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 2009, 07

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

10:57:55 pm , 1852 words, 3870 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Indie

Elegy in Red

One of the few manga on my bookshelf is Seiichi Hayashi's Elegy in Red from 1970. I pick it up and leaf through it occasionally. I haven't re-read it in a long time, but the drawings are inspirational and never grow old. Seiichi Hayashi actually created a short animated version of the film in Toei's Ganime series two years ago, and I just had the chance to watch it tonight.

In short, it was magnificent. It was tremendously moving to be able to see this classic story brought alive in moving images in a way that did full justice to the original's style and tone - not just because the story itself is great and moving, but because it's one of my own favorites, one of the few manga I can still relate to after all this time, and I'm glad to see it come alive in my favorite medium.

The original was already quite unique in its time for its strangely disjointed, poetic, loose approach to the drawings and narrative, but this film succeeds because it was actually done by Seiichi Hayashi himself, so the drawings and tone of the the piece are very true to the original. What makes the film work is not just that the drawings are his; it's that the film is more than just an adaptation. It's a sort of re-visiting of an old story by the same artist at a much later time in his life, a re-inventing in a different medium. He himself appears in the film in his present guise, with his trademark wiry mustache, recalling the events of the manga as if reminiscing about his own faded days of glory, giving the film an intriguing double layer of meaning.

There are very few manga artists whose drawings I like, but I adore Seiichi Hayashi's drawings. His drawings are always spare, drawn with just a few lines, impeccably classy and elegant. Although his trademark style featuring slim, haughty beauties who look as if they've stepped out of a Taisho-era glossy magazine isn't on display in Elegy in Red, most of his subsequent work is done in this style. He was apparently considerably inspired by the work of the Taisho-era artist Takehisa Yumeji. You can see a good dose of Seiichi Hayashi's drawings on his web site, and thankfully an English translation of Elegy in Red was just released last year (titled Red-Colored Elegy).

Miraculously, the delicate sensibility of Hayashi's drawings comes through well in this film, which is impressive, as the drawings of his manga have a finely balanced madness that wouldn't come through in another's hand. They're not exactly the same. The film version doesn't have the youthful imperfection of the manga. It's obviously of the hand of an older Seiichi Hayashi. But the drawings are still just right. And it's not just drawings set to music, thankfully. Despite the nomer ('ganime' stands for "drawing" + "anime"), the film does thankfully benefit from spare touches of animation in most shots, along with great camerawork that never makes a wrong step.

Seiichi Hayashi in fact began his career as an animator, so the sureness of the directing, and the skill with which the movement is sparely applied, make sense. Not only are his drawings spare and perfect, but each little movement is spare and perfect, bringing the drawings I knew so well from the manga alive in a way perfectly suited to the style of the story. It would actually have been too much to bring this story alive in full animation. The few drawings added here and there work perfectly to bring the story alive while staying true to the feeling of the original manga. This is a superb example of how this sort of minimalistic animated filmmaking should be done.

The music is directed by Morio Agata, a famous folk-rocker from the 1970s who debuted the year after the publication of the manga with a song entitled Elegy in Red inspired by Seiichi Hayashi's manga, which acts as the main motif in the film. So it's a match made in heaven. The music is a perfect match for the images, bringing alive the sound of the era. The two - music and manga - were in fact one of the defining cultural artifacts of 1970s Japan, deemed to have captured the mood of the era's youth. So this film is more than just a good love story told in an interesting style. It comes across as a glimpse into the feelings and sensibility of the generation that grew up in the 60s, an elegy to a generation long gone, via two of the era's greatest artists. An elegy to an elegy.

Seiichi Hayashi joined Toei Doga in 1962 and remained there until 1965. The protagonist of Elegy in Red is a struggling animator, so presumably the story is partly autobiographical. It was under Toei's most famous case of an animator-turned-indie, Sadao Tsukioka, that Hayashi began creating independent animation after leaving Toei. The two were apparently good friends while at Toei, so after quitting, Tsukioka invited Hayashi to join the studio he had just formed, Studio Nack. From that point on, Hayashi would go on to create several indie films that were shown at festivals; make numerous advertisements, most famously a series of Koume adverts for Lotte, as well as other adverts featuring the elegantly drawn beauties for which he had by then become known; contribute the oil on glass animation scene in Mushi Pro's Belladonna in 1973; and continue to make music videos for Minna no Uta like Happy Birthday in 1988.

Hayashi's last involvement in anime came with the designs for Gisaburo Sugii's legendary adaptation of Genji Monogatari in 1987, while in 2003 he created a beautiful short for the Winter Days omnibus, a film that immediately precedes this adaptation of Elegy in Red. I'd been hoping to see more from Seiichi Hayashi the animator since seeing his Winter Days short, so what a delight it was to discover that he had adapted his masterpiece, and that it turned out to be the best short I've seen from him.

Meanwhile, of course, Hayashi debuted as a manga artist in 1967, and also became active as an illustrator. In 2000 he drew the poster for the Hiroshima International Animation Festival. I'm not familiar with his other manga work, but in October of 1999 he published an extraordinary tome entitled The Guppy Still Lives that would almost certainly rank as one of the most important and cited manga books of the last decade were it not for the explicitly pornographic nature of much of its imagery.

Each film in the Ganime series has a very different style, usually having little to do with the typical anime look, because a different artist, usually an illustrator or manga artist, is brought on for each film. The concept is similar to the concept behind the two Madhouse Kenji Miyazawa OVAs from the late 80s, which were told mostly through striking still images.

The other films in the series actually usually feature a good deal of camerawork and touches of animation, albeit sparely, so the films cannot be confused with regular anime, much less regular animation. There is obviously considerable leeway in the concept of 'ganime'. It's not just stills. It's not an approach that hasn't been tried before, but it's interesting that Toei Animation, of all studios, should be the one to release such a series, since they're a studio that were once synonymous with full animation in Japan.

Unfortunately, all of the other films I've sampled are generally less than stellar, if not downright unwatchable. Fantascope ~ Tylostoma ~ is a poetic love story told entirely through the evocative pencil sketches of Yoshitaka Amano, while G-9 is a more conventional-seeming action sci-fi story about a girl with superpowers defeating a rampaging monster, drawn by Tweeny Witches creator Keita Amemiya entirely with an ink brush. The former was completely flaccid and lacking in visual interest, while the latter was just kitchy and embarrassing.

The latter did gel into something convincing during the battle scene, when the protagonist's figure transforms dynamically into abstract shapes. The images were pretty, but more than that, it struck me as one of the few spots in the series that seemed to satisfyingly engage the theoretical questions about animation that a series with this concept could have been a great vehicle for exploring. Using literally 24s, it creates an image that stands in the hazy conceptual area right between when a still image transforms into animation: not quite fast enough to be animation, but not quite slow enough to be still images.

But that's about it. This could have been a great series to explore the various guises of stillness in animation. Instead, we have a bunch of low-brow horror shorts that seem embarrassingly misguided. I only came away frustrated that such a good opportunity wasn't given to talented animators rather than people with no interest or skill in animation.

The puppet film The Dunwich Horror seemed promising, being based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft and featuring music by Jim O'Rourke. The music creates a great atmosphere, and they did what I'd always wanted to see - get my favorite Japanese actor, Kenichi Endo, to voice-act in animation. But the film came across as just ludicrous and boring, due perhaps to the shoddy directing. The crudely-made puppets were actually quite appealing and a good match with the story, but the directing took a completely conventional approach to the drama, rather than taking an approach that really showed off the strange beauty of the puppets and sets, and the unique approach of this series. The stillness didn't work, basically, wasn't appealing. It's as if we were watching the animatic for a puppet film to be, rather than a film in which each image spoke with unshakable authority the way the images in Elegy in Red do. It only goes to show how challenging it can be to make a film hold up with such minimal means. I mean, imagine trying to make a puppet film in which you're not allowed to move the puppets.

One of the defining traits in the historical development of anime is how the animators compensated for being unable to use lavish full animation by focusing on coming up with interesting timing and still drawings. Madhouse had grown out of Mushi Pro, which invented TV anime by creating sequences of striking images rather than animation, so it's less surprising that they would champion the limited style of anime. Toei Doga joined the fray quickly after Mushi Pro, switching course from producing lavishly animated feature films to an almost complete focus on limited TV anime, becoming one of the studios at the core of the development of the limited TV animation aesthetic in Japan. So this OVA comes across as Toei symbolically embracing the limited heritage that came to define anime in the eyes of the world - a legacy that, ironically, the most famous early participants at Toei continue to rail against. But that's the beauty of animation in Japan - even in the same house, it embraces a multiplicity.