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, 15

Monday, March 15, 2010

10:28:13 pm , 1402 words, 1582 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie


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.