April 9, 2009

April is upon us once again, which means it's time for another round of Sprockets, the Toronto International Film Festival for Children. Browsing through the catalogue, I saw very few animated offerings, especially among feature-length titles. Here they are:

Dragon Hunters: This 3D computer animation from France, Germany, and Luxembourg is the story of Zoe, who loves stories about dragon hunts and aspires to join one herself. When her uncle sends her packing due to fears of a dragon called "World Gobbler" awakening, Zoe quickly recruits some unlikely "knights" in her quest and marches off to face the danger.

Little Dodo: Traditionally animated, this German film centres on a young orangutan named Dodo who discovers a violin in the forest, makes friends with humans, and gets scolded for his lack of musical talent by his animal neighbours.

Spirit of the Forest: Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Angelica Houston, Ron Perlman, and Sean Astin, this computer-animated Spanish film tells the tale of a ragtag band of animals who fight to save the life of a sentient tree threatened by developers. (I'm especially intrigued by the Clan of Free Cats mentioned in the description.)

Sprockets runs from April 18-24.

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March 5, 2009
Last night I had the privilege of attending a seminar called "Anime and Contemporary Japanese Society," presented by the Japan Foundation's Toronto branch and the Digital Value Lab at Ryerson University, and supported by the Consulate General of Japan in Toronto. Presenters included Professor Jaqueline Berndt of Yokohama National University, and Professor Kaichiro Morikawa of Meiji University, with a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Eric Cazdyn of the University of Toronto.

After several rounds of applause for all the parties involved, Professor Berndt began a presentation called "Post-Critical Anime: Observations on its 'Identities' within Contemporary Japan." It compared and contrasted The Seven Samurai against Samurai 7, examining not historical accuracy (or the lack thereof) but rather the position each title holds in relationship to an imagined national culture. For Berndt, titles like Samurai 7 and Samurai Champloo are a-historical, existing in a fantasy of the past rather than an historically specific one. This slippery sense of historicity is key to a phenomenon in anime criticism that Professor Berndt wants to question, namely the preoccupation with reading Japanese identity into anime and presuming that anime stands for Japan rather than being a product of Japan. In short, Berndt wishes to undermine the myth of "Japaneseness," and instead focus on taste cultures within the nation.

Similarly, Professor Morikawa delivered a "tour" of otaku Japan, focusing on the geography of Tokyo's taste districts: Ikebukero (yaoi and BL titles, including doujinshi), and Akihabara (moe and hentai titles, including dating sims). Morikawa's presentation was extremely enlightening, exposing the gender and taste boundaries within Tokyo's borders, as well as proposing the idea of these fannish districts as an extension of the "otaku" (a loaded term that is at once a second person pronoun, a word for the household, an insult, and a label appropriated by English-speaking anime and manga fans) space -- a thirdspace where fans are safe to gather and form communities. Morikawa linked the phenomenon of taste districts in Tokyo to the ethnic villages of New York, then contrasted the architecture of these "private" or "closed" fan districts like Akihabara and Ikebukero to the "public" or "transparent" areas of Shibuya where consumption is conspicuous enough to warrant massive glass towers.

Dr. Cazdyn attempted to marry these two presentations through their shared problematization of time. He argued for a relationship between the non-existent past of Samurai 7 and the non-existent future of the Akihabara otaku, a group whose visions of the future, Professor Morikawa suggested, had darkened considerably since 1995 -- the year of both the disastrous Kobe earthquake and the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult (some of whom purported to be fans of Evangelion and other titles). Cazdyn defined anime as created by and through crisis, an idea that reminded me of Susan J. Napier's article When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality, and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain. After his remarks, the panel opened itself up to questions from the audience, a conversation which quickly turned lively. Afterward, Professor Berndt remarked that she had never given this talk to so much laughter, and she was surprised at how informed her audience already was on the subjects at play. (Congratulations, Toronto; you know your anime!)

If you have the opportunity to see either of these presenters in action, I heartily recommend them. Their insights as anime fans living in Japan who still maintain critical distance from the subject matter is invaluable. I was struck by Professor Berndt's answer to a question about culture: as a German speaker who had lived in Japan for twenty years, she said, "I don't really know what I am, anymore. I don't know how to categorize myself." It was plain that she viewed this indefinable subject position as a strength, not a weakness. I'm inclined to agree.

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October 22, 2008
FlutterChez Madame Poule

The National Film Board is getting an early start on World Animation Day festivities and is turning the party out well after. From October 24 to November 12, Canadians in 13 cities will be able to enjoy free screenings of the Get Animated! series to celebrate World Animation Day (October 28).

Get Animated! features one program of ten new works (including Theodor Ushev's Drux Flux and George Schwizgebel's Retouches) and a second of ten children's animation shorts (including Claude Cloutier's Sleeping Betty, and shorts from Hothouse 4 participants Carla Coma and Jody Kramer). Many of the cities will include complementary screenings and workshops in addition to these programs.

Two short are available at the event site. Just click a graphic above to view Howie Shia's Flutter (top) or Tali's At Home With Mrs. Hen.

Thanks, Matt and Jody!

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October 16, 2008

Independent animator Bill Plympton's feature Idiots and Angels will be screened this Saturday at the 2008 Toronto After Dark genre film festival, running from October 17th to 24th.

Plympton's 2007 short, Shut-Eye Hotel, will also be shown on Sunday as a part of the Shorts After Dark program, which also features Michael Langan's Doxology, and includes an even split of live-action and animation shorts.

Previously on fps
Bill Plympton

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July 19, 2008

A little while ago, I got a copy of Animania in the mail. It was a copy-for-blogging exchange, and I was glad I got a chance to see it. I had caught it on local cable a couple of weeks ago, and was curious to see the rest.

Turns out, I had only missed about the first ten or fifteen minutes. The documentary itself is only about an hour long, with a half-hour special features section called "Anime Uncovered." Despite my interest in fan studies, I thought that this was the more interesting part of the package -- and not just because it featured our friend Emru. I liked hearing from experts, specifically Canadian experts, and I also enjoyed hearing about the mechanics of modern animation.

The documentary itself revolves around a group of cosplayers (not a cosplay group, just different cosplayers) who attend Anime North, Toronto's major anime convention. The filmmaker, Felice Gorica, asks them the same questions, most of which are about why they like anime, how long they've been watching it, why they cosplay, and what they think life is like for teenagers in the twenty-first century. Also included are interviews with the parents of each cosplayer. Whether this was intentional or not, there seems to be a clear cultural divide between the minority parents and the white ones -- the Chinese, Japanese, and Caribbean parents all profess to love the way cosplay gives their kids projects to do, teaches them discipline and stick-to-it-iveness, and keeps them out of "normal" trouble. The white parents, however, seem intensely worried about how their son uses anime to help create his identity, how much money he spends on his anime habit, and whether he should be "living his life by the rules set out by a world of fantasy." (My husband then pointed out that the American Dream is more of a fantasy than anything anyone could animate, and that living one's life by its rules is probably twice as unhealthy as any fannish obsession.)

If I had one criticism of this documentary, it would be that the editing needs work. Technically it's fine -- it's not like the audio and visual tracks leap apart, or anything -- but there's a lot of extraneous footage used to split up the segments that make no immediately-apparent sense. We get unexplained cuts of anime like Slayers, but no commentary on why Slayers fits with what the interviewees have just said. Then there's the wrestling footage. To be fair, Anime North has wrestling exhibitions in full view of the registration line (it gives people something to watch while standing for hours), so it does make sense to at least acknowledge that. However, the frequent intercuts to the footage make it seem as though the wrestling should have some narrative or thematic significance to the points being made in the interviews. And it doesn't, unless the point was to highlight the fact that both wrestlers and cosplayers wear costumes.

Aside from that, though, I recommend it. It's nice to see something that's exclusively about Canadian fandom, and cosplay specifically. I also liked the inclusion of the parents' commentary. These parents seem to have great relationships with their kids, and they clearly savour the opportunity to spend time with their children at a time when most children can't wait to get out of the house or otherwise spurn parental attention. Their contribution is perhaps the most unique to the documentary, and this low-key approach was just right for talking to both halves of the relationship.

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March 2, 2008

Honestly, I don't know why anyone in Toronto would bother vegging in front of the tube during the March break when the National Film Board, by all appearances, has them covered. Animation fans with 17 minutes to kill can head over to the NFB Mediatheque and watch Madame Tutli-Putli for free at one of their digital viewing stations until March 31, but that's just for starters. The Mediatheque is continuing its tradition of unleashing hidden animation talent by providing inexpensive workshops and week-long day camps where kids create their own animated shorts. The daily workshops are for kids aged 6 to 13 and run from March 8 to 16; the day camp is for kids aged 8 to 13 and runs from March 10 to 14.

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September 18, 2007
Festival madness: Animatu 2007 kicks off its appreciation of digital animation in Beja, Portugal on October 17, featuring shorts like Ark, Codehunters and Guy's Guide to Zombies; in Spain, Animadrid starts off strong on September 28, opening with Nocturna; I'm still a little peeved at Aurora (formerly Norwich International Animation Festival) for dumping the word "animation" from their name because they think it's too restrictive, but damn do they have a lot of cool animation and animators in this year's fest, which starts November 7; Animae Caribe hits the University of the West Indies, Trinidad on October 25 and will feature a history of African animation; and the awesome Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema returns to the tiny town starting November 15, with an undoubtedly incredible lineup and steady supply of excellent hot chocolate.

Two new additions to our Sites We Like blogroll (over on the lower right sidebar, in case you hadn't noticed): Fill This Space is Patrick Smith's space for ruminating on the art and animation that he makes, and that inspires him; Diego Stoliar's self-titled blog features his personal and creative work. I featured Patrick's Moving Along in our Flicker newsletter a while ago, and praised his Handshake ever so briefly in my review of the second Avoid Eye Contact DVD; Diego was a participant in the National Film Board of Canada's most recent iteration of the Hothouse project, and you can see his contribution, One, along with the rest of them here. They'e both great guys, and I hope one day we'll all share beers together.

In the past we've mentioned the weekend animation workshops that the National Film Board hosts for kids here in Montreal; I should also mention that the NFB in Toronto has been running the same kind of program at the Mediatheque, for budding animators aged 3 to 13. The current program runs through to April 2008, but you can jump in at any time.

The Iranian feature Persepolis has been making the festival rounds for most of the year, but it looks like Sony Classics is giving it at least some sort of a theatrical release. I don't know about the rest of the continent, but Montrealers will be able to catch it in English and French starting January 11.

Speaking of Sony, the company is picking up where Disney left off with direct-to-DVD sequels of its feature properties; the first title is Open Season 2. Fans may howl at the resurgence of cheapquels, but I imagine it's hard for executives to ignore the heaping piles of money they generate.

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Another nice byproduct of the Ottawa International Animation Festival is the host of ancillary events that occur in nearby cities. Animators want to make the most of their trip, especially if they are from abroad, and end up dropping into other cities for smaller events. Last year, after the festival I had the chance to see Kihachiro Kawamoto's Book of the Dead a second time, because of a special trip he made to Montreal. It's a nice consolation for people who can't experience the sheer awesomeness of the actual festival, and a great teaser or way to come down from the fest.

The Toronto Animated Image Society will be hosting Joanna Quinn (barely or not safe for work web link, depending on the sense of humour of the people where you work!), in conversation with the NFB's Michael Fukushima on Tuesday, September 18 (tonight!). You'll recognize her commercial work in her demo reel and get an idea of the antics of her endearing but oh-so-wrong recurring character, Beryl. Click the flyer for details.

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September 16, 2007
Country: Japan
Director: Sori (Fumihiko Sori)
Length: 110 minutes
Rating: 14A
Distributor: FUNimation

Watching Vexille is a lot like going on a date with that hot airhead from high school: five minutes in, you wonder what excited you so much to begin with.

Vexille is the story of Vexille Serra (or Serra Vexille, if you live in the West), a member of a UN Special Forces unit called S.W.O.R.D. that monitors the advance of robotics and cybernetics technologies. The year is 2077, and for ten years Japan has lived behind a veil of electro-magnetic cloaking, building up the Daiwa Corporation robotics empire and refusing to allow real communications or travel in or out. Now the world fears that Japan has developed an android capable of passing as a human being, in violation of the same international treaties that caused Japan to withdraw from the UN years ago. And you guessed it: they have, and only through a chain of explosions, pseudo-scientific explanations, and thunderous Paul Oakenfold club anthems can the world be saved from a Bodysnatchers-like plot of android replacement.

Vexille has serious problems that render it more suitable for a late-night pizza-and-beer DVD rental than a twenty-dollar film festival movie ticket. But it's not all bad: Fumihiko Sori was the visual effects director for Appleseed, and fans of that silken, motion-capture-against-digital-vistas style will not be disappointed. The environments, particularly the slums of Tokyo and the toothy, glittering expanse of Los Angeles, are lovely. Tiny details, like snowflakes hitting a windscreen or grit kicked up by a tire, are well done. And the mechanical designs are fabulous. The aforementioned Oakenfold soundtrack keeps pace with the action. And the actions scenes themselves are good -- Sori knows how to execute a chase scene, if not how to inject one with any tension or suspense.

From frame one, the film plays like a bid to the Bubble-era "Techno-Orientalist" anxieties that Toshiya Ueno attributed to the West. It's all there: the threat of individual humans being replaced by human automatons as a result of Japan's technological superiority, Japan's hubris eventually becoming its downfall, Japanese people nobly sacrificing themselves en masse so that their virus cannot spread... The trouble is that the Bubble popped years ago. America has other fears now in China and Iran. Vexille might be an acknowledgement of those fears, or a parody of them. And if the film were smarter, it could have worked as the latter.

But the film is not smart. Every interesting plot point (the replacement of world leaders with "bio-metal" androids, or the giant, metal-eating desert sandworms borrowed from Dune) gets dropped in favour of yet another chase scene. And the titular character, Vexille, is just plain boring. Although the audience is supposed to believe her as a member of an elite fighting force, she does not behave like a well-trained or functional soldier. Yes, she pilots a mechanized suit very well, but so does everyone else on her squad. She seems to have no special skills to bring to the table, and frequently screams at the camera, bemoaning the fate of androids and humans alike instead of doing something useful to help herself or others. After watching a younger, more capable, smarter heroine in Terra, seeing Vexille Serra scream, cry, and follow secondary characters around causes no small amount of yawns and eye-rolls. It's telling when a titular character's most interesting plot development is learning via flashback that her boyfriend was in love with someone else ten years ago.

I saw only four films this Festival, but the other three audiences were loads more enthusiastic than this one. They laughed. They cheered. They held their breath. At the end of Vexille, the audience stood up and filed out quietly, more inspired by the need to find the night's last subway than the film they'd just seen. If you're an anime fan and you want good news from this year's Toronto International Festival, listen to this: Takeshi Miike and Quentin Tarantino are anime fans, and they've worked together on a live-action film called Sukiyaki Western Django. It's violent, funny, and plays like a lusciously-coloured manga flip-book. And there are anime in-jokes. Do yourself a favour, and wait for it instead.

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September 14, 2007
Country: Canada
Director: Aristomenis Tsirbas
Running Time: 85 minutes
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, Brian Cox, David Cross, Amanda Peet, Dennis Quaid, Rosanna Arquette, and James Garner

Today I saw Terra at the Toronto International Film Festival. My screening was packed, and I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A with the director. Tsirbas is a Montreal native, and remarked that premiering his first feature film at TIFF was a "moving and rewarding experience." There has been serious buzz about Terra, and after attending the film I learnt why.

Terra is the story of Mala, a young Terrian (a peaceful, art-loving, techno-wary race who resemble cute tadpoles) whose passion for designing and constructing gadgets makes her something of a misfit at school and home. One day, Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) and her friend Sen notice a mysterious alien ship. When it deploys several smaller ships, one of them crashes and Mala finds Lieutenant Jim Stanton (Luke Wilson) of the Earth Forces after he emerges from the wreckage. With the help of his robot Giddy (David Cross), she builds him an oxygen-friendly environment and learns his language. After the Earth Forces take Terra's father as a "test subject," Mala agrees to help Jim repair his ship if he takes her to the human mothership, known as the Ark, so that she can rescue him. Naturally, it all goes terribly wrong, and soon Mala and Jim are embroiled in a struggle for the planet Terra: Earth Forces military want to terraform Terra and render it uninhabitable for the native Terrians, and the Terrians must confront their warlike past in order to defend themselves.

Terra is not for everyone. It is not for neo-conservatives, although they would probably benefit most from seeing it. It is not for viewers who cannot stand violence in their animation. (Terra is very violent, but not graphic -- you'll see very little blood, but experience quite a lot of tension.) It is not for viewers who do not enjoy CGI, although the animation here is anything but the cheery plasticity of Cars. However, it is meant for people who enjoy great music, fast-paced action (including some fantastic aerial dogfights), and the sort of plot that Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks will never, ever create on their own. Although Tsirbas shied away from applying any sort of definitive moral to his story, Terra is already being discussed as an allegory for the Iraq War. Terra presents the sort of difficult moral world that Miyazaki fans will remember from Princess Mononoke. (But Mononoke does it better, thanks in part to a more eloquent script.)

Terra has a few other flaws. The character designs are somewhat at odds with the environmental and mechanical ones. The humans in particular look as though they have all been stamped from the same mould, which is partially a product of military costume: flight suits and shaved heads. One notable exception is the villainous General Hemmer, whose face one audience member called "copied from George W. Bush." In addition, there are the usual scientific errors that populate most film-based science-fiction: Terra is supposed to be a helium atmosphere, and at certain moments Jim's respirator helps him metabolize it into oxygen. And the script is not particularly witty -- instead it evokes feeling mostly through high-pressure situations and the grace of good actors.

That said, Terra is probably leaps and bounds more unique than most animated feature films due out this year, and it has a good shot at distribution. The kids at my screening had a great time, and the popcorn-munching died down quickly. During the final sequences, I could hear every tiny rustle in the seats -- the film held everyone's attention in a tight grip. I hope you all get a chance to see it, and decide for yourselves what the story's message is.

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May 29, 2007
This weekend was Anime North 2007, and convention goers made the most of it with plenty of cosplay, hours of video, and panels that stretched long into the night.

As a four-time panelist, I introduced myself as a blogger for fps. My panels included musings on Avatar: The Last Airbender, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the hikikomori phenomenon in Japan, and cyborgs in anime. I was a panelist alongside Dr. David Stephenson and Derwin Mak, among others. Being a panelist is very rewarding, and lends structure to what otherwise might be an incomprehensible whirlwind of photo-taking, squeeing fangirls, and scrambling to find that last-minute steal in the dealers' room.

As an anime convention, Anime North is the laid-back, easy-going Canadian cousin of Anime Expo or the Big Apple Anime Festival. It's not American, so distributors are sceptical of debuting new titles there. On the other hand, last year's convention boasted ten thousand attendees. There seemed to be a little something for everyone -- one hotel was designated "Yaoi North," featuring both yaoi-themed panels as well as viewing rooms for teens 18 and older -- with all-night anime, gaming rooms for all platforms, and pencil-and-paper RPGs, and multi-franchise masquerade competitions, fashion shows, tea parties, midnight ballroom dancing, J-rock and J-pop performances, multi-hour AMV competitions, autographs from the likes of Wendee Lee and Johnny Yong Bosch, and chocolate fountains. There was even a pool party.

All of this is very fun, especially if one is staying in one of the three or four hotels involved in the convention. But the trade-off is that with programming and attendees spread over multiple locations, volunteers and programmers have no central authority. Several times during the convention, I would ask volunteers for assistance, and was given misinformed or conflicting advice. Case in point: when joining a long autograph queue, I asked a volunteer where exactly the end of the line was. "I have no idea," he said. He pointed, and said: "It's there, I think." Naturally, the line changed direction after an hour, proving both the volunteer -- and my good sense -- completely wrong. When I asked another volunteer why the person I had spoken with earlier was so misinformed, she said: "He just didn't know we were going to change things around." This kind of misunderstanding ruled at the convention, with volunteers posted at doors proclaiming them to be "exit only," (instead of, say, clearly-posted exit signs) and volunteers loudly complaining "I don't know what my job is!" to their alleged supervisors while waiting anxiously in panel-designated areas.

This is not to say that I do not endorse Anime North wholeheartedly. Anime conventions in general are like a kinder, gentler three-day Mardi Gras, and there's something good for the soul about basking in the presence of other fans. Watching first-time visitors, talented cosplayers, and wide-eyed parents with their much-savvier children is always a treat, and part of the convention experience. "I've had such an awesome time," said a first-time attendee to me on the final day. "I don't ever want it to end." And it's that sense of comfortable wonder and community that fans and friends-of-fans should attempt to facilitate at these gatherings. I fully intend to visit next year. You should come, too.

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May 25, 2007
We're still picking our jaws up off the floor a month after checking out the website for Style5, a new Toronto-based studio that's all about applying bolder, contemporary illustrative style to animation. We virtually sat down with creative director Sam Chou for a quick e-mail interview. (Thanks to Kino Kid for coming up with the questions.)

Emru Townsend: How did this madness come about and where do you want it to go?

Sam Chou: You're right, it is madness! We started Style5 because we are passionate about animation, both Chuck [Gammage] and I are traditional animators and we love the medium, but we were disapointed by how animation is viewed here in North America. It's a form of art, and a technique to tell a story, there are no limits... infinite possibilities! So why are there so many boundaries? And why are we still doing wacky talking animals?

Style5 is our venture to change people's view on animation.

ET: I don't think we've ever seen a studio in North America with such a high percentage of non-white creators. Proportionally, boutique or no, that's just weird (and good). Is this a plus or minus in Canada? In the US? Internationally?

SC: Hey, you're right! (I actually never noticed that.)

We chose all of our designers because we love their work. They all have great insight on culture and what's going on in the world, and it shows in their art. I think it's very important for an artist to have that. I guess that's what makes us different.

The world is getting smaller and we see it every day. Everything is changing, not just film or television. North America is changing. The world is changing.

Is is important to be culturally diverse? Definitely!

ET: Would you cringe from or embrace the word "urban" to define your sensibilities? How do you define the word "urban?"

SC: Urban. Hmmmm... The only reason why I'd cringe is because of the overuse of the word. "Urban-chic condo," "urban music," "urban cell-phone plan." It seems to be the "it" word now. Otherwise, you're right. We get much of our inspiration from the city. The fashion, the sounds, the music, the dirt and the grime of the city, we see graffiti everyday, it's all around us. It affects and inspires us.

ET: What type of music do you listen to and how does it influence your art?

SC: Music is my biggest influence by far. I have too many favorites... Album Leaf, Ratatat, Air, Metric, The Feathers, RJD2, Kid Koala, Supercar. I've recently been obsessed with 80's mashups.

ET: You list a series in development, The Wrong Block, as a recent project. Can you tell us about that?

SC: The Wrong Block is a series we are working on. It's a serial crime/action adventure. It follows a middle-aged, tough-as-nails detective as he's tracking down an old adversary, who has kidnapped a billionaire heiress.

The way it's written is quite interesting, it's almost like one story being told three different ways, through the eyes of three different characters. Keep checking the site, we are going to be putting a development page up with lots of new artwork.

ET: What kind of project would you like to work on right now? What kind of client do you want to walk in and say, "I want you to do _____ for me."

SC: I've always wanted to do a sneaker commercial, all traditionally animated. You don't see that too often. My dream project, though, is an RJD2 music video, or a Kid Koala.

ET: What animation do you think people are ready for that they aren't getting right now?

SC: I'd like to see an animated feature, aimed for adults that has action, intrigue, mystery, murder! There, I said it! Murder!

ET: What are you watching these days? (Live or animated.)

SC: Wacky talking animals.

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April 13, 2007
Sprockets, the Toronto International Film Festival for Children, celebrates its tenth anniversary from April 13-22. Although the features programme this year is more strongly rooted in live-action film than animation, animation fans should take note of these titles*:

The Reef: Saturday, April 21, 11:00 AM, Canada Square Cinema 2. Directors: Howard E. Baker, John Fox, and Lee Kyeong-Ho. Starring Evan Rachel Wood, John Rhys-Davies, and Rob Schneider. After Pi, an ordinary little fish from Boston, is orphaned when his parents are snared by a fisherman’s net, he travels to an exotic reef to live with his Aunt Pearl. As he tries to orient himself in this new world, Pi meets the fish of his dreams, the beautiful and kind Cordelia, but things do not go swimmingly. Troy, the meanest shark in the ocean, is not only tormenting everyone in the reef community, but also has his eye on Cordelia.

Brave Story: Saturday, April 14, 10:30 AM, Isabel Bader Theater and Sunday, April 22, 2:40 PM, Canada Square Cinema 2. Director: Koichi Chigera.
While exploring an old building, energetic eleven-year-old Wataru catches a glimpse of a strange doorway floating atop a spiral staircase. It vanishes in an instant, but Wataru is certain of – yet perplexed by – this vision. Having heard the new kid at school, Ashikawa, refer to a mystical realm where wishes come true, Wataru is anxious to learn more.

Azur and Asmar: Sunday, April 15, 2:00 PM, Isabel Bader Theater. Director: Michel Ocelot. Azur, the son of a nobleman, is raised by a nurse alongside her son Asmar. Both boys adore the nurse’s whimsical tales of the beautiful Djinn Fairy who, captive within the black mountain, awaits a loving prince. Growing and living together as brothers, Azur and Asmar share the dream of one day marrying the mystical nymph – but this dream becomes a cause of sibling rivalry. Eventually, their habitual scuffles and one-upmanship create a rift that appears irreparable.

Michel Ocelot is set to direct Bjork's latest music video, and watching A&A will show you exactly why. It's hypnotic and beautiful. Moreover, it's one of the few films currently available in North America -- especially animated ones -- that touches on the complicated relationship between France and North Africa.

The afore-mentioned films are all features, but I would be remiss not to mention The Little Short-Sighted Snake, an eleven-minute animated film from Estonia directed by Aina Jarvine and Meelis Arulepp. It's featured as part of the "Animated Animal Tales" block, but I predict it will outshine the others on offer. LSSN's neo-retro designs, broad colour palette, snappy music, and closing sequence make it irresistible.

Have a fun festival, everyone!

*Full disclosure: Madeline Ashby is a Sprockets volunteer. She received no compensation for this blog post, and had nothing to do with the any Sprockets programming decisions.

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February 11, 2007
A while back, I mentioned that I would soon be visiting a Toronto-area maid cafe on behalf of fps. This weekend, I accomplished my goal.

Trekking south from Toronto's labyrinthine Pacific Mall, I and my hearty companions braved frozen, sidewalk-free roads to find the intersection of McNicholl and Kennedy. We were happy to find it, although my stomach quaked a little to find it completely deserted aside from staff.

The staff is who I had come to see, however. Dressing up as a maid to serve customers is a convention within anime and manga, where cosplaying is a gimmick that can draw otherwise-innocent bystanders (cf. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Chobits, Fruits Basket). Using this strategy in reality is something completely different, however. I was happy to see that the French maid-style costumes were actually rather tame. Both girls I saw on shift wore knee-high striped socks. And when I took their picture, they were very, very shy.

Purposefully-sexy photos can be found at the cafe website, under the "Our Staff" heading, and my photos do not do the cafe (or the girls' tiny waists, skillful makeup, and stylish hair) justice. Neither of these girls very much enjoyed being photographed, and looked to their boss for approval. (Note the bespectacled man in the background.) The girl on the left tried her hardest not to be photographed until her co-worker grabbed her by the wrist and tugged her into the shot. Although I had no problem visiting a cafe where the girls receive payment for dressing as fetishes, taking their photo when they were clearly reticent about it left me feeling a little bit dirty.

What's not dirty, however, is the cafe itself. It's a bright, bi-chromatic blend of IKEA-like furnishings, pendant lighting, LCD screens (see photo) and Apple computers. In deepest darkest suburbia, it's actually a great place to meet people for coffee and snacks. The cafe stays open until 1 a.m., and its broad variety of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Canadian foods at reasonable prices led me to believe that it would be better suited to a university neighbourhood. Most of the diners arrived later on, and I saw plenty of orders for ice cream over waffles, sundaes, curried noodles, and soups. The mango sherbet was delightful, as was the hot mint coffee. Each serving comes in over-sized dishes, a boon considering the prices involved.

Curiously, the most "fannish" aspect of the cafe was not the cuisine or the girls themselves, but the constant re-play of an Avril Lavigne concert DVD on the aforementioned monitor. It's not unusual in Toronto to see televisions in elevators, at the veterinarian's, and at Asian greasy spoons, but I found the presence of Avril Lavigne befuddling. Perhaps it would be a little too synergistic to play anime on the big screen, and maybe a Canadian pop star's DVD at a Japanese-themed Chinese food cafe says something about the Toronto area in general. Just down the road, Canadian shoppers can purchase bootlegged anime subtitled in Hong Kong, so perhaps the polyglot nature of the iMaid Cafe isn't so strange after all.

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February 5, 2007
No, it's not just in Japan any more. Citizens of Toronto can now take an at-home tourist trip to Scarborough to visit the city's first maid-themed café. Some of you may recognise "maid cosplay" from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and other anime franchises. Soon I too will be making a pilgrimage to this particular site, and giving my own verdict for fps readers. (And I'll get a better picture than those people at Torontoist.)

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