Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the aptly named noel's fantastic trip

No, I did not pay $39.95 for this.
Most of us get obsessed with Japanese cartoons as children, and it's only later that we start to realize part of what attracted us to the things is that they are, at least to Western eyes, really strange. I mean, seriously; when you're a kid you just accept the fact that people might dress up in bird costumes and fight giant mummy robots, or that a World War Two battleship would naturally make a great intergalactic weapons platform. As adults, however, you take a step back and say, "wait a minute..."

I encountered Noel's Fantastic Trip, (or Noel no Fushigi na Bouken if you prefer) as an adult, so I have no childhood confusion about its narrative coherence-- there is none. This film makes absolutely no freaking sense what-so-ever. Equal parts fairy tale, antipollution message, and multicolored hallucinogenic experience, it's a movie that defies rationality, copyright, and traditional notions of "entertainment" and "common sense".

It's about a little girl named Noel. Sure, the VHS box copy describes Noel as a boy, but Noel is addressed as "miss" in the film, and the character is introduced singing a daydream song about living life as a country girl, making it clear that whoever greenlit this video release at Columbia hadn't bothered to sit through five minutes.

Noel's Holly Hobby obsession brought to life
Anyway, Noel lives on a floating island along with a zoo's worth of friendly animals. One day while relaxing in the sun after singing a song about wanting to be a country girl, Noel decides the Sun might like some ice cream. So, Noel and her little dog pal Pup take off in their airplane to deliver ice cream to the Sun. Now you might think,a movie about a girl living on an island floating in the sky piloting an airplane to the Sun while playing Good Humor Man, that's kind of out there. Well, just wait, this is the NORMAL part.

Once out of Earth's atmosphere, Noel encounters the Space Shuttle, a 2001 style ring space station, and in some sort of fanfic writer dream scenario, is passed by the Space Cruiser Yamato, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

We're off to outer space all right.
There's an extended musical number involving stars and asteroids and comets and outer space in general. Next stop is the Planet Gaudy, a glammed out place where everybody dresses as outlandishly as possible, until Noel convinces the citizens to take all their clothes off. Leaving a planet of nudists in their wake, Noel and pal reach the Sun, whose enjoyment of ice cream is only slightly marred by a bit of smog drifing in from some unknown planet.

set the controls to the heart of the sun's love of ice cream
Can Noel find the source of pollution and convince them to enact pollution controls? Diving underwater to escape the billowing clouds and belt out yet another song, Noel's subsea spotlit rock guitar solo is interrupted by the Beatles, complete with Yellow Submarine.

No, we're not kidding, that's the Beatles

After a couple of songs the journey continues, interrupted only by another song, and a smog attack. I guess the smog is tired of the incessant singing too. Who can save Noel now? Super Zoomer, of course! Super Zoomer, a whale in a Superman suit who's a student at the Superman school and can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel in his bare hands! He answers Noel's SOS and soon his mighty super whale powers have saved the day.

the super school for super students
On the horizon they spot the smog's source, a giant city full of factories spewing out pollution. And songs, also about pollution. Apparently this city, populated by foxes and bunnies and bears, was once nice and sunny, but when the factories came and people started driving smelly cars the air got bad and people got sick all the time. Explained through song, the conflicts of the industrialized world - things we like produced in factories that destroy the land and air - seem very simple, especially when set to music and illustrated with scenes of anthropomorphic animal children playing in aqueducts and junkyards.

Super Zoomer vs Super Smog
Luckily for the cartoon world, the problems of industrial pollution can be solved by hollering for Super Zoomer to come and battle a giant talking pollution cloud. Blue skies return to the animal city after Super Zoomer uses his super lung power to blow the pollution far away, where it becomes somebody else's problem. This allegorical battle between a talking super whale and a talking smog cloud seems downright normal compared to the next sequence, which is a musical production involving legions of tricycle riding babies pedaling in aerial formation from the time of the dinosaurs to the present. 

I repeat, tricycle riding flying babies.

Nothing a choreographed platoon of babies can't solve.
This confusing sequence is in aid of a son all about how the world is better now that cars are running on "good gasoline" and how we've saved the world through "clean energy". Is there a better way to promote catalytic converters and antipollution regulation in general? And... that's the movie. Feeding the sun ice cream, meeting the Beatles, calling a giant whale to fight pollution.

At a mere 70 minutes you'd think the film would zip past, but you'd be wrong. Most of the movie is songs, tedious songs. And while the musical numbers are full of colorful, psychedelic quasi-mod graphics, only children small enough to be transfixed by any colored moving shapes will find it entertaining. Those of us older than 4 will be scratching their heads in confusion at this, seemingly a film intended for babies, immigrants, and guys on mushrooms.

Noel's Fantastic Trip was based on a children's book by Japanese folk singer Iruka, who also voiced Noel and wrote and performed all the music (her son was cast as Noel's animal friend Kisonosuke, or "Pup" in the English version). Iruka has been performing since 1970 entertaining audiences throughout Japan and the world, and in 2004 was made a Goodwill Ambassador for the International Conservation Union for Nature Conservation. 

Iruka on stage
She would combine her storytelling ability with her passion for nature in her first children's picture book, 1977's  "Noel's Blue Umbrella", starring the first appearance of her alter ego Noel. 

In America Turner Production Services got the job of localization, which means more work for Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr, and the Grimes, Curtis, Hammond gang. As part of Columbia's mid 1980s catalog of Japanese animated films, it shares the mysterious "can't believe this is for kids" vibe of their Sanrio films Unico In The Island Of Magic and Ringing Bell, but rather than super wizardry or bleak Darwinism Noel's Fantastic Trip gives us the Beatles, super whales versus super smog, and tricycle babies in formation.

The film's not without appeal; the character designs and animation reflect the charm of its children's book origins, and there's an aggressive whimsy in Noel's transforming house/airstrip, the super-school perched on a peak on a lonely asteroid, and the Dick Bruna/Richard Scarry animaltown residents. But when half the movie is taken up with mid-tempo musical numbers about stars or country girls or clean energy, you wind up boring older children, confusing adults, and making Apple's lawyers sit up and take notice.

Perhaps the film is, after all, more mysterious than fantastic, more of a pop-culture curiosity than a must-see cinematic gem. And yet, in spite of the movie's pacing flaws and general lack of focus, we can't help but admit that when Noel's Fantastic Trip decides to give us unforgettable moments, it doesn't let copyright or coherence stand in its way, and that's an attitude you don't see from most films. Maybe Noel and Iruka are right, maybe we do all need a mysterious journey every once in a while. 

-Dave Merrill

edited and revised 2017

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Gigantor: the eternal struggle

Judging from my referrals there is a fierce desire among the internet-enabled classic anime fans to experience again the New Adventures Of Gigantor, the 1980 Tetsujiin-28 series that was dubbed into English in the mid 1990s and broadcast on the Skiffy Channel for a brief season or two. I don't have any news on the availability of this series - though rest assured I will be alerting you all the moment something breaks - but darn it, I can't sit idly by while people want to experience Gigantor, specifically his New Adventures. So, here are some toys!!

I was lucky enough to pick up some merchandise from this show in the late 1980s when nobody cared about anything that Kenichi Sonoda didn't work on. Here's one of them - a little package of rubber stamps. If you ever wanted to mark all your possessions with the image of Jimmy Sparks and/or his super robot, this was just the thing for you.

The rubber is getting a little brittle after 29 years, and my last stamp pad dried out and gave up the ghost years ago, but darned if we can't make out some pretty good likenesses here. Also some not so good ones.

Once you've exhausted all the fun possibilities of your Gigantor Stamp Set, it's time to move on to more physical pursuits - namely, the Gigantor Top!

Diligent students of the Japanese language will no doubt be able to translate the katakana emblazoned across Tetsujin-28's mighty iron chest - it reads "Chara-Koma", "chara" being shorthand for "character", and "koma" being the Japanese word for "top", the kind you wrap a string around and spin. There, don't say you never learned anything from Let's Anime.

The top itself is metal and screen-printed with a handsome pic of Gigantor, only slightly marred by a giant pin sticking out of his upper thigh. The string has been lost in the mists of time, but rest assured it gave a mighty spin worthy of the name "Gigantor".

And please. Don't even pretend to try to claim that America knows not of Gigantor the Space-Age Robot. There once was a time when Gigantor fever gripped the nation, where young people wanted nothing more than to grab a pistol, put on a pair of shorts, and fight crime with a giant robot. As evidence I present this item from the 1960s:

No, I don't bathe with this every day. But I would if I could.

Oh, powers that be - how much longer must we wait before The New Adventures Of Gigantor appear on DVD - or at least back on basic cable? Let's get it together here guys!

In the meantime I have a desperate plea from one of my readers, who is looking for a cartoon glimpsed briefly on television in Kazakhstan. I'll let Clive tell the story:

I've been looking for a War Animation for years now without any luck.
I caught sight of some of it on TV in Kazakhstan, but I didn't see the
title or any credits, and my letters to the TV stations, Animation and
Anime experts and anyone else I thought could help have either been
unsuccessful or simply met with silence. I am really interested in
finding it, but I don't think I'm any closer to finding it than when I
started. I have a feeling it's an Anime but I have no way of proving
it until I see at least a still from it.

Here's some basic information about it:

Animation Type: 2D (drawn); Colour

Animation Style: The look of the Animation seemed similar to animated television episodes, one-off specials or direct-to-video releases. The character movements were done in limited Animation (much less than the usual 24 frames a second). The look of the Animation suggested it was made from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

Notable Camera Movements: Two shots that occur side by side have stuttering zoom effects as opposed to the standard smooth zoom:

1) A zoom into a close up of a little boy’s concerned face.
2) A zoom into a close up of a little toy wagon rolling down the street.

Where It was Seen: an unknown local television channel from Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 1996 or '97. I was channel hopping and cam across it then. It was overdubbed in either Russian or Kazakh and I'm sure the language underneath it was English, but it wasn't lip-synched, just lip-flaps. This suggests that it was available in English at some point.

Music: There was a classical theme that was quite low and melancholy with a female classical vocal on it.

If you have any information on this mystery war animation, please get in touch with Clive via his Myspace page here!