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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« In the AtticThe 2009 Doraemon movie »

Monday, March 15, 2010

10:28:13 pm , 1402 words, 1580 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.



Niffiwan [Visitor]  

Thanks for the interesting review of $9.99. I hope I’ll be able to see it one of these days…

Concerning “the ingrained dogma that you should only do things you’re only able to do in animation in animation"… there’s a lot that could be said about that. There is an anti-realism currently prevailing in the art world. On Cartoon Brew, for example, you see a lot of hostility to technologies such as motion capture (or earlier, rotoscoping). Then again, Disney himself deliberately went back to realism with “Snow White” and “Bambi".

And there are artists such as the recently-deceased Anatoliy Petrov who spent the greater part of their careers counterintuitively trying to bring hyper-realism to animation:

03/16/10 @ 09:40
bunny [Visitor]  

I hope someday you might do a feature on OAVs of the ‘golden age’. I’ve been searching out copies of the pieces you’ve mentioned recently, some of which I vaguely remember from ages ago. All these videos I rented on VHS that made a subconscious impact on me artistically as a kid, the memories of which had gotten submerged over the years. It’s interesting, the influence the format had on its works.

Surprised to hear a positive word for ‘Logorama’. The descriptions I read made it seem like it could be interesting, but response from the “animation community” in blog comments and etc. the day after the awards was so extremely and universally negative I didn’t even watch it. I’ll check it out.

The thumbnail image of $9.99 really looks like a live action film, I did a double take upon reading the first paragraph.

03/16/10 @ 15:07
Ben [Member]  

Yes, there’s a lot that could be said to point out how narrow-minded it is to vilify realism in animation. Personally I’m quite attached to the realistic school of animation… not that there is any actual school of thought, of course. There are so many different ways you can interpret reality in animation, and honestly it’s the more realistically inspired animation that has left its biggest mark on me, particularly the vein of realism that developed in anime in the years immediately after 1988.

I’m going to check out Anatoliy Petrov’s films. They look quite amazing.

Bunny - What exactly do you define as the golden age of OVAs? I might be interested in doing something like that… anyway, I definitely plan on continuing to dig up and write about obscure OVAs. I’ve actually re-watched a bunch more than I’ve written about in the last few weeks, but many of them are so bad that I can’t even be bothered to write about them. Because, really, unfortunately, the majority of OVAs are garbage. I consider myself lucky if I find a bit of good work the way I found Inoue’s work in a throwaway OVA like Ninja Gaiden.

I haven’t read any of the critical reactions to Logorama. I only know my reaction, and that’s to have been impressed by the fact that this film was a big, audacious slap to the face of every corporation in the world, and they got away with it. Not only gotten away with it, won an Oscar for it! It’s fascinating how if they’d have appropriated just one, they’d have been in trouble, but by appropriating them ALL, the work is clearly perceived as fair-use satire. (or is it?) I really see this as a brilliant piece of conceptual art more than anything. I think it’s a conceptually daring and thought-provoking piece, and you don’t see many of those nominated at the Oscars.

03/16/10 @ 20:41
h_park [Member]

Reading this reminds me to go back to make stop motion again. I haven’t done anything lately…

03/16/10 @ 21:09
LainEverliving [Visitor]  

Ben -

I remember seeing $9.99 back last year when it was up for the Annies. I liked it, although I felt it was a little too uneven dramatically for me to vote it higher than I did (I believe I voted it in fourth place out of five, although maybe I put it third). I met the director during the promo junket and was quite impressed she put it together so well. International collaborations on a shoestring have been getting more feasible in the last few years (Kells, etc.), but this was one of the first I was aware of that got some nominations.

As for Logorama, my friend Pam did the PR for that for the Oscar campaign, so I’m of course very happy for her it did well. Unfortunately the filmmakers didn’t come to the Academy for the Shorts panel that they have every year, but I guess it didn’t end up hurting them. A lot of the films this year were good, but the Academy certainly picked the most unique one, and perhaps the one best suited to our times.

Lastly, a bit of a defense for Hiroyuki Morita. Everyone has an opinion on how he handled Bokurano, and while I think he could have been a bit more discreet and addressed his concerns privately to the creator, I don’t fault him for speaking his mind publicly. For one thing, if he changed the story anyway, the fans would obviously notice and complain. This way, he headed everything off long before the changes occurred, thereby alienating the people who would have been alienated and leaving the ones who were committed to HIS version of the story. Honestly, I wish more directors were up-front about these sort of things at the beginning, since it might influence my decision of whether to watch or not. Also, I give him a lot of credit for being honest with his feelings on the series and not holding them back. If he truly couldn’t stand how the story was progressing, then would it have been better for him to go on anyway? I suppose he could have just quit and let someone else take over, but I’m guessing Gonzo wasn’t ready for that eventuality. So, he handled it in his own way, and even though it was controversial, at least it was honest and got a decent response from the creator. Now, for total disclosure of my own: I’ve met Hiroyuki Morita and found him a very capable and intelligent man with a firm command of directing. Anyone who wants to see his form need look no further than The Cat Returns, which he handled wonderfully. He is very upfront about his feelings ("I don’t like cats that much” he told everyone at the US premiere I was at), but that doesn’t change his abilities or his talents. I hope he’ll have more chances to direct in the future.

Anyway, that’s my two cents (or $9.99) about Morita-san, so take it for what you will. Gotta stand up for the artists we like…

03/17/10 @ 00:30
bunny [Visitor]  

Hmm.. I’d say from the beginning in ‘83 to around the mid ’90s (Golden Boy, Gunsmith Cats).

I think there was a larger volume and diversity of OAVs during that period, using the freedom of the format to do interesting stuff. It seems like since then, especially in the last decade, most OAVs are outright ero anime, and, other than a few standouts (FLCL, Dead Leaves, Nasu), suffering from the same general homogenization as the rest of the industry.

03/17/10 @ 11:59
Leedar [Visitor]  

Ha ha, I don’t know anything about Bokurano, but reading that Morita said ’so fans of the manga, please stop watching the anime’ can only be perceived as buffoonery in the context of Japanese animation. Was he put on this project at gun point?

It’s sad to hear about Anatoliy Petrov. He had a curious style.

03/17/10 @ 21:57
LainEverliving [Visitor]  

Leedar -

I don’t know exactly how he got on the project. He hasn’t directed much, so I can only guess it was based on choice. Also, given that he hadn’t worked with Gonzo before, I can only guess (again) he got into the project based on his own decision, or perhaps a good offer. It’s understandable why Gonzo would want him. The first episode (which is all I’ve seen of Bokurano) has a lot of the same feeling as The Cat Returns, only with more children and a much darker tone. It makes sense that he got involved having not read enough of the manga, and didn’t like how the story developed as he went along. If that’s the case, he should have done his homework better, but nonetheless, it isn’t by any means unusual for the anime versions of manga to deviate wildly from the source, sometimes to good effect, and sometimes not. Judging on the rather high ratings for Bokurano that I’ve seen online (Anime News Network and elsewhere), I take it that enough “non fans” of the manga still liked the series to review it well.

Personally, and this is just me, I would rather have the anime director be upfront if he is going to disregard the original and make changes then if like on, for example, the various adaptations of Negima!, they simply change things at will until finally there is enough of an outcry that the publisher PAYS THEM to do it right.

03/17/10 @ 23:30
Neilworms [Visitor]  

finally got to see 9.99 and was very impressed. Thanks for the good writeup about it, I think you captured my own thoughts pretty well about that film.

Also, Logorama was awesome, out of the films nominated for the animated short oscar it was the only one period that didn’t fall into typical animation tropes with wacky characters doing wacky stuff. Though it was wacky it was far more subversive and conceptually innovative, I’m really glad it won.

03/28/10 @ 23:32
Ben [Member]  

Glad to hear someone else liked $9.99, Neil. A lot of people seem to miss the point about Logorama. It’s not meant to be taken at face value as some wannabe Hollywood movie, but as a sendup of that whole culture. I just saw the horrible Charlton Heston vehicle Earthquake, which seems to have been one of the models.

04/02/10 @ 21:11