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Japanese Animated Features (and Related Matters)

[Click here to go to the most recent posting. Also see the Feedback pages devoted to two leading Japanese makers of animated films, Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon.]

Gregory Williams wrote in response to a May 17, 2008, posting in which I said, in part, "Where animation is concerned, the problem is that the medium has never been allowed to compete with live action on the playing field that I think matters most, the mainstream narrative film. Can animation can tell an absorbing story that isn't a fantasy of some kind, or that isn't as quirky as The Triplets of Belleville or Persepolis? Maybe it can't—let's go further and say that probably it can't—but, who knows?"

Whisper of the Heart DVDFrom Gregory Williams: You've stated that you're skeptical about whether animation can tell a story that isn't a fantasy or quirky in some way. To be honest, I'm quite surprised. As a fan of worldwide animation, I considered several films to be quite common knowledge, though your writeups and the posted replies have proven me wrong. I can think of several counterexamples, but none that I think can be said without debate to be targeted only at adults, and I'm not entirely sure as to what you would consider quirky. All of these following examples are Japanese anime films, more specifically part of a sub-genre known as "Slice of Life" in anime and manga. There are many examples of anime films in this vein which are rather realistic, but employ too much in the way of bizarre humor and have ambiguous locations as well as unusual combinations of characters that don't mirror any geographical location strongly enough to be considered realistic. A few notable films which contradict your argument in several ways are Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday, and Ocean Waves, all films from Studio Ghibli which don't receive much press in the United States, possibly with the exception of Whisper of the Heart, the only film with a U.S. release on DVD. I'll go into more detail on each film:

Whisper of the Heart is the only film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, a longtime animator for Studio Ghibli, and earlier for Toei Doga, and it is an animated film that exists in a fairly realistic world, where none of the characters have any sort of unnatural ability, aside from some slightly exaggerated physical feats and fairly caricatured expressions for emotional effect. This film, however, is clearly not aimed primarily at adults, as the main character is a fourteen-year-old girl. The backgrounds are quite realistic, resembling a realistic city and there is no attempt that I noticed to exaggerate the environment beyond the capabilities of any live action film. There are, however, some fantasies of the main character which quite heavily exploit the use of animation as a medium, though these scenes are an integral part of the plot and used in a manner that furthers the plot without taking away any sense of realism from the movie.

Only Yesterday is a 1991 film directed by Isao Takahata and is heavily psychological, relying on memories of childhood and letting go of the past. This film not only is quite realistic, it even exploits animation to make it realistic in ways that live action can't match. Since I haven't seen the film in quite a while, I can't go into too much detail, but if my memory is correct, this film is completely devoid of any fantasies that contradict reality. This film uses expressionism, but isn't especially weird or very unrealistic for the most part. After watching the movie, I couldn't help but wonder if it couldn't have in some way been created for live action with as much if not slightly more impact, though at a much greater expense.

Ocean Waves is a 1993 Studio Ghibli TV film directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, who was an outside director brought in for this film, which was a project to help hone the skills of Studio Ghibli's newer animators. This movie has more than a few cheesy soap opera elements, but with mostly still "shots," a plot revolving around the life of a boy in high school, and a great deal of realistic character development, this movie could be considered to be a quite realistic animated film intended to appeal to teenagers and young adults.

I've yet to see any sort of animated film from anywhere but Japan that is so confidently realistic as any of these examples, and with my obsession with rare animated films from all over the world, you'd think I'd have found at least one. Maybe another person or future time will prove me wrong, but Japan seems to be the only country in the world where people truly desire to create such realistic films using the medium of animation. I hope this clears up any misconceptions, and while none of these films can be considered Hollywood, it is worthy to note that Whisper of the Heart has been released on DVD by Disney, which also owns the rights for Only Yesterday, but has yet to bring the movie to DVD. After doing some quick digging while writing this email, the only English version of this movie currently available is the subtitled Optimum release from the UK.

The lack of promotion of most Ghibli releases is clearly evident, as their films are rarely advertised anywhere and the only way anybody is likely to discover their films is through their own curiosity after watching Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. There may be no particular animated film that's completely realistic, but even live-action films exaggerate, and these films can be argued to be as realistic as any live-action film in their own way. While I'm not entirely sure I have all my facts straight, I still think that these are examples of animated movies which blatantly contradict common views of animation as a vehicle for simple child's fantasy.

MB replies: It's hard for me to make a full response, since I haven't seen any of the three Japanese films that Gregory Williams mentions, but I've put Whisper of the Heart on my Netflix list. Still: none of these films sound like the sort of mainstream narrative film that I had in mind. It's hard to say what such a film should be like, but I'm sure that if one ever comes along, we'll know it.

[Posted May 27, 2008]

From Andrew Osmond: There are certainly some less fantastical or quirky animated features around, though not everyone agrees they succeed as animations or films, partly for those reasons.   Actually, I think you did see Only Yesterday—you referred to it in an old post (January 28, 2006) where you described it as "nothing more than moving manga." Personally, I like Takahata's work more, though I found it an acquired taste. In the case of Only Yesterday, the childhood scenes were indeed based on a manga, but the framing story showing the character as a young woman was invented for the film. Incidentally, the more fantastical Pom Poko (which you also refer to in your post) was an 'original' animation, not based on a manga, but drawing heavily on Japanese folktales.   Takahata's most celebrated film was Grave of the Fireflies, which perhaps comes closest to fitting your criteria. It's a drama about two kids trying to survive in World War II, except we know at the outset that they die. It was double-billed with My Neighbour Totoro, and I always see it as the "dark side" to Miyazaki's film.   There are several science-fiction anime that deliberately push the SF material to the margins, and play more as political thrillers or character dramas. Examples: Patlabor 2 (directed by Mamoru Oshii), Jin-Roh (directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, a film with prominent echoes of Vertigo and The Third Man) and even the recent 5 Centimetres Per Second (directed by Makoto Shinkai). Even among anime fans, not everyone thinks these films work, though again I quite like them. (5 Centimetres goes badly downhill, though.)   There may be better examples from other countries—I'm looking forward to Waltz with Bashir, for example. Lastly, I'd mention The Plague Dogs, Martin Rosen's dark follow-up to Watership Down, which has anthropomophic dog heroes, but a morbid, very uncutesy tone and real present-day settings (England's Lake District at its most forbidding). It's also a very unusual film in that its ending is more downbeat than the source novel, a bestseller by Watership Down's author Richard Adams.

[Posted June 2, 2008]

From Ricardo Cantoral, who wrote in response to Thad Komorowki's remark on the home page that the problem with anime "is not so much the style's look but the fact that it violates so many principles of animation—where's the squash and stretch? the secondary action?—that it would make more sense to just shoot it in live action": Thad is right about anime about not following the basic principles of animation, the most obvious example being the almost nonexistent use of specific mouth movements and stock acting techniques, if any at all. However, I think there is alot of anime from the past and today that has a fair amount of visual appeal. The great godfathers of animation, such as Yaso Ootuska and Osamu Tezuka, learned a lot from classic Disney animation and churned out some very fine work in the medium's heyday. Even a good amount of today's anime has greater visual appeal than American cartoons, but it doesn't have the soul that past anime had, it just feels cold.

Shinichirō Watanabe's Samurai Champloo, for example, has great backgrounds and rather well-animated action. Despite that, though, I can't estabish a connection to the characters, since they insist on trying to look and be "cool" constantly. John Kricfalusi put it best when he dubbed such characters as being filled with "'tude." I can say the same about Watanabe's other work, Cowboy Bebop. Again, it has visual appeal and good action, but the "'tude" just brings it down so much. Personally my favorite anime is the first eleven years of  Lupin the III (1969-1980). Those characters you can establish an attachment to because they can act cool but are not afraid to act silly. The basic premise is that a thief, Lupin the III, and his associates travel around the world to steal valuable treasures while avoiding the ever persistent Inspector Zenigata. I think a Carl Barks fan might enjoy the series. Maybe it isn't as complex [as Barks] but it sure is fun.

From "Rubi-kun": I understand your dislike of the general "anime style" even if my opinion personally differs, but I wonder what you'd think of the movie Tekkon Kinkreet. It has a very different style from the likes of Miyazaki, probably because it's barely "anime" at all and is rather a film by an American director who couldn't get any American animation studio to make his movie so he went to a Japanese one. Studio 4C, the animation studio, has done a lot of really cool work (their impossible-to-find-in-America-legally-outside-of-the-occasional-film-festival feature Mindgame has been called "the Citizen Kane of animation" by Bill Plympton) although a lot of it's on the stranger, inaccessible side, while Tekkon Kinkreet has more traditional storytelling. Here's a trailer just to give you an idea of the style.

Your thoughts on Sydney Pollack and how he could influence animation positively are interesting. Somehow I think another director is responsible for influencing the "anime style": Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was someone who could control a mood amazingly using setting and mise-en-scene but was infamously bad at getting along with his actors (it says a lot that the most interesting character in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the computer). Beyond this, you can see a lot of Kubrickian thinking in a lot of anime: Evangelion and Metropolis and probably a whole bunch more apocalyptic series have ripped off the ironic music placement from the end of Dr. Strangelove; A Clockwork Orange has probably been an influence in portraying grotesque violence in a style that's still visually appealing. Interestingly, Kubrick wanted Osamu Tezuka to be the art director for 2001.

MB replies: More intriguing Japanese films for my Netflix list. I think Rubi-kun is right on target when he identifies Kubrick as an important influence on the Japanese. I'm not sure what that says about both Kubrick and his Japanese admirers, though. The more I've seen of Kubrick's films in recent years, the less I've liked them (Dr. Strangelove most definitely included). I'm not bothered by Kubrick's coldness—better such coldness than the ersatz warmth of so many recent American films—but I think that a cold film has to in some way take normal human feelings into account if it is not to seem simply alien and remote. Is what I'm trying to say Luis Buñuel, yes, Stanley Kubrick no? I'm not sure.

[Posted June 6, 2008]

From Bill Benzon: If you saw Spielberg-Kubrick's A.I. you'll remember that many of the robots were called "mecha," which is a Japanese word. You may not know that the origin story for Tezuka's Astro Boy is a variation on Pinocchio, including the trip to Pleasure Island (which was a robot circus in the Astro Boy manga and anime). So, that aspect of A.I. owes as much to Tezuka as to Collodi (or Disney).

From James Clarke: Andrew Osmond's note about The Plague Dogs is well placed. I had the chance to see the film for the first time very recently and was struck by its fidelity to the British realist mode. Perhaps there's an interesting dynamic there between what animation can be as a counter to the realist tradition and the choice made to embrace aspects, at least, of a visual realism. Furthermore I thought that it sat well alongside not only Watership Down (understandably) but also the 1986 British animated feature When The Wind Blows, which fuses cel animated figures with photographed miniature sets. Amidst that film's unrelenting realist sensibility are moments of animation in the sense of an approach that transforms reality, of getting to its soul (to paraphrase an anonymous Czech animator from once upon  a time ago.) If readers are familiar with Grave of the Fireflies and its war story credentials I think they will find When the Wind Blows a fascinating and engaging complement to that title. When the Wind Blows also wears its political and social commitments on its sleeve with its opening live-action sequence. Fascinating stuff.

[Posted July 8, 2008]

From Andrew Osmond: I'd second James Clarke's endorsement [in the message posted just above] of When the Wind Blows—directed by Jimmy Murakami, who also supervised the beautiful featurette, The Snowman—but I'd query the realist tag. As I recall, I saw it as a "quirky" pitch-black tragicomedy, very faithful to the look of the original Raymond Briggs strip. (In that way, I suppose it's a precursor to Persepolis.) Then again, I should probably see it again—as of writing, it's easy to find in its entirety on, ahem, a well-known video clips website.

I've now seen the Israeli feature Waltzing with Bashir, at Annecy. Frankly, a lot of the details have been overwhelmed by the sickening horror of the film's ending (the conclusion is in live action). But yes, I'd say it probably comes about as close to a "mainstream" drama as any animation, though it often goes for a hallucinatory quality reminiscent of Apocalypse Now.   Interestingly, the issue of how far you can stretch feature animation was raised in a recent newspaper column by David Thomson, the celebrated author of Biographical Dictionary of Film. Thomson highlights the familiar point that many feature animation directors have been anonymous, though he seems to underrate the impact of Brad Bird (whose name is now known to a great many reasonably well-informed film fans). He also doesn't acknowledge the many cartoon feature "auteurs" outside Hollywood, from Bill Plympton to Michel Ocelot. Anyway, he concludes:

Will these young geniuses be happy to live on as a band of brothers, or does one of them at least harbour an urge to make something new and identifiable? Computer-generated imagery can now do horror every bit as easily as it can do fantasy. Sooner or later someone is going to emerge from the smiling group pictures and the Pixar bonhomie and say: "I have a nightmare—and it goes like this." I'm thinking of an animated film that might be shattering, tragic and easily win Best Picture. I'm thinking of the Citizen Kane of animation.

Waltzing with Bashir is certainly shattering and tragic, even more than Grave of the Fireflies. However, I rather doubt if the Academy would ever nominate it for Best Picture. Moreover, Thomson's column begs an obvious question: Does a film need to be dark and tragic to be a great film? I don't think so, but that's probably going beyond the range of this discussion.

[Posted July 23, 2008]

From Andrew Osmond: There are thousands of amateur Japanese animation "music videos" on YouTube, but I recently turned up a few that compile the work of specific Japanese animators— the first one, especially, has a very distinctive style.  You'll recognise many of the shots from films directed by Miyazaki and Kon.
Each video effectively "profiles" a different artist. Of course, these are amateur compilations, so they may not be the best representations of each artist's work (and they might erroneously include shots that he didn't do) but they tally with what I've read of the people in question.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3rJCPFqKRI            (Shinya Ohira)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uN5Hrt_1mc           (Toshiyuki Inoue)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjjrTw7Y3b4            (Shinji Otsuka)

[Posted September 30, 2008]