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Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2003

Animation to spirit you away

Interstella 5555

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Running time: 67 minutes
Currently showing

Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Kitaro Kosaka
Running time: 47 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Now that Hayao Miyazaki's "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)" has won an Academy Award, as well as nearly universal critical acclaim (see the 97-percent rating on the Rotten Tomatoes review Web site for proof), do doubts still exist about the legitimacy of Japanese animation as art? If they do, the screening of two anime in the Directors Fortnight section of this year's Cannes Film Festival will further erode them. Though not as prestigious as the festival's competition section, the Directors Fortnight is a showcase for the work of serious auteurs.

The two films, "Interstella 5555 (Daft Punk & Leiji Matsumoto's Interstella 5555: The Story of the Secret Star System)" and "Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu (Andalusian Summer)" opened in Japan on the same day -- July 26 -- though they couldn't be more different.

"Interstella 5555" might be called an agonizingly long music video by those who don't care for the pulsing electronic sounds of the French duo Daft Punk; or an ingenious, hypnotic melding of Western pop and Japanese animation by those who do. My first thought after watching several minutes of this film -- made in collaboration with anime legend Leiji Matsumoto and Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo -- was that it would make terrific musical wallpaper for some trendy Roppongi club.

There is no dialogue -- just a simple abduction-and-rescue story about a pop quartet from another galaxy kidnapped by a media mogul from Earth, who transforms them, through futuristic brainwashing technology, into malleable musical money machines. Having acquired a new band name (the Crescendolls) and IDs (Stella is a leggy bass player from Memphis; Baryl is a funny little drummer from Munich; Octave is a funky African-American keyboardist from Brooklyn; Arpegius is a foppishly handsome guitarist from London) to go with their new skin colors (their original color was blue), they make a hit record and play to packed crowds. Naturally, none of their adoring fans seem to be concerned that they play with all the passion of robots on auto-pilot. Sound like a music industry you know?

Though this manufactured group's big number, "One More Time," is also a Daft Punk hit, the music constantly throbbing in the background makes no lyrical comment on the action. Meanwhile, the film itself, based on a screenplay by Bangalter, de Homem Christo and Cedric Hervet, is a '70s retro delight. Its look is straight out of the Matsumoto classic "Ginga Tetsudo 999 (Galaxy Express 999)," from a mind-boggling leap across time and space through a psychedelic wormhole to the shaggy, Peter-Frampton-ish locks of its lead singer. The music, frankly, numbed my ears, but I couldn't take my eyes off the film, with its whacked-out grandeur reminiscent of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

From space opera to Kitaro Kosaka's "Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu (Andalusian Summer)" is about as far a leap as the Japanese animation industry makes. Kosaka, a longtime associate of Hayao Miyazaki, has not only thoroughly internalized the house style of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, but resembles his former boss in his fascination with things European, his skill at rendering movement and his obsession with the minutiae of the natural world.

But where Miyazaki's place of preference is the air -- no one has ever better animated the exhilaration of flight -- Kosaka's is the seat of a racing bike. A dedicated cyclist, he has made his first feature an ode to the Vuelta a Espana -- Spain's equivalent of the more famous Tour de France.

His hero is Pepe (voice actor: Yo Oizumi), a professional rider from Andalusia -- a region of Spain that has been dry, dusty and poor from time immemorial. Riding is his escape from not only his hometown, with its soaring unemployment rate, but also his ex-girlfriend, the imperious and beautiful Carmen (Yoko Koike). The very day the race is scheduled to pass through Andalusia, she is marrying Angel (Toshio Kakei), Pepe's older brother and once a racer himself.

Determined to show up the bride, groom and the entire town, Pepe is pressing on when he overhears his team's sponsor -- the president of a Belgian brewery -- telling his coach he wants Pepe kicked off the team. Burning now with injured pride, he churns ahead of the pack -- seemingly a suicidal move given the heat and the distance.

Meanwhile, old quarrels put aside, the wedding party is cheering him on at a TV in a local pub, run by the irascible-but-lovable Hernandez. The specialty of the house -- pickled eggplant -- is a local delicacy and old Hernandez's pride and joy.

Kosaka, who also wrote the script, explains race strategy with a true aficionado's love of detail, which helps bring "Nasu" to vivid, explicit life. Also, though Pepe has personal reasons for wanting to win this particular stage, he is a hard-headed pro who knows he has to impress his boss to save his career. He is thinking about not only payback, but pesetas.

Most of all, there are the racing scenes that put us in the saddle, in the middle of the pack. Together with the animators of the Mad House studio ("Metropolis," "Animatrix"), Kosaka brings home the tension, the exhaustion and the madness of the dash for the finish. This is a movie that sweats.

Could Kosaka be Miyazaki's anointed successor? On the basis of this one film, it's hard to tell. Miyazaki is a master of cultural mulligan stews, whose spices are unquestionably his own. In "Andalusia," Kosaka serves up some excellent animated paella -- not to mention those pickled eggplants -- with a Miyazaki flavor. That's good enough for now.

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