Tagged: anime

The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge, France-Belgium-Japan 2016)

Image courtesy of Studio Ghibli/Wild Bunch/Why Not/CN4/Belvision

The Red Turtle is every bit as good as the rave reviews make it out to be. It seems pointless to add another general review so I’m just going to focus on a few points. Subscribers to Sight and Sound are lucky to have an excellent review by Kate Stables and an interview with the film’s director Michaël Dudok de Wit (by his son Alex) in the June 2017 issue. This short (81 mins) animated feature has a narrative that riffs on the original Robinson Crusoe story by Daniel Defoe. The new idea from de Wit and his writing collaborator Pascale Ferran introduces a magical/mystery element in the form of a large turtle. If you have knowledge of the legend of the ‘selkie’ from Celtic and Nordic culture you’ll know what to expect. There isn’t a great deal of plot – instead there is the pleasure of interaction between a very limited number of characters and a real sense of humanity recognising its place in the ecology of the South Pacific. It’s no wonder Studio Ghibli is a partner.

Michaël Dudok de Wit at work

The most interesting institutional issue is that this is the first co-production outside Japan for Studio Ghibli. Sadly, in the UK, we are used to experiencing Studio Ghibli’s output in cinemas being filtered through the distribution muscle of Disney and having to choose a subtitled screening (if we can find one) or a ‘re-voiced’ American version with big name actors. But that ‘re-voicing’ is the only ‘creative’ input by Disney. The Red Turtle has no dialogue (beyond cries of alarm, warning, greeting etc.). Studio Ghibli actually approached the animation director Michaël Dudok de Wit after his Oscar success with the short Father and Daughter (2000). Dudok de Wit is Dutch, but trained in the UK (at West Surrey College of Art & Design). He has worked in London and in Paris and Barcelona. He decided to take up Studio Ghibli’s offer when it became possible to work with French and Belgian film funds. Having not made a feature before he decided to use a large group of animators but hoped that they would respect his unique style which combines European and Japanese-Chinese styles. I found an interview with de Wit which appears to have been conducted for Positif magazine. Here are de Wit’s thoughts on the techniques he developed:

[Interviewer] Let’s talk about technique: apparently, you discovered digital at Prima Linea Productions.

That’s right. Prima Linea is the studio — in Paris and Angoulême — where we made the film. While we were doing our first animation tests, another crew was finalising the film WOLFY, THE INCREDIBLE SECRET, using Cintiq, a digital pen that allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor. With this tool, you can instantly visualise the results of your animation, without having to scan drawings separately. It’s more economical, gives you more creative freedom and increased control for retouching. We animated two versions of the same shot, one with pencil on paper and the other with this digital pencil. The line of the digital pencil was more beautiful and that convinced us.

One of the charcoal drawings included in the Press Notes

For the backgrounds, we chose a different process. The drawings were made with charcoal on paper, very freely, with broad strokes smudged with the palm of the hand. This artisanal quality was very important and gave the image a lovely, grainy texture. Only the raft and turtles were digitally animated. It would have been hell to animate them in 2D. As everything is finalised in the same graphic style, you can’t tell it’s digital. During the production I didn’t do any animation or scenery, only small touch ups.

I can vouch for the effectiveness of these decisions. I sat in my usual seat in the centre of the second row close to the screen and I could appreciate the ‘graininess’ and the subtlety of the backgrounds. Kate Stables suggests that some of the backgrounds depend on a style similar to ‘grisaille’ – creating depth through careful shading in grey or another single colour. One reason for preferring anime to contemporary American animations with computer generated backgrounds is the use of drawn backgrounds and The Red Turtle is a standout example of what can be achieved. It’s also interesting to think about the use of long shot compositions, especially in the earlier part of the film where ‘the sole survivor’ is coming to terms with his position in a setting that can move from idyllic to dangerous very quickly.

The crabs in The Perishers

One of the genuine pleasures of the film are the tiny crabs that often accompany the actions of the man on the beach and act like a comedy chorus. For a while I couldn’t work out why the affected me so much, then I realised that they reminded me of a classic Daily Mirror cartoon strip, ‘The Perishers’ (1959-2006). Every year the children and their dog would go on a seaside holiday where they would meet the crabs in a rock pool – crabs who believed the large eyes of the dog were mystical ‘eyes in the sky’ as the crabs saw them from beneath the water-line.

There are so many pleasures in The Red Turtle, ranging from the cartoon-like fun with the crabs to the ecological questions, the folk tales and mystery and the emotions created firstly in relation to the turtle and then to the human family. Like all the best animations, The Red Turtle has something for everybody. It’s especially thrilling that the film achieves its effects without dialogue. There is music, however, as Michaël Dudok de Wit acknowledges :

The music is key as there is no dialogue. I didn’t have a clear idea of a specific musical style. Laurent Perez del Mar made a few suggestions including a very beautiful melody that was perfect for the main theme. I was delighted. He was quick to suggest music where I would not have thought to have any, and he was right. He often surprised me. [Same interview as above.]

Some reviewers have suggested that there is too much music but it seemed fine to me and served the narrative well. You can hear the main theme in the UK trailer and glimpse the style outlined above:

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Films From the South #12: Tatsumi (Singapore 2011)

Tatsumi is a rather wonderful film that was released domestically in Singapore after winning plaudits at various festivals. It’s an unusual animated film that successfully manages to combine a biography of a Japanese manga author with representations of several of his stories to produce a coherent narrative. But as director Eric Khoo remarked after its screening here in Oslo it still has to go to the Tokyo International Film Festival and that will have a bearing on how the film fares in the Japanese market. It’s due out in the UK in January 2012 via Soda and international sales are stacking up via the German agents The Match Factory.

The Oslo screening was accompanied by an exhibition of the original artwork used in the film and introduced by Eric Khoo himself.

Eric Khoo introduces his film with some of frames from the exhibition visible behind him.

Eric Khoo was once himself a comic book artist but he had not thought that he had the patience to undertake an animated production . . . until he read the autobiographical manga, The Drifting Life by Tatsumi Yoshihiro published in 2009. See this website for previews of Tatsumi’s work in new Canadian published editions. Tatsumi (born 1935) became associated in Japan with a new form of manga dealing with much more realist themes and named gekiga, a term Tatsumi is said to have originated and which was taken up by some other writers. This might be seen as similar to the development of ‘graphic novel’ as a term in North America. Khoo’s problem was that he didn’t speak Japanese and he knew he must get full co-operation from Tatsumi himself. He managed to arrange an interview via a friend at Fuji Film and managed to convince Tatsumi that any film that he made would be faithful to the Tatsumi drawing style.

To produce the film, Khoo’s company Zhao Wei films  worked with Infinite Frameworks (ifw) a company based in Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam (only 40 miles away by fast boat) with whom Khoo had made several previous films. This local co-operation produced Tatsumi relatively quickly and inexpensively – without sacrificing any quality. They developed a very simple animation style that used Tatsumi’s original drawings as a model but also colouring some of the earlier black and white outlines. In this YouTube clip, Khoo and the animators explain how they approached the task (beware it is also an ad for Intel and Hewlett-Packard!):

Tatsumi was a young teenager in the immediate post-war period in Japan under the Allied Occupation. His first success as a manga story-teller came early and he was inspired by both competition from his brother and by meeting one of the leading manga/anime figures of the day Tezuka Osamu. But eventually Tatsumi tired of what he felt were the constrictions of manga aimed primarily at children and he developed the gekiga form in the late 1950s. Interestingly he returned to his memories of the immediate postwar period in his new work. Stories such as ‘Hell’ (the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb) and ‘Goodbye’ (about a prostitute whose clients are American GIs) set up a tone that is also present in more contemporary (i.e. 1970s) stories about alienation from work and family in ‘Beloved Monkey’, ‘Occupied’ and ‘Just a Man’. I’m fascinated by these two periods of Japanese Cinema (and literature) so I found these stories – and the surrounding material relating to Tatsumi’s struggles to get them published – very engaging. It will be interesting to see what kinds of audience reactions the film gets on its international release. I would hope that it would receive as much attention as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but I think that film has a much more recognisable story and theme. I would urge you to give Tatsumi a go. I’m sure that you will recognise some of the images from Japanese Cinema and then find the story of Tatsumi the artist as interesting as I do.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006)

Makoto at home (eating a 'pudding').

Makoto at home (eating a 'pudding').

I first saw this film advertised as a DVD release in Sight & Sound, the main highbrow film magazine in the UK. It’s unusual to see an anime advertised in this way (although DVD distributors have got more savvy recently). My first thoughts were that the film must have a reputation on a par with the Studio Ghibli output and I rented it on this basis. I now realise that this is a well-known property in Japan and you can read the history on Wikipedia, which also carries some useful links. Beware, however, if you do go to Wikipedia that there is a full synopsis/spoiler that could ruin your enjoyment – I found the film’s narrative development to be quite surprising and I’m certainly glad I didn’t know what would happen.

The ‘property’ was originally created by the veteran Japanese science fiction writer Tsutsui Yasutaka in 1967 and it is interesting that he should choose a teenage girl has his protagonist. A manga ‘prelude’ based on the original, but updated, was published in Kadokawa Shoten’s Shōnen Ace magazine and then bound into a novel in May-June 2006 and the anime released in July of that year. The anime version proved to be a sleeper hit in Japan and has finally surfaced in the UK and US on DVD after occasional (and generally well-received) festival screenings.

The appearance of this story in a shōnen manga series strikes me as odd because shōnen implies a readership of adolescent boys – the equivalent for girls is shōjo manga. This probably just shows that I have an awful lot to learn about manga!

Makoto is the tomboyish 17 year-old at a Tokyo high school (the narrow streets and river walk suggest the ‘old town’ part of the city, but it looks like a spacious school with large grounds). She has a younger sister and two male friends at school with whom she plays baseball after classes. She also has an aunt – a youngish woman of indeterminate age who works as a picture restorer for art galleries. Makoto calls her ‘Aunt Witch’ and this appears to be appropriate when she is unfazed by Makoto’s revelation of her ability to time-leap.

In many ways, this anime strikes me as the perfect teen movie. I found it at once beautiful to look at and intriguing, but I confess also at first quite difficult to follow. Partly this was because of the jumping backwards and revisiting scenes that takes place in most time-slip stories, but also because I do find teen fiction difficult as I simply can’t intuit the language and the nuances of teen communication. (I was watching the Japanese version with English subs.) When I realised the full import of what was happening, I found the narrative to be engrossing and deceptively multi-layered. I’m sure that I didn’t get all of it and there were the usual mysteries. As some of the anime fan-bloggers have admitted there could be a few more ‘answers’ – but holding back some information makes for a more effective cult narrative.

It is partly science fiction, largely a teen movie/high school film, a ‘coming-of-age’ story (without a sexual relationship) and a sensitive romance element which I found affecting. Surely this must be a shōnen with a sizeable shōjo audience?

I was most taken by the drawn backgrounds (see still above) which are beautifully realised and reminded me of Miyazaki’s work. The action was sometimes very slow (I wondered if my DVD player had paused) and this allowed the eye to wander around the very detailed mise en scène (e.g in Auntie Witch’s apartment with its books and woodblock prints). By contrast, I found the characters to be all drawn as tall and thin with barely any body shape. The combination of richly detailed background and stylised characters gives the film a quite distinctive look. The music too, was at times similar to that in Miyazaki’s films. There are some songs as well, but I feel inadequate in analysing the use of music in anime. The narrative of course speeds up for the action sequences which I found original and effective. Having the hero literally run and leap in order to travel in time worked well in terms of the story.

There is an excellent review on AnimeNewsNetwork.com from which I learned that the Miyazaki references are understandable since the film was made by a Studio Ghibli refugee, Hosoda Mamoru, with other collaborators who also have Studio Ghibli experience. ‘Line artist’ Sadamoto Yoshiyuki is also very experienced. The Anime News Network Review emphasises the attractiveness of the central characters as more than simply generic characters, quoting the almost Buster Keaton-like antics of Makoto who begins her time travelling in order to put right some of her ‘accidents’. This review finds the final third of the narrative less successful – this was the part that gripped me most. Perhaps this is the distinction between those audiences with genre knowledge and outsiders like me?

I would heartily recommend this film and it would give students based outside Japan, not only an interesting narrative/genre case study, but also an insight into aspects of Japanese culture that still remain mysterious in the West. (The main one being the representation, as the Anime News Network review suggests, of the “wistful buoyancy that only the Japanese seem to be able to associate with high school”, when in reality, the Japanese education system seems to put so much stress on results for seemingly middle-class students like Makoto.)

Watch the opening here (I’d urge you to buy it, but if you can’t there are more YouTube clips available):

Global Media for A Level students

On March 20, I presented materials for studying ‘Global Media’ at the OCR A Level Conference in London. The materials related to:

  • Slumdog Millionaire as a ‘global film text’
  • Otaku culture in Japan and the associated media forms of manga, anime, videogames etc.

All the materials can be downloaded as follows:

Slumdog Millionaire (Word)

Manga (Word)

Manga 2 (pdf)

Otaku culture (pdf)

Presentation (pdf)

In addition, on this site you can find entries on anime. Explore the ‘Animation’ category on the left.

Sennen joyû (Millennium Actress, Japan, 2001)

Movie romance

Movie romance

This movie flirts with postmodern frivolity but transcends it with a thoughtful, bitter-sweet meditation of memory, life and the impossibility of romance; other than in movies that is. The eponymous lead  spends her life seeking her Mr Right who she bumped into twice.when a youth. By the end she realises that all she is in love with is the chase.

The conceit of having the interviewers of the actress, at the end of her life, appearing in her ‘flashback’ memories is brilliantly conceived and executed. And we get a smattering of the history of post-war Japanese cinema on the way. The wonderful mixture of wit and visual beauty seems to be characteristic of writer-director Satoshi Kon; I’m looking forward to Paprika (2006).

Princess Mononoke (Japan 1997)

Mononoke hime (Princess Mononoke) is perhaps Miyazaki Hayao’s masterpiece. It combines his two main themes – support for feminist ideas and concern over the ecological disaster that faces the planet. It is also the Miyazaki film with the most direct relationship with Japanese history and culture.

Setting
The setting is during the late Muromachi period in Japan, possibly in the early 16th century. Most of Miyazaki’s other films are set in indeterminate historical periods with various anachronisms (e.g. flying ships in Victorian Europe etc.) Princess Mononoke is by contrast remarkably consistent. The chosen period is the ‘pre-modern’, a time of great change when the Japanese population was growing rapidly and local wars over land and resources were quite common. But it pre-dates the first appearance of the Europeans and also the major wars of the end of the 16th century when the Tokugawa shogunate gained control and stabilised/stratified Japanese society. Miyazaki argues that in some ways this period was similar to our contemporary world – in which we still have a chance to change before the future is mapped out for us.

The setting also has a meaning in terms of Japanese cinema in which films have traditionally been defined as ‘contemporary’ (gendaigeki) or ‘period films’ (jedaigeki). Princess Mononoke is clearly a jedaigeki, but unlike many such films it doesn’t focus on the slightly later Tokugawa period and it doesn’t focus on samurai warriors and their lords (daimyo). Instead it gives precedence to artisans and to confrontations with the natural world.

“The reason for these settings is to depict characters more freely, without being bounded by the existing commonsense, preconceived notion, or prejudice in the existing period dramas.” (Miyazaki Hayao on www.nausicaa.net)

Characters
One feature of the Muromachi period that interested Miyazaki was the greater freedom for women in these more anarchic times. In this respect, the film is similar to the jedaigeki of the great master Mizoguchi Kenji, whose women are active in films like Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), but generally suffering. Miyazaki’s women are often both active and successful achievers. Although Princess Mononoke (‘Princess Ghost/Spirit’) is the named character of the title, the protagonist of the story is actually the young prince, Ashitaka, a rare example of a male protagonist in a Miyazaki film.

Ashitaka is a prince of the Emishi, one of the original peoples of the main Japanese island, Honshu, who were eventually conquered and assimilated by the Japanese around the 10th century AD. However, the history of the Emishi and their relationship to the Ainu, the other group of indigenous people of the most Northerly Japanese island, Hokkaido, has still not been resolved. Perhaps for Miyazaki what is important is that Japan was once a much less ‘mono-ethnic’ culture.

There are several groups of characters with various inter-relationships in Princess Mononoke. This is one of the great strengths of the film. There are no absolute heroes or villains. The humans are fighting the spirits and the gods of the forest. They are of course also fighting each other. The iron workers in the forest are led by women and are in many ways progressive, yet they threaten the natural world. The ‘princess’, San is quite unlike the the feisty but generally pleasant young women (shōjo) of most other Miyazaki films. Instead she is violent and angry, but also loyal and protective towards her adoptive mother, the dog/wolf god, Moro. In his early discussions about the film, Miyazaki suggested that San would be resemble a clay doll figure from the pre-agricultural period.  With her blood-stained face she is clearly not a ‘princess’ from Western stories.

Japanese culture
Western commentators have sometimes referred to The Lord of the Rings or the Tales of Narnia in trying to introduce Princess Mononoke. I’m not sure that this helps. Japanese culture is much more accepting of spirits as part of everyday life and although the action in Princess Mononoke may be fantastical, it is rooted in a much more realistic context (only the Shishi – the spirit of the forest – is a Miyazaki invention). The film has a universal appeal certainly, but this doesn’t mean that we can view it in the same way as Western mythological stories. Miyazaki has created a story that should concern us all, but it takes place firmly within the context of Japanese history and popular culture.

Roy Stafford, 27/10/06

(These notes were written for a screening of the film during the 2006 Bradford Animation Festival.)