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: January 2008

Sunday, January 27, 2008

08:16:28 pm , 2291 words, 5102 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Florence Miailhe

Animation can be any number of things. It all depends on the viewer. Movement, directing, story, color, form - any single element or combination of these elements can create sparks in a viewer's mind. There's no one right answer. This particular viewer happens to see greatness when someone displays a mastery of their own interpretation of what animation should be, regardless of how much it might diverge from the answer of another artist. How do you know it's the right answer? You know it when you see it.

I recently had the pleasure of discovering an animator who displays the calm confidence and mastery of her approach that I associate with a great artist. Her name: Florence Miailhe. I'd never heard of her until seeing her films, which were released on DVD in Japan in the New Animation Animation series, but they immediately rank among my favorite bodies of work by any artist in recent years. Florence Miailhe has created a series of films that at any given moment are immediately identifiable as hers, and only hers, and that immediately capture you with not just their consistent and unflaggingly lush beauty, but by her fundamentally personal approach. She strikes me as someone who approaches the form from a mindset that is somewhat at odds with that of most animators. She doesn't strike me as an animator, so much as a painter who animates. It seems like a subtle nuance, but it's quite important. It's a difference that goes to the core of what makes viewing her work such a pleasure, and what makes her work so great.

Miailhe's first major work, and the work that to me seems to represent her painterly approach in its purest form to some extent, is Hammam (1991). This film was my first exposure to Miailhe, so I came to it knowing little what to expect, and as a result, viewing it was a genuinely surprising and enthralling experience. With no perceptible narrative, the film appears to be what one might describe as a painter's stroll through a women's bathhouse, showing nude women alternately bathing, being massaged, reclining, talking, walking, and so on. But the women are drawn not realistically but in a style that vaguely recalls the great painters of the early 20th century, with a few quick, bold strokes describing the figures arrayed before the painter concisely and elegantly in simple, exaggerated forms.

Watching the film becomes a multileveled experience - Miailhe capturing a moment in the life of the bathhouse with her animator's easel, before standing up and walking to another room to paint another scene. Us following along, wondering where we are and what we're doing here. She's as surprised as we are, but taken also by the incredible beauty of the sight, which she is determined to capture. We share those feelings, following her along with a voyeuristic blush. The gaze is playful by moments, as when she observes with humor the massive hips of the elder women being massaged flat into the form of a young woman. When she gets home, she feels something is missing - life. Movement. Thus the film is born, as she invests the painting with little touches of life and interesting transformations.

The style of animation in Miailhe's films is itself quite interesting. It shares something with the style of Tsuji Naoyuki in the sense that each shot comprises a single sheet upon which she paints with pastels, one frame at a time, in a continuous line until only the last frame of the shot is left on the sheet. Each shot is a painting unfolding in time, a time-lapse photography of the painter in the progress of painting. The previous set of strokes is modified by the current, so that you can see the previous strokes on the screen, and movement creates a trail of itself.

In that sense the film also reminds me of the last and one of the greatest of Oskar Fischinger's films, Motion Painting No. 1 (1947). The subject matter is different, with Fischinger's being pure abstraction, but Miailhe's films are just that - motion painting. In later films Miailhe comes up with a technique of creating beautiful patterns in the wake of the movement of characters to both mask and enhance the characteristic feature of this style of animation. As with any great painting, appreciating the strokes of the painter is important, and here you can see those strokes in the process of their being made. I'm a fan of rougher styled animation for its greater spontaneity, and the rough bold strokes she uses here have a very tactile, visceral, spontaneous beauty.

Hammam is, first and foremost, a magnificently beautiful film to watch. Miailhe is a painter, and this is a film in which each image can be appreciated like a good painting. The forms, the colors, the strokes of the brush and the framing of the image are always unfailingly fresh, impeccably handled, delightful to behold. The animation acts first and foremost to enhance the beauty of the images, rather than to attempt to create the illusion that they are alive in the way that Alexander Petrov's work does. In her two next films, on the other hand, the animation by necessity becomes a bit more more naturalistic and active.

The simplicity of the film is one of its assets. Hammam has the formal purity and strength of a musical exploration of variations on a theme. An old artistic staple that has gone by the wayside of living art - the nude - is revived in a very appealing way by bringing it into the dimension of time and movement. While Miailhe's later films are all fully the equal of Hammam on a painterly level, they have a narrative framework that is lacking here and gives Hammam the appeal of being perhaps the most rigorous and simple expression of her approach.

If it wasn't obvious enough from her first film, there's a very strong erotic element in all of Miailhe's work. In retrospect, Hammam even comes across as a sort of unashamed declaration of her preoccupations as an artist - namely, with femininity, the human body, and desire. Miailhe doesn't strike me as a beginning animator in her first film. She strikes me as an artist with a clear grasp of her goals, whose vision remains firm and consistent over the next few years of her production.

The two films that followed Hammam are adaptations of stories from the 1001 Nights - both being her longest films to date, clocking in at 16 minutes each, and both featuring an overriding element of sexuality. The first is Scheherazade (1995), which tells the framing story of the woman who through her cunning and ingenuity curbed the murderous fury of a cuckolded prince by telling him a new story every night for 1001 nights. A year later followed one of the stories told, legend has it, by Scheherazade to the prince - the story of The Prince who Lost an Eye and Became a Beggar (1996).

The films first of all bring a new element to Miailhe's work - that of narrative. The setting in ancient Arabia seems the perfect element in which for Miailhe to revel in the sort of baroque, lushly colored scenery that makes her painting such a delight to behold. At the most basic level, both 1001 Nights films are beautiful and entertaining works that make you wish there were more in the series. While obviously functioning on the surface as lush, beautiful tales of the exotic and fantastic for Miailhe to regale us with her gorgeous images, they also serve to provide modern insight into the relationship between sexuality, behavior and violence. This aspect makes these films much stronger than conventional retellings of these already famous stories.

The way the films examine the relationship between sexual drive and violence reminds me of a similar preoccupation in the films of Walerian Borowczyk. His early masterpiece Blanche (1971) is an excellent historical drama whose outcome hinges on this dynamic. An aged feudal lord is driven mad for vengeance when a paige of the king makes overtures at his wife, leading to a downward spiral of escalating violence that leads to the death of most involved. The film acts as an examination of the ways in which desires underlies and drives every aspect of human behavior, in extremis turning love into its opposite and driving people to irrationally commit heinous acts of violence.

In Scheherazade, a prince discovers that he has been deceived by his wife, who holds wild orgies every night with her entourage. After murdering everyone involved, he seeks revenge upon womanhood as a whole by taking a new virgin to his bed every night, and killing her that very night to ensure that he will never again be cheated upon by a woman. A young woman named Scheherazade seeks to curb his reign of terror in an odd way - by marrying him. To save her own life, she tells him a new story every night, withholding the conclusion until the next evening. She does this for 1001 nights, until he finally falls in love with her and vows to stop his murderous spree.

The fantastical The Prince who Lost an Eye and Became a Beggar is a version of a story from the anthology proper, and provides a great example of the timeless fascination of the stories from the 1001 Nights. A prince leaves his country on a boat in search of adventure, only to find himself plunged into a series of unlikely adventures involving everything from a magical bronze horse that transports our hero to a faraway land, to a gigantic monster holding a beautiful princess captive. The forces of lust and death are forever intertwined, leading the prince to his inevitable downfall.

Miailhe's next film dates from several years later - White Bird, Black Bird (2002). It is very different from her previous films in many ways, and seems to mark a different stage in her artistic life. It's a short film, clocking in at only four minutes, and also concise and simple. A narrator recites what appears to be a traditional proverb from some African nation about black birds and white birds. Every person has a series of nests in their soul - a black nest and a white nest. The black nest roosts black birds, evil thoughts sent by an enemy, while the white nest roosts white birds, good thoughts sent by a friend. The solution when an enemy sends you a black bird? Don't let it in, and send a white bird back in return.

It's a simple metaphor with a strong message about human aggression that seems particularly apt in light of the year it was released. The film appears to be animated using a different technique from her previous films, which were animated using pastels. It appears to be sand animation. I don't know what Miailhe was up to in the intervening years, but she undoubtedly continued to be active in other areas as an artist, presumably painting. I get the impression that she felt the world needed to hear this proverb at that moment in time. The theme of the passions leading humans to engage in irrational violence against one another is one that runs throughout her work, and is here expressed in a new and more direct way.

Miailhe's next film shows her continuing to explore new facets of her art. With the quite recent Neighborhood Stories (2006) she is back to the longer length of the 1001 Nights films, but now she is telling a story firmly set in the contemporary western world, not in some faraway fantasy land. Despite this, the film retains something of the atmosphere of her previous films by telling a strange and fantastic story that doesn't seem of this world, despite having all of the appearances of taking place in the everyday world we know.

A lone acrobat in purple checkered tights practices on a trapeze. A lion escapes its cage and prowls the streets with a doll in its maw. A little boy searches for his lost doll. All of these strange things are happening right there, outside your window, in the old neighborhood you know so well. The world is a place where we are all seeking something, prowling on the streets like animals in a jungle. The world is full of menace and danger. But life goes on. Pedestrians saunter by, pianos are unloaded from moving trucks, and homeless bums sleep in metal cannisters outside of the apartment construction site on the corner of the street. The story swirls around and gradually all of the players become intertwined in this world where we all live together.

The film comes off brilliantly considering how much of a divergence it represents in style from Miailhe's earlier films. The images are still lush and painterly, but without that Matisse-like richness. The world here is all shades of gray and straight lines and angles, with only the billboards shouting colorful pornographic advertising at us from every wall. The film is also different in that it was the product of a larger team, from what I can gather from the credits. Several people other than Miailhe are credited with animation. The film was clearly created in a digital environment, with some incongruous movements every once in a while, and loses some of the stylistic uniformity and elegance that her earlier films had because they were all painted in the same analog way. Nonetheless it is one of the most thematically challenging and compelling of her films, and is certainly one of the best short animated films of the last few years. I hope that we can continue to see more of Florence Miailhe's animation in the future.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

09:29:51 pm , 279 words, 2134 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

The autobiography of Tadahito Mochinaga

Tadahito Mochinaga is one of the legendary figures in the history of Japanese animation. Born in Tokyo in 1919, Mochinaga spent his formative years traveling between Japan and Manchuria, becoming conversant in both languages and cultures. Near the end of W.W. II he returned to China, where he would go on to play a major role in helping to lay the foundations for the animation industry in China by helping build up China's most famous studio, Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Upon his return to Japan he began making puppet films, becoming the pioneering figure in Japan in that form of animation. Kihachiro Kawamoto, the figure who later became synonymous with Japanese puppet animation, learned his craft during this period by working under Mochinaga.

Mochinaga passed away in 1999. On the occasion, animation historian Kosei Ono wrote an informative article on the man that can be read here. Near the end of the article Ono mentions that Mochinaga was in the process of writing an autobiography in the days leading up to his death. He was apparently prompted to do so at the insistence of the great Chinese animator Te Wei. His autobiography remained incomplete at the time of his death, but his widow continued working to compile the unfinished writings into published form. The autobiography was finally published posthumously a little over a year ago in 2006, with an afterward by Kihachiro Kawamoto. I obtained the book recently, and am looking forward to reading it. It promises to be a fascinating story about an interesting and too-little known figure who was at the center of one of the most unique cultural exchanges in the history of animation in the 20th century.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

10:29:07 am , 627 words, 3404 views     Categories: Animation

Hakaba Kitaro op

Haven't seen much interesting anime lately, but I was looking forward to the new late-night show Hakaba Kitaro in the same Noitamina time-slot as Mononoke to see if they might be able to finally do Shigeru Mizuki justice. I've seen a few of the previous anime adaptations of his work, and perhaps I'm just too much of a fan of Mizuki's brilliant manga, but it's uncanny how not a single one of them seems to be willing to try to come close to his drawing style. Clearly people love the stories he's telling, but people seem unwilling, almost afraid, to try to reproduce his drawings. Even apart from the surface look of the adaptations, I find that people have almost uniformly ignored the bitter, biting irony that underlies much of his work in favor of catering to children. It's dumbed down, in other words.

I haven't read the original story on which this anime is based, as this anime is purportedly based on the very earliest serialization of the Kitaro character's adventures from 1959, but the storytelling doesn't strike me as feeling particularly like the Mizuki that I know. Certainly that would not detract from enjoying the show on its own, as it has an amusing retro look and feel to it that is something of a novelty and can be enjoyed on its own. The director obviously put a lot of work into the first episode that I sampled, creating a tense but fun and camp atmosphere of retro horror. But it just didn't strike me as feeling particularly Mizuki. And on the visual plane I found that the new adaptation completely missed the mark. The drawings have little to do with Mizuki, which to me was a real disappointment, as that's one of the things I've been hoping to see done right one of these days.

Except for the op. When I saw the op, I felt like they'd finally fulfilled my wishes and might be going with a look and directing style that was closer to Mizuki's original. I thought the op might be a sign they might be doing something closer to his drawings in the actual show - because here, after all, they were using his own drawings in the opening. Regardless of the content of the show itself, I loved the opening and thought it was a great piece on its own. The images were wonderfully matched to the catchy music, and finally we can see Mizuki's drawings brought alive in animation - at least in a sense. I scoured the credits to find out who did the op, but no luck. No credits for the op. So I've been wondering all this time.

Well, I was surprised to discover today (from a post by the color designer of the op) that the opening drawings were not in fact Mizuki's original drawings from the manga. They were all drawn by another person in a style so closely mimicking Mizuki's drawings that they'd fooled me. The person who did it? None other than Takashi Hashimoto. To add to the joy, the opening itself was directed by Kenji Nakamura. So we have the Mononoke team handling the op. Suddenly it made sense why I loved the opening so much. Although it's disappointing that they didn't use exactly the same team to make the show, in which case it probably would have been exactly what I had always been hoping for, it was gratifying to know that, at least in principle, yes, it is possible for someone to draw in Mizuki's style and bring his images alive in animation. It just takes an immense talent like Hashimoto. What a tremendous shame that at the very least Hashimoto wasn't kept on for the next Noitamina show.

Monday, January 21, 2008

03:50:07 pm , 337 words, 1516 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Music Video

Face Like a Frog

I suppose most other people have probably heard of Sally Cruikshank, an independent animator who created animation for a bunch of Sesame Street music videos during the 1980s, but I only discovered her work recently myself, and it threw me for a loop. I watched Sesame Street as a child, but only intermittently, so I don't ever recall having seen her work, and I'm sure I would remember if I had. Who could forget having seen a film like Face Like a Frog, an utterly insane and psychedelic, not to say psychotropic, fun-house ride of a short that's one of the best mind-trips I've seen in animation.

It's a visual orgy of non-stop transformation, with ideas zooming by at a mile a minute, hilariously matched to the great song. The colors are vivid and the forms wobbly and simple. I love the whole sensibility of the film, from the in-your-face colors to the technically limited but in this case tremendously effective animation. It's like the love-child of Masaaki Yuasa and Yasunori Miyazawa. The vivid and simple but brightly-colored designs plastered all over the screen are reminiscent of Yuasa's early Chibi Maruko-chan music videos, and the very wobbly and uncertain style of animation is similar in effect to the very deliberate and brutal distortions to be seen in Miyazawa's recent work.

You can see almost all of Cruikshank's films up on Youtube, where she herself has uploaded them, and if you like them enough, you can also go to her homepage and buy them on DVD. Her other films are quite fun and worth checking out, although none of them have quite the impact of the amazing Face Like a Frog - especially if it's the first piece by her that you see, as happened with me. There are some great independent animators who worked on NHK's Minna no Uta music video show, which in retrospect seems clearly to have been inspired by Sesame Street's example, but I've never seen anything quite this wild on the Japanese show.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

10:42:02 pm , 1021 words, 1678 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Your choice

I had sort of forgotten about the Japan Media Arts Festival and the Mainichi Film Concours, but today I became curious to find out who had won the 2007 edition of both competitions, the most important in Japan for animation. I was happy to discover that Keiichi Hara's Summer Vacation with Coo the Kappa won not only the Animation Film Award at the Mainichi Film Concours, but also the Grand Prize in the animation category at the Japan Media Arts Festival. Congratulation to Keiichi Hara. Denno Coil was one of the four runners-up, and the judges comment that, had the masterful Coo not come out in 2007, Denno Coil would easily have taken the grand prize that year.

I was also happy to discover that Koji Yamamura's Country Doctor won the Mainichi's coveted Noburo Ofuji Award. I haven't yet seen the film, which played in theaters in Japan (a rarity for an independent, non-studio affair such as this), but am very eager to. Based on the exciting animation in the trailer, it appeared to be one of his strongest films yet, and this win seems to confirm that suspicion. Country Doctor was also one of the runners-up at the Japan Media Arts Festival.

I recently had a chance to watch a collection of Koji Yamamura's older works, which I amazingly hadn't seen by now, so all that remains is to see his post-Mt. Head films. The films were rather different from what I might have expected, particularly the early ones, where Yamamura seems to have gone through a period when he was very fascinated with formal elements like metamorphosis, intellectual puzzles and associative games. The early films from the late 80s seem to show him in this period. In the early 90s, he begins to move to more character-based stories, where we can begin to see the cute but bizarre creatures with which I had associated him for some reason, although deep down, his seems to remain a deeply free-associative imagination. That imagination is now channeled into a tangible narrative, which makes it all the more interesting.

The three Caro and Piyobupto shorts feature a set of appealing but odd characters going through wordless but easy-to-follow adventures in mixed-media creations that I find a bit more appealing. His approach changes considerably here, and not just in terms of the media. He is constantly changing his approach to style, media and dramatic form, which is something I greatly admire in his work. He seems to share something with Tadanari Okamoto in that respect. The film that comes afterwards, Kipling Jr. of 1995, is another stop-motion work featuring cute but odd creatures, but differs considerably in style from the earlier series, creating its own appealing atmosphere. The key acquisition in his films of this period seems to be a deft sense for creating a beguiling atmosphere that is cute and fun, but with a vague tinge of hinted menace.

While I quite enjoyed the previous films, Kids Castle of 1995 struck me as among the tightest pieces of the set so far, with a real economy of means and clarity of purpose in the visual concept, and so left perhaps the best impression on me. Using only lines and a white background, a kid's toys come alive and lead him on adventures that showcase Yamamura's highly intuitive thought-process and rich imagination. The use of simple black lines seems to free Yamamura to revel in the animated metamorphoses that come so naturally to him. Yamamura comes up with ideas and twists and turns that can never be predicted, like the imagination of a child, and uses a rich array of techniques to express his ideas, making watching his films a real adventure. Kids Castle also features a soundtrack consisting entirely of vocal onomatopoeia that is great fun and plays a big part in the onscreen action, with a funny and imaginative new vocalization bringing alive all of the crazy goings-on. This applies to all of Yamamura's films. The soundtracks of his films are always extremely well produced and closely tied to the visuals.

Your choice of 1999 is also a great showcase of Yamamura's intiuitive imagination, and is even perhaps my favorite of Yamamura's films not only for the content but for Yamamura's approach to making the film. The film was in fact a collaborative effort between Yamamura and a bunch of young students in Japan and Chicago. Yamamura met with each group and elicited a short storyboard from each student with an idea for an animated sequence. About a dozen students participated in all. Yamamura selected the storyboards that seemed usable in the narrative of a short film, and sewed the various ideas together. It's a simple idea, but the result is a wonderful, odd little film that bubbles with delightful humor and the sort of unexpected ideas you would only get from a child who doesn't know the dramatic rules that a professional does.

A documentary on the making of the film is included in the disk, and it was almost as fascinating as the film itself. It was a joy to see the pleasure each student took in coming up with an idea they could be proud of, and in seeing their ideas brought to life in the final product. Yamamura is quite active in Japan and around the world in promoting the cause of independent animation, and I find that this film serves as a perfect example of the very particular genius Yamamura brings to the field as a creator and as a didact, in the ingenious way that he found to combine the act of spreading knowledge about animation among youngsters and taking an interesting new tack as a creator himself. He deliberately goes against the image of an independent animator scribbling away night and day in the basement, throwing animation out into the light of day, getting young people involved and showing them the satisfaction of creativity. At the same time, it's a great concept for a film that raises some interesting questions about the idea of authorship. It's a film that strikes me as being richly creative from a variety of angles.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

11:59:55 pm , 1025 words, 2084 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Joe and the Rose

I now turn to an older classic of children's animation about a little dog: Joe and the Rose, directed by Takashi Yanase at Sanrio Films in 1977. This film has in fact been for the most part buried from view of the public since its creation. It was first released on a consumer format on the recent Japanese DVD release of Sanrio's more well-known Ringing Bell, on which Joe was included alongside Little Jumbo. Together, these three films comprise what you might call the Takashi Yanase Trilogy - films based on stories by Takashi Yanase produced by the same Sanrio Films team over the span of several years in the latter half of the 1970s. (Mushi Pro's charming Gentle Lion of 1970 might be included as a precursor) Little Jumbo was the first, begun in 1975. It was followed by Joe and the Rose in 1977 and then Ringing Bell in 1978. The first two films are styled similarly, in Yanase's vivid picturebook style, while the more realistic Ringing Bell marks a change leading towards the epic style of Legend of Sirius.

For quite a long time up until seeing Joe and the Rose for the first time tonight, I had only heard rumors of the film's existence, and had forgotten about it by now. I never imagined I would see it. Little Jumbo had for a long time similarly been an obscurity about which I remained skeptical it was worth the effort to hunt down. I nevertheless bought the VHS tape on a whim, watched it with low expectations in view of the film's obscurity, and left feeling overjoyed for finally having been able to see such a brilliant, delightful buried gem. The same has happened again. While it's not quite up to the level of Little Jumbo, Joe was far better than I'd expected, and I'm happy to have been able to put off the delight of seeing this wonderful companion piece to Little Jumbo for the first time for this long.

Very few animated films I've ever seen come close the unsullied purity and innocence of these two films. They can't be compared to what Sanrio evolved into in later years, churning out money in the shape of saccharine, brightly colored character copyrights. These are honest, heartfelt films made by a team of brilliant animators. There's a vein of primordial inventiveness and imagination tapped in the films that seems to have completely disappeared from the face of animation in Japan. There are certainly a number of ingenious creators active even today, but what's made these days seems different in nature somehow, more knowing. Animation made today seems burdened by a sort of self-reflexiveness. In these two films, it feels like every faculty of these animators' creativity is channeled in a very selfless way to the sole task of coming up with beautiful and creative ideas at the service of the children watching the films.

The style of the films is quite unique, and remains very fresh seen today. They're both musicals, but musicals of a different sort from what might be seen in western animation, and certainly very different from anything of the sort being made in Japan at the time. Little Jumbo is not even so much a musical as an ingenious sort of animated opera, with a score by Taku Izumi and lyrics by Takashi Yanase that function perfectly together. Joe is less sung and more music-driven, with a score by Naohisa Terajima featuring swaths of music alternating with sung narrative. The films would be unthinkable without their unforgettable, catchy scores, which are interlinked with the drama and help to drive it forward at every moment. Little Jumbo in particular boasts a great variety and range of color that makes it work great as a piece of music drama. Animation has always seemed a rather operatic medium to me, and these films adopt the trappings of opera to brilliant effect.

These unusual, unlikely films were obviously the product of a team who wanted to try to go in a new and interesting direction that was at odds with what was being done by the whole of the industry, to create something genuinely inventive as animation. There is a tremendous amount of creative thinking funneled into the films, which are crammed with inventive and catchy animated ideas. The animation/visuals aspect of Little Jumbo, in particular, is among the most original and memorable of that entire period in my estimation, with fantastic use of color and incredible freedom in the animation. Every shot presents a new visual scheme or idea, and it all ties in with the tone and rhythm and story. Joe was animated by only three individuals, but has an impressive vitality in spite of the obviously more limited means, and maintains the same simple but satisfying balance in the designs and art schemes. I venture to guess that the dog may have been animated by Shigeru Yamamoto, due to the characteristic bouncy movement, the rose by Kazuko Nakamura, and the vivid and dynamically moving crows by Toshio Hirata.

What makes these films stand apart in the field of films for children is perhaps the consistently hard-edge nature of the stories, which are, each and every one, tragedies of Greek proportions with a truly brutal sting. They go back to the root of children's stories, bringing back the fatality of the Grimms. Who would be able to forget having seen Ringing Bell for the first time as a kid? Little Jumbo ends with the island decimated and the population being annihilated, caught in the middle of a war between two neighboring countries, while Joe and the Rose is a bitterly stoic fable about the nature of mortality and love, and how both are doomed to die in each other's arms. Takashi Yanase was obviously of the hard knocks school of children's lit, telling stories that at the core are basically about facing the truth of what it means to be human. The protagonists are pitted against nothing so much as the human condition and mortality. These are truly beautiful children's stories, but with a solid core that makes them resonate more profoundly with age.

Friday, January 18, 2008

06:50:44 pm , 516 words, 2121 views     Categories: Animation, Animator: Shinya Ohira

Animation from father to child

In most cases, I suppose, the time eventually comes in an animator's life when he or she becomes a parent. I can think of at least one case of a great piece of animation having been produced as a result of the conjunction of newfound fatherhood and artistic brilliance - Panda Kopanda. It's a film that seems soaked in gentle paternal love. I'm sure there must be other instances. A film I've been looking forward to for quite some time now is apparently another such instance - Wanwa, the new short by Shinya Ohira to be included in Genius Party 2. When Ohira was asked to participate in the project three or four years ago, he apparently came up with the idea for this story, about a young boy and his puppy, because he wanted to create a film he could watch with his son, who was then 2-3 years old.

I've seen some images from the film in a recent issue of Animation Note, and it's truly stunning stuff that has little to do with anime and everything to do with great animated art. Ohira is creating the backgrounds himself in addition to doing all the animation. He's not only drawing but also gluing origami paper and string and other assorted materials directly onto the paper to create a very rich and beautiful texture. Sections of animation are even being animated using crayons. The crayoned keys will be inbetweened in a conventional manner, however, and not with crayons. The film will be made using many of the same materials that might be littered around the house of some pint-sized Picasso, in other words, extending the thematic underpinning to the materials used to make the film. It's an approach that's unusual for a studio production, to say the least. I can only say that each of the individual images he has created are of stunning beauty and seem like they would function just as well framed on a wall as photographed in sequence. Ohira continues to go to that next level with his art, and this will no doubt be his summum opus, and then some, with his unmistakable sensibility molding every parameter of the screen in a way we've never seen before.

Brother in arms Shinji Hashimoto, meanwhile, has just published a delightful picture book for small children, no less. The title can be roughly translated as Yucchu and Meppi in the Starry Playground. I can't comment on whether Hashimoto finds himself in the same situation, but it's interesting to see these two great 'realistic' animators suddenly take a left turn to create a piece for small children. As in the case of Wanwa, however, there is no question of stylistic dumbing down. The picture book is delightfully bizarre and abstract, with cute but slightly disconcerting scribbly animal characters of mysterious species zooming around in adventures in the sky. The style of drawing channels Hashimoto's very identifiable meandering line through the mind of a child, as it were, and does a remarkable job of creating a style that has the unforced authenticity of a child's drawings.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

10:43:59 pm , 553 words, 3227 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

Best of Ottawa 2007

I just saw this year's edition of the Best of Ottawa. My initial impression of the whole is unfortunately that it was much weaker than last year's. None of the pieces really bowled me over, and a few I found tiresome or simply didn't do much for me. Looking over the list of films again, though, I see that there were several films that were in fact quite good, but compared with the ultra-tight selection last year it was a bit underwhelming.

Leading the pack for me was the German film Framing by Bert Gottschalk. It was the only totally satisfying film in the selection for me. I remember now that my favorite pick from last year's selection was also the winner in the Best Abstract/Experimental category. It just seemed like the only film that felt like it had a clear sense of what it was doing, with no technical or formal stumbling around, and perfect execution of a satisfying concept. Several of the other films might have been either interesting or entertaining, but only seemed to scratch the surface without providing any sort of depth of meaning or insight, without any unforgettable aftertaste. Framing left me with a rounded sense of satisfaction by creating beautiful images and using those images to sing a poignant eulogy, an ode to that medium that up until only recently was the substrate of all our animation. Think Norman McLaren without film. Without using any words or narrative or figures, it's a film that conjures up a lot of things in your mind and makes you think back and feel, all while you marvel at the accomplishment and ingenuity of the imagery. It's curious how the emotional impact seems greater when the images are abstract, like you're not being guided down a path of meaning but left to discover your own.

Jeff Scher's L'eau Life was a visually pleasing piece using rotoscoping of old footage of people frolicking in water, with each frame painted or drawn or papered to create a constantly flickering and shifting pattern on the screen, through which we can nonetheless follow the action. A straightforward idea, but visually quite satisfying. Josh Raskin's I Met the Walrus was also a satisfying piece. It consists of a tape recording of an interview with John Lennon, with images sprouting in quick succession in a visual interpretation of Lennon's words. It seems like a facile idea, but the unfolding parallel layers of words and visuals give the words an added richness of meaning as well as a shade of ironic and playful distancing, transforming a tape recording into a very fun odyssey in images, a torrent of call-response improvisation in images. Michael Langan's Doxology presented a series of simple looped tableax depicting pixellated actors going through cosmic rituals involving tennis balls, followed by a succession of processed footage of urban landscapes. The execution of the film was great, and it comes across as rather assured in its quirkiness. Other than that, some of the other films were amusing gag pieces, but that's about it. I was surprised to find that there was no one major gravitational sun pulling together this year's selection. Which reminds me that I still haven't had a chance to see Madame Tutli Putli, though it played at the VIFF a while back.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

08:02:17 pm , 550 words, 3316 views     Categories: Animation

Yuichiro Sueyoshi's Coo sketches

Keiichi Hara's Summer Vacation with Coo the Kappa came out last summer, accompanied by the release of a few books. One was the full storyboard, which I've been poring through for a few days now. It's a voluminous affair, and quite instructive about Hara's style and approach. After you've read through a director's storyboard, it's like you feel you've gotten to know him a little better. Each page of the storyboard is accompanied by comments from Hara reminiscing about what he intended by this or that, which is quite an interesting approach, and helps greatly in getting into his mind. Reading the storyboard has mostly confirmed how much I like Hara's directing style and thematic preoccupations. I know of no more down-to-earth director. His work is a breath of fresh air in today's industry. I look forward to writing about the film once the DVD is released.

The story with the film is how Hara was forced to cut off 30+ minutes of material at a very late stage in production, after much of the animation had been completed for the shots in question. Reading the storyboard I find that many of the shots, while in many cases not necessarily essential (Hara did a very careful and good job of choosing which shots to lose), would be tremendously welcome back into the film simply because it's a film you want to go on and on, so I hope that Japanese viewers were vocal enough about their interest in seeing the 'full' version of the film that we get to see it on the DVD release, although that might entail two different releases.

Another book that came out was the Official Guide, which is a very well put-together Roman Album-style book with lots of background material on the making, from initial sketches to layouts to interviews. Among the sketches are some rough sketches by character designer Yuichiro Sueyoshi for the initial proposal for the project from 1998. They were a delightful discovery, being more cartoonish than the final designs yet incredibly vivacious and lively, showing a Coo that might have been. Sueyoshi's rough drawings are fantastic. I delight in seeing rough drawings by great animators such as Sueyoshi. With just a few lines thrown down he creates a living and spontaneous pose or a brilliant expression. Again we have an instance where some tremendously alive drawings were done in the initial stages of an animation project, but their tremendous appeal wound up being slightly lost in the transition to the final product - as brilliant as the final product may be, in this case.

I remember that one of the more recent Shin-chan films showed a selection of Sueyoshi's sketches for the funny-looking monsters that had appeared in the film during the end credits. That was the first time I'd seen his sketches, and they were unfortunately by far the most memorable thing about the film (apart from Sueyoshi's own animation of a number of scenes). I think the more realistic characters he had to create for Coo were a bit at odds with his predilection for more zany and free designs, but they are effective, if deliberately restrained due to the nature of the film. I look forward to seeing what kind of designs this great animator will come up with next.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

02:05:14 pm , 948 words, 2632 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Yasuo Otsuka's Tenguri on DVD

I've been kind of out of it lately in terms of animation, but did manage to see one very notable item just recently. I remember three years ago writing a post about three rare curiosities that I hoped would become available one day. One of them was Tenguri, Boy of the Plains, a film directed by Yasuo Otsuka in 1977 at the newly formed Shin-Ei Doga. When I wrote that post, it was actually already out on DVD in an expensive collection of old Japanese animated shorts from mid-century intended for purchase by libraries, so I figured that master would eventually make its way retail, seeing the inherent demand for the piece.

That finally happened last month. I ordered the DVD as soon as I heard about the release, and now have the satisfaction of being able to scratch one of those obscurities off of the list. I'm still impatiently waiting for DVDs of Toshitsugu Saita's Sea Cat and Tsutomu Shibayama's Nesting Cranes, fully knowing the same is much less likely to happen for these films. I'll replace Tenguri with another obscurity that deserves to be released on DVD: Koji Nanke's Upon the Planet. (preferably accompanied by the full catalogue of his Minna no Uta videos, while we're dreaming)

The film itself is 22 minutes and was a joy to watch. It's clear why Otsuka abandoned ambitions to directing. The film is extremely derivative of Horus and Heidi and various other things in its particulars and atmosphere, and feels forced in various aspects of the narrative. But somehow that doesn't detract from making the film a joy to watch.

The animation is a delight from start to finish, full of wonderfully free movement of a kind that you just don't see today. It's a joy to re-discover a major piece by one of the great Japanese animators of the last 50 years, a missing piece of the puzzle as it were that we are finally able to appreciate. The film is a condensed overview of what it is that made Otsuka a great animator whose freeness of touch is sorely missed today more than ever. It's a good example showing by contrast the sort of animation that isn't being produced today, as constraints have seemingly made movement less and less free, and adherence to staid designs more and more strict, with new animators seemingly inculcated by stale ideas from the get-go by pervasive stylistic preoccupations. The short film maintains interest throughout thanks largely to the wonderful movement of the characters and their appealing, simple designs.

The movement is appealing because, besides Otsuka's hand in its creation, the film is animated by a slew of great animators, including A Pro regulars Yoshio Kabashima (who animated the early frolicking of the boy and the cow, as well as the farewell), Yuzo Aoki (who did the scene in the cave) and Yoshifumi Kondo (who animated the first appearance of the traveling priest) as well as people called in by Otsuka like Yoichi Kotabe, wife Reiko Okuyama and Hayao Miyazaki (who did the final chase through the boulders). Kotabe's hand seems to make itself felt in various sections that look like they could have come straight out of Heidi. I'm particularly partial to Kabashima's work here, with the wonderful realistic rendering of the calf's movement with the absolute minimum of drawings. The parting is a great scene.

If my understanding is correct, the film was produced in less than a month, so the high quality of the movement isn't the result of any extravagant budget or other means available then that aren't now. I guess it was more a generational thing. The film was based on an idea by Osamu Tezuka, who was originally contracted to produce the film but was obviously a little too busy with the three dozen manga deadlines he had to meet, but ironically wound up being produced entirely by people of Toei Doga vintage whose entire approach was grounded in creating this rich, pliant, exciting movement. The similarity to Horus is only to be expected, too. Otsuka was just a pinch hitter, so he was basing his experience of directing on the one film in which he's had the most experience with that side of animation. Otsuka is again the animation director, Michio Mamiya again provides the music, and the setting is again a colorful rural village like that seen in Horus, so it only goes to reason it would seem similar. Without knowing any of that it's surely an enjoyable film in its own right, and I think there's much to be gleaned by the younger generation from the old approaches on display here.

The DVD includes a thorough making feature lasting half an hour that interviews the key players, happily even including animator Yoshio Kabashima, whom I doubt has received such press before. I delight in seeing veteran animators like him finally being interviewed or given some press for their long years of work, although the interview here wasn't really about him but about his work on Tenguri. I would have wanted to hear more about his own past, as he was a key A Pro player for many years, supporting Osamu Dezaki's Tokyo Movie shows, being the main figure behind the catchy rodent action of the great Gamba. I've not known what he's been up to since the 80s, and would have enjoyed learning about his own history since the decline of A Pro, as he is one of the few of the main figures who didn't stay on at Shin-Ei after the split. The DVD also includes an audio commentary by Otsuka. All in all, an excellent release backed by a good solid swath of documentation.