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The Man Who Planted Trees (L’Homme qui Plantait des Arbres)

(Check out my previous Frederic Back film review here: Crac!)

Frederic Back’s eighth, and penultimate, short film was his longest to date at 30 minutes in length (nearly tripling his longest previous short film). The production took a little over five years to complete alongside his other duties at Radio-Canada and comprises over 20,000 separate drawings, with 3,000 in-between frames completed by Back’s assistant Lina Gagnon. The process improves upon earlier Back productions by using notable early techniques like Prismacolor colour pencils on frosted cels, but adds new pastel artwork for the backgrounds with fixative chemicals to stay the artworks.

Aesthetically, the film moves through multiple styles and movements in the history of art throughout its runtime from harsher Nietzschian landscapes and abysses animated ala Goya to pastoral landscapes permeated by an intense undercurrent of fear and malaise ala Bruegel. As we come to land of the man who planted trees, we find them animated more impressionistically and thereby conventionally beautifully to the modern art-goers sensibility. During this period, pastels predominate in the fields and forests of one man’s making. Finally, the wiry old man becomes less of a real figure and slowly ascends within his domain to something closer to a hermit-prophet of nature whose image becomes more serene and less distinct from his surroundings until the final close-up shot of his wizened old facade animated like a Da Vinci portrait with soft lines and intense detail.

Frederic Back was an avid environmentalist and ecologist whose work often betrayed his love for nature and of a life lived close to it. And for years, he had worked in his free time to plant trees of his own accord: more than 30,000 single-handedly at that. As a member of the Society to Overcome Pollution, he did all he could to leave his world a little better off than when he came into it. So when he came across French author Jean Giono’s 1953 allegorical tale L’Homme Qui Plantait des Arbres, the story of a man who leaves the world behind after tragedy befalls him and comes to a barrent land wherein he spends his life cultivating a forest, Back was absolutely in love. He wanted to immediately animate the story and managed to gain the rights to do so through Radio-Canada. The resultant effect was his most popular and enduring work of his career. A work that competed for and won awards in dozens of film festivals from 1987 till 1993 (including an Oscar, an Emmy, and most prestigious of all, an award at Cannes), that inspired a reprinting of Giono’s classic complete with Back illustrations, and more importantly one that inspired others to plant over one million verifiable trees throughout the world.

The story is of a young man in 1913 who is traveling across the French countryside, specifically through a barren wasteland in Provencal. The bleak landscape is populated by little more than serpents and wild lavender. Ancient villages dot the landscape, all in disrepair and total abandon with old receptacles where once water flowed from beneath ground in vast reservoirs. Now, the traveler moves from village to village and tries to prime these pumps, but finds all water absent. He runs low on his rations and begins to become dehydrated and starved, on the brink of life and death. That is, until he sees a figure above a hill. The man approaches and finds an aged shepherd with his small flock and dog.

The old man gives him some water and leads him back home after fulfilling his duties in the fields. There they sup together and the man is led to believe he will be able to spend the night before moving along the next day toward the populated villages two days aft. He watches the old man sort through a bag of hundreds of acorns, mixing them into two piles for the good acorns and the bad acorns. The old man then puts the good acorns into piles of ten and discerns the smallest or least robust amongst each pile until he has 100 perfect acorns. The young man reflects on his future trip to the cities surrounding this pleasant grotto. Those cities have people who struggle for sustenance and live lives of quiet desperation, which often reach the breaking point and erupt into violence, fear, anxiety, hatred, envy, madness, suicide, and murder. Compared to those places, where he is now is much preferred.

The next day, the young man decides to stay on for a little longer before making his trip back to civilization and its discontents. He watches the old man as he leaves in the morning to place his sheep in a dell for grazing and leaves them behind for his dog to watch while he himself climbs a nearby hill and proceeds to dig holes with his iron staff. In these holes, he plants a single acorn each. Later, the young man will ask the older man many questions about himself and learn that he is 55 years old and is called Elzear Bouffier. He lost his son and then his wife three years previously and decided to leave the world to reflect in his solitude. He found this barren patch of land and knows not who owns it, whether it is parish or common land, or whatever. But he decided to begin planting trees there. Of the 100,000 trees he has planted in those three years, only 20,000 grew and half of those were dealt the hand of providence, were killed by rodents or blight. that leaves him with a grove of 10,000 trees, but he hopes to last another 30 years so that this grove of 11 by 3 kilometers will one day become a mere drop in that veritable ocean of green.

Through two world wars, the young man continues to visit the older man on an almost yearly basis. The forest grows, springs and little rivers appear in the landscape which give birth to willows, reeds, flowers, and gardens. Wildlife returns and over the years, this place, once a wasteland, becomes a thriving world of beauty and natural peace and serenity. The inhabitants of the surrounding region become engrossed in this landscape and part of it over time. They become happier and more peaceful and less resource dependent on the big cities and on hard labor to earn their livings. The place enchants even the parliament who decide to make it a protected land, and eventually the old man dies. And in the process, the young man becomes an old man, almost the same age as when he first met Elzear in these hills. And he realizes that ‘a man’s destiny can be truly wonderful.’ But more importantly, that Elzear, one man, was able to ‘complete this task worthy of God’ and to craft a paradise for which over 10,000 people rely upon for their happiness and peace of mind.

The film was simultaneously released in English and French with two different narrators, both classically-trained highly revered Canadian actors: Philippe Noiret and Christopher Plummer. And it probably thereby had the widest commercial run of any of Back’s films in his career. The work is a beloved classic of Quebec, Canadian, and North American animation that is generally considered to be one of the finest animated works ever created, and in my books, one of the finest short films ever made in any medium whether animation or live-action. I’ve managed to leave much out of the plot of this film, and very many details in the hope that upon reading this you will go out and seek the film yourself: either on the Frederic Back complete short films DVD release through his website or online at some streaming site. You will not be disappointed, and more importantly, you may come away feeling happier, more alive in this moment, and enriched in the prospect that though small and of little weight in the calculus of world actions, you can make a difference for the better in this life. With one step at a time.

 

With love,

Cody Ward

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Dallos: The Battle of Monopolis

(Check out my previous Mamoru Oshii film review here: Urusei Yatsura: Only You)

Before the premiere of Gundam in the late 1970s and the resultant Gundam Boom of the 1980s, giant robot or mecha anime in Japan were typically of the Super Robot variety. These kinds of mecha often had flexible bodies or seemingly-impossible powers that did not conform to the laws of physics and their attendant applications of strength. A good example of this type of mecha anime in the 21st is Gurren Lagann wherein the writers postulate a new type of energy called spiral power within all living beings that allows them to dominate their enemies with basically just the strength of their wills.

When Gundam roared onto the scene with its psychological realism, narratively sophisticated plots about war, terrorism, and geopolitics in a future age, and with mecha that conformed more closely to what one might be like in real life, it changed the entire landscape for the better. Studio Pierrot head producers wished to follow up the success of Studio Sunrise’s burgeoning Gundam franchise with their own philosophically and politically sophisticated Space Opera, and to this end they hired on Mamoru Oshii and his mentor Hisayuki Toriumi to co-direct the film.

In Dallos, the Earth has run extremely low on its energy and natural resource reserves and in the early 21st century scientists found that much of the needed raw materials back on Earth could be mined on the Moon. They installed colonies of people in large containment domes who progressively eked out a place for themselves within this seemingly inhospitable landscape all while mining the resources of the land and sending it back to their ever-increasingly autocratic Earthling leaders. The people of the moon, or Lunarians, realized their subjugation to this colonial power and occasionally staged revolts and rebellions. But no avail. The people were forcibly fitted with metal Id head-bands from that point forward on which all of their criminal and public information could be scanned with little effort from the military police spinners in the sky.

A dictator named Alex Leiger has been appointed the colonial ruler and during his tenure has used the levers of power to slowly limit the freedoms of the people and choke-hold them into an ideological somnambulence. But there was once a folk hero named Tatsuya Nonomura who raised an army to fight for his people. He became a martyr, but the remnants of his movement remained and continued to fight against colonial oppression, imperial aggression, and the rape of their home’s resources, which only serve to enrich the Earthlings without likewise benefiting the Lunarian extractors of those riches.

Furthermore, there is a large machine out in the craters of the Moon, called Dallos, which is worshiped as a religious icon by the old guard Lunarians. This device’s powers have been forgotten throughout the generations and is even more mysterious as it exhibits evidence of being of extra-terrestrial origin. So when the young brother of the cult hero Tatsuya reaches adulthood and somehow manages to get caught up in the anti-Earth machinations of a terrorist cell/freedom fighter unit (in civil war’s one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist and it is only the outcome of the battle that ultimately determines the popular historical designation) of his brother’s old comrades- including the charismatic and intelligent Dog McCoy- a new war for independence begins with powerful and agile makeshift mining mechas and Dallos versus the much heavier-equipped Earth nation with its deluge of fighter ships and battle suits.

Much of the influence for the events of this film comes from the classic war film by Gillo Pontecorvo called Le Bataille d’Algers or The Battle of Algiers, which portrayed the dynamics between freedom fighting and terrorism in the face of colonial and imperial forces in perhaps the best cinematic adaptation of such a conflict to ever be staged and completed. The film follows the events of the Algerian people and their freedom fighter class who use terrorist bombings and guerrilla tactics, as well as the force of international pressure to eventually secure freedom for themselves as an independent state no longer under the control and hegemony of the French State.

The socio-political dynamic between these two narratives ought to be immediately apparent despite the geological and spatial differences involved between a war over a small channel and a war between worlds. But the characters- like Dog McCoy and the Nonomura brothers- in Dallos mirror the enigmatic leaders of the Algerian War for Independence. They repatriate tools once used for their subjugation into tools for combat against a repressive regime. And like in various iconic terrorist bombing sequences in The Battle of Algiers, female Lunarians in the city of Monopolis hide guns in baskets of flowers, which they pass on to radicals at checkpoints in order to ensure the success of high-target assassinations. They use their purses to conceal hand grenades and various improvised explosive devices in an attempt to run off their oppressors. And like in the classic Italian neo-realist tale of civil war, the military police who are native eventually switch sides and aid their homelands as they ought to have been doing the entire time anyway.

Dallos was an extremely ambitious project for its time and is considered to be the first ever OVA, or Original Video Release (direct-to-video anime release), as well as the first animated work ever released direct-to-video in general. It is a landmark film for both its technical and production aspects and is unmatched in quality even by classic OVA series released by those who worked on this project like Lily C.A.T. or Venus Wars. Many of the staff on this production, including a number of artists and the head producer, would later start their own production company called Studio Gainax and for their first really ambitious project- the masterpiece Space Opera Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise- they took Dallos as their central inspiration and high water mark of an achievement to try beating.

Although typically attributed Mamoru Oshii as head director and to his mentor and teacher Hisayuki Toriumi as writer, dig a little deeper and you will find that the entire first part of this four-section OVA series was directed by Toriumi. Oshii helmed part two, but both worked together on the third and final installments of the series. Oshii felt that the film would not have been as good as it became without Toriumi’s guiding hand and presence in the work, but the two did butt heads on many an occasion during its production  as well. From this point forward, Toriumi treated Oshii as an equal and the two never worked together on a production again as Oshii’s talents had become very apparent and he was now ready to become a head director in his own right.

Dallos is a tale about the human spirit for conquest and discovery: some of the most magnificent and beautiful aspects of our human nature. And it is simultaneously a story of geopolitics, power dynamics, and the lengths to which men will go for gold: even if it means enslaving their fellow men. And it was the springboard for an OVA Boom in the anime industry, which had never realized just how lucrative the home video market could be. More importantly, it was a springboard for Oshii, who was almost immediately given the opportunity to direct another Urusei Yatsura feature-length film. And the qualitative difference between this film and his prior attempt are leagues apart as Oshii finally found his footing as a director and developed many ideas he could not use in Dallos due to his co-director role on that production.

 

Ciao for now,

Cody

Crac!

(Check out my previous Frederic Back film review here: Tout Rien)

Before the release of Crac! in 1981, Frederic Back’s career as an animator and short film director was very intermittent at best. He created less than one short film per year and continued to make the bulk of his money working on smaller, less personal projects for the Radio Canada Broadcasting Company. But after toiling away on this film for 22 months during his free time between 1979 and 1981, Back finally released this 15-minute short film to audiences. The film made it to the shortlist for the 1981 Academy Awards for Best Short Film and even won the category, scoring Radio Canada and Back their first Oscars.

However, the process of the film’s creation was pretty arduous in a number of ways. Back required the help of an assistant for around 11 weeks during the project’s production run in addition to his own 22 months of animation work and the help of his usual team of editors and sound designers who searched tirelessly for the proper traditional Quebecois music to incorporate as a soundtrack. During this production, Back continued to paint onto frosted cells with pastel for all of the major action in the film’s sequences, but continued to advance his medium by penciling in backgrounds using the new Prismacolor pencil technology. And like all great artists seem to do at some point in their careers, he poured his blood, sweat and tears into the production, giving his all by accidentally getting fixative fumes in his right eye. This painful accident would weaken and nearly blind that eye for the remainder of Back’s life, thereby giving him his signature eyepatch in the process.

The story is one of a traditional Quebecois life of the past wherein small cities existed, but most people lived by themselves in the frontier, out in the woods where they were relatively isolated with just their family units. In this social landscape where the Church was once a great social space and public square for the disparate denizens of the cold north to congregate once in a blue moon, a young Native man finds a beautiful young French-Quebec woman to his fancy. The two go out and practice the normal courting rituals and spend time together before becoming engaged.

The young man, a woodcutter and trapper by profession, steals off into the forest one day to search for the perfect tree for carpentry work. He chops it down with his ax and the tree falls with a large crack (hence the title of the short film). The man drags it back home with the help of his horse and starts to work building his wedding gift to his lovely bride to be. The result is a rocking chair that will serve them for years to come as a beautiful reminder of their place within nature as human animals and as a token of his love for the woman forevermore. They grow together and have children who occasionally rough-house and damage the progressively ageing chair, which the man- no longer a young man- repairs often with tender loving care. And each time he repairs this icon of his life’s trajectory, he repaints it and makes it feel fresh and new thereby.

But things change, they always do. The children grow up quickly and leave the nest. The young man progresses into an old man, and eventually his wife dies. The chair’s seat breaks and the old man throws it out into the harsh clime where it sits and waits for generations as the old man perishes. His old cabin is put up for sale and eventually torn down as condos and other high-rise buildings rise up around it. Gentrification and urbanization wrack this once idyllic landscape with the visual tremors of civilization: the skyscraper, the apartment block, and finally the nuclear power plant.

But this is Back’s vision of the world and it can never remain sick for long without perishing totally. He believed in our ability as rational animals to come to the logical conclusion that we should cherish this planet and serve it well as good shepherds. Protests erupt and the power plant is gutted by the regional government that actually listens to its people. The old silo is renovated into a beautiful art museum where the elite enclave go to see abstract paintings and other forms of artwork much too cerebral to tug on the heartstrings and make one feel a positive emotion like traditional art can. A curator finds the old chair after all these generations and brings it back inside a new docile for complete restoration and a new paint job.

Once there, the chair becomes the favorite seat for a friendly security guard and guide at the museum. And more than that, the children, untainted by modernity and intellect, find the colorful and ancient chair to be absolutely fascinating. It becomes a beloved object to whole hosts of people once more and feels fulfilled in its duty as a chair that is no longer abandoned and alone in this world. And in the dark of night, when the night watchman is in a different corridor, it dances to the music made by the emotions of all of the paintings in the room and revels in its newfound usefulness: a reveling we can all sympathize with in our own wishes and desires to be useful to someone else, and to be loved by someone else by proxy.

The film is a veritable love letter to the imagined Quebec of Back’s childhood and to the historical Quebec wherein people really did live such beautiful, quaint lives in nature quite often. The young man is a paean to Back’s own uncle and the story is a reminder not to trade in old values for new ones, but to cherish the old values in the hope that they can enrich our lives in the present. Crac is the sound of a falling tree and thereby of deforestation and human progress, but it is also the sound of creation through destruction. It is the sound of a rocking chair’s rasp across the floor of a room and the sound of the breakneck pace of social change in the 20th century. A change that hasn’t slackened in the slightest into the 21st. But we can always continue to derive pleasure, joy, and energy renewal from positive traditions of yore in the hopes of assuaging some of the modern pangs of conscience and dread attendant upon us in the modern age.

 

Ciao,

Cody Ward

[Continued here: The Man Who Planted Trees]

I want to eat your pancreas

Through Fathom Events previews online and in theaters, I’ve been hearing about this film constantly for around four or five months. And during that entire time, I was probably- like many of you- very confused about what this film was. The title’s implication brings to mind immediately concepts like cannibalism and horror, while the previews show a seemingly innocent high school romance between two kids with no violence or guro aspects at all. The film’s theme song seems cheerful, inspirational, but with a solemnity hidden deeper therein and the tears that abound throughout the trailers demonstrate this darker side of the romance hinted at therein to be true. So when I went in to watch the film a few days ago, I was definitely in for a surprise.

But first, the specs. The film was released in September 2018, so the American theatrical audience is getting this film pretty quickly for an anime. It is based on a 2014 novel by Japanese writer Yoru Sumino and has hitherto been adapted into two other mediums before becoming an animated film. These include a long-running manga adaptation from 2016-2017 and a live-action feature film in late 2017. The property proved popular and lucrative, so Studio VOLN bought the anime adaptation rights and set studio director Shinichiro Ushijima as head director on the project.

If you haven’t heard of VOLN, or ‘Visiting Old Learn New’ (a sentiment that reflects the studio’s desire to simultaneously create work within a larger tradition of anime classics while also experimenting and embracing new technology), then you’re not alone. They are a very new studio, which was founded in late 2014 by Mita Keiji, an ex-Studio Madhouse director and producer. And thus far, most of their projects were financially assisted by brother ex-Madhouse Studio MAPPA and Masao Maruyama. VOLN is just getting its legs fiscally, but with I want to eat your pancreas, they have a good first international hit critically and financially that should bode well for the studio’s future if they can keep up the quality of work and their commitment to both the future and the past of anime history.

As for the film itself, it begins in the manner any art film adaptation of the source novel might: with a funeral. By beginning in this manner, the audience is primed toward a solemn, reflective, and emotional frame of mind that carries on throughout the remainder of the film. From here, the events flash back to the time our two young protagonists first meet. The boy, whose name will not be revealed until close to end of the film for certain dramatic, thematic, and narrative reasons (a trifecta of considerations this film really nails) is at the hospital getting stitches removed from a previous surgery: an appendectomy. There, this quiet, introverted, bookish young man finds a handwritten book abandoned on a nearby seat. He picks it up and leafs through the pages of the self-titled tome ‘Living with Dying’. These are the thoughts of a terminally ill person that he has managed to accidentally enter into.

A girl flags him down and tells him that the book is hers. The two just so happen to be classmates and the girl is not known to be ill by her fellows at school. The boy originally thinks this to be some elaborate kind of prank, but she ensures him that it is not. She has a terminal pancreatic condition, a disease of the pancreas that will inevitably lead to her untimely death in a few short years from now. Only her parents, close family, and physician know about her illness, but now the boy knows and the girl feels somewhat relieved. She asks him if he will keep her secret and he agrees, especially since he has no one to tell the secret to anyway. The boy has no friends and has never had a girlfriend. He is a loner, but now this girl has entered his life.

It begins when she visits him in the library where he works part time. She bugs him all constantly to learn more about him. She even starts coming by all the time and eventually tells him the fable at the heart of the film’s title: In the past, it was said that eating the heart of an animal would help someone with a weak heart. Eating a liver would help someone with liver disease. The girl practices this ethos by consuming organ meat like hearts, livers, and offal at her favorite yakiniku, or skewered meat, restaurants in town. Playfully, she tells the boy that she wants to eat his pancreas, of course being tongue-in-cheek, but also reflecting her vitality and will to live. The friendship begins to expand as she drags the boy along with her from place to place and date to date before it eventually becomes a heartfelt friendship that transcends labels like best friend or boyfriend and girlfriend.

They enjoy each other’s company and help to build each other up. The boy by being there for her and doing things with her without an ulterior motive like sexual attraction or the more romantic view towards planning a future together. The girl by bringing the boy out of his shell and making him more outgoing, by seeing him for who he truly is and learning to love him despite his flaws. Events unfold unexpectedly time and again, before the final event which neither saw coming despite the girl’s illness and the boy is left alone once again.

I want to eat your pancreas is a beautiful little uplifting film with large-scale implications about our default modes of behavior toward other people based on the situation. It’s a portrait of love in its many vicissitudes that leaves you feeling emotionally drained, but stronger in your convictions to go forward bravely into this new world where the nexus of social relations and connections is shifting so rapidly that it can lead many to social inertia, to just dropping out of the social game (something I arguably did for around three years until late last year). And it pressures us to treasure all our benign relationships with others, no matter how fleeting, even by design (such as terminal illness, or meeting friends in a foreign country even if your stay is short, or at a local school even if you are moving soon). I loved the film, and I hope you do too.

 

With love,

Cody

Urusei Yatsura: Only You

(Catch my review of Oshii’s early career HERE)

Anime director and auteur Mamoru Oshii began his career at Tatsunoko Productions in 1977 where he was mentored under that studio’s head director before making the move along with him to Studio Pierrot in 1980. There Mamoru Oshii helmed his first anime production as head director on the critically-acclaimed and beloved Rumiko Takahashi adaptation Urusei Yatsura (for its first 106 episodes). By 1983, the Studio decided it was time to make a bold move into the feature film market with an adaptation of a new story within the Urusei Yatsura universe. And Oshii was the obvious choice to direct the film.

The film follows the exploits of Ataru Moroboshi, a young earthling, who is inexplicably the love interest for one of the universe’s most eccentric, powerful, and beautiful woman: the Oni princess Lum Invader. This film in particular begins with an art nouveau sequence in which only reds, blacks, and whites are utilized to animate a sequence from Ataru’s deep past. Therein, he and a mystery girl romp about a playground together eleven years in the past. We learn that the little girl is from an alien planet, like Lum, with its own culture and practices. One of which, and the most important in reference to the events of this film, is the engagement ritual in which a young suitor steps on the shadow of his would-be beloved. This signals his interest in the girl and thereby engages the two, and as luck would have it, Ataru is a very mediocre kid with a very unlikely past indeed as he stepped on this girl’s shadow at that time.

Years pass, and we are thrown back into the current world of Urusei Yatsura wherein Ataru runs about whimsically avoiding becoming Lum’s groom at all costs and through any gambit he can muster up (understandable for any real high school kid being pursued romantically by an alien, but infuriating for any young weebs like myself who can only dream of such a glorious fate!). Where was I again? Oh yeah: a mysterious message is sent to practically every person who knows Ataru on Earth, which relates his engagement and immanent marriage to a girl named Elle. His friends, already jealous of Lum’s affections for Ataru, are incredulous that Ataru would go behind Lum’s back and get himself engaged to another girl. Ataru is confused as he does not remember the events of eleven years ago, and anyway would most likely find them banal and not truly pact-worthy in nature.

And yet, Lady Elle has grown into a beautiful young woman who now reigns as Queen over her subjects as the ruler of the largest and most powerful planet in the galaxy system. Ataru is smitten immediately, which serves as the film’s primary conflict for most of its 100-minute run time of wily adventuring, boisterous action, wry comedy, and occasional musical sequence (which are all done surprisingly well). First Ataru willingly leaves with Elle’s entourage only for Lum and her friends to kidnap him and spirit him away to her own home planet where an impromptu wedding ceremony is planned. Elle’s spies steal Ataru back, almost causing a potentially cataclysmic war between the two planets for love on a scale far more weighty than Troy.

The spies eventually take Ataru successfully and he plans to marry Elle. But when Elle first sees the young man after 11 years, she mistakes him for one of Ataru’s friends in the group named Mendou Shintaru, which later leads to a midnight rendezvous avec les deux that results in Mendou learning about Elle’s secret cache of 99,999 frozen, handsome young men she keeps cryogenically frozen to preserve their youth and their love for her. The Queen is crazy after all. When Ataru finds all of this out, he refuses to wed with such a pernicious and seemingly evil alien broad, and is saved in the nick of time once more by Lum who is now welcomed with open arms as her entourage cause chaos on Elle’s home planet where the wedding ceremony takes place. Unfortunately for Ataru, once again, when he arrives home, he is immediately deposited within a large church where the vows are to be made between himself and Lum on the spot. Ataru runs for his life, and his freedom, out of chapel and prolongs of the saga of Urusei Yatsura once more for an indefinite period thereby.

Mamoru Oshii called Urusei Yatsura: Only You a failure of a film. However, artists in any medium are known to often be overly critical of their own work, and especially of their first work. As this was Oshii’s first feature-length project as a director, we really ought to take his admonitions of failure with a grain of salt and view the film on its own terms.

The first question is what should a film be? If the answer is taken historically and realistically in terms of what films succeed and are remembered, I would say a film is good if that film properly entertains an audience for its full run-time, if a film adaptation of a previously existing franchise fits well into that franchise, if critics like it, and if it is becomes a cult film at some future date. There are, no doubt, many other criterion one might add to this list, but these are at least important ones to reflect upon in the context of Urusei Yatsura: Only You. 

I found the film to be extremely engaging and fun at times as a mere romp, while also aesthetically pleasing and artfully made in terms of animation. While not an intellectual effort on par with later Oshii films, there is a particularly good surreal sequence in which Ataru, Elle, Lum, and various others rewatch the inciting memory of eleven years prior and even interact with its characters: the child Ataru and Elle. This is a novel and interesting melange of reality and memory that prefigures much of Oshii’s later work. The film is definitely of the spirit of the larger franchise and has received favorable critical attention in the years since its release. And while not the cult film that’s its sequel Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer is, there are few anime films from the early 1980s that regularly receive releases in the Western home video market that do not simultaneously have something to do with Studio’s Ghibli or Madhouse. Plus, if you’re really into romantic-comedy action sci-fi series and can’t find a single one other than Tenchi Muyo, here’s a film for you.

 

Ciao,

Cody Ward

[Next up: the first OVA Dallos]

Tout Rien

(Catch my previous Frederic Back film review here: Taratata)

Quebecois animator and short film director Frederic Back’s sixth film is important within his oeuvre for one principal reason: the innovative new approach to animation used therein. Rather than using large quantities of paper anymore to produce his animations, Back decided he needed to find a cost-effective and ecologically-sound way to make his films. The result of his search was a new process whereby Back used frosted cells, which he would animate, commit to celluloid, and then reuse by either making small changes for the next shot or by erasing his work to create a new scene entirely. Even though this process was more in keeping with Back’s ecological concerns, it was a slow process wherein multiple frames could not be worked on at once by a team. As such, even with two assistants on the film, it took the team 20 months to complete this 11 minute, 30 second long short film.

The story is extremely philosophically and theologically resonant while never making reference to any particular mythos and instead concerning itself with a sort of constructed or imagined creation mythos derived equally from Judeo-Christian tradition and Native American cosmology. A vague, personified cosmic force with the general appearance of a human being lives within a universe that is void and without form. This being decides to bring into creation other beings who may commune with it. The first are the birds who come into the world naked, featherless. They emerge from out of the void of Being into another kind of void where they now exist but live without direction, meaning, and in a cold world where their bodies are ill-equipped to handle the elements. The God-force directs their evolution through a one-time instantaneous change that allows all the birds to develop feathers and wings of ostentatious, beautiful, and varied plumage.

Next, the mammals are created to live upon the terrain of the Earth. They too are brought into being naked and afraid without fur. The God-force directs their evolution into hairy, warm animals who live in peace with the land through natural laws of predation and survival. The fish are born and the the heavens emerge to the light this new world wherein so much bounty has been established. And all things are good and well, are wholesome and gay in aspect.

And then the God-force creates a pair of beings in its image: the humans. They are endowed with the power of intellect, reason, fore-thought. But with this great gift, so too arise negative forces like desire. The animals, endowed with animality as opposed to God-gifts of language and intellect, live with the world and in the world. They do not desire things beyond the fleeting momentary ones needed for survival. Through this imbecility, they remain pure, sinless, and live without a fear of death because their thoughts don’t reach forward for very long into the domain of the future. They are, in a complicated German philosophical strung together word, Being-There, Dasein, and happy.

The human pair arrive and immediately covets the majestic potential of life undersea with the fish. The God-force grants their desires to appease them and changes them into merpeople who live amongst the sea’s creatures for a time before becoming tired of these surroundings and crying out to the heavens for a change. Next, the humans become hairy beasts who roam the land with the other animals, consume weaker forms of life with their claws and teeth, and generally live as Bigfoot-like monsters, which also bores them after a time. Finally, the people are changed into bird-people who admire their own plumage and attempt to live within the branches of trees. However, having heavy bones and large frames only makes life difficult so up high as they break branch after branch in their tree-domiciles.

Finally, the God-force decides to forsake these presumptuous human beings who thought they could just demand and demand again and again from their creator, progenitor, from the wellspring of their being. They are reverted back to naked human beings who then create their own weapons to destroy other forms of life once more. This time, however, this destructive work is not undergone for sustenance, for food, it is undertaken to artificially constrain the powers of nature to themselves. They kill all kinds and don the dead’s skins as fancy accoutrements to their newfound powers as murderous beings who kill for sport and comfort.

The generations pass and children are born to these beings. Those children are indoctrinated into the murderous lifestyles of their forebears. They travel and spread by foot before developing ships with which to conquer the world. They go whaling, harness the oil therein, create factories and oil refineries, deforesting operations and natural resource extraction, automobiles and planes arise. Industry booms as cities expand, and so too do production and wealth increase as waste and abject poverty become the norm for the majority of those wretched of the earth (to quote a Franz Fanon title). Human beings become more than a member of the animal kingdom. They become the master species whose exploits have the ability to alter the very inner workings of the world itself.

And they kill the God-force with their bows and arrows and other weaponry, just as we have killed spirituality and a belief in forces outside of our power through  modern medicine, science, and technology. They rely on medicine for cures rather than on nature’s discretion about who will live and die, they rely on science to avert global catastrophe or lessen their effects, and they rely on technology to prolong their lives. All commendable things in a world where there is no God, but Back’s imaginative plain here is not such a world. And as such, the final action for these people is only to return to nature, to recognize their animality, and to become one with the world once again rather than coveting all its spoils. The God-force revives after this about face by the humans and all is restored to an idyllic world. If only such a narrative were true and such a return were possible in our own world.

 

Ciao,

Cody Ward

[Continued here with Back’s award-winning 1981 film Crac!]

Mamoru Oshii: Career Beginnings

As far as Japanese directors go, Mamoru Oshii is probably the most acclaimed and revered alive. He has won awards from film academies in his home country to France, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy. Oshii has been nominated for the Golden Bear and the Palme d’Or for his animated films: two awards more prestigious than even the American Oscar and more important when deciding if a film is a masterwork that holds a place of importance in cinema history. Oshii has helped to mentor and influence some of the greatest modern Japanese directors including Kenji Kamiyama and the now-deceased Satoshi Kon.

He is a filmmaker of both philosophical anime, and of science fiction and surreal live-action films who finds his influence in the domain of the greatest of all directors to ever grace the medium: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, Melville. And he recognizes the importance of Science Fiction films like This Spaceship Earth, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner as at least fundamental to the grammar of the medium as Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane. If all this were not enough, his career has given us the first OVA in Dallos, the greatest anime head-trip in Angel’s Egg, an enduring cross-media science fiction work in the Kerberos Saga, and arguably the greatest animated film ever made in Blade Runner’s only true spiritual successor: Ghost in the Shell. 

Over the next four months or so, I will reviewing and analyzing the career of Oshii on this blog, and I had planned to begin with an essay on his first feature-length film Urusei Yatsura: Only You. However, Oshii’s career began long before this film’s release in 1983 and that narrative is an integral part in understanding how he developed into the filmmaker we know, love, and admire today.

Unlike another father of modern Japanese animation, Isao Takahata (who studied French Literature at University, could not animate to dying day, and only lucked into a directing job with Toei that spring-boarded him to an illustrious career of his own), Mamoru Oshii was always a cinephile with an interest in directing films one day. As a youth, his father exposed him to tons of films by European arthouse directors. At Tokyo Gakugei University, Oshii continued to explore his interests in filmmaking and consumed at much as possible. He must of trained as an artist there as after graduating in 1976, he managed to gain a job as an animator for Tatsunoko Productions, which was just over a decade old at the time and had previously scored a big hit with its animated TV series Speed Racer. 

While at Tatsunoko, Oshii worked primarily as a storyboard artist and episode director, while occasionally penning an episode as a writer for many of the Studio’s productions. From 1977 until his departure from the studio in 1980, Oshii worked in some capacity on the following shows: Ippatsu Kanta-kun, Yatterman, Gachaman, Majokko Tickle, and Zenderman. However, the money must have been good or Oshii must have enjoyed working there as he returned on three subsequent occasions between 1980 and 1987 to work on the series Dashu Kappei, Gyakuten! Ippatsuman, and Zillion. One can consider this time spent with Tatsunoko as a period of development for Oshii as he learned the ins and outs of the production process of anime from many different vantage points and built up a highlight reel or resume for himself that he could later refer to in order to promote himself as a director deserving of the helm of series director or head director on a film.

At Tatsunoko, the head director of the studio’s most popular productions like Speed Racer and Gatchaman was Hisayuki Toriumi. Toriumi took Oshii under his wing while at Tatsunoko and when the former made the move to Studio Pierrot in 1980, so too did his protege Mamoru Oshii. There, they worked together on the World Masterpiece Theatre-like Wonderful Adventures of Nils anime for which Oshii storyboarded 11 episodes and directed 18 out of series total of 52 episodes. And later, Toriumi helped Oshii write the script of his OVA series Dallos. During their time together at Pierrot, it seems that Oshii began to come into his own as a director and after Dallos in 1983, the two never worked together again despite Toriumi continuing on as a director of animation until 2001. Toriumi’s career past this split include classic OVAs and Films like Area 88, Lily C.A.T., Like the Clouds Like the Wind, Baoh, and Sohyryuden: Legend of the Dragon Kings. 

For a time, Oshii’s work at Pierrot remained relegated to occasional jobs as a storyboard artist and episode director. From 1980-84, he worked on the following shows for Pierrot: Rescueman, Yattodetaman, Belle and Sebastien, Golden Warrior Gold Lightan, Miss Machiko, and Mrs. Pepper Pot. Most important, however, was Oshii’s work on the exceedingly popular Urusei Yatsura from 1981-84. On this TV anime adaptation of a classic Rumiko Takahashi manga, Oshii created storyboards for 21 episodes, directed 24 episodes personally, and served as the series head director for the first 106 episodes of its run (more than half of its final total run). The anime was so popular that it later spawned 12 independent OVA episodes and 6 feature-length films. On the first two films, Oshii was given the opportunity to direct. It is through Urusei Yatsura that Oshii began to helm big productions as a director, and particularly through the series’ second film Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer that he began to be known as a director interested primarily in the Surreal, the Philosophical, and in how these modes of operation relate to Science Fiction and Fantasy.

From this point forward, Oshii’s work would continue on through production houses like Studio Deen, Headgear, and Production I.G.. He would begin work on his Kerberos Saga through live action films, animated films, and manga, eventually settling on the former (live-action filmmaking) as his favorite way to create narratives. But in every new venture throughout his life, Oshii has given his all to make the production artful, thoughtful, and ultimately, consumable media made to satisfy more than the Society of the Spectacle, but transformative media crafted to satisfy the intellect. This is just the first chapter in my investigation into the career of Mamoru Oshii. I hope you’ll tag along with me.

 

Ciao,

Cody Ward

[Next up: Urusei Yatsura: Only You]

A Silent Voice: Timeless Adolescence

‘They all try to put us down, just because we get around. Things they do look awful cold. I hope I die before I get old.’ This, the rallying cry for youth since the song’s release in the mid-1960s by the unrivaled rock band The Who. ‘My Generation’, as the opening credits theme of 2016’s A Silent Voice,  is the pulse beat that works to immediately draw us back to our own youths as we watch Japanese anime kids stream past upon the screen (hopefully a large one as it continues to run theatrically from time to time in the States).

These dilettantes run and prance along to and from school, home, the mall, and through the streets of Tokyo. We watch them rough house and horse around, we are shown their joyful days before the disruptive and dispiriting death-knell of time that presses so hard upon youth even in high school, well before the brain has even fully developed, and pressures joy into hiatus in the face of such horrendous, insidious forces as exit exams, continued education or training, and the most odious question of all: ‘What do I want to do with my life? With my one shot?’

With the first bars of The Who’s immortal anthem, we are taken back to an innocent time. Our protagonists are young kids who talk and goof off in class, are obstinate in the face of new challenges, and wish nothing more than to escape class and return to play unhindered by study. They write on their desks and fumble with the lead in their mechanical pencils, nod off or have their attentions distracted by their friend’s childish ploys or by the present or hoped attentions of those members of the opposite sex they find interesting for reasons hitherto unknown.

Director Naoko Yamada is a relative newcomer to directing theatrical anime though she has a decade-long history of directing TV anime for Kyoto Animation that reaches back to her work on the acclaimed anime series K-On! in 2009. This series held her attentions for the next three years through a subsequent sequel series, two OVA series, and one theatrical film for the series. From this work, she moved onto direction of another popular series called Tamako Market in 2013 that also produced a theatrical film in 2014. And while Yamada certainly had experience engaging with youth and one’s grade school days through these anime, and though she had some experience crafting theatrical works through these projects, it is an entirely separate beast to create one from scratch without having some hand in the project’s development like she did on previous projects for years before ever attempting such a feat.

But the film succeeds beyond all expectations. The core of the film is a young boy named Shoya and his cast of friends in grade school who bully a new student named Shoko who is deaf and only requires some help, friendship, and understanding to acclimate well to her new school. However, just as youth is often carefree and joyous in a country with a modern economy, so too is it capricious and wont to damage its charges who don’t fit in with the herd. Shoko is mercilessly bullied by most of the members of her class who taunt her often and openly because she is deaf and won’t hear the insults. Her one friend, Sahara, is bullied so badly for becoming friends with Shoko that she eventually changes schools and once again leaves Shoko without an ally. Most viewers can resonate with this feeling of emptiness and alienation Shoko experiences in the absence of a friend (I myself had four friends move away throughout elementary and middle school, all best friends too).

The bullying eventually escalates to kids occasionally stealing Shoko’s communication notebook and hiding it or submerging it in school’s fountain. Others, like Shoya, push her away physically when she attempts to communicate with them. Some students steal her hearing aids and toss them in such a way that they are lost permanently or damaged beyond repair. And one time, when Shoya pulls out her hearing aids during class, he pulls much too hard and blood comes streaming from Shoko’s ears. We all have our stories of physical and mental abuse from our peers throughout school, and this is the dark side of youth that the film expresses so well alongside youth’s superficial idylls. Therefore, we can all sympathize with Shoko and with the emotional pain she experiences: intense and often irrational rage toward our aggressors, self-hatred and suicidal ideation, numbness and emotional distance.

Many of us have also been the bullies at times in our lives. When Shoko’s physical safety is threatened by Shoya pulling out her hearing aids, the class’s teacher who had hitherto avoided addressing the problem (as do most teachers in my experience) is forced by the pressures of Shoko’s mother and the school’s administrator to punish those responsible. Shoya’s mother meets with Shoko’s mother and gives her 17,000 yen (15 to 20 k in U.S. dollars) to pay for the hearing aids her son Shoya destroyed. Shoko’s mother also beats up Shoya’s mother to pay her back for the transgressions of her son. Shoko changes school and Shoya remains behind where he becomes a pariah as the leader of the bullies who forced Shoko to leave.

As Shoya grows up and enters high school, we learn that he has studied sign language profusely to one apologize to Shoko. He has also worked a part-time job and sold all of his comic books and other collectibles to save up 17,000 yen to pay back his mother for the costs she incurred on his behalf. Finally, the damage he wrought to Shoko emotionally and psychologically hung so heavy a burden on his heart that he plans to kill himself after delivering the apology and the money. And again, like so many of us, his nerve and his resolve are too weak and he doesn’t go forward with his plans after all. His mother sees his cryptic messages on his personal calendar at home wherein one day is listed as final day and the remaining months and days in the calendar have been ripped out. She refuses his money and accidentally burns it. Later, Shoya helps a boy named Tomohiro when a bully tries to take his bicycle and thereby Tomohiro earns himself his first friend in years. And what’s more is that his dialogue with Shoko develops into something much more, which helps both the bully and the bullied to overcome their pasts little by little despite the fact that they will never fully escape these spectres.

A Silent Voice won tons of awards and made a sizable return on investment financially for its beautiful portrayal of youth in its multifaceted nature, in both its highs and its lows. Celebrated hack director Makoto Shinkai called the film beautiful, masterful, and an achievement better than anything he could hope to create. And while Shinkai’s 2016 film Your Name topped the box office, it and his entire oeuvre do nothing more than chart the emotional vicissitudes of a particular kind of romanticized-philosophical youth refracted through the mind of a 20-something otaku, while A Silent Voice speaks to all who have experienced youth in an immediate manner that leaps off of the screen and directly into our hearts. Whereas Shinkai analyzes youth, Naoko Yamada merely reflects it and thereby delivers the real thing.

 

Ciao,

Cody Ward

Taratata

(Check out my previous Frederic Back film review: ¿Illusion?)

Taratata is a term you probably haven’t heard unless you’ve studied French, and even then, I studied French for four years at University and Quebecois culture, politics, and dialect for a full semester and still didn’t know what it meant. Google Feedback defines it thus: Onomatopée exprimant l’incrédulité, la défiance, le mépris. It is used as an onomatopoeic interjection expressing incredulity, defiance, or contempt. In the context of a short film by Frederic Back it is used with a political sense in mind.

But first to the film’s production history. Back’s previous film was released in 1975 and throughout the latter half of 1976 and the first few months of 1977, Back worked to create Taratata which would become his fifth film. Unlike Back’s previous experiments, Taratata is shorter than its predecessor. Rather than slowly working his form toward lengthier narratives, Back decided to condense the narrative and remove all extraneous content to make it as concise and cohesive as possible. He worked with one assistant (Suzanne Raymond) who aided Back as an in-between artist, tracer, and colorist, but otherwise left him to his own devices.

After doing a bit of research, I found that Back used assistants on half of his projects hitherto, but always for different reasons. On his first film, Abracadabra, Back had six assistants assigned to his production from a higher up at Radio Canada Broadcasting in order to speed along his process. Back chafed at these restraints and on his next two films, he refused assistance altogether, instead opting to create his films entirely by himself. This is kind of extraordinary as both of those films were released within one year, and it is only when Back had assistance that his production times began to drag on. For his fourth film, ¿Illusion?, Back again had an assistant (this time only one). And somehow his production time on that film (less than a minute longer than the two he created by himself) took a whopping 18 months to create. Although Taratata is three minutes shorter than that film at 8 minutes and 30 seconds, it only took him 8 months to produce. Suffice it to say that Back was an experimental filmmaker who took his time going down interesting rabbit holes and producing his work part time while fulfilling his main duties at Radio Canada.

The film itself is about Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in Quebec, which is an ancient European religious holiday that had previously been celebrated in the old countries for hundreds of years prior to colonization and European imperialism in North and South America. In Quebec, the festival was a celebration of Quebecois heritage and history, and Back shows this as parade floats of colonists and natives, of fur trappers and patriots, of the church and of traditional music and dancing, and of frontiering and exploration float on by through the streets.

A young boy attempts to watch the parade from a light pole, but finds himself viewing the latter half of the parade wherein the American flag is draped along many floats. This signals the parade of modernity that America represents to the world: Industry and its hazards like pollution, child labor, unsafe work environments, and alienation from one’s labor and one’s life. Militarism and its discontents like imperialism, slavery, death, the war machine, the military-industrial complex and the buying of politicians that signaled the death of democracy and a shift toward a corporate hold on politics. Nuclear science, the atomic bomb, nuclear energy and catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl. Skyscrapers and mega-architecture, the birth of cities, Durkheim’s studies on suicide, mass malaise and existential dread in the face of living life as a media being artificially made to revere to spectacle through advertising and other such forms of anti-Free Market propaganda (because remember, enough advertising is what makes a brand the ‘best’, not its actual qualities. Logic dictates that there are better soda companies than Coke and Pepsi, but we keep buying those because advertising perpetuates the rich company’s popularity despite it potentially not tasting the best or being the most affordable. Advertising is, in this sense, anti Free Market.).

The scared child who has witnessed this parade evades the scene by running down a morbid backstreet where he falls asleep until night falls. Once awakening, he returns to the main streets and finds trash littering the ground where this once great revelry of Quebecois pride and heritage passed through in its current devolved form. The boy imagines the grandeur of a great parade without politics and without the machine. And his vision is so potent and nostalgic and beautiful that it manifests in the minds of those denizens who were similarly disaffected by the charade of a parade Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day has become. All gather around to dream together of a better day, and the little boy retires back to his side streets with a smile across his face for the first time that day.

In the years leading up to Taratata, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day was undergoing some real changes for the worst. It had become a day celebrated by the right wing and by nationalists who wished to revoke non-Catholic and non-French-Canadians from its celebration and thereby from an essential element of Quebecois-ness itself. In 1964, there were protests against the then-Governor Vanier of this right-wing nature. Again in 1968 there were riots against Trudeau’s visitation of the event as he was notably an inclusive politician and head of the Liberal party. In 1969, nationalist riots erupted like never before through anti-immigrant rhetoric and the effigy/icon of Saint-Jean-Baptiste was toppled and destroyed. Finally, in 1970, there was no Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day parade event at all.

Throughout the 1970s, these problems remained. But it just so happens that in 1977, the government passed a law mandating Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day a national holiday. This helped to transition the day definitively away from nationalist rhetoric as it became a time when many Quebecois were off of work and could celebrate the multi-faceted, multi-ethnic background and current reality of Quebec together without a preponderance of religious or traditional-ethnic rhetoric being associated. Today, this parade is a celebrated event and often fun parade for those of Quebec in which politics often comes to the forefront. However, these politics are often more inclusive and leftist, and thereby more in keeping with Back’s ideals and with the ideals of freedom and social liberalism on which Western democracies are based. And otherwise, this day has returned to being a celebration of heritage, history, and the multi-cultural present reality of the province that refused to be assimilated by English Canada so many times in its history.

 

Ciao,

Cody

[Next up: Tout Rien]

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki

(Check out my previous Hayao Miyazaki film review here: The Wind Rises)

Late last year, GKIDS brought the 2016 Japanese made-for-TV documentary Never-Ending Man to U.S. theaters through Fathom Events distribution. As a Ghibli fanatic who enjoys any window into the production and personal sides of the the studio’s operations, and one who thoroughly enjoyed their previous documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I made it a point to mark my calendar and ready myself for 70 minutes of interviews with Miyazaki and in-depth behind-the-scenes coverage of the studio.

But first, a bit of backstory is necessary to put you readers who didn’t see the film into my headspace at the time (and likely the headspace of many American otaku). In 2013, Miyazaki released The Wind Rises, which was slated to be his last feature length production after his umpteenth retirement announcement in early 2014. What’s more, Isao Takahata, the Studio’s founder and Miyazaki’s mentor, had just released his first film in 14 years The Tale of Princess KaguyaDue to Takahata’s advanced age, it was speculated rightly by many that this would be his final film. Moreover, Miyazaki was no spring chicken and it seemed he might really go into retirement this time around. 

To add complications, Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki’s protege Yoshiaki Nishimura left the Studio during this production halt in 2014 to found their own studio: Studio Ponoc. And every prospect for the continuation of Studio Ghibli animation was now working elsewhere on productions outside of the Studio including Kitaro Kosaka at Studio Madhouse, Sunao Katabuchi at Studio Chizu, Mamoru Hosada at MAPPA and Studio M2, directors Tomomi Mochizuki and Hiroyuki Morita so turned off by directing due to the pressures of past Ghibli work that they rarely helmed a production themselves anymore, and Ghibli’s greatest prospect Yoshifumi Kondo long dead from a karoshi-related heart attack due to his long hours and hard work at Ghibli. Although Goro Miyazaki had begun to blossom as a director at the Studio, he was only able to do so when surrounded by great animators and directors who had now left the Studio and when his project’s screenplays were shaped by his father Hayao. Even so, after Goro’s direction of the first Studio Ghibli CGI and first TV series Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, no new projects had been discussed for some time for the young director (whose primary interests always lay in architecture and installation art anyway).

So, in late 2014, when Ghibli announced that Miyazaki was partially coming out of retirement to develop a short CGI film entitled Boro the Caterpillar, I was elated with hope that this production might gestate into another feature-length animation, or scratch that, that it might help the Studio finally find another successor to mantle of head director and creative visionary. Never-Ending Man follows Miyazaki from his initial decision to jump back into the fray through the film’s completion and into his future plans for his work and for the Studio.

But none of this would have occurred at all without the happenstance appearance of a group of young CGI animators who just graduated college and wished to elevate themselves into a full-fledged production company. To do so, they went out on a limb and took many chances including offering up their skills and showing highlight reels of their work to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki. Miyazaki found the possibilities of the format of CGI to be refreshing and new, and as such, he took up the helm and decided to begin production on a short film for release at the Studio Ghibli Museum Theatre. However, he also came head to head with the limitations of the by now three-decades old technology that had still yet to reach a degree of realism and beauty on par with the kinds of works he could produce on pen and paper blindfolded, with just his pinky, and one hand tied behind his back.

Because of these limitations, Miyazaki became the old taskmaster once again and pushed the young animators to work harder than they may have ever imagined they could. At many stages along the way, Miyazaki considered scrapping the project in its entirety and either returning to retirement or firing the CGI staff for a hand-drawn approach. Ultimately, he rescinded his reservations with Suzuki on numerous occassions and only succumbed to changing his plans once when he invited another promising young CGI animation crew to show hi their work in the hopes of supplementing the work of his own crew. Unfortunately, this new crew of animators were interested in the surreal and horrific possibilities of the medium of CGI and AI-assisted animation. What they presented Miyazaki and his team with as a highlight reel was the animation of human bodies by AI without knowledge of human locomotion. The traumatizing figures shown within the reel used their heads as limbs and distorted and contorted their bodies in unnatural and heart-rending manners that was about the farthest thing from realism. But more importantly to Miyazaki, these images reminded one immediately of the locomotion of the physically handicapped and deformed, and thereby elicited an ethical response in Miyazaki (and in myself) of horror. He felt that the young animators were immoral youth who never even considered how such images, though only a highlight reel of their program’s possibilities, could negatively affect the mental health of handicapped individuals. While holding back tears, Miyazaki abruptly asked the young animators to leave his sight hence and forevermore.

By the film’s end, Miyazaki managed to push his initial crew extremely hard while animating elements himself and producing thousands of renderings and cels for the guidance of his crew in adjusting their models to be more realistic and more Ghibli-esque in their aesthetic qualities. And while the film was a critical success for those who have seen it, the entire process left a bad taste in Miyazaki’s mouth. He has now realized once again that traditional, hand-drawn animation has yet to be matched by any other form in its aesthetic quality and ability to draw out emotion in its characterizations. And what else could you expect? A mere decades-old technology like CGI animation does not have the history of millenia to draw upon like hand-drawn animation, and I would argue, could not thereby ever even approximate its visual quality or power.

In the film’s final moments, Miyazaki discusses how CGI was a mistake and how he will never attempt to return to it ever again in his work. Furthermore, he explains that his new plan is to develop another feature film, a film he has already dedicated to his grandson and plans to leave behind as his final picture for posterity. It is tentatively titled How Do You Live? based on the title of a novel by Yoshino Genzaburo, which was the first work in years to influence Miyazaki’s worldview in such a way as to make life seem new and beautiful to him once again. The protagonist of the film is, like Miyazaki, hopelessly enamored with this book and finds it invigorating and en-spiriting in his own life.

Though details of the film’s release are hazy, we know a few things. 1. It was initially planned for release before or around the time of the 2020 Olympics in Japan. 2. It will not be finished in time for this great cultural event. 3. It is now slated for a release between 2021 to 2022. 4. Reports from as early as late 2017 seem to show that Goro Miyazaki is also working on a feature film simultaneously on which he will incorporate CGI animation. 5. There was a year-long period in which no new news was forthcoming on either project. 6. Now, it seems that Goro may be helping his father to create his the former film and the latter film’s production may be halted as reports are contradictory at this time and Ghibli has made no formal announcements (at least none that the Western press has interpreted and commented upon).

Nevertheless, even if this is the final Ghibli film and the studio decides to call it quits after this one, revel in this time while you can. A new Miyazaki film is forthcoming, various Studios and Directors have emerged in his wake to create beautiful animation inspired by his and Takahata-san’s examples, and no end is currently in sight to these developments as digital assistance technologies make traditional animation models more cost-efficient and lucrative. At least for the foreseeable future, Miyazaki’s work and spirit live on a time horizon that is never-ending in its scope and influence.

 

Ciao,

Cody

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