Pile of Shame FINAL: Chie the Bratby Justin Sevakis,
Well folks, we've come to the end of the road. This will be the final Pile of Shame article. I need to stop writing about specific anime for a while, because it's a really good way to get burned out. Also, there's only so much appetite for articles on old and obscure anime, and Mike Toole frankly does a better job covering the bases. Also, I discovered over the course of writing this column that most of the old shows don't warrant a full review, as many of them don't really provoke any thought or reaction at all. And it's not like I'm doing a service in pointing them out, because most of them aren't really worth digging up anyway.
So fret not, I'm not going anywhere. My work on Answerman will continue uninterrupted, of course, and I'll have a completely new column coming up for you in the new year. I guarantee you, it will be completely unlike anything you've ever read before.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be over here working on stuff.
Chie the Brat (The Movie)
Isao Takahata's "final movie" Princess Kaguya came out in America last month, and I got to see it in a theater. It's not his most poignant film, but it's drop-dead gorgeous, and a fitting end to the career of, frankly, one of the best animators that has ever lived. His films are ecclectic, sometimes overlong and meandering, and never what you're expecting to see when you walk in the door. He's notorious for going over schedule and over budget, and in the documentary The Kingdom of and Madness you can see that he's driving his producer Toshio Suzuki absolutely nuts. But the man is capable of an incredible magic, a naturalistic and gentle storytelling that goes well beyond what nearly any of his contemporaries are capable of.
When Hayao Miyazaki's final film The Wind Rises came out last year, there was much hand wringing and a lot of retrospective viewing of that man's rich filmic catalog. But Takahata was never the populist hitmaker Miyazaki was. We're unlikely to see Setsuko from Grave of the Fireflies make an appearance in South Park, or one of his tanuki from Pon Poko pop up in the next Toy Story movie. And the man's film catalog is so varied in both style and substance that any attempt to marathon his films would be jarring to say the least. The more history and artistically minded anime fans have, of course, explored his earlier, pre-Ghibli work: the remarkable Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun; the cute but juvenile Panda! Go, Panda! But for some reason, nobody ever seems to talk about Chie the Brat.
Based on a long-running manga by Haruki Etsumi (which ran from 1978 to 1997 in seinen magazine Manga Action), Chie the Brat is actually something of a period sitcom taking place in the Osaka of the late '60s. The titular character is a little girl who is both wise and a wise-ass beyond her years: her father is more or less a ne'er-do-well street thug and Chie is constantly mortified by him. When she's not in school she's working the kushi (kabob) stand at the family restaurant. She's basically a sour middle-aged woman in a ten-year-old's body. Pouring another round of sake for a customer, she mutters, "I'll never have any kinda luck around guys like this. I swear I'll die among these rats."
Her dad Tetsu loves his little girl. Unfortunately, he's also the type to go to parent's night at her school and proceed to pick a fight with her teacher. He's a man of gambling debts, get-rich-quick schemes, and violent threats -- and Chie is so embarrassed by him that she can just barely hold it together. But quietly, underneath it all, she really does love her dad. So much so, in fact, that when she meets with her separated mother, she tells her not to come back. At least, not yet. "If you come back now, he'll never learn anything."
Like most of Takahata's catalog, the film doesn't so much tell a story as meander around a mood. Tetsu ends up getting a job as the bouncer at the okonomiyaki shop, and immediately beats the crap out of a pair of low-level yakuza. Chie stops him; the yakuza feel indebted to Chie for their lives. Chie's cat Kotetsu (who's ludicrously strong) get in a fight with the cat of a casino owner whom Tetsu owes a lot of money; Kotetsu emerges victorious, while the other cat Antonio emerges with only a single testicle.
I've never seen an anime like Chie the Brat before. As comedies go, it's fairly dark, and also quite deadpan: Antonio dies from a dog attack later, and his owner mourns the loss of his beloved pet cat. He breaks down in tears in front of Chie while making her okonomiyaki, but all Chie can stare at is the snot precariously dripping out of his nose over the food. The show is filled with yakuza and thugs and other low-grade human beings, and yet has a surprising warmth to it: a Sesame Street-esque "people in your neighborhood" vibe. The inhabitants of this corner of Osaka aren't exactly friendly, but as far as thugs go, they're rounded off and non-threatening to Chie. She dominates them without even trying. It's often laugh-out-loud funny. The humor ostensibly has its roots in manzai comedy duo tradition, with Chie being the tsukkomi (straight man) while Tetsu is the boke (idiot/funny man), but the film seems so much more than that.
And yet, there are moments of great tenderness, which is something I didn't expect from a show that so revels in its own classlessness. When her mother returns, the newly reunited family sets off on a day trip, which goes sour nearly immediately. Chie takes it upon herself to start singing on the train, which lightens the mood, and turns the day into a fun one. Afterward, with Chie passed out on her lap, her mother quietly laments the girl having to play counselor to a disastrous pair of adults.
There is a lot in here foreshadowing what was to come later from Takahata: the cartoon cats with prominent ballsacks who get up on their hind legs bear a distinct similarity to the tanuki of Pon Poko; Chie's wordless, open-mouthed horror at her father's crass behavior immediately reminded me of young Taeko from Only Yesterday. The vignette-style story, which feels more like a series of one-shot stories than a singular narrative, has a similar style to My Neighbors the Yamadas. And yet, as a film it more than stands on its own: it's a unique look at Japan of years gone by, and a very peculiar look at a dysfunctional, yet loving household. Even if there's an awful lot of mention of cat balls.
The feature film of Chie the Brat was released in Japan in 1981, and was successful enough to spawn a 64-episode TV series a few months later, also directed by Takahata. The series was rebooted for another 39 episodes in 1991 with a different director. I've never seen either TV series, and to my knowledge, neither one has ever been translated into English. But as the series is from TMS, there's at least half a chance it might find its way to a streaming service at some point.
I honestly don't understand how Chie the Brat has been overlooked by the anime community for as long as it has. It's not as visually stunning as the other films in Takahata's catalog, but it's charming and extremely well-made. It's also very distinctly Takahata. It needs to be seen.
Japanese Name: じゃりン子チエ劇場版 (Jarinko Chie Gekijouban)
Media Type: Movie
Length: 100 min.
Genres: Comedy, drama, seinen, period
Availability (Japan): A Blu-ray (with no English) was released a couple of years ago, and will soon be reissued (perhaps in a new version) as part of the Ghibli Ga Ippai! Takahata boxed set, on sale January 21, 2015.
Availability (English): Nothing 'cept for fansubs. Hopefully this will be rectified soon.
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