September 14, 2007

Ever since I first discovered CG-Arts and the Japan Media Arts Festival, I've been delighted to find that every year the festival features at least one short that looks and feels unlike any film I've ever seen—my criterion for an excellent film fest. This year one of the most striking was Tomonori Hayase's Mix a Miniascape.

Set to music by Jumpei Yamada, Hayase's film uses Adobe Photoshop and After Effects to create a funky, unusual Tokyo travelogue. Hayase took hundreds, if not thousands, of photos of people, places and thing as he passed by them, or they passed him. He then assembled the images into a collage, animating his travels through the city by erasing the image of, say, a building piece by piece at the same time as the next image of the same building is being built piece by piece. The effect is of moving through a fractured urban landscape, propelled by Yamada's breakbeats while navigating periods of both chaos and calm.

While Mix a Miniascape was an example of something new, there were also some nice reprises. Tochka Factory's Pikapika made its Japan Media Arts Festival debut—if you haven't already heard about this literally brilliant short, you should read my earlier praise—and Hikaru Yamakawa followed up last year's Oh Hisse (itself a followup to the previous year's Tope Con Giro) with La Magistral.

In Oh Hisse, Yamakawa presented a surreal world in which hundreds of faceless schoolboys marched in increasingly outlandish geometric processions, to the utter disregard of a man sitting on a bench and three schoolgirls talking among themselves. Oh Hisse's hypnotic appeal lay in its minimalist colour palette (black, white, a few shades of grey and spots of red), the mannequin-like quality of its characters, and its rhythmic and only vaguely natural movement. In La Magistral, Yamakawa explores the same concepts, but opens things up a little bit. The range of colours has expanded to include blues, greens and browns, as seven nearly identical men in grey tracksuits ride unicycles along a slender beam, observed on by swaying figures in coloured tracksuits, all of whom have spheres, cubes and cones for heads, and often casually defying gravity.

Not only does La Magistral have more colour than its predecessor, it also has a more dynamic cameral and yet, it's just as mesmerizing. Another distinction, however, is that Yamakawa decided to give La Magistral an actual ending—one that induces a chuckle, maybe, but otherwise doesn't offer much.

A more compelling film, however, was also perhaps more modest, at least in its tone. Naked Youth is directed by Kojiro Shishido, who coincidentally composed the music for La Magistral. As the film starts, a young man emerges from a school's shower stall. His towel falls, and just as he pulls it back up someone steps out of another stall. The two wordlessly face each other, and the camera cuts away to another scene. We soon see the boys training together and learn that they're members of a boxing team. There's little in the way of linear narrative here; the camera lingers with equal summer laziness on the sunlit trees and blue skies in their Japanese suburb, the mundane scenes of road trips, and the boys' vigorous exercise and practice regimen.

And then there's that shower scene, which appears and disappears like a metronome tick, four times throughout the film. Like the rest of Naked Youth, the scene is wordless and features just the right sounds to establish a sense of place and mood. But that mood is ambiguous, and increasingly charged with tentative eroticism whenever the boys face each other.

Are there clues to their relationship in other scenes? The boys sometimes work out together, sometimes alone; and they look away from each other as often as not. When one of them changes out of his shorts next to the boxing ring—a seemingly common occurrence, as no one really pays him any mind—is the other boy looking at him, or you know, looking at him? The delight of Naked Youth is that it obeys the maxim of "show, don't tell," but it doesn't go out of its way to show everything, either. Subtlety is king here, and the audience still has to work to figure out what it can.

From the standpoint of technique, Naked Youth presents its story in a way that seems very traditional, and yet unconventional. It's hand-drawn in what we consider the anime style, though its characters are perhaps a little less streamlined and a little more detailed—closer, one might say, to more of a manga style. The animation direction also favours a look and feel that's less flat than most commercial anime. Athletic scenes feature a moving, "handheld" camera, with figures looking more as if they're moving through three-dimensional space, with little of the exaggeration that's common in anime. Much of this look is a result of strikingly stylized integration of 3D computer animation, hand-drawn animation and beautiful lighting and texturing effects.

Shishido gives Naked Youth space to breathe by providing many moments of figurative, if not literal, silence, in which nothing more happens than, say, the team waiting out a summer downpour or sunlight filtering through the trees as crickets chirp. Of course, these kinds of moments aren't new to anime; for decades, this appreciation of stillness has been part of the medium's appeal. But in Naked Youth these scenes are even more engaging, as Shishido uses light CGI touches and careful audio work to effectively place the viewer in the scene. That downpour, for example, is pretty convincing, and while one nightttime scene is a just a little CGI-flashy—since when do moths flitting around a street light cast such stark shadows?—it beautifully conveys that feeling of being out alone on a quiet summer night.

It's films like Naked Youth that put the lie to the sentiment that animation must necessarily be simple, childish, or fantastic in subject matter; the complicated yet simple Naked Youth's exploration of a slice of adolescent life could well have been told in live action, but it would have been all the poorer for it.

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