(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.
(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.
[Continued here: The Man Who Planted Trees]
(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.
[Continued here with Back’s award-winning 1981 film Crac!]
(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.
[Next up: Tout Rien]
(Check out my previous Back film review here: Inon)
In 1975, the Quebecois animator and director Frederic Back released his fourth film entitled ¿Illusion?. Following a trend in the production of his first three films, this fourth one was longer than back’s previous release by about thirty seconds and came in at a total length of 11 minutes and 30 seconds. The film also took longer than any of Back’s previous animations to create, at a whopping 18 months, because of Back’s budget restraints, very small though tight-knit crew, and his attention to detail as an animator in each frame who wished to make his creation, at all times, visually arresting and alluring.
The short film opens to a large valley in a fertile land where children roam the grounds of a small field alongside rabbits, squirrels, birds, and their pet cats. The place is idyllic beyond belief and hearkens back to an imagined time when people lived simply and in harmony with the land (as evidenced by ecologically unharmful water wheels as the only source for power), when mankind could still stomach the mystery of old forests and not destroy them out of need for resources. In a word, when life felt worth living and all things were invested with mystery and human relations to these things were coloured by awe and reverence.
Then, one day, a mysterious figure enters town. Our first impression is that this figure is an adult, which is the first signal or premonition of ill-tidings in this hamlet of children. The man carries with him the accoutrements of civilization: a fancy suit and bow tie, various musical instruments, and a general ‘civilized’ demeanor. All the children are suspect of this man until he begins to woo them with the power of music, then with his magic abilities to transmogrify living flesh into mechanical circuits and joints. The magician throws a rabbit into his hat and when he retrieves it thence, it emerges a robotic thing not unlike the Energizer Bunny. He grabs a bird and throws it into his pack, which then emerges as a toy whistle in the shape of a bird: a lifeless machine meant merely to please others, which has lost its soul in the process.
Like the pied piper, this magician leads the children onward into the hills and shows them many initially delightful and useful technologies like light poles to keep the children and their host of animals safe from wolves at night, or domiciles wherein children can escape the elements in viciously cold winters. However, the project soon elevates itself beyond all sustainability and usefulness as the trees become large gray tenement buildings and factories wherein the children are enslaved to work for the magician. Even the children’s clothing becomes gray as their general aspects darken with malaise and existential dread at the prospect of being divorced from nature, and now even from the products of their labors, which they cannot freely take when needed and must pay for by working to build said products.
But industrial slave labor or wage labor, and alienation from nature and from one’s goods, are not the only unholy elements in this hideous tragedy of modernity’s manners. To make it into the unholy trinity it really is, the magician recognizes the depressed state of the children and introduces the free market, adding unfettered capitalism to the equation, which only further depresses the children. Unlike we in our modern age who are so enamored with cultural objects and processed, mass-marketed experiences, these children were not reared in the system. As such, they are uniquely unaffected by these entertainments and diversion, and instead dream of a renewal, of a return to their idyllic past and to their wholesome homes without the attendant ills of crime, poverty, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and moral decay in all its vicissitudes.
The children revolt revolt against their magician, which they vastly outnumber as the proletariat. Here, Back recognizes that any progressive, social justice approaches to the problems of society here will not and cannot suffice to restore joy and peace to the social order. This is so, because he recognizes, like Marx before him that social and cultural forces are not the driving elements of society. No, the base is economics and political structure. But in this case, the answer is not to take over the means of production and to instill a more equitable economic situation through the political order (another dead-end of political theory and action in the 20th, and hitherto in the, 21st century). The whole point is to destroy the structure totally (or in Slavoj Zizek’s comedic formulation to not just dust the balls of those in power, but to cut them off) in order to either create a new one from the ground up, which values nature and our role and part in it, as well as equitable and fair living (Because a world in which Billionaires exist at all is one which is sickly and choking on moral decay).
The children, uncorrupted by high-minded political theory and philosophy, recognize one of two options: 1. To remain in the present order and die a slow death of the spirit. Or 2. To destroy the present order and return to one that worked perfectly fine before the new order emerged. Their innocence allows them to not only think in this simplistic, and ultimately effective manner, but also to bind together as a collective of individuals who realize their joy is in communion with one another and not in disassociation as mere cogs in a mechanical political and economic order. They chase out the magician and the illusions of technological progress and achievement (things that may exist beyond our own lives, but will ultimately return to final cosmic ash like all others, and therefore have no more significance than intangible goods like happiness and peace) disappear, revealing the natural order of things beneath the illusion.
Here, animals return and the valley regains is majestic glow as the old order is snuffed out, with a whimper, by virtue of the mere and basic power of belief. In our own world, such a fight would surely lead to bloodshed and violence, but maybe no more than the millions of innocents killed in cold blood by imperialist regimes supported by the capitalist order as in America’s crusade in the Middle East today. And another big difference: if we return to something closer to the ground, we will not find the Earth as it once was before our destructive involvement. We will find it ravaged, pillaged, and raped through nothing more than the will of hoarder-billionaires whose names I need not mention here.
If there really is a hell, at least they’re not going: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ Meaning: It is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. (But hey, this is only coming from someone who’s read hundreds of texts on biblical studies.)
[Continued here: Taratata]
(Check out my review of the previous Studio Ponoc film here: Mary and the Witch’s Flower)
When Studio Ponoc was founded after the initial dissolution of Studio Ghibli in 2014, it seemed that its head talent and lead director was Hiromasa Yonebayashi who had previously directed two films for Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There). Yonebayashi had well over two decades of experience in animation by this time as an in-between and key animator for Ghibli productions like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales of Earthsea, Ponyo, and From Up on Poppy Hill as well as the Nasu films by fellow Ghibli alum Kitaro Kosaka (and director of the highly anticipated Studio Madhouse feature Okko’s Inn) and acclaimed anime series like Monster and Serial Experiments Lain.
However, with the arrival of Studio Ponoc’s first anthology film comprised of short films by three different directors, it seems the studio is working to recruit many talents (probably to avoid the successor problem that hounded Ghibli throughout its days). In an extensive interview (released as part of Modest Heroes’ U.S. theatrical run) with Studio Ponoc producer and former Ghibli producer (Howl’s Moving Castle, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, The Tale of Princess Kaguya) Yoshiaki Nishimura discussed the future direction of the Studio and revealed therein just how integral his vision is for that future.
Nishimura is not only the one who drums up support and funding for projects at the Studio, but he is also the one who brought Yonebayashi along with him to start the Studio. Nishimura was also the one who initially came up the idea to start a short films anthology series at the Studio to help develop new talent. The idea came to Nishimura while at Ghibli where tons of short films were produced throughout the years for commercial use at the Studio Ghibli Museum. Unfortunately for all of the talented young directors who worked their ways up in the ranks of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki cannibalized most opportunities to work in this way, and few beyond the old master ever got the opportunity to direct anything for Ghibli during their tenure there. Nishimura reasoned that this lack of opportunity for other directors beyond Miyazaki and Takahata to direct was the principal reason that Studio was unable to find a successor, and as such, Nishimura has no such plans to repeat their mistake.
The first short films anthology begins with ‘Kanini and Kanino’ directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and based on an original idea by Nishimura (as are all three short films in the anthology, once again establishing Nishimura’s role at Studio Ponoc as a bonafied auteur in his own right). When Yonebayashi released Mary and the Witch’s Flower, it was received with open arms by an anime community yearning for more works in the Ghibli tradition. However, many criticized the film for being unambiguously Ghibli and too similar to past Miyazaki films and plots, with characters all too similar to those we already know well. Mary was also Yonebayashi’s first film created with an original script not based on a classic British fantasy novel. If anything, that misstep merely reveals that he ought to stick to adaptations until a time comes when his abilities as a writer improve. Suffice it to say that ‘Kanini and Kanino’ suffers from much the same problem and is the least compelling of the three films in the anthology.
The second film is entitled, somewhat awkwardly, ‘Life Ain’t Gonna Lose.’ It is the tale of a young boy who is deathly allergic to eggs. The boy finds his life difficult because of the presence of eggs in almost any baked good and often avoids outings with other children to avoid potentially life-threatening accidental exposure. As a spiritual successor to the Ghibli helm however, the situation works out for the best as this little boy works to overcome his allergy by deciding to go to the hospital on a more regular basis where he can be treated through exposure therapy until he is one day able to eat eggs like other children.
This segment was directed by Yoshiyuki Momose who had previously only directed on two occasions (Ghiblies Episode 2 and Space Station No. 9) for the rare Studio Ghibli short films not helmed by Miyazaki-san himself. Momose is an animator whose career began all the back in 1971, or shortly thereafter Miyazaki himself entered the field of animation in the mid to late sixties, and therefore, it was imperative for Nishimura to hire Momose on to direct something as a test to see whether he was ready for feature film work down the road. Imperative, because Momose is currently 66 years old, and although he may have thirty more years of productivity ahead, the fates may also find it fit to yield less than ten to him (fickle as they are). Momose’s career hitherto has involved animation work for classics like Lensman, A Journey Through Fairyland, Grave of the Fireflies, Porco Rosso, whisper of the Heart, Spirited Away, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and the popular Ghibli inspired RPG series Ni no Kuni. Hopefully, we will see more work from him in the coming years through Studio Ponoc.
Finally, the third and final film in this short film anthology is ‘Invisible’ by director Akihiko Yamashita. The story is by far the most visually, aurally, and thematically arresting of the three tales as it depicts the bleak, grey life of a man doomed to live in the world as a spectre, invisible to all but those who suffer his same misfortune, though they too are few and far between. The heaven’s call toward him as some sort of suicidal impulse he can only assuage by carrying heavy objects that weigh him down using the earth’s gravity. But through a redemptive action wherein he saves the life of another, of an innocent child, the invisible man finds redemption and solace, and more importantly he finds himself once again.
Akihiko Yamashita is the least experience director of the three in this anthology as he has only previously directed the Studio Ghibli short film A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail. Yet, Yamashita can also be considered the most accomplished animator of the three as he has served in more capacities than merely an in-betweener or key animator. Thus far, his credits include highly prestigious production roles like Assistant Animation Director on The Cat Returns, Ponyo, When Marnie Was There, and Mary; Head animation Director on Howl’s Moving Castle and Arrietty; and Assistant Director on Tales From Earthsea. Moreover, his work outside of Ghibli and Ponoc includes more classic anime than any of his fellow Ponoc directors: e.g. Urusei Yatsura, Legend of the Overfiend, Nadia, Giant Robo, Serial Experiments Lain, Blue Submarine No. 6, and Big O.
Besides the hope for a future for Ghibli animation, this short film anthology signals the willingness of Studio Ponoc to experiment continually with the medium of animation, to foster a home for new animators and a testing ground for future directors, and as a future gateway for potential droves of new viewers to rediscover Ghibli in the future when the all too short-sighted masses begin to forget its impact. The most hopeful takeaway for me, however, toward this end was Nishimura’s stated promise that he enjoyed the process of producing films, was good at drumming up financial support, and that the Studio’s films have thus far been moderately profitable enough for him to continue the series. And not only to continue it for a while, but indefinitely as Nishimura plans to release Ponoc short film anthologies well past the tenth installment, and until the very day he dies.
A final rejoinder. This anthology was originally sleighted to be somewhat longer due to the initial plan for a fourth film by Studio Ghibli founder Isao Takahata. Unfortunately, Takahata passed away before such a plan could come to fruition. Modest Heroes is dedicated to his memory and to the influence of his films without which anime would be a completely different beast than the one we know it as today.