True demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” but weak story and characters need more work to bring out the monsters

Shuhei Morita, “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” (2004)

A very lavish short film that uses cel-shaded animation to render the CG imagery three-dimensional, “Kakurenbo” has a definite dark layered look and atmosphere and features considerable detailing in its backgrounds and non-human characters. The major weaknesses of the film are in the plot and the child characters, of whom there are too many for the film to describe adequately beyond stereotype. Seven children descend into the concrete depths of Tokyo to find a place called Demon City to play a game of hide-and-seek. One of the children, Hikora, is looking for his sister Sorincha who disappeared in this area while playing the same game. The rules of the game are basic – the youngsters have to wear fox masks as they play – but as the children wander through the shadows and dimly lit gloom, one boy disturbs a statue by hitting it with a stick, and before you know it, the kids are being chased by bizarre demon monsters sprung right out of Japanese Buddhist nightmare myths. The kids are picked off one by one until Hikora finds himself alone with a small girl. He discovers to his horror who the girl is and what she plans for him, and what happens to all the children who have come into Demon City and been defeated by its monsters.

Demon City looks much bigger than it really is and the buildings seem to be of different architectural styles but then most of the film is shrouded in darkness so perhaps my mind is being overactive and filling in the blackest parts with images of Indian Hindu temples runing riot in carvings and statues of animal-headed gods and leering goggle-eyed demons. Pity though that the same level of detail doesn’t apply to the seven children who could be clones of one another apart from size, shape and hair colour. Indeed, two kids actually are clones – they’re identical twins! – but whether they are boy or girl twins, does it really matter? English-language dubbing turns the kids into teenagers of Scooby-Doo country: their strangled talk seems trite and inappropriate for the film’s ambitious visual settings. Even Hikora, who should be the most developed character, comes off as an underdone stereotype with limited emotion and motivation. The use of fox masks obviously cuts down on the amount of work the animators would have had to do to individualise the seven children and create a range of emotions for each and every one of them but at the same time the masks dehumanise them and force viewers instead to scrutinise the children’s body language for expression. Ah, big mistake there! – the children’s bodies aren’t very expressive at all and there is so much shadow (lights in Demon City are dim for a reason) that even body outlines can be hard to discern.

The one-track plot flits from one group of children to another as they are separated into three groups and each group is pursued by a different demon. The action gets repetitive and the film stalls in parts where a child is caught by a demon and the scene fades into black. For a film of its nature, there’s no build-up in tension towards the scene where Hikora is the only one left standing: one expects a lot of quick and sharp editing in the scenes where demons corner children and the kids make narrow escapes only to find themselves in dead ends and the monsters bearing down on them. A lot of screaming and wailing might be expected too but apart from one teenage boy who exhibits a lot of bravado but is actually a scaredy-cat, the children meet their fate grimly with very little vocalisation and not much pleading or bargaining. The twins especially are mute beings.

Anyone who’s played hide-and-seek won’t be too surprised at what happens to Hikora but the conclusion does come across as more anti-climactic trite than creepy and horrific. Overall this is a good-looking little anime that could have been tightened up with respect to plot and its characterisation worked at to bring out the child characters’ individual quirks and motivations for playing the game. Deeper characterisation could have enlivened the film with teenage gang rivalry, jealousies and fights over girls, and one-upmanship. As the kids quarrel and fight over which street to turn into, the monsters stalk them silently. The game itself could be expanded into something more than just hide-and-seek: there should be different levels of proficiency, treasures to search for and weapons to pick up to fight the monsters. I’m really surprised the game in this anime isn’t designed like a computer game that gets more complicated the deeper you go into it. No lessons are learnt, no skills are picked up. If there is a deeper message in “Kakurenbo”, it may be that the game, childish though it is, represents the gradual loss of carefree innocence that children used to have in a pre-industrial age and the destiny of all those who venture into Demon City is the destiny of children when they leave school or university and are acknowledged as adults: enslavement in a machine society. The demons represent those adults responsible for preparing young people to take up their appointed slots in the giant factory system that is modern Japan.

There is a real demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo” but it’s going to take a lot of work for future animators to seek it out.

Cat Soup: surreal meditation on life and death, time, religion and the universe

Tatsuo Sato, “Cat Soup” / “Nekojiru-so” (2003)

Here is a beautifully animated surreal short film which superficially looks like a children’s film but is clearly intended for adults: an early circus scene in which a strange magician chops up his assistant into pieces with a chainsaw and the film zooms in on body parts with meat, blood and bone marrow clearly exposed will dispel any and all lingering doubts! The style of animation is at once simple with the main characters (two cats) drawn with very charming large heads and large eyes in the style of  “Hello Kitty” mascots, and other characters and some objects also very basic in appearance; yet backgrounds, buildings, various props and creatures the cats encounter have realistic details. The plot also is simple and complex: on one level, it’s a quest and on a different level it’s an investigation into faith and religious belief, the nature of God, the life cycle and death itself.

Nyatta is a boy cat whose sister Nyakko is nearly taken away by Death; he struggles in a tug-of-war for his sister’s soul with Death and both rivals come away with half her soul. Nyatta determines to retrieve the other half of Nyakko’s soul from Death so he takes her to a circus and this trip sends them on an odyssey that drops them onto a boat in a vast ocean, then into a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel fairy-tale and through a desert where they come close to dying from thirst. They meet some strange characters: a pig who allows his flesh to be cut up and eaten, a man who dresses in bondage clothes and tries to cut them up with giant scissors and a woman who sews dismembered limbs back onto bodies. The strangest character of all is God Himself who treats Earth as a giant bowl of soup (blood soup as it turns out) and runs time backwards and forwards on a creaky mechanical clock machine.

The film is worth several repeat viewings for the colourful surreal visuals alone. All animation is done with traditional hand-drawn or hand-painted methods. A water elephant tries to help the two cats in the desert but evaporates, a giant bird contains within it all the world’s clouds and weather and butterflies of metal flit through a swamp. The scene in which God loses a walnut and forces to time run backwards and forwards in order to get the nut back is a highlight that features scribbled animation in shots where humans execute other humans, a pedestrian is run over by a car and guillotines fall (or not at all in all three shots). Most memorable is a scene where the two cats wind up sitting on huge red waves, frozen in movement and resembling waves on traditional Japanese woodblock prints in detail. The colours are not very psychedelic and blatant: they can be bright but usually they are subtle and the surprises and the magic come by way of usurping viewers’ expectations about things that appear on the screen at any one time.

“Cat Soup” isn’t to be watched for its plot which is bare yet turns out vague and puzzling: the value of the film is in its strange visuals and juxtaposition of actions in bizarre sequences: to take an example, a pregnant woman falls over a waterfall, a stork saves her and feeds her to its chicks, the chicks defaecate and the poo lands in soil from which a tree grows and sheds tears with images of the woman’s babies within. This sequence has no relation at all to the cats’ quest; it exists to illustrate the random nature and cruelty of life. The later sequence in which God disrupts the chronology of the universe to search for his lost walnut suggests that such randomness and cruelty are often due to petty thinking and behaviour and lack of foresight and consideration. God Himself is a small-minded being whose main concern is where His next meal might be coming from. The very vagueness of the film and the strange sequencing of visuals and actions invite multiple interpretations of what it might be saying.

Rather than try to make sense of what the film is throwing out, viewers should relax and immerse themselves in the cats’ adventures: I consider that this is the goal of the unusual visual style and associations that appear. Huge red tsunami waves that don’t move? An elephant made entirely out of water? Mechanical butterflies? These are ingenious ploys to get you to suspend logic and rational thinking.

For those who still insist on finding something that makes sense, there is a message but it’s a very pessimistic one: we can forestall death with all the effort we can muster but it can still come at unexpected moments. Belief in God or religion is of no comfort; God is an arbitrary and capricious being. There is also the idea that if one is fated to die, then one accepts that fate. As with many films of similar nature to “Cat Soup”, dealing with universal themes, the ending may seem a depressing let-down and a nasty joke on the animators’ part.

Rubber Johnny: small dense film in which a universe of transformation and realised ambitions is contained

Chris Cunningham, “Rubber Johnny” (2005)

Started small as a commercial based on the idea of a raver’s body morphing into different shapes as he dances, then changing into a music video clip and for all I know this concept may still be growing: as it is, “Rubber Johnny” is a surprise packet that packs a lot of meaning into its short time, be it just under four minutes (in the short version) or striking six minutes (long version). The concept will resonate very strongly with all the misfits out yonder – you know who you are – who harbour secret talents and way-out abilities invisible to all but their close pet animals. A teenage boy, born terribly deformed and crippled, barely able to speak and shunned by his family, is made to live in a dark basement with only a chihuahua for company. A psychologist talks down to him and tries to calm him when he gets frustrated and becomes violent. Left alone, the youngster springs to life in another dimension, breaking and dancing in his wheelchair and using it as a launch-pad to fly off into inner space where as Master of his own Universe he fends off lightning beams travelling at the speed of … well, light. The chihuahua watches silently, taking in everything and knowing not to breathe a word out to anyone as he’ll simply be disbelieved.

Shot on a home camera with infra-red photography and using rapid editing, the film has a very dank and grungy look which appears very realistic and has fooled some people into thinking an actual crippled boy really was filmed. Certainly the introductory scene with the psychologist, blurry at first and then blacked out for the most part when the boy lashes out, appears close to realism. Shots of the fluorescent light tube lend further realism and establish the small-scale garage-like nature of the boy’s confines.

After the opening credits, the film proper, set to original music by the English electronic act Aphex Twin (the music itself is remixes of two tracks from his 2001 album “drukQs” and is energetic and rhythmic if minimal and hard on the ears), starts and zooms off into another reality. An interruption halfway through the film by the boy’s father conveniently breaks the film into two distinct halves: if the first half is merely electrifying with the boy contorting his body and spinning his wheelchair, the second half is sheer mindfuck with the boy using the camera as his unwilling dance partner, crashing repeatedly into the glass, leaving bits of flesh and fluid behind and in the process changing his body into one shape after another like bouncing plasticine.

The latter half of the film could be interpreted more pessimistically: the boy, in slamming himself against the camera repeatedly, is trying to annihilate himself and blend in with his darkness after being told off by his father in the intermission. Whether he’s acting violently and trying to obliterate himself or is just reacting to the cocaine he’s snorted and working off the energy and stimulation, the result is the same: the boy is attempting some kind of self-transformation in which mind and body dissolve and become one with the greater universe – or void. Another possibility is that the boy becomes aware he is being watched and tries to break through the glass (and the “fourth wall”) to force viewers to enter into his world fully rather than watch him as though he were a zoo exhibit.

The only complaint I have is the end credits come all too quickly and the fate of the boy remains uncertain as the family decides to shove him into an institution. It’s hard not to feel pity for the boy as he gets pushed from one hell-hole to another. The concept behind “Rubber Johnny” is worth expanding into a longer film, perhaps to no more than 60 – 70 minutes maximum; any longer and the film would have to be built around a definite story-based narrative that would include the character’s origins which would rob the film of its energy, mystery and suspense. The film is definitely worth repeat watching at least until Cunningham brings out his first full-length feature film which at this time of writing is a question of when, not if.

The Cathedral: search for life’s purpose and oneness with God isn’t fulfilling in this little film

Tomasz Baginski, “The Cathedral” / “Katedra” (2002)

It’s a short film – less than seven minutes – created entirely with 3D computer animation but Baginski’s “The Cathedral” is beautiful and stunning visually while vague and weak on plot and character. A lone pilgrim has come from afar to a huge cathedral structure on a barren planet at the far edge of the universe. What quest brought him here is unknown as the film lacks spoken-word monologue or dialogue. He gazes around him as he walks through the vast edifice of intertwined trunks and branches through which human faces and statues can be seen. As he passes the statues and arrives at the edge of a cliff, at which the cathedral stops repeating its structure and gapes, as if in reverent awe at the abyss below, the focus discreetly shifts to some of the statues’ faces close-up and we see slight twitches, a knowing look, a secret smile, an expression of pain and sorrow, in these portraits.

Those of us who’ve seen numerous science fiction horror films can guess what happens to the pilgrim once the sun rises and casts its rays over the unfinished cathedral and the man himself. This reviewer wasn’t surprised; it was rather like watching that special 4-episode Doctor Who adventure “The Five Doctors” in which a renegade Time Lord seeks immortality and has his wish granted. Very likely the pilgrim’s quest was more about coming closer to God or finding inner peace and purpose to his life. The reply is that of humankind overall searching for its ultimate destiny in the universe with the pilgrim playing just one more part in his people’s outreach to the infinite: the pilgrim’s quest is the same as humanity’s quest and ditto for his purpose in life. As to whether the pilgrim was asking the right question in the first place and got an answer he didn’t expect or want or was led on by his beliefs and upbringing to find God and peace, only to discover too late that he’d been deluded all along or even tricked, viewers will have to decide for themselves. A sly black humour may be at work here and there is a paradox too: to reach God, to know our ultimate destiny as individuals and as members of a collective, must we submit to enslavement to find freedom?

At least the animation is  elegant and beautiful, majestic in parts, and has a slightly sinister Gothic look to it. Colours are dark and gloomy and the atmosphere is creepy. Some viewers who know the English doom metal band Cathedral may find the style of animation reminiscent of that group’s album covers of fantasy art by Dave Patchett. The film cathedral is an organic structure of inter-twined trunks and branches: tall, imposing, commanding respect, yet severe and not at all bulky. Huge spaces within the building emphasise the barrenness of the world around and highlight the pilgrim’s existential enquiry. The film spends little time on its protagonist and doesn’t encourage much viewer sympathy for him: this is the major weakness of “The Cathedral”. Viewers have to guess what he’s come to the cathedral for and work out from his behaviour and actions at the edge of the cliff his inner anguish and turmoil and loss of faith and hope. Perhaps he realises what’s in store for him but doesn’t know what to do. When his purpose is achieved, viewers catch a brief glimpse of his face, frozen in calm, but the moment may pass too quickly for viewers to see whether this is the calm of inner peace or of the resignation that comes with being an immortal vegetable.

The 1970s-styled music soundtrack is a drawback to the film: the melodramatic orchestral music doesn’t gel well with the disco beats and the result doesn’t suit the film’s style. Atmosphere is diluted and the film appears less sinister than it should. This is one occcasion where no music or very minimal, unobtrusive music, perhaps of an ambient nature, is called for.

If it had been a bit longer to allow for greater character development and to immerse the viewer more into its dark atmosphere and strange, half-live / half-dead structure, “The Cathedral” would have been a great little film about the quest for immortality, unity with God, the relationship of the individual to the community of humankind and the nature of faith and religion.

 

Waltz with Bashir: a film revealing repressed memories and a hideous war crime in parallel

Ari Folman, “Waltz with Bashir” (2008)

Few movies about war must be as personal and intense as this animated film about an Israeli ex-soldier’s gradual acknowledgement of the part he played in a specific war-crime incident in 1982 – the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Lebanese Phalangist militias, for whom units of the Israeli Defense Forces gave cover, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut during the Lebanese civil war – through his recovery by various means of memories he has repressed since his military service in the early 1980’s. Film-maker Ari Folman’s personal odyssey begins when a friend, Boaz, tells him that he (Boaz) has been having recurring nightmares about being pursued by 26 dogs through city streets. Boaz’s recovered memory, which he attributes to the time when he shot 26 dogs as a soldier serving with the Israeli Defense Forces in Beirut in 1982, triggers memory flashbacks for Folman; until then, Folman had no memory of what he did as a young teenage soldier. Folman determines to discover what he got up to during military service by visiting and interviewing old friends and a journalist. The stories they tell him are harrowing and painful. Folman consults a psychiatrist and others who discuss with him topics like repressed memory, recurring dreams and their meanings, mental dissociation and the consequences of such phenomena when they continue for too long and are never brought into consciousness. Gradually by recovering his memories, Folman is able to reconstruct where he was and what he was doing in Beirut in mid-September 1982; the revelation of his part in the massacres, however indirect, is horrific but not surprising.

The film deals with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, manifested as memory repression, insomnia and unpleasant recurring dreams, in individuals like Folman and his friends, and the parallel recovery of an important historic event which still remains deliberately suppressed by many people within and outside Israel and Lebanon as a major war crime. Major people who could have prevented the massacre either directly or indirectly have never been punished or censured appropriately for their failure, deliberate or otherwise, to act. Yet the massacre itself and the context it occurred in obviously had a deep effect on the soldiers who participated: one friend, Carmi, once an outstanding school student, left Israel to open a falafel-selling business in the Netherlands after finishing military service. This reviewer had the impression that other friends like Boaz and Ronny also achieved much less in their lives than they could have as a result of their army service. Perhaps “Waltz …” could have made a more general point about how compulsory military service has affected generations of Israelis and how its effects have percolated through Israeli society and values  but this might have widened the film’s scope too much and risked making it unfocussed.

Choosing animation over a live-action format is a wise move: the animated approach, which includes hand-drawn animation and flash cut-outs, turns the film’s structure away from a documentary genre to a historical fiction genre into which dreams and repressed memories can be reconstructed and replayed. The approach also allows the film to be flexible, flying from an interview into a memory flashback or a dream, then back into real life in a smooth flow. Even if Folman had opted for a live-action approach, he still would have found it necessary to portray flashbacks as animated or semi-animated to alert viewers of the change. The animation does look awkward and amateurish at first – characters look stiff, their heads are too big, their movements are sometimes jerky – but it does have a definite three-dimensional look, especially when the scene draws back from viewers. Transport technology like helicopters and tanks are rendered realistically if not in detail. The predominant use of colours like yellows, browns, greys and murky blue-greens give a very surreal look to large parts of the film; in later scenes in the movie where there is much fighting and killing, the yellowish-brown tints to the sky and bullet-ridden buildings in Beirut along the Mediterranean shoreline give the impression of Hell on Earth.

The animation is at its most effective in scenes where the young Folman is on leave and goes back home; he feels distant from the life whizzing around him in the streets. People behave as if there is no war and Folman senses the disconnect between his experiences in southern Lebanon and life at home. What impact that disconnection must have had on him is never investigated. One very beautiful and quite surreal scene is one in which Folman and Carmi sit on a couch in a field of flowers; another great scene is one where Israeli soldiers are walking through an olive grove while the sun beats down and the trees leave shadows over the soldiers. Suddenly a hidden Arab boy with a rocket launcher on his shoulder lets fly with a projectile that flies in slow motion past the soldiers and blasts their tank apart: beautifully poetic yet very shocking and horrifying.

Whether the recovery of his memories has been therapeutic for Folman, the film doesn’t say: the revelation of what did happen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in mid-September 1982, turning from animation into actual newsreels of the massacre and its aftermath, and Folman’s role in aiding the Phalangist militias lead to an abrupt and open ending. No accounts from relatives of the murdered Palestinians are included, no death toll is given – the figures are still disputed but Folman could have included the minimum and maximum figures in a title card – and there is no mention of Israel’s Kahan commission which found Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defense Minister, personally responsible for the massacre. Such omissions weaken the film’s impact by making it appear a self-pitying sob story with no end. More could also have been said in the film about the culture of the IDF; there’s a hint in a scene where a senior officer watches a porn film that the army is a corrupt and dysfunctional institution.

Viewers need to know the broader context of Israel’s involvement in southern Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war, in particular the IDF’s role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, to be able to follow the film’s narrative which does fly back and forth between past and present. An appreciation of the consequences of Israel’s intrusion into the Lebanese civil war helps: after all, the Hezbollah movement formed in south Lebanon at the same time to resist Israel. Some repetition is to be expected with a theme that includes repressed memories and flashbacks.

“Waltz …” is a brave and confronting attempt to investigate the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder and its symptoms of repressed memory, flashbacks and recurring dreams, and how this investigation brings an entire historical event, still  lacking proper closure, to collective consciousness, perhaps in the hope that it may lead to collective healing for a generation of Israelis.

 

 

 

Fantastic Planet: absorbing animated science fiction film with messages and ideas that are still important

René Laloux, “Fantastic Planet” / “La Planète Sauvage” (1973)

A very absorbing animated science fiction film that superficially looks as if it might have been created for children with a plot that starts out with a human-like baby being adopted by a blue-skinned alien child ten times bigger than the baby in a world that looks like a mix of psychedelic rock album art of the 1970’s and Monty-Python collage-style animation and dark jokes with double entendres. Though as the film progresses, it becomes very clear indeed that several scenes in the film, some of the suggestive animation itself and the plot’s preoccupations are aimed at an older audience, one that, at the time of the film’s release, might have been described as politically and socially liberal and eco-conscious, even counter-cultural or underground. A joint Czech-French production, “Fantastic Planet” lives up to its name in its visual style and creativity if not its story-line or characterisation. Made in 1973, it doesn’t look too dated though the animation is hardly sophisticated by current standards and many scenes are just drawn and coloured-in sketches with the odd moving character going across them.

The plot traces the rise of the human-like Oms from a primitive foraging way of life dominated by ignorance, superstition and near-despotic rule by a few to a progressive society in which the Oms are literate, have mastered science and technological principles sufficiently enough to build and operate spaceships, and can challenge the giant blue-skinned aliens called Draags who regard them as simple and unintelligent. The way in which this turnaround in the Oms’ fortunes occurs is due to one Om called Terr who was adopted as a pet by a young Draag called Tiva. Tiva treats Terr as a plaything and lets him sit with her at lessons which she absorbs through meditation with the help of head-phones but viewers’ overall impression will be that Terr is a household slave / domestic pet completely at the capricious mercy of his mistress. Terr tries to escape often but his collar responds to Tiva’s magnetic bracelet. One day Terr runs away with Tiva’s head-phones and is helped by a wild Om who breaks his collar. The wild Om takes him to her people who eventually adopt him as their own. Terr uses Tiva’s head-phones, which turn out to be a vast repository of Draag knowledge, to educate his new family and in spite of opposition from some of the senior tribal members, the Oms give up those traditions that hampered their progress and kept them inferior to the Draags and embark on a tortuous path that frees them from slavery and repression. They create a new home and force the Draags to respect them so that the two species can co-exist in peace.

The journey towards enlightenment isn’t easy and many Oms are slaughtered along the way when the Draags try to cull their numbers and resort to more desperate and deadly methods, finally deciding to exterminate the little beings. There may be a political allegory here: the Oms might serve as a metaphor for Third World peoples striving for independence and the freedom to determine their own future while the Draags represent those First World elites who prefer the majority of humans to live in corporatised slavery and poverty. Or when we consider the film’s historical and cultural context, the Oms could represent the oppressed Czechs and Slovaks and the Draags their Soviet Russian masters.  There’s also a lesson here about how we humans treat our own pets: Terr is indulged a lot by Tiva but she also forces him to fight other domesticated Oms in battles that are parallels to cock-fighting bouts. The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the complex relationship that exists between the Draags and the Oms: the Draags regard the tame Oms as cute as long as they are obedient, the wild Oms are seen as vermin for breeding too fast and multiplying too quickly.

The Draags possess a sophisticated technology and culture that revolve around constant meditation; the film reveals this meditation to be necessary for their continued survival and propagation of their species, and it also powers their technology. A scene in which Tiva’s father participates in a group meditation session and the participant’s bodies change colour becomes very surreal; viewers will feel their minds simply cleaned out several times by this scene that breaks all the laws of physics and conservative morality. Don’t worry, there are more scenes in the film that will clean that scene out of people’s minds! Landscapes filled with exotic plants and animals prove to be very menacing to the Oms: a flying anteater licks up Oms with its penis-shaped tongue and Terr and a friend are nearly stomped on by a five-eyed / four-legged insectoid dragging a cumbersome ovipositor. Another critter with a nose that sprouts feelers spends its time in a cage grabbing and shaking little piggy flies with the antlered proboscis. Most mind-fucking of all is a contoured landscape of tubular worms that arch their backs during periods of rain. Perhaps there are too many unnecessary sexual jokes in the fauna and flora of the Draags’ world: the whole place is teeming with eroticism. It’s as if the animators deliberately set out to bait the conservative political establishment of their day, which in Czechoslovakia would have been the Communists and in France would have included most of the major political parties along the entire political spectrum and the Roman Catholic Church as well, by creating a universe in which everything is a sexual metaphor of some kind. In those days people believed sexual repression went hand-in-hand together with political repression and political freedom would lead to sexual freedom or vice versa. Little did folks at the time realise that sexual freedom mightn’t necessarily lead to political and social freedom, and could encourage the further oppression of women by objectifying and sexualising their bodies and clothes.

Due to the overarching themes, the plot’s complexity and the film’s short running time, character development is weak: viewers get no sense of Terr changing and maturing in personality as he adapts from his sheltered life with Tiva to life with the wild Oms, learning responsibility, independence and leadership along the way. The unnamed wild female Om who rescues him remains a minor character and the romance that develops between her and Terr is unconvincing. Neither the Draags nor the Oms come across as more than one-dimensional archetypes for class struggle and revolt against colonisation: the Draags appear over-refined and have a love-hate relationship with procreation. The Oms struggle against ignorance and superstition in their society and the process itself says something about the role of religion and the enforcement of ignorance in keeping a slave class oppressed.

Unfortunately even after the collapse of Communism across Europe, the ideas and messages of “Fantastic Planet” are still needed in our societies; many former Communist states in eastern Europe are falling under fascist government and economic inequalities are creating new social divisions and discrimination. The film is worth several viewings if only to acclimatise to the distinctive animation style and get over the sexualised look of the exotic wildlife and landscapes. The music is a mix of seventies prog(ressive) guitar rock pop with a lot of wet-sounding wah-wah pedal effects and some jazz.

 

 

 

Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors: uneven animated movie with strident tone preaches a nationalistic message

Mitsuyo Seo, “Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors” (1945)

Japan’s first full-length animated movie is a World War II propaganda film aimed at children and centred around a young boy Momotaro (“Peach Boy”) and his animal friends who represent military sailors. The film is available for viewing on Youtube.com though there are no English or other language sub-titles. Non-Japanese speakers won’t find the movie hard-going anyway as it features music and singing and there’s no over-arching plot. The film’s aim is to instill love and loyalty for Japan and belief in its military invincibility and inevitable victory over British and American forces. The importance of the group over the individual is stressed and collective action based on absolute obedience and loyalty is preferred over individual action which the film suggests can cause a person to go astray.

What plot exists is very loose and falls into three parts that are related only through shared characters. The film-makers’ grasp on history, geography and sociology is precarious. In the first part Momotaro and his sailor friends  are on leave and visiting their families. A young child gets lost chasing a runaway sailor cap and its life is in danger. The sailors and others in their community hear a rescue call and rise as one to save the child. In the second part Japanese naval forces take over a tropical island where they are welcomed by the natives who are represented by exotic species of animals; the sailors build an airbase and take time to teach the locals their language and culture. In the third part of the film the Japanese invade islands in Southeast Asia from the air and force the British overlords there to relinquish control. After parachuting to the ground and ambushing a tank together, Momotaro takes charge of negotiating with the Brits while his friends take notes.

The animation is very uneven: the main characters of Momotaro and his friends (bear, monkey, cat, pheasant) are drawn well with bodies and limbs in correct chubby proportions. Their faces are usually serene and confident with shining eyes though creepy lipsticked lips don’t always syncrhonise well with speech. Momotaro resembles a plump-cheeked kindergarten-age boy straight out of old Chinese Communist propaganda posters. The animals that represent the Pacific Islanders are all very cute and include creatures not usually native to the Pacific islands: elephants, rhinos, crocodiles, squirrels, bunnies, small wildcats and kangaroos all co-exist happily. Perhaps lacking high-order predators like lions and tigers among them gives the folks that open and hospitable attitude towards the invaders. The animals’ portrayal varies from cute and sweet for small critters to rubbery and comic for the crocs and elephants which could have come straight out of old 1930s cartoons. Just as rubbery, dated and definitely caricaturish are a trio of three adult monkeys who look and act suspiciously like 1930s blackface minstrels and the British who are shown as lacking in discipline, cowardly and spineless. Against backgrounds that look solid and almost three-dimensional and the fairly detailed depictions of machinery, the variable standard of animation means the film doesn’t have a distinctive visual style.

Whatever comedy exists in the film seems forced and the songs have been written and played to urge singing along by children. No point in preaching to audiences unless they can be pushed to participate in the message!

The film plays hard and fast with the history and geography of Southeast Asia and its colonisation by Europeans. Most likely the islands “freed” by Japan in the third part of the film aren’t a specific reference to Singapore but representative for eastern Asia and the western Pacific region. Parts of the plot are cut off unexpectedly and the film never returns to them. At the end of the film various small animals practise parachute-jumping onto a map of North America; the implied message is that Japanese domination of the entire Pacific region amd beyond is the next step. Given that when the film was released Japan had already been retreating from US-led forces for two years, and the country was in dire economic as well as military straits, the message is desperate and shrill.

Viewers may note the tone of the whole film can be strident: the pace is steady and fast, the story trajectory is onwards and upwards, and the animals obey orders and act promptly and efficiently without hesitation. The portrayal of some animals as rabbits has an unintended and slightly amusing suggestion of cloned conformity especially in scenes where they prepare the airfield for military planes to land and to take off with almost pre-programmed foreknowledge. A message of unquestioned obedience with one’s heart, mind and soul being at the service of the nation, its government and emperor is strong. Characters might pause only to look at photographs of loved ones and realise how much they miss their families but that’s the only kind of reflection and character development allowed here.

Not a film I’d recommend for children until they’re of an age to understand how seductive and inviting propaganda can be and the different forms it can take to persuade people to adopt particular beliefs and actions.

Princess Iron Fan: first Asian full-length animated movie is an overstretched “short cartoon”

Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming, “Princess Iron Fan” / “Tian Shan Gong Zhu” (1941)

This retelling of a Chinese folk tale “Journey to the West” featuring the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his disciples Sun Wukong aka the Monkey King, Zhu Bajie who is part-human / part-pig and the not too-bright human Sha Wujing is historically valuable for being the first Asian full-length (over 40 minutes) animated movie to be released. It was also the third animated full-length movie released in the world after Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and Dave Fleischer’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. The film also kick-started the Japanese animation movie industry after its export to Japan in 1942 blew away the natives there and prompted the Japanese navy to commission a home-made full-length animated movie (“Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors”) that came out in 1945. Made under very difficult conditions in Shanghai – China at the time was occupied by Japan, the Communists and Nationalists were fighting the Japanese military and the workshop where the film was made had been bombed in 1937 – “Princess Iron Fan” is impressive to watch with beautifully detailed backgrounds and very active and excitable characters. The film uses the rotoscoping animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement frame by frame: this technique saved a lot of money and renders the characters in the movie very life-like with  lively and shining eyes (of actual actors, I should add).

As the copyright has apparently expired, the film can be seen in one bloc on Youtube.com but without subtitles for non-Chinese speakers. The plot is straightforward: Xuanzong and his followers try to visit a town but their path is blocked by a fierce fire demon. To get rid of him, they need an iron fan from a beautiful goddess but she refuses to lend it to them. Monkey King and Zhu Bajie each try to get the fan off the sulky lady – Monkey King himself tries a neat trick in which he transforms into a tiny ladybug and gets himself swallowed by the goddess so he can kick around her stomach and cause aches and pains – but both followers discover she has tricked them by giving them dud fans that only fuel the flames. The three disciples also have to battle the goddess’s husband the Bull King and subdue him if they are to get hold of the real iron fan.

The plot unravels in a series of episodes and each is long – there’s a lengthy sub-plot in which a disguised Zhu Bajie tries to seduce a fox lady and then the goddess herself – so viewers unfamiliar with the Chinese stories or who can’t understand the Mandarin language spoken in the film may think each episode is independent of the others and wonder why it has to be there. The characters’ looks and movements appear influenced by old Walt Disney cartoons – the Monkey King has rubbery arms and legs and twirls at hyper-Mach speeds while flying through the air pursued by the fire demon or the Bull King – but there is a definite Chinese flavour and style in the backgrounds, reminiscent of classical Chinese paintings of landscapes and nature, drawn for the movie and most male human characters look very Chinese. The foxy lady looks Betty-Boopish with her huge eyes and elaborate hair-style.

The film aims to entertain as well as teach children about their myths and legends and there’s slapstick galore accompanied by constant music and descriptive sound effects that again show the Walt Disney influence. A house forced to bend with a storm puts out hands to stop its roof from flying away and a cat, clinging to the roof for dear life, sees all his fur rip off his body hair-strand by hair-strand.

The film has the feel of an extended cartoon short with three linked episodes of gags and action, one of which centres around Zhu Bajie, the others focussing on the Monkey King, and none of the characters having much personality development. There are breaks in continuity as well – how the Monkey King escapes out of the goddess’s stomach isn’t clear from the film – and some of the frames seem to wobble and the characters’ lines go watery as if the whole film had gone underwater. Given the conditions it was made under, “Princess Iron Fan” looks much better than expected and some special effects, especially the hot flames for the fire demon and a scene in which two characters move behind a semi-shuttered screen, are very well done. Scenes are milked for all they’re worth for humour and drama and fight scenes are very realistic. Western audiences may find the plot and theme of collective action being better than individual action dull and the film is probably of more value to Chinese and other Asian audiences familiar with tales of the Monkey King’s adventures.

Kiki’s Delivery Service: charming film about maturity, finding oneself and never giving up hope

Hayao Miyazaki, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989)

A charming coming-of-age film about a young witch who undergoes a series of challenges, not the least of which is learning to trust in her inner self, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” likely had a lot of personal significance for its creator Miyazaki: previous films were mostly aimed at a very young audience and the films that came after “Kiki …” were more epic and featured very complex story-telling. “Kiki …” might be considered transitional between early Miyazaki and later Miyazaki with some of the features of both: on the one hand it focusses on personal issues and features mostly ordinary characters, albeit ones with dreams or an unusual talent and on the other hand there are elements of a wider fantasy world that would be expanded on in future Miyazaki projects.

On turning thirteen, the young witch Kiki must fly out into the world as part of her training as a witch and adopt a community as her own where she has to develop a special talent. Arriving at a seaside town somewhere in Europe – the look and feel of the town suggests the 1950’s or 1960’s as might be portrayed in a Jacques Tati movie – Kiki is befriended by a couple who run a bakery and who offer her lodgings. With the help  of her familiar, a black cat called Jiji, Kiki sets up a courier service for her hosts to deliver bread and cakes to their customers. She meets helpful folks like the teenage boy Tombo who dreams of flying, an artist Ursula who wants to paint a picture of Kiki and two elderly ladies who bake at home. With the main characters established, the slim plot presents a series of tests for Kiki to learn how to live with strangers, where she fits into the town that accepts her and ultimately find herself.

The glories of “Kiki …” lie chiefly in its realisation of the world in which Kiki settles: Miyazaki and his creative team have brought a beautiful and picturesque town with its own distinctive atmosphere into being. The pace of life might be more frenetic than it should be and there’s no Latin flair about the seaside town – the background music suggests the resorts of Mediterranean France and Italy were the inspiration for the town though according to Wikipedia the town of Visby in Sweden was the actual inspiration – but there’s a definite summer-holiday feel about the place. Colours are vibrant and the landscapes, historic houses and urban scenes with the clock-tower and the traffic in the narrow streets are very detailed and look realistic. Yet there’s a dreamy quality to the town where in spite of the traffic there’s not much air pollution and the skies look very clean. At the very least one can believe a small witch can fly in and introduce herself to the people without having to show her papers or spend several years in an asylum for illegal migrants who jump the queues, just as one can also believe later on that sticking giant propellers on the handlebars of a bike will enable it to fly or that dirigibles are floating and buzzing overhead without eliciting noise pollution complaints or concerns about a repeat of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster.

The rather cartoony-looking characters are not very well developed in personality and Kiki can be maddeningly Pollyanna-ish, at least until she becomes self-conscious about her dowdy appearance compared to the wealthy teenagers she sees, resulting in her witchy powers deserting her and causing her depression. Why Tombo should develop a romantic interest in Kiki and Kiki reject him at first is never explained; the romantic sub-plot seems very half-hearted and superficial, based on Tombo’s love of flying and Kiki being suspicious of his friends. Other characters are well-meaning and helpful clones of one another and the couple running the bakery are little more than parent substitutes. Only Ursula the artist and Tombo the dreamer (and later, damsel-dude in distress) offer opportunities for Kiki to grow and mature and trust in herself.

Parts of the plot can seem like afterthoughts, particularly towards the end where Kiki sees the dirigible in trouble on TV and Tombo hanging onto the dirigible’s rope as it floats out of control and crashes into buildings (without causing any fires, one notices). Then it’s Kiki to the rescue! – but can she regain her power of flight in time to rescue Tombo? An interesting sub-plot that might involve a cat and dog becoming friends develops but is ditched in favour of Kiki meeting and working for Ursula.

In all this is a heartwarmer suitable for a young teenage audience who will readily identify with Kiki’s initial chirpiness and pride and learn along with her about dealing with difficult situations and getting along with people. It’s a film about hope and believing in one’s talent and resourcefulness and finding one’s niche and inspiration in life. It may not be as powerful and involved as other Miyazaki films like “Laputa: Island in the Sky”, “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away” but in its downscaled way it’s a thoughtful and intelligent film.

 

Profound themes of evolution, maturity, cycles of life and death, and Japan’s modern history in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira”

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Akira” (1988)

In an alternative but parallel universe in 1988, a scientific experiment using young children as test subjects for research into superhuman mental abilities goes awry when a child loses control and causes a huge explosion in Tokyo that is taken for a nuclear bomb attack and leads to a global war. Cut to 30 years later and a new city, Neo-Tokyo, has arisen on an artifical island in Tokyo Bay, the old city having been completely annihilated. Neo-Tokyo has become a thriving, wealthy metropolis but it’s also plagued by political corruption, anti-government riots and terrorist activity, and a seedy underbelly of crime, drug addiction and violence; and the scientific experiments that led to old Tokyo’s demise continue apace. In this context, two motorcycle gangs fight a turf war racing down the city’s highways and a member of one gang, Tetsuo, comes to grief when he hits – or appears to hit – a small child with aged features. His fellow gang members led by his childhood friend Kaneda quickly come to his aid but before they can take him to hospital, several military helicopters arrive and take Tetsuo and the small child to a military hospital. Kaneda and his gang are arrested by soldiers for questioning over a recent anti-government demonstration that turned violent.

At the hospital, Tetsuo is found to possess psychic abilities similar to those of the children being used in the secret experiments, now conducted by Dr Onishi under the supervision of Colonel Shikishima. The boy is operated and experimented on and the tests awaken his psychic powers which begin to develop of their own accord. He escapes from hospital and is reunited briefly with his girlfriend Kaori and Kaneda’s gang but is captured again. As Tetsuo struggles with his hallucinations and headaches, and discover what they are leading him to, Kaneda sees a girl, Kei, he met while in army custody and follows her; she leads him into a secret plot to get Tetsuo out of the military hospital. While the plotters battle to infiltrate the hospital, various incidents there bring Tetsuo’s psychic powers into the open to his advantage and Tetsuo himself, flushed with and revelling his new powers and the authority they give him, commences on a quest that he believes will give him even more power.

The plot is straightforward and not too complex but runs at a brisk, energetic pace so for most people two viewings of “Akira” might be necessary to fully understand what happens. The movie is a commentary on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, embodied in the development of Tokyo / Neo-Tokyo itself, and what that implies about the post-1945 history of Japan and forecasts for the country’s 21st-century future. The use of anime rather than a live-action feature to bring the original “Akira” comic to screen is appropriate: the exacting technical detail of backgrounds and machines against and on which the plot depends captures the close and complicated relationship modern Japanese culture has with technology, at once beneficial, malleable enough to seem harmless, cute even, yet also highly dangerous. Tetsuo’s transformation is a metaphor on several levels: on a grand scale, it mirrors the evolution of life itself; on a global scale, it’s a parallel to Japan’s development as a modern society dependent on technology; on a more mundane level, it represents growth and maturity in human beings; on the very personal level, it traces an individual’s adolescent development and adjustment (or not) to adult life. Tetsuo’s inability to handle his psychic powers and allowing them to take over his body can be interpreted as a warning of the potential for moral corruption that having too much power, in whatever form it takes, without having the understanding, experience and knowledge to use it responsibly can pose. Tetsuo’s upbringing, parts of which are seen in flashbacks, shows that he didn’t get much moral guidance or understanding from adults, and was bullied by adults and children alike so he harbours a deep resentment and hatred towards other people and sees his newfound abilities as giving him opportunities for payback. He goes out of his way to kill Yamagata, one of his gang-mates, for having derided him in the past. Tetsuo’s powers are too much for him to handle though and he ends up killing his faithful girlfriend Kaori.

Other characters reflect aspects of Tetsuo’s dilemma: Dr Onishi who oversees the experiment on the boy, is too swept up in his enthusiasm to see the destruction Tetsuo causes and he pays for his tunnel vision with his life; he’s a stock figure representing scientific and technological hubris. Likewise various people, representing a society trained to obey, who follow a New Age guru or trust in Tetsuo as a new messiah to replace the mysterious Akira figure, are destroyed in various ways as a result of their blind, unquestioning faith in an external power. Overall, character development in “Akira” is fairly weak and only two characters can be said to be significant in that respect: Tetsuo and Colonel Shikishima. The Colonel is the most complex figure: iniitally looking and acting like the most obvious choice for Head Villain in the film, he is a tough, stern soldier who dislikes the chaotic disorder and lack of direction characterising democracy and liberal society and seizes the first opportunity he can to impose his idea of good government on Neo-Tokyo. Yet he cares for the remaining original test subjects of Dr Onishi’s experiments and has no taste for grubby politics where money speaks louder than principles. In an ideal world he would be father figure to Tetsuo and would guide the boy to the wisdom and understanding required to use his psychic powers for the benefit of humankind; but the Colonel has adopted a narrow military frame of mind which prefers order, conformity and discipline over individualism and tolerance for a multiplicity of ideologies and cultures within the one society, and Tetsuo has grown up in an environment where power means being able to throw your weight around and kicking little people (like him once upon a time). Both Tetsuo and the Colonel can be seen as complementary figures in the use of power: Tetsuo needs some restrictions and the Colonel would impose too many, and both are oppressive in their own ways; and Japan as a society that has used political, social and military power to control people perhaps isn’t an ideal place for the two to meet in an imperfect world. As for Kaneda and Kei, the other major characters, they are flat compared to Tetsuo and the Colonel; they are best seen as stock teenage / young adult character types who are basically good and, while easily led astray, play expected heroic roles in a plot that has no need for heroes and doesn’t use them.

The climax of the film in which Tetsuo transmogrifies into a monster on contact with Akira and has to be absorbed, along with the remaining test subjects of Dr Onishi’s ongoing experiment, into an implosion that takes most of Neo-Tokyo with it to leave behind a gaping crater and the rest of the city in ruins, is a sheer mindfuck of animation knowledge and technique limited only by the technology available in 1988 to portray what virtually amounts to birth of a new universe in several dimensions and the animation crew’s own collective imagination to consider what such birth might look like. Indeed, the black-and-white montage of simple images looks like a jokey reference to the way films made in the past often begin, a series of encircled numbers counting down to zero. It’s arguably nowhere near as good as the surreal bedroom scene in which Tetsuo is attacked by giant toy animals that bleed milk – that scene qualifies as the standout for its combination of the cute and conventional notions of bedtime horror when things under the bed crawl out to menace children.

True, the detailed animation often threatens to usurp the plot, characters and action but the movie couldn’t have been made otherwise at the time without an astronomical budget or advanced CGI technology. Otomo’s aim is ambitious and the film’s scope is tremendous but perhaps the narrative as it pans out doesn’t quite justify the ambition, the philosophical concepts and what Otomo is trying to say about the nature of power. Is it possible to know if Tetsuo feels triumph when he unites with Akira and the other test subjects in a new universe? Is his final anaemic-sounding utterance “I am Tetsuo” an expression of self-affirmation or its opposite – or even both? If Tetsuo had changed his mind about pursuing power and gone back to the Colonel or to Kaneda, would that be a form of denial? It’s hard not to feel that the plot reaches an impasse beyond which the choice to be made will be an unsatisfactory explanation or substitute way for using power: either become God in your own universe (hmm … seems petty) or turn it over to others whose motives may be suspect. Is a third way at all possible?

As for other aspects of “Akira”, special mention should be made of the music used: a mixture of traditional and modern Japanese instruments and musical styles, it’s used sparingly to create and emphasise a scene’s mood or the action in it. Otomo also takes care to show parts of the city from different angles and points of view: the film appears to zoom from a very intimate point of view in some scenes to ones where people appear as ants scurrying around a vehicle on fire. The suggestion is that Neo-Tokyo itself is a major character though this idea is not fully realised in the narrative.

Western viewers might wonder at Japanese pop culture obsessions with the destruction of Tokyo, the grotesque body horror and the fetishism of technology and cuteness. There is present a sense of the Buddhist notion of non-permanence, tying in with the theme of evolution as a continuous, dynamic process in which humans are but a stepping-stone. There is something of the horror of ageing which is related to the body-horror aspect: the test subjects remain child-like but age to the point where they become corpse-like, and Tetsuo’s body merges with metal and runs riot as his powers, reaching maturity, overpower their human vessel. With so many themes flying under the radar in “Akira”, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t collapse with the weightiness and profundity of them all; instead it flies determinedly with relentless energy with hardly any let-up all the way to the end and beyond. In spite of its being over 20 years old and the animators overlooking or unable to predict certain technologies – people are still driving cars and still using pen and paper to write – “Akira” appears to have dated very little though whether the same can be said by 2018 or 2019, the period in which the movie is set, is another thing.