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Monday, February 18, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 17 - Ghibli Films and The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

This week I feel it's time we talk about a subject that's long overdue when discussing Japan.  That would be Studio Ghibli.  Now if you don't know that this is, you're really missing out.  Studio Ghibli is to Japan what classic Disney animation was to American cinema in the 1930's and 40's.  It's made its reputation by turning out impeccably well plotted and animated stories that capture the imaginations of kids and adults alike.  

Studio Ghibli films don't operate like American animated films that try to relate to all ages.  You won't find "adult jokes" hidden in with kiddie fare.  Instead, Ghibli films pull adults into them on their own terms.  Even though they are animated, some deal with incredibly mature themes while others are playful and child-like. 

A great example of a Ghibli movie that aims higher than any Disney animated film is Grave of the Fireflies, a story about two young kids trying to survive on their own in the final days of WWII. It's absolutely heart-wrenching and pulls zero punches.  Disney wouldn't dare tackle a subject like that in the way Studio Ghibli does.

However, some of the most iconic Ghibli films are fun.  They include My Neighbor Totoro, about a young girl whose family moves to a rural area where forest spirits are actually real, Princess Mononoke, a fantasy/adventure set in feudal Japan that rivals the best American and British fantasy and Spirited Away, about a girl thrust into the spirit world who must find a way to save her parents from spending eternity as pigs and get back to reality.  You'll find toys based on these three movies in almost every single toy store you go to.  The films are so popular in Japan that there are even Studio Ghibli stores (Donguri) in Tokyo malls and the very famous (and very popular) Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo is sold out months in advance.

We decided that instead of trying to go to the museum, it would be more fun to visit places that inspired settings in the movies themselves.  This made it much more of an adventure.

First up, while walking to a train station after taking a boat ride, we realized we were right next to the famed Ghibli Clock.  This sits on the outside of Nittele Tower, the home of Nippon Television.  It goes into motion about 4 times a day.  The entire clock is animated and it tells a story of sorts as it begins to malfunction and various parts and pieces must come to life in order to get things set straight again.  Here's a YouTube link to show you how it looks, but I have to say this pales in comparison to seeing it in person.

Now, while there are many sites you can visit that will tell you to visit this place or that place to see a single location that inspired a Ghibli scene, I'm going to focus on one location that you should definitely check out if you're looking to see what inspired the animators.  And right now, I want to call out our friends Dan and Maria Borses for recommending this.

I'm talking about the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.  This is a collection of actual houses and other buildings that were physically moved from their original locations and brought here to be opened to the public.  They give you a glimpse of how people lived through different eras of Japan's history.  Word has it that the Ghibli animators used this as inspiration for a number of films and I have to say after visiting, I totally see it.

For instance, in the movie My Neighbor Totoro, the family moves into an older house in a heavily wooded area.  Soon, the youngest girl begins seeing woodland spirits and in her time of need, they come to her aid.  One of the most iconic images is that of the Cat Bus pictured at the top of this post.  

At the Open Air Museum you'll find this trolley car that's just a some legs and a smile away from being the cat bus.  You'll also find houses from the era that look suspiciously like the ones in the movie.

In the film Princess Mononoke, there is a battle for the very spirit of the forest raging across the land.  Visiting the open air museum, you can enter an Edo-era house, complete with cooking fire, thatched roof and a sleeping area for the guards.  It's straight out of the Ghibli film or should I say it's the other way around.

And then there's Spirited Away.  There are so many buildings here that were obvious inspirations for that movie that it's hard to capture them all.  The film is about a girl who accidentally finds herself in the spirit world and is put to work in a bath house for the monsters who populate it.  

This bath house at the Open Air Museum was an obvious inspiration.  Check out these amazing murals on the walls.  The bath house itself was divided between male and female and the murals depict scenes that would appeal to each.

Also in Spirited Away, our protagonist works with a strange half-man/half-something to create special baths for the monsters.  His workshop is filled, wall to wall, with drawers of ingredients.  They look exactly like this:

This is a stationery shop at the Open Air Museum.  There is no doubt it was the inspiration for that room.  

As you walk through the grounds, you'll find plenty of other examples.  Every building on this street alone shows buildings you can spot in films like Grave of the FirefliesKiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away.

So before you go on your trip, make sure to bone up on your Ghibli movies and then take the train ride out to see the Open Air Museum.  It's definitely worth your time.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Forgotten Horror Gems Vol. 4 - House of Usher

Okay, I already know there are some of you who will say that this isn't really "forgotten" and you'd be right.  At the same time, it is a movie that I'd somehow neglected to see.  For those of you who, like me, have never bothered checking out Roger Corman's Poe adaptations, you may be surprised with what you find here.

Corman is a notoriously frugal producer/director, preferring to work on low budget films that are turned very quickly.  House of Usher is no different, being shot in a total of 15 days. However, he doesn't produce dreck.  He understands what makes a good film. 

House of Usher marks a series of films by Corman where he increased his budgets significantly (for him) and focused on making some quality adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's works. His budget for this film was around $300,000 and he used the money wisely.  He hired Richard Matheson to write the adaptation and Vincent Price to star as Roderick Usher.  From the very first scene, you can tell from the colors alone that Corman is swinging for respectability here and it paid off.  The movie ultimately grossed 1.4 million.

House of Usher tells the story of a young man named Phillip who travels from Boston to the ancestral home of his fiance, Madeline.  She left Boston to return home and he had heard nothing from her since.  Upon arriving, he finds that Roderick, her brother, is keeping her in the castle as she seems to have a preoccupation with death and dying.  Roderick himself is not exactly healthy and as the last two members of the cursed Usher family line, he sees it as his duty to make sure that Madeline never marries. 

Obviously, this complicates things.

From the beginning, the whole film is dream like and somewhat quiet.  This prompted the first comments from the girls.

"I'm surprised you're still awake!" - Karen

"He may not be for long!" - Lilith

That last line was yelled as Lil headed upstairs.  She decided to sit this one out.  

As Vincent Price is introduced we find that he's overly sensitive to sound and light.

"What a drama queen!" Karen exclaimed

Later, when he picks up a lute, I figured out that Karen had lost interest in actually watching the film.  She was at the table making a puzzle and only half listening to things.

"Whoever is playing that instrument, I feel like I could do better" - Karen

That just left me to finish it on my own.  The truth is, it's a pretty good movie but it's not terribly exciting.  There's more drama here than most horror films and while there are some psychologically disturbing moments, particularly in the third act, it's not the usual monster and mayhem fare we tend to watch on a Friday night.

Still, I can't help but recommend it.  I've only seen one other Corman adaptation of Poe so there will likely be more on the horizon.

One interesting/funny aside about Vincent Price.  A few years ago, I attended the Monsterpalooza trade show and wore a Famous Monsters of Filmland shirt.  The shirt is full of caricatures of horror icons and as I passed one booth, a woman reached out and said, "I bet my father is on there!"

It was Vincent Price's daughter and I turned toward her and stood there while she looked all over my shirt in vain.  It turns out that whoever the artist was must not have been a fan.  Both of us were a little embarrassed. 

Next week we'll trash the place up some and get away from this gothic stuff.  I'm thinking something from the 1980's.

See you then!

Monday, February 11, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 16 - Edo Tokyo Museum

Last week we talked about going off the beaten path and exploring on your own.  This week I want to point you directly back to the main path. 


Well, see... Sometimes there are amazing things on the well traveled path that you shouldn't pass up.  Like that samurai suit above.  You can't tell easily from the picture, but that's actually for a child.  Where in the world would you find such a thing?

The Edo-Tokyo Museum.  If you look back at the previous installments of this blog, the majority of the entries have to do with the odd, the weird and the wonderful.  Let me be clear though, my family and I still enjoy some of the mainstream stuff as well.  One thing we definitely wanted to see was more about the history of Tokyo and the Edo-Tokyo Museum is arguably the best place in the entire country to get a crash course in Tokyo's history in roughly half a day.

For those that don't know, the city we call Tokyo was originally called Edo.  Thus, the name of the museum.  Inside you'll find a top notch, Smithsonian level collection that will walk you through the very beginnings of civilization in this area and bring you all the way up to the early 2000's.  

A massive undertaking such as that needs a massive building, right?  Well, this place has got you covered.  Inside you'll find life-sized recreations of famous bridges, theaters and more.  In fact, you walk across the bridge in the picture above when you enter the museum. 

There are elaborate dioramas that show the layouts of feudal lord palaces and towns.  You'll find interactive displays that allow you to feel what it was really like to ride like royalty through the town, or carry water.

There are whole sections on early printing in Japan with displays that show you the art and precision needed to get amazingly detailed prints like the one below.     

There are even reprints of news articles from the time, like this one documenting the first time an elephant was ever brought back to the country alive.

Some of our favorite exhibits showed how early theater effects were accomplished and there were also dioramas that came to life, showing what the city was like both during the daytime and at night.

Here's the thing that really stands out to me about this museum more than any other.  As we walked through the entrance to the main floor, we were approached by an elderly Japanese lady who began speaking to us in French.  We stopped her and explained that we didn't speak that language and were in fact American.  She said, "One moment" and then ran to get someone else.  

Another woman walked up and asked if we would like her to accompany us and explain the exhibits that did not have translations.  She was more than willing to go along with us, for however long we liked and would have answered any and all of our questions about any of the exhibits, and all of this was free of charge.  We actually declined simply because we'd only planned on spending a short time there and thought we might come back on another visit for a longer stay.  
As we wandered, we heard guides speaking to guests in French, Spanish, German and English.  

My favorite exhibit is hard to pin down because there are some seriously amazing things housed in the museum, but one of them would have to be this.

It looks like the paper model of a keep, but in fact it's a three dimensional blueprint created to show the builders the layout of every floor in detail.


So, if you are only going to be in Tokyo for a short time and may never get the chance to come back, I suggest spending at least half a day visiting the Edo Tokyo Museum.  You'll find a new appreciation for city itself and gain a fresh perspective on just how far it's come.

Next week, we'll look at a different kind of museum while we explore the Ghibli films and the places and structures that inspired them.
See you then!  

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Forgotten Horror Gems Vol. 3 - The Devil Commands

This week's installment of the series focuses on an obscure Boris Karloff film.  Now, I've spent a rather large part of my life obsessed with horror movies and there's probably no single classic monster star I like more than Boris Karloff.  Aside from being a great actor (and I'm not exaggerating in making that claim), he was also a pretty decent human being overall.

One thing you may not know about him is that he almost single-handedly started the Screen Actor's Guild.  Due to the abuse he received at the hands of James Whale in shooting the first Frankenstein film, Karloff took his complaint to the studio.  They summarily discarded it and since other acting guilds were focused on stage productions, they weren't much help to him.  He quit Universal (something people thought was insane at the time) and began working independently.  At the same time, he began laying the groundwork for a new actor's union and was able to get some big names involved right away.  With people like Groucho Marx and other major marquee stars on board, the studios had no choice but to recognize the union.  By the time he made Bride of Frankenstein with Whale, the rules of the game had changed considerably.  Instead of working 16 or even 20 hour days, he was capped out at 8 and that included time in makeup.  

That history lesson aside, he was a man who was devoted to his craft and even made his last film while suffering from late stage emphysema.  He never stopped working until he died, and not necessarily because he needed the money. Even when he was being billed as a major star, he was still making the odd film that was nowhere near blockbuster material.

Thus we get, The Devil Commands.  It's got an interesting premise.  A scientist who studies the brain finds a way to track electrical waves that every person emits.  Each person's wave reading is as individual as a fingerprint.  When his wife is killed in an accident, he finds that her wave still exists even though her body is long buried.  This gives him the idea that he may be able to speak to her from beyond the grave using scientific methods.  Mad experimentation ensues!

So, cut to the chase, Cary.  What do the girls think?

Well, one big drawback to this film is the narration  It's completely unnecessary and abundant.  The scientist's daughter literally narrates things as you see them happen on screen.  While this tended to bug both Lil and I, Karen enjoyed it.

"I like that I can sit at the kitchen table, work on my crafts and still keep up with the film." - Karen

When I asked what their favorite thing was, there was only one answer.

"The laboratory looked like a hair salon with strange dials on it." - Lilith

"Those head gear things were neat." - Karen

When I asked what they didn't like...

"Again, no devil.  Last time it was Dr. Cyclops with no cyclops.  This time it's The Devil Commands with no devil and not even any commanding." - Karen

In an effort to find something she might like I made mention that it was barely over an hour long.

"It felt longer.  In fact, all of the animals parading through Dr. Cyclops were better than anything in this movie." - Karen

"Yeah, but it was still better than that witch one (The City of the Dead)" - Lilith

So there you have it.  If you're a Karloff completist, then you need to check it out.  Otherwise, you can give this one a pass. 

Next week, we'll be looking at a much more highly regarded film even if it was on the relatively inexpensive side.  Roger Corman's The Fall of the House of Usher.

See you then!

Monday, February 4, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 15 - TOYS!!!!

This is one I know a lot of you have been waiting for.  If you like Japanese cartoons (anime), comics (manga), giant monster films (Kaiju) or classic Japanese TV (like Ultraman) and you're looking for toys, then Tokyo has got you covered! 

For starters, you'll want to visit Akihabara.  It's also known as Electric Town.  Initially it was the place to go in Tokyo if you wanted the latest and greatest in electronics.  Over the years, it has evolved into a place that celebrates Japanese pop culture.  You'll find a ton of small shops carrying mostly used toys.  You'll find figures from all of your favorite animes along with a number of other trinkets like pens, banners, stationery and more.

These shops are set up like indoor flea markets, with different booths or glass cases full of figures.  Don't go buying things willy nilly either.  Take your time and compare prices.  Sometimes you'll save $5.00 or $10.00 just by checking alternative stores.  

The streets of Akihabara are also filled with toys, in the form of gachapon machines.  The word is actually a combination that refers to the capsule toy and the sound of cranking the dial.  There are banks of these everywhere and in fact, there's even an entire store on a side street that is nothing but gachapon machines.

What's inside?  Well, these machines vary in price and contents.  You'll find everything from anime figures to stickers to miniature zen gardens. The trick is that chance is a factor.  You may get the same figure over and over, or you may get lucky and get all the pieces of your set completed quickly.  Some of our favorite finds have been:

An extremely rude pencil holder (we used it for Q-Tips while at the hotel).

A set of Beavis and Butthead on the couch.

And some extremely detailed Ultraman sets that you had to assemble.

In addition to the used toy stores in Akihabara, you'll definitely want to check out Yodobashi-Camera.  It's a gigantic, multi-storied department store that has all of the latest and greatest new toys.  Just take the escalator up to the toy floor and prepare to have your mind blown! 

You'll find anything and everything you could possibly want.  And if you're hungry, head to the top because their food court is beyond amazing.  The last time we visited, we found ourselves eating there multiple times.  

Say you don't have that much time though and you want to get the most out of your half day of toy shopping.  Well, there really is only one store to check out and that's Mandarake!  While they have a location in Akihabara, I'd recommend making the trip to Nakano Broadway.  This is an indoor mall that carries all of the usual stores and restaurants, however it also has a multistory Mandarake with some of the most amazing collections of toys you'll ever see.

The place is set up with different rooms divided by toy "types". For instance, there's a room with nothing but Godzilla, Ultraman and the like.  There's another whole room carrying nothing but capsule toy contents so you can complete a collection without leaving things to chance.  Another room is full of manga and anime.  You get the picture.  Some of the craziest stuff here is in the form of original vinyl toy creations.  Check out this killer monster with a cannon for a mouth!

And this Rat Fink character!

One of my favorite rooms here is the Robot Room. 

It's just as it sounds.  A room literally filled with nothing but robot and space toys.  All are for sale, but there are some very expensive items in here.

In fact, many are from the 1950's like the Moon Astronaut below.  If you're wondering how much 300,000 yen is in U.S. dollars, just take two zeroes off the end and you'll be in the ballpark.  

That's right.  You're looking at a $3,000 toy.

Aside from the places I've mentioned already, you'll still find individual toy stores that deal in new toys only.  They're easy to find while there.  You can google "toy store" and they'll pop up.  One, whose name I can't recall, had this killer electric car track on the top floor.  

It even had a leader board that kept your fastest time.  My daughter beat the pants off me.

And yes, if you're into Pokemon, then you are probably required to visit the Pokemon store in the Sunshine City mall.  While you're there, you can go to Namja Town, the indoor Japanese haunted house I wrote about a few posts ago!

For those who are upset I never mentioned Ghibli toys, don't worry.  There's a separate post coming about Ghibli, but yes, they have their own stores as well with items from almost all of their movies.

So yeah, Tokyo is full of amazing toys.  Even if you're not a collector, you could do worse than wandering through a Mandarake or Yodobashi store while in town.  

Next week, we'll switch things up and get some class by visiting the Edo Tokyo museum.  See you then!

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Forgotten Horror Gems Vol. 2 - Dr. Cyclops (1940)

Well, last week I kicked off a new series called Forgotten Horror Gems.  For those that are just joining the blog, here's how it works.  I pored through listings of horror movies from 1920 - 1989 and looked for films I hadn't seen.  Admittedly, that list is actually pretty short considering all of the movies that were released over that period.  I'm not bragging.  I could have been using that time to solve world hunger but hey... it is what it is.

Over the next twelve months, I'm going to work my way through the list and amazingly, my wife and daughter both agreed they'd like to participate in this as well.

So without further ado, I present to you a movie that I've been intrigued by since I was a child.  I've seen stills from it in magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, but amazingly I'd never actually seen the film.  So here we go!

First of all, how beautiful is that poster art?  I don't want to get too far off on a tangent here, but my friend Mike Carvalho was the one who first really opened my eyes to the beauty of classic movie posters.  I may post more about that at another time, but just let me say that you will not find a poster that looks anything like this coming out of a movie studio today.  Look at those colors!  Look at the unfeeling, malevolent expression of the mad doctor and the fear on his victim's face.

That's how you sell a movie!

Okay, rant ended.

Dr. Cyclops is about a well-regarded scientist who has secluded himself in a laboratory in the jungles of the Amazon.  While that may seem weird, the truth is he's there because of a giant deposit of pitchblende, a mix of uranium and radium if I understand the explanation correctly.  This geological cache of radioactive riches holds a key to the experiments he's conducting.

He has one problem though.  His eyesight is horrible.  Despite thick, coke-bottle lenses, he's now lost the ability to look into his microscope clearly, so he summons three scientists from America to come verify something for him.  The three travel thousands of miles through the jungle and once they arrive and confirm his theory he thanks them and asks them to leave.  

Needless to say, these three (four if you count the mule driver) didn't travel all that way just to look in a microscope for literally five minutes and be turned away.  They want to know more.

Soon, they find out first hand what the doctor has been working on.  He's discovered a way to shrink living beings and their confirmation of his theory removes the last obstacle he had in making the process safe for his subjects.  In order to keep them from returning to the mainland with his secrets, he shrinks them to try to keep them captive.  Of course, they escape and then have to dodge the terrors of the jungle itself before finding a way to deal with the mad doctor and return to their normal size.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Dr. Cyclops is a great movie.  Personally, I have never been exactly wowed by movies about people being shrunk down to the size of dolls.  I just feel like it's a gimmick that quickly runs its course.  That said, Dr. Cyclops does have some pretty amazing effects and while most of the performances are standard, Albert Dekker's performance as the title character shines.  He's not the kind of mad scientist who is doing evil unknowingly (a la Dr. Frankenstein).  He truly is evil, making some horrific decisions including randomly killing his subjects. 

The version of this we watched was in gorgeous Technicolor also.  It was a joy to see with all the heavily saturated greens of the jungle throughout.  The very first scene has some crazy "fish tank" blue lighting thing happening with ripples flowing across the walls and the doctor.  Seriously cool!

But all this aside, how is it as a movie?  Well, I'll ask the girls to explain.

Karen:  First of all, I felt deceived by the movie title.  I was expecting a giant cyclops monster.  I had no idea where the movie was going so when it turned out that wasn't the case, I felt a little cheated.

Lilith:  That didn't bother me because I didn't know the name of the movie. I came down after the credits.

Karen:  Aside from that though, I liked this.  I really liked the small people and how everything became giant; like sewing needles become giant weapons in their hands, etc.  It made me think about all the prop departments and how they had to make this stuff.

Lilith:  I liked how they would all work together to defeat the doctor.  It reminded me of the scene in Cinderella where all the mice and birds come together to sew her dress.  

Okay, all this is great, but what about the story itself?  Did you like that?

Karen:  Honestly, I did.  It was fun and nostalgic, but the acting was atrocious and some of the dialogue was horrible.  It was still fun to watch.  I loved how they paraded all of these exotic animals around just to try to convince you it was really shot in the jungle.  I swear, there's a point where thirty animals show up one at a time on screen and to be honest, I'm not even sure they all really exist in the same jungle.  It was like being at the zoo.

Lilith:  I forgot about the tiny horse!  They were mean to the tiny horse!

Karen:  Yes, I wanted the tiny horse for my own. He was really cute, but they treated him very badly!

Lilith:  Yeah, when that guy slams the door shut on his box, that was just rude!

To be clear, people die in this movie but the tiny horse is not harmed in any way.  Slamming the box shut was the extent of the harm done to the horse, but this seems to have stood out to the girls.

So, to wrap things up:

1. Dr. Cyclops is not about a cyclops, but isn't a bad film.

2. It looks really nice but the acting isn't the best.

3. When you're shrunken by a mad doctor and want to escape, just remember that 'Teamwork Makes the Dream Work.'

4. Don't be a jerk to the tiny horse.

From my perspective, it's a fun watch but not essential.  If you're looking for a nostalgic trip one night, you could do worse than to check this out.  You can find it streaming on Amazon Prime.  If you'd like a look at the trailer, here you go!

Next week, we'll go back to the black and white classics for a forgotten Boris Karloff movie.

Until then, check out my series on exploring Japan or visit my Amazon Author's page!

See you soon!