Monday, November 20, 2006

Hello, Bird Banding Laboratory?...

I'd like to report a banded bird. It was a male dark-morph South Polar Skua, and the band was on his right leg. The band was yellow plastic with a ratchet-type closure and was marked with "A54" in black. No, there was no metal band on either leg. Where was the bird? Well, I'm not exactly sure. Somewhere in Antarctica near an Emperor Penguin nesting colony. I think it must have been some distance from the location where the skua was banded, because the penguins didn't have any experience with humans. Oh, and in case it might be helpful in matching it to the right banding project, the researchers collected a blood sample during the banding process. How would I know that? Well, there was no mistaking the bird's description of it, even though he obviously didn't understand that it was a blood sample. Pardon? Of course he didn't talk to me! I overhead him telling a juvenile Emperor Penguin who asked him about the band to distract him from his predatory intentions...

Okay, I didn't really report this band to the Bird Banding Lab, but it's tempting. The banded skua had a small but pivotal role in Happy Feet, an animated film released this weekend. Bird research is a pretty rare plot device for feature films, and the inclusion of avian in-jokes (the central character, Mumble, sounds at times like a real Emperor Penguin while his conspecifics all sing like pop stars) made me wonder if the skua's band might be an homage to a real banded bird.

While it's not in the same league as March of the Penguins, Happy Feet is well worth seeing if only for the exquisitely rendered birds and land/ice/seascapes. The creators took quite a few artistic liberties, mostly to help distinguish the characters from one another, but the textures of the feathers and their interactions with the environment are simply amazing. A word of warning, though: This is not your average kiddie fare, with themes that very young viewers might find at least puzzling (courting penguins belting out the sexy lyrics of Prince's "Kiss") if not disturbing (terrifying Leopard Seal and Orca attacks, an abandoned whaling station strewn with skeletons, penguins rendered catatonic by life in captivity).

And speaking of animated wildlife and environmental fables, a few months back we watched a Japanese feature film called Pom Poko. Though Tom's not at all interested in anime, he couldn't resist the plot description involving raccoons fighting the destruction of their forest home by human development. Japan doesn't have raccoons, but it does have the raccoon-dog, a.k.a. tanuki, which figures prominently in Japanese folklore. (We occasionally eat at a Japanese restaurant in Sierra Vista named after this critter.)

One thing we noticed a few minutes into the film was that the male tanuki were often drawn with rather prominent testicles, something you seldom see on Western cartoon mammals, with the obvious exception of Fritz the Cat (but maybe that's why Mickey Mouse wears pants and Donald Duck doesn't). Later, the soundtrack referred to the "raccoons" using their magical "pouches" as weapons. It finally hit us that the English translation was neither taxonomically nor anatomically correct. It seems that the tanuki of myth and legend is renowned for its oversized testicles, which it uses in a variety of inventive ways (even as a percussion instrument - ow!). The mating season also enters into the plot, one more reason that many Western parents probably would not consider this appropriate fare for the very young.

The shifting visual representations, from realism to traditional caricature to goofy minimalism, may be confusing for viewers not steeped in the conventions of Japanese animation, but the plot is engaging and the message compelling. I recommend it for an entertaining peek into Japanese mythology, culture, and environmentalism as well as an introduction to modern Japanese animation - see it if you have the chance. --SW

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