June 22, 2009
The Snowman, Street of Crocodiles, Girls Night Out, Creature Comforts, Screen Play, Bob’s Birthday, The Man With the Beautiful Eyes, City Paradise, Rabbit: A truncated litany of some of the brilliant shorts that since the mid-1980’s have defined British animation the world over, and are jaw-droppingly impressive. What they, and the unlisted others, share apart from their creative potency is, perversely enough, an institution. A government mandated, uniquely funded institution that luckily for all of us was peopled by passionate souls who cared about art and diversity (writ large), and who actively contrived to put money and resources into the hands of the most talented, fecund creators they could uncover. No, not the NFB (but thanks for thinking of us) Britain’s Channel 4 – or Channel Four, more correctly – television network.

In British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, Clare Kitson, Channel 4’s commissioning editor for animation throughout the 1990s, has written a humane and intimate history of the ups and downs of animation at the Channel, leavening it with just the right amount of dry wit, personal insight and anecdote. The book is a deft balance between an academic tome offering historical context and background and an eye-opening guide to anyone interested in the many behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings that go on to actually get these kinds of films made and-most importantly in Channel 4’s case-on to air.

As an NFB producer, the themes that resonated for me (both for the echoes and the dissonances) are Kitson’s perspective as a commissioning editor rather than a producer, and the Channel’s intrinsic ability (and sometimes inability) to get things onto TV screens around the UK. While these are not mass audiences by most standards, they are certainly much larger audiences than short animation otherwise gets on broadcast television – if our films get onto television at all. Such a luxury, but as Kitson points out also such a curse, was each season’s scheduling matrix even for a broadcaster so committed to diversities of topic, technique and running length.

The Channel 4 Factor is valuable history. But as memoir about what Kitson likes and why, it’s revealing and fun, and already well exceeds the price of admission. The middle section, in particular, reveals the makings of several of the Channel’s most famous films from her own unique vantage point along with the filmmakers’ own tellings of the tale. It’s as a sociological dissection of how such an organization came about, almost from whole cloth, where Clare hits her stride. As a case study, Kitson offers up much of the recipe for success that created and sustained both Channel 4 and the NFB. Indeed, parallels to the NFB regularly caused me pleasant surprise. Compressed in active years, Channel 4’s animation history is like the NFB’s but accordioned into itself three times over.

I suspect many producers see commissioning editors as mercurial demagogues, unaware of real work of filmmaking and blithely changing objectives and mandates from season to season. Kitson quite effectively put that myth to rest. She reveals the very passionate people who created an ethos committed to being background players. Producers boosted artists by giving them money to make films, but more importantly by creating a culture that was willing to take big risks on small films. Here’s the original job posting for Channel 4 commissioning editors:

Television production experience may be an advantage but is not essential. Whether your passion is angling or cooking, fringe theatre, rock, politics, philosophy or religion, if you believe you can spot a good idea and help others realise it on the screen, we are lo
oking for commissioning editors and would like to hear from you.

Clearly, the early, passionate years of Channel 4 were driven by both by its unique mission and by strength of personality and will of its editors and executives. What kind of society is predisposed to permitting such a creature to be born, and more importantly, to live and thrive? Is it peculiar to Anglo-Saxon socialism, which would also explain the NFB?

Kitson writes about diversity and minority remits (but not just about skin colour or ethnicity or orientation) and cultural big thinkers who believed in social change and art as the change tool. She admires a 1980s UK society and a handful of faithful who were ready to lift and be lifted to a new plateau of humanity and criticality, of engagement and responsibility. While not of the same soaring oratory and historic portent of Barack Obama’s presidency, Channel 4 changed the game. I wonder if Mr. Obama might see PBS and the NEA anew were he to read The Channel 4 Factor. I suspect he already carries those convictions or ones quite similar, but I’m quite certain he’d enjoy the animation education he’d get from Kitson's caring and insightful writing.

Of course, there’s no telling what the success-to-fail ratio was for Channel 4’s roster, much as it’s hard to know for the NFB
unless one is dogged and inclined to statistics. There’s a chance many animators are like me and prone to apocrypha rather than evidence. Although I do think it’s absolutely true that reputations are built on equal parts evidence and belief, and it’s only when belief has no tangible, recent success to riff on that paper lions are revealed and fairly scrutinized. The ratios may have dipped a bit in recent years, but Kitson leaves us with hope for British animation by the book’s end, and it’s a hope I share in all my various capacities within the animation shorts world.

We always need a secular, art-centric “city upon a hill” that challenges and binds us. There are precious few such institutions left, but Clare Kitson has given valuable clues and insights in how to go forth and multiply.

Michael Fukushima is a producer in the National Film Board of Canada’s Animation Studio, apparently with a bit of closeted anglophilia.

Where To Get It

British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor, by Clare Kitson published by University of Indiana Press (North America) and Parliament Hill Publishing (UK).

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February 2, 2009

I tend to be very protective of the books I’ve read and loved, and I feel that most film adaptations don’t do their literary sources justice. Author Neil Gaiman’s repeated positive references to the progress of the stop-motion animation film adaptation of his Hugo-award winning short novel Coraline on his blog and in interviews have kept me hoping for the best, and I’ve enjoyed the vignettes and teasers Laika has released. Nothing in the promotional material gave me cause for concern: Henry Selick seemed to be treating it with respect. And that’s not a surprise, because when Gaiman completed Coraline he handed it to his agent and asked her to send a copy to Henry Selick before it had even been published. When the author trusts the filmmaker enough to do that, it eliminates the need for excessive amounts of anxiety on my part.

Director and scriptwriter Henry Selick has created a fantastic (in the true sense of the word) adaptation of the world in the multiple-award-winning book by Neil Gaiman. The screenplay is remarkably faithful to the book, with the exception of the addition of a new character. Wybie, a boy approximately Coraline’s age, was created by the filmmaker to serve as a foil for Coraline. In a book an omniscient narrator can share a character’s thoughts with the reader, but in a film that character sometimes needs interaction with others to evoke their feelings or thoughts. Wybie serves his purpose, and doesn’t detract from the story or from Coraline herself in any way. And whereas the book has Coraline very deliberately planning her final triumph over her Other Mother, the film has a more immediate and action-based conflict and resolution. If you’ve read the book, you’ll have expectations of the mouse circus: it’s delicious in film form, too. The pacing is excellent, the balance of dialogue to action is good, and each character is well-defined. All in all, the screenplay is a success.

My other concern about the film was its use of 3D technology. Too often this technology is used as a gimmick or a way to prop up what might otherwise be a less than successful sequence. This concern, too, was laid to rest in the enjoyably chilling opening sequence. Coraline is the first animated stop-motion feature to be filmed entirely in 3D, and successfully uses stereoscopy to create a seemingly more realistic stop-motion animation. There’s no gimmickry here, only a serious use of the technology to enhance the entire experience and to create the feeling of a stage with depth instead of a flat screen. There are a couple of things in the opening sequence that move out toward the audience, a nod to the experience the technology can give, but in general the technology is used to create the sense of depth and space. It makes the story more real instead of pointing out its meta-reality.

The animation is outstanding. The smoothness of the motion, the camera moves and angles are justifiably jaw-dropping. The production design is incredible. Apart from the unity of style throughout the design, the colour palette and texture are big players in the film. There’s a certain excitement knowing that the animated film you’re about to see has been actually constructed in tangible, physical form. The magic is real; it’s not an effect. Of course, the star of the film is also only twenty-two inches tall, but that doesn’t make it any easier to build her world realistically. Textures and fabrics need to be to scale, and everything needs to be as realistic as possible. For certain close-up shots of hands and such things, larger models need to be built to provide the proper sense of proportion and scale. The animating team also used rapid prototyping technology to create the multitude of facial expressions exhibited by the puppets. Working from scans and casts of original sculpts, the rapid prototype department built multiple replacement faces in CG modeling programs, which were then “printed” by three-dimensional object printers to create the puppet faces for the replacement animation technique, hand-finishing each face before applying it to the puppet.

The film features excellent voice acting from a strong cast. There’s no stunt casting here: every voice actor has been cast for a genuine talent and what they bring to the role. Dakota Fanning manages a wonderful balance between eleven-year-old bravado composed of aggression and fear, while Teri Hatcher’s Mother and Other Mother are a terrific contrast between mundane and just too good to be true. The delightful John Hodgman voices Father and Other Father.

Bruno Coulais' score fits right into the film without being memorable on its own, supporting the story without calling attention to itself. The children’s choral pieces successfully contribute to the unsettling feel of the film, particularly in the opening sequence. The score features lots of harp, which creates an idyllic feel for the Other House. Much of the music makes one think of a music box, a parallel image for the falseness of the world beyond the secret door. There’s a fun little They Might Be Giants ditty sung for Coraline by her Other Father, too.

While the film projects a strong message of self-reliance, overcoming fear, and being careful about what one wishes for, it also features creepy visuals and chilling concepts, and could well serve as nightmare fodder for younger children. (Heck, I know adults who are unsettled by the notion of buttons for eyes and who refuse to see the film.) Parents considering bringing a child to the PG film should view the available trailers and excerpts available at www.coraline.com, and evaluate their child’s maturity level and story preferences carefully beforehand. (On his blog, Neil Gaiman addresses this problem by saying much the same thing: You know your child better than the filmmakers and the MPAA do.)

Stay till the end of the credits for a credit cookie, as well as a bonus “for those in the know.”

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November 21, 2008
For the first time in a long time, I saw a Disney film and missed the publicity hype preceding it. Except for some of the recent commentary scanned on Cartoon Brew (a testament to my level of Busy; this blog is a pleasure in life that you need to take your time to read), I managed not to see any web banners, marquee posters, or newspaper, radio or television ads.

At a much earlier time, I read of the changes to the stewardship of the Bolt in the wake of restructuring changes at the Walt Disney Animation Studios. I knew from the Brewmasters' reports that the film had changed markedly from its original vision, but I hadn't really thought about it lately.

But time had passed, and Bolt was not really on my mind as the studio was gearing up for the film. I managed to side-step the Disney hype machine this one time. So I'm writing this based entirely on my impressions of what I saw in the cinema on Wednesday.

Bolt is a winner.

There are tons of laughs in the film, but you don't feel like you're having your buttons pushed, and the dialogue is really snappy, but not in the way I find a lot of mainstream animation features tend to do it - lots of pop culture references, "aren't we clever" one-offs that get dated quickly. The lines are truly clever and fit the characters' perfectly.

Also, it's no secret that I'm not a fan of stunt-casting. The celebrity voice talent do their job well and don't get in my way of enjoying the film. They make their characters more believable and serve characters, not the other way around.

I did see the trailer for this film just this morning, and I must say I'm glad I went into without any preconceptions. As a result, the opening scene was more thrilling and taut than I think it would have been if I knew what was coming.

This is a fairly conventional Disney family feature, but I don't mean that in a bad way. Yes, it's safe. But it doesn't draw away from the fact that the film is engaging, the timing and pacing are dead-on, and the character animation is above-average. I can't help but wonder how much further the character animation could have been pushed if it were hand-drawn. Like Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda, there is a point where the animation style changes and I wonder, why does all digital animation that touts the CG label feel it has to be hyper-realistic? However, I don't really spend much time on it because I thought that the animation I was watching was well-done.

Speaking of techniques,
I did watch this film in 3D (as well as trailers for Blue Sky's next Ice Age instalment, and Pixar's Up), and as much as I get annoyed by reading reviews that solely focus on a new technique or "gimmick" I liked the use of 3D in the film (as well as the trailers) because they all finally got something right. Unlike Beowulf, I never felt like the whole point of making Bolt was so we could watch it in 3D. Instead of setting up shots so that the viewer would get the feeling of things being moved toward them, the enhancement was used to convey a feeling of depth. There was very little effort made to break the fourth wall. Instead, the screen was the boundary for the actors on a stage.

The next Disney feature regardless of technique better be good, because a lot of viewers will be disappointed if it doesn't entertain as much as Bolt.

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June 27, 2008

I hate it—I mean, really hate it—that whenever an animated feature is reviewed, writers feel compelled to mention whether or not kids would like it. It's a testament to the fact that, regardless of what the individual writers, editors or publishers feel, the public at large still can't process the idea that adults might want to watch animated features for themselves.

Past responses to this prejudice have included making films that are most definitely not for children, making films that are mainly for kids but include nod-and-wink throwaway gags for adults, and making films that kids and adults can enjoy equally. These have worked to varying degrees, but they all carry with them a fairly standard idea of what children will watch and enjoy.

WALL-E is a bit different in this regard, because it expands the idea of what kids will find entertaining. When Cast Away was released eight years ago, a big deal was made of the fact that there was no dialogue for almost half the movie (in the literal sense; Tom Hanks's character did speak, but no one answered). A similar fuss is being made over the lack of dialogue in WALL-E, but the unspoken question is, will kids be able to sit still for a 103-minute film where the main characters rarely speak?

From the reactions of the kids in the audience (especially the ones in the row right behind me) on Wednesday night, the answer is yes. And in the same way that Tom Hanks's acting was credited for making the dialogue-free parts of Cast Away so compelling, the Pixar animators must be given props for the remarkable acting in WALL-E.

With one exception, none of the many robot characters in the movie can truly speak, and the two that do (WALL-E and EVE) pretty much only say their names, each other's names, and the word "directive." That means that every robot character has to rely on rigid bodies and eyes (or eye surrogates) to communicate and express emotion. Interestingly, WALL-E himself is among the least flexible of the movie's robots; he has treads instead of feet, a pair of rigid mechanical viewfinders instead of an eye-mimicking LED display, and unbendable arms with three flat "fingers" at the end.

In sum, the movie has to be carried by characters that can't speak and are all limited compared to human bodies, and the main character is in some ways the most limited. And it works, thanks to Pixar's careful application of animation's twin traditions of pantomime and bringing inanimate objects to life. There are several references in WALL-E to A113, an in-joke that refers to CalArts's old character animation classroom. In few other films is that gag as relevant as it is in WALL-E; the movie is such an accomplished expression of the pre-digital yet universal art of conveying emotion and story purely through movement that when human characters show up and start talking, they seem clumsy and inelegant in comparison.

So, yes, kids will like WALL-E, as will adults. And we have the art of animation to thank for that.

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June 18, 2008

It's a given that even with such a wealth of animated shorts on the Internet, there's nothing like rubbing shoulders with like-minded people at a film festival. But when it comes to festival compilations on DVD, things get a little trickier. After all, if you're going to watch a bunch of shorts on the small screen, why buy them on DVD when you can probably find many of them, legally or otherwise, online?

That question plagues the third iteration of the annual Animation Show DVD release; a quick glance at its contents revealed three shorts that I'd seen online already, and I'm sure most, if not all, of the rest are lurking around somewhere.

Ah, but then you wouldn't have the distinct pleasure of watching 103 minutes of some of the best shorts of the past three years by pressing just one button from the comfort of your couch. Really, there isn't a false note here. I've seen Rabbit, City Paradise, Tyger and Learn Self Defense a gazillion times, and cheerfully sat through them from start to finish again. The kaleidoscopic Collision was serviceable and short enough not to be too taxing, and One D entertained me despite its one-note gag, unsurprising animation in-joke and glaring technical inaccuracy. (Hello, these characters are two-dimensional, not one-dimensional. Watch Ladd Ehlinger, Jr.'s interpretation of Flatland to see it done right.) Overall, a nice variety of films in a nice variety of styles.

Also, you wouldn't get great extras like an animatic and three video interviews, along with text interviews you can read by putting the DVD into a computer. That's some good bang for the bucks.

For all that, though, there are a few things that bother me here. I'm still not sure if I'm keen on the DVDs including a bunch of shorts that weren't screened during the theatrical run. I expect to see shorts on the big screen that I won't see on DVD due to rights issues, but it feels kind of odd that neither medium, by itself, is the complete experience.

Most glaring, however, is the inclusion of an eight-minute trailer for MTV's The Maxx, which is stuck in the middle of the festival extras instead of with the MTV trailers. (The Animation Show DVD is distributed by MTV Home Entertainment.) It's strange, because it's not part of the festival content, but its placement implies inclusion in the festival. Er, um, why exactly? It feels like a bit of corporate pimping, which doesn't reflect well on anyone involved.

Where to Get It
The Animation Show, Vol. 3 on DVD from Amazon.com

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June 5, 2008

There are a few things I didn't like about Kung Fu Panda.

First, I couldn't take all the fat jokes. Actually, not the fat jokes per se, but one line ("I eat when I'm nervous") adds a subtext to some of them. In the funny-animal world of Kung Fu Panda, it kind of makes sense that everyone would make fun of title character Po, as he's the only rotund character around, while being somewhat graceless and easily tired despite his designation as the prophesied Dragon Warrior. The problem is, that one sentence (and one the end of a later scene) ratifies some of the stereotypes surrounding real-life overweight people by suggesting that he eats so much due to a lack of control (i.e., it's his fault he's fat; weight becomes a character issue). But he's a panda. Of course he's round, and of course he eats a lot. It's like criticizing a frog for eating flies. The movie could have played out the same way without that element.

Second, when Po wistfully looks off in the distance at the film's opening because he dreams of being more than a noodle cook—exactly like in every other animated feature in which our frustrated hero yearns for something more than his or her dreary life—I wanted to scream and throw something at the screen. Enough, already!

And yet, much to my surprise, I enjoyed the rest of the movie. I say "To my surprise" because I'd barely gotten out of the lobby after Bee Movie when I realized I was sick of DreamWorks' apparently endless formula of using wisecracking New York humour. Same with the earlier Madagascar, where they were often joking about New York. It's a bad sign when side characters (the penguins) uspstage everyone else.

Ah, but Kung Fu Panda doesn't do that. It is a period piece, more or less, with all of the characters firmly entrenched in a village in China, much as in any live-action kung fu movie. And while much of the humour is verbal, it's equally physical, sometimes at the same time. In fact, for all of the brouhaha about Madagascar's cartooniness, I'd say Kung Fu Panda comes closest in practice to the Looney Tunes comedy aesthetic; that is, in making the timing and snappiness of the drawings as important as the timing and snappiness of the jokes, balancing quiet with loud, broad with subtle, and seen with unseen. Mix that in with crackling action scenes that can get laughs without sacrificing tension, and you've got—surprise!—an enjoyable animated comedy.

As much as I enjoyed it, though, I'm a little disappointed. The introductory scene, which is a tight bit of stylized hand-drawn animation, was so well done I was let down when we got to the CGI. As much as I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda as it was, I'd really like to see the movie they were hinting at.

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May 26, 2008
Countless column inches, magazine pages and pixels have been devoted to the question/problem of racist black stereotypes in animation, and at some point someone says these cartoons need to be framed or presented in their historical context. It's unstated, but that phrase often means "Let's acknowledge that these cartoons were produced in a less enlightened time, and that the images are offensive. But man, are they funny. Can we go back to watching them, please?"

Not that the first sentence is untrue, but it's a simplistic reading at best. If you really want context, then start with Henry T. Sampson's That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960, which catalogues the many American cartoons that used these images, along with plot descriptions, production credits, and industry publication reviews—necessary and welcome, but maybe a little too clinical. The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, in contrast, takes the same kind of data as That's Enough Folks and shapes it into a decades-long narrative.

Lehman recounts a chronological history of film animation from its beginnings at the hands of J. Stuart Blackton through most of the Golden Age of animation, weaving in descriptions and explanations of the types of racist images used. This really does put things in context, as for the first time we get to see how the evolution of these images and the gags behind them corresponds to the evolution of animation, movies, pop culture and society at large.

After I finished the book—at 137 pages it's a quick read—it occurred to me that The Colored Cartoon is, in itself, an answer to many of the questions and misconceptions that have swirled around this debate for at least as long as I've observed it. Why is it okay to make fun of Elmer Fudd, who is white, but not black characters who chase Bugs Bunny? The seemingly obvious answer is that Elmer Fudd's skin colour isn't the source of the humour, his ineptitude is. For those that argue that a black character's ineptitude isn't necessarily racist, Lehman's long-range view breaks down the different types of stereotypes and why even the most innocuous-looking depictions were part of a larger trend. Is the call to stop broadcasting cartoons with these images a recent example of political correctness run amok? Hardly. The NAACP—you know, black people—have been protesting these cartoons since World War II. (If you'd read Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, you'd know that. But if your reading list is restricted to animation books, The Colored Cartoon will fill you in.)

The Colored Cartoon isn't perfect. Far from it, in fact. While I liked how Lehman sometimes talked about simple economic or technological issues (like the trouble early animators had with lip sync) and how they affected what was seen and heard onscreen, I was less enthused by some of his conjectures that were presented as fact. Was Bugs Bunny a descendant of African-American mythical trickster figures like Br'er Rabbit? Sure, I can get behind that interpretation. Does that make him, and his trademark cool, an example of black culture being mined and transformed for cartoons? Maybe, but that leads to the thorny question of intent. While animation artists like Bill Littlejohn and Martha Sigall weigh in throughout the book, they don't offer any insights here, which leaves Lehman's assertion as an untestable theory.

I'd have preferred if the book was longer (but then, with good books I usually do), held back on the theorizing and gave us more animator interviews, more in-depth stories of activism (I like Lehman's frank description of the NAACP's missteps, and I'd like to see more interviews in that area) and more industry insights—for starters. Still, imperfect doesn't mean bad. At the very least, The Colored Cartoon is a start—a start at providing the often-cited context for this debate that will allow it to move on to a different level. That alone makes it a worthy entry in this still-nascent field.

Where to Get It
The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954 from Amazon.com

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May 10, 2008

If there were awards for truth in advertising, then Kino International would have to win something for the use of one adjective. The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto contains the bulk of the animation master's work, seven short films made between 1968 and 1979.

Kawamoto is considered a stop-motion animator, and his recent feature-length masterpiece, The Book of the Dead, features gorgeous sets to accompany his beautiful puppets. However, this DVD serves as a reminder that his shorts were rarely quite so straightforward. All of the films on the DVD involve the manipulation of physical objects—if not puppets, then cutouts—but Kawamoto freely mixes them with drawn animation and flat paper cutouts with varying degrees of abstraction.

In earlier films like 1972's The Demon, Kawamoto plays with this stylization by having characters move in sync with the background music's rhythm, almost as if they were performing the story as a dance. By the time of the final film, 1979's House of Flames, he's also using stark lighting and elegant compositions to suggest, at times, a stage play. The three middle films in the collection, An Anthropo-Cynical Farce, The Trip and A Poet's Life (from 1970, 1973 and 1974) all break from the use of puppets and the use of ancient Japan as a setting, but are no less compelling. They are perhaps a bit more obtuse in that unique way that independent animation from the 1970s could be.

Kino has also released the feature-length The Book of the Dead, which features some of Kawamoto's most exquisite—there's that word again—stop-motion work to date. Like his best-known short-form films, the movie features Buddhism in ancient Japan. However, this time Buddhist teachings are central to the film, as it takes place in the eighth century, around the time that Buddhism was being introduced to Japan from China. Unlike his shorts, Kawamoto has chosen here to fill out his sets with physical objects and far more characters, all realized with considerable detail. It's hard to watch a sequence with a room full of elegantly dressed puppets with their clothes blowing in the wind and not be awestruck by both the scene's verisimilitude and its poetry.

As lovely as these releases are, there are a few things I'd have liked to have seen. The Book of the Dead uses the English narration with no option to hear the original Japanese (though all the dialogue is still in Japanese, with optional subtitles) and neither disc includes any kind of extras. While Kawamoto's work speaks for itself, the level of craftsmanship on display on both DVDs leaves you wanting to see and hear more. Finally, completists are likely to wag their fingers: The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto lacks four shorts that were included on the Region 2 Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection DVD.

Where to Get It
Buy The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto from Amazon.com
Buy The Book of the Dead from Amazon.com
Buy Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection from YesAsia.com

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April 19, 2008

A few weeks ago I watched Mind Game again, and not for the first time I wondered what director Masaaki Yuasa was up to post-Genius Party. And what do you know, shortly after I found out: he's directing the series Kaiba, which just started airing on the Japanese satellite channel WOWOW. Makoto Fukuda reviewed the first episode in today's Yomiuri Shimbun. As she describes it, the show is "set in a world when memories can be filed as data, and humans no longer regard the death of their physical bodies as the end of their lives."

I just finished watching the first episode, and I have to say that I agree with Fukuda's review, but she only hints at what I think makes it interesting. At its core, Kaiba offers up a lot of things we've seen before: the titular protagonist wakes up with amnesia, and is almost immediately attacked; strange machinelike creatures are attacking people while a ragtag resistance fights back; even the character designs, which Fukuda describes as echoing "those found in manga for children popular several decades ago" capture that 1960s and 1970s retro feel.

What Yuasa does is he mixes it up and makes it fresh. I like how little is explained as Kaiba makes his way through this new world. When the camera pans up or across in a scene, you're following his viewpoint. Nothing is explained to either of you, so you have to pay attention to everything you see. (Some things are conveniently spelled out, but as the title sequence hints that there's considerably more to Kaiba, you get the sense that there's information that should be filed away for later.) The world is just familiar enough that you know you're in a shady bar, but just weird-looking enough that you're trying to figure out what those lumpy wall protrusions are for. The character designs are retro, but they don't quietly elide the oddball wacky-looking characters I was fond of in older anime in favour of the graceful designs of the protagonists. I got a nice fix of people walking around with potato heads, wobbly jowls, bright red noses and the craziest hips you've ever seen. The cartooniness infects some of the action as well, but not in an at all jarring way. In some ways it's a better interpretation of what Tezuka did in his manga than the beautiful but perhaps too crisp Metropolis.

What I'm particularly fond of is Yuasa's interpretation of movement. As we saw in Mind Game, little of what he does falls into stock anime poses, staging or motion, and that feeling of always seeing something new is invigorating. Between the animation and the storyline—I particularly want to know what's going on with that bird-creature that's saved Kaiba three times now—Kaiba has my attention. I'm hoping someone picks it up domestically so I can watch it with subtitles, but, in another throwback to the old days, I'm perfectly willing to watch it entirely in Japanese just for the sake of seeing it.

Images and a Youtube trailer below.

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March 30, 2008

DC: The New Frontier was an ambitious, twelve-issue series created by Darwyn Cooke that reimagined the circumstances of the first encounter of the DC superheroes who would become the Justice League in the late 1950s. Justice League: The New Frontier, its animated adaptation, is on the ambitious Warner Premier label, which aims to release OAVs based on DC properties, along with striking acquisitions like Appleseed: Ex Machina. And with all this ambition going around, you'd expect a pretty amazing end product, right?

Let me back up a bit. In 1998, I was blown away by the striking, dynamic opening sequence to Batman Beyond, so I interviewed the man who was responsible for it. Fellow Canuck Darwyn Cooke's background was originally in graphic design, and he brought a fresh approach to his animation work, and later to his comics.

Last year I picked up the trade paperback compilation of DC: The New Frontier and read the whole thing in two and a half hours. I'm a fast reader, so that's a bit long for me; but I kept stopping to admire Cooke's bold lines, his compositions and his colours. He's one of those artists who makes good work look much easier than it is.

All of this is in service to one hell of an idea. After World War II, the "mystery men" who aided the war effort—the Golden Age heroes like Hourman, Dr. Fate, Black Canary and the original Flash—are forced to register or retire as Cold War paranoia whips up. Superman and Wonder Woman sign loyalty oaths and work for the government. Batman goes underground. But now a new, younger breed of heroes are starting to pop up, working in secret to do good, like the new Flash and the Martian Manhunter—all at around the same time Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman are realizing their old ways aren't working anymore. (Cooke expertly lifts some of these ideas—in a good way—from previous must-read comics mini-series JSA: The Golden Age, The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come, all of which expertly mix adult themes with the mythological wonder of the superhero story.)

It can't be unintentional that these events mirror what happened to DC superhero comics themselves between the 1940s and 1960s; they too were neutered post-war, and the Silver Age of comics was officially kicked off in 1959 with the introduction of the new Flash, launching an era of the "scientific" superhero. Many Golden Age heroes were born from the war or mysticism, but in the Silver Age just as many came from space or had their origins in astronomy, chemistry or physics. Cooke mined this and wrapped the story of The New Frontier—a phrase from John F. Kennedy's Democratic Party nomination acceptance speech—in the sense of discovery, adventure and optimism of new scientific discoveries that mixed with the uncertainty of growing social upheavals.

Embodying this spirit and this conflict is Hal Jordan, a jet jockey who will become the new Green Lantern. Driven to see the stars, the pacifist Hal joins the Air Force during peacetime and becomes embroiled in the Korean War. But he's also a man utterly without fear; presented (for the second time) with a death-defying, world-on-his-shoulders mission, his only response (again) is a smile and the simple response, "Outstanding."

That's a lot to fit even into a year's worth of comics, which points to the animated version's biggest flaw. With a mere 75-minute running time, a lot had to be pared down. Many characters and events were eliminated, sidelined or combined, and the net effect is a feeling of being rushed. Comics are incredible because a single panel can represent a split second, or several years; narrative animation tends to be more literal, so Justice League: The New Frontier is actually about 75 selected minutes out of a few years' events.

That would be fine for a conventional three-act story, but the New Frontier comic flits between the threads of multiple storylines and people that are gradually pulled together, each at different speeds. The animated version sticks with the same structure but doesn't have the luxury of time, which eats into things like characterization, back story, pacing and explaining who the hell these less familiar characters are.

The same comic/animation tension affects the visuals, too. A quick glance at the credits reveals the combined talents of the last sixteen years' worth of animated DC series, and it's all right up there on the screen. There's no resting on laurels here; although they've defined and refined a particular vocabulary, they're always pushing things forward. Everything in Justice League: The New Frontier screams 1950s, from the UPA-ish opening scene to the Saul Bass-ish title sequence to the many iconic Cold War-era locations, from Vegas to roadside diners. Colour design, compositions and staging are as sophisticated as the story's ideas. But for my money it all falls apart whenever I look at Wonder Woman.

Darwyn Cooke's Wonder Woman is pure 1950's smoking-hot sexy with generous zaftig curves that convey life, passion and power. Meanwhile, the current incarnation of the Bruce Timm-derived style has become increasingly angular, and the two just don't fit. This tension affects all the characters to one degree or another.

Like the real and fictitious era it represents, Justice League: The New Frontier is about ambition, but also uncertainty. I applaud Warner Premier's very existence, and the resources they put behind such a project. But to shoehorn everything into another 75-minute DC superhero cartoon regardless of the original style or format seems short-sighted and short-changing. One of the factors behind the initial success of the Japanese OAV market was a freedom from format constrictions; expanding Justice League: The New Frontier to a longer running time or mini-series and letting more of the Cooke visual magic shine through would have been a bolder experiment, and captured the bold spirit of the comic at the same time.

Justice League: The New Frontier
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March 14, 2008
Review by René Walling

Horton Hears a Who!, Dr. Seuss' classic tale of an elephant discovering a town on a speck is a childhood favourite for many people. The sheer inventiveness and magic of his book has been translated to an animated film before, with Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) himself as producer. The question was, could the folks at Blue Sky expand a half-hour story into a feature without losing the magic in it? And could they do it without the author at the helm of the project?

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February 25, 2008
When I read the first Mechademia volume, I felt that it maintained a tenuous balance between different kinds of scholarly essays on manga and anime. Mechademia Vol. 2: Networks of Desire has about the same amount of works—23 contributions compared to the original's 20—and more of a focus.

The subtitle of this volume accurately describes the book's theme, and essays are divided into four sections (Shojo, Powers of Time, Animalization and Horizons). Each essay spins "desire"—and sometimes its own section title—in different ways.

Five essays in particular are standouts, and worth the price of the book on their own. Deborah Shamoon's "Revolutionary Romance: The Rose of Versailles and the Transformation of Shojo Manga," Toku Masami's "Shojo Manga! Girls' Comics! A Mirror of Girls' Dreams" and Keith Vincent's "A Japanese Electra and her Queer Progeny" combine to provide a rich, textured history of the origins and progression of shojo manga and their depictions of same-sex relationships. Miyao Daisuke's "Thieves of Baghdad: Transnational Networks of Cinema and Anime in the 1920s" offers a fascinating look at the "Japanification" of Noburo Ofuji's 1926 Bagudajo no kozoku (The Thief of Baguda Castle, incidentally part of the Cinémathèque Québecoise's early-anime retrospective), which was a sort of remake of the American live-action feature The Thief of Bagdad.

For me, the crown jewel of the book is Mizuno Hiromi's "When Pacifist Japan Fights: Historicizing Desires in Anime," an look at how the evolution of postwar Japan's militarism, nationalism and masculinity were expressed in 1977's Space Battleship Yamato and 1995's Silent Service. The piece was so compelling it made me want to rewatch Gasaraki and further appreciate Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig, both of which featured conspiracies to remilitarize Japan. It's worth noting that this essay is the longest in the book, but reads so smoothly it feels like it's the shortest.

Otherwise, the book is hit or miss depending on the kind of scholarly essays you prefer. As a fan of Occam's Razor, I'm a bit wary of essays that read a lot of symbolism into anime that the creator makes no claim to. Granted, there are those shows like Haibane-Renmei and Neon Genesis Evangelion where the creators are specifically adding layers of meaning, but I had to roll my eyes when Christopher Bolton read various shades of meaning into 2000's Blood: The Last Vampire's use of CGI for mechanical objects, specifically airplanes. While it's true that this was a pioneering blending of CGI and cel in anime then, the same techniques had been used elsewhere in the world for almost 15 years in pretty much exactly the same way. It's a symptom of my long-standing complaint that at times anime aficionados wall themselves off from animation history at large.

This same issue comes up in William L. Benzon's review of Takashi Murakami's Little Boy: The Arts Japan's Exploding Subculture book and exhibition, but in a good way: After thoroughly examining Murakami's thesis of how Japan's unique national trauma (the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their defeat in World War II) explains the frequent use of apocalypse in the country's fiction, he turns around and says he doesn't buy it. Why not? Because "apocalyptic art and fantasy are in no way unique to Japan. For example, apocalypse has been a persistent theme in postwar American culture," despite the fact that the U.S. was never bombed during the war.

It's exactly this kind of intellectual awareness and honesty that anime scholarship (hell, anime fandom) needs more of. There are many things about anime and manga that are unique, and there are many books (including Mechademia) that celebrate that. But if we really want to position these media within the cultures of the world at large, then we need more work that looks at them in relation to what's going on outside of Japan, and there's no better place to do it than within the rigorous structure of academic writing. I'm happy that Mechademia is starting to encourage this kind of thinking, and I hope the next volume takes it further.

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November 19, 2007
Review by Noell Wolfgram Evans

The recent release of The Pixar Short Film Collection Vol. 1 shows the studio's utter mastery of the animated form. Watching these pieces must be what it would have been like to watch Babe Ruth in his prime—you understood what he was doing but it was difficult to comprehend how he was doing it so well. All that you could do was sit back and enjoy. And that's really all that you can, and should, do with this short film set.

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November 17, 2007
Beowulf is no monster, but animation fandom seems to be welcoming it as if it were Grendel itself.

Robert Zemeckis' latest feature foray into the world of motion-capture moviemaking comes correct, despite any aesthetic predispositions and prejudices. Professor Z and his uncanny CGI-Men have lost all of the "dead eyes", much of the plastic skin, and most of the lanky posturing that infested previous big-budget, Hollywood attempts at motion-captured semi realism (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Polar Express, Monster House).

Viewed in Disney 3-D with the oversized, specialized glasses (they fit over my small glasses), the effect is mixed, but mostly positive. Rapid foreground movement tends to appear blurry, but slower scenes crackle and pop with amazing detail. This isn't some chintzy Viewmaster effect. While humans sometimes appear flat, most objects (from pebbles and surging waves) have infinite depth. Even conventional, low-angle shots suck you in, before galloping horses trample over your head. The experience deserves at least one shot from any jaded moviegoer.

Beyond Beowulf's technical achievements is a far rarer achievement for North American animated features: It's a well-crafted, animated drama. With screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary brandishing their fine ears and pens to complement Zemeckis' cinematic sense, they bring brains and soul to this ancient story. The drama is less clumsy than Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and more coherent than either Paprika or Tekkonkinkreet. It also has sharper wit, meatier dialogue, and stronger performances than all of them.

The storytellers are earnest enough to tell the tale with genuine emotion, but generous enough to play to the back of the room. Gaiman and Avary respect grand pronouncements and bawdy interplay. Zemeckis respects playful camera work, dramatic pauses and silent exchanges. Someone on staff respects blood and buck-nakedness, so the PG-13 rating is bent with glee. Crafty craftsman that he is, Zemeckis ensures that impalings and other impolitic protrusions are artfully obscured. Grendel's brutal assaults in Act 1 are bathed in an otherworldly blue firelight that strobes just enough to blot out the more gruesome deaths. The camera hurtles through spears and arrows instead of the bodies they pierce. Some naughty bits are obscured by foreground objects. Others are obscured by gold trim and dark shadows.

Which leads me to mention that a functionally nude Angelina Jolie facsimile appears in the movie. She may not be a thick-lipped, thick-hipped Ralph Bakshi goddess (like Elenor from Wizards) but she'll do. To wit, Ray Winstone has a gruff, Russell Crowe alpha-maleness mojo going, but I don't think he'll make anyone forget about Gerard Butler's Leonidas from 300. Sorry, these supposedly sensual elements of the story aren't fantastically nebulous enough to be smokin'.

What the performers lack in physical hotness, they make up in emotional presence. Unlike Tom Hanks in Polar Express, the actors don't have to pantomime excessively to get the performance across. With surprising nuance, the best scenes feature tiny smirks, darting eyes, and pained brows. These are not the wax puppets that you see in most video games. (God of War certainly didn't have the patience to tell a story with this much deliberation and visual detail.) Without the brilliantly rendered facial contours, we might miss the visual subtleties of Robin Wright Penn's notable performance, for instance. When her aged queen converses with a young mistress, the subtext in her face could only be captured by the finest character animators. Even the hammier performances of Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich grow on you, leading to incisive interplay late in the film. Don't judge these animated figures based on the motion-captured aesthetic offenses committed by past films. Watch this film and make the distinction.

Think of Zemeckis as a student of the Fleischer school of mimetic action animation, having completed his prerequisite study in Rotscoping 202 and The Animated Short Films of Superman. He's the art major with a computer science concentration, so forgive his literalism and obsessive sense of static detail. If Disney can develop a better multiplane camera to emulate live-action dollies and zooms, then surely the Z-man shouldn't be garroted for employing his own form of hybridization.

Silicon Valley has not yet crossed over into the Uncanny Valley, but it's getting pretty darn close to the down slope with Beowulf.

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October 13, 2007
We're all animation fans here, right? And there are probably few things that irritate us more than people who think that all we watch are the juvenile antics of anvil-toting funny-animals. I've said before that the mainstream press (and marketing departments) are a big part of the problem, as they help perpetuate a limited (and often inaccurate) view of animation's content and process.

As it happens, today I spotted two articles that both refer to their writers' limited views on animation. One of these is predictably disappointing; the other is surprisingly encouraging.

I'll start with the good news. In yesterday's New York Times, Stephon Holden summarized the New York Film Festival's highlights, and he led off with (and praises) Persepolis despite, as he put it, a "longstanding resistance to animation":
Because it is animated, Persepolis is a bold choice for the festival’s closing-night selection. "A cartoon?" you may sniff. "How dare they?" But the movie is so enthralling that it eroded my longstanding resistance to animation, and I realized that the same history translated into a live-action drama could never be depicted with the clarity and narrative drive that bold, simple animation encourages.
This is a refreshing and commendable report. Confronted with an animated feature that challenged his preconceptions about the medium, Holden adjusted his worldview in light of this new experience, without once feeling the need to denigrate the rest of animation's offerings. If only more film critics, fans and artists did the same.

Montreal's Al Kratina, on the other hand, gives a typical backhanded compliment in yesterday's Montreal Gazette:
In September, Anchor Bay Entertainment released a slew of anime titles, including Perfect Blue, a film that avoids most anime clichés. It's not futuristic, there are no robots, and at no point is a schoolgirl threatened by some sort of pulsating sex monster. Instead, it's a complex story of a young pop idol who's stalked by a crazed fan, with exaggerated themes of obsession and paranoia that feel like Alfred Hitchcock directing a Road Runner cartoon.
More of the same old, same old. Kratina has, like most mainstream critics (and more than a few in the animation press, as well) seen only a sliver of all that anime has to offer, and yet he figures he already knows "most" of its tropes—sorry, "clichés." So far as he's concerned, it's not typical anime if it's "not futuristic, there are no robots, and at no point is a schoolgirl threatened by some sort of pulsating sex monster." And of course there's the inevitable comparison to Disney films or Looney Tunes.

Enough is enough, already. As I wrote eleven months ago, if we want to see better animation writing we need to tell writers and editors when they've screwed up. I encourage you to write to newspapers, magazines, radio shows, TV shows and websites when this kind of lazy criticism occurs; it's the only way we'll ever see real change. Here's what I wrote to the Gazette:
Sad to say, I'm not surprised that Al Kratina makes the backhanded compliment to Perfect Blue that it "avoids most anime clichés. It's not futuristic, there are no robots, and at no point is a schoolgirl threatened by some sort of pulsating sex monster" ("'In' films for 'out' crowds," Oct. 12). There are many anime productions that don't fit into his preconceived categories, but as is often the case with people who don't take the time to understand a genre or medium, he figures a few generalizations will suffice.

The irony here is that Kratina reviews comic books, another medium that is often unfairly judged. If I said, "The Sandman is a title that avoid most comic clichés, because it doesn't have spandex-clad muscle-men whaling the tar out of each other in adolescent power fantasies," he'd probably tell me about how comics have become more mature and/or complex in content over the last three decades, and that there's a whole world of non-superhero comics that go beyond that tired stereotype.

In short, he'd be asking me to look at the medium with an open mind. He might consider extending the same courtesy to anime.
Have you come across anything egregious in the media lately? Let us know about it.

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October 8, 2007
For any new filmmaker, getting that first movie in the can is a monumental task. Add a demanding script and a predilection for toggling between animation and live action and you’re really talking about a challenging debut effort. With his recently premiered film Imagination, Eric Leiser has assembled a surprisingly ambitious project that complements his animation skills, but he’s generally let down by his actors, who are desiccant to the film’s sea of imagery.

Imagination steps into the surreal world of twin sisters Anna and Sarah Woodruff (Nikki and Jessi Haddad) who have confronted their disabilities by turning inward to their own imaginations and shared alternate reality. One girl has been rendered blind; the other has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulty interacting and socializing with others. The girls’ well intentioned but ill-equipped parents (Travis Poelle and Courtney Sanford) seek the aid of neuropsychologist Dr. Reineger (Edmund Gildersleeve) to chart a path to normalcy through the twins’ mental shroud.

The girls’ behavior becomes increasingly difficult for their parents to comprehend. Their food transcends the dinner plate to become living sculpture, and the girls play games in intricate, frenetic patterns that only minds in lockstep could achieve. Faced with the twins’ increasingly apparent and unexplainable abilities to defy accepted science and medical knowledge, Dr. Reineger is consumed with a profound professional crisis. He cannot effectively treat the girls, nor can he decode the bewildering world they have built for themselves within their minds.

The film’s real strength lies in its animation. Leiser’s whimsical but intricate method recalls Czech surrealism and charts a brave experimental path, though he’s not quite ready to stand on the podium with Jan Svankmajer. Nonetheless, Leiser’s multifaceted abilities are put to great use in Imagination’s engaging animated segments. His stop motion and puppetry work is spellbinding at times. Leiser also has some raw ability as a filmmaker beyond his wheelhouse of animation and sculpture, but Imagination’s live action portions are less appealing.

With the exception of a solid effort by Gildersleeve, the cast sleepwalks through its lines, nearly negating Leiser’s efforts to move Imagination’s narrative forward through force of artistic will. The effect makes an already challenging film even less forgiving of its audience. While acting is the primary offender, there are other weak points as well. Prominent plot devices (like the earthquake) come off as contrived, with camera work to match, but you have to admire the pluck Leiser shows in taking on thorny cinematic tricks with a $110,000 budget and limited experience. A lovely musical score by Leiser’s brother Jeffrey, who also co-wrote the script, helps mask the lapses and seals the duo’s status as a formidable creative pair. Imagination’s animation and ambitious script are enough to carry it through a successful run on the festival circuit, which will hopefully lead to more projects from this promising duo.

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September 16, 2007
Review written by Aaron H. Bynum

As profound an impact as Osamu Tezuka has had on the artistic and commercial cultures of manga publishing and the production of Japanese animation, it nevertheless remains true that in no place other than Japan is the late Tezuka acknowledged in scholarly media with constant fervour each passing year. A man whose ambition knew no bounds, Osamu Tezuka is one of Japan's most recognizable icons, while at the same time the nation's best-kept secret. He was a veritable "one-man dream factory," as author and translator Frederik L. Schodt wrote in his new book, The Astro Boy Essays. Known to the Western world mostly through his manga creation of a little rosy-cheeked robot boy named Atom, Osamu Tezuka was an individual of colossal imagination.

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September 14, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 8, 2007
One of SIGGRAPH's (many) hidden gems is the collection of digitally animated shorts from the previous Japan Media Arts Festival. Hidden because in the middle of the constantly repeating Animation Theater, the 90 minutes or so of selected Japan Media Arts Festival shorts are each shown exactly once, across three half-hour programs. However, those screenings represent just a slice of all the films shown during the nine days of the festival. (For that matter, films are just one part of the fest, which includes manga, artwork and installations.)

A case in point is that the two films lodged most firmly in my brain were in the festival's Entertainment Division, and both are rooted in live action. In Tadashi Tsukagoshi's Arrow, a man notices that the cigarette butts he's extinguished under his shoe form an arrow, which points straight to a procession of ants marching... in the shape of an arrow. Digital trickery (as well as creative prop placement and hair gel) creates the procession of pointers that the man follows first out of curiosity, then out of dark compulsion.

Koichiro Tsujikawa's dreamy music video to Cornelius's "Fit Song" spends its entire time in the confines of a house, where CGI brings everyday items to a strange sort of life. Strange because aside from a few objects (most amusingly, a discus-throwing action figure and a top-heavy, ambulatory magnifying glass), almost none are anthropomorphized—and many replicate themselves with more of an eye to what looks good and, above all, what works with the music, rather than any strict adherence to physics. I'm a lifelong puzzler, so I was delighted to see a ball of matches explode into a floating array of early 20th-century Japanese matchstick puzzles, some of which solved themselves as the camera floated by. And is it just me, or is the rolling (and, yes, self-reproducing) sugar cubes' initial dance a nod to Norman McLaren's 1964 film, Canon?

The Entertainment Division did have some fully animated works, however. Satoshi Tomioka's Exit online ads for Taito are frantic and deliriously absurd, both involving noisy and chaotic chase scenes with characters looking for a way out of predicaments they've brought on themselves. (A naked man with a bored, negligée-clad girl in tow flees a woman—her mother? his wife?—down a hotel corridor; a cat tries to liberate a fish from the dinner table of an elderly couple. Oddly enough, in both cases the pursuers have glowing laser eyes and preternatural abilities.) Every time I watch these one-minute ads I think about the buckets of money companies like Dreamworks spend trying to make 3D CGI more cartoony, while smaller studios just sit down and do it—sometimes with better results.

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July 31, 2007
Review by Emru Townsend

Anime has always existed at something of a remove from Western audiences. For more than half the time since the 1963 debut of Astro Boy (originally Tetsuwan Atom), our main point of contact with anime had been through edited, rewritten and otherwise adapted works; and most of its enthusiasts didn't speak or read the original language and were half a world away, geographically and culturally. Combined with the informal nature of its adoption here, through the ad hoc nature of science-fiction and comics fandom, the result has been a historiography that, for the longest time, was partly built on speculation and hearsay masquerading as fact.

A multitude of factors has helped change that, especially over the last decade or so, but there's still been precious little on the origins of animation in Japan, beyond tidbits of information scattered here and there. This is why Digital Meme's recent Japanese Anime Classic Collection isn't just a boxed set, it's a godsend: it goes a long way toward clarifying things, or fleshing out what we already knew.

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July 19, 2007
Review by Mark Mayerson

While Pixar is one of the most advanced computer animation facilities in existence, before they bring their programming smarts and processing power to bear, they start with the art.

The Art of Ratatouille concentrates on displaying that art. The book is full of drawings, paintings and sculptures showing how the characters and sets evolved before the nuts and bolts of computer animation were applied.

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July 15, 2007
The second animated feature to be shown at the Fantasia film festival this year was Aachi & Ssipak, a Korean film that, violence and urban dystopia notwithstanding, is miles apart from fest opener Tekkon Kinkreet, or from other Korean features like Sky Blue or My Beautiful Girl, Mari. Unlike those other three films, which profess some kind of introspection, Aachi & Ssipak is an outright and outrageous comedy, whose entire basis is, er, crap. (So maybe the touchstone should be Doggy Poo.)

It's like this: in the future, the world's new energy source is human feces. Everyone has an implanted anus ID ring, so that when someone goes to the bathroom they're rewarded with Juicybars, yummy—and, as it happens, addictive—popsicles. Blue mutants, led by a muscled, pierced, dreadlocked messiah, have been heisting Juicybar shipments in Shit City to such a degree that the city's disturbingly doll-headed fascist leader has commissioned a mad scientist to create a super-cyborg out of cadavers to fight them. Meanwhile, Aachi and Ssipak, two idiot petty Juicybar thieves, find themselves in trouble thanks to their no-good associate, the auteur-wannabe porn producer Jimmy. It's in the course of Jimmy's payback that they encounter the sexy Betsy (Beautiful in the English subtitles), and Ssipak falls head over heels for her on first sight. Betsy becomes the movie's MacGuffin when she's forcibly implanted with a new anus ring that delivers mountains of Juicybars whenever she hits the can, which further complicates things to the point where everyone is trying to catch and/or kill everyone else, with Betsy as the main prize.

At this point, reasonable people would no doubt shake their heads in bewilderment and move on. They'd also miss one of the funniest and well-crafted animated movies I've seen this year. Kino Kid put it well after we saw the film when she said, "It is what it is"—not in that shoulder-shrugging, "what are you gonna do?" way, but in the sense that in the first ten minutes, between the exposition and the car chase/gun battle, you know what type of story it is. And once the basis is established (the world is powered by shit!), there's no need to go for gross-out jokes or squishy sound effects; it's just part of the world, right down to its advertising. (Sure, the ads about happy communities crapping together is absurd, but is it any more absurd than animated marching cigarettes or winking Esso signs? Not really.)

Scatology aside, Aachi & Ssipak is also a relentless action movie that manages to be both ultra-violent (those blue mutants make for excellent exploding-body cannon fodder) and cartoony. If you check out the film's official website, you'll see what I mean. Even as the cyborg mows down mutants with a fervour and style that would be the envy of any Terminator, his body and his equipment maintain the same kind of squash and stretch we expect from gag cartoons. And bonus points to director/screenwriter Jo Beom-jin for putting in all kinds of movie in-jokes that are actually funny without calling attention to themselves (unless, as in the case of Jimmy's Jiffybar-overdose freakout, that's the point). If you've seen Battleship Potemkin you'll howl at the extended riff on the Odessa steps sequence, but if you haven't it's still funny and exciting on its own.

In terms of animation and design, Aachi & Ssipak is both consistent and ambitious. Everything in this dirty, corrupt world holds together visually, and the film is crammed with the kind of dynamic composition, animated camera moves and quick but clear editing that drew many people to anime over the last four decades.

One of the film's many movie posters declares that it contains "2D funky action in an awesome 3D reality!" It's true that there's some 3D work in there, but with one or two forgettable exceptions it's integrated quite well. Having watched the film only once (so far), I'd venture that 3D digital tools were largely used for anything that would be too complicated by hand, but the director set the "too complicated" bar pretty high. The result is that we still get some of that exaggerated, sometimes-snappy, sometimes-elastic feel in many action sequences, rather than fairly literal motion and acceleration. (This is why I'll take the space combat scenes in Macross over those in Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles any day.)

It's refreshing to see that the subject matter didn't make the filmmakers lazy, or too self-satisfied in their subversiveness. Aachi & Ssipak's story and animation work together to make a tight, hilarious action film. I don't know how likely this it is to get a domestic release, but fortunately the Korean DVD includes English subtitles.

Aachi & Ssipak
Directed by Jo Beom-jin
90 minutes
Buy the Aachi & Ssipak DVD (Region 3) from YesAsia.com

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July 12, 2007

One of the most obnoxious things about Hollywood movies is the tendency to put kids in danger to mine a little extra anxiety from the audience. It's a cheap stunt, because bad things rarely happen to kids in Hollywood films. (Steven Spielberg is a serial offender here. Remember Short Round on the bridge in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or Tim climbing the soon-to-be-re-electrified fence in Jurassic Park? Right.)

There's none of that fake danger in Tekkon Kinkreet, the Studio 4°C film that opened the Fantasia film festival this year. The young protagonists live in a harsh, gritty world that gives no quarter, and that sometimes takes the movie to places that Hollywood movies fear to tread.

Tekkon Kinkreet is the story of Kuro and Shiro (whose names literally translate to Black and White), two of the many orphan children who prowl the streets of Treasure Town. Shiro, the younger of the two, is the innocent, while Kuro has no problem with getting his knuckles (or a length of pipe) bloody to protect him or their turf. In this mix are two cops (one older and wiser, who keeps an eye out for Kuro and Shiro, the other a young rookie); a young yakuza who's leading his boss's advance into Treasure Town; and a mysterious and sinister elfin character who aims to turn a fair chunk of Treasure Town into a massive theme park.

There's a lot going on in this movie, and every one of its 100 minutes is put to good use. The kids, the cops, the yakuza and the developer all have some sort of interplay between each other (sometimes with words, sometimes with violence, sometimes with both), but just as importantly, they each have some sort of interplay with the city itself. In fact, Tekkon Kinkreet is as much about our various relationships to the urban landscape as anything else.

Based on the Taiyo Matsumoto manga Black & White and directed by Michael Arias, Tekkon Kinkreet shares elements of other anime films that feature outsider children. Like Grave of the Fireflies, Kuro and Shiro have struck out on their own, with the older character willing to take on any burden to protect the younger's health and innocence. Like Akira, the movie dwells mostly among those who live in the city but who have dropped out of society. And like Kakurenbo, these kids' relationship with the urban landscape has little to do with its intended use, but is in many ways more intimate and more thorough than for ordinary citizens.

The movie looks fantastic, with Treasure Town a lush forest of rooftops, fire escapes, cables and signs. The characters who inhabit Treasure Town are angular, slope-shouldered, asymmetrical—they owe more in look to Mind Game than, say, Naruto—and fit right in with the bustling, chaotic city. I was quite surprised during the post-screening Q&A when an audience member implied that most of the film was clearly CG; not only because it's obviously not the case, but because if there's any film that proves it doesn't matter which elements are CG and which are hand-drawn, it's this one. The appropriate tool is used at the appropriate time, and it's put together not with the express intent of hiding the seams, but of making the scene work. The end result is something you'll want to repeatedly freeze-frame when the DVD comes out, but which you should catch on the big screen when its limited North American run starts on Friday, just to drink it all in.

Tekkon Kinkreet
Directed by Michael Arias
100 minutes
Buy Tekkon Kinkreet Limited Edition on DVD (Region 2) at YesAsia.com
Buy Tekkon Kinkreet on DVD at Amazon.com
Buy Tekkon Kinkreet soundtrack CD at Amazon.com
Buy Tekkon Kinkreet soundtrack remix CD at YesAsia.com

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