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Yasuhiro Aoki is one of my great weaknesses. Something about his sensibility as a director just strikes a chord in me. I love each new film he produces. He's got a very particular style of humor that's all his own - wry, subtle and sophisticated without being over-the-top and without resorting to lowbrow humor - and it blends seamlessly with his directing. The framing of the shots is always interesting, every little movement on the screen is always communicating something, he inserts a lot of very clever ideas in every little shot, his designs are new and interesting without being too crazy and still seeming pretty accessible. He started out as an animator, and that shows up in his work. The drawings are consistently beautiful, with elegant lines and forms, and the motion is nuanced and fun. He has his own approach to movement, and isn't just some follower of a school. I like the fact that he's come up with a style that feels very much his own, without that style being alienating or artsy or artificial or weird for the sake of being weird the way some auteur anime directors feel. He's got a welcoming style that I think everyone can get. It's not the in-jokey or template-based humor of most anime. I sense he's the kind of director who has broad appeal beyond the anime crowd. He's definitely got a peculiar style that might not work for everybody, but he packs his films with so much that it feels like everybody gets something from them. He's both a director's director AND an accessible director.
I think it highlights this broader appeal that he was given the job of doing the commission for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, a 10-minute animated short entitled Honey Tokyo featuring a girl from the future who lands in Tokyo with the intention of taking away the color in the city, but winds up falling in love with the place instead. It's a quirky story idea, and it's a quirky film. Par for the course for Aoki. I'd be very curious to find out how his involvement in this project came about. It's ironic and telling that Studio 4C, of all studios - that renegade band of uncompromisingly artsy animators - were honored with this prestigious commission. Tokyo clearly sees anime as a very important cultural export to have used an anime film for this purpose, and of all the studios in Japan, 4C and Aoki were chosen to represent that culture and sell Tokyo to the world.
From a technical standpoint, it's pure Aoki - the directing, the animation, the humor. All those crazy oblique angles, the realistic but caricatural style for the bystanders, the way the guy casually starts trying to walk past the flying saucer thing at the beginning after his initial confusion. And the typically quirky humor of putting that tic-tac-toe on the back of the flying saucer thing right when they're talking about how Tokyo will disappear in the future. Why is there a tic-tac-toe there anyway?!
It's a very Aoki film, but at the same time it's very clearly a tourist film and a promotional film. He's an auteur, but a professional foremost, and he does the material justice. It's an interesting tightrope act, balancing serving as a tourism film and telling a story. The intensity and density of ideas is actually pretty toned down from his previous films. This isn't the place to show off, and he knows it. He efficiently packs photos and illustrations and even live-action footage of the various locales of Tokyo into the flow of the story, conveying the beauty and venerable history of Tokyo, while still managing to create a whimsical story arc filled with his ironic sense of humor and directing sensibility. There's a lot packed into this 10 minute film. The combination of live-action footage and animated characters works pretty well here.
One of the things I like about Aoki is kind of hard to put into words - it's his spontaneous essence. He creates moments that feel spontaneous and natural. In this film I think of the scenes with the guys playing shogi on the porch and the kids in the street. In his previous work I think of one of his Fluximation shorts, the one that consists entirely of a sequence of quick shots of people in various situations that are alternately prosaic, dramatic and ironic. Each shot feels like a casual snapshot of a larger arc of action. (The last shot in that Fluximation vid is one of the funniest things ever)
Another thing I like is related to his past as an animator. He knows when to make things more detailed. Certain shots suddenly feature very rich or subtle motion because it's necessary to express the material. It's the ideal in animation of having a director who knows animation inside out and hence knows how to use the various possible approaches to animation appropriately in different instances to achieve the ends of each particular scene. I'm thinking in particular of the slow, nuanced movement of the procession at Meiji Jingu, and at the opposite end of the scale, the shot of the rocket attached to the feet, with its fast, almost comically realistic motion.
It's a pleasure being able to see a new Aoki film. This was good, but it wasn't exactly hard-core Aoki. I liked the density of Kung-Fu Love and hope he can eventually produce something a little longer in that vein, even if it's probably no longer appropriate or worthwhile to go back to that one. (I still find it disgusting to think of all the crap that gets produced and nobody wanted to touch Kung Fu Love, especially considering the overwhelmingly positive response the film would have received from fans, if the hundreds of comments on Youtube asking for the show to be made are anything to go by. Great judgment there, conservative-ass Japanese sponsors. Nice going.)
Upon reading your post on Aoki, he seems like a director who prefers balance when it comes to presenting his materials. With film medium becoming longer and trailers are getting more interesting than actual film itself, it looks he does his best at short film format. If he was given opportunity to make a long film, I wonder how it’ll look?
I just watched Honey Tokyo. We know that it’s a tourism film, but it doesn’t feel like it. I really like the unorthodox character design. If Kung Fu LOve is more for manga-style fans, Honey Tokyo has the design appeals to mainstream. What do you think?
I agree that the designs in Honey Tokyo were probably conceived with a more mainstream audience in mind… but really I think they’re in the same spirit at those of Kung Fu Love. The girl’s design is quite peculiar, and hardly ‘cute’ in the style of typical anime girls. I mean look at those eyes and long neck! Just odd enough to stand out without going too far into ugly territory. Very delicately calibrated and memorable designs IMO. They’re identifiable as anime characters, yet the don’t look like any other anime characters. That is one thing that makes Aoki’s designs so valuable.
You raise a good point about the length issue. Aoki has never done anything longer than 10 minutes, so perhaps it would be rash to get him to do a full-length feature immediately. I think a 30-minute piece would be a good first step. By unfortunate circumstance, everything he has done in the last few years has consisted of very short shorts, or digest/pilot-type shorts, so he hasn’t really had the chance to try his hand at directing “normally paced” material. A movie would require completely different dramaturgy and pacing from the very densely packed shorts he’s done so far, so who’s to say whether he’s up to it…
I did not like that tourism film at all. I don’t think animation is appropriate here, even considering Tokyo being the home of Japanese animation. It reinforces a lot of misconceptions people get of Japan through their cultural exports.