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:

Your Name (Japan 2016)

Mitsuha and Taki

Mitsuha and Taki

This new anime by director Shinkai Makoto has prompted comparisons with the great successes of Studio Ghibli and specifically with the work of Miyazaki Hayao. It isn’t difficult to understand the comparisons. The narrative deals with adolescents, both of whom have the potential for heroism. Mitsuha lives in a small town in the mountains but Taki lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a typical Ghibli young female, living with her grandmother and younger sister and estranged from her father, the town mayor. Her late mother had inherited her own mother’s spiritual powers and Mitsuha is expected to follow the family tradition, tending a shrine and helping her grandmother who weaves braids for ceremonies. But Mitsuha wants to try something different: she wants to experience Tokyo and the kind of lives that boys have.

In Tokyo, Taki is a high school boy with excellent drawing skills and a part-time job in an Italian restaurant where he has a crush on an older co-worker. Writer-director Shinkai Makoto has fashioned a narrative that enables these two adolescents to interact and learn from each other — using a mixture of romance, fantasy and adventure in new ways, even if the device of switching identities is familiar from universal romance/fantasy genres. But what starts and perhaps ends as one kind of film takes a very different turn part way through and moves into the kind of discourse familiar from manga and anime. As well as Ghibli, I was reminded of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time which is a case study film in The Global Film Book. That film used science fiction to create a narrative around one adolescent’s discoveries about herself. In Your Name, although it is first fantasy that brings the couple together, there is also a real interest in science — and in the natural disasters which befall Japan.

The animation is detailed and sometimes very detailed. I enjoyed the music too, though I know there are critics of the pop group Radwimps. It is no surprise that this has become one of the biggest box office hits of all Japanese cinema and the only anime to challenge Miyazaki. (I should be clear though — this is not a Ghibli film.) If this film could charm me on a long haul flight, I’m sure it would be an emotional storm on a big screen. If you haven’t seen it yet, look out for the Japanese language version.

Only Yesterday (Omoide Poro Poro, Japan 1991)

A pensive Taeko on the night train taking her to the country.

A pensive Taeko on the night train taking her to the country.

This is one of the Studio Ghibli anime that despite huge popularity in Japan seems to have been sidelined in UK and US distribution. I wasn’t aware of the film when it appeared in Film 4’s Ghibli season earlier this year. Most of the films in the season were dubbed but this one, playing very late at night, was subtitled. I’m assuming Disney never bothered to find an English language cast for it. Why has it been overlooked? The most obvious answer is that it doesn’t fit the Western expectations for an anime. Even though it features a small girl for much of the time this is in fact a ‘romantic drama’ for older audiences. It was the highest grossing Japanese film of 1991.

Based on a manga by Okamoto Hotaru and Tone Yuko, Only Yesterday was written and directed by Takahata Isao. Co-founder of Studio Ghibli with Miyazaki Hayao, Takahata is probably best known in the West for Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988), the heart-wrenching tale of two children escaping the fire-bombing of Kobe in 1945. Only Yesterday is not dramatic in the same way but it is equally moving.

Taeko is a young single woman working in a Tokyo office in 1982. When the other workers plan exotic summer holidays she decides to visit the countryside and stay with distant relatives. She’s been before and this time she wants to pick safflowers – traditionally used for making dyes and cosmetics. Taeko has already heard the comments that at age 27 she should be married and this trip seems to trigger very strong memories of how she felt as a 10 year-old being taken to a spa town on holiday. Takahata then constructs the whole narrative as a series of flashbacks to 1966 interspersed with ‘life on the farm’ where Taeko’s ‘time off’ is spent with Toshio, a young man who tried working in Tokyo but decided to return to the land as an organic farmer.

In 1966 a pineapple is still an exotic fruit and the family doesn't know how to serve it.

In 1966 a pineapple is still an exotic fruit and the family doesn’t know how to serve it.

There are a couple of informative and very interesting reviews of Only Yesterday on the Studio Ghibli wiki at nausicaa.net. One notes that the Japanese title translates as ‘Memories of Falling Teardrops’ and that this is much more evocative of the mood and tone of the film. I agree and, although I’m wary of referencing Ozu at every turn, I also have to agree that the film has the same careful investigation of family relationships found in Ozu’s films. Takahata even presents the film’s credits against the kind of hessian background used by Shochiku and other studios for their 1950s and 60s dramas. There is the same nostalgia for Japan in the 1950s that appears in Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. Taeko is the youngest of three girls and experiences a combination of love, bullying and high expectation from her stern father, no nonsense mother and grandmother and older siblings obsessed with the Beatles and the ‘new Japan’. Takahata shows in great detail how Taeko is affected by seemingly trivial incidents and how they build up into almost traumatic episodes – a first crush, embarrassment over discussion of menstruation, an inability to understand division of fractions, a dream about becoming an actor. Some of these are bad memories but they all need to be worked over by the adult Taeko.

The field of safflowers and the distant hills.

The field of safflowers and the distant hills.

In aesthetic terms this is a ravishing film with two distinct animation styles. 1966 is detailed in simply drawn and coloured scenes whereas the landscapes of rural Japan in 1982 are exquisitely beautiful. There is a focus on music, including several East European songs that Toshio tells Takeo that he likes because they are ‘peasant songs’. Like Miyazaki, Takahata seems to have been a big promoter of ecological concerns and there are detailed conversations about organic farming and the relationship between humans and the rural landscape.

The film is primarily about Takeo’s choices and after spending a summer holiday in which Toshio has helped her think through all her childhood concerns it seems fairly obvious that he might be ‘the one’. But Taeko has always been stubborn and self-willed. Will she finally go with what seems a sensible option?

This is a lovely film that ought to make any audience feel better about the world. There is a UK Region 2 DVD and a US Blu-ray, I think – but no English dub (hooray!). Many reviewers have said this is their favourite Ghibli DVD. I think I might still go for My Neighbour Totoro but this is seriously wonderful. Please seek it out – you won’t regret it.

Manga and anime are discussed in The Global Film Book in Chapter 5.

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu, Japan 2013)

Horikoshi leads out his aircraft for a test flight

Horikoshi leads out his aircraft for a test flight

It’s sad to think that after The Wind Rises there will be no more films directed by Miyazaki Hayao. But it’s good that his last venture is also one of his best. I think that The Wind Rises is up there with Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro as a film I will always want to see again. What is different about this last film however is that it features a ‘real’ rather than a fantasy scenario and that it mainly features adult characters and concerns. Those earlier films did, of course, explore important themes relevant for contemporary society, but The Wind Rises does so more directly and audiences are likely to respond differently. As several others have pointed out, some of the sequences in the film also suggest links to Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the great work of Miyazaki’s erstwhile colleague Takahata Isao. Both films refer to the catastrophe of the bombing of Japan in 1944-5.

For his last film Miyazaki focuses on his obsession for flying and aeronautics, offering us a fictionalised account of the life of the aircraft designer Horikoshi Jiro, designer of the fighter plane known in the West as the Zero. Beginning with Jiro as a young teenager dreaming of flying, the film narrative features two main personal stories. One involves Jiro’s fantasy relationship with the Italian aircraft designer Caproni and the quest to design the most beautiful flying machine – set against the reality of working for Mitsubishi to design fighters for the Japanese Navy. The other involves Jiro’s (real and tragic) relationship with the beautiful Nahoko. These two narrative strands are developed in the context of first natural disaster (the 1923 Kanto earthquake) and then the gradual ‘militarisation’ of Japanese society and eventually the outbreak of war.

Horikoshi arrives in Tokyo in the midst of the Kanto earthquake of 1923

Horikoshi arrives in Tokyo in the midst of the Kanto earthquake of 1923

The Wind Rises has been, like all the latter Studio Ghibli films, a box office smash in Japan and, supported by Disney, a sizeable hit in the international market, led by North America and France, the best two markets outside Japan for manga and anime. Much has already been written about the film and I want to just pick up two or three aspects of the story. First I need to comment on the problems associated with the life story of someone identified as contributing to the Japanese war effort. This film, like several others made in the last few years, ‘humanises’ figures who for some audiences will forever be ‘the enemy’. I don’t mean to belittle the concerns of these audiences – there are good reasons why it is difficult to forget the pain of war. Horikoshi Jiro travels to Germany to learn from designers at Junkers (who have a business relationship with Mitsubishi). He is disturbed by some things he encounters in Germany and is befriended at one point by a ‘good German’ – a critic of the Nazis and something of a stereotypical character. (This character is named Hans Castorp after the hero of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain with the TB sanatorium as the link between Miyazaki’s narratives.) Miyazaki might be accused of trying to ‘find excuses’ for Horikoshi but I don’t think this is a problem as the focus is clearly on the obsessive designer who gives little thought to the military build-up in the 1930s because he is so focused on the technical problems of his design. It occurred to me that the strange sense of beauty associated with certain designs of military aircraft is not something unique to Miyazaki.

The British equivalent of Miyazaki’s aircraft designer might be R. J. Mitchell (1895-1937), designer of the Spitfire. Two British films immediately spring to mind. The first is Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) which opens with a sequence in which one of the original pilgrims to Canterbury releases his hawk to hunt for prey. As the bird flies high the scene changes to the present day with the watcher in uniform and the hawk transposed to a Spitfire high in the sky. The film about R. J. Mitchell is The First of the Few (UK 1942). Leslie Howard directs and plays Mitchell who died young soon after the prototype Spitfire first flew. Like The Wind Rises the story is fictionalised and it is interesting that there are some features common to both films. For instance, Mitchell is shown meeting the German designer Messerschmitt and there are suggestions that he overworks. There is also an Italian connection with Mitchell competing in the Schneider Trophy air races against Italian designers with his Supermarine S6. Miyazaki makes references to this competition in his 1992 film Porco Rosso. Because The First of the Few (titled after Churchill’s speech about the ‘Battle of Britain’) is a wartime film it is more propagandistic. David Niven plays a Squadron Leader relating Mitchell’s story to the younger pilots in his charge. I’m sure there must be other similar aircraft designer films – Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (US 2004) includes aspects of Howard Hughes’ obsession with aircraft design.

My second major interest in The Wind Rises is its depiction of 1920s-30s Japan, including the devastation of the earthquake and the daily routines of Horikoshi and his friends and colleagues. In particular, I’m fascinated by his relationship with Nahoko. I’m very taken by the way Miyazaki is able to create such beautiful and evocative images of the world familiar to me from Japanese film melodramas of the period. And The Wind Rises is strongly influenced by the melodrama tradition in Japanese cinema. I noted the score by  Joe Hisaishi and I’m looking forward to watching the film again and focusing on the melodrama references. I found The Wind Rises to be just as beautiful in terms of drawn animation as the fantasy anime for which Miyazaki is better known. (There are references to those earlier films via the character of Jiro’s younger sister.) I hope that there are plenty of aspiring anime directors who want to develop Miyazaki’s ideas and carry on the tradition.

Nahoko and Jiro

Nahoko and Jiro

Sight and Sound (June 2014) has an extended set of articles on The Wind Rises which are informative and stimulating. Some of this material is available online, including a ‘gallery’ of stills from the film and a quiz – which Studio Ghibli character are you? (I’m Princess Mononoke apparently!)