Sun, 20 Jan 2002 22:41:53 -0800

Seeing as I just rented the Trigun series (a  rather quirky little
futuristic western with a twist) it was nice to stumble upon this
article on the NYT. I"ll spare you the need to register, and just
quote it it in full.

I  have  one  problem  with  this essay. They don't focus on a crucial
distinction  that  I  think  separates  it from the Disney/westernized
cartoon series -- Anime (at least from the various anime I have seen )
has  an  overwhelming  use of women as protagonists, the heroes of the
story, or at least active characters within the film. Rather than just
having  them be sidelined, kissing the hero, they're out there equally
kicking ass. Ah well, its still a good article, my feminist tendencies
aside :)

January 20, 2002

Anime, Japanese Cinema's Second Golden Age

TriStar  Pictures  "Metropolis,"  a  Japanese anime film, is a fantasy
blending  high-tech  computer  and  traditional  hand-drawn animation.
Directed by Rintaro, it is based on a 1949 comic book by Osamu Tezuka.

It  is easy to get the impression that the Japanese cinema disappeared
from   the  world  stage  with  the  passing  of  its  three  greatest
filmmakers,  Kenji  Mizoguchi,  Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Since
Kurosawa's death in 1998, a number of gifted directors have emerged in
Japan,   including  Takeshi  Kitano  ("Hana  Bi")  and  Shinji  Aoyama
("Eureka").  But  none  of  them  have  been able to fill American and
European  art  houses as their elders did in the 1950's and 60's, when
Japanese film was in its golden age.

But  in  fact,  Japanese  film  has  probably  never  been  as popular
internationally  as  it  is  right now. Its popularity, though, is not
grounded  in  live  action  films,  but  in  the animated features and
television  series  that  have  come to be known as anime. It has been
estimated  that  anime  (AH-nee-may)  now  account  for  60 percent of
Japanese  film  production. The term itself — a Japanese adaptation of
the  English  "animation"  —  suggests  the  roots  of  the form, in a
blending  of  the  Japanese  pictorial  tradition  represented by silk
painting and woodblock prints with American-style character design and
genre stories.

After  a  decade  or  two  as  an underground phenomenon in the United
States — where legions of obsessive fans exchange fuzzy videotapes or,
more  commonly  now,  trade bootlegged movie files over the Internet —
anime  is  slowly  emerging  into  the  light of day. Hayao Miyazaki's
"Princess  Mononoke"  was  released  by  Miramax  in  1999 in a dubbed
version,  featuring  the  voices of Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson and
Minnie Driver; Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 "Akira" opened theatrically last
year  in  a  digitally restored edition (and is now available on DVD);
last  summer  Columbia  Pictures  released  "The  Spirits  Within," an
elaborate  computer-  animated  episode  of  the  long-running  "Final
Fantasy"  series; and opening on Friday is "Metropolis," a fascinating
blend  of  computer  and  traditional hand-drawn animation directed by
Rintaro and based on a 1949 comic book written by Osamu Tezuka.

 Anime  is not a genre in itself, but a style that can be applied to a
 wide  variety  of  subject  matter.  The Japanese cartoon can and has
 embraced  a  dizzying  number  of  genres, from Disney-like childhood
 adventure   (Mr.  Miyazaki's  specialty)  to  astonishingly  violent,
 graphic pornography (in series like Raizo Kitazawa and Kan Fukumoto's
 "La  Blue  Girl").  In fact, many anime films take pleasure in mixing
 and  matching  various  genres  and periods, as does the very popular
 "Cowboy  Bebop" television series with its blend of westerns, samurai
 dramas,  "Blade  Runner"  style  retro-futurism  and cuddly character
 interactions that suggest American sitcoms.

 But  there  are  certain  constants  in the form. Most conspicuously,
 there  is  the look of the characters, which, while allowing for some
 minor   variations  from  artist  to  artist,  generally  insists  on
 impossibly  statuesque  bodies  topped  by  huge, heart-shaped faces,
 themselves  punctuated  by  gigantic,  round  eyes  of  the depth and
 limpidity  of  Beverly  Hills  swimming  pools.  Westerners are often
 struck  by  how  "un-Japanese"  they look, with their curly hair that
 comes in shades of blond, red and blue.

 Part  of  the reason for those design choices is surely cultural, and
 as  such  beyond  the reach of mere film criticism. But historically,
 the  style began with the great admiration that Tezuka, the grand old
 man of Japanese animation, bore for the work of Walt Disney. Tezuka's
 first  widely popular character, born in a 1951 comic book, was Astro
 Boy,   a   space-age  Pinocchio  who  substantially  predates  Steven
 Spielberg's  "A.I." Astro Boy is a robot created by a scientist whose
 own  child  was  killed  in  a  car  accident;  when  the  robo-child
 disappoints  his  creator  by his failure to grow up, he is sold to a
 circus  with  a  cruel  ringmaster  (another  "A.I."  parallel),  but
 eventually finds happiness with a kindly professor who teaches him to
 fight crime (and who builds him a loving little robot sister).

 Tezuka turned his comic strip into an animated TV series in 1963, and
 the  character  immediately  became  a worldwide success. Astro Boy's
 simple,  spherical  construction suggests both the early Mickey Mouse
 and  Max  Fleischer's  Betty Boop, and a 30's Deco elegance clings to
 the  design  even today. The anime filmmakers who followed Tezuka, in
 the  boom  in  theatrical  and television animation engendered by the
 success of "Astro Boy," imitated his style, establishing what was, in
 fact,  a  specific, strictly dated form of 1920's-30's graphic design
 as  the  baseline  of  the  new  medium. At times, anime figures look
 strikingly  like  the  sexualized  children  created  by  the Chicago
 outsider artist Henry Darger.

 "Metropolis,"  the  anime that opens this week, is a fantasy inspired
 by  a  still  photograph  from Fritz Lang's German silent film of the
 same  name  (Tezuka  claimed never to have seen it). As translated to
 the  screen  by  Rintaro,  an  animator who worked with Tezuka on the
 original "Astro Boy" series, the film is a charming blend of Tezuka's
 old-  fashioned  cartoon  figures  and  the most up- to-date computer
 animation  technology,  used  to  generate  dizzying perspectives and
 richly detailed backgrounds.

 Though  "Metropolis" emphasizes the contrast between the dated, naοve
 figures in the foreground and the high-tech design of the background,
 it  isn't  unusual to find a similar, if unarticulated, dissonance in
 other  anime.  Originally  designed for the low budgets of television
 production,  anime  —  like  the  American  style pioneered by Hanna-
 Barbera for "Huckleberry Hound" and "The Flintstones" around the same
 time  —  uses  fewer  drawings  per  second  than  the vintage Warner
 Brothers or Disney cartoons, which were made at a time of lower costs
 and  greater  theatrical  exposure.  Even so, now that computers have
 made  it  possible to create smooth, fluid animation for a reasonable
 cost,  the  Japanese  films  hang  on  to  the  jerky,  discontinuous
 movements  that characterized the earliest work in the field. This is
 something  that  can  pose  a  problem  for Western viewers, who risk
 seeing  the  anime  style  as  something  inherently  inferior to the
 sleeker Hollywood product.

 But  there is much in the work to suggest that this jagged, flip-book
 quality  is  an  effect  that  Japanese  viewers  find  desirable and
 pleasurable.  Accustomed to manga — the massive comic books published
 in  Japan  for  adults  as well as for children — the Japanese public
 does   not   favor  movement  over  composition  as  a  principle  of
 expression.  As  more  than one commentator on manga has pointed out,
 the  most  direct  precursor  of  the  form is ukiyo-e, the woodblock
 prints — themselves often erotic or rudely caricatural — published in
 19th-century Tokyo. Here, the artists often strove to convey movement
 — crashing waves, raging battles, swirling geishas, kabuki performers
 in  high  dudgeon  —  in  terms of static line drawings, in ways that
 powerfully suggest the contained dynamism of the anime style.

 Perhaps  the  best  way  to  appreciate anime is as a series of still
 drawings  with  moving  details.  Even  a  film  like  Mr. Miyazaki's
 "Princess Mononoke," with its clear aspirations to Disneyesque detail
 and  grandeur,  animates its characters with only slightly more grace
 and  fluidity  than a low-budget television series like "Angel Tail."
 The  figures  themselves are as flat as the backgrounds, given only a
 suggestion of dimensionality by solid wash shading.

 Where  Western  animators struggle to create a convincing illusion of
 life,  Japanese  animators  are  more  interested in capturing single
 expressive  gestures,  or  in  evoking  a particular mood through the
 careful  use  of  color.  Unlike  Hollywood animation, anime does not
 aspire  to  the  condition  of live-action cinema; it remains its own
 stubborn self.

 The  range  of  achievement  in  anime  is  immense,  from  instantly
 disposable Saturday morning children's fodder — like "Sailor Moon" or
 the  interminable  "Pokιmon"  series  —  to work that stands with the
 finest  the  world cinema has produced in the last 20 years. But even
 in its less honorable forms, anime has proven to be a rich source for
 cultural  anthropologists, who find in it a vivid illustration of the
 dissolving  identities  and collapsing institutions that characterize
 life in postmodernist cultures.

 Susan  J. Napier, a teacher of Japanese literature and culture at the
 University  of  Texas,  has  published  a  thoughtful  and  carefully
 researched  account  of  the  social and sexual values encoded in the
 form in her recent book "Anime from `Akira' to `Princess Mononoke.' "
 For   Ms.   Napier,   the  heroes  of  anime  are  defined  by  their
 indefiniteness  —  by  their curious tendency to shift back and forth
 between male and female bodies (as in the popular "Ranma 1/2" series)
 or,  thanks  to  bodies  that  have been fitted out with all kinds of
 high-tech  refinements  and  super-human  replacement parts, by their
 extremely ambiguous status as human beings.

 The  protagonist of "Akira," Katsuhiro Otomo's influential 1988 film,
 is  a disaffected teenager whose massively destructive psychic powers
 are  unleashed  by  a  series  of army experiments. The heroes of the
 long- running series "Guyver" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion" are young
 men  who  become monsters of destruction when they strap on high-tech
 body  armor;  they are both empowered and overwhelmed by merging with
 the electro-mechanical world. (Expressed already in "Astro Boy," this
 is perhaps the most deeply embedded theme in the anime universe.)

 IF  this  view of technology is open to charges of simplification and
 sentimentality  —  not  to  mention  obvious Freudian interpretations
 centered on adolescent fears of the developing body — there are other
 anime  that  seem  eager  to  advance  to  the  next  stage  in human

 Mamoru  Oshii's "Ghost in the Shell," a 1996 feature based on a manga
 by  Masamune  Shirow,  surely ranks with the finest Japanese films of
 the  last  two  decades (a beautifully produced DVD is available from
 Manga Video). Its protagonist is Kusangi, a female cyber cop assigned
 to duty in what appears to be a slightly futuristic Hong Kong; in the
 course  of  investigating  a  criminal  programmer  called the Puppet
 Master,  she  begins  to  question  her own identity. Is she human or
 machine,  male  or female, alive or dead? The film's delirious climax
 finds  her merging with the Puppet Master and entering a transcendent
 state beyond such narrow categorizations.

 Still,  for  all  of  its  philosophical  speculations,  what is most
 impressive  about "Ghost in the Shell" are its purely lyrical moments
 —  sequences  in  which Mr. Oshii leaves the narrative in abeyance to
 offer  wordless  images  of  daily  life  in this strange city of the
 future,  images  rendered with a serene stillness and a compositional
 rigor  that vividly recall the wordless sequences, or "pillow shots,"
 that  Yasujiro  Ozu  inserted  between his dramatic segments. Even if
 these  images  add  nothing  to the story, they complement the film's
 headlong  thematic  thrust  into  the  future  with  an  assertion of
 traditional Japanese values. Here again is that sense, so powerful in
 Ozu  and  Mizoguchi,  of  "mono  no  aware"  —  a  recognition of the
 ephemeral nature of human life, an awareness of the ineffable sadness
 of things.

 Satoshi  Kon's  "Perfect  Blue"  (1997)  leaves  the  boy's adventure
 archetypes  behind;  its main influences would seem to be David Lynch
 and  Michelangelo  Antonioni.  Like  Mr.  Lynch's  recent "Mulholland
 Drive,"  the  film  is  a  study  in mutable realities and dissolving
 identities,  with an actress as the central figure: Mima Kirigoe is a
 moderately  successful  pop  singer  who  hopes to move into an adult
 career  as  a  dramatic  performer. But her dreams are dashed when an
 alternate Mima appears, who — wearing the pigtails, pink hair ribbons
 and  tutu that were Mima's trademarks — begins brutally murdering the
 advisers who are supervising her transition to womanhood.

 Mima's  evil  twin embodies the innocent, super-cute girlishness that
 the  Japanese  call shojo (series like "Sailor Moon," or the products
 in the Hello Kitty line of children's toys, illustrate the concept in
 all  its bubblegum-pink glory). Within the context of a psychological
 thriller,  Mr. Kon explores the crisis of Japanese women entrapped by
 the  crippling shojo image, which is seen as spreading its pernicious
 influence  over  several  generations.  "Perfect  Blue,"  which  also
 contains  some  brilliantly executed expressionistic imagery of Tokyo
 at  night,  is  one  of  the  rare anime to venture into overt social
 criticism; in a medium that relies on the shojo image for much of its
 male  appeal, the gesture is quite radical and courageous, though the
 film ultimately retreats into a disappointingly pat thriller.

 IF anime has one director with a claim to worldwide stature, his name
 is  Hayao  Miyazaki,  the  creator  of "Princess Mononoke" as well as
 eight  other  features  and  four television series. Mr. Miyazaki has
 often  been  called "the Walt Disney of Japan," and the comparison is
 actually  more  profound than it may appear. Like Disney in his early
 features,  Mr.  Miyazaki  deals  with  the  deepest kind of childhood
 trauma  —  the  loss  of  a  parent, the resentment of a sibling, the
 difficulty  of belonging to a family and the difficulty of separating
 from it — and he does so in terms that, while sometimes superficially
 sentimental, also contain solid truths.

 From  his  earliest  features  —  "The  Castle of Cagliostro" (1979),
 "Nausicaa  of  the Valley of the Wind" (1984) and "Castle in the Sky"
 (1989)  —  Mr.  Miyazaki has separated himself from the pack of anime
 artists  by  his refusal of technology-driven stories and techniques.
 Despite  an  increasing use of computer animation in his backgrounds,
 he  continues to hand draw his principal characters. Some of his work
 is  set  in  a  vaguely  European  past  —  "Cagliostro"  revives the
 turn-of-the-century  gentleman  thief Arsθne Lupin and sets him loose
 to   save   a   Ruritanian   princess   from  the  clutches  of  evil
 counterfeiters  — while other films refer to a much more specifically
 Japanese world (unusual for anime), such as the softly rendered early
 1950's  of  "My Neighbor Totoro" (1988). Mr. Miyazaki is no futurist,
 but a fantasist who reimagines the past.

 In  "My Neighbor Totoro," two small children, Satsuki and her younger
 sister Mai, are uprooted from their urban world and sent to live in a
 decaying country house near where their mother is being treated for a
 serious illness. Their father does his best to protect the girls from
 the   gravity   of   the   situation,   but  it  still  affects  them
 subconsciously.   Mai,   wandering   through  a  neighboring  forest,
 encounters  a  lumbering  creature  who  looks like a cross between a
 kitten and a bright blue walrus. Mai crawls on his stomach, pokes him
 awake  and  asks him his name. The creature replies with a growl that
 sounds like "Totoro," and Totoro he becomes.

 The  implication is clear that Totoro is an imaginative projection of
 the  children — a benign, protective spirit who will help the sisters
 through  their  mother's illness. But Mr. Miyazaki also suggests that
 these  beings  are  descendants  of  the  forest-dwelling gods of the
 ancient  Japanese  religions, that they carry with them the power and
 magic  of  nature itself. Psychology and the supernatural are seen as
 forming  a  seamless  whole,  ultimately  indistinguishable from each
 other in their aspirations and human values.

 "Princess Mononoke" is Mr. Miyazaki's finest achievement to date, and
 perhaps  the  one anime that need not shrink from comparison with the
 great  Japanese  live-action  films  of  the  1950's.  This  complex,
 ambiguous,  thematically  dense  epic  transcends classification as a
 children's  fantasy;  indeed,  it  has  become  the  highest-grossing
 Japanese  film  ever, as popular and meaningful to adults as it is to

 There  are  no  cuddly  Totoros here: this is nature red in tooth and
 claw.  The film, set in the 14th-century Muromachi period, centers on
 a  young  hunter,  Ashitaka,  who  finds  himself  caught up in a war
 between   an   ancient   world  shrouded  in  mystery  and  violence,
 represented by the forest-dwelling wild child of the title, and a new
 world  of  civilization, militarism and communal values embodied by a
 fortified  village  whose  specialty  is the manufacture of firearms.
 Remarkably,  neither  world  is  privileged  above  the  other in Mr.
 Miyazaki's  screenplay.  Rather than presenting a simple, sentimental
 ecological  fable,  the  film  is  profoundly  engaged  with complex,
 irresolvable issues.

 It  is  also  a work of astounding formal beauty, in which elaborate,
 computer-generated  backgrounds  merge  seamlessly with the vigorous,
 hand-drawn   animation  of  the  foreground  characters.  Perhaps  no
 Japanese film has found the same sense of scale and sweep since Akira
 Kurosawa's  "Hidden  Fortress"  in 1958. It is tempting to see in Mr.
 Miyazaki's  work  — if not in anime in general — the extension of the
 epic  ambitions  that  the  Japanese  cinema,  led  by  Mizoguchi and
 Kurosawa, once harbored and once realized.

 If  the  budgets of the 1950's are no longer available — thanks in no
 small  part  to  the  near  hegemony  Hollywood has achieved over the
 world's popular entertainment — anime has allowed Japanese filmmaking
 to  survive  and  prosper in a different way, without sacrificing the
 qualities  that  once  made  it  so  vital,  so  significant  and  so

 "Princess  Mononoke"  was  released  in Tokyo on July 12, 1997; Akira
 Kurosawa  passed  away  just  over  a  year  later, on Sept. 6, 1998.
 Perhaps he lived to see Mr. Miyazaki's film; perhaps he saw something
 of himself in it.

Best regards,