The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games and life converge

The Glassy Ocean, Ursa Minor Blue and A Piece of Phantasmagoria: The Magic of Shigeru Tamura and Jon Spencer Reviews’ Christmas AnimeXchange

“A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

Christmas is a time of sharing and being with important people. This year, I participated in Jon Spencer Reviews’ Christmas AnimeXchange, a community event where participants are randomly assigned a partner, and then we recommend one another anime based on a list of shows we’ve seen. I received, from Lys (@Submaton), a set of three unique films from Shigeru Tamura, a Japanese manga artist and illustrator. I was initially surprised: I am renowned in the community for being a procrastinator, but as it turns out, Tamura’s movies are short animated features, perfect for the blogger with a propensity for taking too long to pick up and enjoy shows of interest. I thus began watching Lys’ recommendations, opening the party with Glassy Ocean, which follows a fisherman travelling over a glass ocean, where time has frozen and where a breaching whale presents incomparable beauty that is to be admired. Having now a sense of what to expect, I began Ursa Minor Blue. This story presents a boy and his grandfather who take on a magic harpoon from a wizard and hunt down a monstrous fish. As ocean and sky merge, the boy and his grandfather are whisked on a fantastical, mind-bending journey where reality and dreams blend together. Finally, in A Piece of Phantasmagoria, fifteen short stories set on the fantastical world of Phantasmagoria are presented, detailing the everyday comings and goings of its inhabitants with a surreal whimsy that is evocative of Dr. Seuss’ great works. Altogether, Tamura’s works are a highly unusual, eccentric and cathartic collection of animation, far removed from the usual materials that I would write about. Tamura’s works certainly do appear to be perplexing at first glance: in a world with glass oceans, walking buildings and towns made of bread, the stories of Phantasmagoria are small, seemingly disjointed vignettes that do little more than indicate the unusual nature of Phantasmagoria. However, this collection of stories from a surreal world conceal a pleasant and meaningful message: what appears strange to us viewers is common, everyday life on Phantasmagoria, and consequently, the viewer’s mind is allowed to wander as they take in the sights of Phantasmagoria.

Thus, through A Piece of Phantasmagoria, Ursa Minor Blue and The Glassy Ocean, Tamura uses surrealism to accentuate the idea that the world is vast. Every location has its unique features, and every feature has a story behind it. While people often travel to explore different cultures and regions, even this is merely scratching the surface: there is depth well beyond what can be initially seen, and this depth is what gives the world its beauty. A Piece of Phantasmagoria sets this mood by sending viewers to many different locations. From a massive coffee pot-shaped coffee house, to a unique island where cacti can dance, and a factory that collects rainbows, Phantasmagoria is a world that is very much different than, but also similar to our own. Every vignette elicits a few smiles, the occasional bit of sorrow and the persistent feeling that it was too short, rather similar to how travelling only yields a brief glimpse of a world that is unlike our own. Tamura would later return to Phantasmagoria in The Glassy Ocean, where the story of the area’s inhabitants are presented in greater detail. Both Glassy Ocean and Ursa Minor Blue take advantage of their runtime to present a matter-of-fact story in a surreal setting; for their inhabitants, what we count as fantastical is a part of everyday life. Both films thus suggest that sights and sound we consider unusual and extraordinary while travelling, are those that an area’s inhabitants find mundane, unremarkable. Taken together, then, Tamura’s three films can be seen as a metaphor for travel; through our screens, viewers are taken on a journey to a world quite disparate from our own, and allowed to observe a different way of life in style. In a time where real travel is not recommended, Tamura’s works offer viewers a chance to explore something different.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Being unfamiliar with Tamura’s works, I watched them out of order. A Piece of Phantasmagoria was the first of Tamura’s works, released in 1995. Then The Glassy Ocean and Ursa Minor Blue came out in November 1998. To keep things simple, I’ve chosen to write about the works in the order that I watched them in. I started with The Glassy Ocean, which I immediately took to enjoying: the film’s soundtrack is particularly good.

  • The distinctly crystal-like ocean surface creates a unique environment, and for me, the audio components of The Glassy Ocean particularly stood out. There is something immensely satisfying about how true-to-life the audio effects in this movie are. The Glassy Ocean and the other Tamura films make extensive use of sound, which feels much more tangible than in most series that I watch. The simple visuals accentuate this: since the mind is not so busy processing visual information, it leaves one to listen more carefully, as well.

  • I ultimately found that The Glassy Ocean actually shared a tone similar to Hong Kong’s McDull: McDull originates from Hong Kong, following the life of an anthropomorphic pig who might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but whose actions are done out of kindness towards others. McDull’s stories deal with the various life lessons he experiences throughout his life, and as an adult, he often reminisces about things he picked up while growing up. Part humourous and part sentimental, McDull is very popular in Hong Kong. The simple art style of McDull brings to mind the artistic style seen in The Glassy Ocean.

  • As the whale breaches the glass ocean’s surface, beads of glass rise up with the whale. I’ve always wondered, since existence as we know it can commonly be defined in four dimensions (three physical dimensions and time), if we could have an environment where time was stopped, would physical interaction with the world still be possible? In the case of water, the combined interactions of gravity overcoming hydrogen bonds and Van Der Waals forces between water molecules is what separates water, causing us to sink into it. If time were ignored, then the water would not separate, since movement can be seen as a function of time, creating a world where it might be possible to walk on water.

  • To further compound things, it looks like in The Glassy Ocean, time isn’t stopped, just slowed, allowing the world’s inhabitants to watch in great detail the whale breaching, an event that occurs over the course of a day. When physics and the like are applied to surreal work, they very quickly break down, and it is for this reason why for me, realism in a work of fiction is always secondary to how well a particular theme or idea is conveyed.

  • In The Glassy Ocean, the messages are not immediately apparent, but they’re simple enough to pick out: what people take for granted in the real world as being mundane can have a beauty to it that we never notice under normal conditions. Conversely, when given the chance to enjoy something in full, people will jump at the chance to do so. Here, an artist manages to capture the whale as it re-enters the ocean surface, capturing an impermanent moment forever on canvas.

  • While the probability of enjoying a world frozen in time is next to zero, the existence of things like photographs and paintings allows people to capture special moments and record them for posterity. This is the reason why for as long as there’s been people, written communication, both in language and artwork, have existed. The desire to record fleeting moments and communicate them has endured to this day, and with things like smartphones, moments can be captured very easily. With this being said, there is something romantic about a painting.

  • For my second film, I watched Ursa Minor Blue. The film was originally called Ginga no Uo (銀河の魚, literally “Galaxy Fish”) and depicts the story of a boy and his grandfather. While opening in a seemingly ordinary manner, like The Glass Ocean, Ursa Minor Blue is anything but ordinary: after coming home from a successful fishing trip, the boy heads into a backroom for some tomatos, and this back room turns out to be an open field of sorts.

  • As the grandfather cooks (and burns) dinner, the boy heads up into the observatory and photographs the sky. The resulting photo reveals that Ursa Minor has an extra star, and the grandfather asks the boy to continue with dinner. Ursa Minor, more commonly known as the Little Bear, from which the Little Dipper is a part of. This constellation has been known since antiquity, and navigators used Polaris, the north star, to help them navigate. The constellation is only visible in the northern hemisphere.

  • The next morning, the boy and grandfather set off to investigate the unusual appearance. It’s a beautiful sunrise: despite the simple visuals, Ursa Minor Blue manages to convey a great sense of beauty nonetheless. Along the way, the pair pass by talking trees and a vast building shaped like a man. Elements from A Piece of Phantasmagoria return in both Ursa Minor Blue and The Glassy Ocean, hence my remarks at having watched the films out of order, but fortunately, this did not impact my viewing experience to any extent.

  • As the boy and his grandfather travel over the ocean, an entire world can be seen underneath, from rail lines to entire towns. The entire scene conveys a sense of fantasy that brings to mind the world seen in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. The idea of an entire world concealed by the ocean is nothing new, however: it is estimated that humanity has only charted and explored around five percent of the world’s oceans. As such, with so many questions remaining unanswered, it is no surprise that the ocean commands such a sense of mystery.

  • After arriving at the Wizard’s quarters, the grandfather greets the Wizard. He has two stone giants hard at work forging a magical spear, and explains that the unusual phenomenon affecting the world stems from a mysterious fish. Because the boy has exceptional skill with a harpoon, it is fitting that he be tasked with taking this fish out: the Wizard entrusts the boy with this magical harpoon, and both the boy and grandfather set off in pursuit of their quarry. They encounter a damaged robot along the way, who explains that he was attacked, and that the fish destroyed an entire planet.

  • The robot is kind enough to point the boy and his grandfather in the right direction before powering down from damage. The two thus heads towards M81, a spiral galaxy known as Bode’s Galaxy. M81 is famous for its visibility, and its relative proximity to Earth makes it a popular subject amongst both amateur astronomers, as well as astrophysicists. As the massive fish nears, the boy takes aim and strikes the fish as it breaches. However, the boy and his grandfather are sucked in to the core of the nearby whirlpool, landing in a lake.

  • After destroying the fish, they learn that Ursa Minor is back to its regular self, with the mysterious star gone. Their task complete, the pair row off into the night skies on a mirror-smooth lake. This brings Ursa Minor Blue to its conclusion, and like The Glassy Ocean, I found myself greatly enjoying this short, and its wonderfully relaxing soundtrack. With two of the three Tamura works in the books, I turned my attention to the fifteen shorts that were gathered in A Piece of Phantasmagoria.

  • With a runtime of an hour and seventeen minutes, A Piece of Phantasmagoria was the longest work in the anthology. Right out of the gates, it became clear that this work was very clearly a precursor to The Glassy Ocean and Ursa Minor Blue, featuring shorts sent in the fantastical world of Phantasmagoria. The film opens with a peaceful portrayal of a very distinct-looking coffee shop whose location makes it a wonderful place to be. Adding to the place’s charm, the lid bobs, as though the pot’s interior was filled with fresh coffee rather than an establishment.

  • The different vignettes in A Piece of Phantasmagoria remind me of the places that Dr. Seuss explored in his books. The reason why Seuss’ books are so successful are because they apply familiar and relevant lessons in an unfamiliar context, separating out the lesson from the people who experience them. In this way, the morals are more easily presented. A Piece of Phantasmagoria does not have the same aims as do Dr. Seuss’ books, and instead, the wide range of locations visited throughout this collection of shorts serve to show that Phantasmagoria is a beautiful world with plenty of distinct features.

  • Stories in A Piece of Phantasmagoria sometimes have narration, and sometimes, are presented as a silent film. I found that the vignettes with narration were particularly soothing; the slow, reassuring voices reading the story out creates a sense of tranquility, and this suggests that Phantasmagoria is a peaceful world. This little planet is not rife with the same issues that afflict our world, and the inhabitants, although possessing a wide range of sights to see, have their own challenges.

  • Travelling about thus demonstrates that sometimes, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. While visiting other places, we often find ourselves wishing to make a home there, all the while, failing to appreciate the things about our own homeland. I get that people move all the time, and there are numerous, legitimate reasons for doing so. However, moving elsewhere on a whim, purely on impressions gained from travel, might not always be the best idea in the world, and such decisions should always be carefully considered before any sort of execution can occur.

  • Nowhere in A Piece of Phantasmagoria is this message more visible (and amusing) than in the town where bread factories are made of bread. Despite producing bread for the world, the factories’ unique construction render them susceptible to being eaten by birds and rats, forcing the owners to attempt and dislodge said birds and rats. I got a particularly good laugh out of this story: Phantasmagoria does seem like a pleasant enough place to visit, but as A Piece of Phantasmagoria continues, it becomes clear that their world certainly has their own troubles to deal with, such as walking skyscrapers that can reduce other buildings to rubble.

  • I’d figured I should close off with a still of Phantasmagoria itself, which brings this discussion to a close. Altogether, I had a great deal of fun watching the three Tamura movies, although I will note that writing for it proved to be a little tricky: this is the sort of work that is better seen, rather than being read about, and so, I do hope that this post adequately captures what I made of the three works. While it happens to be Christmas Eve today, this year, it feels like a night like any other. With this being said, I do have a wish to take Christmas Day off from blogging and relax properly, so I am going to wrap this post up, finish off the post on Star Wars: Republic Commando just in time for the one-year mark to the day that I beat the game, and then return on Boxing Day to wrap up (pun intended) my talk for GochiUsa BLOOM.

Watching through each of The Glassy Ocean, Ursa Minor Blue and A Piece of Phantasmagoria, it becomes apparent that these old animated works will not be competing with visual behemoths like Makoto Shinkai or Studio Ghibli’s works any time soon. The minimalist and simple animation was a consequence of Tamura experimenting with purely computer generated visuals. At the time, this would’ve been cutting edge, and indeed, computer animation has advanced considerably since these early shorts. However, The Glassy Ocean, Ursa Minor Blue and A Piece of Phantasmagoria all have a much more dated feel to them. It is not in visuals that these three films excel in, but rather, the audio. Where visuals alone do not tell the story, the sound engineering does, and each of these three films are particularly standout when it comes to audio. The clanking of a metal pick on the glass ocean, bubbling of a coffee kettle boiling over, whooshing from passing vehicles and crumbling of stone buildings all sound compelling. Moreover, there is a gentle melancholy within the incidental music itself; the soundtracks for The Glassy Ocean, Ursa Minor Blue and A Piece of Phantasmagoria each have a fantastical, mystical character to them that is simultaneously evocative of a world different than ours, and creating a sense of calming. Altogether, the worlds that Tamura envisions in these three shorts is conveyed through sound as much as it is the highly minimalist, distinct artwork and animation. These films may not have the same traits as a standard film might, but through a highly artistic presentation, Tamura manages to tell his stories in a highly distinct and noteworthy style, perfect for wrapping the year up. In the event that it were not clear, I had fun watching these three films from Shigeru Tamura; the sum total of a distinct approach towards storytelling, minimalistic artwork, detailed and powerful sound, and manageable runtime makes this the perfect series to sit down and enjoy during the final month of the year. Lys’ recommendation was a solid choice, and before I head off and tend to a few things for this Silent Night, I hope that Lys had fun in equal measure with my recommendation: Sora no Woto.

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