Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Monday, July 12, 2004

03:17:33 pm , 1759 words, 4963 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

Winter Days

I thought I'd talk a bit about 冬の日 (Fuyu no Hi) AKA Winter Days today. I won't go into much detail. Other sites can do that better than me (notably the official site). I'll just skim over some impressions. My apologies, but I have a strange aversion to writing summaries, which seem ridiculous to repeat more than once, so I'll just point you to one.

Winter Days is a visually rich, accessible, innovative film, but not surprisingly it seems to have pretty much disappeared without a blip, except for a number of festival screenings and awards. Just looking at it in the broadest sense, as a concept, it works. The idea that you have this ancient Japanese poetry form that would seem to be uncannily well suited to the medium of animation, a medium in which one individual typically spends a great deal of effort creating a minute or so of visuals of haiku-like compactness and craftsmanship, seems like a good idea at first, but in fact it turns out to be a very good idea.

Regardless of the quality of the individual entries, it's a moving whole, like a microcosm of the animation world in all its variety, showcasing the amazingly diverse possibilities of the medium, and the diverse motives and backgrounds that each animator brings to the table. At the most basic level, it's a pleasure to be carried along on the rich assortment of visuals that ensue with each successive stanza. As Kihachiro Kawamoto (concept, director) undoubtedly anticipated, every animator brings his or her own wildly different interpretation of the material, with no two shorts looking or feeling the same, and the stylistic differences act to mirror the alternation of poets from one stanza to the next. This was obviously a project not conceived for profit and merchandising and franchising and all that, but for no reason other than to create something of beauty, something original, for love of the art of animation. I admire Kawamoto for coming up with this deceptively simple idea and carrying it through to completion, however he did it, with all the incredible logistical challenges getting 35 animators from around the world to contribute a minute of animation must have entailed.

Obviously the idea of an animated omnibus isn't new -- there's Fantasia, for one. But the difference is obvious in terms of the content, the motive, and the production style. In any case, the timing of the appearance of an independent, hand-crafted, artist-centered film like this in Japan -- at a time when the big blockbusters of the anime industry seem to have finally become firmly ensconsed in the world mainstream -- seems laden with meaning. I find particularly poignant the fact that Isao Takahata, evicted from the director's chair at Ghibli after the eminently anti-epic Yamada-kun, is among the bunch.

Takahata received the Excellence Prize for Yamada-kun at the 3rd annual Japan Media Arts Festival in 1999, in the acceptance interview for which he emphasized his skepticism and outright distrust of the escapist tactics of contemporary anime films like Spirited Away. Alexander Petrov, who also contributed a short to Winter Days, took the Grand Prix that year for The Old Man and the Sea. In the event, Winter Days took the grand prize in 2003, and Takahata was on the judging committee. He made a damning case for the poverty of Japanese animation in his procedural summary of the year's entries. There was no film even remotely comparable to Winter Days in terms of conceptual originality and innovation last year in Japan, so it was the right decision to support that originality. Anybody who thinks Tokyo Godfathers was artistically innovative and original... well, that's you, to quote a phrase. Well crafted entertainment, yes.

On a side note, Yoshiyuki Tomino heads the committee this year, so it's intriguing to speculate how the awards will pan out. Somehow I just can't picture Tomino giving Winter Days the grand prix. Maybe I'm wrong, but he strikes me as a definite entertainment partisan. (I confess that I've always derived a sort of perverse pleasure from the bewildering, opaque comments he never fails to make whenever he talks about animation.) If there's any justice, Mind Game will win the grand prix, along with many other prizes.

As for the individual pieces, there are certainly some that stand above the rest, and some that I didn't care for, but I think they all fit perfectly within the whole. In other words, it's a healthy anarchy.

Without any hesitation the best piece comes from Norstein, the 'honored guest' in charge of the hokku, the first stanza of the poem, written by the invited guest of the original Winter Days poetry collection, Basho. Jaw-dropping is a good term to describe the amount of life Norstein is able to breathe into the landscape and the characters on the screen. It's really in another league from pretty much all of the rest of the pieces.

It was surprising to find out, in the interview section that follows the animation, that Norstein is the one who actually inspired the idea for the film many years ago when he made a passing comment to Kawamoto about how interesting it would be to animate Basho's poems, having long loved them and read them for inspiration.

Sadly, Kawamoto's own piece, which follows (he also did the final piece), is a pale shadow of his efforts of years past such as 火宅 (Kataku, The House of Flames). The animation is wooden and the dolls are sloppy-looking. But he's such a good guy that we'll forgive him. Similarly, the contribution of one of the various notable foreign guests, Bretislav Pojar, creator of the classic, hilarious Czech puppet series Pojdte pane, budeme si hrat, struck me as somewhat... lacking from a man who was an erstwhile master of his art. He comes across as a kind, weary, wizened old man in his interview. All of which meshes touchingly with the theme of his piece: life is transient, and old age catches up with all.

I know about Yoji Kuri being important as one of the members of the アニメーション三人の会 (Animation Sannin no kai, Animation Gang of Three), the seminal independent animator association formed in the 60s, but frankly his piece struck me as just plain silly - though I guess that was the point. He was rather pathetic in the interview, too, sitting there next to his "Dutch wife", looking kind of lost. Along with the Uruma Delvi piece, it gets an enthusiastic "pass" from me. I was decidedly unimpressed by the way Uruma/Derubi pouted childishly in the interview section about having been given a "hard part" just because they had to animate water.

Seiichi Hayashi struck me as just the sort of affable fellow I'd imagined judging by the nature of his creative output in various media (manga, illustration, animation, etc) over the last thirty years. His piece was one of my favorites, very stylish and restrained, with excellent use of color, visually one of the most original and appealing of all the pieces. I've been reading his The Guppy Still Lives, a poetic history of Japan since the 60s, which, for lack of adequate words, strikes me as just one of the most original manga I've ever read, with its heady mixture of pornography, high art and pop iconography.

Isao Takahata's piece was animated by none other than Osamu Tanabe, and as a whole it's one of the best in the film, with the various meanings of his stanza picked apart with the exacting care to be expected from the razor-sharp mind of Takahata, and reassembled into a seamless 60 seconds wherein the various cleverly juxtaposed incongruous elements culminate in the film's funniest punchline. One of the film's most satisfying interpretations.

Particularly gratifying for animation fans like myself was the invitation of master animator Yoichi Kotabe and his wife Reiko Okuyama to the film, both of whom were former colleagues of Takahata at Toei Doga in the 1960s, and at A Pro and then Nippon Animation in the 1970s. Kotabe is one of the truly great animators of the last 40 years, having made a number of historically significant contributions to anime, including a number of classic animated sequences in the Toei Films, and epoch-making work as the animation director/character designer of Takahata's mid-1970s TV series Heidi and Marco. But we all know that, don't we. The film itself is quite unusual for the pair, as they are not art animators like the rest of the folks in the film, and consequently their piece is a bit sedate, but nonetheless atmospheric and visually rich, and an unexpected treat. Kotabe's explanation of the animation process was great; precise and instructive about every step.

One of the greatest discoveries for me was Alexander Petrov. Yes, I know I'm only a few years behind the rest of the world. For some reason I had avoided seeing The Old Man and the Sea and his other things. Don't ask why! I really don't know. Now I can't wait to see them. He's quite obviously up there near Norstein in terms of artistic talent and vision. His technique is amazing. To think he can get such life out of paint smeared on a glass plate with his fingers...

The other big discovery for me was Keita Kurosaka, who provides the most dynamic piece in the film. Kurosaka has had numerous high-profile commissions in recent years, including Flying Daddy for Japan MTV, and seems to have found the ideal formula to survive as an independent animator. A bunch of his films are even available on VHS. I hope these are released on DVD soon so that the rest of the world can see how good he is.

I'd actually heard of Kurosaka before, as well as Koji Yamamura, because they're the two biggest independent animators of the current generation (discussed in this informative Animation World article), but only heard, and not seen, and I was equally impressed by Yamamura's piece. Of all the independent animators I've seen in Japan, he strikes me as the best craftsman. Reportedly he spent more than 7 years animating Mt. Head -- and drew every cel himself. (Read more about him on this page.)

I'm afraid I don't have enough steam left to talk about the others. I'll just mention that there's also a 9-DVD edition of the film that contains 8 DVDs worth (!) of footage documenting in minute detail the creation of each piece in the film, but it's apparently rather amateurishly shot and edited, so disappointingly slipshod as a making-of.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

01:34:57 pm , 932 words, 2323 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Foreign anime?

I was just rewatching some rips I made a few years back from a long out-of-print LD release of pre-war abstract animator Oskar Fischinger's works that I managed to find in a university library somewhere or other, and I was again struck by how damned incredible they were, and how for the life of me I've never seen anything yet that comes near to topping them - save perhaps for Norman McLaren's work. Why aren't these on DVD yet? In Japan they released a wonderful 3-DVD set of Norman McLaren's work, the first of its kind anywhere (for shame, Canada!), and they've been putting out lots of interesting DVD releases of animation masters from around the world, including a beyond-your-wildest-dreams 8-DVD set of Karel Zeman's works that I'm still hoping to get soon, and over here we've seen any number of obscure items turn up on DVD, such as Ladislaw Starewicz's insect/puppet films, but Fischinger has yet to turn up on the DVD radar on either side of the Pacific.

First of all, I find this quite lamentable. I understand that the size of an audience for a pre-war German mystic synaesthete abstract animator must have its limits, but just the same, people don't know what they're missing. In terms of sheer volume of ideas per second, they're up there near the top in the history of the medium.

That said, since they're not available anywhere right now, I don't feel too bad about putting up one of his films for people to download, his Study No. 7 of 1931, probably the most famous of his Studies series.

Forget characters, forget story, forget colors, forget anything that would distract from the fundamentals that form the basis of animation, movement + shape, and this is what you get: pure, unadulterated visual music. Think animated Kandinsky. And every frame here was drawn by one man. Don't give me any crap about a computer program being able to generate something comparable. Maybe we could create a computer program that could reproduce a Bach fugue convincingly (though I have my doubts about this). Does that take away from his genius?

Back in the LD era the biggest name in art animation releases was Pioneer, with their Animation Animation series that put out, well, pioneering two-LD sets of Tadanari Okamoto, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Yuri Norstein and so on. Now that we're in the DVD era they've changed their name to Geneon and wasted no time in moving ahead with DVD releases of all the old names as well as many new (though still no Tadanari as of yet) in the appropriately rechristened New Animation Animation series: Kihachiro Kawamoto, Yuri Norstein, Ishu Patel, Co Hoedeman, Raoul Servais, Shanghai Animation, Alexander Petrov, Yoji Kuri, Koji Yamamura, Jiri Trnka, Tezuka Osamu, Russian shorts, plus the aforementioned McLaren and Zeman sets.

I'll go out of my way to mention that the 5-DVD Trnka set is particularly welcome because it sees the first DVD release anywhere of Trnka's magnum opus, A Midsummer Night's Dream, which in my opinion is the greatest puppet film ever made.

There's also been a spate of Slavic fuzzies of late, with classic children's puppet series like the popular Chebrushka and Bretislav Pojar's brilliant Pojdte pane, budeme si hrat turning up on DVD. To capitalize on the fad, someone even put out a ridiculously skimpy DVD+plush doll set for Mitten, a short done by the Chebrushka team.

Svankmajer is well represented, with almost all of his full-length features out on DVD as well as his shorts. And a number of those weird 80s French sci-fi features are even out on DVD. You know... Planete Sauvage, Les Maitres Du Temps, Gandahar. I must say, I don't know about you, but I found Gandahar to be supremely crappy. Planete Sauvage is still watchable in a quaint sort of way, I guess. Haven't seen the other one.

Not a Japanese release, and not even animation in the conventional sense, but a few years back a selection of the film works of Charles & Ray Eames was released on 5 DVDs. The Powers of Ten, clocking in at a mere 8 minutes, is quite simply one of the most amazing films I've ever seen. It is required viewing for anyone who considers himself an aficionado of cinema or animation. The film is a miracle of perfection. I was so mezmerized and amazed on the first watching that I don't remember how many times I rewatched it immediately afterwards, in addition to ripping it from the LD I'd rented so as to be able to watch it yet more innumerable times. (The DVD wasn't out then.) For the record, I'm a partisan of the early version. I personally think the collective body of the Eames' work is among the greatest left by any American visual artist in the last century. And I don't even know that much about what else they did. (Apparently they were no less important as architects and furniture designers.)

I just noticed Criterion released a DVD of Stan Brakhage's works. Very curious about that.

And, oh yeah, whatever happened to Norstein's Overcoat? It's been like, what, 20 years since he started?? I know he's still alive and kicking, since he made a great new short for Winter Days and had enough free time to do some voice-acting on Jubei-chan, of all things.

And what about Paul Glabicki? I've seen a few of his incredible abstract works, and they clearly deserve much more recognition than they seem to get. It's practically impossible to find them.

Anyway, I think that'll be enough horrendous digression for now.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

12:22:40 pm , 15 words, 1048 views     Categories: Misc

Definition of Fool

Someone who writes a really great haiku, only to realize later that it's not 7-5-7 but 5-7-5.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

11:01:31 am , 218 words, 1040 views     Categories: Animation

Cremaster 1+2 + Tweeny Witches 14

Saw Cremaster 1+2, but I don't think I'm going to bother to see the rest. I'm a big fan of deliberately "artsy" films -- L'Ange is one of my favorite films -- but this one just didn't do it for me, for some reason. 1 was downright tedious, possibly because I'd read a brief synopsis beforehand, and there really was nothing more to the entire 30 minutes than just that brief synopsis. 2 was better, and was interesting, but it just left me cold. I just don't find myself convinced. In the dialogue sections the directing borders on embarrassing in a way that obviously wasn't intentional. What are you thinking, Norman Mailer?

Tweeny Witches 14 - Yasuhiro Aoki strikes again! Another one-man-orchestra episode, the first in a while. (In other words, he handled the storyboard, directing, and animation directing.) Excellent episode not only in technical terms -- directing, animation -- but also in terms of the story, which is engaging, challenging and dramatically convincing -- and relevant. World Masterpiece Theater as a place for kids to learn about morality? Fuhgeddit. Tweeny Witches offers much better lessons for impressionable minds in this age of pre-emptive wars for oil.

But then, I have yet to be let down by this show. Obara's writing is great. (I think he's the main reason Samurai Champloo is watchable.)

Thursday, July 8, 2004

08:10:39 pm , 610 words, 5986 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game tidbits + A History of Japanese Animation

Mind Game Official SiteJust thought I'd mention a small bit of Mind Game news: People who can read Japanese can now subscribe to a mailing list from the official home page (go to the news section). And for the same folks, Studio 4C has put up a Mind Game discussion board, cleverly titled "Mind Game" -- "Game" in this case meaning turtle; hence the mascot. Reportedly Yuasa himself will probably drop in from time to time.

What is quite probably the single most ambitious and historic anime screening to be held anywhere ever kicked off two days ago on Tuesday: 日本アニメーション映画史 (Nihon Animeshon Eigashi), A History of Japanese Animation. Hosted by the National Film Center of the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and consisting of 37 separate programs to be shown between July 6 and August 29 (each ranging from 60 to 120 minutes, with repeats), the mammoth project will bring to the screen -- probably for the first time since most of these films were premiered -- more than 230 individual films, including shorts and full-length features, traversing the entire span of the Showa period -- from the 1924 short 蟹満寺縁起 (Kanimanji Engi) to 1991's 注文の多い料理店 (Chumon no Oi Ryoriten / The Restaurant of Many Orders).

The latter was a film completed by Kihachiro Kawamoto based on sketches by the late Tadanari Okamoto, one of Japan's greatest and most beloved independent animators of the last thirty years, whose entire oeuvre is being shown over the span of an incredible six programs. No less astounding is the fact that no less than four programs are being devoted entirely to the oeuvre of the namesake of Japan's most prestigious animation award, the Ofuji-Sho: Noburo Ofuji. Indeed, two programs will be devoted to early master Sanae Yamamoto, two to Ryuichi Yokoyama, the pioneering comic artist and creator of Fuku-chan, and two to Mitsuo Seyo, the creator of the Japan's famed first full-length animated feature, the wartime Momotaro propaganda epic 海の神兵 (Umi no Shinpei / The Sea God Soldier). The bounties extend into the post-war period; fans of early Toei Doga will be happy to discover that most of the films of Toei Doga precursor Nichido Eigasha are being shown, followed by those early Toei Doga films themselves - a rare opportunity to see these lush full-color animated extravaganzas on the big screen as they were intended. Adding to the embarrassment of riches is the chaste admission cost: ¥500 (even less for students) -- pocket change indeed in a country where movie tickets regularly run upwards of ¥2000. That's what I call putting tax money to good use.

Now if only I was in Japan!! >:(

First Mind Game, now this. This is definitely the summer to be in Japan.

Perceptive readers will note that this screening series does not quite harken back all the way to anime's auspicious birth in 1917. This is because these early films have been lost.

This series actually falls in line with a number of recent developments. One of the widely talked-about releases of 2000 was an 8-DVD set containing all anime that had won the Ofuji-Sho, an amazing and unheard of release that garnered both shouts of glee and ravenous stares from thrilled anime fans -- only to promptly sucker-punch them with the sticker price of ¥240,000 ($2200). Funny, huh? Well it gets funnier. This year they outdid themselves in both arenas. Not only is the newest DVD set, 日本アートアニメーション映画選集 (Nihon Art Animation Eiga Senshu / Japan Art Animation Movie Collection), bigger, with 12 DVDs, each on a particular theme, each chock-full with long-unavailable rarities from the vault of the the Tokyo MOMA, but the price is generously expanded to boot: ¥360,000! ($3300) They're cheap! Buy two! (after mortgaging your house)

Now you see why this series is so welcome.

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

08:33:14 pm , 482 words, 806 views     Categories: Animation

Peter Pan #12

I've now seen the first third of Peter Pan, and easily the high point so far is episode 12, Scary Stories, featuring animation director Hiroyuki Okiura. This is the first episode where things really come together in just the way you'd expect from an anime TV series presided over by Takashi Nakamura.

Around 1989 Nippon Animation was looking to shake up the image of the World Masterpiece Theater. Ratings were down. Times were changing. They wanted to start doing more well-known stories. Their answer? Peter Pan. It was a radical change; by far the most famous story they'd done up until then. And how to design a radically different story? How else -- with a radically different design. Enter Takashi Nakamura.

Nakamura had just completed a thoroughly punishing stint as the animation director of Akira, a film in which he was deeply involved without being able to have as much creative input as he probably wanted. Nakamura had already created extremely original and idiosyncratic pieces like Chicken Man and Red Head and The Order to Stop Construction prior to his involvement in Akira, which comes across as a very dark period indeed when he talks about it in retrospect. Peter Pan gave him back the creative freedom he'd so missed. Episode 12, featuring probably the largest concentration of single-episode designs in the series, is an all-out parade of the silly-yet-creepy monsters at which Nakamura excels, a veritable closet full of zany skeletons of the sort that will look very familiar to anyone who has seen Chicken Man and Red Head.

Combine Nakamura's emblematic designs with the fluid and detailed animation stylings of Hiroyuki Okiura, the genius animator responsible for the striking animation of the mob scene in Akira, and things really take off. Indeed, the characters in this episode feel incredibly Akira-ish -- their poses, the way their hands are drawn. At times I almost thought that was Kaneda up on the screen talking rather than Peter Pan. Then there's this cut, obviously lifted directly from a scene in Akira:

It just feels really right as an episode, the symbiosis is there. It's like a few jazz musician buddies got together for a jam session. Okiura's attention to detail and innate sense for thrilling movement shines through in the black-backdrop story sequence: Witness the detailed animation of the skeleton exploding into a billion little bits, and the sprightly animation of Peter Pan flying by Toshiyuki Tsuru, a skilled action animator who later went on to create a lot of good physical movement in fighting anime like Ninku and Naruto.

It's true that we're dealing with a pull here that has very little to do with the pull of a Marco or a Heidi -- it's a one-dimensional pull rather than a 3-dimensional one. Putting that aside, there's much that can and should be appreciated here, if you just take the time to look for it.

Monday, July 5, 2004

11:58:32 pm , 79 words, 829 views     Categories: Misc

A Night at the Cinematheque

Added a counter today and messed with the logo and menus.

Saw the 2002 Turkish film Distant (IMDB) - overheard someone calling it "Tarkovskian" as I dashed for the bathroom after the film. Oooh, smart. Because Tarkovsky films were playing in it? Great slooow cinematography. Every shot worked in the film - except for the last shot. It was a bit too long. Too bad. Dreary film. But nice.

Looking forward to seeing the Cremaster cycle in a few days.

Sunday, July 4, 2004

07:37:34 pm , 373 words, 981 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Masaaki Yuasa Event Report

Mind Game Official SiteI found the page in English with details about the talk Masaaki Yuasa is going to be giving at the 2004 Tokyo Digital Art Festival.

The Masaaki Yuasa ibento held by Anime Style in Shinjuku's Loft Plus One went well -- sold out, in fact! Hongo Mitsuru, the director of the early Crayon Shin-chan films, who never makes public appearances, stated that he made an exception in this case to help publicize Mind Game, which he praised ardently and in no uncertain terms, intriguingly positing it as a healthy antidote to the prevailing trend in anime films, where "everything is incredibly detailed, but SO DAMN BORING!" MG's merits were extolled in equally enthusiastic terms by the other panel guests: maverick animator Hiroyuki Imaishi, who was there as an audience member but made an impromptu appearance on stage to put in his own three cents of praise, and mod director Tatsuo Sato, who lamented his own lack of vision for not having caught on to Yuasa's potential as early on as others like Osamu Kobayashi & Tsutomu Shibayama (A Pro directors), Reiko Okuyama (famous Toei-era animator) and Shichiro Kobayashi (Madhouse art director).

A few of Yuasa's bits in the Crayon Shin-chan TV series and films were shown, followed by an overly generous sampling of excerpts from Mind Game.

The centerpiece of the night was the seldom seen スライム冒険記 (Slime Adventures), a short film directed by Yuasa in 1999, but doomed to obscurity from the moment of its inception, because it was intended purely for use at a one-time publicity event. Along with the similarly doomed Vampiyan Kids Pilot, these two peanut-sized movies constitute the entirety of Masaaki's oeuvre as director prior to Mind Game, which therefore rightfully qualifies as his feature directing debut.

The evening wrapped up with Yuasa fast-forwarding through かぼちゃ屋 (Kabocha-ya), episode 3 of the ultra-rare OVA series アニメ落語館 (Anime Rakugokan), whilst providing a voice-over summary of the story, much to the amusement of the audience.

I have these two pages to thank for this info: one two.

I also just learned, from the interview recently posted on the official home page, that the total production time for Mind Game was two years and seven months, two of which were devoted to animation.

Japanese word of the day: キモオタ

Saturday, July 3, 2004

05:03:37 pm , 150 words, 860 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game news

Mind Game Official SiteLots of good news on the Mind Game front. The official Mind Game site has put up a "Special Contents" page where there is already an interview with Masaaki Yuasa and a great review by one "Milkman" Ito. A few other items are in the works. Seems, looking a the news page, that there are tons of magazines mentioning Mind Game already: Sabra (June 24), Cut (July), Studio Voice (July), Relax (July), Nikkei Characters (No 2), Title (July). Oh, and the official release date has been set: August 7. And the film is now going to be shown nationwide! Originally it was set to be shown only in Tokyo and Osaka.

I noticed Shinji Obara is writing both Samurai Champloo and Tweeny Witches right now. Quite a juggling act.

Today is one of those lazy days when the wind coming in from the window feels like a caress.

Japanese word of the day: 虚無

Thursday, July 1, 2004

08:46:17 pm , 1100 words, 13051 views     Categories: Animation, Director

Spotlight on Mamoru Hosoda

I thought I'd talk about 細田守/Mamoru Hosoda today. Nobody over here will have heard of him, because as of yet he has only directed two films, both Digimon, both short, and both of which were -- mangled doesn't quite do justice to what was done to them -- eviscerated for US audiences. You thought Robotech was bad? The Digimon movie seen here consists of random sequences from 5 different movies. Nobody over here got a chance to see how good a director this guy really is. In Japan he became famous overnight because of those two movies. They're what got him invited to direct Howl's Moving Castle.

So what's all the fuss? You'll just have to watch the films to see for yourself.

Just kidding. It's best to go back to Hosoda's first piece of Digimon, episode 21 of the TV series. Having been at Toei for a few years, I guess he was invited to do an episode of Digimon, and, not being too keen on the series, he picked the one episode that doesn't take place in the usual Digimon universe, but rather is set in modern-day Tokyo. He then proceeded to go in his own very personal direction with the episode. Here we see not monsters or adventures, but just the way kids really live today in modern-day Tokyo, ugly tenements and all, captured lovingly with slow, poetic directing of almost Tarkovskian proportions, photorealistic backdrops, and a very restrained story.

Well, the first movie, Digimon Adventure, basically picks up where this left off. With exactly the same time allotment, Hosoda created a small masterpiece really quite unlike anything ever seen in the genre. The backgrounds are no longer merely photorealistic, they really are based on actual photos taken by Hosoda around Tokyo -- see this page for examples. (And yes, I've read in an interview with Hosoda that he himself did the location hunting for both films.) This is a big part of what makes the movie so incredibly fresh and convincing. It's realism, but not the quasi-neo-realism of a Takahata. It's closer to the poetic realism of Oshii, but without the dopping helpings of self-indulgence. It's really one of the best examples of sci-fi/fantasy I've ever seen, because it doesn't think of itself as such -- it doesn't bash you over the head with the stuff -- it merely tries to capture the way kids would react to this one-time, curious, magical event in their otherwise ordinary, real world. With very little plot, Hosoda manages to create a seamless 20 minutes where every image is perfectly composed, and every moment is made to count. To give the film the relentless forward drive he wanted, in a brilliant stroke he used Ravel's Bolero as the only piece of music. As hackneyed as the piece may be, in this case it really works, and doesn't feel gimmicky. It took guts and imagination to do something like that, and skill to pull it off.

The next film, entitled Children's War Game, goes in a slightly different direction. We're still in the real world -- Hosoda is only interested in the real world -- but we're back in a situation more recognizably Digimon, with the various protagonists and the monster plot and so on. With forty minutes this time, Hosoda creates a more epic story that manages to remain simultaneously believable and fantastic. The theme is again the interconnectedness of kids. In the first film we saw the kids at their perches in the tangle of tenements communicating with each other via cell phones, while here the internet provides the stage, suggesting a wider, global scale. The protagonists are dispersed all over the country, and kids from around the world take part in the events via the internet. Hosoda again keeps the focus on real kids living their lives in the real world, with the event this time being one that they approach more like an everyday problem to be solved, rather than an evil to be defeated. It's not a monster that appears out of nowhere destroying buildings. Just a bunch of kids getting together to try to figure out how to fix a computer bug. Hosoda again subverts the genre, recasting it into something more humane and believable.

I should also mention that the animation in both of the films is absolutely superb and worth seeking out on its own merits. I was shocked when I first saw War Game, the look was so bold and obviously Ohira-school.

1 AD 山下高明 Takaaki Yamashita
2 AD 山下高明/中山久司 Takaaki Yamashita/Hisashi Nakayama.

I've seen these two guys' names occasionally as animators in odd places since then, and always been impressed by their work. The big animator in both films is Hideki Hamasu, who I believe animated the cuts of Hikari crying/coughing near the end of 1, my favorite in the film. Ken'ichi Konishi is also there. He animated my favorite cut in 2, the wobbly walk of the kid getting up to take a leak.

Hosoda has also done a lot of other stuff, of course, but no full-length movies yet. He's been active since 1995. Up until the Digimon movies in 1999 & 2000 he mainly directed/storyboarded TV episodes. Since then he seems to have shifted his focus towards commercials and short films, for example Superflat Monogram, Atagoul and most recently an unusual OVA in a new genre called "ganime", an amalgam of the word for "drawing" and "anime" to convey the idea of an anime consisting entirely of stills. For some reason he uses the pen-name 橋本カツヨ/Katsuyo Hashimoto occasionally, usually when storyboarding or doing an op/ed, as in the case of Samurai Champloo recently, where he directed and storyboarded the op.

The Atagoul pilot can actually be viewed online, and it's a really nice, infectious little musical piece. I read the original manga by Hiroshi Masumura a long time ago, and I loved it (as well as Masamura's other stuff) for its loopy, beatnik atmosphere. This pilot manages to capture quite a bit of that feeling. It's done by Digital Frontier, the digimation company that more recently did Appleseed.

Other than that, the much-talked-about Superflat Monogram is probably his main accomplishment since the Digimon movies, but it's not available anywhere yet. He's certainly shown himself to have the talent and the artistic integrity to make a great full-length movie, so I hope he does so when the circumstances seem right, as obviously he didn't feel they were for Howl. Even if he never does, he's still a name to watch. Along with Masaaki Yuasa, he could be one of the big figures of the next generation.

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