February 26, 2008
There is a lot to be discovered at the retrospective To the Source of Anime: Japanese Animation (1924-1952) taking place at the Cinémathèque québécoise from February 27 to April 5. This huge undertaking of ten programs and a lecture by the retrospective's curator Akira Tochigi is a collaboration between the Cinémathèque québécoise and the National Film Center/National Museum of Tokyo.
With 53 films comprising this five week long retrospective (51 of which will be shown on 35mm), anyone interested in anime, film history, wartime cartoons, and independent animation will discover the achievements of pre-major studio Japanese animation: landmark films that came before Astro Boy, Akira or Sprited Away. The ten 70 min programs are divided by themes ranging from "Early talkies" to "Animation meets propaganda". There are also programs attributed to directors Shigeji Ogino—a modernist and master in experimental animation—and Noburo Ofuji, a pioneer who, as I will get into later, was forging the anime style 1920s. Based on the films I saw by these directors at the press screening, I highly recommend both tribute programs.
The earliest films of the retrospective are grouped under "The dawn of Japanese animation" program. These silent films will be accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau on piano. There are two "Early talkies" programs: "Selected works 1" contains a 7 min short from 1931 that feels as fresh as a film made in the last couple of years. Synchronised to a song originally played on SP record (78 rpm), A Day in the Life of Chameko joyfully illustrates the life of a schoolgirl. We see her do all the mundane things such as getting up, getting dressed and eating before going to school as she explains things in operetta. This short works as comically as the musical moments of The Simpsons and Persepolis do.
For more early animation, check the "Tribute to Noburo Ofuji" program. Ofuji was a true animation innovator. A technique he employed is animating chiyogami (Japanese colored paper) cut-outs. His first ever usage of chiyogami is in Thieves of Baghdad, a masterpiece from 1926. The accomplishments of this short can not only be seen in recent cut-out or "cut-out style" digital films but also in contemporary anime. Its two aspects that struck me foremost are the sophisticated personality animation and the elaborate staging and camerawork. All of the characters that populate this short have distinct movement: Dangobei the protagonist, the princess, the elderly lady and the clan of warriors all move convincingly according to their designs. This is particularly difficult to achieve in cut-out animation, since its reliance on pre-planned action is limited. This method of working contributed to the creation of many styles, including anime. An aspect of anime is its segmentation of the human anatomy in order to animate only parts of it: i.e., treating the drawing of a figure as pieces of cut-outs.
Another attribute of Thieves of Baghdad that can be seen in recent anime and digital cut-out style cartoons (or Flash cartoons) is its rendering of depth through strictly 2D methods. In the strictest sense, this means not drawing space in perspective; instead using a medieval style of representation: the top of the screen is the background, while the bottom, the foreground. In this type of scenario—which is typical of traditional cut-out films—depth becomes symbolic and not actually perceived by the viewer. However, as early as 1926, Ofuji was able to make depth in cut-out scenes come close to cinematic quality by animating elements in the foreground (the bottom of the screen) and the background at different speeds.
Madame Butterfly's Fantasy, based on Puccini's opera, is in "Early Talkies: Selected Shorts 2". This short, like A Day in the Life of Chamenko, has aged beautifully. It looks gorgeous and the sensibilities of its makers are heartfelt. The relationship between Madame Butterfly and her lover is shown beautifully with shadow-like figures. Silhouette animation technique is employed to lyricize the love story that was not meant to be.