more to discover, the new revelations and yet another trial are rude interlopers that crash in from out of the blue, especially after the particularly heartbreaking scenes that come just before it.

But again, that’s speaking from the view of someone who already knows the story, and the impact of that foreknowledge can never be completely eliminated. The main thing that appeased my mind on this point was a growing interest, upon subsequent views, in dissecting exactly how the filmmakers played out this part of the story. (I’ve watched the film about 3.5 times now. And yes, I’m still going to see it in the theater. I’ve already bought tickets.)

Overall, as both an adaptation and a stand-alone movie, Ace Attorney isn’t bad. It does a good job of recreating in live action a game universe that for the most part just can’t really be done in the real world. As much as I loved the game, it’s not something I’d want to put myself through again. The finding of evidence, the tension of trying to detect contradictions in testimony, the thrill of discovering how the pieces fit — that’s something that can truly be experienced only once. The Ace Attorney movie, however, is something that the fan in me is thoroughly willing to immerse in time and time again.

Ace Attorney screens as part of the Hawaii International Film Festival Spring Showcase at 7 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday at the Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 18 Theatres. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.hiff.org.

[Kawaii Kon 2012] Panel discussions: Horikawa, Miya and Amano

“Meet Ryo Horikawa and Kenichi Miya”

Putting your heart and spirit into whatever role you play is key to a good voice actor, Japanese actor Ryo Horikawa emphasized.

It’s that same heart that allows him to differentiate which American voice actors are good. “It’s about knowing the character, giving life to the character,” Horikawa said.

Kawaii Kon marks Horikawa’s first visit to Hawaii, along with fellow seiyuu (voice actor) Kenichi Miya. The two shared a panel on Friday, talking about their careers, their inspirations and the industry in general. That’s Miya on the left, Horikawa on the right.

miya_horikawa

With decades of voice acting under his belt, Horikawa now runs a school for aspiring seiyuu. When asked whether it’s better for an actor to have a wide range of voices or to concentrate on one role, “It’s hard to say,” he replied. “There are those who can do multiple and are good and there are those who are known for one voice.” What’s most important, he said, is to “enhance what you’re good at no matter what type you are.”

Concentration is another key aspect to what Horikawa does. Because he’s played so many different characters over the years, he said he has to completely ignore all his other roles when he goes to voice another one. “It was challenging to play Vegeta at the same time I played a very justice-driven character with a baby face,” he said through translator Sachi Kaaihue, that latter description likely referring to Reinhard von Lohengramm from Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

As for Miya, he’s a student at Horikawa’s school and said that meeting Horikawa-sensei and coming to Hawaii are the defining moments of his career.

Not that Horikawa seems to regard himself as such. Despite the noteworthy roles he’s played — he’s most well-known as the voice of the angry Vegeta in Dragon Ball Z, but he’s also done Heiji Hattori in Case Closed and Andromeda Shun in Saint Seiya — he downplayed it when Kaaihue called him “sensei” when introducing him at the start of the panel.

It’s probably because Horikawa regards himself as an eternal student, always looking ahead to the next role. When asked about his own defining moment, he said he loved all the characters he played. “The most important thing for me is to feel the new power inside,” he said, adding that he constantly wants a challenge, so he looks forward to the next job that could very well be the best of his career.

In fact, his latest role is one that he’s quite excited about. He has both a voice and a production role in Magical Dreamers, a new type of manga coming out for iOS and Android devices. Not only is it bilingual, it’s also interactive, with voices as well as printed text. (Jason will have more from that panel later.)

Both Horikawa and Miya said they enjoy their careers for the different lives in which they can immerse themselves. For Horikawa, the character of Vegeta is an excuse for him to yell all the time. “It makes me feel fun and excited. … I’m usually not like that in real life,” he said.

Miya is the same. He gets to go on adventures, go to war, and have relationships with the ladies — things that, he said through a translator, he probably would never get to experience in real life. (I’d argue against “relationships” being included in the “things Miya will not experience” list, though.)

But no matter what that next role might be, whether it be a teenage boy or an angry alien or something completely different, Horikawa’s up for the challenge. He’s pushing the e-manga as well as working to make his voice acting school truly international, so he’s still got a lot more on his plate.

“Face to Face: Yoshitaka Amano”

The same passion for his work can be found in Yoshitaka Amano. Wearing a just-purchased aloha shirt, the artist and character designer described how the vast majority of his artistic inspiration actually came from American sources.

He was a huge fan of Disney characters, he said, having grown up watching the cartoons. In the 1970s, when he was in his 20s, he was influenced by American pop artists such as Andy Warhol, and also by American psychedelic art. He was working in anime at the time, and those influences made their way into his character designs.

amano

Amano likes every character he draws — or at least he tries to, he said. Like Horikawa, he immerses himself into the person being drawn. “Even if it’s a bad guy or girl, there’s always something appealing,” he said through a translator. He really becomes the person, to the point where, if it’s a scary character, he said, he tends to become a little scary in real life.

But, he hastened to add, he usually forgets most of it after he’s done, so fans can be assured that Amano won’t stay a scary evil guy forever.

Still, Amano apparently better enjoys drawing the bad guys. Actually, he specifically said he enjoys doing the “cool” designs, which most often turn out to be the bad guys. He cited the vampire hunter D as an example of a design he’s proud of.

And in a declaration that warms my fangirl heart, Amano said that out of all the Final Fantasy games he’s worked on, he loved FF6 the most, although he couldn’t say exactly why that was so. In admitting that for the most part he likes easy, “comfortable” drawings because there’s less pressure involved, he pointed to FF6’s Moogle and Tina (called Terra in the English version of the game) as favorites.

But even with all the fame he’s accrued, Amano said he always harbored doubts as to the quality of his work. Did people like his art for itself, or did people like it because they enjoyed the game, anime, or other product that it was associated with? This was one main reason he said he stepped away from character design and went into the fine arts, which comprises about 90 percent of his work now. He’s even held a few museum exhibits of his artwork. All of what he described as “getting outside his small box” served to challenge his talent by having viewers focus on his art rather than the game or animated series.

Amano advises other artists to be the same way. For example, when designing a dragon, he said, we are influenced by what others have drawn before. But he “tries to interpret what’s in (my) own mind,” he said. “If you do that, you can be very different in drawing. Being different is important.”

Another key piece of advice: Love what you do. “Then you will work hard and if people don’t recognize you, you will still be satisfied,” he said.

Then in a complete 180, Amano gave this last piece of advice: Don’t listen to his advice. When asked what kind of counsel he’s received from other artists, he said he neither received any nor gave much to others. Which is good, he said, “because (I) learned to come up with (my) own ideas.” He finished: “Think for yourself. … Keep inspiration close to your heart.”

The Cel Shaded Report, 3/16: Once more into the fray

kawaii-kon-logoKawaii Kon. This weekend. Suuuuuuper busy.

Need I say any more?

… well, okay, I was tempted to just post that and call it a day, but that would be unfair to you, the few, proud (I hope?) Otaku Ohana readers who keep checking your RSS feeds, Twitter or Facebook to see if I’ve posted anything new.

Yet there’s no denying that this weekend will be a busy one, packed with panels and events and wacky spur-of-the-moment happenings and other weird and wonderful stuff that the local fan community seems to come up with every year. And while tag-team partner in fandom Wilma J. and I will be trying to provide a cross-section of coverage of everything going on at Kawaii Kon here in Otaku Ohana all weekend (energy and Internet connections willing), there are some events on the schedule that are particularly piquing our interest. So we each picked three panels/events that we’re most looking forward to this weekend. If you’re having trouble figuring out what you want to do out of everything going on, you can’t go wrong with these suggestions, really.

Jason’s top 3

1. Anything featuring voice actress Yuu Asakawa. She’s the voice of Sakaki in Azumanga Daioh and Motoko in Love Hina. She sings. She co-hosts Otaku-VerseZero, the show “introducing the Japanese subculture to Otaku throughout the Universe,” with Otaku USA editor Patrick Macias. And she’s on Twitter — and tweeting regularly in English, to boot. Her multimedia versatility has me interested in seeing what she has to say. Plus there’s no denying that whenever guests come out to Hawaii, they end up loving the place … and Asakawa’s already said on Twitter that she’s looking forward to coming here. Hopefully her experience exceeds her expectations. “The Journey of Yuu Asakawa” panel, 5 p.m. Friday; “Work of a Seiyuu,” 10 a.m. Saturday; “Behind the Music,” 11 a.m. Sunday. Autograph signings: 11 a.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

2. “Introduction of E-manga: Magical Dreamers.” We’ve been seeing an increasing number of digital manga initiatives lately, and we’re not just talking about the publisher that actually has the phrase as part of its name, Digital Manga Publishing. NTT Solmare, Jmanga, Yen Press and Viz are some of the more notable enterprises as of late. But those are all digital versions of existing print manga. Magical Dreamers, by contrast, is being touted as “the world’s first e-manga,” and so far it comes with the following bullet points:

  • For iOS and Android devices
  • Full Japanese and English audio recorded by voice actors including Ryo Horikawa, Chris Sabat, Brina Palencia and Monica Rial
  • Ability to switch between Japanese and English voice and text
  • Available April 2012

That, along with this image that’s surfaced with all the information I shared above, is pretty much all we have in English. If you know Japanese, maybe you can get more out of this official site than I can. Will we get more details like (a) what the story is and (b) how much it’ll cost? We shall see. 4 p.m. Saturday.

3. The Eleven Staples concert. I already covered this in my Kawaii Kon preview in TGIF — go check out that, and my profile on the Cosplay Cafe presented by UH students, out for free on Honolulu Pulse — but to recap the news that certainly made my jaw drop when I saw it: According to singer Erin Tamura, this will be the band’s final bow at the con. So will this be a send-off in style? You better believe it. 11 a.m. Saturday.

Wilma’s top 3

1. Anything featuring artist Yoshitaka Amano. I’ve loved his work since I first saw it in the Final Fantasy series, and that appreciation expanded to his work in the Vampire Hunter D series. he has a very ethereal style that I like. I know many people don’t care for his ultra-effeminate style of drawing people, but what I like most is the way he draws expressions on his people’s faces. They’re often sad or apprehensive, and I think he captures that very well. I’m also interested in hearing him talk about his life, his work, where he gets his inspiration and how he developed his drawing style — basically everything you’ve ever wanted to know about your favorite artist. “Face to Face” panel, 4 p.m. Friday; “Art is Life” panel: 10 a.m. Sunday.

2. Live Drawing with Yoshitaka Amano: Also a must-see. I’ve seen a video that someone shot of Amano drawing live at Comic-Con in San Diego in 2010:

It’s always great to see an artist work. You can marvel at how they’ve developed their style. (And stick around for the last character he draws, too!) Noon Saturday.

3. Ryo Horikawa and Kenichi Miya. Case Closed is one of my favorite manga, and although I haven’t watched the anime much, it’s still thrilling to have one of its major voice actors as a guest here. The bonus is that he’s the voice of Reinhard von Lohengramm, the main character in Legend of the Galactic Heroes, a show that my fiance is totally crazy about.  So it’s exciting for both of us to have him here.

I’m also interested in hearing Ryo speak. His range of voices is incredible, from the soft mildness of  Andromeda Shun in Saint Seiya, to the calm yet tough and passionate Reinhard, to the deep gruffness of Vegeta — he has an amazing range.

As for Miya? I have to admit I’m interested in him for curiosity’s sake. Not much has been said about him, so I’d like to hear him describe his career and the roles he’s done. 11:30 a.m. Friday.

“Ponyo” off a cliff

ponyo_posterWith Studio Ghibli’s latest film to be released in America, The Secret World of Arrietty, breaking box-office records for Ghibli films, I’m reminded of director Hayao Miyazaki’s 2009 film, Ponyo, Ghibli’s former top-grossing champion.

Being that Miyazaki is a perennial favorite of mine and my fiance, we had eagerly attended the early preview screening of Ponyo in Ward Theaters with high hopes. Afterward, however, we came out feeling, “…Huh?”

Admittedly, we went in with absolutely no knowledge of anything about the movie aside from the fact that it was done by Miyazaki and that its original English name when advertised in Japan was “Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea.” The house lights went black, the familiar Totoro logo of Studio Ghibli came up, and then … we seemed to stray into some other world — a fantasy world, granted, but it was something that decidedly was not Miyazaki.

For those who don’t know the storyline, Ponyo is about a boy named Sosuke who discovers a strange ocean creature whom he names Ponyo, who has the body of a fish but the head of girl. Ponyo in her ocean homeland was always a curious girl, which is how she ended up stranded ashore to be found by Sosuke. After coming into contact with humans, Ponyo longs to be one of them, but her wizard father, Fujimoto, refuses to let her go. The clash between father and daughter eventually causes the oceans to swallow the land and threatens to destroy Sosuke’s world, and Fujimoto is forced to give in — and risk having his daughter learn of the pain of rejection, unless Sosuke can pass a test that Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of mercy, crafts for him.

Sosuke and Ponyo. (Photo courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)
Sosuke and Ponyo prepare for their magical boat ride. (Photo courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)

The opening scenes used a simplistic animation that I would expect of a PBS toddler’s cartoon. The bright multitude of colors used to illustrate the fanciful undersea creatures gave even more credence to this impression.

Once we hit land, it seemed the old Miyazaki was back, with carefully detailed homes and cliffs and landscapes similar to another of his films, Kiki’s Delivery Service — but for only a moment. Then again we reverted back, and again the animation was very different from his previous films, with many of the backgrounds seemingly done with colored pencils, creating a soft, ethereal atmosphere that nevertheless seemed far less magical than the more solid scenery that normally dominates his films.

The one thing that did remain throughout was Miyazaki’s penchant for realistic movements and his attention to the small things that people do. The way Sosuke carefully crawled under the gate, making sure not to drop the bucket holding Ponyo; the way Sosuke’s mom Lisa unlocked the house door and hauled in the groceries after her; the way Fujimoto carefully protected and poured the life-giving elixirs — they weren’t the movements of everyday cartoon characters given motion by an animator bent merely on making them do one thing as fast as possible as smoothly as possible, but rather by a master artist skilled at depicting the many actions that one simple maneuver by a human often requires.

Sosuke's dad, Koichi, is often busy at sea and can't visit his wife and son as much as he'd like. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)
Sosuke's dad, Koichi, is often busy at sea and can't visit his wife and son as much as he'd like. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)

Still, in many ways, “simple” was the theme of the movie. Unlike the numerous trials that Miyazaki’s past heroes and heroines had to endure, all Sosuke had to do was proclaim his love for Ponyo and his willingness to accept her for who she was — an extremely easy thing for a 5-year-old to promise without understanding the full import of his words. And then came the goddess’ simple declaration that “The balance of nature is restored!” and now we’ll all go live happily ever after — never mind the floodwaters that are still covering the town and that don’t seem to have any inclination to go away any time soon.

All of this combined to create such an anticlimactic ending that both I and my movie-going companion were struck dumb.

This may be a kids’ movie, but even children enjoy experiencing the awe of something as impressive as a water goddess’ magic restoring the land to what it was — an oft-used ending that may be cheesy and cliched to us adults but is usually pretty awesome-looking on the big screen, especially in the hands of an animator such as Miyazaki. And unfortunately, such a climactic scene didn’t happen in this movie.

Gran Mamare, the goddess of mercy, visits with Fujimoto to talk about Ponyo. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)
Gran Mamare, the goddess of mercy, visits with Fujimoto to talk about Ponyo. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)

But I came into Ponyo having certain expectations. And contrary to those expectations, there was no epic struggle, there was no character-building transformation. The usual moral message was there — sort of — but then was never followed up on and then fizzled out. In the end, there was just a selfish fish-girl whose longing to stay with the first human she came in contact with was such that she didn’t care whom she hurt in the process, leading to the destruction of an entire town. She’s the bratty child who ended up getting her way through manipulation and tantrums. After all is said and done, does Ponyo realize what her actions caused? Does she care?

For that matter, does ANYONE care? Lisa’s nonchalant acceptance of: 1. a girl who appears out of nowhere; 2. her son’s crazy-sounding explanation of how this girl came to be; and 3. the aforementioned girl’s equally crazy-sounding description of her parents and home is so unbelievable that one can’t help but think that Lisa’s missing a few screws. Face it, no one is THAT magnanimous. How can you not be at the least annoyed at this girl whose single-minded desire endangered not only, oh, your entire town, friends, and all you hold dear, not to mention your sailor husband whose fate out on the stormy high seas is unknown? “Annoyed” would probably be the BEST of my reactions.

Maybe I’m just being too much of an adult. Too much of a Western adult, who craves some kind of logic and resolution and closure. But even that aside, even after suspending disbelief, Ponyo just wasn’t up to Miyazaki’s par.

As a children’s fairytale, Ponyo did deliver. Perhaps that’s what it was meant to be all along. But as a Miyazaki film…somehow, it was missing his usual magic.

A somewhat expected turnabout

Sorry, we haven't been given any promotional still for this movie yet, so you'll just have to settle for this box art from the original game.As some of you may know, I am a big fan of the “Ace Attorney” video game series, called “Gyakuten Saiban” in the original Japanese. So when news of a live-action “Gyakuten Saiban” movie came out, I jumped on it. Thanks to tag-team partner in fandom Jason Y., I found and watched a subtitled trailer several times (not several dozen, I admit — there’s only so much drool that my keyboard can tolerate), feeling the chicken skin rising with every second. I tweeted like a madwoman every time fresh bits of news about the movie would come to light. Various conversations Jason and I later had led me to hope beyond hope that the esteemed Hawaii International Film Festival would be bringing in the movie.

Turns out HIFF did one better: Not only are they indeed screening the movie, but according to their latest eNews newsletter, it’s going to be shown at their Spring Showcase! A previous brief Twitter exchange between me and whoever runs the HIFF feed (Christopher Hall, I believe?) had already escalated my anticipation of such, so you can perhaps imagine the intense squeeing that this confirmation elicited from me (though silently and only in chat with Jason, due to me being in a place at the time that would not exactly be thrilled with loud whoops of ecstasy). The exact date and time has yet to be announced, but because the Showcase takes place April 13-19, that means “Gyakuten Saiban” will be playing almost TWO MONTHS BEFORE the other major event that’s also sewn up the movie, AMC2 in California! (And you would not believe how much I cursed at the thought of being so close yet so far to what was then the first and only announced U.S. showing!) I could barely contain the glee as I immediately tweeted the news out.

So, assuming that no other convention or festival snags screenings rights before April, this would make the HIFF Spring Showcase the U.S. premiere of “Gyakuten Saiban”! How’s that for a feather in HIFF’s cap? (Maybe I’m just being biased.)

I’ve already blocked out all possible days available to see this movie, I’ve warned my quite understanding fiance, and my HIFF membership’s been locked down, so I’m armed and ready for when HIFF announces that rare date. I WILL be there, oh yes, I WILL BE THERE.