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I've been playing catch-up lately. First I was ten years behind on Banipal Witt, and now I've seen the masterpiece from a decade earlier of that other karisuma star of the 80s, Yoshinori Kanada - Birth. Everything I've heard was right and wrong at the same time. It was the insane, nonstop freewheeling extravaganza that everybody said it was, and at the same time I felt they overstated the story problems. Admittedly it's oddly shaped, but as it stands it's an incredible piece like no other from that generation. I felt that in its way it's perfect as it is.
I don't even know where to begin but to say that I haven't been so constantly thrilled by almost every shot of animation in a film since perhaps Dead Leaves or, in a different sense, Mind Game. Because DL is the apt comparison. Birth was the aptly titled mother of DL. It's hard to succinctly verbalize what it is that makes the animation that Kanada developed so unique, but basically it's all about the thrill of animation, of movement, of soaring through the air, animated backgrounds, of packing in as many interesting ideas into every frame as possible, of constantly moving everything on the screen, of messing with the frame rate to make interesting effects, exercising absolute freedom with the shape of the characters, ignoring gravity. He was the one who taught us that thrill. The 80s may well have been the golden age of animated backgrounds in Japan. Three years later Shinya Ohira did that Captain Power video game, which is essentially 30 minutes of nonstop background/FX animation. But something lacking in the latter is the wonderful feeling of momentum in the earlier film. Another film that came to mind was the Fuma Lupin - yes, the famous car chase, which I thought could never be topped.
Even moreso than in DL in Birth I felt like I caught every single solitary animator baton touch, even though I don't know the styles of all the folks in the film so I wasn't able to say who did what except for the probably unmistakable salad sequence by Masahito Yamashita, and yes indeed, that was some good Yamashita. There's something to be said for youthfulness in animation, for not knowing that you're not supposed to draw that way. It's sad that Yamashita has learned that now.
The wonderful thing is, Kanada hasn't. More than 20 years after doing this film, Kanada is every bit as wild as he was then (as an animator), if not more. After trying his hand at some CG animation on the Final Fantasy movie, just to see how it was done and maybe broaden his horizons, it looks like the experience humbled him and he has come back full force to his hand-drawn home turf with a series of openings for console games in the last few years that are must-see to anyone who may have enjoyed follies like this and DL. In fact, he personally picked out Imaishi to animate/direct the opening for the recent Musashi game, after providing him with the storyboard, because he wanted someone who would play it fast and loose and have fun with the drawings. After sampling Imaishi's work over the last few years he knew he'd found his man, according to a recent interview.
This came just after Kanada had directed and animated the drawn part of the half-CG, half-hand-drawn opening for the Hanjuku Eiyu 3D game. And as if two Kanada openings in nearly as few years wasn't enough, the fourth volley of the Hanjuku game is coming out six days from now, with an opening (and ending!) done entirely by Kanada himself. Reportedly the production time for the opening - just the opening! - was eight months. He even drew the backgrounds himself. Very worth looking forward to.
But to get back to Birth, I was also impressed by the directing, and the handling of the sounds, for example the way the entire first ten minutes are almost wordless. You get the feeling he was out to remind people that animation is a visual form of communication, and not verbal, and at the same time you kind of also feel the influence of Nausicaa in that respect, which I suppose he must have done just before or perhaps during. For a film that is practically an 80-minute-long chase scene, the rhythm of the various sequences is amazingly tight and convincing. It doesn't flag. Most amazing of all is, of course, the animation. Another keyword here is playfulness. You really get the feeling of the animators playing around on this film. It's almost overwhelming if you're only used to seeing that sort of animation in small doses here and there, because almost every scene is full of that sort of playful spirit, with the posing, with the little jokes added here and there. They're always trying to come up with something.
And it doesn't feel forced, which is another thing I liked about the film. Particularly the humor, which had an understated quality I really liked. The muteness of the opening continues throughout the film to incredibly good effect, with the little dialogue there is witty and well-timed. Not having seen anything directed by Kanada before, I felt like I'd gotten my first true glimpse at the man as creator and not simply animator. It's a shame he hasn't done any more full-length features, or even short ones. But that's what I love about him, that he's been faithful to his first love without going to another, just like Toshiyuki Inoue.