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: March 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

09:25:03 pm , 1186 words, 3804 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

U

I just got to see the French feature-length production U (2006) directed by Serge Elissalde and written and designed by Gregoire Solotareff. A few adjectives that immediately spring to mind to describe this delightful film: fresh, bright, meandering, relaxed, tender.

There's no other feature-length animated film quite like it. Rather than being plot-driven, it feels like we're just following around a group of characters for a while, a la Robert Altman. This film doesn't so much tell a story as develop a group of interesting characters and create vividly colored compositions for them to casually meander through. In the very laid-back world of U, the characters' only occupation seems to be sleeping, eating, singing, dancing and exchanging witty banter.

It's pleasant company to spend an hour with, and certainly leaves you feeling less exhausted than two spent being dragged around by some convoluted plot and overdone animation. I felt really good after watching this film. It's a calming film that makes you happy watching it.

The animation and overall approach to the visuals here is quite unlike any other feature you're likely to see, very 'indie' feeling. Like most of the best animated films I've seen over the last few years, they don't follow any school of filmmaking, but create a world and storytelling style entirely their own. France has for decades been a reliable source of beautiful, artistic, independent-minded feature-length animation, and U is yet another to add to that list alongside past glories like Gwen et le Livre de Sable.

The characters are cartoonish anthropomorphic animals, some real (cat, rat), some mythical (unicorn) and some, like the protagonist princess, shown above, seemingly invented. The character designs are basic and sparely detailed, each having its own distinct outline and flat color. The lines are thick and wobbly and uncertain, and the drawings look hand-drawn in the extreme, even somewhat sloppy or casual. It's a style you'd expect to see in an independent short, not a feature film. From scene to scene you can identify animator baton-touches, as the character drawings and animation style changes slightly, which is great if, like me, you appreciate seeing different animators' approaches left intact in the final product. It's subtle, though, and most people probably won't notice.

Despite the animation being almost crude compared to the likes of Disney or Chomet, I feel the animation brings the characters alive well and works with the film's visual ethos. There's plenty of inventiveness on display in the planning and timing of the characters' actions without needing to hire 40 people to animate each character. I actually prefer scene-based animator allocation such as this, because it feels more personal, so it's great to see it being used outside of Japan. The style of the character animation and storytelling actually remind me a lot of one of my favorite obscure animated movies of the 2000s, The Boy who wanted to be a bear, a Danish-French film from 2002 directed by Jannik Hastrup.

There are a number of impressive 'show-off' scenes in the vein of the lovemaking and dancing sequences in Mind Game, where the animator in charge was left to have fun with the material and be as inventive as possible, and these are quite lovely to behold - I'd almost say worth the price of admission alone, but the rest of the film is worth it. I usually hate this kind of thing, but as in Mind Game, this is an example of how how to do it right without being tacky and annoying.

The backgrounds are riotously colorful watercolor explosions depicting an unnaturalistic, pleasingly garish storybook landscape. I spent much of the film's runtime happily basking in one marvelously beautiful composition after another. The backgrounds have a storybook quality reminding of Dr Seuss, and are also drawn in the same wobbly style as the characters.

The plot isn't the only ephemeral thing; we're told next to nothing about this strange world the characters inhabit, who these characters are, or how they got there. Only the merest hint is dropped when the unicorn named 'U' mentions in passing that the only animals left in the forest are the birds because a tsunami swept away all the inhabitants long ago. It's a fantasy land with a hint of post-apocalypse.

Aside from the relaxed atmosphere and sensuous visuals, the characters are fun to watch intermingle and develop. The dialogue is casual and real and subtly witty in a very French way. The interactions are believable and the conversations exude a kind of bohemian levity, without going overboard and being too self-aware.

A carnivalesque, laissez faire atmosphere reigns in the gypsy camp: they lounge about by day, and party by night. The dark, drab grayness of the sullen rats' castle is contrasted with the warm hues of the world outside - the vivid yellow of the princess, the red-orange of the forest, the variously colored gypsies.

I've long been a fan of the great Sanseverino, a French singer of Django Reinhardt-style Tzigane music, and it was a delight to find him here playing the role of, well, himself, in this film. He's the cat in the hat who leads the gypsy band with his song and guitar. There actually is a very definite theme and story to the film. The theme is closely tied to Sanseverino's character and music. It doesn't feel like there's a story being bashed over your head; it's just there, developing quietly and slowly.

Without going into specifics (because knowing anything would ruin much of the fun of exploring this very appealing world), the story serves up a universal coming-of-age fable that will touch a chord in everyone. The princess starts out as a lonely little girl with no friends or siblings who needs to depend on her imagination for comfort. Her interactions with these outsiders reveal to her that she has to put her past behind her and open up to new meetings and experiences in order to finally be able to become an adult and a woman. Sanseverino's gypsy guitarist provides the key to that transformation.

There are scenes of intimacy between the princess and the guitarist late in the film that are lovely to watch. They're candid and delicate about the two lovers' innocence, but also quite frank about the lust that drives them together. U is one of the few animated films I've seen that creates scenes of closeness and tenderness that don't feel like mere stock 'movie romance'.

The image of the famous Unicorn tapestries appears at one point in the film in a beautifully animated sequence, reinterpreted with Sanseverino's cat in the guise of the hunter. Behind the naif facade of cute animals and bright colors, this is a smart film that conceals layers of meaning not immediately apparent. I like this film because it shows that it's possible to make cute films for children that are meaningful and intelligent without having to stoop to being saccharine or insulting or facile. Children will enjoy U, while from my perspective as an adult, it functions on the same level as a book like The Little Prince: a fable for adults.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

02:15:47 pm , 1034 words, 1895 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

In the Attic

It's not surprising that legendary Czech stop-motion animator Jirí Barta's 2009 feature-length film In the Attic never made it to my neck of the woods, but it's a crying shame, because it's a fantastic little film that will delight anyone who sees it, young or old.

A better contrast with $9.99 there couldn't be: Both recent stop-motion films, but both as different as can be, and great in their own way. Even in stop-motion, the possibilities are limitless.

Where $9.99 is literary adult fare with a clean and polished style that mimics real life, In the Attic is exuberant fantasy full of imaginative creature creations. It revels in that basic thrill of stop-motion animation - mashing assorted odds and ends together and breathing life into them. My one reservation about $9.99 was that it lacked this basic thrill, with its low-key animation and monotone style. In the Attic is absolutely chock full of that thrill, packed with a boundless array of interesting ideas for bringing things to life. It's a very tactile film, full of all sorts of textures, patterns, shapes, delicate gradients of light, mottled and faded colors.

This film is a proud addition to the long, great tradition of Czech stop-motion animation dating back to Jiri Trnka. It's pretty remarkable to see that stop-motion films like this are still being made, as it feels so of another time, which is not to say out of date. It feels like the wind of another age. It's great that Barta continues to carry on this great tradition.

Barta has been known for his very individual style, and although I'm not too familiar with his work, you can clearly sense the touch of an auteur here. You sense this basic approach to animation that underpins most of them, yet each of the great Czech masters is an artist with his own unique vision, and Barta is no different. In the Attic reminds vaguely of a Svankmajer, but a Svankmajer who has put aside the slabs of meat and carcasses and decided to make a delightful film for children. Barta seems good at creating a highly detailed world whose every element seems alive, a dynamic and imaginative fantasy space.

In the world of In the Attic, the attic is a microcosm that comes alive with strange creatures when the humans aren't looking. A doll keeps house in an old suitcase. A toy train picks up passengers at a toy train station. Pillows float up out of drawer as rising stormheads and snow pillow feathers. Pigeons in the rafters become falcons on high espying the valley floor, where torrents of bedsheets flow down the canyons between an old dresser and table left to collect dust.

All of this takes place in an actual attic, using the actual objects one might find lying forgotten. Humans come and go in the same space in which these beings are animated, which is very fun to watch. It's a strange hybrid of reality and fantasy. Rather than being a world of pure fantasy, it's as if the actual objects of this dingy and dirty world had randomly reassembled and come alive from the spot where they'd been left in the attic. There's a certain mystery in the air about whether they are aware of each other, or whether they're like mythical elves - creatures who come out to play only when humans can't see them, like the materialized imaginings of a child.

The protagonists consist of a wad of putty with a pencil nub for a nose and a bottle cap for a hat, who stretches when he walks and splatters when he falls; a bedraggled teddy bear who sleeps in an old slipper; a Don Quixote-like marionnete who sleeps in a box with a picture of a knight in armor by night and fights pneumatic toy dragons by day; and a homely antique girl's doll who is the homemaker for this motley crew.

Without spoiling the story, I'll merely say that the film sees them embark on an adventure across the perilous landscape of the attic. They enlist the aid of the attic mouse, a junkyard packrat and electronics expert who runs the attic radio station, in whose hands a vacuum cleaner becomes an aeroplane that speeds them along to their destination. The journey is fraught with danger, and along the way they must traverse mountains and rivers and combat villains made of old shrivelled potatoes, dirty natty wads of string, old gloves, and seething hydra made of a wad of putty stuck full of nails and electric clamps. There are so many clever ideas packed into this film. I couldn't get enough of it and wished it lasted a bit longer.

The film is a rich mixture of different approaches to movement, with each of the characters requiring a different method of movement suited to their body's construction. On top of this, steam from a bubbling kettle and ripples in a stream of bedsheets are added on with hand-drawn animation, creating a rich mixture of live-action, stop-motion and hand-drawn animation.

There's no attempt to make these creatures seem real. The jarring heterogeneity of everything is the whole point. That's the difference with a lot of other stop-motion animation I've seen from other parts of the world, where they try to create this stylistically uniform and homogenous world, as if to convince you that you're seen real creatures. In this film, and other Czech animation, it seems to me like you're supposed to be fully aware that the object that's being animated is a dead slab of meat, or a ratty old teddy bear, or a decrepit old doll. You're supposed to enjoy the fact that these unlikely things are coming alive, not try to hide it. And they combine expressive forms that elsewhere are left distinct - actual human beings walking by pieces of detritus writhing around on the floor in stop motion. I love the delicate balance this creates: a film for children, but with a very grungy and hard-edged look and feel. This is a paragon of the kind of film I most admire, where the style is the substance, where the media is intrinsically tied to the story and theme.

Monday, March 15, 2010

10:28:13 pm , 1402 words, 1568 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

$9.99

I didn't know what to expect of $9.99, an Australian-Israeli co-production released in 2008. It sounded like a project that would be right up my alley - a realistic, modern-day fable for adults done in stop-motion animation - but I haven't really heard much hoopla about it in the two years since its release.

Well, I just checked it out, and for my money it's a pretty good film. Anyone interested in serious animated filmmaking should watch it without hesitation. This is the sort of film I'd hope the animation community would rally behind: a sincere attempt at creating an animated film for adults, one that doesn't pander with lowbrow humor or try to compensate for a shallow, lowest-common-denominator story by using quicker and quicker beats and jam-packing every second with lame jokes or action or eye candy and smothering it with a generous helping of pompous, overbearing music. Oscar fodder this is not.

That's not to say I think it's a perfect film. I found it lacking in dynamism in terms of the visuals and pacing, and I wasn't completely convinced that this was a film that had to be done in animation. I feel that the animation in a film should somehow be a reflection of the theme and story, and should push boundaries in some way. The animation was well done, but orthodox. The puppets were certainly well made. It was nice to see human beings depicted in a realistic way in claymation for once rather than in the usual cartoony style. They did a very good job of creating a whole cast of individuals that looked like actual individuals rather than some kind of generic 'person'.

But what really made this film work for me wasn't the animation, though I did enjoy the animation. It was the story told by the witty and literary script. It made sense to learn that it was adapted from a short story. It's not enough to say that this film is quite unlike most animated films that adults might find themselves going to see in the theater today - it is the antithesis of such films. This is a thinker's film, rather than a hollywood animated feature. For once, this is a film that pays its audience the respect of assuming they are smart enough to handle a complex, ambiguous narrative that is not meant to be taken at face value. It's filled with subtle and believable everyday detail, as well as layer after layer of enigmatic meaning that the viewer is left to parse as they will, rather than presenting a black and white clash between good and evil. This feels like the sort of film you'd find on the indie circuit rather than in multiplexes.

I salute the ambition of even attempting to create a film that they must have known from the outset would have a fairly small audience. What's the definition of great art? Is it a film tailored to be enjoyed by the many that keeps them peeled to their seats with visuals of awesome beauty created by a huge team of craftsmen? Or is it a small film that tries something a little weird and a little unsettling, that follows an artist's vision wherever it leads, regardless of whether people want to see it? Both sides can be plausibly argued, and there's a time and place for both, but the latter is underrepresented.

The shots were very carefully crafted. It feels like they framed this film the way you would a live-action film. It's a bit counterintuitive, because of the ingrained dogma that you should only do things you're only able to do in animation in animation, but I think it worked for their purposes. Watching the film is this destabilizing, uncomfortable experience where these obviously artificial characters are rendered in an unflattering, ugly, realistic way, and they act not like cartoon characters but in a very low-key, realistic manner. It's a deliberately artificial simulacrum of reality that complements the surreal, fable-like story and gives the film a unique atmosphere.

Technically speaking, the shots are remarkably well put together, with the placement of the characters in the frame, the lighting and the depth of focus immaculately fine-tuned to achieve just the right balance. The shot above is a perfect example. You could almost mistake it for a life-sized shot from a live-action movie. This is truly exceptional miniature craftsmanship. The voice-acting is also very strong in the film, bringing the excellent script to life and making the characters feel real.

On a slightly different note, I watched Ninja Gaiden, an OVA from 1991. Artsy Sundance fare this one is not. 'Cheesefest' is the more appropriate term. This one's based an NES video game I used to play as a kid, and though it doesn't in the slightest resemble the game, it feels 100% like the lazy animated game cash-in it is. I'm not hating on video game anime. That Street Fighter Alpha Generations OVA was pretty interesting, and there are plenty of other video game anime that are worth watching, if not masterpieces of animated filmmaking.

This isn't one of them. It's about a mad scientist who creates monsters with the aid of a demon and wants to take over the world, and it's as lazy as that plot summary. The directing is inept and boring in the extreme, the designs are rote and unoriginal, the background art is an afterthought, the characters are bland objects that utter words but have no personality, and the story must have taken five minutes to write, mostly by filling in a few blanks on the template of standard throwaway sci-fi anime OVAs.

Redeeming feature? Toshiyuki Inoue! This was a Studio Junio production, and Studio Junio was Inoue's alma mater. I don't know whether he was still there in 1991, or whether he did this as a parting gesture or what, but it's almost laughable the extent to which his skills put those of the other animators at the studio to shame. His scene is easy to spot. I'll leave it up to you to figure it out. I'm not completely sure whether he did any other scenes. There's a fight with some monsters that takes place in a "Japanese shop" (that's the actual name of the shop according to the background art) midway through that has some interesting animation, but it doesn't really feel like Inoue. There's a car chase right after that has a few shots that are rather nice, but I can't say for sure whether he did it or not, though they do have a bit of the flavor of the bike chase scenes in Akira, especially this one shot that resembles the shot where Tetsuo drives his bike through a narrow alley filled with garbage, just before wiping out.

There are some other talented animators in there, so the shop fight and car chase might be by one of them. Hiroyuki Morita, who despite coming off as something of a buffoon with his immature blog antics while directing Bokurano, animated the unhinged swordfight in the rain in Hamaji's Resurrection, which I absolutely adore. It's the most beautifully ugly and unglamorous and hair-raising swordfight ever animated IMO. I like him way better as an animator than as a director. He was also in the likes of Innocence, The Cat Returns, Spriggan, Perfect Blue, Golden Boy, Rojin Z and Peek.

Also present:

Shigeo Akahori, who was in Metropolis, Cat Returns, and designed and supervised Porfy's Long Trip. He's got a blog.

Hisashi Eguchi, who besides having animated the early part of that great fight on the tower in the Cowboy Bebop movie also did work in Gits, Memories, Spriggan, Steam Boy and Paprika.

Mamoru Sasaki, who was in Peek, Ran, Catnapped, Memories, Master Keaton, Jin-Roh, Palme, TokiKake and Stranger.

Just about the only announcement at the Oscars the other day that didn't make me want to throw fistfulls of popcorn in impotent rage was when Logorama won. Now there's a film that felt really bold and daring and new, while still working as a fun action movie. It's kind of neat that it won because it's not so much a film as it is an act of provocation against the underpinnings of western consumer culture - and a pretty damn brazen and cleverly crafted one at that, considering that they managed to appropriate all those logos without getting 300 lawsuits filed against them.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

04:12:38 pm , 949 words, 4104 views     Categories: Animation

The 2009 Doraemon movie

It sucks. Gone is the loving care of Ayumu Watanabe, replaced with the infantile pap of Nippon Animation. There's a song and dance sequence that crushed my soul. It took no less than three directors to maul the blue robot cat: Chief director Kozo Kuzuha, director Shigeo Koshi, and line director Shinpei Miyashita. This film is actually a remake of an older Doraemon film, like the first 'revamped' one from 2006 directed by Ayumu Watanabe, but the difference is vast. The film is flabby and by the book. The framing of the shots is kind of boring, with a lot of close-ups and uninspired TV-style layouts. The villain is (yet again) a westerner with an offensively large westerner nose. It's watchable (barely) but forgettable. You don't feel any particular love for the characters. Everything feels generic. And it's not just because the directors are Doraemon newbies. This is a typical problem with Nippon Animation productions. They talk down to kids. Even the colors feel dumbed down for kids, with lots of bright primary colors. It's Doraemon, you'll say, of course it's for kids. Maybe so. But I think the great kids films are those that are solid works of art and not just condescending pablum.

The animation isn't as lively or full of character in each sequence. There aren't really many sequences that feel there to showcase how fun a scene can be when you choreograph it well, do some great layouts, and get a great animator to animate it. Shizue Kaneko was the chief animation supervisor this time around, and there are three sakkans, which accounts for why it doesn't feel like it has as much of her character. I assume she must have taken a step back in the actual work. I was actually able to ID a number of sections pretty easily this time around. Masami Otsuka did the whole baseball scene before and after the opening sequence. Kind of lame casting him right at the beginning. His work was scattered around more in the last film. The bedroom scene right after this scene was nicely animated, though I don't know by whom. The tidal wave scene was obviously Yuichiro Sueyoshi. Sueyoshi's not new to Doraemon, but this is the first film he's done since the upgrade. The baseball sequence was by... surprise... Satoru Utsunomiya. I haven't seen a new sequence from him in ages. Where's he been hiding?? I assumed he was working on some big project, but nothing yet. Surprising to see him here. But frankly, the work didn't feel that good. It felt stale. More interesting work is being done by younger faces today. The running away part right afterwards was really nice, in fact better than the baseball sequence, sadly. Other good animators include Shizuka Hayashi, Motonobu Hori, Masashi Okumura and Fumiaki Kouta, so maybe it was one of them.

Sad to see the movies taking a nosedive like this, but not unexpected.

PhotobucketOne thing I did still like about this film is that there were a number of scenes that continued to showcase the new concept behind the animation of the new show - 'yawaraka Doraemon' or 'soft Doraemon'. This idea first showed up in the 2007 film, in which Doraemon seemed like a plushie rather than the robot he is. It doesn't really make sense to make him seem all fluffy, but it actually works in some strange way. Anyway, it's real fun to look at. The pic here from the 2009 film is a great example. This new approach isn't just limited to the animation of Doraemon, of course. It's the general mindset towards animating all of the characters - they're more three-dimensional and pliable than before. Things were way more rigid in the old show. They've given themselves permission to take more freedoms with the forms, and it really enlivens the animation. Oh, and apparently Doraemon has teeth now.

Went through a few of the many episodes of Manga Nippon Mukashibanashi that are up on Youtube the other day. I was looking specifically for the ones by the interesting faces, and found several. This one was done by Shinji Otsuka in 1986. It's not quite what you'd expect from all of his work over the last decade in the big Ghibli & Kon movies, but you can still sense that an animator who knows how to make things move is helming this one, as there's more of a fundamental sense of character animation than in many of the other episodes, most of which have crude designs and move very sparely.

This one is by Hidekazu Ohara from 1989. He's the one responsible for the visual side of the wonderful Cannon Fodder episode in Memories, not to mention the awesome Professor Dan Petry's Blues. He's one of those creators who really stands out in anime for having a visual sensibility that's way, way different from all of the usual design cliches that dominate anime. He did quite a few episodes in Manga Nippon Mukashibanashi actually, and each one is pretty nice and different. I like the sinister mood and insane designs in this one, for example. He directed, animated and did the art for the latter, so it moves less, but it's great what a sense of integration he achieves between the art and animation. That's something that characterized Cannon Fodder. Like I said before, a lot of the designs on the show, though a refreshing change from the usual anime look, tend to be kind of crude, but you can tell Ohara is a great illustrator and animator who has a great sense of how to create a design that's interesting and well drawn. I mentioned before that Hidekazu Ohara started out at Topcraft, and I think that's what gave him that edge. I just noticed that another ex-Topcraft animator is in Cannon Fodder - Tadakatsu Yoshida - so maybe he was invited by Ohara.

This one is by Yoshiaki Yanagida from 1991. Yanagida is an interesting animator, though I know less about him. He did the Spirit of Wonder (AKA Miss China) OVAs, which are quite well made, despite the original designs from the manga on which the anime is based being kind of weird and the content of questionable taste. (what the hell is it with westerners with big noses in anime?!) The animation is rich and the drawings very well rendered. He started out at Ajia-Do and I think he's still there now. So he's been there on all of those shows that people over here watched many years back like Urusei Yatsura and Kimagure Orange Road and Nadia of the Blue Water and Fam and Ihrie. More recently he's done NieA_7 and Kaiketsu Zorori and Emma and Genshiken 2 etc. He was even in a few older Doraemon movies. Designs here are quite interesting, and he's good at effectively using very few drawings in the way that A Pro-school animators were so good at, alternating it with more fluid moments, like the dance bit followed by the kettle fall. (this episode is directed by Osamu Kobayashi, who did many episodes)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

02:59:43 pm , 1436 words, 8245 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

The Sensualist

In the 54 years from his sexual awakening at the age of 7 until the age of 61, Yonosuke had relations with 3740 women and 725 men.

So we learn about the protagonist of Ihara Saikaku's 17th century novel The Sensualist in this animated adaptation, which is directed by erstwhile art director Yukio Abe, best known as the art director of the great Sanrio films of the 70s and early 80s, and scripted by erstwhile director Eiichi Yamamoto, best known for directing the experimental adult epic Belladonna.

Armed with those stats, Yonosuke makes Casanova look like the 30-year-old virgin. The 18th century Venetian and patron saint of latter-day Venutian artists such as Neil Strauss proclaims in his autobiography to have had relations with a mere 200 or so women during his lifetime. Yawn. But Casanova's autobiography is an engrossing and ethnographically invaluable piece of writing, and Yonosuke is a fictional character, so we'll call it even.

Better known as The Life of an Amorous Man, the novel was the first in a series of tracts that Ihara Saikaku published in the 1680s recounting the amorous escapades of the denizens of his Edo-period merchant class demimonde, who were apparently quite the libertines. I'm sure there are some juicy parallels waiting to be drawn between 17th century Japan and 18th century Venice by an enterprising student of comparative cultural studies.

Edo-period Japan was one of the most enlightened and liberal societies the world has ever known when it comes to sexual matters, with its sophisticated amalgamation of sexual openness and artistic expression. Rather than clients visiting prostitutes in dingy dives for a slam-bam-thank-you-mam exchange of fluids, Japan's geisha were government-sanctioned master artists who engaged clients in a classy, ritualized form of intellectual foreplay involving conversation, music and poetry.

The crème de la crème of geisha was the tayuu, and it's one of these creatures that is the object of the chase in this film. The Sensualist tells the story of a fumbling young man who seeks Yonosuke's assistance in getting with a renowned Edo tayuu. Flashbacks weave in and out of the narrative thread, filling us in on Yonosuke's respectable history of romantic dalliances.

The visuals of the film are exquisite, creating a sumptuous homage to the art of the Edo period. The characters are modeled after the style of Edo hanga, and are animated with great care under the supervision of the late great FX animator Mikiharu Akabori. Quite simply, the film is a feast for the eyes. Abe Yukio was first and foremost an art director, and the focus on the film is understandably on creating a sequence of beautiful images, which it does marvelously. There are few anime films as beautiful as this one out there. The film feels like a moving hanga.

Rather than gliding through a crude naturalistic approximation of Edo Japan, the characters inhabit the actual art and expressive symbols of the era. The ocean undulates like an ink painting, white lines on a black background. Naked bodies entwined in an embrace float through fields of lotuses. Shadows of long-eared rabbits hop across folding screens painted with stormy waves. Prints of Edo beauties or landscapes by the great masters pan across the screen, creating a heady and intoxicating atmosphere in which art, sex and life intermingle, rather than simply telling a story.

Although this is definitely a film for adults, and there is a good deal of nudity, a bit of rubbing, and a whole lot of bobbing, none of it is explicit. Actual shunga from the same period as this novel are far more explicit. Instead, symbols like the turtle and the camellia that were used back then to hint at sexual matters are used in a similar spirit during lovemaking scenes. The only time the film borders on funny is when they use the same strategy as 1001 Nights and Cleopatra and suddenly coyly shift from a shot of the couple embracing to a shot of abstract animation showing a suggestively shaped flame, or a clap of lightning that sends birds flying off of a tree. But for the most part, these shots of abstract animation are subtle and creative, and they feel like a modern extension of the Japanese symbolic tradition.

Originally released in Japan around 1990, this 54-minute film was presumably a direct-to-video release. Gone were the days when a film like Belladonna, this film's only real analogue in anime, could be released in the theaters. It appears to have disappeared into obscurity fairly quickly, and it's hard to find almost any information about it anymore. Needless to say, it has not been re-released on DVD.

This film deserves a better fate. If ever a film qualified as a buried gem, this is it. There is quality work here. This was an ambitious project that was clearly a labor of love. Director Yukio Abe masterfully handles a complex narrative that flows between the present, the past and the abstract, making every image count. Mikiharu Akabori's character animation is subtle but nuanced, authentically reproducing the complex dress of the era and the styles of physical representation of Edo-era prints. And Eiichi Yamamoto deserves a lot of credit for penning an excellent script tangled with poetry, authentic inflection and subtle wit. Together, they did a good job of visualizing some pretty difficult material in a way that remained true to its explicit nature without teetering too much into the realm of bad taste.

More importantly, they fully utilized all the means available in animation to create a thematically and visually consistent interpretation of the spirit of the novel. They channel the actual art of that period into the modern means of animation, achieving a sense of artistic unity that could not be achieved in a live-action adaptation.

Despite being an erotic film, it's not meant to be titillating. The film has a sense of spiritual and literary depth that goes beyond mere sexual exploitation. It reminds me of the themes invoked in 1001 Nights, the first Animerama film, which was also directed by Eiichi Yamamoto: Ambition, lust, curiosity. The desire to push yourself to be the best YOU you can be, to go higher and higher, just to see if you can do it. That is one running themes that seems to occupy Eiichi Yamamoto in the three characters of Yonosuke, Belladonna and Aldin. 1001 Nights was intended as a film for adults addressing complex adult themes, not as erotica, and I find that that's the case with this one, although the erotic element is unmistakably more dominant here. The film feels like an homage not only to the art of Edo Japan but to the erotic sensibility of that era.

And lest all this make the film sound like a stuffy art film, it's clear that they don't take themselves too seriously. It's entertaining to watch the protagonist, a bumbling stand-in for every ordinary loser out there who isn't a Don Juan like Yonosuke, fumble his way into the arms of this goddess.

Alongside Belladonna, The Sensualist is one of the rare attempts to do tasteful and artistic adult fare in animation. The studio that produced this ambitious film might come as a surprise: It was Grouper Production, a short-lived studio that was co-founded in 1986 by Masami Hata, the director of many of the very same Sanrio productions on which Yukio Abe acted as the art director. Hata directed several of Grouper's productions, including the Hobberdy Dick TV series, the Super Mario Brothers: Princess Peach movie, and the Ping Pong Club TV series. As far as I know, this is the only film that Yukio Abe directed. Since then, he has returned to art directing, most recently working again under Masami Hata on the Stitch TV series produced by Madhouse.

How did this project come about? It seems so out of character with everything else done by the studio as well as the director. Was it a project he had always wanted the chance to direct? So many questions. Grouper continued operating for several years after this film was released, so at the very least, it didn't put them out of business, which is a relief. Belladonna was produced 20 years earlier. Films like this only seem to come around in 20 year increments. Hopefully that means we'll be getting a new one soon. It's understandable that most studios don't have the daring to try their hand at something a little more ambitious like this, but it's still a shame. The talent is out there to make a new adult epic. It only makes me all the more grateful for the occasional aw-the-hell-with-it moments of indulgence like The Sensualist.

Monday, March 1, 2010

07:30:15 pm , 1169 words, 3840 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

The 2008 Doraemon movie

Though you might be surprised that I'd expect otherwise, this year's Doraemon movie looks terrible. The series had a streak of solid films starting with the revamped 2006 film directed by Ayumu Watanabe and featuring a bevy of great animators headed by animation director Kenichi Konishi. The new film is headed by the guy directing the revamped TV series, Kozo Kuzuha, a Nippon Animation expat who directed many of the studio's World Masterpiece Theater shows during the 80s and 90s, when the shows sucked worse and worse and ratings tanked. Coincidence? Either way, I'm not too sure about the decision to bring him onboard, because I never liked his directing. The previous film from 2009 was directed by Shigeo Koshi, another longtime Nippon Animation figure. There seems to have been a big exodus from Nippon Animation to Shin-Ei in the last few years. I'm not sure how I feel about that, although I view Koshi a little more favorably because he directed the second half of Rascal Raccoon and all of Perrine, two of the only watchable non-Takahata World Masterpiece Theater series. Ex-Nippon Animation director Shinpei Miyashita helped Ayumu storyboard the 2008 film. Their pedigree definitely fits the material, but I'm not too sure it's a good thing. Ayumu Watanabe had real fire, and he elevated Doraemon beyond what you'd expect from such a show.

I just watched the 2008 movie, entitled Nobita and the Legend of the Green Giant (no, not that one), which Ayumu Watanabe directed, and I was very impressed. I seriously think it's a little buried gem. I can't believe it didn't win any awards in Japan. It's every bit as impressive as his 2006 film. The 2007 film was directed by Sachiyo Teramoto with animation supervised by animation director Shizue Kaneko. It was an eminently watchable film, though definitely a step down in terms of the directing. In terms of the animation, it was quite impressive throughout thanks to Shizue Kaneko. The 2008 film features Shizue Kaneko working this time under Ayumu Watanabe, and the result is pure gold. They make a superb team.

I think Green Giant is a pretty successful film - the best after the 2006 film. Ayumu Watanabe goes for something different from the 2006 film, AND it doesn't feel like any other film in the series. Instead of the close realistic observation and deeper character psychology of the 2006 film, Green Giant is Ayumu Watanabe creating expansive fantasy adventure. That's something that's been seen before in the Doraemon movies, but I think he does it better than longtime director Tsutomu Shibayama, great director though he is. It felt like Shibayama got out of touch after a while. Ayumu Watanabe is more modern, bringing new blood into this material. He has a great sense for gear-shifting between different moods and tones and paces that really feels good and believable. He makes movies that feel like movies, not just hopped up TV shows. The detail of the layouts is toned down from the 2006 film, and there's more of an emphasis on coming up with a rich array of interestingly designed alien flora and fauna and bringing them alive in very fun and active animation. There are long sequences with no dialogue and only the characters going through interesting antics on the screen. The staple characters are absent throughout much of the film. And it's an original story not based on one of Fujiko F. Fujio's manga, which is unusual for the series. It really feels like Ayumu Watanabe's baby. Again. That's what I like about Ayumu Watanabe - he creates a film from the ground up, investing it with tremendous love for the material and characters. What I felt watching this film was that Ayumu Watanabe should direct a Ghibli film. I'd love to see him not constrained by these characters and the tone of the show he's worked on for so long. His approach is very much a fit with Ghibli IMO, and I think he would do a great job directing a film there.

The animation is a joy to watch at every moment thanks to Shizue Kaneko and the animators working for her. I love what Shizue Kaneko has brought to these characters. She fills the scene with acting that conveys the characters' personalities and feels good as animation, without going overboard. The forms and volumes of the characters are freer and more pliable than ever before. For a while Doraemon characters felt very static. Here they explode from the screen in lively action sequences, their bodies bending and twisting. They kept the hand-drawn touch of the 2006 film, though here's it's less of a pencil-style line than a sort of ink line that grows thinner and thicker at various places. It gives the drawings a wonderfully tactile feeling, like they were just born from the pen of the animator, and keeps the shapes from growing monotonous and rigid.

The very simple but imaginative character designs are reminiscent of Kaiba, which not coincidentally featured a lot of work by Shin-Ei animator Ryotaro Makihara, who is also here. Like in the 2006 film, there are a number of talented outside animators present livening up the animation. Tamotsu Ogawa, Norio Matsumoto, Masahiro Sato and Fumiaki Kota are present alongside in-house regulars like Masami Otsuka and Shizuka Hayashi. Masakatsu Sasaki has been in all of the recent Doraemon films and he's here, too. Also present: Yoshihiko Umakoshi, Ikuo Kuwana, Kiyotaka Oshiyama, Shigeru Kimishima and a mysterious name: Nobutaka. Could this be a pen name of Nobutake Ito poking fun at how people were misreading his name? I've seen it somewhere else. There's also this young animator named Naoyuki Asano who was praised by Yasuomi Umetsu for his work on Umetsu's recent Kite Liberator TV series. He's been in Kaiba, TokiKake and Summer Wars. There is an effects animation supervisor: Hiroshi Masuda. The effects throughout are nice. Shingo Natsume is there as co-sakkan.

I'm really looking forward to Keiichi Hara's new film Colorful, which hits theaters this summer in Japan. It's a committee production film, but supposedly Sunrise is the studio behind the production. What a change for Hara. Sunrise is the last place I expected him to go after Shin-Ei. The film is based on a novel by a Naoki Award-winning novelist, so it should be interesting. I just hope Sunrise doesn't ask him to change the story so that the protagonist has to pilot a giant walking robot or something. To a lesser extent, I'm also looking forward to The Space Show movie from A-1 Pictures. They're a great upcoming studio, and it's directed by Koji Masunari with long-time collaborator Masashi Ishihama on character designs and animation. I don't really like the character designs, but I'm sure it's going to have a lot of good work in it, as always with this director, so it will be worth a look. The trailer is filled with detailed work.

They're doing this thing with different endings in each episode of the new Gainax show Hanamaru Kindergarten, and Osamu Kobayashi did one. I like it.