City of stars, are you shining just for me?
Damien Chazelle is a revolutionary traditionalist. If he helms a movie chronicling the heroic travails of a drummer, he’ll grab you by your ungodly cuffs and make you feel the drummer’s rage and insanity until you start to sweat and swear quietly to yourself, unable to quite comprehend the magnificent crescendo of pure cinematic energy emanating from the screen. If he makes a bittersweet jazz-themed romance musical about the Herculean gap between dreams and reality, he will leave you unbearably dizzy with melancholy by the film’s end, shaken and wounded and gratified and intoxicated.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone pick up on the film’s exuberant flow and take it in stride. Their chemistry makes the film; there is some Annie Hall in there, some Casablanca, but the film, like its stars, is driven forward with unbridled invention. The seamlessly flowing colors of clothes and aquamarine skylines and the neon-lit streets of L.A. mix together so wholesomely well, you’d think this guy’s been making movies for an entire century now. Because how else does a film like this even exist?
The film belongs to its cast and its director, but it belongs just as much to Tom Cross, whose editing prowess elevates the film’s pathos into some obscure, otherworldly feeling; it belongs to Justin Hurwitz, whose original score is the movie’s thrillingly rich, complex heartbeat; and it belongs to Linus Sandgren who shoots this odyssey in glorious widescreen Cinemascope at 24-paintings-per-second. All my respect and love to the lighting department, production design and make-up crew. La La Land looks and sounds and feels and breathes like a true musical: a relentlessly poignant film that has no other agenda for existing before you except to ask that you give a little more love.
To the people who, like me, sit and stand and walk and live in the sidelines of their lives transfixed by the endless possibilities of how it could all turn out: this movie is for us. Mia and Sebastian are our angels.
Samurai Champloo looks and smells (when you become a hundredth as insane as it is) and sounds like the botched memory of a fallen God, drunk and out on his ass alone, in some unpopulated corner of the planet, residing in a time where unfinished business was a virtue; a land of mystic uselessness, the era of the death of purpose, the directionless abyss of the perpetually bored.
Its three fascinating protagonists inevitably bring to mind Cowboy Bebop’s magnificent failures masquerading as people with actual ambition, without any hint of irony. Being broke is their superpower, second only to stumbling headfirst into unneeded trouble for no reason and to no reasonable end whatsoever. There is a reason Edo Japan and 2071 AD outer space connect in this manufactured continuum, running like parallel rays in opposite directions and creating an illusion of difference so perfect it is shattered only when you acknowledge how much of it is like real life.
Watanabe, being the unrestrained beast of insanity that he is, puts it first in an anime where space cowboys merrily bounty-hunt through the chaos of creation, sets it in the future of what lesser humans falsely perceive as Time, and sets the score of a late 21st century tale to old-school jazz.
Then he does it again, not satisfied with a once-in-a-century masterwork, prepping up another anime within the next five years, this time plotting the invisible outline of that scattered wisdom into the fabric of the Edo period in Medieval Japan, punctuated and enlivened by a score of modern rap, R-n-B and stir-fry hip-hop.
Most surprising of all, though, is that it works. Spectacularly, soul-shatteringly well.
I do not presume to really understand what both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo are about. I have made my peace with the fact that every time I watch and re-experience these fictional universes, the less I will know about them. Their existential bullet-points redact slowly with time, or so I thought, disappearing into the dusky night of my subconscious like an untamed monster baring its fangs in front of me for the last time.
As you sit to watch it again, the cycle of rediscovery begins anew, this time informed by your perception of what the respective shows stand for in your head, ready to be twisted into unrecognizable shards of what sane fanboys and girls call psychological implications. Bebop and Champloo stretch beyond that horizon of self-important and vain critical analysis, resting on the impressionistic gaze of its piercing meaningfulness into your soul rather than your flawed mental faculties.
My popular culture compatriots often ask me why anime holds such a special and objectively superior place in my mind. There is quite literally no limit to what you can conjure up to tell your story in an anime, combining sights and sounds to put forth the nakedness of the dark human will, spirituality or plain voyeuristic fun awesome enough to give the viewer a time of his life and then have him die a la Infinite Jest due to overexposure to pure magic.
You can say the same with regular 3D animation and live-action now that visual effects evolve exponentially faster than our human sensibilities. Technically speaking, you can very well show anything you want in a film or TV show in live-action without compromising on your vision. But there is something about the composition of anime and the way it chooses to tell a story, mingling painting and poetry as if it were the easiest thing in the world.
Paradoxically enough, the restriction of anime to two-dimensional artistry is what raises it beyond the trappings of time and context. I really believe every person who has watched the best of anime, including front and center, of course, Miyazaki’s films, has experienced that particular work independent of everything and everyone else in his or her surroundings. No two people in the millions of fans worldwide could ever agree on what Bebop is actually about.
Stories are wild creatures indeed. In the case of Bebop and Champloo, they’re unique and timeless, glowing axle-points in this corner of the gradual quicksand that is existence. We all say thankya.
We are extremely lucky to be living in a golden age of blockbuster animated cinema: a time where our mainstream colorful biggies wrestle not with mere physical challenges, but with intensely self-aware psychological and spiritual ones.
Let me just start off by saying this: Kung Fu Panda 3 is the best of the trilogy. It has everything we already expect: kickass, unstoppable A-grade humor, absolutely gorgeous 3D animation, amazeballs action sequences and a meaningful, heartwarming story.
But this one stands out on its spiritual intensity alone; while the first two had some beautiful things to say about identity and self-awareness, this one is a soulful haiku on finding one’s place in the universe, and being okay with whatever you unearth. There is endless wisdom here, and proof that a great film is never just a film.
Based on the concept of ‘chi’ that signifies the energy present in all living things, the movie’s journey is one of achieving serenity and oneness with all of creation. The plot of this film is home to ancient Chinese philosophy, the simple concept that having two dads is the same as having a dad and a mom, solving earthly confusion and hurt through laughter and compassion, healing through growth – the list goes on and on.
I wish there was more I could say about how peacefully charming this movie is, but I’d be wasting your time. In times like these, where the world is perpetually at war with itself, a kid raised on these steady offerings from Disney-Pixar and Dreamworks will grow up to be a citizen of the world, and learn, in due time, that it is never too late to do the right thing. With works of art like these, we’re teaching them the only way to save our world.