Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

Unless we’re discussing titans of the medium like Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon, I’m shamefully unfamiliar with most anime.  As the last thriving refuge for traditional hand drawn animation, I respect the artistry of anime greatly.  I’m just more of an admirer than I am a “fan,” since claiming that latter designation implies you’re extremely well versed and deeply opinionated about the medium in a way I’ll never be able to match.  Saying you’re an Anime Fan is like saying you’re a fan of superhero comics or Star Trek or any other extremely nerdy artform with a decades-spanning history; you better know your obscure, inconsequential trivia down to the last detail, or you’re in for a gatekeeping headache.  Case in point: I finally watched the landmark anime series Cowboy Bebop for the first time since it popped up on Hulu last year, over two decades after its initial run.  If I were an anime fan, that kind of blindspot would be a source of shame I’d have to hide from my cannibalistic anime nerd friends.  Since I’m a casual admirer, though, I get to walk away unscathed — the same as I did when Netflix started streaming Neon Genesis Evangelion a couple years back.

Unsurprisingly, the Cowboy Bebop series is pretty good.  A mash-up of neo-noir, neo-Western, and space travel sci-fi tropes, it’s fairly accessible to casual anime admirers with an appreciation for old-fashioned genre filmmaking.  I found it to be hit-or-miss by episode, but mostly as a matter of personal taste.  The standalone villain-of-the-week episodes were mostly fantastic—especially the ones that veered into my beloved subgenre of spaceship horror—but I was largely indifferent to the show’s overarching Spike vs. Vicious storyline: a prolonged, vague neo-noir plot with no sense of propulsion or purpose.  If I were recommending the show to a similarly anime-ignorant friend, I’d try my best to save their time with a Best Of list of standalone episodes to burn through: the ones with the killer fridge mold, the virtual reality cult, the mushroom trip, the annoying cowboy, and the deranged clown.  If you haven’t seen Cowboy Bebop by now you likely don’t need to watch all 11 hours of the series; you just need a taste, if not only for general pop culture familiarity.  I likely would’ve said the same thing about the monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files, though, and I watched that show religiously as it aired, so your mileage may vary.

Luckily, you don’t even have to watch those five Best Of episodes (“Toys in the Attic”, “Brain Scratch”, “Mushroom Samba”, “Cowboy Funk,” “Pierrot le Fou”) to get a proper taste of Cowboy Bebop.  The series conveniently concluded with a standalone villain-of-the-week movie that also sidesteps the energy-draining Spike vs. Vicious storyline entirely, allowing for one final ride with your new favorite spacetraveling bounty hunters.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie dials the clock back a few episodes into the series before the bounty hunter crew is disbanded (and partially killed) to offer a taste of the show at its prime.  In this extended, posthumous episode, the crew is attempting to capture bio-terrorists on Mars (styled to look suspiciously similar to 1990s NYC) before they release a deadly virus in a densely populated crowd.  The viral outbreak is planned to be staged at a jack-o-lantern-themed variation of the Macy’s Day Parade, making the film a low-key Halloween movie of sorts.  The crew selfishly bickers among themselves, tries to score the bounty on their own, falters, then reforms at the last minute to save the day.  It’s quintessential Cowboy Bebop in that way.

The problem with recommending Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (subtitled Knocking on Heaven’s Door) as a crash course overview of the show is that it’s way too goddamn long.  You could watch all five of the Best Of episodes I mentioned in less time than it would take you to watch this one feature film, and it never hits the same highs as the series proper at its best.  You’d have to trim 30-40 minutes off this thing to make it an enticing alternative for newcomers, and I imagine even long-time fans of the show had their own patience tested with this two-hour standalone.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie isn’t Cowboy Bebop at its most creative or most exciting.  However, it is Cowboy Bebop at its most functional.  The main draw of the film is seeing a somewhat scrappy, experimental series funded with proper time & budget to get its details in order.  The personal & professional dynamics among the space crew are never as clearly defined on the show as they are in the movie, where even lesser side characters like Ein & Edward are fully integrated into the daily business of intergalactic bountyhunting in a way that finally makes sense.  More importantly, the animation itself is afforded way more resources to flourish.  On the show, the intrusion of CG animation felt like a budget-cutting measure; here it looks purposefully surreal in a more thoughtfully mapped-out hand drawn backdrop.  Whereas most “The Movie” versions of TV shows go big with their plots, locations, and scope to justify the jump from the small screen, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie only goes big on its look.

If I had only watched Cowboy Bebop: The Movie for an overview taste of the show, I might’ve assumed the series was a lot more creatively limited than what the best bounty-of-the-week episodes had to offer.  It’s a good episode of the series, but it’s too long and too tame to be a great one.  However, I did find it to be a great “What If” illustration of how much more visually spectacular the TV show might’ve been if it had the time & money to luxuriate in production the way the movie did.  It’s fun to look back on the production limitations of the five Best Of episodes I mentioned and imagine them even more visually extravagant in their animation, since I now know what that might look like.  Regardless of that hypothetical, I very much love them as-is.  You might even call me a fan.

-Brandon Ledet

The Humanoid (1986)

I really do try my best to not be a snob.  I pride myself in being able to evaluate films on their own terms, careful not to dismiss a work outright because of its genre or budget or level of prestige.  Still, I obviously have personal hang-ups & biases I’ll never be able to look past, and they do make me helplessly snobbish about certain movies from time to time.  One of these major hang-ups is my general distaste for computer-animated children’s films, including from widely beloved institutions like Pixar.  Outside of more adventurous experiments in form like Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, the majority of CG animation looks like dogshit to me.  Even films that’re praised by industry experts for their exquisite, time-consuming animation of ocean waves or animal fur look lazy & uninspired to my biased eye, so I know this is a personal hang-up and not some objective truth.  Meanwhile, I’m easily wowed by traditional 2D animation even if the movie is objectively lazy & uninspired, as is the case with the straight-to-video sci-fi anime The Humanoid.

The Humanoid is a 45min relic I found collecting dust on YouTube, where all forgotten media goes to effectively disappear.  At first glance, it appears to be a backdoor pilot for a retro Saturday morning cartoon show, introducing the audience to a Alien-knockoff spaceship crew who travel from job to job, planet to planet, collecting paychecks by doing Good.  This particular mission feels fairly self-contained, as the crew meets the titular humanoid—an android named Antoinette—who’s learning to become more human while also protecting her home planet from colonizer corporate villains.  There are a couple stray laser fights & chase scenes peppered throughout the film, but most of the story concerns Antoinette’s struggles with human emotions & desires, as well as her ultimate decision to sacrifice herself to save the spaceship crew, so they can putter onto their next adventure.  The result is that the only compelling character in this would-be series pilot dies at the end of the “episode,” making it difficult to imagine the adventure continuing in future installments.  There’s also a decisive finality to this hilariously overwritten epilogue addressed to Antoinette, which also suggests this was always meant to be a standalone piece:

“Who can say a machine has no soul?  Aren’t humans machines too? Mechanisms of flesh and blood.  Across the endless light-years . . . life, mind, and spirit must flourish in a variety of forms.  And as long as there is life, there will be love.  Antoinette — I’m sure we’ll meet again, somewhere in the vastness of time.  Until then, I send my blessing.  Wherever you may be.”

If The Humanoid isn’t a pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon show, what is it exactly?  My best guess is that it’s a coffee commercial — not for any particular brand of coffee, mind you, just for the general, basic concept of Coffee.  There’s very little in the way of thrilling robo action in this film, but there are plenty of hilariously inane conversations about how great the coffee is on the planet-of-the-week.  Seriously, there are at least five lengthy discussions of its robust flavor & aroma.  The film’s opening narration includes the line “It’s only memories of Earth and the rich smell of this coffee that keeps my spirits up.”  It’s closing scene muses “Coffee? my salvation from my day-to-day drudgery”.  In-between, characters occasionally interject “This coffee tastes great!” just to keep the product at the top of the viewer’s mind.  It’s maddeningly inane, making you question whether the generic villains’ quest for a MacGuffin “energy source” on the planet will ultimately result in the discovery that there is no power source greater than the rich, bold pick-me-up you can find in a hot cup of joe.  And, as an advertisement, it totally works!  I desperately want a cup of coffee right now.

So, here we have an action-light sci-fi cheapie that’s supposed to be about an android’s quest for human emotion, but it is actually about how great coffee tastes.  The thing is, though, that it still looks great.  This might be straight-to-VHS fluff with a retro Saturday morning cartoon vibe, but its animation is intricately detailed & vibrantly imaginative, especially as it builds to its explosive, overwrought climax.  It’s hard to imagine any modern-day, computer-animated children’s media putting this much effort into its visual aesthetics, and this really is the bottom of the barrel in terms of passionate anime artistry.  I try my best not to be a grump about how modern media doesn’t stack up to my nostalgia-tinged memories of the types of media I happened to grow up with.  Comparing the look of low-effort 80s schlock like The Humanoid to today’s $200mil CG animation monstrosities is too depressing to ignore, though.  I genuinely feel like we’ve lost a basic attention to visual craft (or at least a collective sense of good taste) in animated media over the decades.  At this point, it’s only the memories of vintage cartoons and the rich smell of coffee that keep my spirits up.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Cat Returns (2002)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the Studio Ghibli novelty The Cat Returns (2002), an anime fantasy film about a kingdom of anthropomorphic cats.

00:00 Welcome

02:40 My Winnipeg (2007)
03:40 The Twentieth Century (2020)
05:40 The Snyder Cut (2021)
11:30 Hannibal (2001)
13:15 Red Dragon (2002)
14:30 Hannibal Rising (2007)
15:40 The Boy Next Door (2015)
18:20 What Lies Below (2020)
25:00 Godzilla vs Kong (2021)
28:00 Mothra vs Godzilla (1964)
30:15 Godzilla vs Mothra (1992)

32:17 The Cat Returns (2002)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Weathering With You (2020)

Japanese animator Makoto Shinkai earned so much international success with his supernatural teen romance Your Name. that he unintentionally sparked an entire subgenre of imitators. Watching blatant Your Name. knockoffs like Fireworks & I Want to Eat Your Pancreas in the few years since Shinkai’s breakout hit has been amusing, but also a threat to dilute & over-familiarize the director’s schtick before he could deliver a proper follow-up himself. The first hour or so of Shinkai’s Weathering With You seemed to confirm that fear – essentially landing like an amusing-but-weak echo of what Your Name. had already accomplished. However, with time it eventually gets somewhere truly incredible that Shinkai’s imitators have failed to replicate, pushing its plot further & further into the weirdest direction possible until it ends at a stunning Choice of a conclusion that fully won me over. It by no means bests Shinkai’s previous highs, but it does break far enough away from that precedent to justify its own existence as a bizarro YA romance tale.

In terms of plot & aesthetic, Weathering With You shares a lot of DNA with Your Name. Its tale of two star-crossed teens who yearn for each other so earnestly that their bond defies the limits of real-world physics is as shamelessly derivative of that predecessor as Fireworks or Pancreas. Shinkai seems to have a genuine weakness for that realm of teenage yearning as a storyteller, however, given how his debut feature 5 Centimeters per Second was already hinged on teenage runaways throwing caution to the wind for love. In this update, a small-town boy runs away to the big city with no money to his name and a vaguely abusive past homelife behind him. While working odd jobs as a “journalist” for a paranormal investigation rag (think Weekly World News), he falls in love with a similarly emancipated teen who happens to be a “Sunshine Girl.” Amidst record-setting, unrelenting rainfall that keeps Tokyo under a constant downpour, this “Sunshine Girl” has the ability to produce small patches of sunlight as a temporary, hyper-local relief. The pair form a small sunshine-for-hire business around this phenomenal ability, developing feelings for each other along the way, but alas her gift is gradually revealed to come with a price that could ruin their life together before it has a chance to blossom.

As fun as the heart-on-sleeve teenage romance & small-town angst can be in these supernatural heart-tuggers, that’s not really what stood out to me in Shinkai’s previous work. What I’ve been especially enamored with in his modernized anime aesthetic is the way he applies a Miyazaki-style reverence for Nature to Big City urban environments. With Your Name., I was struck by how Tokyo skyscrapers were flanked by birds & sunshine, reflecting the same sense of majesty a Miyazaki picture would typically reserve for an undisturbed forest or the miracle of flight. Weathering With You pushes that Natural wonder for Modernity even further in its third act as its rainstorms continue to flood the streets of Tokyo. This is a film where Nature reclaims the Big City as part of itself, a big-picture phenomenon that sneaks up on you as you get lost in the intimate, insular teen drama in the foreground. I don’t believe the soaring romance or the small-town angst gave me anything I didn’t already absorb from pop punk anthems in my own youth (dutifully replicated here by returning Shinkai collaborators Radwimps), but the way the film captures the Natural beauty of the Big City in traditional animation flourishes will likely stick with me for a long time. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a downtown rainstorm the same again.

If you’re looking to shoot Shinkai down for the sin of repeating himself, he’s willing to supply more than enough ammo. Weathering With You even features the definitive calling card for the Your Name. knockoff: a CG fireworks display. It also indulges in shameless product placement (most egregiously in a scene where the main character declares that a Big Mac was “the best meal of his life”) & gun violence sensationalism that drags its teen drama down into a much trashier stratosphere than its predecessor occupied. Still, the intrinsic pleasures of the supernatural YA romance & Shinkai’s visual majesty remain intact enough here that repeating the exercise is a pure joy, despite your better judgement. Most importantly, the way Shinkai pushes his interest in the border between Nature & Cityscapes into new, grandly bizarre directions in the film’s third act feels like an entirely new growth sprouting from the foundation of his previous work. Thanks to its full-hearted commitment to its own outlandish premise, all that overlap feels less like a redundancy and more like an expression of auteurist preoccupation. I would pay to watch Shinkai warp the basic outline of Your Name. into new, weird shapes forever, whether or not I’ve already gotten a little exhausted with his paint-by-numbers imitators.

– Brandon Ledet

Lily C.A.T. (1987)

There were countless Alien knockoffs that followed in the wake of Ridley Scott’s genre-shifting 1979 classic. Roger Corman alone produced three I can name offhand (Galaxy of Terror, Humanoids from the Deep, and Battle Beyond the Stars) and even that notorious schlockteur’s takes on the Alien template weren’t the cheapest or most derivative of the bunch. Within that crowded field, the straight-to-video cheapie Lily C.A.T. had very little chance of standing out as something especially unique or worthwhile. Yet, as it escalated to its own grotesque, cosmically horrific creature-feature crescendo, I found myself gradually convinced that I was watching something truly special, something that reaches beyond the confined-space creature feature dread of its obvious inspiration source to achieve its own rewarding, unnerving effect. If you’re going to be an Alien knockoff, you might as well strive to be the best Alien knockoff, or at least the most distinct.

Part of what saves Lily C.A.T. from devolving into sub-Alien tedium is that it’s more of a mutation of that seminal work than it is a Xerox copy. The film is immediately distinct from its fellow Alien riffs in its distinction as a mid-80s anime, converting the cheap sets & limited practical effects resources of this genre template into a freeing, visually impressive handdrawn animation style. It’s also, smartly, only an hour-long – firing off its checklist of genre requirements with rapid-fire efficiency where most cheap-o Alien riffs risk drifting into boredom in their half-hearted attempts to stir up atmospheric dread. Early in the film a character even asks aloud, “Hey captain, when are we getting to work? This is getting boring,” as if to signal to the audience that no time will be wasted in getting to the goods. Lily C.A.T. also mutates the Alien template by crossbreeding it with other creature feature influences: Cronenberg, The Thing, and any number of post-Lovecraft cosmic horrors you can conjure. It’s a quick, nasty little monster movie rendered in intricately handdrawn animation – the perfect genre nerd cocktail.

The story told here is so familiar it almost doesn’t require repeating for anyone who’s ever seen a spaceship-bound horror film. A motley crew of wisecracking Corporate employees are distracted from their stated mission by a distress call & a subsequent onboard alien invasion. They’re only broadly defined as “time-jumper” types: mercenaries who use the decades of hibernated sleep associated with deep-space travel to avoid personal troubles left back on Earth. Their individual archetypes are only developed from there in the way they’re drawn (uncomfortably so in the only black character’s exaggerated facial features) and their motivations for jumping time on their home planet (uncomfortably so in the main woman’s petty revenge on a romantic rival by returning twenty years younger than her). Their personalities matter less & less as they’re picked off by the invading alien creature, of course, although the film does generate suspense in an early reveal that there are dangerous intruders hiding among them under false credentials.

The threat of an intruder lurking among the crew is only an introduction to a larger theme of imposterism, which plays out in a much more grandiose fashion with a non-human member of the crew: the titular cat. Lily C.A.T. seems to be fascinated with the implications of traveling through the far reaches of outer space with a common housecat, and expands that detail from the original Alien film to generate the majority of its creature feature chills & thrills. While the crew assumes that it only has one cat onboard, that feline is actually copied by two of its own uncanny imposters. One cat is a robotic spy that secretly answers to Corporate back home behind their backs. In fact, it’s not a cat at all, but rather a C.A.T. (a Computerized Animal-shamed Technological Robot). The other imposter cat is a shapeshifting alien creature that fills its victims’ lungs with deadly body-morphing bacteria and gradually transforms into a grotesque Lovecraftian tentacle monster that absorbs the features of its growing list of victims in an exponential creepout. The original cat, unfortunately, does not make it too long into the film’s runtime, and we’re treated to a grisly confirmation of its . . . organic nature when its time onboard is up.

Weirdly, I’m not sure if Alien superfans would be the first audience I would recommend Lily C.A.T. to, unless their favorite detail from the original film happens to be Ripley’s relationship with her cat. This cheap DTV animation never had a chance to stack up to the original in a direct comparison, nor does it really attempt to. This film’s built-in audience is more likely nerds who salivate at the idea of any horror-themed anime or, more to my own alignment, weirdo genre enthusiasts who salivate over ludicrous killer-cat creature features like Cat People ’82, Sleepwalkers, and Night of a Thousand Cats. Surely, there’s some significant overlap between those two camps who will find Lily CA.T.’s shapeshifting-feline-tentacle-monster genre thrills exactly to their tastes. If nothing else, it’s a very specific niche that strikes a tone no other Alien knockoff ever could—animated or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I didn’t really grow up with anime as a child, or even a teen. It was something I first explored in my early twenties in the aughts when it seemed like the last remaining sanctuary for hand-drawn animation in modern cinema. And even since then my familiarity with anime has been very surface-level, defined by major genre touchstones like Miyazaki, Sailor Moon, and Satoshi Kon. The one major exception I can think of in this late-to-the-table anime exposure was my childhood VHS tape of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an 80s relic (and a Japanese-American co-production) that I watched countless times as a kid despite it being a drowsy, unhurried mess. Watching its contemporary peer Night on the Galactic Railroad for the first time recently felt like a weirdly comforting return to those childhood viewings of Little Nemo – one of the rare anime titles where I felt at home with the tone & artistry instead of in over my head with a genre I don’t know nearly enough about. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a soothing, hypnotic film for me, which is odd because it’s intended to play as a devastatingly somber fantasy drama.

This is an adaptation of a popular 1930s children’s novel from Japan, in which a lonely young boy escapes the isolation of caring for his sick mother in a small town where hardly anyone notices him by riding a magical late-night train with his only friend his age. For reasons unexplained, the movie decided to remain faithful to the book’s plot but recast most of its characters as talking cats. But not all of them! It’s in no rush to emphasize or justify this major alteration to its source text (or to clarify exactly why most characters are cats, but some remain human). In fact, it’s in no rush to do anything at all. It takes nearly 40 minutes for the titular magic train to arrive, before which we mostly watch our melancholic feline protagonist attend to his daily chores at work, school, and home. Once on the train, he has lowkey conversations about the immensity of the galaxy and the meaning of life with a series of passengers – including his aforementioned bestie and, most surprisingly, passengers of The Titanic. The tone is grim & low energy, slowly chugging along to a major reveal about what riding the train symbolizes in its closing minutes, long after an adult audience would have guessed the twist. If young children had the attention span to follow its story and parse out its symbolism, it’s devastating enough that it could really fuck them up. Instead, it plays like a minor-notes lullaby, a warm naptime blanket made entirely of grief & regret.

Besides my recollections of Little Nemo, Night on the Galactic Railroad reminds me of when I had Final Fantasy on Gameboy as a kid but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would just wander around the game’s villages talking to fictional strangers. Absolutely nothing happens in this movie and the feline character designs stray disturbingly close to online furry art, but it still works like a soothing salve on a troubled mind. This film is potent catnip for anyone who can lose themselves in the pleasures of looking at cute cats & outer space imagery for the eternity of a lazy afternoon. Its unrushed tedium isn’t boring so much as it’s a time distortion device, making 100 minutes stretch on for 100 pleasantly melancholic hours – like contemplating the nature of Death while drifting through outer space all by your lonesome. It’s not the dazzling, intricate artistry and propulsive excitement of anime that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years as I’ve sought out the legendary standouts of the medium, but rather the dozy nostalgia-prone slow-drift of 80s anime that I grew up with as a kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Millennium Actress (2001)

Satoshi Kon may be the first of the major anime cinema legends whose filmography I’ve seen in its entirety, despite my being an eternal n00b in the genre. This is more of a deeply sad circumstance than a personal accomplishment, as the innovative director died young of pancreatic cancer in his mid-40s, just four feature films into his career (not counting his unfinished project, Dreaming Machine). Watching Millennium Actress on the big screen (via Fathom Events, in anticipation of its new digital restoration for Blu-ray) was the perfect way to wrap up this bittersweet relationship with an artist who’d left us before I fully became aware of his legacy. Although the film arrived midway through his career, it almost feels like an old, retiring auteur looking back on their own work (and the art of cinema at large) with a retrospective eye. I wouldn’t say it’s my personal favorite film of his, nor the objective pinnacle of his artistry, but Millennium Actress does feel like an amalgamation of everything Satoshi Kon accomplished in his other three features – combining the fluid cinematic dream logic of Perfect Blue & Paprika with the tender warmth of Tokyo Godfathers in one succinct, convenient package. It was wonderful to experience that full Satoshi Kon spectrum for the first time in a proper theatrical environment, watching with the same perplexed amusement I found when Paprika premiered on American big screens back in 2007 and I had no idea what I was getting into.

A linear plot synopsis of this surreally animated mind trip would almost seem disrespectful, as the film generally uses its narrative conceit only as a means of exploring a poetic crossroads between memory, fantasy, and cinema. It begins simply enough, with a movie studio executive and a young documentarian interviewing an elderly, retired actress about her life and career. As she recounts her story of growing up onscreen, however, the boundaries between memory & fiction erode beyond recognition, making the distinction pointless. The interviewer & cameraman follow the actress through the physical & temporal locations of her memory, filming the events of her past in a way that is only possible through the fluid, unrestrained logic of movie magic. All the movies the actress has starred in over her long career (whether they be samurai epics, wartime romances, kaiju action spectacles, or sci-fi space operas) blend into a single continuity as she and her two modern-day admirers run through a blur of fantasies & timelines in pursuit of an all-powerful MacGuffin: a literal key to “the most important thing in life.” Whether the most important thing in life is Memory, Passion, Art, or Love remains open for subjective interpretation. Mostly, Millennium Actress is a beautifully surreal melting pot of details from every movie genre through out the history of the artform – swordfights, monsters, ghosts, war, romance spaceships, betrayals – all propulsively animated to an early 00s techno beat.

I don’t think this film requires a familiarity with Satoshi Kon’s general filmography to be appreciated. If anything, expectations for the cruelty & despair of Paprika & Perfect Blue might be prohibitive to meeting this work on its own quietly sweet, melancholy terms. Millennium Actress should be enjoyable to anyone with an active interest in its artform – both as an exquisitely crafted anime from the dying days of hand-drawn animation and as a guided tour throughout the history of Japanese film genres. We’re treated to the full spectrum of what Movies can accomplish as we travel time throughout the most distinct eras of the artform in a lyrical, transportive version of movie-magic dream logic that’s impossible to pull off in any other medium. Similar to other movies-about-movies masterworks like Singin’ in the Rain, Cinema Paradiso, and Hail, Caesar!, Millennium Actress is readily accessible to anyone who can gush emphatically about the history & artistry of cinema as an artform. Still, it does hold a special reverence for Satoshi Kon fans in that it feels like a Greatest Hits collection of his best big-screen accomplishments. It’s absolutely tragic that we couldn’t experience even more grand visions from this late animation wizard, but this film alone is an excellent encapsulation of what made the work he was able to leave behind in his short life so special. I couldn’t imagine a better way to wrap up my precious little time with the enigmatic auteur, even if this film’s sentimentality wasn’t as geared specifically to my interests as harder-edged works like Perfect Blue

-Brandon Ledet

The End of Evangelion (1997)

As someone who only casually watches the most surface-level specimens of anime, I’m likely the least qualified person to register an opinion on Neon Genesis Evangelion. The show was a major reinvigorating boon for anime as an industry in the mid-90s and has maintained a strong cult following in America in the decades since, to the point where I remember at least 50% of all non-porn Tumblr posts being dedicated to the show’s meaning & legacy. I am one of the many, many Americans who didn’t bother seeking out Neon Genesis Evangelion until it became conveniently available to stream on Netflix earlier this year, though, running through all 26 of the episodes that fans have been obsessing over since the 90s in just a week’s time. It was a trip. The show starts off as a proto-Pacific Rim kaiju vs. mech suits action series, but then rapidly transforms into a psychedelic, philosophical crisis in which Humanity must escape the consequences of playing god by finding unexpected refuge in The Singularity. That is, if I understand even a tenth of what was happening in the defiantly convoluted & unconventionally structured story – an intricate web of conspiracy theories, flashbacks, Biblical references, and intense psychological breakdowns. It’s a show I should probably sit with over several years and a few rewatches before I speak on anything it’s attempting to accomplish, outside praising the artistry of its gorgeous, intricately detailed 2-D animation style. And yet, I still feel compelled to talk about a major aspect of the show’s legacy that I find outright fascinating: its ending(s).

The conclusion of Neon Genesis Evangelion is somehow even more difficult to parse out in words than the show’s perplexing premise. Most of the series details a government program that militarizes young children by psychologically linking them to organic mech suits to fight invading kaiju threats to their city. Mysteries about the government’s intent with the program, the origins of both the mech suits & the monsters, and the psychological effect of weaponizing children open the show up to sprawling obfuscation & subjective interpretations, but for the most part its story fits into a genre template we’ve become familiar with in the decades since its initial run. I was stunned, then, when the final two episodes in the series abandoned the mech suit program entirely to stage a psychedelic breaking down of each character’s individual identities, so that the world can be saved through reaching The Singularity rather than through battle. I loved this swerve. It reminded me a lot of the “How are you connected to yourself?” philosophical crises of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, except interpreted through psychedelic animation instead of the gory payoffs of early-aughts J-horror. Apparently, contemporary fans of the show did not feel the same way. They complained violently, for years, that the series creator Hideaki Anno (who later directed the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla) ruined something truly special with this esoteric conclusion, to the point where they sent him death threats for the offense. Eventually, Hideaki Anno responded to this fandom bullying the way many modern pop culture creators find themselves doing these days: caving in to deliver more of the show, promising fans the ending they believed they deserved. Things only got weirder from there.

Reconstructing a proper ending for Neon Genesis Evangelion took two whole feature films to pull off. The first, titled Death & Rebirth, was mostly an incomprehensible editing room nightmare meant to refresh fans’ memory of the series arc in a glorified clip show. Anything new it added to series lore (besides a flimsy wraparound in which the weaponized children form a string quartet) has since been removed and added to the front end of the proper movie sequel The End of Evangelion – thanks to a series of revisions that’s too convoluted to be worth explaining. That puts all the weight of sending off Neon Genesis Evangelion with a fandom-satisfying ending on a single 90min feature film, which is structured as a three-episode arc of the show. What I love about The End of Evangelion in its final edit (at least the one that’s conveniently streaming on Netflix) is that it only pretends to play nice in satisfying the fandom for so long. The film rewinds the clock to before the Singularity experiments of the final two episodes (known as The Instrumentality Project in series lore) to provide a more linear, logical conclusion where the government base is under militaristic attack and each character gets a proper send-off in the fray (mostly through onscreen deaths). I initially hated this choice, as it seemed to be caving to fans’ demands entirely by reorienting the plot to be more of a conventional story of traditional character arcs rather than a grand philosophical statement on the nature of Existence. Then, with time, The End of Evangelion transforms into its own confounding monstrosity that’s just as bizarrely esoteric & inscrutable as the original conclusion to the show that pissed off fans in the first place. It’s the anime equivalent of an “Up high, down low, too slow!” prank, and I love it for that fandom-satisfying fake-out.

I don’t think it would be especially useful (or even possible) to describe what happens in The End of Evangelion here. If the series it’s wrapping up is to be understood as a warped, nightmarish Biblical allegory, this is certainly the Book of Revelations portion of the text. Images of The Rapture, in which characters pop like balloons or swell to the size of celestial gods, mix with Donald Hertzfeldtian animation that assaults the viewer in psychedelic mixed-media collage. It’s just as horny, grotesque, and stupefying as the best episodes of the show ever were, except that it’s now set free to melt down the confines of reality on a global scale, whereas the original ending of the show was more of an internalized crisis. What I love most about it, though, is how it resets the narrative of The Instrumentality Project only to ultimately reach the same conclusion: a psychedelic visual essay on humanity reaching The Singularity. The End of Evangelion calls for “Death to God, man, and all life so that we may become One.” I’m still not convinced that the movie sequels to the show ever needed to exist in the first place, but I greatly respect them for promising a more logical, linear result to the narrative only to backslide right into the same confounding breakdowns of reality, except now on a bigger scale. To make that prank on the fandom even more satisfying, Hideaki Anno even included images of the death-threat emails he received after the original finale as part of the multi-media collage. He might as well have appeared on camera himself to give his audience the finger.

Honestly, I wish more modern creators would have this openly hostile of a relationship with their own fandoms. Watching people like Rebecca Sugar, Rian Johnson, and the Game of Thrones dorks suffer nonstop hyperbolic complaints from the entitled brats they’re only trying to entertain has been insufferable in recent years, so it’s wonderful to look back to what Hideaki Anno­­ accomplished in The End of Evangelion as an anti-audience pushback. He pretended to cave into his most abusive fans’ demands of a “proper” conclusion to his series, only to double down in a grand, grotesque spectacle. I wish more creators could get away with letting their “fans” squirm this way. It’s just as much of a dying art as traditional animation (as evidenced by the fact that even Hideaki Anno­­ himself is working on more Neon Genesis Evangelion sequels as I type this, so that his own victory over his fans was somewhat short-lived).

-Brandon Ledet

How a Japanese Anime Theme Song Found Way into an Italian Romcom Set in Greece

When discussing our current Move of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, one of our major fixations was on the chaotic nature of its soundtrack. This early-aughts romcom, set in the Spring Break-style hedonism of the Grecian island Ios, features a jarringly eclectic collection of tunes that seemingly have nothing to do with each other: romantic sitars, pop music from Culture Club & The Village People, post-punk from Wire, a lengthy homage to musicarello star Mina, and every other spur-of-the-moment indulgence the film wishes to entertain itself with. The track that really stood out to me, though, was a very short disco number that the two main characters (a heartbroken aunt who’s recovering from a breakup and her lovelorn teenage niece who’s aiming to shed her virginity) walk down the street to, singing along with every rapid-fire syllable. Given the disco-flavored rhythms of the tune and the film’s setting, I assumed the track was an Italian entry into the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest. As such, I was shocked to learn later that it was titled “UFO Robot” and was, in reality, a theme song to a 1970s anime television show.

Running for 74 episodes from 1974 to 1975, the Japanese sci-fi action cartoon UFO Robot Grendizer was only a brief blip in the overall output of the country’s long-running success in exporting animation abroad. Arriving as Force Five: Grandizer in the US, the show never quite found the domestic cult following other properties like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Sailor Moon enjoyed here. However, it was a massive hit in other countries – including France, French-speaking Canada, across the Middle East, and—wait for it—Italy. Packaged as UFO Robot for the Italian market, Grendizer was retrofitted with an Italian-language soundtrack from the (seemingly fictional) disco group Actarus, who provided several dance-beat themes for the series, including the titular one featured in Ginger & Cinnamon. While the original Japanese theme to the show has a serious, militaristic tone, all the Actarus songs I can track down on YouTube are much more fun & playful, which I’m sure helped make the show iconic for the Italian kids who grew up with it. That would at least help explain how the titular “UFO Robot” track was treated with the same nostalgic weight as major hits like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?,” “Y.M.C.A.,” and Mina’s “Ta Ra Ta Ta.”

Nostalgia actually seems to be the unifying force behind Ginger & Cinnamon’s chaotic soundtrack choices in general. The “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence directly recalls the traditional musicarelli the wistful, nostalgic aunt character would have watched on television as a young child. The “1.2.X.U. “ cut from Wire (along with the more traditional 80s club hits) evokes the more rambunctious era of her teen years, when she was just as dangerously young & horny as her niece. In that way, “UFO Robot” fits right in with the rest of the collection. The aunt is the exact right age where UFO Robo would have been her standard Saturday Morning cartoon viewing as a child, making it a song selection just as primed for nostalgia as a Village People single – as long as you grew up in Italy at the exact right moment.

It turns out she’s not alone. Just last year, for the 2018 Record Store Day, a vinyl LP collection with all of the Actarus disco tracks for UFO Robot was printed for collectors on red, numbered wax. It’s enough of a nostalgia trigger for a specific group of people that it’s freshly back on the market in the most nostalgia-friendly format around. Even if for some reason you don’t want to personally invest in a physical copy of an Italian soundtrack to a Japanese television show you’ve likely never heard of before, though, you should still at least check out the “UFO Robot” track below. It’s a bop, and it’s one of the highlights of the Ginger & Cinnamon soundtrack.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its musicarello inspirations.

-Brandon Ledet

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2019)

Although it’s at best a cult favorite in America, the animated supernatural teen romance Your Name. was a massive success in its native Japan. Likely fueled by repeat viewings from droves of lovelorn teens, the film broke all kinds of box office records – spawning official merchandize jewelry, planned live action remakes and, unavoidably, knockoffs. The teen anime romance is nothing new as a genre (if nothing else, Your Name. director Makoto Shinkai also made a film titled 5 Centimeters Per Second in a very similar vein as his smash hit an entire decade earlier), but there are some basic elements of Your Name. that have been echoed & rearranged enough times in the couple years since its massive success to establish an entire subgenre of knockoffs. Lightly proggy emo soundtracks, heart-swelling fireworks displays, supernatural shenanigans, and overreaching romantic narration have become almost standard in the post-Your Name. teen anime, as if films were attempting to reverse-engineer its success using the exact same building blocks. Last year’s goofily haphazard Fireworks is a clear example of how the cynical Your Name. riff can fall flat on its face – the butt of some cosmic, absurdist joke. Although it’s more humorously titled, this year’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas swings in the exact opposite direction – suggesting that the sub-Your Name. genre is worthy of being continued & explored, that there’s plenty of room to keep the formula flesh & emotionally effective.

Part of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s saving grace as a deliberate Your Name. riff (besides its attention-grabbing title) is that it’s adapted from well-established source material entirely separate from its newfound anime subgenre. A YA teen romance novel that has already been adapted into a manga series and a live-action film titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, this is a property that’s already popular & familiar enough to Japanese audiences to stand on its own legs as an individual work. It even comes from a different angle than Your Name. in that its premise isn’t at all supernatural, but instead is a romantic terminal illness teen weepie along the lines of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in Our Stars, and the upcoming Cole Sprouse vehicle Five Feet Apart. A high school student who’s eternally cheerful despite slowly dying of “a pancreatic disease” becomes unlikely friends with (and the unlikely love interest of) a stubbornly antisocial boy who’s defiantly boring & needs help breaking out of his shell, but reluctantly gets roped into helping the dying girl complete her bucket list anyway. The quiet, conversational drama that unfolds from that premise doesn’t sound at all similar to the raucous body-swapping, physics-defying romance of Your Name., which helps the film distinguish itself from that apparently seminal work. However, as the checkboxes of the purple narration, power pop soundtrack, and CG fireworks display are each ticked off the entire exercise starts to feel strikingly familiar. Then, it all ends in a climactic supernatural fantasy that transcends reality in a sequence inspired by The Little Prince on a planet populated by cherry blossom trees – far away from the grounded, conversational tone of its source material – solidifying it as a fully committed Your Name. disciple.

To be honest, distinguishing itself from Your Name. was far from I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s greatest hurdle to clear. There’s a reason that formula has been echoed in so many recent teen anime titles: it works. If anything, it’s the terminal illness weepie premise of its source material that threatens to sink its enjoyability, especially in regard to its choice of POV. This is the story of a chipper, terminally ill child who seemingly lives without fear; she misshelves library books, kicks bullies in the nuts, runs from cops, experiments with alcohol & sex, gorges on rich foods, and does basically everything else a rebellious suburban teen wishes they could get away with. So why, then, do we instead see the world through the POV of her polar opposite, a killjoy boy who literally feels sorry for himself because he’s boring? It initially seems as if this choice were a textbook repetition of the Manic Pixie Dying Girl trope, where a tragic girl with a rambunctious spirit exists only to improve the life & disposition of a milquetoast male protagonist with a much less interesting POV. If you afford I Want to Eat Your Pancreas a little patience, that dynamic is beautifully subverted in its emotionally cathartic climax, which saves the entire film in one paradigm-shifting information dump. In reading the Manic Pixie Dying Girl’s private diary (morbidly titled Living with Dying), we’re suddenly flooded with her perspective & story of personal growth, something that had been missing for the entire film before it. Not only is there a huge emotional payoff in that reveal, it’s also where the film justifies its animation format by reaching for some Little Prince by way of Sailor Moon surrealism to match the soaring emotional stakes of that catharsis. The trick is trusting the film long enough to get there.

The flashier, attention-grabbing details of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas are likely to draw in most of the audience, but also promise a much wilder, louder movie than what’s ultimately delivered. Once you look past its weirdly cannibalistic title, its Your Name.-riffing aesthetic, and the severity of tis terminal illness romance premise, however, you will find an intimate, minor teen drama that (outside the visualization of its climax) makes total sense as a work that was previously translated into live action. There are slideshow sequences & CG animation shortcuts that call into question the film’s need to be animated at all, outside the opportunity to ride the wave of Your Name.’s success, but it’s a decision that’s eventually justified, even if at the last minute. More importantly, I Want to Eat Your Pancreas eventually finds distinct, emotionally satisfying things to say about how teens establish their sense of identity & self-worth that feel entirely separate from its value as a post-Your Name. anime or a post-John Green teen weepie. It takes a lot of work for the film to stand on its own beyond those comparison points and the novelty it its title, but it does get there with time & patience.

-Brandon Ledet