This Week: Ginga no Uo Ursa Minor Blue
To now complete a long journey, in a single throw.
Shigeru Tamura has been a longstanding interest of mine when it comes to anime.
Considering this website of mine is (as of this writing) about two months shy of a full three years old, I have held a reserved pace when it comes to doing singular posts on revisiting one of Tamura’s anime. There are only three, after all.
1998’s short film Glassy Ocean (Kujira no Chouyaku) was my first stab to give my feelings on his work some voice, back in 2014 after almost a full year of anime blog writing. I managed to fit in the 1995 series A Piece of Phantasmagoria before 2015 was out, as something of a birthday treat to myself.
So here we are in 2016.
A proper anniversary post in my usual style would only be in order in a few months when the time comes for real, of course. And in any case I would still have the rest of 2016 to complete this little self imposed goal I made back in 2014.
But I feel I can wrap up this small set of travels in Tamura’s worlds well before the year is over.
Ginga no Uo Ursa Minor Blue is a short film of just over twenty minutes in length, produced in 1993. This means I have been writing about these works in reverse order from their release dates. This was by no means intentional, but it seems as fitting an accident as any.
Truth told, Ginga no Uo Ursa Minor Blue is my least favorite of the Tamura trilogy of animated works. However, interpret this as something akin to presenting a kid with a basket, bag, or box of mixed holiday candies. Baring anything one may have a dire allergy to, almost anything in there will be accepted with positive results. I do not turn away a jelly bean on the principle it is not a caramel.
This piece of the three leans on linear narrative the most, perhaps resulting from it being the first out of the gate. So we do not have the picnic-like communal reflections of Glassy Ocean, or the worldwide anthology mindset of A Piece of Phantasmagoria. In exchange, this story is a more micro-scale tale than any of the others. We have a young boy named Yuri and his unnamed grandfather, who live on an island with a large observatory. The stars have entered a state of fluctuation and fear. Ursa Minor gaining an additional member of it constellation body. No longer a baby bear, its shape has shifted to that of a devilish fish. Which, for a story-time adventure by Shigeru Tamura, means it is rampaging across the great ocean of the universe. Devouring any and all comets, stars, and other bodies in its path with the misfortune of being too slow to out swim it.
Yuri and his grandfather will need to put a stop to this, lest the lights in the night sky all go out.
As Tamura’s animated adaptions of their own children’s books and illustration works go, Ginga no Uo Ursa Minor Blue is on the surface the most apocalyptic. By a long shot.
If you will excuse a fish pun, a lot is on the line in this story. Failure would seem to have palpable consequences. Far less whimsical ones than the bakery made of bread from A Piece of Phantasmagoria being at constant risk of finding itself eaten.
I appreciate the sense of calm which permeates the short film. Throughout Yuri and his grandfather needing to take care of this situation, genuine alarm finds itself kept to a minimum. This work does occur in the same world of Phantasmagoria as the other animations, and the much of the rest of Tamura’s larger art output. Nobody rushes through doors to stutter out this potential doomsday scenario. World leaders or rooms of concerned scientists do not gasp in awe. The music never swells to bombastic levels of tension.
This galactic fish is a dangerous situation, but this is also a world built out of such things being somewhat routine. A place where some buildings can walk and talk, where stars go to bars, and where robots, wizards, and more all exist at once. Yuri and his grandfather are operators of an observatory in the way we may think of a systems administrator for a company’s computers or technicians for electrical power grids and the like. Things happen, crashes occur, bits go out of alignment. Given some time and the right tools, things should be back in working order.
The problem of the devilish fish is a big one, of course. A lookout building even inquires about the star situation as our leads head out on their boat. But the tone of the events at hand never slip into doom and gloom mode. There are ways to handle this work.
That kind of quiet confidence makes it easy to just ride along enjoying Tamura’s artwork and scenery.
As the earliest of Tamura’s anime adaptations, the idea to focus on one with a tighter character narrative was perhaps the best from a production or sales perspective.
So we do not travel around as much as other works found later freedom to. The sights in Ginga no Uo Ursa Minor Blue are not as wild or diverse. If someone who had never seen Tamura’s work before watched this for the first time as their finale to top off his trilogy, they may even find themselves disappointed. If they were looking for yet another raw whirlwind spectacle hit, well, our character scope is much smaller to follow and hear from.
Phantasmagoria as a planet has significant bodies of water on it, however. For that, while some stories in the A Piece of Phantasmagoria anthology featured water aspects and Glassy Ocean is an unmoving one, I am glad we do get an opportunity to be on sailing seas in a more thorough fashion.
This is still a world where our protagonists can row out to sea, and see below them a whole functioning society. Complete with modern roads, trains, and power. A place which still has its own rolling shorelines, which the residents could set out on themselves. Its own sky and horizon Yuri and his grandfather can row right over. Yet also before they know it they can be on the same ocean plane as the rampaging fish last known as Ursa Minor. A sky constellation they had observed from below via their observatory on their small mountaintop island, and then descended from to get to their boat to head outwards and upwards. Despite never leaving the water.
There is no great trick to this. Tamura is not an M.C. Escher. There is no puzzle, illusion, or mathematical formula to his impossible objects. Paying extra close attention to suss one out would be a waste.
This is, as it always has been, more about wonder.
If one does have prior experience with Tamura’s work, there are little bits and pieces for them to latch onto as well.
Familiar labels of a liquor distributor, for instance, among others. By themselves, they may mean little. But, as I do have positive opinions of this series, they form nice connections that remind me of those other times as well. A story should be able to stand on its own of course, and I do feel this one does. But, a running theme in Glassy Ocean and A Piece of Phantasmagoria was how folks find themselves connecting with others and sharing this time together with the world around them. Such touches help a bit to maintain that sentiment here as well, when the number of characters are so few. The grandfather does not just have a large liquor jug around the house, but I can also imagine that floating store in the sea he would be getting it from. The interactions that would ensure. Indeed all the larger stories involving alcohol sales and even smuggling in this series.
The fish in the stars devouring everything in its path is a problem for everyone. And it is true we meet few characters during our time here. There is no great celebration at the conclusion of this tale. No welcoming party to play us out. No loved ones or even complete strangers hugging each other in the streets. There is no pat on the back of emotional catharsis. Only the quiet warmth of a job performed and a day being over, a serene commute and for some a well deserved bit of sleep.
I would not say the story is underwhelming though. Insofar as a lot of us would want the same exact thing at the end of a hard day. There is truth in it. The surreal qualities of Tamura’s artwork and world design has always found itself paired with simple narratives. Normal folks often just doing the best they can. To the residents within, the world around them is all quite normal and routine.
It is an important quality to hang on to. There are a lot of minutia and oddball qualities to the studies I have undertaken or jobs I have done which seem outright unbelievable to others. The same as when I hear of what others have to do in their lines of work to keep everything running as smooth as possible. The same as when you perhaps attempt to explain to folks what you have done or seen. Be it in a school department, professional environment, or otherwise.
So much of it all can seem wild and incredible to those outside of yourself.
You are much more interesting to others than you may think, when you get right down to it. In every one of Shigeru Tamura’s works, this sentiment is never far from us.
Even with an observatory to the stars, a vast personal garden, and the stonemen-forged and wizard-made means to harpoon a celestial fish, Yuri sure loves the sight of that town going about its day under his ocean.
Mothballs posts are write-ups of anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.