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: September 2013, 12

Thursday, September 12, 2013

09:50:00 pm , 1021 words, 6188 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Blue Exorcist movie

I watched this 2012 movie on the recommendation of commenter shergal, and I'm glad I did. I enjoyed it. Although essentially simplistic children's fare populated by conventional anime characters going through the same ropes we've seen many times before, it's all well done in a nice little package. It's a solidly produced, atmospherically directed, well animated franchise film. And most of all, it has stunning background art. It's a movie worth seeing for the background art alone. If there's "sakuga anime", then this is "haikei anime".

A sequel to A-1 Pictures' Blue Exorcist TV series from 2011, which I never saw, it's a standalone followup featuring the same characters but in a one-shot situation. It's a pure franchise movie in that it presupposes knowledge of the show's story, characters, and basic gimmick. I was confused on a lot of points, most notably the relationship between the grandfather and the two brothers, which presumably lends this story its emotional resonance.

That said, it's crafted in such a way as to basically stand on its own. The actual narrative is extremely simple. In a world where demon hunters are organized like law enforcement to protect the town from stray demons, a novice unwittingly releases a demon and domesticates it like a pet/little brother, until finally discovering that its true nature puts the town at risk of destruction.

Despite not having seen the original material, there were two draws to this that made watching it a no-brainer: director Atsushi Takahashi and art director Shinji Kimura. Both help raise this movie above the level of a 'mere' franchise movie. The solid animation work doesn't hurt, either.

Art director Shinji Kimura makes this movie. The backgrounds here are every bit the equal of his work on Tekkon Kinkreet, something I never expected myself to say. His art is breathtaking: an anarchic mishmash of dirty billboards, old neon, brightly colored kitch, and urban decay that creates the impression of a tremendous amount of life boiling beneath the surface, even if the movie otherwise doesn't really delve into fleshing out the workings of the city itself, rather focusing exclusively on the main characters and narrative. Many of the images are so gorgeous I wanted to just pause the movie and stare at them.

What's nice about his art is that there's a depth to it at the same time, an irony. Shots like the one pictured above, in addition to being absurdly densely packed in an obviously supra-realistic way rather than merely realistic, almost have a satirical bite. There's an element of gaudy satire, Logorama-like reveling in the absurd superficiality of urban life and its overproliferation of signage. Sadly, there is little in the film that echoes or explores any such themes. I would like to see Kimura for once given the chance to try out original subject matter, free of the constraints of source material, that would directly address the underlying themes in his work.

Director Atsushi Takahashi meanwhile knows how to showcase Kimura's art in a way that doesn't just sideline it as a backdrop to the action, but makes the city one of the film's living, breathing protagonists, as it was in Tekkon Kinkreet. Takahashi's directing tends to favor slow pacing, long shots, and atmosphere, although he does a great job shifting in the action scenes to a vernacular that is closer to spectacular Hollywood blockbuster than art house. That directing style works perfectly with the art by Kimura.

The film opens in grand style by immediately announcing its powerful vision of the city. The camera slowly pans up from the protagonist at the bottom of the staircase, nearly invisible amidst the chaos of claustrophobically cluttered, dun-colored hilliside homes, gradually revealing one grander and grander opulent construction after another, extending up and up in a seemingly endless vertical ascent, cranes resting gingerly like cleaner birds on the hide of some giant golem-like beast, finally reaching its resting point at the tip of a strange Tower-of-Babel-like structure at the heart of the city. It's an appropriately cinematic opening showing that Takahashi knows how to create a sense of scale befitting a feature film, something lacking in a lot of franchise films.

I'm not very familiar with Atsushi Takahashi's resume, but in my mind his name is synonymous with episode 12 of Kemonozume, which is the standout episode of the show, and probably one of the greatest TV anime episodes ever. He is one of the few directors I've seen who brings something different to his animation - not just a more poetic sensibility, but the technical grounding (borne of experience at Ghibli under Miyazaki) to execute it convincingly and cinematically. His style is artistic and stylish, but without the in-your-face formalistic flourishes of Toei-school directors such as Mamoru Hosoda. Style seems subservient to creating a feeling of the reality of the world inhabited by the characters.

The film is unsurprisingly bookended by two very exciting and well-animated action scenes. Although this feels like rote film structure, it's hard to imagine something more satisfying for a good entertainment movie than opening and ending with a bang, and this movie does that well. The opening chase with the eyeball blob comes across as something of a reprise of the chase through the corridors with Kaonashi in Spirited Away. It's a scene that makes good use of the large scale of the city, with the protagonist and the beast eventually falling from the tracks down, down, down through an endless vast expanse of space and crashing down into firmament that seems only to have been built on older parts of the city. It's in this forgotten precinct where the protagonist unleashes the Baku-like beast who eats bad memories rather than dreams.

The eyeball blob returns for the finale, which features even more impressive animation. His defeat is followed by a second climax. The first climax provides the action catharsis while the second provides the dramatic and emotional catharsis. Any number of talented animators were involved, and presumably these were responsible for the action scenes: Masahiko Kubo, Cedric Herole, Takaaki Wada, Hitoshi Ueda, Keisuke Watabe, Tadashi Itazaki, Masao Okubo, Soichiro Matsuda, Shingo Ogiso, etc.