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 2009, 15

Saturday, August 15, 2009

12:39:17 pm , 2128 words, 5457 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Ponyo

I got to see my first Miyazaki film on the big screen last night, and it couldn't have been a better film. Ponyo is my favorite Miyazaki film in a good long time, thanks in large part to its rich and dynamic animation, which makes it a film that truly benefits from being seen on the big screen. It's one of those films that renews your faith in the power of hand-drawn animation. This is how exciting hand-drawn lines can be! the film seems to say, beaming with pride.

The film feels eminently hand drawn in any number of ways, from the patently obvious lines used to draw the characters to the storybook backgrounds to the animation of the vigorously shape-shifting sea. This film feels closest in spirit to Totoro, which has long been my favorite Miyazaki film, in its atmosphere of childlike wonder and its abandonment of the trappings of logic and common sense in favor of sheer sense of wonder and magical realism. I find that Miyazaki's seams start to show if he gets too close to reality, but his genius shines brighter than anybody in the world in the realm of pure imagination. I feel this film marks a high point in his achievement, despite feeling a bit fractured, underexplained and confused, and seeming to trail off suddenly at the end. These didn't bother me too much in light of the rich moment-to-moment texture of the story and animation. In fact, I quite liked that certain things weren't overexplained. Trying to long-windedly explain down what has just happened would not only kill all the magic, it would seem extraneous and inane. It's a rare thing for a director to be able to make a film that feels so purely intuitive, and yet remains so cohesive, entertaining and meaningful.

This was clearly a film in which the director set out to make a film that forefronted the fact that it was animated. Miyazaki has long had great respect for the films of Frederic Back, and this film feels like Miyazaki's attempt to create that kind of film - a film in which the animation was alive and voluptuous and active in every single shot. In every single shot, either the animation or the simple colorful images grab your eyes and don't let go, are the vehicle of communication. I don't think it's a coincidence that the first ten minutes or so are dialogue-free. Like the first ten minutes of the late great Yoshinori Kanada's Birth, this magnificent entry sequence prepares you mentally for a film in which the visuals are meant to be the means of communication, as they should be in an animated film.

I couldn't wipe the smile off my face watching this film. Few films have ever done that for me. I've never felt so consistently 'in the moment' in any previous Miyazaki film except perhaps Totoro. Ponyo achieves a truly sublime texture through the combination of Miyazaki's genius sense for storytelling and the technical mastery of his crew. Miyazaki is now presumably hands-off with the animation, but that only allows the incredible animators he has working under him to show off their skills all the more. Katsuya Kondo is a genius and one of the best animators in the world. Despite the usual connotation of 'sakkan' or animation director being a corrector of drawings, in this case I sense that he is in no small measure to thank for the quality of the animation in this film. His philosophy of movement permeates the animation of the characters. Among my favorite moments in the film were the moments at the beginning where Sosuke is carrying the pail of water up the stairs, and where his mother is waving at him by the portico as he leaves. These brief moments showcase Kondo's genius for succinctly capturing human movement and posing in a minimum of lines and drawings. Despite their subtlety, these shots, presumably animated by Kondo, are no less magnificent than more obviously spectacular animation of the action sequences to follow.

Water has long been one of the central challenges in animation - a challenge that when overcome can create amazing results. You can trace the history of the best water animation around the word, starting from Disney and coming full circle through to Yoichi Kotabe in Animal Treasure Island and more recently Norio Matsumoto in You're Under Arrest OVA #3 and many other places (such as Toshiyuki Inoue in Peek the Whale, Yasunori Miyazawa in Moomin, etc - see my FX post for a bit more on this). Norio is the reigning master of water animation in anime, but what's amazing is how varied are the approaches. Kotabe's approach couldn't be more different from Matsumoto's. Kotabe excels at expressing the macroscopic undulation, whereas Matsumoto's genius resides in expressing the minutiae of splashes. There are any number of ways water can be expressed, all of which together shed light on its nature. Shapeshifting water is by its nature the perfect medium for the mercurial expressive possibilities of animation. The animation here is a wonderful addition to that lineage, pushing Kotabe's style in the direction of more expressive freedom.

I can't think of a feature film with so much awesome and exciting animation of water. This is a film all about water, both in terms of the animation and in terms of the theme and of the story. Water isn't just a pretty accessory to animate. Miyazaki evokes the elemental power of water and its importance in humanity's history through the awesome, overpowering waves that lap at the land like wild animals in this film. Those scenes are among the most profound animated scenes I've ever seen in their combination of animated power and thematic depth.

Miyazaki's Nausicaa, in which water played such an important part thematically, funded a film that painted the picture of man's complex but inextricable relationship with water - The Canals of Yanagawa, directed by his comrade in arms Isao Takahata. The elemental forces of nature have always played an important role in Miyazaki's films. It's good to finally be able to see a film that tries to express the brute, majestic power of the sea the way this film does, as that's something that has never been truly done in animation. There have been films in which water played an important part - such as The Sea Prince and the Fire Child - but usually these films don't go beyond the surface level technical challenge of animating water. Miyazaki's water is mythical and elemental, and not merely a technical challenge. Although it's a cliche to say this, it's true in this case that this film is a fairy tale both for children and adults.

I think the animation of the waves during the storm was the standout achievement of this film in terms of the animation. They're animated like no other waves I've ever seen. They're not necessarily realistic. They're supernatural waves, waves of the imagination, and in that sense the expression of the water in this film is new and interesting. The way they're animated is smart, too, or more likely deliberate and calculated, because using simple, bold shapes that undulate like the goo in a lava lamp avoids the chore of having to animate the spray and foam in detail the way Matsumoto does. I remember seeing water animated this way in the Shigeru Tamura films. But needless to say, here, the water actually moves, and moves something amazing. The image of the car racing along the road by the water, with the water bubbling up into the sky in all sorts of strange configurations to the side, is unforgettable in its tension and surreal power. All of the scenes during the storm achieve a remarkable feeling of tension and imminent danger presumably because we all instinctively know the wrath of nature and the ocean. These scenes seem to me to invoke that mythic fear and reverence we've had for the ocean since the beginning of time, as first expressed in things like the Odyssey.

I liked the animation in this film because of the very specific balance of visuals they achieved. So even the scenes that weren't particularly well animated were quite enjoyable to watch as animation. But the well animated scenes were indeed magnificently animated and the highlight of the film. The central spectacle of the film is of course the storm scene, and from what I can gather, for the animation of the most spectacular sequences of the storm scene, we have to thank primarily Makiko Futaki, the Ghibli mainstay I talked about before who has long been responsible for animating natural phenomena in the Ghibli films, and Akihiko Yamashita, the ex-Bebow animator I mentioned in my last post. Together they appear to have animated many of the more impressive shots in the storm scene. More specifically, Futaki is credited with doing the bits where Ponyo is running on the fish/waves chasing the car, and Akihiko Yamashita is credited with the shots of the car in the storm, to say nothing of the amazingly detailed sequence with the trawler at the beginning.

These great action sequences rank among the best to grace any Miyazaki film, alongside Kazuhide Tomonaga's opening car chase in Cagliostro, the sword fight on the ship by Yoshinori Kanada in Nausicaa, the scene with the golem coming alive by Nakura Yasuhiro and Shinji Otsuka and the fight on the railway by Hirotsugu Kawasaki in Laputa, the bike ride by Toshiyuki Inoue in Kiki, the flight scenes by Yoshinori Kanada in Porco Rosso, the action in the fortress by Shinji Otsuka and the action in the forest by Atsuko Tanaka in Mononoke Hime, the chase through the building by Kenichi Konishi in Spirited Away, and the mid-air transformation by Shinya Ohira in Howl's Moving Castle, to name but the ones that spring to mind immediately.

There were many other standout shots besides these sequences. First and foremost, of course, is the magnificent opening sequence, for which we have veteran Ghibli participant and Telecom animator Atsuko Tanaka to thank. (refer to my post on the women behind Ghibli for more on her and Makiko Futaki as well as Megumi Kagawa, who did the scene at the kindergarten). Shinji Otsuka's running on the fence near the end was typically well timed and exciting, reminding simultaneously of his running sequences in Millennium Actress and Mononoke Hime. Probably not coincidentally, he was also given another running sequence in the film - Ponyo running towards Sosuke when they're first reunited. He also apparently did the very impressive action scene where Ponyo transforms and escapes from the ship. It's no surprise that Otsuka is again one of the main animator stars of the latest Ghibli film. He and Akihiko Yamashita stand out for having done among the most - and most exciting - animation in the film. (for more info about who animated what scene in the film, consult this post in the forum)

Needless to say, it's animators we have to thank for making the animation in this film so amazing, although you'd never know that looking at the credits at the end of the dub I saw in the theater last night. Credits are there to say what the people who worked on the film did, right? To "credit" them, so to speak? The curious thing is that, in place of credits, there's just a long list of names here. I'm not kidding. It's just a big roll of hundreds upon hundreds of names, without any credit or anything. Not only that, they abbreviate the first name. Sure, I bet most people who are going to watch the dub couldn't care less, but it's nothing less than an insult and a slap in the face to every person who was involved in this film. I've seen some botched credits in my day, but I've never seen such a travesty. "We made this film" indeed.

Aside from this glitch, the dub is fairly passable. Anime dubs have come a long way from the horrible dubs I recall from the 90s. Liam Neeson is perfect as Fujimoto, as is the child actor playing Sosuke, Frankie Jonas, although the rest of the voices are hit or miss. Needless to say, the next time I watch the film it's going to be in the original language, so that I can appreciate the film as it was intended to be seen. Even dubbed, though, the power of the animation is entirely sufficient to make the film work, so if you're hesitating whether or not to see it because of that, I'd say go for it. The impact of seeing it on the big screen easily overcomes any minor drawbacks in the dub.