Magical hand-drawn worlds and autonomous female leads: James LaPierre on “Heroines of Anime”

Eiichi Yamamoto's 'Belladonna of Sadness [哀しみのベラドンナ]'

“College-aged moviegoers seem to love WUD Film’s anime programming, which was one of the main reasons why I pitched the series to [Cinematheque Director of Programming] Jim Healy.”

In collaboration with the UW Cinematheque, newly appointed WUD Film Director of Student Programming James LaPierre has helped assemble a succinct yet colorful four-film series entitled “Heroines of Anime,” which chronologically begins in the 1970s and features one film per decade (each neatly separated by 11 years, in fact). Every Sat in Sept, 4070 Vilas Hall will host a revolutionary Japanimation, commencing with Eiichi Yamamoto’s psychotropic, erotically charged fable, The Belladonna of Sadness (1973, restored by Cinelicious Pics last year), on Sept 3 (7:00p), before it concludes on the 24th with Satoshi Kon’s thrilling dream cavalcade in Paprika (2006).

We recently spoke with LaPierre, a junior Economics and Comm Arts dual major, about his ongoing interest in anime (including enrollment in UW’s anime-themed courses) and co-curating the series with Jim Healy, Director of Programming at Cinematheque since 2010.

Could you summarize your introduction to anime (through a film or series), and what specifically appealed to you about the art form — maybe as a complement or counterpoint to traditional Western cartoons? The Toonami block on Cartoon Network was my gateway, a near-perfect synthesis of Western-Eastern sensibilities. Which film of the four would you recommend to someone generally unfamiliar with anime?

My introduction to anime was watching Spirited Away (2001) on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block during their “Month of Miyazaki” series in 2006. I was blown away by the film and quickly familiarized myself with the rest of Studio Ghibli’s filmography. And, to this day, Hayao Miyazaki remains one of my favorite directors ever.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I have continued to make an effort to explore the medium in both my coursework as well as my free time. My freshman year, I took a class called “Religion of Anime” that explored the relationships between Japanese visual media and religion. In fall 2015, I enrolled in a brand new course titled “Evangelion.” As the name suggests, my peers and I spent the semester performing an in-depth analysis of Hideaki Anno’s iconic series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) and its theatrical conclusion The End of Evangelion (1997). These anime-focused courses have helped expose me to the rich history of the art form and have provided me with added expertise when it comes to selecting quality titles for WUD Film and Cinematheque.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), like the rest of Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography, is a great entry point. [Miyazaki’s] films are simply awe-inspiring — beautiful, hand-drawn animation, autonomous women leads, and magical worlds/stories. Those who have never seen a Hayao Miyazaki film: do yourself a favor, and watch one immediately. My personal favorites of his are Princess Mononoke (1997) and The Wind Rises (2013).

Hayao Miyazaki's 'Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind [風の谷のナウシカ]'

Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind [風の谷のナウシカ]’

Toonami has been an amazing resource for both of us, then. I love the specificity of those two UW courses and the intersection/embrace of both academia and more traditionally defined pop culture in them. (Frankly, I did not know the University even offered those courses! So, there’s a pitch to prospective students.) Could you elaborate a bit more on the curriculum in the freshman-year class, “Religion of Anime,” including lecture/discussion and an essay you may have written that may have sustained your interest in anime?

“Religion of Anime” explored anime films and series that feature religious allegories, references, and themes; it attempted to contextualize them in relation to Japanese history and pop culture. The class began with a crash-course on Shinto and Buddhism, which was really fascinating to me as someone who was largely unfamiliar with East Asian religion beforehand. What surprised me most about the class were the references to Christianity. My professor, Dr. Jolyon Thomas, explained that this is due to a Japanese fascination with Christian symbols and stories (in a similar vein that many Westerners are intrigued by Buddhism in recent decades). The class was an experimental “topics” course with a visiting post-doc student, so it is unlikely to ever be offered again at UW-Madison. But don’t fret! Stephen Ridgely teaches a general “Anime” course regularly, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the medium and wanting to learn more about its development and history.

Did you approach Jim Healy/did he approach you about the idea, or did it arise mutually in general conversation about programming and restorations? And was the curation of the series in response to something you had read or seen in particular? Typically, anime isn’t celebrated for feminist themes, but I think your series efficaciously addresses the misconception by unearthing (or re-presenting) a thread of its fertile history in fantasy/science fiction.

I approached Healy with the idea of doing an anime series and initially pitched several films including Paprika and Ghost in the Shell (1995). Jim then shared with me the news of a brand new 4K restoration of the long-lost film Belladonna of Sadness, which I agreed would be a strong addition. We still felt the series needed a more specific theme, so I decided to pursue titles with women in the lead. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was added to the lineup, and the four-week series was born.

In the last three or four years, both the Cinematheque and WUD Film have had consistently strong theatrical turnout in the programming of Studio Ghibli films on campus (Nausicaä, included here, was before the studio was officially founded), but it’s refreshing to see the inclusion of more psychologically incisive work like Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Paprika aimed at mature audiences. Do you feel other anime, besides Ghibli, has been well-received by students based on your time in WUD? Do you have a sense of the reception in the greater Madison community? An anime club used to meet at the Alicia Ashman branch of the Madison Public Library, but they have since moved to Hawthorne. Have you ever attended one of their meetings?

In December 2015, WUD Film screened the bloody, R-rated anime classic Akira (1988) to large crowds as part of our late-night ‘Marquee After Dark’ programming series. College-aged moviegoers seem to love WUD Film’s anime programming, which was one of the main reasons why I pitched the series to Healy in the first place. There’s a lot of crossover between WUD Film and UW Cinematheque’s audiences, so I am confident that the series will find a following in the Madison community.

I haven’t had the chance to attend any meetings at the library; however, I have several friends involved in Madison Anime Club, a registered student organization that meets each week to watch shows together and attend social events. It seems like a great club!

Mamoru Oshii's 'Ghost in the Shell [攻殻機動隊]'

Mamoru Oshii’s ‘Ghost in the Shell [攻殻機動隊]’

I was there for the first of the Akira screenings – the Thursday night one – and The Marquee was nearly full. So, I think you’re right to claim that the medium appeals to a broad spectrum across generations. If Cinematheque’s audiences tend to skew older and WUD Film’s programming is aimed at students, I hope the overlap for this series is particularly fruitful, encouraging Marquee audiences to regularity visit the C’tek calendar if they don’t happen to do that already (and vice versa, of course).

The diversity in art style/palette (from impressionistic watercolors of floral free-form to muted, rigid cityscapes), tone (phantasmagoric to gritty cyberpunk), and scale (environmental to the personal) in the films you’ve selected are all notable despite the unifying elements of the subgenres and complexity of female protagonists. How exactly did you approach the compilation of films with Jim? Was it based on a limited pool, or were you more idealistic in your choosing?

The original eight titles I pitched to Cinematheque were just a list of my favorite non-Studio Ghibli anime films. I suppose my tastes gravitate towards colorful films with complex themes and storylines, particularly in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. I think that certainly is reflected in the final lineup.

What other titles comprised your favorites list?

I don’t want to give away too much, but I am a big fan of Oshii’s [of Ghost in the Shell fame] directorial debut Angel’s Egg (1985) as well as Otomo’s [mastermind behind Akira] anthology film Memories (1995). At one point, Jim and I were strongly considering Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday (1991) [co-founder of Studio Ghibli], but we ultimately decided against it as WUD Film screened it very recently (as part of the Marquee International Film Festival in Spring 2016).

Is there a hope in expanding this series through the Cinematheque or referring it to your own committee for a spiritual successor in a forthcoming semester as part of a ‘Marquee After Dark’ series?

I am always in support of bringing anime and other international animation to the Marquee. Last year, [in addition to Akira and Only Yesterday], WUD Film also programmed When Marnie Was There (2014), Princess Mononoke, Boy and the World (2014), and Fantastic Planet (1973). While it will be difficult to beat that lineup, I would love to see Satoshi Kon’s debut feature Perfect Blue (1997) make its way to WUD Film’s late night ‘Marquee After Dark’ time slot this year.

Me, too. Perfect Blue might be my favorite Kon feature (ignoring his 2004 Paranoia Agent series), and it has notably been cited as an inspiration for Aronofksy’s Black Swan (2010). I’ll keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, where can Madison audiences find the most up-to-date information on Marquee screenings?

I will definitely have to check out Paranoia Agent on your recommendation. WUD Film’s upcoming film schedule (everything from late-night classics to our multiple yearly film festivals) can be found online at and on our WUD Film page on Facebook. We’ve got a lot of exciting events in the pipeline for the 2016-2017 academic year. Stay tuned!

  • Heroines of Anime is a new series that begins Sat, Sept 3, with a screening of Belladonna of Sadness. During four consecutive Sept Sat screenings, the films will be shown at Cinematheque’s regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, at 7:00p. Admission is FREE.