Sunday, August 17, 2008

Japan Media Arts Festival 2007: Entertain Me



Every year there's something in the Japan Media Arts Festival's Entertainment Division which also happens to be animated, and worth a mention. (The categories are porous like that.) This year that honour goes to the music video for Ryukyudisko's "Nice Day."

The entire video is a progression of still photographs starting somewhere in the 1970s, with a couple getting busy under the covers and producing a young boy. We watch him get older, get a job, and then he hits the clubs and meets a girl–and the whole starts going into reverse, as we go back into the girl's history. However, we find ourselves going back even farther than her parents, for reasons that eventually become apparent—and the eventual trip forward again carries its own surprises.

There's a lot of whimsy in this video, and the pity of the Flash-based video above is that you lose some of the detail in the historical photos, as well as the deliberate colour choices to replicate older film (up to a point—director Junji Kojima skimps a little when he starts getting into the 1930s and earlier).

By the way, if you think the tune is catchy you can drop a couple of sawbucks for an import of the single at Amazon.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Japan Media Arts Festival 2007: Not So Short Shorts



Veterans of animation festivals know that the term "short film" is pretty elastic, from Malcolm Bennett's 30-second Rocky to Yuri Norstein's 29-minute Tale of Tales. They also know that the longer films are usually programmed at the tail end of a given screening, and that prior to the end of the Cold War many of those films were from Eastern Bloc countries—often gorgeous, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes dark.

What's surprising about the 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival's award-winning works is that there are four films that pass the twenty-minute mark. The longest, Love Rollercoaster, is the most straightforward. The remaining three are reminiscent of those old Eastern Bloc films.

I'll start off with the 21-minute Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor because (a) director Koji Yamamura pretty much roped me in with his Mt. Head and The Old Crocodile a few years back; (b) it's actually based on the work of the Jewish-Czech Kafka, which gives it that weirdness that can be supplied only by Eastern European creators in general, and Kafka in particular; and (c) I can't help re-watching it whenever I can. Like any Kafka story, A Country Doctor starts with a seemingly normal premise combined (a country doctor is summoned at night to take care of a young patient) with some bizarre aspect ("unearthly horses" transport him there instantly). As in Kafka's better-known The Metamorphosis, the introduction of the preternatural element marks the moment the protagonist can never go back to the way things were. As in Yamamura's Mt. Head, the pace, sketchy images, and hand-drawn transformations complement the story nicely. At the rate A Country Doctor has been racking up awards, I think Yamamura's going to have to put serious thought into new shelving.

Ryu Kato's The Clockwork City also mines the surreal with traditional tools. The film is pretty much wordless, and you should expect to have to work at sorting some aspects of it out. A young visitor comes to a new city, and it's quickly apparent she doesn't quite fit in—every person, every bird, and even a few buildings have these wind-up mechanisms stuck in them, and she doesn't. After exploring the city for a little while she meets with the town's honcho (who wears a wind-up crown) and exchanges fruits and other goods. Soon after the city goes to war with an unknown enemy, its soldiers identically featureless and wearing blue ties and white shirts. In the aftermath, our protagonist confronts the top man and his flunkies over the discovery of a giant wind-up key; what mysteries does it hold? This is definitely on my "must rewatch" list.

Yusuke Sakamoto's The Dandelion Sister takes us into the realm of stop-motion animation, where a young girl has to contend with her older, sick sister—who happens to be a giant dandelion. There's a lot going on here: There's the younger sister missing out on social activities because of her responsibilities; her resentment of how much attention is heaped on her sick sister; her inability to draw, and express her feelings; and her fear of her sister's death. Like The Clockwork City, The Dandelion Sister is wordless, but as its concerns are more grounded in reality it's open to a number of interpretations about adolescence, caring for sick relatives, and acceptance.

{Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Japan Media Arts Festival 2007: Happy Birthday



Another odd little parallel shared by some of the award-winning animation shorts in the Japan Media Arts Festival: three of them had to do with birthdays—after a fashion.

My least favourite of the trio was also the longest: Hiromasa Horie's Love Rollercoaster unfortunately has nothing to do with the Ohio Players song, but is instead about a cutesy young bear cub named John trying to solve the mystery of a mysterious birthday present left behind my his late mother. Involved in the search are his friends, and they soon drag in the creepy Lovegun, an eyeless, sharp-toothed green-skinned critter who lives half in and half out of a rocketship. I like the idea behind some of the characters (especially the pair of mischievous panda siblings), and the overall story idea is a solid one—the ending is particularly sweet. But the whole thing is killed by the execution.

As a clay animation fan it shouldn't bother me that a CGI film tries to emulate a plasticine look for its characters. And I've never had a problem with Japan's cult of kawaii. But whenever the characters talk or scrunch their eyes, their skin wrinkles and folds in an a way that quickly renders them uncute. I'm sure John's initial concept drawings were very cute, but his textured skin, along with the bags under his eyes and all that wrinkliness just made me ill. Throw in excessive camera movement, the same kind of needless bobbing and weaving that bothered me in Skyland, and a half-hour–plus running time, and, well... let's just say that sometimes I watch these things so you don't have to.

(As an aside, I should mention that Love Rollercoaster is one of several projects generated from a Japanese talent incubator called Anime Innovation Tokyo. I'd rather have seen just about anything else their creators have put together.)

The much shorter, lo-fi Ushi-nichi (or, as the English titles say, Happy Birthday) is pretty much Love Rollercoaster's exact opposite. Created with pencil and paper (complete with smudges) by Hiroko Ichinose, the nine-minute short features a motley crew of characters each going through their own machinations. A man stands in the desert waiting to hitch a ride, but turns down almost everyone who stops for him; a man wakes up every morning transformed in some way (extra-long arms, a huge 'fro) and cheerily skips to the employment office to find new work based on his condition; a woman starts eating pieces of her pet giraffe, mindless of the transformations it causes to her own body. Everything comes together in a whimsical denouement. Deep meaning? Who cares? The jittery, rough and utterly charming style makes the whole film a pleasure.

Meanwhile, Toshiaki Hanzaki's Birthday puts another spin on the word, relating the evolution of life on Earth from one-celled organisms to man and, it seems, beyond. Working mostly with silhouetted forms, it's slicker than Ushi-nichi, but it is, if anything, more whimsical, with its portrayal of a giant fanged asteroid killing the dinosaurs and aliens accelerating our evolution. (It's also in the opposite direction of Hanzaki's earlier Birds, my favourite of the Digital Content Association of Japan's 2005 Digital Creators Competition's award-winning works.) Finally, at about a minute and a half, it's more compact. It gets where it needs to go, and then ends. Brevity really is the soul of wit.


[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Japanese Media Arts Festival 2007: Livin' La Vida Low-Res



One of the pleasures of film festivals, whether you're watching them or organizing them, is in discovering unintended themes in the films. Sometimes it's inevitable, such as when social or political issues are on everyone's mind, but these are so unsurprising as to almost be banal. It's the small, quirky and sometimes trivial themes that are the most interesting to discover, and this year's award-winning short animation offerings from the Japan Media Arts Festival has a few worth mentioning.

One thing I look forward to in any compilation is when people take a backward step, especially when it comes to CGI. There's such a tendency to lard on the detail, be it photorealistic or natural-media or whatever, that few make the deliberate choice to step back and pare things down.

This year three films made a point of dialing down the detail, each in different ways. Youhei Murakoshi's Blockman goes the furthest. The viewer peers through a telescope to a strange world where everything is made up of identically sized cubes. Some are black, most are white, some make larger blocks, and some of the larger blocks have faces, courtesy of dots or lines on individual blocks. The curious lifeforms walk, fly, float, combine and come apart in a variety of ways, with the telescope lazily floating from one vista to another. The effect is similar to that of the even more minimalist Dice—an earlier Japan Media Arts Festival honoree—but perhaps more mesmerizing.

Sejiro Kubo, Ichiro Tanida and Katsunori Aoki collaborated on Copet, a series of shorts starring a cast of animals that are all straight lines and simple curves, plugged together like deranged Lego. At first glance it's appallingly cute, but little touches like camera shake and nifty bits of business (like a gorilla who repeatedly shivers himself out of a stupor) are at odds with the simplistic motion, and the tension works. But what really kept my attention were the bits that didn't follow the simple-is-better formula, like an erupting volcano, a meteor streaking toward Earth and water that looks, well, watery. The characters' occcasional forays into the live-action world, along with incomprehensible but still amusing storylines were also bonuses. If you can read Japanese you can check out the Copet website, which goes into the shorts' world in considerable depth and pimps Copet merch, including a DVD.

Hiroshi Chida's Boneheads was produced by Polygon Pictures, which I mention because it shares a certain aesthetic sensibility with Polygon's Polygon Family shorts, in which the characters' blockiness is celebrated, rather than smoothed and textured to death. But Polygon Family is mostly monochrome, whereas Boneheads' colour pops with Day-Glo intensity. The latter's characters are also every so slightly asymmetrical, which just makes them kookier.

Moreover, where Polygon Family's animated used the anime and fighting videogame idioms, Boneheads is pure, non-stop Tex Avery-style mania (it's running time of seven minutes makes it even more reminiscent of a Golden Age cartoon). Roccos and Bone are two primitive creatures fighting over bananas—between themselves, and between other critters who get wind of the tasty fruit (or them). The whole thing is really just an escalating chase scene, but as every Blues Brothers fan knows, that's not really a bad thing. Radar Cartoons reps Polygon in the U.S., and Boneheads was produced for Viacom, so here's hoping that it pops up on our screens soon.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Run Wrake's The Control Master



Now this kind of advertising I can get behind. Run Wrake (who we already love—and maybe fear a little—thanks to Rabbit) has applied his quirky collage technique to The Control Master, a pseudo–1950s-sci-fi film in which an evil genius and two heroes battle. The commercial angle here is that all the elements of the film come from CSA Images, a stock art company. Not that that gets in the way of the enjoying the film for even one second.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Animation Show, Vol. 3



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
Buy
The Animation Show, Vol. 3 on DVD from Amazon.com

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Kihachiro Kawamoto Films on DVD



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


[Cross-posted from Frames per Second.]

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The "Censored Eleven" Problem



For years (and years, and years) I've been reading the same tired arguments about racist cartoons, particularly those that use black stereotypes. It's a problem that's as old as cartoons themselves; John Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, considered the first cartoon short, made fun of blacks and Jews (Blackton's lightning sketches include two images labelled "Coon" and "Cohen") in 1906, and the image of big-lipped, Stepin Fetchit-inspired characters didn't lose steam in popular American cartoons for another half a century.

The problem began when networks stopped airing these cartoons in their regular lineups, and larger companies were slow to include them in videocassette (and now DVD) compilations unedited. Not that they were never released—I still have my Tex Avery laserdiscs with Uncle Tom's Cabana and a handful of shorts that use blackface gags, for example—but some Warner Bros. cartoons have been considered so over the line that they haven't been aired on TV for decades, and never released by Warner Bros. on any kind of home video. These shorts have acquired a mythical status, and a name: The Censored Eleven.

Talk of these shorts (and similar ones not so blessed as to be tagged with such a dramatic moniker) invariably brings up discussions of the shorts' historical significance, the fact that they were made in a different era, and, at some point, an exhortation to the rightsholders that the shorts should be released unedited. My longstanding complaint about these arguments is that, for the most part, it's a bunch of white guys standing around arguing about what black people should and shouldn't find offensive. (Books like That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960 are a step toward rectifying that problem, as well as the more recent The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, which I'll be reviewing soon; I've also done my bit with essays on the subject and, most recently, a 2006 guest blogging stint on ReFrederator.)

In light of a recent re-emergence of the discussion, Thad Komorowski has nailed the other complaint that I've never fully given voice to: that many cartoon fans, in their desire to own these films, have bent over backwards to claim that these films are not racist. Because, let's face it, they most emphatically are. If a joke is being made with the understanding that something is funny because a character is black, then it's racist. It's a pretty simple equation. (And please spare me the "I have a black friend who loves these cartoons" argument; I think Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is one of the funniest, snappiest, and most brilliant cartoons Bob Clampett ever directed, but denying that it's entirely built around racist imagery is like denying gravity.)

I am more than pleased that someone has come out and called it like it is, and urge you to read Thad's frank commentary. And hey, if you've been itching to see the Censored Eleven for yourself, he's also posted them there for your edification.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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