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: August 2008, 09

Saturday, August 9, 2008

07:36:39 pm , 2337 words, 5203 views     Categories: Animation, Movie


One of my favorite shows back in the mid-90s when I'd borrow VHS tapes of the latest anime shows from a neighborhood Japanese grocery store in Houston was Bonobono. Not only was the show very funny, it was totally unlike other anime in terms of its humor an the look of its characters, and that immediately attracted me. I just discovered a DVD of the Bonobono movie from 1993, which I had not seen. It was great re-discovering Bonobono after all these years through the very first anime adaptation that I'd never had the chance to see. It was a nostalgic experience, but it's also a uniquely interesting show.

The manga by Mikio Igarashi was first serialized in 1992, and the movie came out a year later, in 1993. The TV series was aired 1995-1996, which would be when I discovered it. Both the movie and the TV series were produced by Group Tac. The staff are different for each, but the movie features some more well-known staff - producer and audio director Atsumi Tashiro and character designer and animation director Michishiro Yamada. It was nice to discover that the film was directed by Yuuji Muto, whom I knew only from his work on Crayon Shin-chan over the last decade or so. Group Tac is one of Japan's more unique studios, so it would be worthwhile to dig into their back catalogue, as I'm sure they've done other memorable projects informed of the distinctive vein of inventiveness they brought to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. I don't know about now, but in the past they occupied a unique position in terms of the projects they did and how they executed them.

Muto also directed two of the Shin-chan movies not long ago, and I actually hadn't been too pleased with Muto's work on them because I'd grown accustomed to the Shin-chan movies being strong films rather than mere assemblages of gags thanks to Keiichi Hara and Mitsuru Hongo, whereas Muto's films were more scattershot and lacking in strong dramatic direction. But Muto is a perfect match with Bonobono. The film was actually written, directed and storyboarded by the manga artist Mikio Igarashi, with Muto being credited as the "animation kantoku", so it's a bit of an unusual situation. I'm guessing that Igarashi oversaw the whole production, while Muto must have been the equivalent of "enshutsu", supervising the final assembly of animation and visual elements. In any case, Group Tac is a great studio for their ability to create a film with a production style and look as unusual this one. They quickly spotted this great manga, and had the willingness to adopt a new approach to producing a movie from it that would allow what's great about the manga to be successfully transferred onto film. This is almost certainly one of the most successful instances of a manga-ka directing an anime film.

Muto has a very detail-oriented approach that comes through wonderfully here and is a perfect match with this material, with its eccentric, loopy sense of humor that relies tremendously on precise timing and slow-burn for effect. The first five minutes of the film are practically wordless, introducing each of the characters in turn by slowly enacted sequences that work entirely by visual means to introduce us to the behavior and quirks of each of the show's eccentric characters. Sound plays a great part at the very beginning as we're slowly zooming in from a bird's eye view of the forest down to ground level. The film is willing to create these calm, quiet moments where the camera is still and the ambient sounds are the elements that communicate. This aspect reminded me of Night on the Galactic Railroad, which makes sense, as the same audio director was behind both films - studio head Atsumi Tashiro. For twenty seconds or so we simply sit listening to the sounds of the forest with its assorted chirping insects and birdcalls and breeze through the trees, as the first character walks slowly down the path towards us. At the same time, the images of the forest are obviously hand-drawn in the style of Igarashi's manga as opposed to realistic, which creates a nice contrast and establishes the look of the film. It's one of the many great moments in the film.

That's something that characterizes the film and Muto's approach - very moment oriented, detail oriented, rather than dramatic and forward-driven. Rather than the film being about any sort of dramatic story, it's all about simply being there, with the characters, as they go about their daily life, thinking aloud about the first silly and amusing thing that comes to mind. It's all very effortless. It's very real in that sense, and that's a big part of why I found myself liking it so much back then and now. The film is steeped in the mood of a lazy summer day with friends. At times there's almost a deep comment about life that seems to be made in these quiet non-moments, but anything serious only just barely pokes its head above the surface for a moment. It's almost taoist in its mentality, with the way it flows along quietly making ludicrous but simultaneously deep and philosophical observations of things floating past.

The images are very close to the original manga, but the animation is nonetheless quite rich and finely crafted, and it has a look and feel that is specific to the show. I don't just mean in terms of the character designs, but in terms of the way characters meander about the screen in a very detailed way that sets it fundamentally apart from the typical anime approach to layout and staging. It's important for animation to come up with new approaches to the animation, but it's rare to see in anime, and this is a good example of how anime, in the best cases, can come up with original approaches to animation informed by the atmosphere and graphic sensibility of the manga on which it's based, rather than merely plugging the designs into a standard industry approach to layout and animation. Here everything works as a whole to create a world where the original approach to layout and movement of the characters is the very essence of the enjoyment of the film.

Animation director Michishiro Yamada is actually a member of Ajia-Do rather than Group Tac, unless I'm mistaken, so I'm not sure how he came to be working on this film, although they certainly made the right decision in choosing him. He's a veteran of the A Pro school, and a longtime Ajia-Do member, having debuted as an inbetweener on things like Panda Kopanda and drawn a lot of key animation on the classic A Pro shows like Dokonjo Gaeru and Hajime Ningen Gyators, and joined Ajia-Do when it was founded in 1978 by Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi. During the Ajia-Do era he did a lot of work on various shows, notably Ajia-Do's big success Nintama Rantaro. He is one of the few animators who were active on the classic A Pro shows who by 1993 remained fully active as an animator, or animation director in this case. Those decades of experience obviously make him an expert in animating this kind of small, cartoony character, and he upholds that legacy here, doing a great job of bringing the personalities of these characters to life through animation.

The film achieves a great sense of overall unity also in part thanks to the great music by the guitar duo Gontiti, with its lulling, dreamy, loopy atmosphere so different from typical associations with anime. Testament to how different Group Tac's approach is, it seems the music was composed based on the images, rather than simply having the composer create tracks in advance that would be pasted over each scene as deemed appropriate by the director, as is usual in anime. The music ebbs and flows in sync with each little movement of the characters in certain scenes, creating a great sense of unity of visuals and sound. The film would be unthinkable without its music. The film achieves a rare sense of unity between the every element, which combined with its eccentrically meandering dramatic structure and pared-down yet rich visual sensibility makes it a truly refreshing watch.

More than anything, though, it's the how the story plays out that makes watching Bonobono so rich an experience. Rather than everything taking place on a predetermined line called the narrative, it's as if we're simply plunged into the forest that these creatures call home, observing them interact with the insects and other animals of the forest as they wander about, each with their odd habits and tics that come across as both human and animal, stopping for a moment to watch a lone ant wandering across the road in fascination. The characters are animals, and if there is a narrative it's the story of the natural world, but at the same time they have the natural curiosity of children about the little things in life. That's the element that really captured me - how good Igarashi is at extracting these little ideas, and molding them into delightful extended sequences that function great as visual gags and also have a grain of truth in them that you can relate to. Who hasn't at some time as a child shut one eye, then opened it and shut the other, then the other, then the other, and so on, back and forth, marveling at the odd way the scenery shifts back and forth when you do that. The way the characters go about having fun discovering the little things in life like this gives the series a naive but profound undercurrent that makes it a delight to watch, which nicely balances out the times when it gets quite crass in its humor.

It's been many years since I saw the TV series, so I can't recall how it may differ from the movie, but from what I can recall the shorter format seemed better suited to the episodic structure of the original, whereas the film kind of meanders randomly. The film achieves an odd sort of perfection in its singular way, with its rounded production, but the TV series is probably closer to the episodic silliness of the original comic. Coincidentally, the whole TV series came out in two DVD box sets last year, so I'm curious to re-discover this memorable oddity. The film is still as unique in its atmosphere and untainted by anime conventions as when I discovered the TV show back then, so it's stood up better than I expected. In an idiosyncratic voice that combines whimsy and depth, it offers a simple and soothing picturebook experience, which alone makes it stand out all the more in this age when it's hard to find studios willing to tackle material without pre-mapped appeal.

Actually, I just noticed that a number of episodes of the TV series are up on Youtube, and a quick look reveals that the style is indeed quite different. First of all the animation is much more spare, of course, revealing the great work done by Michishiro Yamada in the film. But more importantly, the series lacks the great feeling of "ma" as they say in Japanese, or timing, the way each shot and each sequence plays out slowly and deliberately, allowing things the time to unfold naturally and with the sort of disjointed whimsy that is so critical in making this material work. From a cursory glance, in the TV series things seem to pass by at the same uniform pace without any sense for timing, simply rushing from one gag to the next, which doesn't convey the right feeling for this material. So much comes through in the spaces between the gags in the film, without which the TV series seems a bit of a pale imitation. Even so, it was enough to get me hooked back then, and it's still amusing and fun in its own way, but it's a different beast from the movie.

Incidentally, Mikio Igarashi was also the creator of Ninpen Manmaru, which was adapted into a TV series by Shin-Ei, and for which Masaaki Yuasa animated the ending.


A few extra comments. I hadn't completely finished watching the film when I wrote this, but now that I have, my impression is slightly different. Everything I said before is true, but in addition, it's a fantastic film that works great as a film and is underpinned by a surprisingly thoughtful and philosophical atmosphere that, in the end, transmits a subtle and indirect but moving and convincing message about life, and what it means to be alive. Igarashi uses very simple language to convey this message, but its simplicity reinforces the theme of the film, which I think can be summed up using one of the character's lines near the end: "We're simple." We're not as complicated as we make ourselves out to be. Life isn't as complicated as we make it. We're not born for a reason. Life is. That's all. Like the musk ox who provides the backbone of the story, appearing one day all of a sudden relentlessly plowing forward through the forest, animating the denizens of the forest into a flurry of trepidation and excitement - life is simple, with no reason, simply moving ahead, one day at a time. What we can do for one another is to create transient moments of pleasure. They won't last forever, but neither will life, nor pain, nor anything in this world. Eventually he passes by, they see him, the excitement dies down, and life goes on its way. Did anything change? Maybe, maybe not. Just as the film ends on a note of ambivalence and openness, there wasn't really a narrative thread, only life playing out around him. Igarashi has achieved a beautiful balance in this film through the unified simplicity of dialogue, directing and visuals, and the resulting film is a genuine, moving, meaningful creation.