Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: July 2006, 10

Monday, July 10, 2006

07:22:26 pm , 1200 words, 2269 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Stormy Night thoughts

Back after a stint in the woods where animation was hard to come by, I find it takes a little limbering up to get back into the rhythm of things. It's amazing how much you lose when you don't write a little every day. Like with drawing, I suppose. And I realize how much I missed writing something every day. It's not only satisfying, but stimulating, forcing you to organize the thoughts you're otherwise too lazy to bother to organize. In the process you stumble across things that half the time are more interesting than what you had when you started.

In the two years since I started writing this thing it feels like there's been a big increase in interesting and in-depth discussion of animation, and effort to shed light on interesting animation, all over the net. I've been a bit too busy with work to do much watching or writing in the last few months, but part of me has just been kicking back and enjoying the show. I don't want to write if what I'm writing is superfluous. But writing got me out of times when I was feeling down, so I'm going to try to whip myself back into shape. Not that I'm too deep down, I'm just feeling the need to write. That's what it's all about. Feeling that need.

Last night I had the chance to watch Gisaburo Sugii's Stormy Night. I was delighted by it. One of the first things that stands out in my mind is the art by Yukio Abe. Yukio Abe was the art man behind all of the big Sanrio Films movies like The Legend of Sirius and Ringing Bell. He's certainly one of the great art directors of the last few decades in Japan. He's the only one I can think of who carried on the storybook naturalism of Disney, adapted to his own time and environs. At the time, about the only art director I can think of who was doing anything remotely as aesthetically thought-out would be Shichiro Kobayashi. Kobayashi was more daring and original, but Abe was equally unique in Japan. He's probably the only one who managed to take that style, so perfectly evolved for animation, but so alien to Japan, and bring it to a level of perfection in his own country and personal manner. Like the Sanrio Films movies themselves, it's an art style that seems to run counter to aesthetic trends in Japan - perhaps for the best - but Abe's obvious artistry and conviction raise his work to a high level that deserves recognition.

Abe's art sends you back to your childhood. In Abe's art you get a deep feeling of mythology, a whiff of another world, of distant lands waiting to be explored. The colors are rich and warm and deep and alluring, inviting you on an adventure bound to be full of magical and exciting discoveries. It's naturalistic, but romantic as opposed to realistic. It's a good thing that animation is no longer limited to dwarves and big bad wolves, but it seems like Abe's approach might offer some lessons that could help to balance things out a bit by wedging open the excessively narrow stylistic range of anime at the moment, reminding us of our roots at the same time.

Apart from Abe's art directing, I thought Marisuke Eguchi's characters were adorable and dynamic and original, and there were numerous moments where the animation stood out, particularly the animation of Mei's fanny during the 'Marilyn Monroe walk' he mentions in the interview on the web site. I've never seen such meticulous care put into animating an ass. It is a fascinating mix of ideas, all seemingly contradictory - Marilyn Monroe's ass? On a goat? - that simply work to express the theme at hand; you can't rationalize it. The animation of Mei jumping around the screen as he runs down the hill at the very beginning was exciting and full of interesting drawings and movements. The effects for the avalanche at the end were stunning. Interestingly, Shinichi Tsuji and Shoetsu Hane were the first two animators listed, as they were in Belladonna more than thirty years ago. Group Tac was famously the studio that Gisaburo helped form after Mushi Pro imploded in 1973. Oh Production also participated, with Oh Pro head Koichi Murata in the creds. Most interestingly, AD'ing was split into character and effect, as it was in the old Sanrio Films movies.

However, although we're dealing with a film about talking animals, Group Tac is no Disney, and the lack of resolution in the movement of the squirrels jumping around the trees acts to remind us that minute and fluent character acting are not among the legacies of the Mushi Pro school. Otherwise the film succeeds eminently in going its own way without needing to be compared negatively to a completely different filmmaking approach. Mostly it does not feel lacking in the animation department. The characters feel alive and present. The depth of detail provided by Tsuneo Maeda's digital tinkering and ingenuity in creating the layers for the fur undoubtedly helps a lot here. And Marisuke Eguchi has definitely come a long way. The characters here are a nice balance between realistic and cartoonish, the wolves spindly and bushy, the goats petite and voluptuous. He manages to pull off the trick Isao Takahata and Yasuo Otsuka pulled off in Jarinko Chie, having the four-legged protagonist stand up on his hind legs on occasion, but timing it in such a way that it seems entirely natural.

But I suspect none of this would have come together without Gisaburo Sugii's unique directing touch. As I began watching, I was worried about whether the film would work, whether Gisaburo's style would be identifiable, and quite simply whether he could still make a film. But the opening scene set my worries to rest. It established the tone perfectly, and succinctly translated this pivotal scene from the original novel into emphatic visual form. The camera zooms through the darkness to each of the two characters as they take turns exchanging compliments, the irony of which each remains blissfully unaware throughout. The pacing is slow, deliberate, all about getting into the mind of the characters and savoring each word and feeling, rather than merely attempting to push forward a story. That is what defines the film, sets it apart, makes it the work of Gisaburo Sugii. Rather than dwelling on the various obvious gags that could arise from the contrived situation, he focuses on exploring and conveying the very complex emotions that play through the two characters as their situation evolves, and that is what makes the film satisfying. He does so through understatement and irony rather than exposition and overemphasis. Gisaburo's basic style has often been described as detached and unforced, particularly his work on Tales from Old Japan (Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi), and I think you can see that here, in very refined and polished form. I thought the ending could have been more satisfying, but overall it's a finely crafted little film, and it was nice to be able to see another film from Sugii Gisaburo.

Related: Marisuke Eguchi interview