Category: Animation

Hello World (Japan 2019)

Hello World poster

This film presented a critical challenge for me. I’m increasingly bored by the idea of ‘superhero movies’ and I haven’t watched any for several years. But I’m always interested in anime of all kinds. So how would I cope with a ‘superhero anime‘? In the event, Hello World turned out to be a science fiction-romance in which the superpower is gifted to a shy teenager lacking self-confidence. The anime also attempts a range of social comments. Not having a detailed knowledge of comic books and their filmic adaptations, I probably missed some of the familiar generic elements borrowed from other films.

This appears to be the second anime feature by director Itô Tomohiko, but I note that he was an assistant director on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006) which also has a time travel narrative focus. Writer Nozaki Mado appears to have only a TV series credit, so both are relatively new to top creative roles on anime features. The plot of the film is complex and quite difficult to outline clearly. I also don’t want to give away the ending of the narrative. So here is a very brief outline. The central character is Katagaki Naomi, a boy happiest with his books who is so indecisive in every aspect of his life that he even tries to read and absorb a ‘self-help’ book. He has no real friends, although he is invited to join various groups. One day, having joined the school’s library group, he finds himself paired on a library project with a girl, Ichigyou Ruri, who is also a bookworm and very introverted, but more decisive and confident. The setting is 2027 in Kyoto, the city in Japan most often associated with history (it was Japan’s second capital city, after Nara and before Edo (Tokyo)) and traditionally where most jidai-geki (historical drama films have been made). It seems that in 2027 Kyoto is almost like a model city of the future with a huge Museum Project at its heart, presenting the city’s history. A large Google-like company has mapped the city in fine 3D detail and drones monitor every aspect of life in the city. One day, Naomi is watching a strange, seemingly natural, event when a crow flies down and steals the book he is carrying. He has just enough time to see that the crow has three legs before it flies off and he attempts to follow it. Eventually it leads him to meet a figure who will turn out to be an older (and therefore taller) version of Naomi. His future self has come back in time as an avatar in an attempt to manipulate time. (The three-legged crow is known in East Asian mythology and in Japan is known as Yatagarasu.)

The school library is where Naomi and Ruri meet most often

Manipulating time in a science fiction narrative usually suggests massive conflict and disaster, as well as posing a philosophical question far too complex for most of us to grapple with. In this case it seems to involve Ichigyou. The avatar first offers Naomi a superpower which he must learn how to use in order to save Ruri. He receives a form of energy glove which enables him to manipulate and grow any material. Eventually he will be able to produce huge boulders, miles of tarmac roads or metal structures etc. As well as creating all kinds of narrative possibilities this also gives the animators scope to create some amazing sequences to overlay the finely detailed drawn images of the city.

I won’t go any further with the plot and instead just make some observations. ‘Saving’ Ruri takes us back to ancient romance tales about the damsel in distress. Unfortunately, Ruri is rather underwritten and in contemporary terms it is quite difficult to assign this female character any ‘agency’. Also, the two young people are not presented in a family context. Naomi does have a mother, briefly represented (just as a voice, I think) in one scene. Families are important in the genre – Superman’s parents, Peter Parker’s older relatives in Spiderman etc. Or else there is an older, wiser, wizard-like advisor. but here we have just the boy and girl and the older version of the boy – at least in the beginning.

Naomi’s future self as an avatar appears in his room

I suggested that there are some social commentaries in the narrative. The title ‘Hello World’ has been taken by many reviewers to be a reference to the first line of code in a new computer program. It’s a very long time since I tried to learn any coding, but I seem to remember that ‘Hello World’ was what blogging software used to insert in a new blog as an example of writing a new post. This science fiction narrative picks upon several of our fears about the new digital ‘always on’ world. The Kyoto of 2027 is mapped by robot drones and patrolled by bots who are there to make sure nothing is ‘changed’ – manipulating time will send these bots into a frenzy. For the schoolkids, ‘joining’ groups is almost compulsory with the fear of being ‘left out’. The ultimate fear of needing to reboot your computer system when everything might not reappear is also a real worry. But the inclusion of these kinds of issues is not really enough to compensate for the thin central romance narrative. This film looks great but it doesn’t have the ‘pull’ that this kind of romance needs to generate. But I did like the three-legged crow. I’m not the target audience for this anime and it does seem to have been well received by some fans. But I can’t see it having the ability to ‘cross over’ into wider audience segments like Studio Ghibli films.

Few Japanese stories stay in one format. This anime has so far been ‘novelised’ and a TV 3 episode spin-off titled ‘Another World’ has also been produced. Here is the Japanese trailer for Hello World (no subs) which gives some idea of the anime style, but doesn’t spoil the later sections of the plotting:

Josep (France 2020)

Josep was a real treat for me. Showing in My French Film Festival this is a form of animation not unlike last year’s The Swallows of Kaboul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in representing the humanity found in the midst of horror. I realise that my favourite form of animation is ‘drawn’, followed by stop motion. This is why I generally go for Japanese or French drawn forms with a side order of Aardman. I’ve lost interest in most Hollywood animations. But I should warn you that the three of the reviews in English of Josep that I found expressed doubts about the drawing style (while praising the content).

The grandfather introduces the narrative to his graqndsson who responds by offering his sketchbook to the old man . . .

The ‘Josep’ of the title is Josep Bartolí, the Catalan ‘draftsman and caricaturist’ who fought the Francoist rebels in the Spanish Civil War, finally escaped to Mexico and had an affair with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, before being blacklisted in the US as a communist. Given the dramatic events of his life it’s amazing that he survived into his mid-80s. This animation, which is similar in conception to Maus by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis (France-US 2007) by Marjane Satrapi (which was a graphic novel before becoming a film), is narrated in flashbacks by an old man trying to engage with his grandson who clearly has talent as an artist. Like stories and memories for old people the narrative presents events outside a strict chronology and at first we aren’t quite sure how the grandfather knows about all the events. The film is presented in a ‘Scope ratio and it lasts just 71 minutes but packs in a lot.

The earliest sketches are faint and hazy

In February 1939 Franco’s forces, with the help of other Fascists in Italy and Germany, finally defeated the Republicans in Barcelona and half a million soldiers and ordinary citizens, men women and children fled Catalonia, marching over the Pyrenees in in the snow to reach France. But by 1939 the Popular Front in France had failed to resolve political differences in relation to the war in Spain, despite support for intervention by French communists. The Spanish Republicans expected some form of support in France but instead were met by at best indifference and at worst downright rejection and horrific conditions of internment. The Spanish were put into concentration camps hastily constructed along the coast of Roussillon and at several other sites across the rest of France. Josep was one of those who found himself in a camp on the coast guarded by Gendarmes, many with Fascist sympathies, and ‘Colonial troops’ – Senegalese tirailleurs. Josep had few belongings and was only sustained by his passion for drawing which he carried out with whatever implements and canvases he could improvise. Eventually, one of the few compassionate Gendarmes smuggled in a pencil and small notebook enabling him to draw more effectively. These drawings would become the basis for a later publication named La Retirada after the name given to this exodus from Catalonia.

In some camps there were men and women – who here search for lice in the children’s hair

There are several important figures involved in bringing Josep Bartolí’s story to cinema screens. The film is directed (and drawn) by Aurel, a press cartoonist. He works for Le Monde and Le Canard Enchaîné. He has published around twenty books including two documentary comics, Clandestino and La Menuiserie, and produced numerous graphic reports for various titles in the French press. (Source: the film’s Press Pack.) Aurel had made one short film before this, his first feature. He set out to be faithful to both the story and to the different drawing styles that Bartolí used, often out of necessity. Early scenes are drawn in pencil, then ink and felt tip. At first the colour is almost completely drained from the scenes but later it emerges, most dramatically in the appearances by Frida Kahlo. Towards the end of the story, Josep is in effect painting with broad colours. The script for the film was written by Jean-Louis Milesi who is possibly best known in the UK as the writer of films for the Marseilles-based socialist filmmaker Robert Guédiguian and Josep is ‘voiced’ by the Barcelona-born actor Sergi López.

Bartoli in the midst of the horrors he drew in fine lines

I don’t want to say too much about the events that Josep is part of or which he observes. Suffice to say these concentration camps were a disgrace and the treatment of the Republicans and especially communist Republicans (who their gaolers couldn’t properly distinguish from anarchists) was dreadful. After 1940 some of them worked as forced labour and some were sent to Nazi death camps. Some found themselves building the camps that held Jews and others rounded up in Vichy France under the orders of the Gestapo. One tiny ray of light in all this seems to have been the common decency of some of the Senegalese troops shown towards the Spanish Republicans. Some of the Spanish did eventually escape to fight with the French Résistance and I read somewhere that the first motor vehicle driven into Paris as part of the liberating allied forces was driven by a Spanish Republican. The identity of the grandfather telling the tale to his grandson gradually becomes clear.

In Mexico, Bartoli (up the ladder) helping Frida Kahlo to paint her house

I knew something of the historical events surrounding ‘La Retirada’ but I didn’t know about the details of the camps. Some Republicans made it to the UK, others got to the US and many made it to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. I don’t think any of those refugees/exiles met the kind of treatment meted out to Josep and his compañeros. I hope this film gets a UK cinema release in the future. It is also possible to view currently via BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema streaming (which is taking some of the titles in My French Film Festival).

The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul, France-Luxembourg 2019)

Atiq amongst the women. photo © Les Armateurs

This is a candidate for the standout film of My French Film Festival. It is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen and also one of the saddest and most desperate despite a more optimistic tone towards the end of the narrative. As an animation it affected me as much as classics like Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988). There are many kinds of animated films but as far as drawn/painted animation is concerned, I would place French productions (linked to a graphic novel industry) alongside Japanese anime and manga.

The source here is a novel by ‘Yasmina Khadra’, the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian military man who chose to disguise his identity to avoid censure. The novel first appeared in 2002. The film adaptation is by two women, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec. Both women are credited as directors. Breitman is one of three writers who adapted the novel and Gobbé-Mévellec is the animator responsible for the overall graphic design and the ‘look’ of the film. I haven’t read the original novel but given the nature of the story, the gender shift in the control of the ‘voices’ of the characters would be worth exploring. (I’m referring here to the broader sense of how a character in a narrative can articulate how they feel rather than simply what they say.)

Mohsen and Zunaira. She comforts him when he comes home bewildered by what he has seen on the streets. photo © Les Armateurs

As the title suggests, the story is set in Kabul, but at a specific time between 1998 and 2001 when the Taliban occupied the Afghan capital that was reduced to ruins. They have imposed Sharia Law and are taking drastic action against anyone who attempts to flout the new restrictions on behaviour. The narrative focuses on two couples. Atiq is an older war veteran who has been made the gaoler of women condemned to die for lewd behaviour and other crimes. His wife Mussarat, the woman who nursed him after he was wounded, is now seriously ill. Zunaira is a young and very attractive teacher and artist who now rarely leaves the house because she cannot bear to wear a burqua. Her equally young husband Mohsen is also a teacher now despairing at what has happened to Kabul. Each of these four characters is attempting to come to terms with their situation and each finds that either they feel compelled to act in particular ways or that they attempt to do what they think is right only to discover that it leads to an unexpected and usually bad outcome.

Zunaira and Mohsen stand before the ruins of the bookshop they once used. photo © Les Armateurs

I’ve seen some criticism that by focusing on an ‘academic’ couple, the story takes the kind of route that might be easiest for Western audiences, but this is balanced by the story of Atiq and Mussarat. In each case the couples meet others who offer different trajectories. Mohsen meets his old university teacher and Atiq meets a childhood friend and an elderly man – possibly the character who acts like a kind of wise man. The women meanwhile are caught between neighbours who look out for them and other women who seem to have become Taliban collaborators, acting as prison guards with their Kalashnikovs. The Taliban seem to revel in their own hypocrisy, lounging about with dancing girls behind closed doors and enforcing the social laws with violence. Everyone else is to some extent lost and bewildered.

Some women have been recruited by the Taliban . . . photo © Les Armateurs

There have been many narratives released in the West about what has happened in Afghanistan over the last 30-40 years. I don’t know which, if any, offer the most accurate representation – probably it isn’t possible. Many are stories created by exiles or Western observers. The ones I know best are those by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and especially by his daughter Samira. Both Mohsen and Samira have used elements of absurdity and surrealism as part of their approach. The most relevant comparison for The Swallows of Kabul is possibly Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003), set immediately after the Taliban have been ousted by international forces. In that film a young woman, Noqreh, rebels against her conservative father and attends a school where she takes part in an election for ‘President’. I was struck by how in both her film and The Swallows of Kabul the two young women flout the strict dress code by wearing a pair of white court shoes with a low heel. Noqreh changes shoes as she moves from a Koranic school to the new school where women speak out. Zunaira wears her shoes defiantly, knowing she is asking for trouble. The shoes are the only ‘personal’ aspect of a woman’s appearance on the street – every woman wears the same burqua (though the children seem to recognise their mothers’ birqua when it is borrowed). The uniformity of the burqua-clad women is the other strong image I remember from the Iranian film and it is repeated in the still from The Swallows of Kabul in the image at the head of this post.

Zunaira has drawn a self-portrait and sketches of herself and Mohsen on her wall photo © Les Armateurs

The strength of The Swallows of Kabul for me is in the approach to the animation style which I think works to create that sense of realism counterposed by surrealism. Much of the production process is explained in the Press Pack which is extremely useful. Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec explain in some detail how the animation style developed. The animation house Les Armateurs, best-known internationally for The Triplets of Belleville and Ernest & Celestine were involved from the start but Zabou Breitman was convinced that she wanted a process that involved actors performing scenes first which would then be drawn, rather than voice actors adding dialogue to a conventional animation. Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec then provided the background ‘plates’ for the representation of the city and created the overall look of the film as a traditional 2D ‘drawn’ animation using brushwork and washes of colour. The filmed performances then led to a process similar too but distinct from rotoscoping which Breitman felt would be too ‘fluid’. The final result with the actors placed against the background offers a unique representation of Kabul under the Taliban. The dialogue is voiced by mainly French actors and I noted that Swann Arlaud appears as Mohsen, one of his three appearances in the My French Film Festival. Mussarat is voiced by the great Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass.

I really don’t understand why this film hasn’t got a UK release. It has appeared in festivals in the UK and is currently available (with English subs) for streaming on Curzon and also (at a lower price) on YouTube. Here’s a trailer with English subs.

Weathering With You (Tenki no ko, Japan 2019)

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Dazzled by the spectacle

I only recently caught Shinkai Makoto’s much lauded Your Name (Kimi no na wa, Japan 2016) whose gender-swapping premise, mixed with natural disasters, was a fascinating mix of teen pic and SF. Weathering With Me is even better, though I’m not sure how much my delight in the latter film was influenced by seeing it on an IMAX screen.

The last film I saw on the big screen format was Blade Runner 2049 which seemed to me to be diminished by the large screen. I have found it difficult to know where to look on the IMAX space and this uncertainty interrupts the flow of the filmic experience. As Weathering With You was limited to one screening in Bradford I’m grateful to my daughter for insisting we go, despite my reservations. Whilst I haven’t wholly changed my views on IMAX’s suitability as a medium for narrative cinema, I am pretty sure this anime benefited from the eyeball-encompassing space facilitated by the large screen: it is an exceptionally beautiful film. However, I found Blade Runner 2049‘s visuals superb too so I’m not sure what the difference is. If anything, watching Weathering, because the need to read subtitles necessitates an obvious movement of the gaze to the bottom of the screen, should have been an even less fulfilling experience but I was simply bowled over by the images.

Like Your NameWeathering With You deals with a coming of age narrative but instead of a backdrop of natural disasters, here it is ecological disaster that affords the context to teenage travails: it is raining incessantly in Tokyo. At first it appeared that Makoto was making a point about climate change, Gaia is mentioned early on, but by the conclusion it seems, disappointingly, to have been more a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and first love. Morishima runs away from the boring sticks to make his fortune in Tokyo and Amano finds she is ‘weather girl’, a modern shaman who can make the sun shine. How they get together is subject to many (sometimes implausible but who cares when you’re seeing such sumptuous images?) narrative obstacles, some of which are funny.

Wallowing in the sky

In one scene the protagonists fall slowly, upside down, from the sky and I can’t work out why that image affected me so much. Whilst falling from the sky is obviously not a good idea for everyday life, maybe the image is about connecting with the unearthly aspects of our planet; hence Amano is a shaman. In our ‘sophisticated’ capitalist world we have lost touch with Earth, hence most don’t notice the incremental changes as we destroy it. Science has often been at the service of capitalism, developing products, services and new markets, and when it has attempted to speak loudly about climate catastrophe its message has been mangled and muted by vested (money) interests. Although Weathering With Me isn’t directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one week!

Women’s Animation from Near and Far

This was a programme selected by the Leeds Animation Workshop and screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. The occasion was to mark forty years of Leeds Animation Workshop and their total of forty films. Rona Murray celebrated and praised their contribution to both animation and women’s struggles over the years in a ‘thank you’. Before that we had a fine programme of animated films by women filmmakers from a variety of countries and in a variety of forms with a stimulating range of subjects.

No Offence, Leeds Animation Workshop (1996).

This was part of a series of films the Workshop made using the ‘fairy-tale’ form. In this case the topic was sexual harassment at work. In an original twist a Queen disguises herself as an ordinary female worker to investigate the behaviour of her managers. The tale includes reforms to end the harassment. The narrative is told with the distinctive voice of Alan Bennett.

Otesanek, Czech Republic 2017. Director Linda Retterová. 6 minutes

This film is an updated version of the traditional tale, ‘Little Otik’. There is an earlier version by Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerová (2000). This version is less macabre and the ‘Otik’ character is a carved trees stump in the form of a child. But s/he also devours everything in sight. The animation uses felt and embroidery as the materials for stop-motion.

The Black Dog (1987). 18 minutes.

This is a film by Alison De Vere who was a key figure in British animation from the 1950s until the late 1990s. The ‘Black Dog’ of the title is a shaman figure in a dream world which parallels work by surrealist artists. The fantastical settings are finely done and traverse a range of imaginative imagery.

The New Species, Czech Republic, 2014. Director Katerina Karhánková. 6 minutes.

The film follows three children as they attempt to identify a mysterious bone. On the way we also see representation of adult ways with children.

Phototaxis, USA (2017). Director Melissa Ferrari. 7 minutes.

The film uses the ‘Mothman’ myth from West Virginia; dramatised in the feature The Mothman Prophecies (2002). The film draws quite complex parallels between this and an addiction epidemic in the region. The film is fairly experiential in its techniques, including paper with superimposed pastels.

Black Soul, Canada (2000). Director Martine Chartrand. 9 minutes

In this narrative we see an older black woman and her grandson as she proffers examples of their cultural heritage. The film uses paint-on-glass techniques. The colours are luminous whilst the film’s trajectory is versatile.

Three Thousand, Canada (2017). Director Asinnajaq. 14 minutes.

This film combines newsreels [partly from the 1920s], ethnographic film and film of indigenous art work to explore the worlds of the Inuit peoples. It uses both animation techniques and film footage.

Nutag-Homeland, Canada (2016). Director Alisi Telegut. 6 minutes.

The film-maker is of Kalmyk origin. This people were formerly in the North Caucuses but now they are settled by the Caspian Sea. Their history is one of travails and forced migrations. The film presents poetic images of this through hand-painted frames.

The Fruit of Clouds, Czech republic (2017). 10 minutes.

Another film by Katerina Karhánková. In this a small colony of delightfully realised woodland creatures have an unusual diet. One brave individual finds an abundant source of this.

Own Skin, Leeds (2018). 3 minutes.

Geena Gasser and Saskia Tomlinson enjoyed an internship at the Animation Workshop. This hand-painted film examines the pressures of the body image.

They Call Us Maids: The Domestic Workers’ Story, Leeds Animation Workshop (2015). 7 minutes.

This film uses the actual experiences of migrant women works to expose the exploitation and oppression that they frequently suffer. The film relies on hand-painted water colours. It was commissioned by the Pavilion arts project and worked with Justice 4 Domestic Workers.

The whole programme was a rich palette of animation. There were a variety on techniques on show. And the subjects ranged widely as did the form of the films. Most of the titles had not been seen in Leeds before so this was a real treat.

Hopefully we will see more with a celebration at the Leeds International Film Festival of this important anniversary.

Women Animators From Near and Far

This programme at the Hyde Park Picture House is a celebration of the Leeds Animation Workshop on its fortieth birthday. The Workshop was inaugurated in 1978, though the collective had been working together since 1976 on their first film, Who Needs Nurseries. The fact that the Workshop has survived is itself a feat. The majority of the workshops and collectives from the late 1970s and 1980s have now disappeared though their members till contribute to Independent British Cinema. But the Animation Workshop have also been active in production, having produced a total of 40 animated films, one every year. A new work made with their support, Own Skin, screens in this programme. Animation is a slow and painstaking form of film, requiring care and attention to every single frame.

They have also produced a varied and imaginative range of films. Who Needs Nurseries, concerned with the needs of pre-school children, is an example of a campaigning film. Give Us a Smile (1983) is a powerful agitational film addressing issues of sexual harassment and violence. The experiences presented are based on real cases and the examples of reactionary male attitudes are direct quotes. These are interlaced with pictures, drawing, media quotes and songs. Through the Glass Ceiling (1994) dramatises this issue through a modern version of a classic fair-tale. As well as drama the film uses wit and irony. More recently They Call Us Maids: The Domestic Workers’ Story (2015) addresses the situation of migrant worker caught in a form of modern slavery. This was another campaigning film made with ‘Justice 4 Domestic Workers’. It uses beautifully produced water colour drawings as the basis of the animation.

Clearly one factor in the long survival of the Animation Workshop is commitment. But they have also remained adept at negotiating the shifting shoals of financial support for work that falls outside the commercial area of the film industry. Their first work was funded by the Equal Opportunity Commission. Their early years relied on the funding available from the system set up under the ACTT (ow BECTU) Workshop Declaration, which was supported by a range of organisations, including Channel 4. They also secured funding from the British Film Institute in this period.  In the 1990s the Workshop tapped into the funds arriving from the European Union. They Call us Maids: … involved the Pavilion Arts Project, Leeds-based organisations and crowd funding.

The programme this coming Tuesday includes They Call Us Maids:… and No Offence (1996), addressing work-based harassment and using another modernised fairy-tale in a witty mode.

 

The programme also includes films by their colleagues in Britain and farther afield in Canada, the Czech Republic, and the USA. Apart from the pleasures of good animation work the selection will offer a variety of views on a variety of social issues and themes. The film-makers will have a chance to talk about their work. The complete programme is on the Picture House Webpages and the screening is also part of the current Scalarama Festival.

‘Black Soul’, Canada 2000

From September 26th until the 29th the Workshop will run a ‘residency’ at 42 New Briggate (alongside the Grand Theatre). This is the new venue of the Pavilion. There will also be an evening screening on the Thursday and a lunch-time talk on the Friday. Details on the Workshop Facebook Pages.