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(Cue Jaws theme)
Tatakae!! Iczer-1 is one of the classic OVAs of the early days of direct-to-video anime in the mid-80s. I don't remember if I saw it back in the day, so if I did, it didn't leave much of an impression on me. I just re-visited the three-episode series and found it to be a fairly pleasant time-capsule from that era of anime history - a dense summation of the predilections of fandom at that time.
One of the pioneer releases in the nascent direct-to-video format, Iczer-1 brims with youthful enthusiasm and energy. You can sense that the young director and animators were excited about the newfound freedom the OVA format offered, because they reveled in drawing their favorite things. The OVA amps up the volume on all of the things that were obviously the main fetishes in the fan community of the day - cute girls, first and foremost, but also mecha action, FX animation and gruesome monsters. All of those things are animated and drawn in a more loving, fetishistic way than ever before.
From a strictly technical point of view, there is a lot of nice animation in Iczer-1, which makes the series hold up pretty well despite its 25 years. OVAs became known for having higher production values (midway between TV work and movie work), and Iczer-1 was one of the shows that pioneered that impression.
As an FX fan, I'm particularly impressed by the volume of realistic, ornate natural FX animation of scenes of destruction. Kanada-style timing and effects abound when the characters fight one another, and it's some of the more richly realized of the era. The robots are drawn and animated with verve by a young Masami Obari in one of his earliest gigs. The monsters designed and presumably animated by Junichi Watanabe possess the requisite ick factor - they're revolting, in a deliberate, horror-movie kind of way, with insectoid features and appendages that look like brightly colored internal organs.
The story itself is not much to write home about, but it's not meant to be groundbreaking. It uses all of the tropes of fandom to create an entertaining package aimed strictly at contemporary anime fans. They weren't aiming to make films for the ages with these OVAs. They were testing the waters of a new market to see if they could find a way of selling anime directly to fans. Thus the content of OVAs was tailored towards the taste of fans. That said, even separated by a gulf of time and culture, I still enjoyed watching this OVA, because there's a lot more to it than just cute girls. The staff were obviously really into what they were doing, and that enthusiasm elevates the material. You sense that they're excited at the thought that they're exploring new territory, doing something nobody else has done. This series probably did set a certain kind of standard for everything that followed.
AIC, who produced Iczer-1, went on to continue building on this model with other OVAs in the ensuing years, becoming the pioneer of this kind of fanservice-based production. Their work in the 80s holds a morbid fascination for me: Consistently impressive in execution and artist-driven, always featuring good work from an array of talented animators and designers, but championing the worst tendencies in anime. I can't lie: When I first began watching anime, I enjoyed watching many an AIC OVA. They pushed all the buttons I wanted pushed. The cute girls, the wild action, the gore - everything I loved about anime was studiously jam-packed into those OVAs. Many years later, older and more cynical, their work strikes me as a fascinating combination of genuine love of animation and blind business opportunism.
Director Toshihiro Hirano was also behind several other memorable OVA series at AIC in the following years. It's undoubtedly his enthusiasm for the material that pushed this production to the next level. Unsurprisingly, the original story came from an ero manga, but it was considerably changed by Hirano, presumably toning down the erotic element, to the extent that the anime is probably more 'inspired' by it than a strict adaptation.
Hirano had originally started out studying at design school to become an illustrator, but was depressed when he realized that everyone around him was more talented than him, so he turned to anime. He wasn't serious about the whole anime thing for the first few years while doing subcontract animation for various studies like Studio Number 1 (the studio where Yoshinori Kanada was employed at the time with other like-minded animators) and Tomonori Kogawa's Bebow on shows like Dr. Slump and Urusei Yatsura.
This changed slightly when he worked on Macross and became something of a star of the show. He was interviewed and drew illustrations for magazines. He became less casual about anime after that. It was while Hirano was working at Noboru Ishiguro's Artland on their new OVA/movie Megazone 23 that he met Toru Miura, president of AIC, who was temporarily at Artland working as the film's producer. Hirano was dissatisfied with the film, and Miura offered him the chance to do a new project he was considering doing at AIC, so Hirano jumped at the chance and left Artland for AIC.
Iczer-1 was Hirano's baby. He not only wrote, storyboarded and directed, he was also character designer and an animator. He put his everything into the show, and even interviewed many years later he maintains the conviction that he achieved everything he set out to achieve with this anime. Iczer-1 is what Toshihiro Hirano is all about. Take that however you will.
I can't quite put my finger on what it is that defines this as a Toshihiro Hirano Production. What is that he feels with such conviction that he achieved with this film? Perhaps it's its pioneering combination of erotic with sci-fi trappings: Naked teenage girl piloting giant robot wards off invasion of lesbian aliens. It's probably a combination of this basic idea - cute girls piloting robots in skimpy clothes - and the epic yet self-consciously frivolous plot and tone, combined with his particular design style and the unprecedented, maniacal level detail in the drawings and the animation. The characters take their story quite seriously, but you're obviously not meant to. Also, Iczer-1 seems delicately attuned to cover the range of anime subgenres, providing something for every otaku taste - something for the cute girl fans, the robot/tokusatsu fans, the military freaks, the Kanada-style animation fans, etc. OVAs were the Cambrian explosion of otaku pandering. (Bonus question: Was Iczer-1 the father of tentacle porn anime?)
What I find genuinely appealing about Iczer-1 is its dense packaging of action and storytelling. Iczer-1 is certainly more entertaining than Megazone 23, so in that regard he did achieve his goal of improving on the film. He also undoubtedly achieved his goal of ratcheting up the fetishism, which he probably felt lacking in Megazone 23. Regardless of the merits of the material, Iczer-1 pulses forward at every moment and packs a lot of entertainingly choreographed action, highly worked drawings and animation, and entertainingly tongue-in-cheek splatter and melodrama.
Whatever it is, it set the tone for the next few years in OVAs, and seems to have sold pretty well, so it obviously achieved its goal. It's an impressive achievement in a business sense. The idea of releasing something direct to video was new - they didn't even know how much they should charge for the videos, how much people would be willing to pay. They entered a new market with an informed hunch that they knew how to exploit the advantages the new medium offered and target fans more directly. They did so by producing content tailored to what fans wanted to see, but that couldn't be done on TV or theater productions. They not only pulled it off, they were a big hit. They continued building on this approach over the years and developed a thriving business centered around selling characters. That's why they got so pissed at Shinya Ohira for what he did on the Hamaji's Resurrection episode of Hakkenden - the realistically ugly people he drew weren't marketable characters. At a very basic level, moe is about selling characters, and AIC were the early masters of that game.
OVAs exploded after Iczer-1. AIC alone produced dozens of different OVA series in the 80s. It was easy to get projects greenlighted, unlike today. All you had to do was tweak what had proven successful. Let's do a giant robo version of Iczer-1 = Dangaioh, Hirano's equally impressive follow-up. Let's do a more realistic robot show = Zeorymer. Let's do a monster show = Vampire Princess Miyu. AIC expanded full-force into the character business with games and goods. They added more studios, redoubling their productivity in the process. To date they have seven studios, two of which started up just this year. AIC has since shifted from OVAs to TV work. Far from fighting against the ascendancy of moe, they paved the way for it. AIC is very much in their element in today's TV industry and have been prolific over the last decade, with any number of shows on air in any given season.
As for the animation of Iczer-1, Hirano Toshihiro's wife Narumi Kakinouchi is a strong presence throughout every episode as the character animation director and one of the animators. She would later go on to make a name for herself at AIC with Vampire Princess Miyu and Ryokunohara Labyrinth. On the mecha side of things, Shinji Aramaki and Hiroaki Motoigi designed the mecha together with Masami Obari, while Obari oversaw their actual animation as sakkan. This was one of the first shows on which Obari's unique style of drawing mecha began to emerge and gain popularity. He loved drawing faces on the mecha, drawing them posed in very human poses, and drawing pieces on the arms and legs that mimic the look of muscles.
The first episode features a credit for a studio called "Pack", one of the few times I've ever seen it credited. Pack was a short-lived studio co-founded by Hiroyuki Kitazume. It was active from fall of 1984, when Hiroyuki Kitazume left Bebow to form his own studio, to March 1987. Other members included Hiroyuki Ochi, Hiroaki Motoigi, Satoshi Iwataki, Junichi Watanabe - all credited here - as well as Sai Morifumi. In 1987, Hidetoshi Omori joined them and they changed their name to Atelier Giga and produced Relic Armor Legaciam before disbanding. I'm not sure who the "Gengataro" person credited in episode 1 is. This seems to be the only place such a name occurs. Hiruko Nuruchi also appears to be a pen name - it appears in Pop Chaser, another AIC classic.
Kitazume's section is easily identified in episode one. He was doing sakkan work on Zeta Gundam at the time, and there's a shot in episode 1 that appears to depict Kamille and his girlfriend Fa from Zeta Gundam watching Iczer-1's battle, with what appears to be Tetsuo from Akira in the background, right next to
a character from Shonan Bakusozoku Mirao Kyao from L Gaim, which Kitazume also worked on. A playful adlib by Kitazume, no doubt. The animation of the crowds running away right afterwards has an appealing Bebow flavor to the movement and drawings that clearly betrays Kitazume's hand.
Talented animators like Naoyuki Onda, Toshimitsu Kobayashi, Koji Ito, Hiroaki Goda, Hirotoshi Sano and even Koichi Arai join the fray in episodes 2 and 3. Most of these would go on to become regulars at AIC in the following years. I assume it must be largely these people whom we have to thank for the action scenes and FX animation in these episodes. I suspect Hiroaki Goda must have done the insanely intricate spaceship drawings like the one at right, since he is the one responsible for the maniacally detailed mecha drawings for which Metal Skin Panic Madox-01 from 1988 is best remembered. I'm not sure what mecha action specialist Koji Ito did, but it must have been either the robot fighting action or the natural destruction FX. The style of much of the FX animation looked to me like the work of Shoichi Masuo or Toshiaki Hontani, who were both involved in later AIC productions, so I was surprised to find neither of them credited. So I'm not exactly sure, if it's not Ito and not them, who did all that cool natural destruction FX animation.
There's a short section in episode 2 and in episode 3 that suddenly shifts to a totally different and much more appealing, very realistic drawing style that just screams Bebow. I'm guessing these to have been the work of Naoyuki Onda, who would go on to become a major player at AIC. His style evolved a lot over the years. I prefer his early work like this here.
Tatakae!! Iczer-1 animator list
Episode 1 (released October 1985)
Episode 2 (released July 1986)
Episode 3 (released March 1987)
A college kid finally works up the guts to approach that girl he's had his eye on in class, and moves out of his dorm to an tiny studio apartment. Insignificant events from an outsider's perspective. But an epic of introspection and obsessive weighing of possibilities paved the way for those little steps on the way to becoming a more secure, independent and mature person.
In the case of this series, this equates to the protagonist escaping from the maze of eponymous 4 1/2-mat rooms he was stuck in, like Rip Van Winkle, for an eternity that was actually just the blink of an eye. The whole series boils down to the protagonist making the decision to take that first step of leaving his room and going out there and approaching the girl he has a crush on. All of the introspection in the world doesn't weigh as much as a single step in real life. Every episode seems in retrospect like a circuitous route towards that goal, a fabulous invention of the brain that flashed by in a split second about what might have been if this-or-that had happened.
The beauty of this series is that it has no clear-cut explanation, but everyone will have their own explanation. The puzzle pieces do fit together. Notwithstanding the overwhelming cascade of seemingly unconnected images, it isn't random. If you choose to look hard enough, everything falls into place. It would take someone pedantically noting all of the various meanings suggested by the images - the various permutations of the dialogue that recurs with slight changes in nuance, the characters whose roles change constantly, the way the different stories intersect and diverge with each succeeding episode, the way the meaning of each episode changes with each succeeding episode - to do justice to the huge amount of thought obvious put into ensuring that all of the pieces fit together, but the size of the task seems intentionally to discourage any such attempt. And doing so may be besides the point.
But that's where my mixed feelings about this series lie: That to truly appreciate its beautiful and unprecedentedly layered and nuanced message about simply going out there and living your life, and not shutting yourself up in a 4 1/2 tatami galaxy of prevarication, you have to hole yourself up in an ivory tower to figure it out. It's simultaneously one of the most humane anime series ever made, one of the most technically accomplished, original and sophisticated in construction, and one of the most daunting and unapproachable. In the sheep's clothing of a more approachable style aimed at bringing in the fans, Yuasa has created his most impenetrable and avant-garde anime yet.
But that's not exactly accurate. The genius of the series is that it's a meticulously and deliberately constructed jumble. As you're watching it, it makes exactly as much sense as the director wants it to make - just enough for you to be able to suspect there's a way it all ties together, but holding back just enough that it doesn't all quite gel. You're not necessarily meant to connect all of the dots, at least not immediately. It's the indistinct picture the speed-talking narrator and rapid-fire visuals paint in your mind that is the point.
You wouldn't guess it from what's been written about the show, because everyone who's bothered to write about it loved it, but I think this is a polarizing series - you're either going to love every second, or you're not going to be able to finish the first episode. I don't think you can reach any meaningful conclusion just by comparing the number of people who viewed the first episode and last episode on YouTube, but for reference, it's 14,000 views for the first episode and 2000 for the last. Rather than getting depressed by this statistic, I'm heartened by the thought that there are actually even 2000 fans of sophisticated, experimental, progressive anime in the world.
You pretty much knew what you were in for once you saw the first episode. The series admirably maintained the tone and level of production quality you saw in episode 1 through every single episode. The series didn't feel either too long or too short for what it set out to accomplish. It achieved a remarkable degree of character development, and its characters were well fleshed out and interesting. They were somewhat tinged by the conventions of anime, moreso than Yuasa's previous outings, but they were still individuals with unique personalities, and not merely cardboard cutouts neatly fitting into one of the of stereotypical character types that you usually see in anime.
Rather than an ordinary drama about the trials and tribulations of campus life, that most exciting and scary time in our lives when life begins to open up for us, the likes of which we've all seen done to death already, this story is college life viewed through the kaleidoscope of Masaaki Yuasa's mind - a brilliant animator bursting with visual ideas, and a sophisticated storyteller who always pays his audience the ultimate respect of challenging them with new dramatic forms.
I wonder how many people who made it to the end of the series had this nagging feeling that I had. I was won over by the technical brilliance of the directing and the animation, and I like to think I got much of what it was trying to say, but I wasn't really hooked or that moved overall. I can see how well constructed it is, and I understand that the visual style does justice to the writing style of the original novel. But what worked as literature might not necessarily work as animation. It's not just that the narrator talks too fast; everything is too fast. There isn't enough of a rhythm. The headlong sprint of the visuals doesn't let up for an instant. But my biggest problem is that the characters didn't feel real to me. They were richly developed and fleshed out, but also smothered by the (intentional) pseudo-literary affectations of the script.
The tone of the show is fascinating: It's not meant to be LOL funny, but it's quite funny in its own quirky, understated, smirk-inducing way. Much of the humor stems from the visuals, i.e. not from the script, but from how the directors have interpreted the script. This is the plus alpha of the show. The visuals are creative and smart. They're cool looking in themselves, stylized and distorted in a constantly shifting and always appealing way as is the hallmark of Masaaki Yuasa, and they add another dimension to the script by fleshing out the story with visual clues. They're what makes this show so rewarding to watch, even if, like me, you're not completely hooked by the material. Tremendous thought obviously went into every moment of every episode. Single images often hint at a fully conceived situation that adds another dimension to a particular character's back story. Flashing by in quick succession, the parade of colorful, imaginative, meaningful images add a tremendous amount to the richness of the characters and story. The show is visual storytelling at its finest. This is the aspect of the show that I find irresistible.
Sometimes the images don't even have any obvious correlation with what's going on, as in the case of the brief image that graces the screen for just a second in the last episode in which an exhausted Johnny is prodded awake for another go. They just add weight to the reality of the situation, in a very roundabout way. It's hilarious because it's so subtle that it takes a brief moment for you to realize what it is you just saw, and it's meaningful because it says a lot about what the protagonist has been doing to while away the time while stuck in his room for all that time.
In other cases, as with the moths in the image above, you have a visual image that is a constant throughout the series and that has a variety of different connotations. In the last episode, you don't need any sort of verbal explanation as to what the giant cloud of moths flocking out of the window are supposed to mean; the image obviously symbolizes the narrator's escape, the knowledge accrued over a multitude of lives lived in the 4 1/2 mat room, and whatever else you might be able to read into it.
Despite my reservations, I don't think anyone else could have adapted this material in such a convincing way. In these difficult times, when ambitious studios with the balls to produce work that doesn't pander to fans are going out of business left and right, it's impressive that a series so out in left field, not even remotely close to anything else out there, even got produced. The show is intellectual in the extreme, hardly the sort of thing that will go down with fans - or general audiences, for that matter. It's even challenging for fans like me who tend to like more ambitious fare.
It's a tough time to be creative in the industry, but as long as there are studios like Madhouse willing to champion creators with talent, there will always be a trickle of good work coming out. But it shouldn't be a trickle. It boggles the mind that, with one of the world's largest animation industries, populated by a huge array of incredibly talented artists with all sorts of different styles, and dozens of new TV series being produced every season, a creator-driven series like this that does something even slightly different is such a rarity.
I salute Madhouse for providing the space to produce another remarkable TV series, and I salute Masaaki Yuasa and his staff for making it. It's criminal that work this good is relegated to a late-night slot and will never get a wide audience, even though I feel that the nature of the material limits its reach. It shouldn't only be seen by a handful of otaku. It's of a high enough artistic caliber that it deserves an audience of the general public.
I have to admit that I still hold out hope that Masaaki Yuasa will make another movie someday. I can't help but feel that his genius is better suited to the movie format. And a movie would get a wider audience. The TV format allows him to experiment with a lot of things, but his TV shows seem too hidden from view. Also, his TV series feel like they're not 100% pure Yuasa. They're more of a patchwork. Some things work, some don't. When he makes things with everything under his control I find it works a lot better, although admittedly this series felt remarkably uniform in tone and quality.
Episode 11 main credits
Animation director: Nobutake Ito
Takayuki Hamada, Ryotaro Makihara
Natsuko Shimizu, Sawako Miyamoto
Shouko Nishigaki, Toshiharu Sugie
Kanako Maru, Akitoshi Yokoyama
Second key animators:
Mai Tsutsumi, Kenichi Fujisawa
Satomi Higuchi, Sayaka Toda
Over the last few days I've been re-acquainting myself with Ranma 1/2, another show I watched when I first got into anime. It wasn't my favorite, but it was quite popular with other fans. I remember the show making me uncomfortable back then, and now I can pinpoint why. It was the on vanguard of the tendencies that have come to dominate the airwaves today. Yet at the same time the animation has something appealing about it. The show is a product of the early 1990s, when you begin to see a pared down but three-dimensional style of drawing emerge, with an emphasis on sharp and stylized line, create and zippy timing, and de-emphasis on shadow, together with newfound skill at drawing the body in all sorts of athletic poses and vigorous movements. Animators like Norio Matsumoto, Tokuyuki Matsutake and Masakatsu Sasaki developed their skill animating exciting body movement on this show.
The second movie seems to me to distill the show's contradictions. It's Ranma simultaneously at its best and worst. The drawings and movement are the sharpest and most refined they ever would be. It's the pinnacle of the show's visual style in many ways. It has great line art and catchy movement that's still impressive seen today. And at the same time it's pure fan service. It takes fan service to the level of softcore porn, with its barely clothed girls and erotic layouts and drawings. I think it's around that time that I started to have serious doubts about the direction anime was going, as well as about anime fandom, because it seemed like this was exactly the direction in which the fans I saw around me wanted anime to go.
The show featured early work by a lot of animators who later became better known for very different things. It's enjoyable to revisit their early work to see if you can catch a whiff of their personality. Norio Matsumoto did a lot of early work on here. I wasn't as excited about the show as many of my fellow fans, so I didn't watch that much of the TV series back then beyond the original 18 episode show (which was immediately followed by the 143 episode Nettohen continuation), so I might not even have seen much of his work. But I've seen clips in the last few years and it's actually very good - just as good and identifiable as you'd expect the work of Norio Matsumoto to be. This was 20 years ago, probably one of the first shows where his work started standing out - even before Tylor, which was the first place I became aware of Matsumoto.
In looking up the credits I noticed the names of a lot of other talented animators, and was impressed by how many people besides Norio Matsumoto this show seems to have fostered, so I wanted to just make a note of some of the names that stand out to me for reference. Here's a select list of some of the more noteworthy names involved in the first and second TV series.
Ranma 1/2 TV series (1989)
Norio Matsumoto (9)
Hiroyuki Nishimura (2, 7, 10, 14, 15)
Norimoto Tokura (3)
Akitoshi Yokoyama (6, 11)
Yutaka Minowa (6, 12, 17)
Takayuki Hamana (2, 7, 10, 14)
Hiroki Kanno (6, 12, 17)
Takuya Saito (2, 7, 10)
Ranma 1/2 Nettohen TV series (1989-1992)
Norio Matsumoto (8, 16, 19, 24, 28, 31, 35, 50)
Masayuki Kobayashi (2, 4, 6, 10, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 31, 39)
Tadashi Hiramatsu (30, 33, 86, 91, 97, 108, 116, 121, 132)
Masakatsu Sasaki (24, 27)
Masaaki Endo (4, 10, 11)
Akitoshi Yokoyama (9)
Koichi Hashimoto (13)
Yasuhiro Irie (102)
Toshihiro Yamane (60, 95, 100, 107, 111, 117, 124)
Yasushi Shingo (84, 92, 96, 101, 106, 113, 118, 123, 128, 133, 143)
Masanori Shino (95, 100, 107, 111, 117, 124, 129, 134, 139)
Tokuyuki Matsutake & Hirobumi Suzuki (101, 106, 113, 118, 123, 138, 143)
Both Tokuyuki Matsutake and Hirobumi Suzuki actually started out as inbetweeners on this show working under Atsuko Nakajima, and very quickly were bumped up to drawing genga. Hirobumi Suzuki was an inbetweener on episodes 8, 13 and 16 of the first show while Tokuyuki Matsutake was an inbetweener on episodes 3, 6, 12 and 16 of the first show. And in the second show they're always credited together. It's interesting to see that they've had a close relationship from the very beginning. I even spotted Masami Goto as an inbetweener on episode 9 of the first show. Ranma was an early training ground for many cool animators who developed in the 1990s.
The TV show was immediately followed by 3 movies from 1991 to 1993 and bunch of OVAs from 1993 to 1996. Atsuko Nakajima's drawing style defined most of these, while the storyboarding and directing was mostly done by Kazuhiro Furuhashi, even though Junji Nishimura was technically the director.
Movie 1 (1991, 75 min) featured Yoshihiko Umakoshi, Tatsufumi Tamakawa, Norio Matsumoto and Atsushi Shigeta. It wasn't directed/storyboarded by Kazuhiro Furuhashi, so it's very different in feel from the second movie and later OVAs. It's much more conventional feeling than the second movie, almost like an Urusei Yatsura film of yore, lacking the hallmarks of Furuhashi's work like the predilection for conventionally framed close-ups showing off the character drawings. From what I can tell, Matsumoto did this part. Other than this, there aren't many particularly impressive bits here, though presumably some of the climactic fights with the various guardians were done by Umakoshi and Tamakawa. Only Matsumoto's animation really stands out. Even viewed today there's a budding something in the little gestures and poses that makes the movement in his brief scene irresistible.
Movie 2 (1992, 60 min) featured the staff that would go on to work on the first six OVAs - Kazuhiro Furuhashi storyboard/director, Atsuko Nakajima sakkan, and animation from Masakatsu Sasaki, Tokuyuki Matsutake and Hirobumi Suzuki (not to mention Masami Obari, Kazunobu Hoshi and Atsuko Ishida). So it's very similar to these in atmosphere and directing as well as drawing style. Movie 3 (1993, 25 min) was a slight outing compared to the previous two, featuring only the likes of Yasushi Shingo and Shin Matsuo. The others were probably working on the OVAs.
The original 6 OVA series (1993-1994) featured work by Hirobumi Suzuki, Tokuyuki Matsutake, Masakatsu Sasaki and Yasushi Shingo. Masakatsu Sasaki and Tokuyuki Matsutake seem to have been the animators responsible for many of the more exciting bits in these OVAs. Although there's nothing that compares to Matsumoto's work in these OVAs, there are numerous brief spots throughout most episodes except the 5th where an animator with an obviously great sense of timing is at work. I'm assuming these to have been Masakatsu Sasaki and/or Tokuyuki Matsutake. Two "Special" OVAs (1994-1995) followed, episode 2 having work by Tadashi Hiramatsu, Yasushi Shingo and Shin Matsuo. Nothing really remarkable here, but the climax with the 8-headed dragon has a bit of action with a brief flicker of interesting movement. Three "Super" OVAs (1995-1996) followed, but only episode 3 featured work by Tokuyuki Matsutake and Hirobumi Suzuki.
Fortune Teller (China, 2009, 157 min, Xu Tong)
One of the best documentaries I saw this year was this raw, unfiltered, unsettling look at the lives of a pair of outsiders eking out an existence on the streets against all odds in a modern China that doesn't want the likes of them anymore.
The film's main subject is a crippled but fleet-minded and street-wise fortune teller who struggles in the face of police crackdowns to go on making a living telling the fortune of the desperate people who come to visit him hoping for an augury of a better future. What harm he's doing for the police to waste so much money and effort on bullying a cripple is a point implicit in the film, a finger pointed at an opaque and unthinking bureaucracy that makes a facade of taking care of its citizens while actually treading the unfortunate into the ground.
The fortune teller is a relic of a pre-modern past when fortune tellers like him were common and were part of the social fabric, a link in the chain of philosophy and religion underlying a civilization. He recites arcane chants and mathematical formulae like a character out of a Tang epic. His erudition in the vast body of literature and techniques of his profession is remarkable and moving and makes him feel like a living treasure, the last torchbearer of a tradition seemingly doomed to extinction by the government's arbitrary decision that it is a relic of feudal times to be eradicated.
Crippled and unable to do anything else to make a living, he's forced to work in the shadows, living in fear that the next police raid will land him in jail, throwing his mentally retarded spouse onto the street. His situation is heartbreaking to the point of making you angry. The scene in which he visits the government center for the disabled only to be screamed and yelled at by the unfeeling functionary who refuses to listen to his pleas for help made me livid like nothing I've seen in a long time.
The real depth of the film comes not in some kind of facile finger-pointing at the government, but in the resilient and deeply humane character of the protagonist. You begin to see in him something of a living bodhisattva walking through a hellish life while seeking only to help others. He took in a mentally retarded woman as his wife both to save her from the cruelty of her treatment at home (when he found her, she was living in a doghouse-like shed outside of the family home) and to have a companion. He cares equally for the stray cats around his home, and goes on regular rounds to visit the people of the streets, with many of whom he's on a first-name basis. Through the fortune teller we get to speak with these hobos and beggars and learn that they, too, are people with personalities. Through him you begin to realize the true meaning of compassion.
The film also follows another marginal figure, a lady of the streets who runs her own establishment. She's had to move from one province to another to escape the scrutiny of the police, and before we're even halfway into the film we visit her establishment one day only to find that it has closed and she has mysteriously vanished - thrown in jail, killed, or fled to another province? Nobody will ever know. Such is the fate of the people living on the margins of society in China. Like most people in her situation, she has a heartbreaking back-story, sending almost all of her earnings to her kid in another province. She and all of the people depicted in this film come across as economic victims, people who fell through the cracks of the great leap forward to consumerism.
My only criticism of the film would be that the last thirty-minute segment felt unnecessary and made the film feel too long. It would be perfect at 2 hours. Otherwise, everything prior to that was immediate, candid, and gripping. This was a remarkable piece of work - both a cry for social justice, a look at street life in China, and an intimate portrait of a fascinating person.
Chantrapas (Georgia/France, 2010, 122 min, Otar Iosseliani)
This was my least favorite film from the festival, even though there were films that were probably technically worse. It's a slow, monotone drama about a film director in the midst of a film shoot who finds that he's oppressed in his native Georgia, where the authorities are constantly meddling with the editing process. So he flees to France, where he finds he's oppressed by the studio system, because he has to hob nob, which he doesn't like, and the studio is constantly meddling with the editing process. In the end, he returns to Georgia and gives up on the whole process to go fishing with his friends.
I found the film disappointing. It seemed to be striving for a kind of wry, deadpan irony about the whole situation, but it missed the mark by a wide margin. The story and characters mostly seemed to wander aimlessly, listessly in world-weary atmosphere of dread and boredom. I wasn't sure whether the film was trying to be funny, serious, or both at the same time. It felt muddled and incoherent and lazy. If it was trying to be witty and funny, it failed. If it was trying to be a wry commentary on the act of filmmaking, it failed.
My biggest problem was that the director who is the subject of the film came across as fairly unsympathetic. Unsympathetic isn't the right word - insufferable is better. At every step of the way he acts like a spoiled brat whose first course of action when confronted with any kind of adversity is to either go hide in a corner and sulk or to simply pack up and run away. I'm sure that censorship and government coercion were/are serious issues in the country, and that aspect of the film feels like one of the few ways in which the film succeeds at communicating something meaningful about the very real tragedy of artistic censorship that was a given in in the Soviet states. Even in the west, though, the film seems to say, freedom is a relative thing. You still have to deal with the whims of the studio and the executives, financiers, etc - it's a different kind of artistic oppression. In this respect, Chantrapas makes a good point.
But the film fails at making this point sufficiently clearly or with any kind of conviction, because the director acts like such a self-absorbed dick that you don't feel sympathy for his plight. It almost feels like the film ridicules people in his situation who do genuinely feel that they are artistically oppressed and must flee for freedom. The director is portrayed not as a suffering artist but as a spoiled brat. Everywhere he goes, people fawn over him and adulate him and treat him as some god in their presence. The only moment we see people having a believable reaction to him is when, in France, he acts like a jerk to a bunch of film producers who invited him to their dinner table, and they perplexedly note the fact that, actually, he's kind of rude, isn't he.
I found that all the film succeeds at doing is perpetuating all the negative stereotypes of foreign films - boring, pretentious, dreary and incomprehensible. I asked a girl after the film what she thought, and she told me that she's Russian and "It's very Russian" and you have to be Russian to understand it. Maybe the real problem was that I'm not Russian.
Himalaya, A Path to the Sky (France, 2010, 65 min, Marianne Chaud)
This documentary was rapturously beautiful eye-candy. It follows the daily life of a little boy who, it seems, himself made the decision to join a Buddhist monastery in Pukthal, India (in other words, he wasn't coerced into it by his parents). The scenery is stunning. The monastery is perched high in the mountain on some insanely dangerous precipice. The sight of the rooms of the monastery peeking out from the mountainside like a colony of swallows' nests peeking out from a cliff, or like the cliff dwelling in Montezuma, is nothing short of breathtaking. As the little boy heads home to the monestary after visiting his onetime home and parents, breath-catching are the moments when we follow the little boy and the scared French director and cinematographer as they scamper along paths high in the mountains just a foot away from a fall that would mean certain death. "Just tell yourself you won't fall," the little boy reassures the lady old enough to be his mother. In that moment, and in many other moments, his wisdom and serenity seemed to tower over that of the director and all others around him.
The little boy is a real character, wise and mature for his age, spouting pearls of wisdom as if he'd learned them in a previous life. He claims with a toothy grin to be an old monk. You sense something otherworldly about the boy. Even his instructors are in awe. The question is asked whether he's happy there in the monastery, whether he wants to see the rest of the world. It's the question most of us must ask ourselves when we see this boy, who obviously has such promise. I know I found it heartbreaking to think that this little genius was holed away in a monastery learning religious texts, never to go to university to discover his full potential. But he's happy, he responds. His response is more succinct and more convincing than his father's to the effect that they're happier in their remote village high in the mountains than people in the west, who are so busy that they don't have time to be happy. WE don't need watches, the father concludes triumphantly, apparently having forgotten that he's wearing a digital watch.
In a rarity, I actually felt disappointed that the film finished so soon. I wanted it to go on and on. At least 20 minutes more. But I'd honestly rather have a documentary that goes in and does what it needs to do and gets out, rather than dragging things out aimlessly.
The Dreamer (Indonesia, 2009, 120 min, Riri Riza)
A highly enjoyable drama with a literary bent about boys growing up in Indonesia. The film's roots in literature becomes obvious right from the start with a somewhat cliche theatrical device we've all seen many times in films. An older version of the protagonist wanders around his old haunts on the island, pondering the good old days in voiceover, before we launch into the actual story of what led him to say what he did.
The tidy structure of the film and the predictable sequence of dramatic events betrays the fact that it's based on a book. It's not as successful a literary adaptation as The Drunkard. But that isn't enough to detract from making it an enjoyable, if obviously not completely realistic, look into life growing up on the island during that period of time. It's kind of a cross between an audience-friendly feel-good growing up drama like My Life as a Dog or Stand By Me and the more believable pared-down style of a true masterpiece made using non-actor children like The Traveler.
It's this look into the lives of the protagonist boys growing up that makes the film rewarding. The film pushes all of the buttons you're used to seeing in these films. There's the chubby, slow, stuttering friend, there's the scene where they all sneak into the adult movie theater, there's the scene where the two boys are humiliated by the mean headmaster in front of the entire school, and the obligatory doomed love interest between the charismatic lead boy and the pretty girl. And yet it's all quite enjoyable and believable enough. One of the two lead boys is the smart and ambitious one, the dreamer of the title who leads the other down the path of aspirations to escape their poverty. The other is the poor boy who becomes entranced by his friend's gallantry and intelligence. The two vow to work hard at various part-time jobs inbetween school so that they can eventually make their way to study in Europe and then become successful and rich. It's inspiring to watch them working towards this goal, even though deep down you know that it won't work out.
Predictably, misfortune hits, throwing a wrench in these aspirations. The poor boy's father works in a coal mine, and when the mine goes out of business, the boy must sacrifice everything he's worked towards in order to save his family. This aspect of the story does a good job of showing the dilemma faced by people in his situation - it seems at first as if you could just work your way out of poverty if you worked hard enough, but the precariousness of life in that situation renders it effectively impossible for most. Just as it seems as if you've climbed your way out of the hole, the slightest jolt is enough to make you slip all the way back to the bottom.
Rumination (China, 2010, 109 min, Xu Ruotao)
One of the most ambitious films I saw at the festival was this experimental film from China. It's hard to describe - not documentary and not drama and not purely experimental. It's essentially an experimental historical drama, a kind of video essay on the meaning of the cultural revolution from a person born in 1968, at the beginning of the years of madness. He is thus too young to have understood what was going on at the time, nor to have been complicit, and so this film is his attempt to look back on that history and understand it, from a personal standpoint.
The film is broken down into segments for each of the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Each segment features something different going on. One shows a bunch of red guards running around in what looks like a sort of ghost town trying to find the 'counter-revolutionary' (actually just a naughty kid) who scrawled graffiti on the wall saying "Down with Mao!". Another shows red guards harassing a poet figure who they find living alone in an abandoned building surrounded by strange poems, while he responds to their queries in riddles. Yet another shows a fat girl garbed in Communist uniform provocatively spreading apart the lapels of her vest to another man in uniform. There's no obvious narrative or even any apparent linear connection between the parts. It's obviously not meant to be taken at face value.
It's a very low budget film, the visuals shaky and not very well shot. It's not about creating images of beauty or about creating a well acted and well shot period drama recreating the way things were in those years. That's been done to death, and this film couldn't be further from that. It's obviously more of a personal experiment, a crazy dreamlike re-imagining of an event that scarred the national memory, and that has surely been talked about over and over in China without it being possible to hear the true story behind what happened. I came away wondering if the very opaque and cynical image the film leaves in your mind is a reaction to the way this generation views the official story with newfound skepticism and cynicism.
The mere fact of attempting to come to grips with this important event in Chinese history, rather than relying on the various shades of bias on either side of the divide, makes this film compelling. In execution, however, the film is excessively ambiguous and convoluted. Every scene is metaphorical and cryptic, refusing any obvious interpretation. It's an admirably opaque work of art, but it makes for rather trying viewing, especially for people like me who do not have an adequate understanding of the historical background of the events.
For example, it completely flew over my head that the film in fact depicted the events in reverse. (Why? Who knows.) After a comparatively understandable first shot in which we see a dozen youths dressed in Red Guard costumes running about frantically in an abandoned building shouting slogans and destroying everything in sight, the film then depicts the Tangshan earthquake, which occurred in 1976, and proceeds in reverse chronological order. Why this was done isn't entirely clear, and it only succeeds at completely obscuring the already tenuous grip on meaning the viewer might have had. Many of the scenes are successful at conveying something subconscious without overt meaning, while other scenes are tedious and seem to go on forever for no reason. The film feels like an ambitious experiment by a young filmmaker rather than an assured and convincing work of art.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand, 2010, 113 min, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
On the vanguard of the Asian art house renaissance is the director of this film, who won the Palme D'Or recently for the longest and most unpronouncable name ever. Narrative is virtually nonexistent in his films, which flow slowly from scene to scene of people sitting around quietly doing not very much save exchanging surprisingly witty and sexual banter. I'm generally all for this sort of thing, but I find his films slightly too languid for even my tastes. This film continues in this vein.
We are introduced to an uncle who can apparently recall his past lives, although we never witness the remarkable feat in flagrante delicto. Instead we find that he has a kidney problem that is slowly killing him. He runs a farm on which he employs an illegal alien from Laos. His sister is concerned for him, fearing that the alien might kill him and run off. We see them all sitting at dinner one night and witness a strange ghostly sight: The uncle's dead wife appears and tells everyone how things are going on the other side of eternity. Not long thereafter the night becomes even more spooky. We see a pair of glowing eyes coming closer. Soon the creature speaks and introduces itself as his long-lost son, who had sex with a monkey and was transformed into Chewbacca as punishment. The moment is a mixture of deliberately comical and transcendent. Suddenly in the midst of scenes of every day life we find the supernatural intruding. Nobody seems too surprised.
Then suddenly, without warning, the film shifts to something completely different: An aged princess walking through the jungle with her attendants peers into the waters of a pond and sees in her reflection a younger and more beautiful woman. A fish begins to speak to her, offering to give her the beautiful face she saw in the water if she would become his bride. It's a strange and sudden diversion, and we're offered no explanation or apology. Make of it what you will - an example of one of the Uncle's past lives? An homage to Thai folklore? Not making it clear does actually enrich the resonance of the film somewhat, although the randomness is can be a bit maddening.
The film could be criticized as a pointless exercise in atmosphere that relies entirely on your willingness to suspend your attention span, but where it succeeds is in creating an interesting atmosphere bridging the world of Thai folklore and spirits and the real world in a fairly satisfying and not cheesy way. This is something I recall from one of the director's previous films, in which a young man traveling through the Jungle becomes transformed into a tiger. The director has created an idiom that is entirely his own and that satisfyingly incorporates the spirit and ethos of his native country.
Single Man (China, 2010, 95 min, Hao Jie)
This movie was a highly entertaining bawdy comedy of manners set in rural China. Simultaneously realistic, hilarious and hard-hitting, it examines the life of people in a rural village, with an unabashed and bold emphasis on the sexual that is usually elided over in depictions of country life, or portrayed more romantically. Look no further to learn in intimate detail about the sex life of the elderly in rural China. Shocking, yes, but in a very entertaining and insightful way about the everyday nature of sexuality. It feels like a new and more honest and probing examination of village life in China.
The story pivots around the story of an old man who takes a wife way too young for himself, and the woes that ensue. Along the way it weaves in the stories of various of the other 'single men' in the village, and how it came to pass that they are single men in their 60s and 70s.
The film is great in just about every way. The dramatic arc is believable and natural while still being satisfying and providing a clear sense of purpose and arrival at the end. The acting is natural yet incredibly vivacious, to the point that it feels like a documentary at many moments, and all of the people in the film are very well fleshed out as individuals with their own unique personalities and back-stories. The actors feel like non-actors, and their performances thus have tremendous vitality. It's not the overacting of a big studio film. The cinematography is unobtrusive and naturalistic yet beautiful and candid, capturing equally well the beautiful dusty earth hues of the village and the ruffled features of its oversexed denizens.
The film begins by introducing the various characters of the village and how they're interrelated. We witness trysts of all sorts occurring on a daily basis. We learn of the back story of one of the trysting couples - they fell in love when young, but after an accident they could no longer get married, but remained in love, and after decades, well into their 60s, the woman now with several children, the flame of love still burns strong. Or so we think at first, until we see her visiting other gentlemen. In a situation where she doesn't know whether she'll be able to put her son through school, she plays a cunning game of love and lust to ensure that she will have the support of her 'friends' in times of need.
When the old man in question goes and spends his entire life savings to buy a young bride from a distant province, she's angry and jealous. Is it jealous love, or is she just afraid she'll lose a potential donor of university tuition for her son? We don't know. Probably a combination of the two. The film does a great job of depicting both the very tangled web of relationships in the village as well as the complex feelings that motivate every party involved.
And the old man himself, who at first seemed like an innocent victim of love, becomes something a little more sinister when we see him greedily buy a young bride many decades younger. The film shifts into a potent examination of this tragic practice that's all too common in China. Girls are persuaded to leave home to work in the city only to be deceived and sold into virtual slavery by being sold as a wife in the countryside, where women are a precious commodity, with little hope of ever seeing their family again. We see the desperation and loneliness that drives him, a single man in his old age, to this practice; we see the despicable crime being committed against the poor young girl; we see the chaos the practice causes in the village when a young man in the village falls in love with the girl and demands that she be his.
We come to understand and sympathize with the various villagers, and realize that sex isn't just sex; it's multifarious, it's ubiquitous, it's tragic, it's ecstatic, it's humdrum, and it's one of the elements of the fabric that binds us together in society.
Bones again has Takuya Igarashi heading their latest show Star Driver. The quality of everything is very high, consistently, even up to ep 3, as is typical for the director and Bones. But I find they've just given up completely on the content, choosing to rehash all the cliches in the book rather than gamble on another ambitious experiment in epic fantasy with a more broad appeal that fans probably won't even bother to get behind.
As with Eureka Seven and Xam'd, they've assembled a strong team in every facet. Their shows consistently produce the best mecha action animation seen on TV these days. And it's not just Yutaka Nakamura. Today there's no end to the list of young animators doing sharp and exciting work right off the bat. You find a combination of old veteran mecha figures like Ken Otsuka and new outside faces like Hironori Tanaka as well as relatively new though now vetted in-house faces like Yasuyuki Kai.
Ep 1 had Shingo Abe on mecha AD and animation from Yutaka Nakamura, Takahiro Shikama, Hironori Tanaka, Yasuyuki Kai, and Shingo Abe.
Ep 2 had Ken Otsuka on mecha AD and animation from Soichiro Matsuda, Shingo Fujii and Takahiro Shikama.
Ep 3 had animation from Yasushi Muraki, Shingo Abe, Jun Arai, and Yasuyuki Kai.
The nice action in ep 1 was of course by Yutaka Nakamura and preceded by Hironori Tanaka, who also did the 'eyecatch'. The designs of the robots are fairly imaginative and certainly laboriously drawn. The action in ep 2 was actually also quite nice, and though I personally couldn't identify it, supposedly it was partly the work of Takahiro Shikama and Shingo Fujii. Yasuyuki Kai and Takahiro Shikama are also credited with 'Psybody design assistance', suggesting they worked on the mecha scene in the second half of each episode.
I was wondering what the deal was with the side-scrolling in the op, because it's a clear copy of the side-scrolling Nadja opening. Then I realized that Nadja was also directed by Takuya Igarashi, so I guess it's just something Igarashi likes doing. The interesting thing, though, is that Igarashi didn't do either openings. The opening of Nadja was done by Mamoru Hosoda and the opening of Star Driver was done by Shinichiro Watanabe. I suppose maybe Igarashi gave the instruction to do the sideways scrolling thing.
I just noticed some unusual credits in that Star Driver opening. The aforesaid Takahiro Shikama is credited with layout. Usually they don't credit layout because it's supposed to be done by the gengaman, but it's interesting to see them using this system here, presumably for the purpose of unity. Shingo Abe was the mecha AD of the op, so he's obviously one of the main mecha guys on the show. He was one of the main mecha guys on Xam'd. It's pretty amazing though how ubiquitous Hironori Tanaka has become. Here he's credited with not only animation but also with the unheard credit of "motion design", which someone already pointed out and wondered about in the forum. That'll require an interview to elucidate because they're doing something new there.
Jun Arai is one of those young animators who likes to mimic Yoshinori Kanada/Masahito Yamashita, and he did a scene in that style in ep 3 that feels completely out of place and embarrassing to watch. The scene right after was really great, though. I suppose it was by Yasushi Muraki.
I'm also enjoying Hiroyuki Imaishi's latest effort Panty & Stocking. At least it's full of energy. Every shot is packed with some interesting action or joke. It seems like a return to the silly, slapstick, all-out-crazy tone of Dead Leaves. This show feels a lot more like pure Imaishi than Guren Lagan, though I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not. I'm not too keen on the 2D styling or the content, but I'm enjoying the show nonetheless. Pure silly fun, like a cross between Powerpuff Girls, Dead Leaves and Ebichu. The sperm story in episode 3 was inspired.
I find it sad that humor in anime always has to be as broad and simple-minded as possible. The jokes in this show are funny because they're more risque and adult and something of an improvement over the usual approach to sex in anime, which irritatingly pussyfoots around the subject with bloody noses and exaggerated shyness, but it's still sex and shit jokes. I want to see humor with the sort of wry, understated wit of, say, My Dog Tulip, not the adult version of preschool potty jokes. But at least Imaishi has his own brand of humor that doesn't feel like any other anime out there. Whatever you might say about the show, the fact is that Imaishi is one of the only people in the industry besides Yuasa right now who has enough talent to be the ground-up guiding vision behind a show like this. The vast majority of people in the industry lack the vision to come up with their own comprehensive visual ethos and approach to animation the way Imaishi does. That alone makes this show vastly more watchable than anything on air right now, including the above Bones show. The skilled animation in that show feels so wasted.
I kinda sorta was able to endure the first episode of Togainu no Chi and thought I might be able to watch it, but then the second episode set me straight and I felt embarrassed for having been so forgiving, because the first episode wasn't even that good and the signs were pretty obvious that it would be a typical crap show.
Chassis (Philippines, 2010, 75 min, Adolfo Alix, Jr.)
This is another instance of the trend in recent independent Asian cinema to adopt cinema verite/documentary style and to diffuse the narrative. This film was overall disappointing, but was redeemed by offering a glimpse into a way of life that I never knew existed. Apparently there are entire families of poor in the Philippines who because they can't afford housing, but do own their own semi tractor, live by the dockyards under their trucks between shifts, struggling to make ends meet in terrible conditions, right there in the middle of all the trucks in the parking lot. It's as shocking to watch as it sounds. This film follows the travails of one such family, consisting of a mother and child and the husband, who operates the rig.
Philippines is the home of Smokey Mountain, the euphemistically titled garbage dump on the outskirts of Manila that was once one of the largest slums in Asia. After it was closed down by the government in 1995, many of the thousands of families who lived there moved to another nearby dump in Quezon called Smokey Valley, which is where Hiroshi Shinomiya shot the 2002 film God's Children, which follows the life of several of the families who live in the dump in the aftermath of a storm that caused garbage avalanches that killed hundreds of the inhabitants. Even in a nightmare you couldn't conjure up the sort of images that these people experience on a daily basis. Even today some 50% of the 11 million inhabitants of Manila inhabit the slum areas.
Chassis thus continues in the tradition of God's Children by casting light on the vast poor population of the Philippines. The film does not provide much background material, leaving you wondering, is this based on fact, how many people in the Philippines live like this, where, etc. It's furthermore shot in a very low-budget way. Many of the scenes are shot at night and it is actually hard to see anything. The pacing is languid to the point of being tedious sometimes. The story is rudimentary, following the wife around as she does her best to make life for her daughter bearable, which includes prostituting herself to the corrupt lot guardsmen. In the shadow of all the horror, she spends much of the film creating an angel costume for her child, so that the little girl can participate in the school play she's so excited about. This leads to a tragic conclusion that in retrospect you can see coming from a mile away. The climax in particular is blunt and gory and sudden, the ending abrupt and dissatisfying. Too little thought obviously went into the planning of the film. The situation is inherently tragic enough, I felt, that facile manipulation of this kind was not necessary to achieve its impact. But it's true that the conclusion packs a certain painful irony, because the very livelihood that keeps the family alive winds up tearing it apart.
That said, whatever flaws the film may have, as unpolished and imperfect as it may be, it's impossible to dismiss it outright. Its documentary gaze on the life of these people is compelling and obviously truthful. The narrative is appealingly subservient to documentation of life. In other words, the film isn't story-driven as much as a story tells itself by following the day-to-day life of this family. Although fiction, it's clear that the fragments of which the fiction is built are true. The woman may be a character, but you can easily imagine the faceless many she represents. It just takes a viewing of Hiroshi Shinomiya's film to show you that there are many, many more, living in far more desperate conditions than you could have imaged. The woman in this film has it easy in comparison, and her life is tragic and heartbreaking enough as it is.
The Drunkard (Hong Kong, 2010, 106 min, Freddie Wong)
Imagine the sleek, neon visuals and dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere of 2046, but set in real-life Hong Kong in the 1960s, and you will get a sense of Freddie Wong's debut feature. We follow the life of a dissolute writer in his 50s, whose drunkenness is an outwards manifestation of a deep dread and disillusionment with the Hong Kong of his day. Once a writer of high-minded literature, he abandons his aspirations and his colleagues to write porn and kung-fu serials, but this isn't enough to staunch the emotional hemorrhaging.
Freddie Wong is no greenhorn film student. He's one of Hong Kong's leading movie figures, in his 40s or 50s (haven't been able to find his age), curator of the HK International Film Festival, and I believe also a writer or scriptwriter, I don't remember clearly. He was there to answer questions after the screening, and came across as endearingly enthusiastic and eager about the whole enterprise. The film was clearly a labor of love for him, and it shows. The film is based on one of Hong Kong's most well-known and loved works of literature from mid-century. After the screening, Freddie Wong explained that the book's fame came party from its erudition and its modernity, as well as its sharp and on-the-mark intellectual discussions of literature foreign and domestic that, even read today, come across as prescient and informed. He was forced to excise much of this for obvious reasons, altering the impression of the book. In the book, much more space was devoted to showing the protagonist's erudition and knowledge of literature. Most of this was cut, which alters our impression considerably. I personally found that the film worked at what it was trying to do. As literary adaptations go, it seems pretty passable to me. I'm curious to know what readers of the original book think of the film. (obviously "the book was better", right?)
The film does a good job of conveying the atmosphere of the book without drowning the audience in excessive narration. That is one of the pitfalls of literary adaptation. Too often films fall into the trap of narrating the book instead of translating the words into visuals. Freddie Wong did a great job of achieving a middle ground. I didn't know the movie was a literary adaptation while I was watching it, and it didn't feel like it was.
The movie's protagonist is actually a pretty unsavory and unappealing character, selfish, narcissistic, his relationships with women always seeming to find a way of ending badly, and you wonder what it is that drives him to drink and to act like such a prick, but you never hate him, which I guess is an accomplishment. You even feel like you understand, somehow, which I think is more testament to the power of cinema than anything. Somehow the magic of cinema transforms the most heinous monsters into rock stars by the magic of celluloid.
The visuals are sleek and extremely accomplished, the pacing excellent and never boring. In the Mood for Love fanboys (like me) will enjoy the film's amazing array of China-doll 'cheongsam' body-fitting dresses on display on the sultry beauties. Every scene features a new one, and the scenes are shot with unflagging style and verve. Low-budget indie feature this was not, as apparently it was the most expensive indie feature ever shot in Hong Kong. I'm guessing it's all those dresses that blew the budget, but man was it worth it! Almost all of the film was shot indoors for budget reasons, so it's pretty remarkable how much of a good job they do of bringing alive the atmosphere of 60s Hong Kong entirely through the acting, dresses, interiors, and the little details of the paraphernalia of everyday life. This film is like a velvet bathrobe, a Habano and a bottle of Courvoisier XO.
Certified Copy (France/Italy/Belgium, 2010, 106 min, Abbas Kiarostami)
One of my favorite films from the festival, unsurprisingly, was this conceptually satisfying, ingenious, mischievous puzzle of a film. Kiarostami is a bit unpredictable a director. After directing ABC Africa, a digital documentary about the AIDS crisis in Uganda, he directs Five, a film consisting of five long shots of natural scenery, then later on he directs Shirin, a film consisting entirely of close-ups of people's faces as they're watching a film. And now he throws us the ultimate curve-ball of this highly enjoyable and approachable arthouse-flick-cum-rom-com starring French darling Juliette Binoche.
Certified Copy is just as conceptually rigorous and intellectually playful a film as everything he's done before, such as Taste of Cherry, shot almost entirely from the passenger and driver seat of a car. But in this case the healthy stuff is hidden in a huge mound of whipped cream consisting of Juliette Binoche and the beautiful Italian countryside. Extras come and go, but the bulk of the film consists of dialogue between the two characters. The dialogue is almost non-stop, making this very much of a script-driven film. Kiarostami, as usual, makes up for this by having them constantly moving from one location to another, so it's not like My Dinner With Andre, which occurs entirely in one location, but rather is quite colorful and with a lot of interesting props and locations for the characters to interact with and to enrich the narrative with meaning. Not to mention making it quite easy to watch.
It's unfortunate that it would ruin the impact of the film to give away its driving conceit, and I liked the film too much to ruin it by describing it in detail, as much as I would like to. This is one of those films where the locus of interest is in the ingenious mechanism operated by the director, who performs an amazing feat of dramaturgical wizardry by playing with the concept of character, gradually transforming what at first appears to be a linear narrative but which, much to your bafflement and amazement as you become aware of the trick being foisted upon you by and by, has gradually shifted into something very different. This ingenious process of meta-shifting of character timelines makes for one of the most creative examinations of the evolution of relationships that I've ever seen put to film - from first meeting through the comfortable middle years through in the end to the years of disillusionment and ultimately parting.
The film did admittedly have its languors, and I'm sure many will not be able to enjoy such a slow and constantly talky film. It is, in a way, more of an intellectual exercise than pure entertainment. I personally think it achieves a pretty nice balance between the two. (In a side-note, the male actor is the spitting image of Homayoun Ershadi. I wonder if Kiarostami chose him because of the resemblance?? But this is too insulting to the actor, who though not up to Binoche's standards does IMO a pretty decent job.)
Poetry (South Korea, 2010, 139 min, Lee Changdong)
This film was a sensitive character study of great depth, like Lee Changdong's previous film Secret Sunshine, but Lee Changdong has upped the ante in a satisfying way in his latest film - not by ratcheting up the drama, but by going deeper and more subtle and ambiguous. The result is a film with a very potent aftertaste, made all the stronger by the ambiguity of the 'point' of the film. Some of his past films might be accused of being message films, although deep down I think that is missing the point. This film, it seems to me, makes it clear that the real running thread throughout his films is the examination of the inner world of different kinds of outsiders, how they are marginalized and exploited by society, and how they fight back to make a place for themselves in a harsh world that doesn't accept them.
This is the story of a somewhat out-of-touch, dreamy grandmother whose loopy, childlike wonder at the world around her may or may not be early signs of onset of Alzheimer's. Not sure what to do with her life, she seems to drift aimlessly through life without purpose. On a whim, one day, she joins a poetry class, and gives herself a goal, as if to attempt to accomplish one little thing in her life: write a poem. She lives with her grandson, whose mother fled to another city on some pretext to shirk her responsibilities. The grandmother is underequipped mentally and emotionally to sense the turbulence in her teenage grandson's life and guide him with stern love when he most needs it, instead spoiling him with blind love, which only incurs the son's contempt. As a result, her grandson is a spoiled brat who without adult guidance is obviously growing into an adult who will also follow his own selfish instincts to slink away from responsibility. The inner conflict of this film plays these various forms of cowardice against one another - the grandmother who slinks from confrontation and wants to float through a poetic fantasy version of the real world, the unseen mother who slinks from her motherly duties, and the son whom society has failed and consequently has failed to develop an adequate sense of right and wrong.
Coming from a guy who at one point in the past was the Minister of Culture of his country, I'm somewhat surprised and impressed by the acerbic, righteous anger you sense in his films to be directed at his culture's inherent greed, selfishness, and lack of compassion for others. He shines an inner light in his films not only at the rich inner world of his spat-upon and derided protagonists but at he inner rot of modern life.
Where this and Lee's previous films could be faulted is in the somewhat forced aspect of their narrative, in the obvious thematic conceit, and the moral intent. Some might find his films to be excessively script-driven, lengthy, and verging on monotonous. I could see that criticism being leveled against this film. It will depend on the viewer on which side it falls - whether the merits of the character study outweigh the cinematic limitations. I'm in the camp that feels the film succeeds more than it fails. Lee Changdong is to my mind one of the most authoritative and important voices working in cinema today.
Seven Days in Heaven (Taiwan, 2010, 92 min, Wang Yu-lin, Essay Liu)
The funnest movie about at Taiwanese funeral rites you'll see this year (or ever), this wryly comical film gives an in-depth glimpse into this world that we over in the west will almost certainly never see, doing for Taiwanese rites what Juzo Itami's The Funeral did for Japanese rites. At the same time, it's an examination of how we grieve, and how the sometimes ludicrously excessive religious rituals that are an inextricable part of the fabric of Eastern cultures such as Taiwan - recreated in this film in great detail and with considerable irony - help us grieve and overcome. They provide something solid and tangible in our most difficult moment: the bulwark of a long tradition and ornate mythology.
Ostensibly a drama, the film comes across as a quasi-documentary. It takes place entirely during the week-long grieving period before the loved one can actually be buried, and depicts the astounding variety of rituals that take place during that time, many quite ludicrous and arbitrary. In one of the funniest scenes, the daughter was obliged to be on call all day at the foot of her father's coffin. At certain appointed times determined by the priest in charge, she was instructed to rush to the side of her father's coffin and burst out crying and calling for her father. This happened well over a dozen times. By the end of the day, exhausted from the strain of pretending to cry, she's peacefully dozing off at the foot of the coffin when a shout from the priest spurs her into one last groggy bawl.
During the rituals, the deceased's daughter seems forced to live in a strange headspace somewhere between earnest grief and mock grief-acting. You can sense that as much good as it's doing it also must also play havoc with your emotions. You begin to wonder what is real grieving and what is forced out of you. Only at the end of the film, after the rituals have come to a close, do we see a scene in which the daughter seems to be crying real tears, as if, having finished her duties, all the genuine grief that didn't have a chance to come out during the ritual finally bubbled to the surface.
The film is also full of fascinating characters. The young cousin, a hip and connected kid from the big city, seems in it mainly for the fun of it rather than because he actually is emotionally affected by the death of an uncle he hardly knew. He sees the whole thing as a fascinating subject for a school project, and during his stay forges a close bond with the priest, a distant uncle. The latter is himself a fascinating and fun character - part-time priest, full-time chain-smoker and playboy.
The priest's wife is also employed in the same business. One of her duties is professional cryer. She's the star of the first day of the ritual. She knows how to put on a show. She hams it up to give the family their money's worth, crawling on her hands and knees, wailing in agony behind the funerary car carrying the father's body. When it's over she gets up and asks, "Who do I cry for next?" Because, you see, to be more efficient they have a whole bunch of them all booked on the same day one after another.
One of the obvious societal purposes of these rituals, and probably the only reason they still exist today, is that they serve the very real role of bringing family together and reinforcing social ties among those left behind. The death of the head of the household shakes the bonds that tie the family together, and their experience over the seven days of 'grieving' for him brings everyone closer together. We see this clearly happening in this entertaining and insightful film.
I liked Sylvain Chomet's second film better than his first. I was surprised to find how similar they were in terms of the stylization of the characters and the basic approach to pacing and humor and so on. It felt very much an extension of the world of Les Triplettes de Belleville. Jacques Tati's mostly wordless screenplay seems a match made in heaven with Sylvain Chomet's sensibility. I'd even say that in a way this Tati film left more of an impression on me than any of the maestro's films directed by himself. I appreciated his ingenious style of physical comedy based on interaction with physical locations, but his films never connected with my heart. They were amusing and odd and quirky, but didn't really have dramatic weight. The Illusionist works great as a Tati film and has considerable emotional heft, while animation serves as the perfect tool in a wordless film to develop unique characters through different styles of character movement. He did the old master justice and then some by the rather ingenious idea of adapting a Tati script not as live-action but as animation.
The animation was very impressive. The character animation and layout style reminded of Disney films from the 50s and 60s. I imagine this is what could have been if Disney had had any taste whatsoever and wasn't just a factory of kitsch. I've always felt the animation to be wasted in their films on tasteless lowbrow humor and lame-brained stories. Here we see stately and refined but rich character animation serving an understated narrative full of heart, subtle wit and charm, without relying on famous voice-actors, eye-catching action scenes, musical sequences, dialogue crammed into every second so that audiences won't fall asleep, or pop culture references.
The animation used a character-based system just like Disney, so the resemblance makes sense. The animation of the rabbit was led by one person, the Tati character by two people, etc. Tati's animation was pretty impressive. They did a good job of conveying his prim character entirely through body language, by studying the actual Tati's unique brand of silent film-style body movement and transforming it into an even more emphatic animated equivalent. They nailed his character, with his long legs, comically rigid posture and somewhat distant and aloof but gentle expression. The rabbit was also great, and an audience favorite.
The illusionist character in this film is appealing and richly layered, a gentle soul floating through life simply trying to do his job in a modern, scientific world in which good old-fashioned magic just doesn't pack in the music halls the way it used to. In the cynical era of consumer culture, the only use for magic is as a cheap trick to sell stockings and bras to housewives. Yet he never seems bitter or hardened by his lot, always being good to the people he meets in his old-fashioned gentlemanly kind of way. When it comes time he can be firm about what's acceptable in his life and what's not, without being rude or mean, just to the point and matter-of-fact. He seems a bit out of touch, like a gentleman from a century or so ago frozen in time and thawed out in the modern world.
When the the Swedish girl tagging along with him sets her eyes on a pair of red shoes, despite being short on cash, he can't resist buying them for her to make her happy. Then she eyes a fancy white coat, and he beats a hasty retreat. But sure enough, like a good father, the thought of making her happy overcomes all common sense, and he soon surprises her with the coat. It's pleasing to watch the interaction between this odd couple. You're never quite sure what one thinks of the other or why they're together, but they seem happy with each other, at least for the moment. They're both travelers who've found a companion until they inevitably have to part ways. The ending is bittersweet and genuinely affecting because there's no big parting scene or crying or anything like that. You sense them drifting apart and it's sad because you know it has to be that way. The characters in the film accrue layers of nuance throughout the course of the film through their actions and interactions, and even seem to develop and grow up and older.
I like the loose dramatic structure of the film, which seems to just follow the illusionist around as he goes from one job to another. It focuses your attention on the personalities of the characters rather than on the particulars of the narrative.
I didn't recognize many names in the credits, but I did spot Antoine Antin, who did my favorite scene in the Wakfu: Nox short, the scene at the beginning on the beach. Some of his linetests.
This is my favorite kind of narrative in many ways: A story with no dramatic ploys. No sudden revelation, dramatic confrontation or fabricated crisis for the purpose of filling in the blanks on a template of filmmaking that really doesn't make sense but that nobody bothers to re-consider. While I might not completely understand what it was that Tati was trying to do with his films, which seem aimless to me at times, I appreciate the way they flow without going through the standard dramatic paces. Of course, you can trace a certain development between the characters, and the story comes to a climax of sorts where the girl meets the boy exactly where you'd expect it to, but that's fine. It felt like a slice of life and natural development, rather than a forced dramatic ploy. For example I appreciated that there was no big climax in this film. The climactic car chase in Les Triplettes de Belleville was so bad and so unnecessary it almost ruined the film for me.
The film does have dialogue, but only a small amount, and none of it is functional. I don't know whether this was in Tati's original screenplay, but the situation is such that language cannot be used to convey meaning, providing the perfect pretext for Tati's preferred style of storytelling in which dialogue does not play a role. Tati himself speaks French, but he's travelling in the UK and Scotland, where they only speak English, and he encounters a girl who appears to only speak Swedish. So nobody speaks each other's language. There's no need for dialogue, so everything that needs to be communicated is communicated through gestures and a few words.
Sylvain Chomet seems to like travel films, and I can understand why. They provide him with room to flex his caricatural muscles and cast an ironic light on the foibles of various cultures. He's good at distilling the essence of a people's features and personalities and comically exaggerating them. It's very impressive how each of the many characters that appear on the screen are stylized in a completely unique way and have their own unique mode of movement. The same could be said of his previous film. I was particularly fond of the floppy maitre d' in Bellevile. Anime could really use to learn from this - one film can come up with so many designs, when year after year in anime, series after series are designed with such an astoundingly paltry amount of creativity put into the design work.
VIFF just ended. Either I'm getting more picky as I get older or I picked the wrong films or indie Asian films are starting to resemble one another, but I wasn't as excited by my viewing this year. As usual, I focused on small-scale Asian independent narrative filmmaking, but disappointments outnumbered revelations.
Psychohydrography (USA, 2010, 62 min, Peter Bo Rappmund)
This film is my #1 pick from the festival. It was the only film I found to be perfect - new and daring in form and execution, yet every moment just right and visually pleasing and meaningful.
The concept is something of an audiovisual analogue of "A Sound Map of the Hudson River" by Annea Lockwood from 1993, which I found to be a revelation when it was released. Lockwood's piece is a sort of audio documentary/natural symphony - a series of 15 field recordings at key points along the length of the Hudson River documenting its development and transformation, starting from the mists in the peaks of the Adirondacks down the 200+ mile southern course through to Albany and New York and finally out to the roaring waves of the Atlantic.
Peter Bo Rappmund's film explores the Los Angeles River in a similar way, by way of visuals that at every step of the way are consistently and rapturously beautiful and capture the different locales not in a naturalistic way but in a somewhat altered, ethereal way. It's the special filming technique he adopted that is responsible for the film's very unusual texture.
This was the world premiere of Peter Bo Rappmund's Cal Arts thesis project, so he was present at the screening to explain how the film was shot. The latter was clearly the first question on the mind of many of the viewers at the screening, as it was the first question asked. The film is, essentially, animated, because it was shot with a consumer digital camera, not a video camera, and the frame rate of every shot was manipulated differently, rather than using a set rate. Thus you have some shots that are loops, some that are straight through, most being essentially time-lapse photography. The images have a very different texture from conventional film - they seem otherworldly, heightened, focusing your gaze on the essence of the image.
The first thing I should do is to rule out the influence of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and Ron Fricke's Baraka, as these two films will probably be the first films that spring to mind as probably having been influences. The filmmaker avers that he consciously attempted to not emulate these films, to avoid creating easy "iconic" imagery of the kind you find in the former films, such as the sped-up footage of humans zooming about that makes them look like ants. Indeed, the overall impact and tone and purpose of Rappmund's film seems to share fairly little with the previous two films.
Psychohydrography doesn't try to impose any kind of meaning on the images by creating a sense of drama or crisis. It lets the images narrate their own inherent meaning by following the course of the river and observing the natural and the human with the same neutral gaze. Just as there is no title screen and there are no credits, there is no narration and the only sound comes from field recordings recorded at the site of each shot. It's a pure example of documentary, a poetic and more experimental type of documentary. It's not documentary as infotainment but, literally, documentation of the natural world without commentary. That's not to say it's all zen and aloof and dry and boring. It's quite assiduously edited to create a flow of images that never comes across as boring for even a second, and the images themselves are stunningly beautiful - not postcard or Travel Channel beautiful but eerie and ethereal.
He shoots the images in the concrete- and graffiti-lined riverbeds in the middle of the city of Los Angeles with the same poetic eye as the images of 'untouched' nature that came before. The film is simultaneously a documentation and a personal exploration and attempt to understand his environment. The famous Shepard tone, whose overlapping octaves make the notes seem to climb infinitely upwards due to the ear's tendency to hear only the highest octave, makes an appearance at two key points in the film. The Shepard tone has obvious but not literal significance - the descending course of the river traces a sort of ascending human intervention, etc. First it rings out like an ominous siren during a sequence with a bridge over the concrete riverbed in the city, creating a variety of associations the viewer is free to interpret accordingly.
The second time it appears is during the stunning 15-minute final shot of the ocean waves. The screen in this shot is split at the horizon so that you have two distinct time frames progressing simultaneously - the sun both setting and rising at the top, and the waves at the bottom of the screen stuttering back and forth spasmodically, as if entering and leaving at once. The stuttering waves effect was achieved by using a hand trigger connected to the intervalometer to shoot images at an uneven frame rate. The last shot is jarring after what came before, but it's a fitting climax to the journey, a shot as intense and awesome as the ocean itself, both the beginning and the end, the cradle of humanity and our wastebasket. The Shepard tone reinforces the various layers of meaning that this last shot evokes about the chimerical journey of water through the ecosystem and its relationship with mankind. It's an awesome and powerful finale to one of the most conceptually satisfying and visually stunning films I've seen in the last few years.
Or maybe it's just that I've become so cynical about humanity these days that the absence of humans mucking up the visuals appealed to me.
Red Dragonflies (Singapore, 96 min, Liao Jiekai)
I was dissatisfied with this film, which seems representative of the trend in indie Asian films to have a slow pace and intangible narrative. Most of the film consisted of footage of a bunch of schoolkids trudging around the countryside and in the jungle, following a set of railroad tracks. No story or explanation, no nothing. These shots are interspersed with, alternately, a narrative about a set of teenagers walking back from school exchanging banter, and one about an older girl in her early 20s who comes back to Singapore to host her first art exhibit after an extended stay overseas. How they are interrelated is left up to the viewer. It's appealing on paper to create a narrative in which these three narrative vectors are presented in such a way that you can't tell whether they are different people in the same time frame or the same people at different times. But the film was stunningly tedious to watch, which trumps conceptual novelty.
Gallants (Hong Kong, 2010, 98 min, Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng)
A supposed updating of the Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies of the 1960s and 1970s, this film felt both off the mark and short of the mark. It didn't emulate the style of the Shaw Brothers films in a satisfying way, although I know a literal parody would have been tedious, and the kung fu just wasn't that exciting. It was both too silly and too melodramatic. I've been big into kung fu for the last few years, having watched a lot of the classics from the 70s and 80s by now, so I think this movie was made for me, but it didn't connect with me the way I hoped it would. It didn't exploit the concept of aged kung-fu masters beyond superficial yuks. It did not to justice to the potential of this concept. I found it to be far closer to modern Hong Kong slapstick comedy than necessarily to classic Shaw Brothers, with all the silly sound effects and quick cutting and infantile humor that nobody outside of Hong Kong would find funny.
The climax was painfully ineptly directed and drawn out, filled with poorly executed climax cliches: The aged erstwhile kung-fu hero struggles to defeat the last boss, but his powers are not up to the task, and as he crumples to the ground, tattered and bloody from the fierce battle, he laughs ruefully, quietly at first and then louder and louder, until the enemy, mortified, retreats in mixed disgust and terror. The old master's laughter slowly transforms into sobbing as he laments his bygone powers. Cue audience tears. Hold the shot for a minute to wring out every last bit of emotion before something clicks in him, and as if his injuries had suddenly disappeared, he pushes himself up on one arm. Cue gasps from onlookers and audience. Cut between him slowly pushing himself and the tearful onlookers a few dozen times to draw out the emotion of the scene. Cue more tears. Show an uncomfortably long close-up of his face as he stands, triumphant in the face of defeat. All the while, make sure the music is as manipulative and maudlin as possible to cue more tears. Etc etc etc. This kind of thing goes on for a good ten minutes. It was embarrassing to watch.
Don't Be Afraid, Bi! (Vietnam, 2010, 92 min, Phan Dang Di)
This film is something of a follow-up to the film Adrift, which I reviewed last year. I have some of the same criticisms, as the style of the films is somewhat similar, but I'd say I liked this one better. It was just as stylish, but more subtle and satisfyingly layered. An absentee father, now dying, returns home, where his son's wife lovingly and even sensually cares for him on his death bed. The son visits a masseuse and seeks other women as his wife languishes. A schoolteacher becomes infatuated with a student. The film frankly and explicitly explores the sexuality that lurks beneath the surface of otherwise conservative Vietnamese culture and cinema. The images are impeccably shot, the interiors lit only by subtle gradients of light, as if in eternal twilight, creating a heady atmosphere of charged sexual electricity that contrasts with the innocence of the young protagonist. The director stated after the screening that the idea behind the odd name of the film is that it's a word of encouragement aimed at the young protagonist, telling him not to be afraid of the tumult of sex and death and emotion the innocent Bi witnesses all around him, as it's what awaits him when he becomes an adult.
Togetherness Supreme (Kenya/USA, 2010, 94 min, Nathan Collett)
Perhaps the most admirable films I saw this year for the style of its production, this film was a product of collaboration with youths living in the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, the largest slum in East Africa, a sprawling metropolis with a population of 170,000. The filmmakers had previously shot a short there entitled Kibera Kid. After the film, they established the Kibera Film School in the slum to help train youths in the fundamentals of professional filmmaking, and Togetherness Supreme is their follow-up, produced in collaboration with the youths studying at the Kibera Film School. Professionals from the west occupied key posts, but all of the other posts were handled by trainees from Kibera.
The script was written in a workshop in collaboration with some 50 Kibera youths. The story tells of an aspiring young artist who becomes involved in the campaigning leading up to the 2007 election that erupted in violence that killed more than 1000 and displaced tends of thousands throughout the country. It's a panoramic examination of the corruption, ignorance and barely suppressed violence endemic on all sides and at the same time a story of two men battling for the love of one woman. It's a great document of life in the slum and the dynamics of identity politics in a country in which how people treat each other is largely dictated by your tribal identity, and you cannot escape your identity, because your name betrays your tribe, as does whatever variety of Swahili-English "Sheng" slang you speak.
The style of the film is gritty, earthy, on-the-ground shaky-cam melodrama. It sometimes strains at the borders of amateurism due to its low budget and the nature of the production, but the characters come across as real and believable and the story deftly handled by the directing, which doesn't sacrifice nuance for an obvious message. The images are colorful, vivid, lively. There is serenity and everyday life in the slum, and there are moments in which frenetic action breaks out, and the camera zips energetically through the nooks and crannies of the alleyways between the ramshackle dwellings. Despite the heavy subject matter, it's a film that chooses to have hope rather than dwelling on how obviously bad things are, even though the situation in the country probably doesn't merit optimism. It's a remarkable picture of the experience of the people in Kibera, by the people - living proof of art as empowerment.
A film well worthy of support. Visit the official website to find out more.
The 4th Revolution: Energy Autonomy (Germany/USA, 2010, 87 min, Carl-A. Fechner)
This film is a good antidote to the deluge of depressing statistics and prognostications of doom that we seem to hear every day. Instead of describing in detail how we're destroying the planet, and how corporations have a viselike grip on the governments of the world and will do everything they can to stand in the way of a shift away from a fossil fuel-driven economy, even if it means destroying the planet in the process, driving most of us to despair and apathy, it describes several people around the world who are showing that such a shift is not only possible but not as difficult as envisioned.
We're introduced to a handful of successful businessmen from around the world who are running thriving businesses based on next-generation energy sources, proving the feasibility of a totally self-sufficient energy paradigm. One sells solar panels in China and Africa. One has designed a 100% self-sufficient community in Denmark. Another sells next-generation vehicles in the USA.
But the thing is that the argument against isn't based on logic. It's based on self-interest. So there is no reasoning with the people who put forward the argument. The fossil fuel industry has every incentive in the world to promote the notion that what can demonstrably be proven feasible is impossible. The most tragically funny moment in the film is the one where we watch an EU energy policy bureaucrat, freshly minted from OPEC, pontificate about how unrealistic it is to envision alternative sources of energy replacing fossil fuels within the next thirty years, and that alternative sources of energy will never catch on unless they make market sense, right after having seen instance after instance of exactly what he's suggesting to be impossible. The facts don't matter if you're in power and can influence governments.
This is a briskly paced, informative, level-headed documentary. I only wish that it had provided more statistics and facts disproving the argument so often calmly stated as fact that it would not be feasible from a market perspective to completely abandon a fossil fuel-based energy paradigm, providing at least some rough ideas for frameworks we could build to work together as nations to bring about the change.
One nice thing about this film is that it was largely funded by a system in which people purchased symbolic "frames" of the film for a set amount of money, I believe $1000. Thus the film also shows a way forward for creating media and getting information out about subjects without having to use old, outdated modes of funding and distribution that might preclude addressing certain topics.
Ito: Diary of an Urban Priest (Finland, 2009, 111 min, Pirjo Honkasalo)
One of the most entrancing films I saw at the VIFF this year is this oddball Finnish film about a renegade Buddhist priest in Tokyo. Part documentary, part video poem, the film can't be easily categorized. It's like no other documentary I've seen. It's shot and edited with a superb sense of style, and the character at the center of the film is a fascinating and very sympathetic contradiction. Not a religious figure in the traditional sense, he comes across rather as someone seeking answers to the big questions. His religion is not about dogma or spiritual fantasies, but a reaction to his traumas and an attempt to forge bonds with others and to help them as they travel down the same path of existential confusion.
He trained as a boxer, but a life-threatening injury forced him to leave boxing behind. Years later, he became a Buddhist priest. What's the causal relationship there?? The film only answers this question indirectly, through his story - abandoned by his mother at age 2, almost killed by his vocation, forced to find new meaning in his life. Buddhism in Japan is a ritualized cultural tool. His Buddhism is different, more of a way of connecting with others who have experienced a similar dislocation. Between scenes in which he dons the garb and speaks intimately with people about their losses, the film is speckled with his voice speaking to the heavens lines of poetry in which he ponders his place in the world, and scenes in which we see him at his day-job running his bar or playing lead guitar for his band. He's one of the most earthly and profane priests there ever was, a worthy descendant of my favorite priest, the womanizing, hard-drinking Ikkyu. Quirky, stylish, intense, and emotionally probing, this is one of the most resonant and appealing films I've seen on the subject of spirituality.
The Light Thief (Kyrgyzstan/Germany/France/Netherlands, 2010, 80 min, Aktan Aryum Kubat)
An episodic look at life in a village in Kyrgyzstan and the larger national political forces at play in the corrupt post-Soviet central Asian regime. Mr. Light, as he's known, is an eccentric but kind-hearted electrician who dreams of building windmills to power his village. When a bigwig politician from the city visits the town to try to buy off its mayor, Mr. Light becomes caught up in attempts by corrupt officials to sell off Kyrgyz land to the Chinese. His sense of justice prompts him to reverse the electric meter covertly to help out old villagers who can't afford the bill, but his sense of morality gets him into serious trouble when it pits him against the foreign investors he's now unwittingly sided with. Fragmented storytelling and a dissatisfyingly abrupt ending are minor gripes in an otherwise insightful, picturesque, delightful comic tragedy about the politics of a region that we hear all too little about. As Parag Khanna suggests in his book The Second World, the Stans and their vacuum of power may prove to be the powderkeg of the 21st century, so it's a region we'd do well to get to know quickly, beyond Borat jokes.
I'd be lying if I didn't say that what I most enjoyed about this film was simply the fact that it is beautifully shot, picturesque, candid portrait of daily life in a rural village in Kyrgyzstan. It's not a documentary, but it provides a rare chance to glimpse what life is like in this country so little known in the west. That is undeniably one of the roles of foreign films - to educate us about cultures alien to us. I tell myself that it shouldn't be about exoticism, yet I know that I wouldn't have found this story interesting if it had been set in Saskatchewan. No excuses need be made. It's a beautifully shot film showing what life is like in a village in Kyrgyzstan, which is more than amply sufficient to make it worth viewing. On top of that, it's a sophisticated commentary on the corruption and nepotism that plagues ex-Soviet regimes like Kyrgyzstan and threatens to destabilize the whole region. This film offers the winning combination of picturesque scenery, a glimpse into daily life in Kyrgyzstan, unforced naturalistic acting and photography, and geopolitical significance.
I Wish I Knew (China, 2010, 138 min, Jia Zhangke)
Jia Zhangke is a remarkable filmmaker who pushed independent narrative filmmaking in China to new heights in the last decade. His latest film is a documentary about the history of Shanghai. But it's a documentary with a twist: The entire film is told through headshots of interviews with old Shanghai natives about their experience growing up in Shanghai. Interspersed with these stories, we see an unnamed woman wandering the streets of Shanghai, looking pensive and concerned at the world around her. She is meant to represent the lost Shanghai of old. Her expression is meant to evoke the suffering and wrenching change the city has experienced over the course of the last century. Whether it does so is debatable, but it is certainly a novel format.
The attempt with this film was obviously to evoke Shanghai's history not through the third-person voice of a documentarist, but through the actual voice and experiences of the people who experienced Shanghai's history. The film is extremely dense in terms of life experience, even a bit overwhelming. I'll admit it felt a bit tedious after a while. There is almost too much information, presented without context, for it to provide a complete picture of the history of the city of Shanghai. To be fair, that was clearly not the intent. But I came away feeling an opportunity had been missed. Would it have been better to take the conventional route and create a conventional documentary shot in the cookie-cutter format we've all seen hundreds of times on the History Channel, replete with stock footage, talking heads of experts, and historical facts narrated in historical order with clinical detachment? I'd like to see a film like that sometime, but it's rare to see a different approach to the documentary like this, and worth considering its more poetic and personal perspective on history. Jia Zhangke clearly invested himself fully in this film, and it has a rare intensity for a documentary about a city. It's a portrait of Shanghai based on the collective memory of its citizens.
This was presumably a touchy topic due to the fact that many of the people interviewed were driven from Shanghai to Taiwan, so their viewpoint is by definition opposed to the official story in China. Jia Zhangke avoids having to make any critical commentary that could get him in trouble by positioning the film as a record of actual experiences of the people. The film's journey mirrors that of many of its onetime citizens, and the latter half of the film takes place in Taiwan, where he even interviews the great Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who had previously made a film about life in old Shanghai entitled Flowers of Shanghai, one of the most remarkable period pieces ever filmed. I suspect that a western-made film about the history of Shanghai would have not been so circumspect about the hard facts of what happened in Shanghai. Not having any background knowledge about what happened during those years, I came away feeling more confused than enlightened, so I'm a bit of two minds about the film. In some aspects it's quite impressive and fascinating, while in others it falls short.
Crossing the Mountain (China, 2010, 98 min, Yang Rui)
Boasting one of the most florid and evocative descriptions in the entire catalog, this film was hands down the worst I saw at the festival. The deceptive description was clearly successful at luring in audiences for the same reason I went: In the hope of seeing a beautiful, poetic, somewhat experimental film set in the picturesque province of Yunnan, China. What we got, instead, was a stridently ugly exercise in audience alienation. The film began with a packed theater and ended with about 1/4 of the audience left. No other film I've ever seen at the festival had a comparable attrition rate. I hung around until the end out of sheer obstinacy, but I was bored out of my mind and shaking my head with increasing frequency at the ludicrousness of the imagery. It was, simply put, sheer, unmitigated crap.
The film has no obvious narrative. We are presented with a series of shots that have no obvious literal connection with one another. A group of people dance around a fountain for two minutes. A man sits on his bed for a while gazing out of the window before getting up and attempting to saw his television in half. A couple attempts to adjust the image on a TV set, to a soundtrack of loud crackling and hissing. A three-minute still shot of the valley. An old lady talks about how her old man was beheaded and his head thrown into the paddy as fertilizer. Etc.
It actually sounds pretty interesting described this way, but it was very tedious to watch. They couldn't have made it more tedious if they'd tried. I like the idea of this film; I'd like to see one in this vein done in a more satisfying way. This film seems like an extreme example of a recent tendency in independent Asian cinema towards narrative diffusion and adding surreal elements into documentary-style realism. I'm fascinated by the panorama of indie cinema coming out of countries like Indonesia, China, Philippines and Thailand these days. The availability of cheap filmmaking tools is empowering more would-be filmmakers in these countries, and there's been an explosion in the variety and ambitiousness of indie films. A vernacular of slow-burn, low-key realism characterized by long shots and non-professional actors has emerged, and it's produced in some spectacular and beautiful films. Despite this particular film being a failure, I find it falls on one extreme of the spectrum of this trend, so in that sense I'm still glad to have seen it. It's interesting to see the new and daring directions this vernacular is being pushed.
This show is a rather interesting little oddity - the last gasp of A Pro, you could say. It features work by most of the best staff from the good old days of A Pro just before they left. Yet it's a terrible show. You get the feeling you understand why they left after you watch this show, though I doubt it was the sole reason.
I'd known about this show forever, but I thought it was produced by Nippon Animation, so I didn't pay it much heed. It turns out that Nippon Animation was just the company that planned the show. They farmed it all out to Shinei, newly renamed from A Pro, who did the actual production.
The show aired Sept 12, 1977 to March 27, 1978. Its odd episode run of 28 episodes is the result of being cancelled because ratings dropped after Lupin III Part 2 started airing on a different station in the same time slot.
So this was technically the second Shin-Ei Doga production after Tenguri. After this they again produced animation for Nippon Animation on Ikkyu-san before starting their own productions The Red Bird and Doraemon, but all the really good animators like Yoshifumi Kondo, Osamu Kobayashi and Yasuo Otsuka had left by that time. It's for the work of these guys, then, that this show is worth checking out. Otherwise it doesn't have much going for it.
I watched the first half of the show to wring out every little bit of good work I could out of it. It's not the worst thing I've ever seen, but it's a hell of a mess. There's a smattering of good work here and there, but the quality and look of the show is very uneven.
The show is based on a Chiba Tetsuya manga, like Ashita no Joe. While the former works pretty well after all these years thanks no doubt in large part to Osamu Dezaki's directing, Ore wa Teppei is nigh unwatchable save for the sporadically good drawings and movement, due largely to the jumbled story and awful concept behind the characters.
I won't go into detail as to why except to say that the antics of Teppei and his father, which are supposed to come across as the slap-happy hijinx of two wild souls unfettered by the rules of civil society, are so mercilessly overplayed that it soon feels like you're watching a father and son with severe mental illness, and the show becomes very uncomfortable to watch. On top of that, the story is uninteresting and schizophrenic, beginning as a madcap comedy, suddenly shifting into a 'spokon' show one moment and then to a family drama the next, and never making up its mind as to what it's trying to do. But the most excruciating part of the show is the character of Teppei and his father.
All that said, there's something endearing about the show. At least I was able to watch 11 episodes, which I can't say for many shows these days. Maybe it's something about the atmosphere of shows during this period that's appealing, or because the drawings and the layouts alter the impact of the material and are reminiscent of the better A Pro moments from around this time. When the good players are on the screen, it's as if a good show were struggling but failing to emerge from the morass.
Topping the list of interesting names is Yasuo Otsuka. He's credited with layout alongside Tsutomu Shibayama (see op credit above). Studio head Daikichiro Kusube is credited as character design as well as animation directing alongside Toshiyuki Honda (later Animaru-ya co-founder) and Sadayoshi Tominaga (later one of the main animation directors of Doraemon).
On the animator side, you get Yoshifumi Kondo in episodes 1, 4 and 5. Surprisingly, his work isn't as identifiable as elsewhere. I spot a flicker of interesting motion here and there in these episodes, but nothing like the obvious genius on display in Dokonjo Gaeru, Future Boy Conan and later Tom Sawyer.
Other animators present include Osamu Kobayashi, Tomekichi Takeuchi, Michishiro Yamada and Eiichi Nakamura. I spotted a young Atsuko Tanaka credited with inbetweening. Osamu Kobayashi left after this with Michishiro Yamada and Tsutomu Shibayama to form Ajia-do. Throughout the show you get occasional moments here and there where the movement suddenly has a fun zip, or the drawings have a pleasing character different from the old-fashioned Chiba Tetsuya drawings, but most of the time the animation is pretty lackluster. Obviously this is not the same studio that produced Dokonjo Gaeru. I mean, it is, but they've changed.
Maybe it's just that the nature of the material didn't suit them. It's a sequential daily life drama narrative like the WMT shows of Nippon Animation, but done in the style of an A Pro gag show. A Pro was good at doing cartoonish characters animated in a lively way and gag-filled stories, not drama-heavy real life stories.
Storyboarders include Hiroshi Fukutomi (2, 26, 27), Tsutomu Shibayama (28) and Yoshio Kabashima (18). Yoshifumi Kondo even storyboarded an episode - episode 19. It's the only storyboard he ever did, so it's a rather precious piece of his filmography.
The nice thing about the show is that you can spot a lot of these guys. For example Otsuka, obviously one of the main reasons I wanted to watch this show. He's only credited with layout, but you can really feel his drawings throughout episode 1. I suppose either he drew rough genga as well or people based their genga closely on his layouts, because episode 1 has a wonderfully Otsuka-esque feeling in many of the shots, even in terms of the movement. For example in the following shots you can sense Otsuka just from the drawing/layout:
It wouldn't be Otsuka without a jeep, though that jeep is a bit sloppy for Otsuka I must say, considering how much he loved jeeps. Is that him working on the jeep there wearing a police uniform? I think Otsuka must not have done much after this, or only sporadically, because there's isn't as much of a strong Otsuka flavor to the rest of the show.
As another example, there's an extended scene in episode 11 that screams Osamu Kobayashi:
The opening is also cute and has a strong A Pro character in terms of the sharp movement and stylization. I suppose it was animated either by Osamu Kobayashi or Tsutomu Shibayama.
The most pleasing moments of this show are ironically those like the above where the designs from the original manga are absent and the animator's drawing style takes the fore.
Misc: I spotted Toshifumi Takizawa of Dirty Pair fame as assistant director. The first episode was storyboarded by a mystery figure named Hajime Kurama, whose name turns up no other hits in Google. Obviously a pen name.
Bonus for people who scrolled down this far looking for an embedded Youtube video: A small vid I made in 2003 of scenes I'm guessing were animated by Yoshifumi Kondo in Tom Sawyer.
Most people remember Yoshifumi Kondo as the director of Whisper of the Heart, but I find this kind of ironic because for the other 90% of his career he was an animator. I remember Yoshifumi Kondo more as a great animator who did a lot of great animation on A Production shows in the 1970s and Nippon Animation shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It's understandable but regrettable that his work from this period remains unknown. None of these A Pro shows are available over here. But it's misrepresenting his achievement to remember him only for Whisper of the Heart. Though a beautiful film that would undoubtedly have been different under anyone else's hand, it doesn't show the real individuality of Yoshifumi Kondo the way his animation does.
Naturally, he did great work on the Ghibli films in the 1980s and 1990s as well. But I wrote about that before. I'd like to shine the light on some of his early work today.
I just had the chance to discover two little gems that Yoshifumi Kondo did in the period just before he left A Pro, right after working on Tenguri but before leaving to work on Future Boy Conan. This was the period when he was reaching the height of his powers as an animator, having worked by then for almost a decade as a TV animator. He did two episodes of Madhouse's Folk Tales of the World omnibus show.
He worked on the following two episodes:
Episode 66 "Why the turtle walks slow" (click for video)
Character design, animation, art, backgrounds
(folk tale from Cameroun, aired in May 1977)
A short summary for those who don't understand Japanese, as these aren't subbed: One day, the king of the animals, the lion, gave away certificates to all the animals proving that they were the best at one thing. The turtle gets the diploma of slowest animal alive. He sets his eyes on a cute impala, but she's not impressed by his diploma for obvious reasons. So he devises a scheme to trick the elephant and the hippopotamus into convincing the lion king to pronounce the turtle the strongest animal alive. His scheme works, but it's all in vain, because by the time he gets back to her she's already found the male impala.
Episode 86 "The man who switched places with his wife" (click for video)
Character design, animation, director
(folk tale from Norway, aired in July 1977)
One day, a housewife in Norway, sick of her husband constantly nitpicking her work, suggests they trade places for a day. Hilarity ensues.
These episodes don't really show off the mover side of Kondo as much as showing a side of him we really didn't see as much - him creating a short film from the ground up by designing and moving every element. You'd have to watch his work in Dokonjo Gaeru or Tom Sawyer to see the mover side.
It's more for the designs that these shorts are nice, although the movement of the turtle in a number of shots is certainly quite fun. Kondo reveals his blood as an A Pro animator here through the loose but efficiently stylized designs that look great using just a few lines and that move in a fun way with just a few drawings. I like the way the designs are cartoonishly stylized but not over-stylized. I like that you see a Yoshifumi Kondo uninfluenced as of yet by Miyazaki. His influences at this point are mostly Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama, which shows up clearly in these films. I don't like the way most western designs these days are over-stylized. I find that these achieve a nice middle ground.
This is one thing that Madhouse's show was great for - giving talented animators of the day a chance to work on a short format with more creative freedom to try out things than they'd have on a show unified around a single design concept, which is pretty much 99% of shows. It'd be nice to have another show like this today, because there are so many young animators today who seem like they could develop into something great if they had the chance to experiment with unusual ideas for design and movement, but are stifled by having to work within the same rigidly homogenized anime design ethos.
As much as I love Group Tac's Tales of Old Japan, the show that Madhouse copied, I think in some ways Madhouse improved on it. The Group Tac show was too often very thinly produced, whereas the animation and designs are a little more worked in the Madhouse show. Group Tac's show seems to hold back in favor of a lightweight, neutral cartoonish feeling, whereas Madhouse's show feels more individualistic and stylish. There's nothing like this being produced anymore, so I'd think there would be a big opening for such a show.