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I wrote about Grampa's Lamp before. I just watched the next quartet of shorts in the Bunkacho's program to support the growth of the next generation of animators, now christened Anime Mirai rather than Project A: Minding My Own Business, Dudu the Floatie, Buta and Wasurenagumo. These were released 2011. Another set of four came out in 2012. I will probably get to those eventually, although they look awful.
This is a good set in the sense that each film takes a very different tack in terms of style and story. It's a healthy variety, from the socially conscious and more artistically inclined sketch animation Minding My Own Business to the kiddy, colorful, wildly animated Dudu the Floatie to the supernatural anime rom-com Wasurenagumo to the old-school anthropomorphic swashbuckler BUTA. This seems like a better variety than the more recent set.
That said, Minding My Own Business seems to me the clear winner. It's the only film that comes together as a satisfying whole. The other films may have their qualities, but overall they feel imperfect. They work to target a certain demographic, say, which in terms of functioning as a product is fine, but they don't hold up as films. If this is the best these big studios can do, that is a big red flag that the problem isn't with the dearth of animators. I think they should be far more concerned in Japan about raising the quality of their creative thinking and storytelling than the animators. They have tons of good animators. What they don't have is studios willing to do anything other than make the same thing over and over again, or creators capable of thinking outside of the box.
It's disappointing to me that big animation studios, given the freedom to come up with animation free of the shackles of commercial constraints for once, show themselves entirely content to stay shackled to those constraints, like the elephant tied with a string. I suppose the reasoning is that this is more about vocational training, and short-sighted artistic adventuring would do the young trainees a disservice by not prepping them in the tools of the trade. I think the studios act too beholden to what they consider to be demanded by their viewers. Creative new visions should be the driving force. Among them all, only Shirogumi, a major force in advertising animation, has the moxie to create real animation and not just more of the same exact typical anime we've all seen done to death. Yes, anime is inherently entertainment, i.e. there to help us waste our time, but animation can and should aspire to more than that.
しらんぷり Minding My Own Business d. Shimpei Miyashita, ad. Naoyuki Asano
An elementary school child witnesses his classmates being bullied but feels powerless to intervene. Based on a picture book, this film skilfully explores the psychology of children both on the bullied and the bullying side in Japanese elementary schools. The vivid, raw, freewheeling, unabashedly hand-drawn animation transforms what could have been a preachy story into a tremendously entertaining, clever, moving, powerful, and even funny social parable that makes you understand the psychology of not only the bullied child but even the bully. The film is never dour or full of itself even at its most intense moments, instead telling the story through a veil of irony and wit.
I thought the director was indie animator PON Kozutsumi, Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regular and director of Rita and Whatsit, but apparently he only did the pilot and seems to have dropped out of the project afterwards. This is disappointing, but the film thankfully turned out fine despite this. The director is instead Nippon Animation/Disney Japan stalwart Shimpei Miyashita, with the animation headed by the immensely talented Naoyuki Asano with assistance by a very talented young animator named Shintaro Doge. Asano is a name to watch. I've seen him prior in Doraemon and Tatami Galaxy.
The animation is nothing less than a supreme delight from start to finish. Drawn with rough and quick pencil lines with the calm confidence of a master's hand, the characters are full of life at every moment, their expressions vivid and their movements heightened with imaginative flourishes. Every line is visible, and lines do not play within the shapes. In the climactic wrestling scene, the characters transform into a mess of squiggles as they twirl around one another and the camera swirls around in response. Scenes segue into other scenes deftly, creating an irresistible flow that takes you through to the end. At no point does the animation feel like it is struggling technically to convince you of something beyond the animators' capabilities. They are comfortable that the handful of scribbled lines they have placed on the screen create a beautiful visual scheme. Simplicity is deceptively challenging.
Kosuke Ito's delectable piano-clarinet-violin trio creates a lovely lilting, classical but jaunty soundtrack that is the perfect accompaniment to the film's ups and downs.
Shirogumi's film is a three-dimensional film that satisfies every criteria of what both animation and filmmaking should be. Its characters ring true; the story sensitively and insightfully explores a real-life issue facing children in Japan; the film language is creative and original as well as dynamic and exciting; and the animation is top-notch without relying on conventional notions of quality such as cool and stylish drawings, twee character antics, industry-template expressive symbols, or massively inbetweened animation. It's just good, smart filmmaking that cleverly and efficiently uses the means of animation to find an emphatic and visually novel and appealing way to tell its story. It is a prime example of visual storytelling.
ぷかぷかジュジュ Dudu the Floatie d. Hiroshi Kawamata, ad. Miho Suzuki
A little girl dreams of an adventure with her dugong floatie at the beach where she rescues her father from a giant fish. The unfortunately named Dudu the Floatie is a vividly animated and honest children's film that shows the power of Answer Studio as one of the few 'full animation' studios carrying on a more western style of animation in Japan today. Telecom is another such studio - they have been behind much WB animation for decades - but their BUTA short in this set shows how different even these two studios are. Telecom seems to be struggling to regain something lost, while Answer seems to be attempting to mold their past into something new and find a way towards the future.
This is a film purely for children, unlike Minding My Own Business, which is more of a film about children. There's little pretext of realism anywhere, not least in the dialogue or diction of the little girl, which is brassy, grating, rehearsed, and entirely unbelievable. An adult can appreciate the subtle psychological turns and social commentary of Minding My Own Business, but here the directing is deliberately exaggerated and simplified, the shapes and colors bright and flat. From my perspective everything is too flat and simplified, which makes it cloying, but as a film for children this is no doubt an asset.
There is little sense of art in the film. The ugly, blobby characters float uncomfortably over the conservative, unimaginatively realistic backgrounds. The heads and features are tactlessly huge. The father's face is a round balloon with no human features. Perhaps this is how infants see the world. But with the realistic setting and satirical golfing interlude, the film seems unable to decide whether it wants to go for a conventional anime aesthetic or a more freewheeling and cartoonish children's look. I could see them making a good film in the spirit of Catnapped if they found someone with a more holistic visual concept.
That said, the animation is incredibly exciting and lively. It was easily the most entertainingly animated film in the set. They do a good job of adapting the fluid western-inspired 'full animation' (though it's not really anything remotely close to Disney style animation) aesthetic of their past, with its stretch and squash and anticipation and follow-through, to the dynamic pacing, cutting and composition conventions of Japanese commercial animation. I preferred Flag as a film for obvious reasons, but Dudu the Floatie is a much better showcase of Answer's undeniable power on the animation front. They're creating dynamic action animation of the kind that Telecom should be.
BUTA d. Kazuhide Tomonaga, ad. Shirai Yumiko
BUTA was the biggest disappointment of the set to me because I had the highest hopes for it. I knew a while back that the film would be a disappointment when I heard the creator, Christophe Ferreira, was no longer involved in his own project, whatever the internal reasons were. Had the film been made in the spirit of the pilot, it would have been a triumph, but it seems to have rather been assembled from the exploded shards of the concept, and is a failure. The difference between this film and the sort of short film being made today in France by students is stark. Japan has lost the edge in my opinion.
It should have been a fun, playful action-adventure-comedy starring sprightly anthropomorphic characters in a swashbuckling adventure in the mold of that classic of animated swashbuckling anime, Animal Treasure Island, which was the project's obvious inspiration. Instead, it's a lifeless, dull, insincere slog with nary a bit of excitement or spark. This is shocking because it was directed by Kazuhide Tomonaga and produced by Telecom - the animator and studio synonymous with the best breathless action-adventure animation moments in Lupin III. This should have been the team capable of creating that sort of excitement and reviving the spirit of the manga eiga of yore, which is something I for one would really, really love to see happen. This is the film I most wanted to love in the set, and see it take off into a franchise.
The animation didn't have to be brilliant for the action to work; the action scenes just weren't excitingly choreographed. The pacing was odd, with long stretches of nothing happening at moments when it felt more hustle was dramatically called for. There was way too much emphasis on the drama, and it didn't make sense. The whole scene on the boat after the escape felt off. All momentum suddenly disappears, and the pig is suddenly insistent on the kid throwing away the map for no reason. None of that felt necessary. Lightning striking the water afterwards, creating a big wave, just didn't even make any sense at all. The climax was anti-climactic. Instead of a big battle pitting the good guy against the bad guy, the baddie essentially flops around and defeats himself. The pig character was interesting and had potential as an interesting protagonist, although he felt a little borrowed from Crayon Shin-chan's Buriburizaemon - self-centered, shiftless, diminutive, begrudgingly good pig hero for hire.
Wasted potential, but this is the kind of anime I would like to see done right. As it stands it's too close to an anodyne kids show like Kaiketsu Zorori. It would need more action and punch to make it work.
わすれなぐも Wasurenagumo d. Toshihisa Kaiya, ad. Hideki Takahashi
An antiquarian bookseller releases an ancient spider monster curse and becomes beguiled by the creature. This outing by IG was by far the most pedestrian and conventional in the set. Visually it offers nothing new or interesting whatsoever. That said, I actually enjoyed it, much to my surprise. While all of the visual elements grated on me, particularly the antics of the spider character with her agonizingly painful anime girl face, the humor was subtle and amusing, and it felt like a bit of a lighthearted parody of past IG supernatural anime.
Director Toshihisa Kaiya finds himself at IG now, but he came from Ajia-do, like Masaaki Yuasa, where he worked under the masters, among other things, on a few episodes of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. He had less of an individual style than his mentors, rather showing himself versatile at adapting to the respective inimitable style of Osamu Kobayashi in Ookami Choja (watch) and Tsutomu Shibayama in Sarukani Gassen (watch), for example. He's more of a professional than an auteur; which is no swipe. Moving to IG makes sense for him.
In Wasurenagumo, little vestige of Ajia-do stylization is visible. The versatile, prolific, professional Kaiya deftly deploys a character design style and visual scheme that are entirely contemporary and unadventurous to tell an amusing ghost story interweaving past and present Japan.
Visually the style was classic IG realism lite, with body movement physics a bit more weighty than your usual anime, but passed through the sieve of anime expressive and acting conventions. The scene at the end where the characters run through the abandoned building, with its extremely angled perspectives, was apparently the work of a young animator named Shingo Takenaka. He has obviously studied Hiroyuki Okiura very closely.
These are actually the 2012 Anime Mirai shorts. It’s a bit confusing, since the first year when this was still called the Young Animator Training Project, the shorts were released as the 2010 Young Animator Training Projects even though they came out in 2011. Since the title changed to Anime Mirai they’ve readjusted the years to match when each batch of shorts are released.
The tone of this post is a bit more vicious than I was expecting. I understand and can symphatize with your desire to see more experimental animation, but I think it’s a mistake to expect indie-ish work out of what is, after all, an industry product, even if it’s funded by the government. I don’t know if it’s always the case that “the studios act too beholden to what they consider to be demanded by their viewers"; the possibility should be considered that the staff are creating what they themselves enjoy, even if the result ends up lackluster or pedestrian. At any rate, Anime Mirai is not the best that Japanese animation today can offer. Looking at the industry as a whole, I actually think the level of creativity is presently on the rise after the slump that occurred when the anime bubble of the mid 2000s burst. There’s more anime originals being greenlit (and simply more anime being made in general), adaptations of legitimate novels such as From the New World and Eccentric Family that reach outside typical anime material, new creator-focused studios such as Trigger being formed, and then you’ve got such a startlingly unconventional work as Flowers of Evil somehow getting funded. There’s a lot of derivative dreck of course, and it’s not the heyday of the 1980s or mid 2000s when the industry was flush with money (comparitively), but there’s plenty of creativity to be found if you look around.
Passing to your thoughts on the 2012 shorts, I am in broad agreement with them. Shiranpuri really impressed me with the boldness of its visuals and the sensitivity of its storytelling. As someone with deep sympathy towards the subject of bullying, I was happy to see it tackle the subject without shrinking from its ugliness and the ugliness of the society which enables it to take place, while at the same time avoiding melodrama and having understanding for bulliers. Naoyuki Asano was character designer and chief AD for the film Saint Young Men, which came out this year, the style of which, while not as out there as Shiranpuri, is fresh and attractive in its own way. That’s worth keeping an eye out for.
The 2013 Anime Mirai shorts are probably the weakest year, although Madhouse’s Twilight Zone-esque Death Billiards, directed by the up-and-coming talent Yuzuru Tachikawa, and Trigger’s cartoony Little Witch Academia are good. The other two shorts are completely without value - Gyo is Gonzo putting in a very weak effort that falls into all the negative associations people have with the studio, and ZEXCS’ short isn’t even a proper Anime Mirai short, but was an already existing commerical adaptation that got thrown in at the last minute when Studio Pierrot backed out from their proposed project. Please don’t waste your time on the latter two, but do check out Death Billiards.
Now 2014 Anime Mirai looks the most promising of them all, just based on the initial staff information. You’ve got Yoshimichi Kameda doing character designs for Shin-Ei’s short, Ayumu Watanabe directing at A-1, Yasuhiro Yoshiura directing at Ultra Super Pictures (probably actually at Yoshiura’s own Purple Cow Studio), and Naoyuki Onda directing at Studio 4C. A lot of potential there.
That Minding My Own Business short is one thing that I’ve wanted to watch for a while but never really found the will to do it. Now that I’ve read your impressions on it I think that I’ll have to do it.
Yeah, skip Ryo and just rewatch Studio 4°C’s Hijikata Toshizo
Death Billiards is like Kaiji with pool (and only 30 minutes). worth watching imo
Thank you for the correction. I actually looked it up and thought 2011 was the year they’d settled on, but I guess I messed up.
Apologies if the post came across as sounding more harsh than merited. I think I’m rusty writing and I overemphasized the negative points just to keep myself from my bad habit of being too soft. The films were hardly torture to watch; they were each pleasant and well made in their own way. You make great points and it does indeed seem to be the case that more creative projects are being greenlit by a broader array of studios nowadays. I need to see the best of what’s been done over the last year to appreciate this.
Thank you kindly for mentioning Saint Young Men. I will eagerly check that out, as even if it is different from Minding My Own Business, I’m sure his skill will shine through and I’d like to see how he handles very different kinds of material.
Having already seen Little Witch Academia, that leaves me to check out Death Billiards. I’m excited about the next batch. I agree that it sounds very promising. I’m particularly excited to know Ayumu Watanabe will be directing one of the shorts. It’s somewhat ironic that he’s directing a short at A-1 while there’s a Shin-Ei short on the roster. And great to see 4C finally join the fray.
Do check it out, it’s lovely and has some great animation, despite being in a different style. Hopefully you will like it.
Sounds like sound advice. Will do. Sad to hear Gonzo continues to live up to their reputation of not living up to their potential.
Hm. Just had the opportunity to watch Wasurenagumo. It’s a well-done short film. Though it isn’t the sort of thing given over to stylistic excess or experimentation. The story is smart and knows exactly what it wants to do. The tone of the piece deftly balances brisk and lighthearted humor with a (subtly)sinister atmosphere. The pacing is right without rushing things or lingering awkwardly. The climax in the abandoned house and the denouement is plain old-fashioned good filmmaking. The characters are expressive, the style is subservient to the telling of the story but appropriate and efficient(the drawings are particulary strong near the climax) and never really inadequate or distracting(though perhaps fashionable bias insist we should feel it is).
At any rate, it’s certainly not indicative of the worst shortcomings of anime filmmaking.