Monday, September 05, 2011

Ursa Minor Blue

Ursa Minor Blue
Directed by Tamura Shigeru, Japan, 1993, 23 Minutes.
Source: (link to film)

Ursa Minor Blue tells the story of a young boy named Uri who discovers an extra star in the constellation Ursa Minor.  That night, his grandfather observes the constellation and finds that the bear (the animal that the constellation represents) becomes a giant, monstrous fish due to the extra star.  The fish dives into the sea of stars and eats all the stars that lay in its path.  Yuri and his grandfather then boat through the sea to visit a wizard who has crafted a magic harpoon with which Yuri destroys the evil fish.  Side note: Shigeru is credited with the adaptation, however for the life of me I could not find what the film was adapted from.

            First off, Shigeru is a brilliant animator, not only aesthetically but also in how he subtly moves the diegesis from a realistic setting into a surreal atmosphere where space and stars meet with the characters and the river they traverse in their boat.  The film begins with Uri and his grandfather harpoon fishing in a large lake before returning home to cook their dinner.  After Uri's discovery, he and his grandfather sail to the cave where the wizard is crafting the magic harpoon, and the grandfather tells Uri to look overboard.  He sees a whole town with house windows alit and a train speeding along the tracks.  Stars float by the boat as they paddle along.  At this point Shigeru fully shifts into a setting of magical realism in which the sky is a river in which the two paddle along and the earth sits below them.  It is this mystical quality, as well as Shigeru's visaul style, that engrossed me in what is a rather simple story. 

            Ursa Minor Blue is one of the earlier surreal films in contemporary Japanese animated features.  Of course the first comparison(s) that come to mind are the works of Miyazaki and his production company Studio Ghibli.  I would argue, however, that it was not until Spirited Away that Miyazaki truly entered the realm of surreal magical atmospherics.  Many of his films predate Ursa Minor Blue, from NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind (1984) all the way through Porco Rosso (1992), which immediately proceded Ursa Minor Blue.  Many of the films of this period, including My Neighbor Totoro and Porco Rosso contain magical elements, but they do not have the surrealist qualities of Ursa.  Spirited Away, for many his master work, combines the magical and surreal at moments; the three disembodied heads at Yubaba's disposal, the ghostly No Face, and Chihiro's journey to Yubaba's sister's home go beyond the regular bounds of the fantastic in children's animated films.  However, Spirited Away's principal characters and overall diegesis follow the "conventions" of the supernatural in animated film.  Ursa Minor Blue, on the other hand, presents Uri's collection of starlight on telescope slides and unexplained robots amongst the meteoric wreckage of a star eaten by the monster fish are unexplained and thus are presented as normative in this world.  What appears to be far away planet when Uri first ascends to the observatory above his home floats by him like a firefly.  Uri and his grandfather's boat is pulled into the tide pool that is actually a galaxy, sending them splashing into the celestial river of stars.  Their reaction is one of excitement, rather then surprise or disbelief.  It is truly a shame Shigeru has produced so little work in film–his only other film is The Glass Ocean.  Nonetheless, Ursa Minor Blue is such a beautiful work,  he needs nothing else to be deserving of high praise.

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