GOSH, THE JAPANESE SURE DO LIKE THE SONG "COUNTRY ROADS"...
(...or at least the Olivia Newton-John version od it.)
Cats on Mars/F*ckin' Otaku forum user Keg had a thread with a link to a very interesting, but largely inexplicable, Japanese flash file. While a lot of Japanese Flash animations are perverted, sadistic, or freakishly bizarre, this one is weird, but in a charming and cute way. It features, for some unknown reason, Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell (the Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex version of her) being given a crude, hand-drawn map by some kind of furball, and she drives a motorcycle around Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main Japanese islands1, to meet a bunch of what look like giant peas with faces and arms. And he song that plays during this Flash file is the Olivia Newton-John version of the John Denver song, "(Take me Home) Country Roads", which gives the whole production kind of a heartwarming feel.
The Flash file comes from this Japanese page of mostly Ghost in the Shell fanart, though I have to warn you that, unlike this Flash file, a lot of what is on that page is NSFW (Not Safe For Work), largely drawn by some guy with a breast-fetish.
Another Japanese production that uses the Olivia Newton-John "Country Roads" is the Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba; literally, "If you listen closely"), which Disney finally released on DVD in North America yesterday. It's a film for which Hayao Miyazaki wrote the screenplay, based on a one-volume shoujo manga by Aoi Hiiragi that ran in Ribon magazine (ooh, a connection between Studio Ghibli and Mihona Fujii's Gals manga), and he did the storyboards, but Miyazaki did not direct it. The director is the late Yoshifumi Kondou, who was going to be one of Hayao Miyazaki's successors, but, unfortunately, those plans were scuttled when Kondou died in 1998 at the age of 47 and Whisper of the Heart was the only movie he ever got to direct. It's a slice-of-life story about Shizuku Tsukishima, a junior high school girl's somewhat stormy friendship with Seiji Amasawa, a fellow junior high school student, whom first comes to Shizuku's attention because his name shows up on the library cards of every book she borrows from the library, who is a very talented musician and who wants to go to a special school in Cremona, Italy. "Country Roads" is used as a recurring plot device in this film, as one of Shizuku's summer assignments is to write a Japanese translation of the song (and she writes both a serious one and a parody one called "Concrete Roads", about the environment she lives in in Tama, a town in the hills of the western part of Tokyo), and, according to rumours, one of the reasons why it took Disney so long to bring this film to North America (and why Disney released the 2002 spin-off film The Cat Returns first), is because the estate of the late John Denver was asking for a lot of money for them to be able to release the film with the song intact in North America, and they couldn't remove the song from the movie as it's too essential to the plot.
I think Whisper of the Heart is easily the most underrated film in the entire Studio Ghibli library, and it's about my most favourite Studio Ghibli film after Kiki's Delivery Service, and, maybe, My Neighbour Totoro, but I've seen very mixed reactions to this film, particularly on general movie boards like Rotten Tomatoes that don't cater specifically to anime fans, probably because they're not used to straightforward, small-scale slice-of-life anime stories where nothing magical, like Spirited Away, or epic, like Princess Mononoke, happens (save for one dream sequence, reportedly directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself).
I first saw it fansubbed around 1997, at the long-defunct ANIMATE/Anime Central club at Université de Montréal, but I haven't really had a chance to see it since, not until I bought the DVD yesterday at the HMV on Merivale. I used the HMV gift card that I got for Christmas, which I was saving for just such an occasion, to buy it and the widescreen and subtitled My Neighbor Totoro (though I had to pay $17 extra, since the card was just for $50). One minor annoyance was that they had Howl's Moving Castle, the third film is the latest "wave" of Ghibli films, in on the "New Releases" racks right up front, but Whisper of the Heart and My Neighbor Totoro were nowhere to be seen, not even in the anime racks or the children's racks, so I had to ask at the checkout if they had My Neighbour Totoro (thinking there would be a greater chance that the guy at the cash would have heard of Totoro than Whisper). The clerk checked the computer, and nothing came up until I pointed out that he was spelling "Neighbor" the Canadian way, with the "U", and, since these DVDs are distributed by Disney, they'd spell it the American way, sans "U". Sure enough, he was quick to find My Neighbor Totoro listed once he removed the "U", and they did indeed have it in stock, but they hadn't shelved it yet, so he and I went over to the INFO desk at the back of the store and he looked in a small cardboard box with new DVDs and found My Neighbor Totoro, and then I asked if they had Whisper of the Heart too, and, sure enough, they did. I'm not sure, because I didn't get that good a look at the crate, but the copies I bought seemed to be the only copies of those two Ghibli films that was in the crate, so, if you're in Nepean (well, eastern Nepean, since the HMV in the Bayshore Shopping Centre is still technically in Nepean) and you were hoping to buy either film at the Merivale HMV, you might be out of luck. Sorry!
I'm considering submitting a review of at least Whisper of the Heart (and maybe My Neighbor Totoro too) for Anime News Network, but, considering it's a Ghibli film and much more popular than, say, Patlabor: The New Files (the review of which I finally successfully submitted the other day), I'd probably have to submit it in a day or two to get mine in before anyone else's, and that's assuming that none of the staff writers or editors are working on it already.
This has nothing to do with the rest of the entry, but someone uploaded the entire Star Wars Holiday Special (which is pretty bad, but not nearly as bad as some people make it out to be) to YouTube. You can see Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) coked out of her mind singing "A day of joy we all can share together joyously", and Harvey Korman as that Julia Child "droid" saying, "Stir, Whip, Stir, Whip, Whip, Whip, Stir!", and Bea Arthur as the owner of the Cantina on Tatooine singing "Just one more round, friend, then it's homeward bound, friend.", and Diahan Carroll in that bizarre Wookie cyber-porn segment (which predates the mainstreaming of Internet pornography by nearly two decades). But it's also got that animated segment that introduces Boba Fett and which is still a great source of national pride for Canadians as it's one of the first pieces of animation that Nelvana ever produced commercially. So, in a indirect and somewhat roundabout way, if there hadn't been the Star Wars Holiday Special, there wouldn't be 6Teen. (Maybe that's why 6Teen has a character named "Darth Mall"; it's a homage to what got Nelvana started in the first place.)
I wonder how long that video will be up at YouTube.com, "the Web's finest source of copyright-infringing video content for those of us who are too pussy to use file-sharers anymore", before George Lucas's Lucasfilm lawyer's have this file "BAH-leeted" with their "Cease & Desist" warnings? I give it three days.
1 Hokkaido is the island where the land, outside of the city of Sapporo, is the least developed and most "rural", at least by Japanese standards; if an anime character is naïve, childish, jejune, and innocent, or less sophisticated, urbane, or cultured, he or she will often be from Hokkaido, which is where their stereotypical "country bumpkins" live. A prime example is Noa Izumi from Patlabor. It's also the area in Japan that gets Canadian-like winters, with one of the world's great snow sculpture festivals being in Sapporo.