July 25, 2009
Check out the incredible Iron Man trailer above, and Wolverine below, after the jump!
Via: The Blu-ray Blog
July 19, 2009
“Where do people go when they die?” “They go to hell.”
Hells is a well-executed stylish and action-packed animated exploration into a teenager’s journey back from the depths of hell after she’s the victim of a car accident on her way to her first day at a new school. It’s kind of an afterlife, afterschool special in anime format.
Oh, but it’s not that cut and dry. Linne, the protagonist, wasn’t supposed to end up in Hell and this is discovered because there’s no record of her death and she’s able to bleed—something that doesn’t happen to those who dwell in the netherworld.
Linne does end up at a school in the afterlife known as Death River Academy and she needs to graduate before she makes it through to Heaven because in Hell, you are studying for your next life. Her new school is full of a wild group of teens that don’t fit within the traditional, school uniform-wearing clique. In particular, the headmaster is a big burly red fella named Headmaster Helvis who bears striking resemblance a mash-up between the King and Hellboy.
Hells features some interesting Christian and Buddhist themes such as the classic Cain vs. Abel brother’s quarrel, mention of reincarnation, the power of intention, the energy of mantras, interconnectedness, emptiness, existence and the acceptance of both happiness and unhappiness rather than rejecting one over the other. On this note was the assertion by one of the characters that there is a denial of reality in not accepting death.
The notion of Hell existing in one’s own mind is also explored as one scene within the film was devoted to the perspective that we create the world that we live in and it can be viewed as a Hell if we make it so.
Japan’s Madhouse animation studio has delivered a highly energetic and colorful piece of work with Hells. I encourage checking it out if you are interested in being taken for a wild ride of the human and hell-dweller condition. It’s dark, fast, funny, rock and roll, sad, philosophical, colorful, detailed, shocking, sweet and optic nerve stimulating—all at once.
Check out the trailer here:
Hells has a second showing at Fantasia on Wednesday, July 22nd at 2:00 p.m.
July 18, 2009
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to see Tokyo OnlyPic 2008 at the Fantasia Film festival.
Tokyo OnlyPic 2008 comprises a selection of the series of both live-action and animation segments of fictional sports events, and I'm using "sports" in the loosest sense of the word. This film is strange, at times awkward, and always funny. I highly recommend it.
Some of the animated events include the CG-animated Men's Independence, in which men hurl their mothers in a discus-like throw (trust me, it works, you'll be laughing as you think, "This is soooo wrong"), and Bill Plympton's Love Race, in which female celebrity of Paris Hilton proportions is chased around the stadium track by runners who happen to also be world-class at winning a material girl's heart.
That was a trailer for 1000-character SMS Texting, but here's one for the Home Athlon short, which doesn't appear in the selection shown at Fantasia, in case you don't want a spoiler.
Tokyo OnlyPic 2008 shows again on Sunday, July 19th at 2:15 p.m., right after Evangelion 1.0.
July 6, 2009
In addition to the opening film and animation highlights revealed by the 2009 Fantasia festival, the rest of the films do not merely round out the animation portion of programming. These selections reflect some of the more interesting selections of on the cinematic edge.
The features, in addition to Genius Party Beyond, Hells, and Les Lascars:
July 2, 2009
The full Fantasia 2009 lineup will be announced soon, but here are some of the animation highlights of North American's largest cult film festival, right in fps's home base of Montreal.
I'm excited about Genius Party Beyond, Studio 4C's companion to Genius Party, shown last year at the festival.
Hells Angels is a Madhouse production with a star crew behind this manga adaptation. Cencoroll is a shorter take that seems quite intriguing. Seems equally intriguing, but with a more sedate, less over-the-top storytelling style.
The feature Les Lascars is based on the French cult show of the same name and should go over well with the boisterous festival crowd (if you've not yet made it to a Fantasia festival screening, the involvement of the audience is worth the price of the ticket alone).
Tokyo Onlypic 2008 looks like it will be a side-splitter. It's an anthology of animated and live-action shorts describing outrageous Olympic-style events. Check out Bill Plympton's Race For Love in the trailer.
DJ XL5's Razzle Dazzle Zappin' Party promises another year or crazily juxtaposed shorts (many animated) simulating the channel-changing experience... to the power of ten.
Celluloid Experiments always features edgy animation selections in its roster. I doubt this year will be any different.
You'll be able to view the full schedule online and procure a printed festival program with a DVD full of trailers on Friday. Hope you can survive the wait!
The entire lineup looks promising at the Fantasia film festival this year, running from July 9 to 29. While fps focuses on animation, Fantasia (the largest event of its kind in North America) is a combination of the best cult film worldwide, and has an impressive lineup of film of all types, including live-action and animated horror, action, fantasy, science fiction, weird and edgy films.
As I said, we like to stick with animation around here, but I have to mention this year's opening film, even though it's got (gasp) real people in it.
This year's opening film is the live-action feature Yatterman that began life as a manga in the 70s, which shortly after became an anime series (that was recently updated in 2008).
This is the part where we usually begin a lament (but not always). Definitely not this time!
The director is the irreverent Takashi Miike who made films such as Audition and Sukiyaki Western Django. To me this is more reason to see it. However, if viewers are worried about how he would do an all-ages film, I point to the fantastic film The Great Yokai War, which featured his signature style, but also was a wonderful film for younger viewers.
I think this film will be the type of fare which is best watched with an enthusiastic audience, in the same way that the live-action version of Cutey Honey (directed by animator Hideako Anno) wowed audiences just a few years ago.
The full Fantasia lineup will be available on Friday, July 3.
April 15, 2009
Via Pink Tentacle, we have this great stop-motion video by Takeuchi Tajin called "A Wolf Loves Pork."
Wait until about :50, when things turn from "traditional Sesame Street palate cleanser" to "unexpectedly awesome."
March 13, 2009
Were you lucky enough to get your hands on one of the first pressings of Bandai/Honneamise's Akira on Blu-ray? If so, count yourself among the fortunate few. These suckers blew threw retail like a tornado through a Kansas farm, leaving all arms of the distribution chain empty and awaiting a follow-up pressing. There's a reason this thing was so hotly anticipated. Not only was it the first appearance of the classic animated film on a high-def format with a brand-spanking-new remaster that let you see the film as never before, but the initial offering shipped with a limited edition slipcase and a 32 page booklet, making up for the lack of extras on the disc.
Blu-ray.com has an excellent, exclusive feature on the restoration and remaster of Akira for High-def, including an explanation of why you won't find many special features with the release (Hint: It's because they've filled the disc with buckets of awesome!)
February 27, 2009
Spring break is here and it is time for Festival international de films pour enfants de Montreal (FIFEM) once again. The opening film from France, Mia et le Migou is far from the only animated selection this year, but it is definitely an interesting one. The film's director is Jacques-Remy Girerd, the producer of Tragic Story with Happy Ending and Hungu (recently featured in the NFB Screening Room) and director of delightful La prophétie des grenouilles (Raining Cats and Frogs). Mia was released in France last year, and is proving to be a hit with families.
Another animated feature that recently received accolades, Nocturna, a 2007 feature from Spain, is also screening. In all there are five animated features to keep the kids and their animation-friendly parents interested.
fps favourites Komaneko and Ludovic are back in the Mini-cinephiles program track, geared toward animation for children as young as 2 or 3. Komaneko is a stop-motion cat, who likes to make stop-motion films. Ludovic is a little teddy bear whose educational and inventive tales are also told using stop-motion animation, directed by Co Hoedeman, Oscar winner for the short, Sand Castle. The Ludovic television series is a follow-up to the Four Seasons in the Life of Ludovic shorts.
Even more shorts will screen before feature films, including Konstantin Bronzit's Oscar-nominated short, A Lavatory Lovestory.
Do it for the kids... er, les enfants... all fillms will be screening in French or with French subtitles.
December 11, 2008
Madeline and Brenden have shown quite a bit of love on behalf of fps for Mamoru Oshii's Sky Crawlers (Read Madeline's review from the September TIFF screening).
The film has been showing in Los Angeles since last week (the last screening is today) at the Los Feliz 3 in order to qualify for Oscar eligibility, and will screen at the Lincoln Center in New York twice on Friday, December 12.
If you are lucky enough to be in either city to see it, let me know what you think of the film!
December 7, 2008
The Japanese collective Pikapika posted 4 YouTube videos from a recent workshop they did in China. The first two make a nice attempt at a narrative. They also have a clip of some recent fun at Anima Mundi. Typically, there is not much planning (sometimes none) involved in a segment, so it's interesting to see.
Take a look at their 2008 trailer.
September 2, 2008
Via MangaBlog and Sankaku Complex (NSFW) we learn that Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications
is set to put into action a plan which would enshrine in law special “cyber-districts”, where authors using commercially held copyrighted works in their creations would be legally allowed to ignore the usual requirements for permission and royalties.
Slowly but surely, Japan is getting more and more organized about its copyright policy. This is another example of a steady shift in thinking as Japan figures out how to reconcile the bizarre love triangle between licence-holders, doujin-ka, and consumers. As interesting as the idea is (imagine a gated Akihabara) I do wonder how enforcement will work, or what execution will look like in general. According to SC, the Yomiuri article is a bit vague on what would count as an "author," or how one could be recognized as such. Will there be Board Certified Otaku in Japan's future? Would they be required to work in this grey-market-made-flesh, or just hold their offices there? What if you live outside -- do you have to take the train?
And what about stores like Mandarake and others, that sell doujinshi? Will they have to close branches outside the designated area? Is Akihabara soon to become the world's first copyright ghetto?
August 27, 2008
Much of anime production goes on in the suburbs of Tokyo, in Mitaka-shi and the surrounding region. (Former visitors to the Ghibli Museum will remember this particular train station, but studios like Pierrot, 4C, and Production I.G. all have their offices in parts beyond. Most maps of Tokyo don’t include details on this region, perhaps because they assume that no one in their right mind would be interested.) Similarly, Comikket occurs at the Tokyo Big Sight – and like most convention centres, it’s at the edge of town. In both cases, finding in-the-flesh otaku culture can seem like it requires a bit of hiking.
Then you hit Mandarake.
Shibuya is likely the most-filmed location in Tokyo. When visitors say that Tokyo looks like Blade Runner, they’re likely referring to Shibuya. It’s a series of upscale shopping malls, karaoke towers, music shops, used clothing stores, and dessert stands all wedged together like crooked, glittering teeth. Tower Records shares its playlist with a whole city block. Stories-high monitors broadcast commercials for manga-to-film adaptations. Everything is disposable and transient. It’s all very William Gibson.
But it’s also the location of a COSPA store (where you can purchase, of all things, a pair of Evangelion-themed jeans) and the gem I stumbled upon: Mandarake.
We almost missed it. We were exhausted, our feet were sore, and it was beginning to rain – though the humidity made it seem as though the skyscrapers were simply condensing. I paused to take a picture of what appeared to be a manga-style mural advertising a club. But the grubby television screen above the door showed us closed-circuit surveillance footage of the interior: stacks of manga.
After a long, spooky climb down a mirrored staircase lit entirely by red stage lights and blinking strobes, I emerged into what is perhaps one of the finest comics shops in all Tokyo.
Every city has a good comics shop. (Toronto, where I live, has several, and residents feel about their favourite store the way the English do about their local pubs.) But few can boast a good shop for fans. It’s a subtle-but-important distinction: good comics shops will have plenty of merchandise, helpful and knowledgeable staff, and enough room to move around. However, they might be missing out-of-print or rare items. They might not have a good buy-back policy. And if you live outside Japan, it’s almost guaranteed that you can’t buy doujinshi there.
Mandarake is a comics shop. It’s also a doujinshi shop, video store, cosplay vendor, antiques dealer, and all-around hobby house. It’s the place to go if you want first-edition capsule toys, models (both official merchandise and fan-crafted sculptures), out-of-print comics, manga and doujinshi (both Japanese and otherwise), cosplay items, rare promotional materials like posters, t-shirts, and toys, soundtracks, drama CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, cassettes…if it exists, it’s either at Mandarake or in someone else’s private collection.
“Ah,” you’re saying, “but with such a selection, and in such a tourist trap as Shibuya, it must be mainstream.”
Well, that depends – on what you call mainstream. The rumours about Japan are true, in some respects: your local kombini will have both pornography and hentai manga (and manga of every other variety) next to the newspaper and Japan’s seemingly-endless supply of craft magazines. And yes, some of those will be shounen-/shoujo-ai. All of this is great, of course – bookstores in Japan are epic enterprises (the one local to our hotel has 9 floors), and it’s nice to find so much reading material on the way to the train station.
So, is Mandarake mainstream? Yes – for Tokyo. Meaning that the kids we saw dragging their reluctant parents behind them were in fact leading them into a den not only of comics, but pornography, and not only pornography, but gay pornography.
I love this city.
This isn’t to say that Mandarake is strictly a porn vendor. There are plenty of “normal” funnybooks on offer – we picked up a hilarious Evangelion doujinshi omnibus apparently sanctioned by GAINAX, which features a skyscraper-tall Misato defeating an Angel that looks suspiciously like the Flying Spaghetti Monster – and many of them feature straight people in heterosexual relationships. It’s just that there’s a whole room for yaoi/yuri comics (the room is marked “comics for women”), and a whole hentai area, too, all of it surrounded by glass cases full of antique AstroBoy and Godzilla toys.
I cannot tell you where Mandarake is. Tokyo has the most bizarre and frustrating systems of address on the planet (echolocation would be more efficient), and many of the streets have no number or name. I can’t even show you photographs of the interior, because photography is forbidden. The store is like Avalon – wander long enough to get lost, and you’ll find it. Turn your head for two minutes and it’ll vanish behind a veil of soft rain and neon light. If you’re lucky enough to stumble across it, make sure you stay a while.
August 25, 2008
While much of the flavour of the Japan Media Arts Festival is Japanese (duh), they actively look for contributions from around the world, and indeed foreign entries have won top awards in the past.
The Japan Media Arts Festival is very open in what they look for; when they say media, they include animation, manga art, Web works, photographs, installations, still photos, commercial work, independent work, amateur work, etc. (What I cover for Frames Per Second is just a fraction what they display every year.) This is what makes their categories so rich and interesting, in my opinion.
Like last year, the Festival is again seeking recommendations from people about works they may have missed. Complete details for people who want to enter or make recommendations can be found on the Japan Media Arts Plaza. Better hurry, though: while submitters have until September 26 to get their works in, aficionados only have until August 29 to submit their recommendations.
August 17, 2008
Every year there's something in the Japan Media Arts Festival's Entertainment Division which also happens to be animated, and worth a mention. (The categories are porous like that.) This year that honour goes to the music video for Ryukyudisko's "Nice Day."
The entire video is a progression of still photographs starting somewhere in the 1970s, with a couple getting busy under the covers and producing a young boy. We watch him get older, get a job, and then he hits the clubs and meets a girl–and the whole starts going into reverse, as we go back into the girl's history. However, we find ourselves going back even farther than her parents, for reasons that eventually become apparent—and the eventual trip forward again carries its own surprises.
There's a lot of whimsy in this video, and the pity of the Flash-based video above is that you lose some of the detail in the historical photos, as well as the deliberate colour choices to replicate older film (up to a point—director Junji Kojima skimps a little when he starts getting into the 1930s and earlier).
By the way, if you think the tune is catchy you can drop a couple of sawbucks for an import of the single at Amazon.
Veterans of animation festivals know that the term "short film" is pretty elastic, from Malcolm Bennett's 30-second Rocky to Yuri Norstein's 29-minute Tale of Tales. They also know that the longer films are usually programmed at the tail end of a given screening, and that prior to the end of the Cold War many of those films were from Eastern Bloc countries—often gorgeous, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes dark.
What's surprising about the 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival's award-winning works is that there are four films that pass the twenty-minute mark. The longest, Love Rollercoaster, is the most straightforward. The remaining three are reminiscent of those old Eastern Bloc films.
I'll start off with the 21-minute Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor because (a) director Koji Yamamura pretty much roped me in with his Mt. Head and The Old Crocodile a few years back; (b) it's actually based on the work of the Jewish-Czech Kafka, which gives it that weirdness that can be supplied only by Eastern European creators in general, and Kafka in particular; and (c) I can't help re-watching it whenever I can. Like any Kafka story, A Country Doctor starts with a seemingly normal premise combined (a country doctor is summoned at night to take care of a young patient) with some bizarre aspect ("unearthly horses" transport him there instantly). As in Kafka's better-known The Metamorphosis, the introduction of the preternatural element marks the moment the protagonist can never go back to the way things were. As in Yamamura's Mt. Head, the pace, sketchy images, and hand-drawn transformations complement the story nicely. At the rate A Country Doctor has been racking up awards, I think Yamamura's going to have to put serious thought into new shelving.
Ryu Kato's The Clockwork City also mines the surreal with traditional tools. The film is pretty much wordless, and you should expect to have to work at sorting some aspects of it out. A young visitor comes to a new city, and it's quickly apparent she doesn't quite fit in—every person, every bird, and even a few buildings have these wind-up mechanisms stuck in them, and she doesn't. After exploring the city for a little while she meets with the town's honcho (who wears a wind-up crown) and exchanges fruits and other goods. Soon after the city goes to war with an unknown enemy, its soldiers identically featureless and wearing blue ties and white shirts. In the aftermath, our protagonist confronts the top man and his flunkies over the discovery of a giant wind-up key; what mysteries does it hold? This is definitely on my "must rewatch" list.
Yusuke Sakamoto's The Dandelion Sister takes us into the realm of stop-motion animation, where a young girl has to contend with her older, sick sister—who happens to be a giant dandelion. There's a lot going on here: There's the younger sister missing out on social activities because of her responsibilities; her resentment of how much attention is heaped on her sick sister; her inability to draw, and express her feelings; and her fear of her sister's death. Like The Clockwork City, The Dandelion Sister is wordless, but as its concerns are more grounded in reality it's open to a number of interpretations about adolescence, caring for sick relatives, and acceptance.
Akihabara, or "Electric Town," is one of those places that otaku have to visit. It's just required. (Not least because your fellow otaku have a shopping list a mile long that includes all the things they can't buy this side of the Pacific, and have sent you on a quest to tick off all the boxes.) Akiba is a major tourist destination for foreigners and Tokyoites alike. Sundays are the busiest days, and not even the steadily-increasing, surprisingly-chilly August rainstorm could keep out today's visitors. Hugging our arms, we discovered that the rumours are true: you will find maid cafes, you will see goth lolis, you can buy things there that you can't in North America.
Akiba is a very loud place. Seizure-inducing displays are everywhere, and the pachinko parlours never stop. Greeters use megaphones. Anime (most of it moe this season) blares from sidewalk televisions. After some time shopping, we wound our way through the noise to the Tokyo Anime Centre, which the website touts as some kind of museum. What we discovered instead was little more than a glorified gift shop. (In fact, that's a good description of Akiba in general. Imagine an anime-themed casino, then picture the attached gift shop. Now stretch it over several city blocks. That's Akihabara.) Although there is a glassed-in soundbooth for voice actors, and although we saw four women doing their thing inside it, that's about where the education ends.
However, the TAC is useful for one thing: finding out about other museums. In our case, we got lucky and found a brochure for the Suginami Animation Museum . The SAM is way out on the Maranouchi/Chuo Line, but it's open on weekends and features far better content. Among the highlights are the anime reference library, which holds rare films and manga for public use (I watched other people watching Grave of the Fireflies, Crayon Shin-chan, and Russian animation), an anime theatre with regular showings, and workstations where you can learn how to do your own key animation. The museum is geared toward a hands-on approach to showing viewers how anime gets made, and it does the job -- watching short films of animators doing work on both Jin-Roh and One Piece proves how loving and careful these people have to be, even with high technology at their disposal.
The SAM is a tiny museum, but that's because it's concise and not too self-congratulatory (which cannot be said of many special-interest museums). It hosts special exhibitions, and it's accessible for viewers of all ages. It's out in the suburbs, away from the noise, and it's worth the trip. Do as we did: visit Akiba (and K-books) for some fresh manga or artbooks, hit the Akiba Ichi food court (you can't miss it; it's in the same building as the TAC), then get on the train. You'll be glad you did.
August 16, 2008
Another odd little parallel shared by some of the award-winning animation shorts in the Japan Media Arts Festival: three of them had to do with birthdays—after a fashion.
My least favourite of the trio was also the longest: Hiromasa Horie's Love Rollercoaster unfortunately has nothing to do with the Ohio Players song, but is instead about a cutesy young bear cub named John trying to solve the mystery of a mysterious birthday present left behind my his late mother. Involved in the search are his friends, and they soon drag in the creepy Lovegun, an eyeless, sharp-toothed green-skinned critter who lives half in and half out of a rocketship. I like the idea behind some of the characters (especially the pair of mischievous panda siblings), and the overall story idea is a solid one—the ending is particularly sweet. But the whole thing is killed by the execution.
As a clay animation fan it shouldn't bother me that a CGI film tries to emulate a plasticine look for its characters. And I've never had a problem with Japan's cult of kawaii. But whenever the characters talk or scrunch their eyes, their skin wrinkles and folds in an a way that quickly renders them uncute. I'm sure John's initial concept drawings were very cute, but his textured skin, along with the bags under his eyes and all that wrinkliness just made me ill. Throw in excessive camera movement, the same kind of needless bobbing and weaving that bothered me in Skyland, and a half-hour–plus running time, and, well... let's just say that sometimes I watch these things so you don't have to.
(As an aside, I should mention that Love Rollercoaster is one of several projects generated from a Japanese talent incubator called Anime Innovation Tokyo. I'd rather have seen just about anything else their creators have put together.)
The much shorter, lo-fi Ushi-nichi (or, as the English titles say, Happy Birthday) is pretty much Love Rollercoaster's exact opposite. Created with pencil and paper (complete with smudges) by Hiroko Ichinose, the nine-minute short features a motley crew of characters each going through their own machinations. A man stands in the desert waiting to hitch a ride, but turns down almost everyone who stops for him; a man wakes up every morning transformed in some way (extra-long arms, a huge 'fro) and cheerily skips to the employment office to find new work based on his condition; a woman starts eating pieces of her pet giraffe, mindless of the transformations it causes to her own body. Everything comes together in a whimsical denouement. Deep meaning? Who cares? The jittery, rough and utterly charming style makes the whole film a pleasure.
Meanwhile, Toshiaki Hanzaki's Birthday puts another spin on the word, relating the evolution of life on Earth from one-celled organisms to man and, it seems, beyond. Working mostly with silhouetted forms, it's slicker than Ushi-nichi, but it is, if anything, more whimsical, with its portrayal of a giant fanged asteroid killing the dinosaurs and aliens accelerating our evolution. (It's also in the opposite direction of Hanzaki's earlier Birds, my favourite of the Digital Content Association of Japan's 2005 Digital Creators Competition's award-winning works.) Finally, at about a minute and a half, it's more compact. It gets where it needs to go, and then ends. Brevity really is the soul of wit.
When you die, if you've been a bad person, your soul get banished to a place where you stand in an endless line full of damp, sweaty people under a 100F sun, and you can't speak the language, and there's no guarantee of relief.
But if you've been good, you get to pick up some great manga at the end of it.
It's hard to describe Comikket in words. I went there looking for doujinshi and found some great stuff, despite having arrived late and getting slim pickings. You can't have your mochi and eat it, too, at Comikket: if you arrive early, you stand in line for hours under a merciless August sun with 80% humidity, but if you arrive late, you deal with hordes of people streaming out and you're little better than a tiny minnow swimming against a mighty current, with only the hope of nearly-empty tables to keep you going. In the end, you have to decide which is more important: waiting until the end and grabbing what looks interesting, or making list (checking it twice!) and letting the crowd shuffle you along at its own pace.
There are merits to waiting until the end of the day, however. The doujin-ka are ready to talk, generous with their time, and they really want to move some units. There's also room to move around, which is at a premium in the Tokyo Big Sight. But we also missed out on some of that special fervor that only crowded cons in full swing can generate.
Things to Remember When You Go:
...and everyone clapped.
All around us, tired-but-happy applause rose through the air. Doujin-ka, hard-working men and women of all ages, genres, and artistic abilities, lauded each other for their endurance and dedication. Some punched the air. Others cheered.
"How did they know to do this?" my husband asked.
"I don't know," I said, "but they sure as hell deserve it."
One of the pleasures of film festivals, whether you're watching them or organizing them, is in discovering unintended themes in the films. Sometimes it's inevitable, such as when social or political issues are on everyone's mind, but these are so unsurprising as to almost be banal. It's the small, quirky and sometimes trivial themes that are the most interesting to discover, and this year's award-winning short animation offerings from the Japan Media Arts Festival has a few worth mentioning.
One thing I look forward to in any compilation is when people take a backward step, especially when it comes to CGI. There's such a tendency to lard on the detail, be it photorealistic or natural-media or whatever, that few make the deliberate choice to step back and pare things down.
This year three films made a point of dialing down the detail, each in different ways. Youhei Murakoshi's Blockman goes the furthest. The viewer peers through a telescope to a strange world where everything is made up of identically sized cubes. Some are black, most are white, some make larger blocks, and some of the larger blocks have faces, courtesy of dots or lines on individual blocks. The curious lifeforms walk, fly, float, combine and come apart in a variety of ways, with the telescope lazily floating from one vista to another. The effect is similar to that of the even more minimalist Dice—an earlier Japan Media Arts Festival honoree—but perhaps more mesmerizing.
Sejiro Kubo, Ichiro Tanida and Katsunori Aoki collaborated on Copet, a series of shorts starring a cast of animals that are all straight lines and simple curves, plugged together like deranged Lego. At first glance it's appallingly cute, but little touches like camera shake and nifty bits of business (like a gorilla who repeatedly shivers himself out of a stupor) are at odds with the simplistic motion, and the tension works. But what really kept my attention were the bits that didn't follow the simple-is-better formula, like an erupting volcano, a meteor streaking toward Earth and water that looks, well, watery. The characters' occcasional forays into the live-action world, along with incomprehensible but still amusing storylines were also bonuses. If you can read Japanese you can check out the Copet website, which goes into the shorts' world in considerable depth and pimps Copet merch, including a DVD.
Hiroshi Chida's Boneheads was produced by Polygon Pictures, which I mention because it shares a certain aesthetic sensibility with Polygon's Polygon Family shorts, in which the characters' blockiness is celebrated, rather than smoothed and textured to death. But Polygon Family is mostly monochrome, whereas Boneheads' colour pops with Day-Glo intensity. The latter's characters are also ever so slightly asymmetrical, which just makes them kookier.
Moreover, where Polygon Family's animated used the anime and fighting videogame idioms, Boneheads is pure, non-stop Tex Avery-style mania (it's running time of seven minutes makes it even more reminiscent of a Golden Age cartoon). Roccos and Bone are two primitive creatures fighting over bananas—between themselves, and between other critters who get wind of the tasty fruit (or them). The whole thing is really just an escalating chase scene, but as every Blues Brothers fan knows, that's not really a bad thing. Radar Cartoons reps Polygon in the U.S., and Boneheads was produced for Viacom, so here's hoping that it pops up on our screens soon.
August 14, 2008
This all began with Dai Sato. He's been on the writing teams behind Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Samurai Champloo, and Eureka Seven. He's listed as working for FrogNation, a company that specializes in cross-continental anime and videogame projects. Delighted to find a map to FrogNation HQ, I (and my trusty partner) headed out. We were armed with gifts of chocolate and maple cookies, plus my Master's thesis questionnaire on anime and the creative process. We had a map. We had Suica cards. We were prepared.
Or so we thought.
The thing about ambushing creators is that they might not be there in the first place. This is a big holiday season in Japan -- the whole city feels like it's on summer vacation -- and maybe that was the case here. But for all appearances, FrogNation HQ appears abandoned. First, it's in a converted residential space, the first floor of which has become storage for a second-hand shop which appears to no longer exist. No one answers the door, the mailbox is full, and the buildings behind it are all being bought up for condos. Despite the website being live, no one has answered emails.
Are you out there, Sato-san? It's me, Madeline.
Of course, the news isn't all bad. Despite the fruitless attempt to find FrogNation, we did discover the Yoyogi Animation Gakuin, an "anime school" nearby. Once again, however, they were closed. But I'm a fan of any school which allows this guy to stand guard. He's a six-foot high model of some kind, and he's got wicked claws and a pretty scary face. This photo doesn't really do him justice. I'm not sure which project he's from. (If anyone does, let us know.) But I'm sure saying hello to him is a great way to start off your school day.
In addition, we discovered the generosity and patience of the people we encountered. Construction workers, police officers, and everyday salarymen and -women were eager to help us. One man in particular brought us to the building in question, and even called FrogNation for us from a payphone on his own dime. (The phone number didn't work.) I ended up giving this man some of Sato-san's chocolate, because he certainly earned it. Wherever you are, 'tou-san, I hope you enjoy your sweets.
Stay tuned for more posts as I sojourn through Mitaka in an attempt to give my favourite animators their due...in chocolate form.
August 8, 2008
I'm not ashamed to admit some movies have made me cry, and one film that's guaranteed to get me at least a little misty no matter how often I've seen it is Grave of the Fireflies. Directed by Isao Takahata—who people tend to forget co-founded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki—Grave of the Fireflies is an adaptation of Akiyuki Nosaka's memoir of surviving the Allied firebombings of Kobe during World War II.
It's no great secret that Seita and Setsuko, the analogues to the author and his younger sister, eventually die; it's established right at the beginning of the movie, and the rest of the film acts as a flashback to explain what brought them to that point. It's a powerful story of familial love during the worst of ordeals, bringing with it a reminder that war affects more than just the soldiers on the battlefield.
Central Park Media released two versions of Grave of the Fireflies on DVD in 2002 and 2004 (they had the rights before the 1996 deal between Disney and Tokuma Shoten), but it's languished in out-of-print limbo for years. Just this Wednesday a new two-disc version of Grave of the Fireflies appeared in Japanese stores; at first blush, the only real difference is an essay by Nosaka, and (maybe) some more pre-production artwork.
Is this a precursor to a new Disney release in North America? I'd like to think so, but I'm not holding my breath. Disney's never seemed too sure what do with Takahata's movies; while they released the perhaps more accessible Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas three years ago, it was with minimal fanfare. The sombre Grave of the Fireflies might be trickier from their perspective, as would be Takahata's only remaining Ghibli film, the wistful Only Yesterday. A lot of lip service is given to the notion of animation that adults can watch, but there might be the fear that North America isn't ready for an animated film as powerful as Grave. Given that the U.S. and Canada are currently fighting wars on foreign soil, I'd say there isn't a better moment than right now.
July 4, 2008
If you live in Japan and are tired of using your Nintendo DS for nothing more than playing games, it's time to rejoice. For only $40 (3,980 yen) you can buy yourself a starter kit with adapter, card reader, and a 512MB microSD card that will transform your gaming handheld into an anime paradise!
DSvision is marketing the hardware package to support it's new download service, online and available now. 20 minute animated programs sell for $2 (210 yen) and 200 page manga volumes will run you around $3 (315 yen).
July 2, 2008
The latest gem from anime master, Hayao Miyazaki and the mighty Studio Ghibli is about to be released to the lucky theatre-goers of Japan on July 19th. Trailers for Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea) have been released before but have only been screened theatrically - until now! This short glimpse at what industry insider and broadcasting writer Hashimoto Atsushi calls,
"...a masterpiece, surely leaving an important thing in your heart after watching!"is enough to make me ravenous for more. Give us a North American release date, Buena Vista! Have mercy!
April 5, 2008
The "To the Source of Anime" retrospective ends its run today at the Cinémathèque québécoise with a tribute to Noburo Ofuji. The "Wartime Japanese Animation" programs included propaganda cartoons that feature strikingly American character designs. I mentioned this to Akira Tochigi, the curator of the retrospective, when I interviewed him during his stay in Montreal. Mr. Tochigi spoke with enthusiasm during our lengthy interview.
Armen Boudjikanian: This retrospective does a survey of Japanese animation from 1924 to 1952. Is there any reason why there are not any films from before the 1920s?
Akira Tochigi: Actually until last year, we haven't had any surviving elements of animation from the 1910s. But a private collector found two elements of early animation from 1917 [35mm prints]. We are now doing their digital restoration. We will showcase them soon in a program highlighting recent restoration projects.
What can you tell us about the state of Japanese animation in the 1910s?
Animation was first imported to Japan between 1908 and 1910 from France [the works of Émile Cohl] and the UK. The Japanese film industry created its first major studio in 1912: Nikkatsu studio. Nikkatsu was very powerful at making and distributing its own films but also distributing foreign films. Gradually, along with its competitors, it began being interested in making animation. Pioneers of early animation found opportunities in these studios.
Around the 20s, as more animation came from abroad, especially the States, the majors lost interest in producing their own animation. Rather, [they decided to focus on] importing. They believed that American animation was much more sophisticated and more appealing to [Japanese] audiences.
But also in the 1910s, there was a heated debate in Japan about the influence of cinema on children. The portion of young audiences was big: about 30 to 40 per cent of the moviegoers. The government, academics and intellectuals were all concerned on the [effect of films] on children.
So in the early 1920s, the Japanese central government set up the policy of supporting educational films [which at the time also encompassed] animation. By this kind of categorization the government supported animation filmmaking and sometimes commissioned independent filmmakers to make animations for kid audiences. Animation became a way to safeguard children [from] the influence of cinema. And so, its quality changed at that time.
Coming to the question of governmental funding for animated films. I have noticed that films from the WWII era which are heavily funded by the government resemble Hollywood cartoons much more than earlier Japanese animation. Is there a principal cause for this?
Yes, [this is the result of the combination] of two elements. In the late 20s, early 30s, more and more American animation came to Japan: Disney, [Fleischer's] Betty Boop and Popeye, etc... Japanese animation was very quick to react to this situation by creating its own [set] of characters which originated from comic books and also from Japanese folklore such as Momotaro, monkeys, badgers, etc...
It seems that the synthesis is very well done, though. These are early cartoons but they are very well executed technically. The western influence is obvious but the Japanese elements are blended in successfully.
[The reason for] this synthesis is that in the 1940s, the Japanese government set up the Film Law which forced culture films [documentaries], educational and animation films to be shown in theatres to [large] audiences.
The law also controlled film projections, and [theatre] personnel. There was severe censorship. [Nevertheless], the field of animation became prosperous in these times because the government supported it with its law. So as the influence of American cartoons on Japanese animation continued in the 1940s, it came together with the film law and this resulted in the making of the first medium and feature-length animated films in Japan [the 1942 war film Momotaro and the Sea Eagle was Japan's first five-reel animation].
[Films from this period] used characterization that was typical of American animation. [This] is pretty ironic because these films were very much anti-American propaganda, but still [laughs] it is very apparent that their character designs and aesthetic were coming from American animation.
Coming to Momotaro and the Sea Eagle, can you talk about its cast of characters? Why is the leader of the Japanese army a young girl and why are its soldiers animals?
I think that it's a young boy, not a girl. It seems that he has a kind of femininity but it's a boy. [These characters] come from the original story of Momotaro, who was a boy character that fought the enemy [with the help] of animals.
What happened to Japanese animation between the end of WWII and the establishment of Toei Doga studio in the fifties?
This is one of the hardest ever periods for Japanese animation. There was a shortage of film stock and taxes were high. The defeat of the war finished the [governmental] support to filmmaking. There were no festivals, no theatrical exhibitions, but there were a lot of talented young artists who tried to make films on an independent basis. So when Toei started in the '50s, and TV animation in the early '60s, they [offered the young] animators a way to sort of continue making films under a well-financed situation.
Noburo Ofuji, an animation pioneer to whom you attribute a program to in this retrospective, made Burglars of Baghdad Castle in 1926. This film is very innovative. The techniques used in it foresee some of those that Japanese animators will employ later such as limiting the movement of characters. Do you see a link between Ofuji's work and some of the techniques that were used later on?
Noburo Ofuji started using chiyogami [Japanese coloured paper] as a medium of motion in the 1920s. Celluloid was very expensive in Japan and most animators were not able to use it until the middle of the 1930s. Even then Ofuji remained interested in using chiyogami.
He would cut them [drawings done on chiyogami] out, right?
Right. Ofuji continued making films in the late '50s, and in his later films, used colored cellophane—not to use celluloid [laughs]. And because of the materiality of the [cellophane] paper, [he had] to find ways to economize the motion of the characters. And this seems very associative with TV animation. As you may know, when Osamu Tezuka started the program Astro Boy, thirty minutes of animation were aired on TV weekly. It was pretty hard to make original pictures for thirty minutes amount of work per week.
The team of Tezuka Productions only animated eight pictures in a second [as opposed to 24] to sort of economize the motion of characters... So when trying to connect history to what came before it, [early] paper animation and TV animation [seem] closely related.
Also, Burglars of Baghdad Castle, like current anime, has also plenty of action.
Yes. The Baghdad film features mass action.
Yes! A lot of crowds.
[Laughs] Something like a Kurosawa movie.
How about other links between the early animations and contemporary anime? Do you see any similarities in terms of inspiration?
I think that [there] is a very clear association with contemporary anime [especially] with the work of Studio Ghibli: in Pom Poko for example, a community of creatures [raccoon dogs, or tanuki] fight against human beings. This Ghibli film is not similar in content to 1930s cartoons that have [similar] characters, but [in terms of] the idea to use creature characters to make a satire of human society, it is very closely related. Ghibli, in this sense, is a very traditional animation creator.
So what got you interested in animation?
To be honest, I didn't have a special interest in animation for a long time. Of course, as a child I was intrigued by theatrical animation—and in fact had a passion for TV animation. I [also] read comics in my elementary school [years]. When I entered college, I continued reading comics, [especially the work of] Otomo [creator of Akira]. He was popular with the college crowd not only because of his aesthetics but also because of his handling of contemporary issues.
At this time, my interest in animation was not so much special. [However], when I started working for the Film Archives several years ago, I found many animations in their collection [from the past]. When I watched these films, I was struck by their power and complexity. Of course most were for kid audiences; but from a contemporary perspective, I found out about the [ability] of animation to deal with fantasy, illusion and delusion in many different ways. It seems to me that because these early animators worked mostly independently [their only support came from the government], their individualities and sense of art as filmmakers is apparent in their films; [whether] they worked on mainstream films or in alternative cinema.
[And since] I was struck by experimental cinema in college, including [laughs] Norman McLaren...
Of Course! [laughter]
[Continues laughing] So... Because of this intrigue, my connection with these animated films [felt] natural. And of course as an archivist, I was interested in the history of animation cinema.
There is going to be a retrospective of Canadian and Québécois animation in Tokyo in 2009. Is there an interest in Canadian animation in Japan right now?
Yes, definitely. Next year's exhibition of Canadian and Québécois animation will be programmed by [Marco de Blois of the Cinémathèque québécoise]. We like to leave him to make the final decisions for that [exhibition], as I did for this one.
The staff members of our institution [the National Film Center in Tokyo] are very eager for [this] program because when Norman McLaren was first introduced in Japan in the late '50s, many young artists were so surprised by his films: they were experimental and personal expressions of ideas and feeling through the medium of animation. Most of the Japanese audiences at the time thought animation would [only] be kid entertainment.
That's something that's common in many countries.
Right... And in the late '50s, early '60s, the word "animation" was first introduced in Japan.
Before then, we used the word "manga" film, not animation. But the exhibition that introduced McLaren's work was called "animation film screening". [This] means that the term animation was related not to Disney type of animation but to experimental film and personal film... So this context of Canadian animation has a special [significance] in Japan: it is a kind of individual expression.
Which filmmaker from the "To the Source of Anime" retrospective is of special interest to you as a researcher?
When I was watching the films of this retrospective again and again, the films of Masaoka Kenzo struck me so much [in terms] of aesthetic, ideas and technique.
The Spider and the Tulip is very well directed and animated, could you talk about the artist and how he got into animation?
[Kenzo] had a unique background; he came from a very rich family from Kyoto. He studied western painting in college. Then he joined a major film studio as an actor. He then made his first film, a documentary. [It is only afterwards] that he moved to animation.
Because he came from a prosperous family, and because of his movie studio contacts; he did not rely on [external] funding to make his films. He was exceptionally able to have his films exhibited in theatres, even his first film. Also, because of this, he did not care about targeting his films to children. He wanted to show his films to regular audiences. He often created in his own small studio. He [also coined] the Japanese term doga which means "animated images" in English.
He [did this to be able] to cover all aspects of animation: from puppet to silhouette animation, [whether designed] for children or not. He wanted to value animation as an art for everybody.
March 31, 2008
"It all started with Osamu Tezuka" or "It all started with Astro Boy" have been common ways to start describing the history of anime for years, even though a moment's sober reflection would reveal the fallacies in those statements. Somewhat surprisingly, the increased popularity of anime outside of Japan has largely served to reinforce, rather than disabuse, these and other notions about the country's rich animation history.
The last year has turned out to be a fantastic time for filling out the early history of Japanese animation. Between the release of Digital Meme's four-DVD boxed set of silent anime and the Japan Society and Cinémathèque Québecoise's recent retrospectives as well as forthcoming books, major knowledge gaps are finally being filled and it's a joy to behold.
The latest find is a pair of two-minute films from 1917 and 1918, Namakura Katana (An Obtuse Sword), and Urashima Taro. Namakura Katana is considered the second animated film ever made in Japan. What's particularly miraculous is that when the films were bought last year at an antique fair, they were in nearly perfect condition—a feat under any circumstances, but more so when you consider how much early film was lost in Japan during the Kanto earthquake in 1923 and the firebombings of World War II.
According to the Mainichi Daily News, you'll be able to see Namakura Katana for yourself—if you find yourself in Tokyo. Starting April 24, it'll be shown at the National Film Center.
February 26, 2008
Starting with the 1940s films that will be shown within the two wartime programs, state funding (and control) of animation production began in Japan. Films from this period are the ones that resemble classic Hollywood cel animation the most. Momotaro, The Sea Eagle, shown under "Wartime Japanese Animation 1", is Japan's first five-reel animation (33 minutes). The Ministry of Navy commissioned this film to celebrate Japan's successful attack on Pearl Harbor. The visuals of this cartoon will seem familiar to the contemporary viewer (anthropomorphic animals cast as Japanese soldiers) though the totality of its style remains ominous: the lieutenant or leader of the soldiers is a human girl, and the Americans are represented by Fleischer Brothers-style humanoids. The character animation is quite developed, with appropriate usage of stretch and squash, while the mechanical animation of airplanes and boats and the animation of the water is top-notch.
Though Momotaro, The Sea Eagle is evidently racist—American soldiers are treated as incompetent and oafish—the level of animated fantasy is what stands out the most in this cartoon. The actual attack is not shown for very long; two thirds of the film sympathetically shows Japanese soldiers getting ready for battle and returning from it. There is delightful humour in these scenes: a monkey soldier makes fun of his rabbit trooper buddy who can't put his bandana on because of his long ears. When the squadron flies to Pearl Harbor, a monkey pilot stumbles upon a lost baby bird. He interrupts his mission to find the baby's mother.
If you are looking for more wartime and propaganda cartoons, you are in for a treat:
Village Animals Fight Against Espionage and Village Animals Fight for Air Defense are the Japanese equivalent to Warner Bros.' Private Snafu army shorts and the likes. These two cartoons, alongside four others, will be shown under "Animation Meets Propaganda".
After Japan's loss in WWII, the government's contribution to animation production declined and filmmaking became a tough challenge for independents and small studios. The films from this era are grouped under "Japanese Animation During the Occupation" I and II. Thematically, these films seem to deal with Japan's traditions. One is called Torachan and the Bride, a nine-minute film promoting freedom of choice in marriage.
The most striking common feature of these early Japanese animations is the clarity of their storytelling. There are probably many reasons why these films can be easily followed: the subtitling is an obvious one. The abundance of onscreen action is another. However, a solid grasp of what cinema can do by the filmmaker is what I'd bet my money on. In the films that I saw, there were practically no shots or actions that I found boring, tedious or distracting (even when the animation quality was not that great.) This is noteworthy: Japanese animators knew what they were doing from the beginning. It is often said that non-Hollywood animation blossomed after the 1950s—and this is true for Japanese studio animation as well—but what these early Japanese animators accomplished with low budgets and often working independently is proof that animation filmmaking does not necessarily require a long assembly chain. If you attend this retrospective you will agree that ingenuity can impress and entertain all by itself.
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.
February 18, 2008
La Cinematheque Quebecoise is hosting the largest retrospective of early Japanese animation to ever take place outside of Japan. Just last week that distinction went to the Japan Society's selection of films.
From February 27 to April 5, the special Montreal screenings of Japanese animation from 1924 to 1952 will feature 53 films in 16mm and 35mm, including one feature - Japan's first - Momotaru, The God Soldier of the Seas. National Film Center/Museum of Modern Art of Tokyo curator Akira Tochigi will be in town to inaugurate the event and will lead a conference on February 29 on early Japanese animation.
A full schedule is available on the CQ website (French only), and Facebook, with a sampling of the shorts. As of this week, a bilingual (French and English) program for the retrospective is available at the Cinematheque.
Previously on fps
Japanese Anime Classic Collection review
Podcast 11: Our Baseball Match (1931)