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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Japanese Cartoons You Could’ve Seen at the Movies in 2018

The 2019 Academy Award nominees for best animated feature include an anime!

In fact, it includes the first anime nominee not from Studio Ghibli!

And you know, I’m not actually that excited.

First there’s the fact that this was inevitable ever since GKids slid their way into the Oscars – it was only a question of when they’d decide that one of their anime releases would benefit the most from the exposure. More than that though, this is just a really good lineup all around. Incredibles 2 was full of marvelously fun layouts, Isle of Dogs showed once again that Wes Anderson’s real element is animation, and Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse is the first American mainstream animated feature in a very, very long time to make me say “wow, these guys really love cartoons!”

The Spiderman movie especially is delightfully innovative aside from being just a really tight story full love for the medium, and I almost included a writeup on it in the article as a joke. It would’ve been good too, since I’d have talked about how it takes techniques from Japan like frame modulation and a certain style of effect animation named after a guy named Yoshinori Kanada. I didn’t though. My self-indulgence does know some bounds, as incredible as that may seem as you read what I did write.

The only one I didn’t see was Ralph Breaks the Internet, which…seems like a “my friends worked on this so I’m going to vote for it” nomination, but I guess I oughtn’t say that. Either way, it’s still a nice bunch.

It was a very good year for anime film too – both in general and in the US. Eight anime were eligible for 2018, and more than that were in theaters at some point or another. Most of them were alright or better – a few were brilliant.

–but before we get to it, a word on the movies that aren’t appearing in this article:

You’ll notice that I’m only talking about six movies here, which is because I missed out on two of them (and was unable even to pirate them afterwards). The first was a Franco-Japanese co-production called Mutafukaz, but that name was just way too cool for America so we called it MFKZ here instead. France and Japan have produced things together before, and their industries have only grown closer over the years. The other was The Laws of the Universe: Part 1, which I’m really looking forward to because I hear it’s so terrible. The only thing you need to know is that it was funded by a cult called Hаpрy Sciеnсe, which is both more wacky than Sсiеntolоgy and, somehow, even more insidious too. I’d never have paid money to see it even if I’d noticed the screening.

Some other non-eligible movies which did appear in theaters were Mazinger Z: Infinity, Free! Take Your Marks, and Haikara-san: Here Comes Miss Modern Part 1-2. In order: Mazinger Z: Infinity was good but means more to fans of Mazinger Z, the Free! movie was cute but means more to fans of Free!, and Haikara-san was a rigid adaptation of a period piece whose rigidity and uninspired production doomed it to mediocrity.

Lastly, I should mention that Dragon Ball Super: Brolly did technically premiere in December 2018, but it didn’t open wide until 2019. I’m hoping that means it’ll be eligible for next year, because that was a very entertaining movie even to someone who knows basically nothing about Dragon Ball. Dudes punching each other through glaciers as a chorus dramatically chants “BROLY! BROLY! BROLY!” is pretty universal.



Mirai is the movie GKids pushed for their slot in the Best Animated Feature category, and I think it was a smart move. It isn’t a classic Parent Anime, but it’s aimed so perfectly at the Parent Anime demographic that Mamoru Hosoda’s claim that he made this movie for his son is either hilariously devoid of self-awareness, or else just plain cynical.

Much of that appeal is bound in the premise, which is very simple and appealing. It’s a movie which seriously attempts to engage with the feelings of a 4 year old boy named Kun, whose parents just had another baby, using a sequence of visual metaphors which a 4 year old might imagine. The movie is structured episodically, with each episode dealing with a different subject, and using a new visual metaphor. A good early one has Kun, who feels the new baby has displaced him, fancy himself meeting a disfavored prince in a courtyard. As they talk, he realizes that the prince is in fact the dog, who complains that his food has been cheaper ever since Kun arrived in all his maleficence to darken that noble family’s doorstep.

(It’s okay, they become friends!)

It sounds wonderfully unique, and it…shouldn’t. Insofar as it’s a movie about seriously engaging with the feelings of a 4 year old, there is fundamentally nothing that this movie does that Arthur at its best did not do just as well. That’s not for nothing, of course, since Arthur could be excellent at times.

The difference between Arthur and Mirai is visual, broadly speaking, and what a difference! Kun’s father is an architect, and he designed the house they live in. I don’t know how nice the house would be to live in or maintain with all that glass, but it’s a filmmaker’s dream and allows lots of really nice blocking and layouts. This is good, since those are Hosoda’s strength, and most of the movie takes place inside the house. His direction is fun to watch, and some nice but unremarkable character animation only helps.

The movie really rests on those visual metaphors though, and unfortunately, they’re also my main problem: it’s all too fantastically whimsical. This isn’t how childhood memories are, and this mostly isn’t how children’s imaginations work. Fantastic whimsy is how imaginative romantics think children’s imaginations are like. The whole premise of the movie is dishonest, but at least it’s dishonest in the same way as most similar media is.

Still, I find myself in the awkward position of recommending a movie while seeming to condemn it. The premise may be dishonest, but Hosoda’s imagination is fantastic, and his vignettes are nothing if not heartfelt and personal. While it’s only somewhat insightful about 4 year old boys, it’s accidentally quite insightful about parents of 4 year old boys.

-which, come to think of it, probably says as much about the movie as I just did in the last few hundred words.


One of the few things I actually remember about Fireworks is that the screening I attended had the first six minutes of The Night is Short, Walk on Girl! attached to the end, and that there was more life in those six minutes than in 90 minutes of Fireworks.

It’s not a very good movie.

But it doesn’t do for me to just damn it; I have to actually tell you what it’s like. That’s really hard, because it’s so unmemorable, and I’m not going to rewatch it just to write a few hundred words about it for Facebook – not even at 2x speed.

To start, this is a romance with magical realism adapted from a live action TV series directed by Shunji Iwai in the early 90s that is, I hear, actually good. The movie was announced in December 2016. The perceptive may notice that its announcement followed only six months after the opening of the 9th highest grossing non-English film ever made, Your Name, which is a romance with magical realism. Just like Your Name, Fireworks was funded in part to promote a single. While the movie was not a success, the song miraculously was, and it was absolutely unavoidable in Japan for a period.

You might assume that Fireworks is cashing in on Your Name hype, but much to Shaft and Kadokawa’s ceaseless terror, that’s not the case. This movie had been in production since around 2013. In case you’re wondering, let me just confirm this for you right now: 4 years is not a reasonable amount of time for an anime film to be in production. 3 years would not have been a reasonable amount of time. 2 years is quite leisurely. The production of Your Name took about a year, with an additional year of pitching, business arrangements, and pre-production. Moreover, this movie did not take 4 years because Shaft was taking extra care to make sure it was good. This movie took 4 years because Shaft is burning hollow, and they do not have the resources to properly work on all the projects that Aniplex has foisted on them. I expect Fireworks to be the last movie they ever make.
Still, Fireworks isn’t bad because it has to grow in the shadow of Your Name, or even because its production was a mess; it’s bad because it’s a bad movie. You can divide it into two parts: the parts that are bland, and the parts that are distinctive but eye-rolling.

The love itself is one of the bland parts, which is, now that I’ve written those words, one of the most damming things you can say about a love story. It’s a story about a girl whose family circumstances prevent her from dating a guy she likes, which is odd, because the whole movie is told from the guy’s perspective. If the movie insists on framing the girl as purely an object of the boy’s empathy, then at least they ought’ve had the two interact more than marginally before launching into the third act so we can grow to like her ourselves. Instead, the emotional core of the story is distant, which makes the fact that the back half of the movie is a sequence of two teenagers being total jerks to their friends and family in a boring, myopic sort of way all the more painful. The movie, of course, isn’t reflective about their behavior in the slightest.

If the love story is one of the bland parts, the direction is nothing if not distinctively eye rolling. The movie was directed by Nobuyuki Takeuchi – a man who ought to have know better – at a studio called Shaft. Shaft since the mid 2000s has been an experiment to see if a single auteur can impart his vision on a studio of multiple other directors. The auteur in question is Akiyuki Shinbou, whose visual language is a development of the Dezaki school. It’s hard to describe the Dezaki school in words, but it’s a heightened, dramatic, abstract way of directing – and people like Shinbou take this already heightened style and heighten it even more. Sometimes it works out well. The visual language of Fireworks, however, is a bit like a fantasy novelist trying to write in Tolkien’s voice, but who understands none of his substance. It’s like if you opened The Hobbit and the first chapter is written in the same register as The Book of Genesis. Instead of the grandiose romanticism of Rose of Versailles, Fireworks is full of the same uncanny foreboding as Puella Magi Madoka Magica. This is 100% unintentional. I do not understand how Takeuchi got it so wrong.

I realize that it feels like I’m midway through a longer essay, but I really do want to keep these short snapshots unless they really warrant more, and this movie really doesn’t. If I did go on, I’d probably talk about:

>The horniness the storyboarders seem to have for the girl, which would be totally normal in, say, the Monogatari series, but is totally out of place in a by-the-numbers romance.
>The ugly compositing and cold, boring animation, which would be unremarkable even by TV production standards.
>How rote the big musical number is, visually, from a director who – and I stress this again – is great at bombastic, inventive visual design in literally every other thing he’s been involved with.

Don’t watch Fireworks. Just watch the music video and be done with the whole thing.

A note on the Year of Yuasa

Masaaki Yuasa is a visionary, which was as clear when he was an animator as it is now that he is a director running the studio Science Saru. I am not wholly a proponent of his vision, but he is a visionary, and this year, three of his anime came out in the US. Two of them – The Night is Short, Walk on Girl!, and Lu Over the Wall – were eligible for a nomination. The third was Devilman: Crybaby, which is a Netflix original anime series. Three anime is kind of a lot, and they’re vaguely thematically related, so I’m going to take a moment to introduce Yuasa at length.

When talking about Yuasa, you have to start with his visual style, because his style as an animator and his style as a director are inseparable. This makes him an auteur, and a good example of why individual animators are important to questions of authorship in the Japanese animation industry. He likes exaggerated poses, walk cycles, and movement in general which communicate emotion and weight, which is different from the character-focused exaggeration common in the West, or the snappy pose-to-pose exaggeration common in some anime. He uses wild camera movement and angles to accentuate it. He’s unafraid to make his characters look grotesque in the process, which makes him highly distinctive in an industry which is deeply in love with cute cartoon people.

Perhaps predictably, he likes nonhuman, monstrous characters a lot, and all three of his anime this year feature them. Moreover, two of them are meditations on some of mankind’s darker tendencies, with the underlying theme that monstrous and alien things aren’t always bad. Their plots are both broadly about ordinary people reacting poorly in understandable ways and causing catastrophes. Devilman: Crybaby ends in the same brutally pessimistic way as the manga it adapts did (yes I know this is a loaded contention, but let it slide for now), but Lu Over the Wall does not. I’m thankful for this because I found Devilman: Crybaby in many ways unpleasant, but I also wonder if Lu Over the Wall really provides a satisfying answer. The Night is Short, Walk On Girl! falls outside this pattern for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

Last, I ought to mention that both movies – but especially Lu Over the Wall – are showcases of what Science Saru has been trying to do with the Flash animation toolchains they’ve been working on for a long while. Flash has the benefit of allowing animators to more easily animate scenes with lots of moving camera –  which is important to Yuasa – and the drawback of making those scenes look floaty and weird. I suspect most of the work they’ve done has gone into solving that issue, which they haven’t yet. Nonetheless, if you read the credits to Lu Over the Wall, you’ll notice that there are no in-betweeners credited. There are only the key animators – who likely drew all the frames of their own cuts themselves – and Flash animators. An unusual production for an unusual director.

The Night is Short, Walk on Girl!

The Night is Short, Walk On Girl! is simultaneously a highly literary movie, and a story that was always meant for animation. That isn’t as strange as it sounds, since it’s an adaptation of a novel by Tomohiko Morimi, whose style could not be more perfect to attract animators and animation fans. I myself regret that I can’t quite read his work in Japanese quite yet, and hope someday I may. All the context you need, however, is that four of his works have been adapted into anime so far, and all of them have been great.

I’m not sure how to describe this movie, except that it’s about a girl who gate-crashes a bunch of parties, wins a drinking contest with a youkai, goes used book shopping, pinches in for a guerilla theater troupe, and cheers everyone up when they all get the same cold, all in the course of what I suppose must be an ordinary summer night in Kyoto. A boy follows closely behind, trying to confess his feelings. Just like the eternal night, the 92 minute movie feels about twice that long: not because it’s dull, but because it’s an episodic movie so dense with ideas that time seems to slow.

Note how I didn’t say what it’s about thematically. It’s about so many different things that I’m not sure what to say, and at any rate, really getting into it would require more time and space than this context allows. It’s a movie of vaguely related observations about life philosophies tied together in a bundle. If I had to name its primary through-line, it’s about the girl and the boy finding themselves, which sounds trite but isn’t. I suggest reading any number of other analyses if you’d like to know more.

Essential to this movie’s identity is the fact that animation is woven in to the warp and woof of Masaaki Yuasa’s directorial style. I can’t think of another anime director working right now who uses visual abstraction quite as aggressively and playfully as Yuasa, and it suits the abstract and playful story not only in the vague aesthetic sense that Morimi’s prose has an affinity for Yuasa’s visual language, but also in the more definite sense that Yuasa needed to articulate both concepts and sensations without relying on dialog or even some traditional storytelling tools.

Now, earlier I said that GKids running Mirai was a good idea, and I’ll even add that it probably has the most to gain by broader awareness. Nonetheless, I have a vague feeling that The Night is Short, Walk On Girl! has the potential to be a pretty big hit with someone, but I’m not sure exactly who that someone is. It’s too weird to be Parent Anime. It doesn’t walk or talk like anime, but since anime is not nearly the anathema to general audiences that watched DBZ and Naruto and Attack on Titan growing up, that might actually be a disadvantage outside the Parent Anime demographic. It’s not so weird that only film nerds would watch it, but then, it’s still experimental animation. In the end, the only way to be sure it reaches someone would be to throw it up on Netflix, which I’m sure will happen. Maybe it’ll even reach you.

Lu Over the Wall

Another thing about Masaaki Yuasa is that he likes dancing and music. Lu Over the Wall features lots of both, being about some kids in a band and a singing mermaid.

Actually, “merfolk” doesn’t get the right picture across. They’re more like magical vampire mermaids, which sounds like something extremely tedious off the late 2000s internet like “zombie pirate ninja,” but is perfectly accurate. They can manipulate water, they burn in sunlight, and you turn into a mer yourself if they bite you. Moreover, the most anthropomorphic mer is Lu; the rest are kinda like shark people. They’re tied to music, and they gain legs to walk on (or more usually dance across) land when they hear it. They’re pretty nuts, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, the movie introduces the depressed main character Kai and his two friends who rope him into being in a band. Kai discovers the mermaid child Lu when she’s attracted to his music, and they become friends. In the process we learn why Kai was dead to the world and about the lives of his two friends, and then watch as these people and the community they live in accidentally fuck everything up by acting painfully consistent to their established characters. This goes on for a very frustrating half hour or so of film until everyone manages to get their shit together in a big, strange, and pretty fucking neat looking finale with floating cubes of water and stuff. All told, I came away roughly satisfied, and…

…and I’m not sure I have much more to say about it than that, except that it’s like a way better version of Ponyo for an older audience. As I mentioned before, it veers away at the last minute from falling into shockingly dark nihilism for a movie about some dorks and a mermaid child. And yet, it’d be a kid’s movie, except for the fact that most kids would find the teenagers deadly boring. More than that, a lot of the best and most emotionally affecting parts are about old people who aren’t even the focus of the story. Maybe the highest complement I can give Yuasa and his staff is that somehow, nonetheless, it never became an atonal mess. It is aesthetically quite cohesive. Maybe I’d be more impressed if it didn’t have to go up against Yuasa and Morimi’s Kyoto Party Night 2018.

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

aka “Call Your Mom: the Movie”

Mari Okada is the kind of writer who can have the whole theater laughing at a line that is clearly supposed to be serious one moment and near breaking down crying another…in the same scene. This is her best work.

This is a movie about the lives of an Iorph girl named Maquia and a human boy named Ariel. The Iorph are elves, more or less, and live secluded on an island where they produce fine textiles and frolic through the meadows all day for centuries on-end, as off-brand elves do. Maquia, being young and fragile, does less frolicking than others, but she watches others frolic with some reticence. Unfortunately, some shit involving dragons and geopolitics happens and she ends up orphaned very suddenly on the mainland, where she finds the human baby Ariel among the wreckage of a bandit raid, is adopted by some farmers, and becomes in turn a sister, a single mother, a single mother who may as well be a sister, and a grandmother.

Let me first note that while the “May-to-December Romance” is a well established type, I can’t think of another example of an epic life-spanning May-to-December maternity narrative. Nihil sub sole novum is a cliché and a falsity.

Anyway, there appears to be a tendency when writing pop film criticism to frame things in the most general way possible. If it’s a movie about a thing, it’s a movie about Thing, whether or not the movie displays much universalizable insight into Thing. Maquia is a movie about a mother, so it’s clearly about motherhood in a real sense, but I’m not sure it’s right to call it about motherhood in the broadest possible sense. Maquia is, however, a highly compelling and detailed portrait of a very specific mother, informed by Mari Okada’s thoughts about her own very specific mother.

It’s an idiosyncratic portrait because Mari Okada is a strange person who writes works of – to put it in neutral terms – “heightened drama.” For context, she spent her youth as a shut-in with her single mother due to severe social anxiety, and what she calls in her memoir very probably a panic disorder. She spent so long trapped inside her own head that her career as a screenwriter might be called an exercise in getting outside it, but even in other people’s heads, her own worldview leaves a distinct tint – and “distinct” is the right word. This is not always a good thing.

Indeed, I seem to remember there being a few truly, bracingly strange moments in the narrative which had me really wondering if a “100% Okada movie” was such a good idea, but for the life of me I can’t remember what they were. This should tell you something. The rough moments are only part of what makes the movie so interesting as an object of consideration. I think that you do have to have a certain tolerance for her way of writing (and now her way of directing), but I think that threshold is quite low. This is an accessible movie, and if you find the premise at all intriguing, you should check it out. It’s a touching and heartfelt tearjerker of a story. Okada once commented that at first she thought the reaction of wanting to call one’s mom after a movie (Tokyo Story is a common one) was distinctly Japanese, but hearing us foreigners react to Maquia proved to her otherwise very, very conclusively.

Now I know it sounds like I’m wrapping up my writeup, and I’ve probably told you everything you really need to know about this movie. Compelling concept, deeply affecting, you get the idea. But here’s the thing: this movie is also an amazing feat of raw animation power. Almost 2/3rds of this movie was animated by Toshiyuki Inoue as a favor to producer Kenji Horikawa before he retires. Toshiyuki Inoue, you may recall me having mentioned, is one of the most skilled animators to ever walk under the vault of heaven. To help him, he brought onboard many of his immensely skilled friends. This movie’s animation is amazingly complicated yet absolutely full of character. I could absolutely go into great detail about what makes it so astounding on a scene-to-scene basis, but I’ll spare you. Unlike the next movie in this article, I do not think that animation of this caliber was necessary for the production or is integral to its appeal. However, I absolutely had to mention it, because this is the current masterwork of one of animation’s greatest.

Liz & the Blue Bird

You can explain what happens in Liz & the Blue Bird in a sentence or so. It’s about two seniors in high school: Nozomi and Mizore, 1st flute and 1st oboe in their school band. They’re very close to each other, but temperamentally heterogeneous.* Neither knows where they’re going afterwards; neither wants to part from the other; neither knows what they want for themselves: so they awkwardly cling to each other in their own way. Over about 90 minutes, they learn what letting go would mean.

These aren’t simple emotions, exactly, but putting it into words undercuts the fact that this may be the most beautiful animated movie I’ve ever seen.

I don’t merely mean that it looks pretty – though it does. Rather, this beauty is the kind only possible by an absolute unity of art. Every piece is in its place: sound, color, movement, words, composition, design. It all articulates as one. This is just what constitutes film aesthetic, properly understood.

The operating principle of the movie is specificity – a kind only possible in animation due to the precise control of every textual element. The opening sequence of the movie exemplifies this, and introduces motifs associated with the girl Nozomi. There is a certain way her ponytail swings, which will recur. What recurs is not a shot, though a shot does recur; what recurs is the motion. This is one of the things Mizore likes about her. There are many of these motifs, and many of them are aural as well. The entire opening is a soundscape which is half-music and half ambience of the two girls walking through their school together silently. Taken as one, it creates on screen something like their sense experience – a kind of ground-level phenomenological study. Not a bad way to show what their relationship is like, huh?

“Specificity” is a word that some fans of western animation use to talk about old school character acting – the kind in old Disney movies, where everyone carried themselves in an immediately recognizable way. Some of them contend that anime lacks this kind of specificity, which is partially true, since Japanese approaches to character animation are fundamentally quite different. Liz has some specificity of character, but even more, Liz has a lot of animation which is hyper-specific to an emotion. This kind of realist animation isn’t unique to Liz, but it’s important to it. Animation can very cleanly show the exact and precise way in which a girl might set her flute down during a rest and clench the hem of her dress as emotion silently overcomes her during a rehearsal. Quiet moments and subtle gestures like that are key to how director Naoko Yamada tells stories.

Not unrelatedly, Yamada uses lots of shots of legs and hands during this movie, as she does in all her work. She says they’re an underutilized way of showing emotion, but they’re especially well suited to animation. The human face has countless muscles which animation can’t replicate, but legs and hands have many clear points of articulation and can show as much subtlety in how people shift their weight and posture as the animator can put there.

Reiko Yoshida’s script is probably the most conventional component, and it’s quite funny how little of what’s being said at any given point has anything to do with what’s happening in the movie. The important thing is that Yoshida is good at writing high school girls being high school girls. Some scenes feel more anime-like than others, and those scenes are usually the ones which have the most Yoshida in them. Luckily, they feel like they’re from a good anime – these girls are fun.

The voice of Ayano Takeda, the author of the Sound! Euphonium novels from which this is adapted in bits and pieces, comes through oddly less in the characters and more in the heavy use of visual metaphor. The story of Nozomi and Mizore is framed by the eponymous fictional fairy tale Liz & the Blue Bird about a lonely girl who becomes friends with a beautiful blue bird who can turn into a human, whose love for the lonely girl compels her not to fly away. The fairy tale is the basis for the third movement of a tone poem which their school band is playing in a competition. As you might imagine, there are windows and birds framed by windows and birds flying around and windowframes casting shadows and…listen, this movie has many subtle parts (including other visual metaphors), but this is not one of them.

Now, I’m not going to go on any more talking about individual parts (but I could – I could for a thousand words more), because at this point you should get why this is an astounding movie. I’m afraid, however, I haven’t told you much about why you should care beyond that yet. I’m writing to you, after all, not to my film studies professor.** The truth is, like the Sound! Euphonium TV series, I don’t think I can recommend this movie to everyone. It’s a delicately told story about two girls which I found quite moving and worthy of contemplation, but it’s a very small story where not a lot happens. You have to have a taste for small stories like that, and a lot of patience for Naoko Yamada’s “whisper once, don’t yell twice” style of filmmaking. It asks that you be very observant. Like Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice from 2017 – a more thematically complicated but comparatively messy film – I only fully appreciated and felt it on watching it a second time.

Anyway, I’m not disappointed that this isn’t one of the Oscar nominees: because I already know ElevenArts can’t actually run an Oscar campaign, but also because movies like this don’t benefit from that kind of exposure anyway. It is the best anime film of 2018, but a bunch of people watching it because it’s prestigious would just lead to a lot of disappointed user reviews. What I do hope is that the academic film studies people find this movie, and they write the volumes about it that it deserves.

Ah, one more thing to note though. The tone poem Liz & the Blue Bird which Akito Matsuda composed for the film is actually quite good in isolation from the movie, and the important 3rd movement especially so.

*And that’s the only thing hetero about them.
**If somehow you do read this, Prof. Fleeger, you should be aware that there’s totally a brief visual reference to the opening of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Also the director, writer, and most of the staff are all women.

And that’s about it for 2018. Now, here’s where I’d like to tell you all about where you can actually watch these movies, but just like last year, most of them are currently only available on BD and not for streaming. This isn’t really surprising, since of the anime I wrote about last year, only In This Corner of the World and Mary and the Witch’s Flower are available to stream in the US. You want to watch A Silent Voice? lol buy the disc for 22 dollars, or else buy yourself a gift card for the UK iTunes store and enjoy your DRMeriffic digital copy. You could strip the DRM, but then as xkcd once pointed out, you may as well just pirate the thing anyway.

Ahh, but of course, this is an article specifically about anime that had a theatrical release. Last year my point in doing this was to show how anime was here, culturally, no matter if an anime feature actually got nominated for an Oscar or not. This year I don’t really have a point, except that animation is cool. Why am I doing this again?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Japanese cartoons you could’ve seen at the movies in 2017

Originally published on Facebook on February 3rd, 2018

The 2018 Academy Awards nominees for best animated feature were announced!

Like last year no anime made the cut, but unlike last year this isn’t a surprise.

Not to imply that the nominees aren’t shocking in other ways. It may have been fashionably cynical to expect Boss Baby to appear, but nobody expected Ferdinand, and at any rate few serious and thoroughgoing industry observers expected either. No, what’s not surprising is that none of the qualified anime were nominated. Three of them are good (kinda), two had a shot at mainstream appeal, and only one was released in America by a company proven capable of mounting an Oscar campaign. That’d be Mary and the Witch’s Flower, released by GKIDS. GKIDS, however, put their money on The Breadwinner, which did indeed secure a nomination. I can’t disagree with their choice.

What interests me the most, however, is the very fact that five anime films did qualify, meaning that five anime films screened at enough theaters for long enough to meet the Academy’s criterion. That’s new. This wasn’t the case a decade ago. Anime – non Studio Ghibli anime – is regularly screening in American theaters…sometimes even in AMC and Regal multiplexes. Anime is winning, even if it’s not winning awards.

So what did screen in theaters this year? Let’s start with the films that qualified for the best animated feature Oscar.

In This Corner of the World

Lots of discourse about any movie will center around its message: its validity, and ultimately its praiseworthiness. This is fine so far as it goes, but I personally don’t sing too loudly the moral praises of a movie which can offer only a message. I hold that In This Corner of the World is a deeper kind of good, because it brings not a message but an approach.

In This Corner of the World is about the life of a young woman named Suzu, living with her newly wedded husband and extended family near the major military port of Kure, Japan. The year is 1944. Ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy are always coming and going: everything from submarine tenders to battleships. Suzu and her young niece Harumi often stop on the hills to watch, sometimes sketching their striking silhouettes. But fewer and fewer ships are returning. Friends in the Navy are disappearing, and the survivors speak morbidly. Goods are growing scarce. Japan is losing this war, and everyone knows it. Suzu can only do her best for her family, and for her neighbors. It’s all anyone can.

War movies are often about the extremes of human experience. This is natural, as war is always extreme. This goes doubly for movies about civilians in wartime. Perhaps the most famous is Grave of the Fireflies, another anime, also about Japanese civilians at the tail end of the Pacific War. It’s famously hard to watch, being more or less 88 minutes of two kids slowly starving to death. It’s a simple movie with a simple message: this is what it costs to wage total war in the modern era. Simple, and effective.

In This Corner of the World is not like those. It’s not about the biblical terror of firebombing or atomic weapons, even though both of those affect Suzu’s life. Rather, it’s about how normal people lived their lives during the war, and in turn, how normal people came to view it. Its director, Sunao Katabuchi, did a massive amount of research to make sure that he depicted life in Kure accurately and honestly, so that we may better identify with Suzu and understand her. From this humanistic approach stems a flood of unstated bitter ironies, and subtle truths about how people and societies behave. This devotion to depicting an unsensational lifestyle is what makes it great, and in my opinion, what ultimately makes it far more interesting than Grave of the Fireflies or Barefoot Gen.

This I believe is precisely the kind of movie that would’ve been a hit with the Academy, if anyone had bothered to see it. It squarely hits the middle aged NPR listener demographic – a phenomena I call “Parent Anime.” This movie is the prototypical Parent Anime:

>It doesn't look like that Pokémon stuff.
>It shows off Japanese culture – “isn't Japanese culture so interesting?”
>It's about an Important Topic.

This might be a backhanded compliment to any other movie, but not to this one. It’s genuine – the real deal. Simply, it’s one of the best movies about war I’ve ever seen.

(Just, please, don’t watch the English dub. Watch it with subtitles)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

I'm about to complain a lot about this movie, but this PV is cool as heck.

Everyone loves Hayao Miyazaki, but he’s haunted in popular consciousness by the specter of the Miyazaki Movie. It clings to his body of work like a miasma. You know how it goes. A Miyazaki Movie is full of wonder and fantasy. A Miyazaki Movie stars a strongheaded young girl. A Miyazaki Movie is warm and comfy. This idea is a phantasm, but it exists nevertheless.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Studio Ponoć tried to make a movie in the phantasm’s image. They succeeded. It is an error.

What is Mary and the Witch’s Flower? A story of a young girl: bored with her grandmother, and mildly insecure about her frizzly red hair. She comes across magical powers and finds herself caught up in an adventure. At one point, she is mistaken for a magical prodigy, and for a brief moment we see that perhaps her insecurities run deeper than at first it seemed. Is this the moment where her stressful fever dream becomes lovely? What does it mean for her when later horrors reveal themselves? It passes, this moment, without hardly a rustle.

This girl is the image of a Miyazaki character, without any of the depth or feeling. She does not have the detail of Kiki, or of the lesser Chihiro. She is a cypher for any number of her more interesting predecessors. Her actions do not belong to her; she does things seemingly out of obligation to the unremarkable story. Her personality lacks anything that could lend her charisma. Her body language is identical to near any of her Miyazaki predecessors, although lets be real, the body language of most Miyazaki girls is the same anyway. Yonebayashi even tacitly admits this in the post-movie interview.

Our villains are similarly lacking. Yonebayashi says he likes villains whose morality reflects something in the real world – and indeed the movie has a self-conscious message about nuclear power (a Parent Anime staple!) – yet their actual demeanors are rote. I’d take fairy-tale simplicity if it came with people who were fun to watch. Nor does their worldview, comprehensible as it is, extend beyond the walls of their campus. Miyazaki villains – when he writes fantasy – have motivations which extend far out into the world, and into its culture, values, and politics. Princess Kushana is not only the hero of her own story, she genuinely is the hero in almost any other story you tell about that world! As Miyazaki is a leftist and was a union organizer in is youth, maybe this owes something to his worldview.

What of the spirit of adventure? The fantasy? The wonder? Yonebayashi and Studio Ponoć were able to call on the usual bunch of former Telecom Animation Film animators who once formed the core of Ghibli, as well as freelance luminaries like Shinya Ohira, Shinji Hashimoto, and Kiyotaka Oshiyama. Those three especially put in lots of astounding work, especially in the cold opening, which may be the best part of that movie. This is unsurprising, since Yonebayashi’s specialty has always been “dynamic action sequences.”

I should like to continue on to praise the aesthetic of the rest of the film, but regrettably its fantasy and wonder is as rote as its characters. The magic school lacks coherent design sense. It is a mishmash of colors and worn ideas, and aside from a technically quite impressive bit of animation with a water fountain, there are very few memorable images or motifs. The backgrounds, at least, are quite nice, even if on a whole the movie lacks a strong sense of time or place.

Now, all this sounds pretty harsh, but the truth is that this is an inoffensive fantasy adventure with moments of interesting animation. It’s not boring, and I didn’t dislike watching it. I’m simply frustrated that Yonebayashi and Ponoć fettered themselves to a spook and produced a lesser movie for it. Before this, Yonebayashi directed When Marnie Was There, which in my opinion punches in the same weight class as near anything Miyazaki ever made. It’s affecting, beautiful aesthetically and morally, and it inspires reflection. It has in abundance everything Mary lacks, save that it’s not fantasy. It is an extremely different kind of movie, but it shows that he and his crew have the skills to make a truly great fantasy adventure film for children.

This is not it.

If you want really spectacular anime fantasy adventure with witches and magic, go watch Little Witch Academia (2013) and Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade (2015). You may find both of these on Netflix, if I am not mistaken.

Napping Princess

Indeed, I shit you not, the end credit song for this movie is a cover of
Daydream Believer by The Monkees.

This movie is not as charming as Kenji Kamiyama thinks it is.

It tries. It really tries, and whatever its failures, you can’t accuse it of being rote, or falling for some fundamental, obvious-in-hindsight trap. In other words, I’m not about to write 762 words about it like I did for Mary and the Witch’s Flower. (I swear I intended these to be short!)

What is it? A story about patent disputes! Only, told with fantasy elements. It’s about a teenaged girl who, as a young child, was told by her father by way of an allegorical fantasy about how a car company working on self-driving cars tried to steal his late wife’s code and kicked him to the curb. Some years later, the self-driving car company – still unsuccessful in replicating the code and committed to unveiling their product for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – comes after the father. The teenaged daughter is caught up trying to protect the code and rescue her dad. She frequently dreams of the fantasy world of her dad’s story, and the movie toys with the idea that her actions in the fantasy world might be affecting the real one.

And you know what? It’s not a half-bad idea. The characters are all fun to watch thanks to the work of a very wide variety of animators, from absolute legends like Toshiyuki Inoue and Mitsuo Iso, to young foreigners like Bahi JD and Cedric Herole. There’s actually quite a bit of French influence in the way the characters move, which I think even a non animation nerd audience might pick up on. The master achievement of the production was not any of the action scenes, but the character of Watanabe, the villain. This is a ridiculous man whose way of moving and design telegraphs evil to an absolutely hilarious extent, but not the same way as any villain animated in the tradition of Western character acting might.

The rest of the film? Eh. It’s kind of a mess. It’s weirdly paced, the characters aren’t very fun, save Watanabe and young Ancien, who gets a pass mainly for being adorable. I found the fantasy world too high off its own whimsy. “A dieselpunk town devoted to making cars where the guards wear Anglo-Zulu War era British Army uniforms and they build giant magical robots to fight monsters” is the kind of thing that sounds amazing and creative and wonderful when you dream it up with your friends, yet somehow never transcends “that cool idea you thought up with your friends” in practice.

A Silent Voice

If you ask me who inspires me, I can give you a list of people who have an aspect or two I admire. If on the other hand you ask me who I want to be like, I’d have a very hard time naming anyone outside of three people, and all of them are directors: the late Noboru Ishiguro, Guillermo del Toro, and Naoko Yamada.

Yamada is a highly idiosyncratic director. She tries to put her feet in her characters’ shoes, and makes her decisions from the point of view of what best does justice to them, which she calls “method directing.” For that reason she’s very good at finding out-of-the-ordinary ways of communicating body language, and the way she blocks scenes is always tone-perfect.

A Silent Voice was an especially good fit for her; one of its most important characters is deaf and uses sign language. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the original manga is about a deaf girl named Shouko Nishimiya, whose classmates bully her in early elementary school. When the teachers finally do something, the blame falls almost entirely on the boy who (kinda) started it – Shouya Ishida – his friends unwilling to face their own guilt. He too becomes ostracized and falls into deep isolation well into high school. This is the story about Shouko and Shouya, their friendship, and all the people in their lives. Needless to say, it’s full of very difficult and complicated feelings. Misrepresenting them could be ugly. A premise like that should make you wary. Yamada herself only barely felt up to this task.

What kind of movie did she make? A strange one. She handles all these relationships and feelings with absolutely deft precision alright, to the point where you can easily fail to notice half the movie’s detail. As another review once put it, she’d rather whisper once than shout twice. At the same time, her “method directing” approach means that the movie is constantly wearing its emotions on its sleeve. It’s a subtle movie pretending to be an unsubtle one. Yamada does justice to these characters, and does it wonderfully. But if you accused it of being too neat and pretty, that’d just put you among many fans of the far rougher shod manga.

There are genuine marks against the movie too. Yamada and her friends at Kyoto Animation like to plan their work as though they were shooting it with real cameras, but here she decided to use lots of very warm light and low depth-of-field. She’ll use animated cinematography evocatively over the course of the movie too, but the first half hour or so of the movie is almost aggressively warm, and aggressively bokeh. A lot of visual cues are borrowed from the manga, but in animation they feel often too cute. Probably the most bizarre choice though was the use of My Generation by The Who in the opening, which is thematically so far out that you’d need a telescope to see it. Yamada explained that she chose it for what amount to aesthetic reasons, but even considering that she speaks little if any English, it’s odd that she seemed to give no thought to lyrics.

How does it all pan out? It’s an astounding movie, but I can’t tell you whether it’ll bring you to tears, or make you resent having to watch it. It’ll probably do one or the other. You’ll have to see. I naturally love it, and can’t wait to see it in the theater again tomorrow.

Ahh yes, that’s the best part, isn’t it? The Blu Ray is coming out soon and it’s getting another round of screenings with the English dub. Couldn’t tell you how it is, but they did get a deaf person to play the deaf character, so it’s got that going for it.

Sword Art Online: The Movie – Ordinal Scale


I didn’t see Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale. That’s because I don’t like Sword Art Online. Actually I think it’s terrible.

But that puts me in a minority. A significant one, but a minority. SAO has been popular since it aired in Japan, and even more popular since it aired on Toonami. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a beautifully produced show directed very well at times by Tomohiko Ito. I think it’s badly written, but there’s a certain innocence to it. This is the story of this guy who’s really good at video games, and he has a cool and sexy gamer girlfriend, and together they have to escape from a VR game where you die for real if you die in-game. It’d be charming if it weren’t bad. But most important of all, it’s never boring.

And none of this even matters, because SAO is popular, and it’s only one of many. If you can strike up a conversation with a nerd under like 30 about Game of Thrones, you stand like a 50/50 chance of being able to strike up a conversation about SAO too. Or Attack on Titan, or My Hero Academia. (And one of those shows is even good!)

Point is, the times are changing. Anime fandom is established in the United States as a lucrative and well-served corner of the market. The anime and j-drama streaming service Crunchyroll is in the same subscriber count range as CBS’ streaming service, only Crunchyroll gets to call that a success. Western money makes up a not insignificant amount of anime’s revenue, and western companies are funding a lot of shows. We might not grow much larger, but that’s okay too. Anime is here.

And if you’re the sort who cares about awards, consider this: the creators of Netflix’s most successful original series were inspired by Elfen Lied, of all the strangest things. If you visit any particular film set in Hollywood, it’s full of anime fans. Maybe not for a decade or so, but as the voting demographic in these awards shifts, you’ll probably be seeing way less The Boss Baby and way more…Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale?

…this is a good thing?

That wraps it for the movies that qualified for an Oscar, but wait! There’s more! We also got screenings of Kizumonogatari Part 3: Reiketsu, Your Name, and Genocidal Organ. This post is going long, so I’m going to break it into parts – for your sanity and mine. The next part will deal with them.

Spoiler: Genocidal Organ is, unfortunately, not about an evil reanimated heart that fought alongside Ustaše bandits in the Yugoslav Wars :(

Monday, December 23, 2013

PMMM: The Rebellion Story

It’s never wrong to hope! - Madoka Magica TV
Well then you’d better start hoping some more. - Rebellion Story
Gen Urobuchi is a little bit like Homura, and not only because they both look like they could fuck up your day, hardcore. See, he too had to find a way to bring Madoka back, and he had to break his world to do so. I’ve thought of a bunch of different silly readings you could make of the movie, but by far my favorite is the one where the movie is a metaphor for itself. All the characters live on in doujinshiland doing happy things, but no mere contrivance could make things like that. A disinterested race has put Homura in limbo and are trying to recapture Madoka’s power - bring back the old days for their own benefit. Homura doesn’t want a reset though: she wants to write her own ending. So she does something dramatic: breaks the Law of Cycles and undeifies Madoka.

The Kyuubeys on the production committee started this cynical enterprise, but Urobuchi, like Homura, aims higher. Urobuchi tries to make it have impact, have it make sense thematically. Certainly it’s better than what would have happened if the Kyuubeys had control of Madoka’s power themselves, but does that mean the movie succeeds at what it’s trying to do?


If we take the movie as pure connective tissue from one season to another, then sure. It’s all in place. Homura’s arc is shocking, but she was never a hero, and divorced of the movie’s actual execution, it fits her character. Unfortunately, you have to be in Earth orbit to be so detached as to see why. We have to take it on good faith that Homura has been so desperate to see Madoka again all this time - that her pure love has driven her into impure obsession. There are some good visual hints, but they only make sense in retrospect. The movie simply does not stop to take breaths often enough to drive home the character beats it needed to have driven home.

Part of this is the fault of the movie having to do all this in 115 minutes while also setting up its byzantine plot and finding time for a song about cake. Clearly this movie had priorities, and when you’ve got only so long to work with, and a theatrical budget that was likely twice as much as the entire TV show ever had, you want to use it on scenes where stuff is happening.

But another important cause is also maybe the movie’s greatest strength: the visual style. You thought the series had a really far-out aesthetic? That’s cute. Wait until you see this one. Almost all of the movie takes place in a labyrinth, and it’s clear from almost scene one, because there are little pieces of Inu Curry’s influence in almost every shot, and I don’t just mean because of the pervasive presence of the familiars. I mean the unnatural lighting and color palette, the bizarre mise-en-scene, and all the visual details that make the sense of foreboding leading up to Homura’s revelation so very heavy. Inu Curry put a lot of work into this one, and it looks both otherworldly and completely amazing.

It’s not just the visual aesthetic though. Shinbou did a really good job of making the little things just slightly off. The fanservice fluff is clearly fanservice, but it serves a dual purpose. It’s inconsistent with the established visual language - with the very foundation of Dokes’ world. The cake song isn’t just fanservice - it’s something that should never happen in Dokes as we know it. Shinbou knows what he’s doing alright. He’s not Ikuhara, but he knows how to do expressionism.

But back to the point, because it’s focusing so much on the foreboding atmosphere and fanservice scenes, it’s very hard to focus on what the characters are actually doing. It’s sensory overload. We can’t get close to Homura because between her mind and the audience is the phantasmagoria of an uncanny city.

The other characters get even less room to breathe than Homura. Kyoko and Sayaka get to fight a little, say some lines, eat some cake, and really don’t do anything else. Madoka continues to be a complete non-entity, but at least that’s consistent with the series. Mami just up and disappears from the movie entirely around the middle of the second act. You might be able to write them all out of the movie entirely and replace them with characters from a different show, and except for the fanservice, the movie would be about the same.

Lacking any real emotional impact, the characters actions feel hollow, but that’s not all the movie has to offer. It’s a worthwhile film if only because the imagery is just that good. Mitakihara burning is one of the best things to come out of the franchise. The bus feels almost like it came out of Rintaro’s body of work. Even the ridiculously long transformation sequences are beautiful and completely worth the five minutes the film devotes to them. I was never bored during the entire runtime (though I was beginning to get a headache).

Rebellion Story doesn’t really work as a narrative in and of itself, but maybe that’s not what we should be asking. Clearly there’s going to be more; a movie, a TV series, OVAs, who knows? And clearly this movie is only there to make it possible to use more already existing characters than just Homura, Kyoko, and Mami, because they want to aim for that otaku money. The movie did its job, and now we are only left to ask “where are we now?”

It’d be easy to paint things in a pessimistic light. In a single empty gesture, Homura and the rest of the Puella Magi are enemies, and it’s hard to see past the cynicism. But I’m not a cynic, and I’m not a pessimist. What I am is a fan of the work that results when Urobuchi, Shinbou, and Inu Curry collaborate. Surely they have not run out of interesting places to go - interesting things to say. The movie didn’t work as drama because it had to balance the demands of reviving a franchise, having the characters make sense, and finding the time for a five minute transformation sequence and cake song. But now that it’s over and done with, they’re in open water. They can give that characterization which the movie sorely missed. If they couldn’t make the decisions feel weighty, they can certainly make their upshots hit home.

The original TV show will always be there, a perfect little 12 episode story that wraps up and subsists on its own. It will always be a favorite anime of mine, in isolation from all else. Whatever comes next will be completely different - a new story to tell. And I refuse to believe that just because it’s a cynical endeavor that nothing good can possibly come of it.

Because it’s never wrong to hope.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Marketing as subtle as a nuclear explosion.

The first thing you hear in Gojira is the sound of rending steal distorted into the roar of an unfathomably huge monster of terrible power. Not a single person in any theatre across the Home Islands had even a moment’s confusion as to what this movie was really about. The year was 1954, not a decade had passed since the horrifying destruction of the American bombing campaign, and just a few months prior a Japanese fishing boat and her crew were irradiated by a nuclear weapons test. Thoughts of science and destruction and the state of Japan in the international community were first and foremost in the minds of the audience, and Toho knew it. Nowadays we call Gojira “historically and culturally important.” Back then they called it “exploitative.” And it was. Totally. A close reading of the theatrical trailer may tell us more.

Before we get to that, there’s some groundwork to do. What are we comparing this to? There aren’t really any sources that document how theatrical trailers were put together in 1954 Japan (that I can find), but my own research (watching a bunch on youtube) seems to show that they had a slightly more thematic proclivity than what you’d expect of a western theatrical trailer at the time. This was true both of Shochiku and Toho published films. It’s common to open onto a character speaking about the subject matter, or to some piece of imagery which in some way captures what the film as a whole is like. They’re really quite admirable in some ways. There’s no common structure like what we have now, so I don’t think you could say Gojira really deviated, since there was nothing to deviate from.
Indeed, Gojira is very clear right from the start. What are the images that Toho thought most important to put at the front of the trailer?

00:00-->00:03: Toho logo.

Okay, right after the front of the trailer.

00:03 --> 00:14: Immediately we’re presented with a bit of a difficulty. The shots chosen give the impression of a storm bearing down on an island from the point of view of the people in the midst of if. A shot establishes the force of the storm by showing it blow past trees, and then we cut to show a group of people huddling down behind cover. Another cut, and apparently we’re on the inside of a house as the roof collapses and lightning shines through. Cut again and a man covers his face in terror. On its own, the editing is ambiguous, because it implies spatial relationships between the people outside behind cover, the house, and the man in the house that might not actually exist. And yet, it’s not exactly montage because there is no building of images. Because of this, I’m not sure precisely to what extent I can read this accurately. Nuclear weapons testing took place primarily on islands, and while this figures into the movie itself, I don’t think an audience would consciously look at the images as presented and conclude that it’s a movie about atomic weapons and the devastation in postwar Japan. Typhoons are common enough in Japan that there might not be anything especially unusual.

The strongest tie you might be able to make from atomic weapons to these images is the light coming through the roof, followed by the man in the house covering his face. In the movie, this would have certainly been part of the metaphor.

00:15-->00:20: A boat explodes. A mass of people on the shore of the island stand up and start pointing. The title “Gojira” appears in katakana (the Japanese equivalent of bold face) superimposed.
This, on the other hand, is significantly more clear, and significantly more heavy handed. The reference here is to the Lucky Dragon incident, which took place the first of March, 1954. Filming of Gojira began shortly afterwards, and the film was released in November. The incident occurred when the tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryuu Maru (Lucky Dragon Number Five) was caught within the fallout of the Castle Bravo nuclear weapons test conducted by the US over the Bikini Atoll. The captain and crew had believed themselves to be in the safe zone, but unanticipated weather patterns had blown fallout much farther than predicted.  The entire crew had been given acute radiation syndrome, and the radio operator died of it in late September of that year, his last words expressing his hope that he would be the last victim of an atomic weapon. The incident would have still been in the news due to negotiations on a settlement between the Japanese and US governments.

Not only would almost any audience member at the time would have recognized this imagery, this imagery (or rather, the seeming reaction of the people on the island to it) is immediately associated with the title of the film.

Now, the audience has no idea what a “Gojira” is. The word doesn’t mean anything in Japanese, and since it’s written in katakana, which is a phonetic way of writing, none of the individual characters have meaning either. The only thing the audience knows about this film so far is that it’s about people in the middle of a disaster which involves suspiciously topical imagery.

00:20-->00:26: Emergency vehicles move past a crowd in the dark. “THE FINAL DAYS OF MANKIND” flies into our faces. This movie is clearly not messing around, no ma’am. There is a distinctly apocalyptic and desperate feeling to this trailer so far, and now Toho is outright telling us “IT’S THE FINAL DAYS OF MANKIND!” They really, really wanted to make the audience feel the terror and panic that the editing, imagery, and dark lighting (did I mention that this film is shot really dark yet?) had been creating and will continue to create throughout the trailer.

00:26-->00:30: A man being restrained warns “the light will enrage him!” The audience responds “who is this him?” What is the cause of this suspiciously topical panic? We must know!

00:30-->00:44: And oh boy does Toho let us know. I cannot embed pictures without padding the length, but go look up historical photos of what firebombing at night looked like, and then watch what unfolds in the trailer. It’s uncanny. On purpose. But let’s still dissect this piece by piece.

The first we see of Gojira is his head imposed on the backdrop of a dark sky, walking through a building, the debris of which is falling towards the camera. There is little depth in this shot, which is one of the many techniques the filmmakers used to make their guy in a rubber suit look more convincingly like a monster, but also serves the purpose of obscuring what this thing actually looks like. So even though the audience could surmise that the giant, vaguely reptilian looking head belongs to “Gojira,” it’s still a bit of a mystery, and the focus is still on the destruction.

It follows, this destruction, in a flurry of edits. Walls collapse and massive flames erupt from the city as the narrator tells us how hydrogen bomb tests have enraged the monster in the pacific. Now we’re drawing fully on the imagery of the allied bombing campaign. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are what we think of primarily when we think of the destruction, and the shock of the terrifying and up to that point completely inconceivable power of the atomic weapon was what caused Japan to surrender, but what would have been more familiar to the people who had lived through the war would be the destruction of the firebombing. More people died in the firebombing of Tokyo than in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and in fact, the route Gojira takes to Tokyo is the same one the B-29s took. Gojira may be a metaphor for atomic weapons, but the imagery the filmmakers are using is the much more familiar imagery associated with that, and it’s this imagery Toho chooses to show off to market their film.

It follows, this destruction, in a flurry of edits. Walls collapse and massive flames erupt from the city as the narrator tells us how hydrogen bomb tests have enraged the monster in the pacific. Now we’re drawing fully on the imagery of the allied bombing campaign. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are what we think of primarily when we think of the destruction, and the shock of the terrifying and up to that point completely inconceivable power of the atomic weapon was what caused Japan to surrender, but what would have been more familiar to the people who had lived through the war would be the destruction of the firebombing. More people died in the firebombing of Tokyo than in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and in fact, the route Gojira takes to Tokyo is the same one the B-29s took. Gojira may be a metaphor for atomic weapons, but the imagery the filmmakers are using is the much more familiar imagery associated with that, and it’s this imagery Toho chooses to show off to market their film.

Finally Gojira appears in full view, walking through the city and breathing radioactive flames, as the narrator talks about the monster releasing radioactivity in Tokyo. At this point, Gojira as a monster is fully associated with atomic weapons.

A shot of a burning building is held for longer than normal as a buffer between this flurry of imagery to the next point the trailer tries to hit.

00:44-->01:05: Having made a visceral impression on the audience, the trailer shifts gears and we start discussing the more intellectual engagement of this movie, with a conversation between two characters. There’s nothing particularly special about how this shot is framed or anything, the dialog is the focus. The older fellow says “Gojira is unknown to science; a fantastic opportunity for Japan.” The younger fellow objects “but we can’t just let it wreak havoc.” This is one of the larger conflicts from the movie, epitomized in this exchange.

Oh hey, guess when Japan first started building nuclear power plants. 1954. Eventful year.
Japan uses science-fiction to deal with the question of “can we use this thing which caused so much destruction for good” a heck of a lot. Gojira does it. Astro Boy does it. Space Battleship Yamato does it. But the fact that the first real dialog we see in this trailer – the first glimpse of the characters – is of them literally discussing the metaphor of the movie tells us that maybe this is what Toho wanted the audience to walk away with.

01:05-->01:17: Here, we see the younger man from before ask a man wearing an eyepatch (because of course he is) to reconsider diving even though he isn’t a diver, to which the eyepatched man replies that so long as he’s alive, he may be “forced to use it again.” We then cut to the woman in the background of the previous scene, who asks “what if it’s used for evil purposes?” This sequence shows one of the stranger quirks of the actual movie: that it seems to have not one but two metaphors for nuclear power going on. Gojira is the destruction of nuclear weapons – nuclear energy as a destructive force – while Serizawa’s invention (the oxygen destroyer) is a metaphor of nuclear energy used for good. There’s no reason to introduce this in the trailer itself, however, except to let the audience know even more that this movie is not solely exploiting the imagery of destruction but actually discussing it as well. That said, simply putting this in the trailer out of context, favoring it over any sort of emphasis on character, is a way of exploitation too.

01:17-->01:22: “What is this terrible invention of young scientist Serizawa’s?” asks the trailer as it pans over a generic 50s B-movie laboratory set. I do wonder. It does deserve mentioning that this is the first time anyone’s name is mentioned in the trailer. The characters are just that unimportant to Toho.

01:22-->01:29: Here we have a sequence of images which imply character conflict. That is, the trailer is trying to let the audience know that not only is there the external conflict of Gojira vs the world (but actually just Japan), but also internal conflict not dissimilar to the internal conflicts of the discussion of nuclear power.

01:29-->01:34: But in case the audience had forgotten, we have two shots which show Gojira breathing radioactive fire on a sporty looking car. I don’t think I can really draw any semiotic significance from this since that would probably be giving the editors too much credit, and I don’t think a Japanese audience would react to it in any special way. This part seems primarily just there to remind us of the monster’s existence and provide context for the next sequence.

01:34-->01:35: People running away. Presumably from Gojira. Scenes like this were probably common during the bombing campaign, but what’s interesting is that the editing seems to imply that they’re all running towards…

01:35-->01:46: …some sort of official looking meeting of official looking people in an official looking room. While the trailer has let the audience know that this movie is in some ways about Japan as a whole, this is the first time Toho gives us images of a definitely public body. After the experience of World War 2, there wasn’t exactly a strong desire for nationalistic or authoritarian imagery in films, so this makes perfect sense. The government is fairly useless in the film itself as well.

What’s interesting is that the superimposed titles associate these images with a conflict of “love versus reason.” I’m not exactly sure what to make of it myself. “Love versus reason” is a common theme across cultures and time, and there are some Japanese films of the period which also deal with something like that, but there’s no reason in particular for its association here. Maybe I’m just missing something.

01:46-->01:58: We have images of the military mobilizing and civilians in cramped quarters, the former being “land, sea, and air forces with the latest weapons,” and the latter “refugees fleeing from Gojira.” Some of these “refugees” are seen protesting out in front of a governmental building. Toho seems to want to play off fears that the government may be powerless to do anything to prevent nuclear weapons from becoming a threat to Japan. The movie seems to agree with this sentiment: some dude with a cool eyepatch is the savior here, not the JSDF.

I should note now – and it will become more relevant later – that the JSDF is using American equipment here. There’s a sentiment here that is not precisely anti-American, but is certainly in favor of Japan not relying on America to solve its problems. At the time, America was still very much involved in Japanese policy making, both public and foreign. So this trailer isn’t entirely one-note.

01:58-->02:06: Here, a politician tries to argue for covering up Gojira for the sake of Japan’s standing in the international community, and the official people in the official meeting make a clamor in protest. More text along the lines of what the trailer has already said of the government.

02:06-->02:12: Kyohei tells HIdeto they’re counting on him, as the trailer asks us “can we defeat Gojira?” I think this may be the first sequence in the whole trailer that isn’t in some way exploiting the zeitgeist of 1954 Japan. It’s just a man saying “Hideto-kun…we’re counting on you,” and Hideto responding with a confident “yes sir.” Very ordinary action-adventure movie like.

02:12-->02:45: The trailer’s final few shots are of the JSDF (again, using American equipment) attacking Gojira as the trailer proclaims how the special effects surpass American films, and how much money and talent went into the making of this spectacle. This is fairly ordinary for action movies like this to claim, but comparing Gojira to American films definitely seems like an appeal to the sentiment of the time, especially when paired against images of American-produced F-86s, American produced M2 machine guns, and American produced 88mm howitzers failing to take down the monster, as is made apparent when in the very next shot Gojira smashes into a train.

The parting words: “the year’s most talked about film.” Well, Toho sure tried their damndest to make it so.

To conclude, if you were to ask me how Gojira was marketed to the Japanese moviegoing audience of 1954 – what the underlying expectations were – I would answer you this: “just watch the trailer, it will tell you everything you need to know.” Toho expected a genderless audience of Japanese moviegoers 20 and up who had at least a peripheral knowledge of the day’s issues and sharp childhood memories of what Japan during the final days of The Second World War was like. They expected them to respond to the trailer’s imagery and for word of mouth to spread.

And they did.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Dumb Questions with Complex Answers: What Is an Opinion?

"You get to have an opinion" is a proposition you see all the time on the internet, usually followed by "…but here’s why you’re a dipshit nonetheless." The sense of the phrase is, as near as I can understand, “I will not try to stop you from expressing your opinion." It always seems to have more significance about the wish of the utterer to seem amiable than anything else, and I can even see how you might call it an illocutionary act of sorts. Its usage is very interesting.

It very rarely, however, has the sense that you would understand it to have literally, that “there is a class of thing ‘opinion’ which you are allowed to form (by some external agent)." This is because understood that way, the claim it makes is baffling. What is this mysterious higher being which grants the power of opinions? You? Ishtar? Misaka Mikoto? It seems intuitive that nothing of the sort is the case (but…who knows O.O).

However, I don’t merely think the literal phrase is baffling, I think it’s completely nonsensical: opinions aren’t the sort of thing that can be sensibly talked of in those terms. This is because knowing a fact about the world and having an opinion are actually the same thing.

Let’s look at what an opinion is.

Actually, let’s take a look at how opinions are formed, and then we will know plainly what it is.
  • I have experience.
  • This experience pertains to the facts of the world, but does not contain within it the facts of the world as knowledge. That is, experience before logic is not knowledge. Even ∃x is a logical proposition. x is not.
  • Logic discerns the world from experience. (i.e. the existence of things, the disposition of things, the relation of things to each other, etc.)
  • From this, we have knowledge of the facts of the world. (i.e. there is a glass on the table, I am having a thought, the streetlamp is currently on, etc.)
  • These are the facts. We call them that because they are elementary and evident without much conscious thought.
  • On continued thought, the amount and complexity of the facts compounds. From “there is a thing called the sun, the sun moved relative to me across the sky many cycles, and cyclical things without clear contingency tend to recur unless halted," we arrive at “therefore the sun has a high likelihood of rising in the morning."
  • While inducted from other facts, we have no problem calling this a fact as well.
  • As the facts become more generalized, our tendency to call them opinion increases. Let’s look at a few kinds of things.
  1. "Bertrand Russell wrote many things influential to modern philosophy."
  2. "Bertrand Russell is the most influential modern philosopher."
  3. "Bertrand Russell is my favorite modern philosopher."
  4. "We should read A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell."
  • All of these are things are facts (or at least they could be - they are at least valid propositions), but we are very much tempted to say 3 and 4 are opinions.
  • While 2 might need a citation to be used as a fact in a debate, intuition says that it is indeed a fact, if it is supported by everything else (and assuming “influential" is unambiguous).
  • 3 is clearly a fact about the utterer, but we call it an opinion because it is a fact about something in the world contingent on facts about the utterer. This is the distinction why “I am a human male" or “I am 21 years old" are not opinions, but "I think Mazinkaiser SKL is totally rad" is. Value judgements, then, can be either a fact about the object or a fact about the utterer, depending on what the involvement of personal taste is. We would call the latter an opinion for sure.
  • 4 is intuitively different from 2 because it’s making a normative claim about what you and I should do with our time. We’d say this is an opinion. However, it is the same basic underlying form. If we can derive a goal from the facts (i.e. “history and philosophy are intrinsically valuable," or more likely, “we are both interested in history and philosophy"), and establish that A History of Western Philosophy contains a wealth of knowledge about both history and philosophy, and the fact that we should do things which are in our interest, then it would follow as a fact that we should, given the time and patience, read the book.

First, the concerns.

1) I am treating present sensory experience and memory experience as the same thing for this argument. It’s clear from neurology that they are not the same, and moreover that memory itself is more complicated than I understand. I will not argue this, because while there may be a distinction between “facts about the world known from memory" and “facts about the world known from stream of experience," it is not a distinction of opinion. I do not see where the argument would diverge.

2) I seem to be acting almost like I think logic is known a priori. Else, how can we ever know anything about even our own thoughts, since we need it to even say ∃x? I say that you cannot have experience without gaining logic - that you cannot have a thought x without knowing ∃x. It seems contradictory to think that I can perceive a thought without knowing it exists. This is the same logical form as the Cogito.

In any event, regardless of where we get the logic, we have it, and it pretty much unambiguously serves the function I claim it does.

3) I am handling only cases in which it’s clear the train of thought is logical and correct. This is not the case in the real world. Emotion being a component seems mostly irrelevant, since we’re taking an external view, not an internal one. “I think avocados are da bess" is based on an emotional fact, but logic probably doesn’t come into play in the utterer’s mind.

4) I likely did not cover all the types of propositions that we would call opinions. There may be more that I have not uncovered because I simply have not thought of it yet. I cannot come up with a general rule for opinions, and I suppose that’s part of the point.

So what can we say about opinions?

A definition at this point could read,
An opinion can be either a fact about the utterer in regard to an object in the world, or it can be a normative statement.
This is nothing we didn’t already know, but now we know it more plainly and with a greater understanding for its implications.

What is more interesting is its implication that opinions are the same sort of thing as facts. In fact, things which we may be tempted to call opinions are indeed facts about which we have confusion about the identity of the subject. When something like “you should listen to Demetori" fails to be a fact, it is because the utterer has derived it incorrectly, or is misinformed about an underlying premise (i.e. you enjoying metal).

This sort of outlook, however, is dangerous. You learned incorrectly in school the distinction between fact and opinion for a reason: there’s so much that can go wrong. Asserting facts about yourself while believing them to be general (i.e. “this anime is terrible, you have to be a pretentious asshole to like it") is common. Asserting facts without consideration for other relevant facts that may change the analysis is also common. This is the true issue at the heart of things.

I am unsure if it’s possible to have an opinion which cannot be wrong. Any opinion can be wrong if a constituent fact is wrong, but I cannot find any way for “I think Roger Florka is swell" to be incorrect. Roger Florka may not exist, but so long as the utterer thinks he does, then the opinion refers instead to his own belief. Properly understood, it’s “I believe a Roger Florka to exist, and that according to my criteria, my conception of him is swell," all of which are true for the utterer. Swell is also subjective. Now, it’s possible to subsequently learn that “Roger Florka murders cats" and that opinion to change, but that does not make the previous opinion wrong because the holder was right in holding it, according to his own knowledge.


>Given that deducted facts make up our knowledge of the world (or if you’re Wittgenstein, compose the world), including thoughts.

>Given that without the facts of the world, there is no human experience, even solipsistic.

>Given that opinions are a certain type of fact.

Then it is nonsensical to say “you get to have an opinion," because opinions are necessary to our very human experience.

Or else, Misaka Mikoto really does control whether you get to form an opinion or not, and we should all just accept the fact.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Sillypunk: Cyber City Oedo 808

Last night* I saw a film called Frances Ha. As the first twenty or so minutes of the film passed, I said to myself, "I'm gonna love this movie!" As the movie came to an end, I had no idea whether I loved it anymore. Most of that movie's working parts are hard to discover at first, and it's something that really deserves to be looked at more closely.

Frances Ha, however, does not have a scene where she fights a psychokinetic robot on top of a massive radio tower by punching it in the face. Cyber City Oedo 808, does.

Really, there's not a lot I need to say about it other than that.

Actually, while I love it for its craziness, and as weird as it is to say, there's nothing novel for an anime of it's vintage to be crazy like this, especially one of Kawajiri's. The thing that makes Oedo stand out is that unlike many (or even most) anime of that sort, Oedo is unironically good. Kawajiri has a good eye for imagery and his workmanship is very solid. Some anime from that time are enjoyable despite themselves - because nobody really knew what they were doing and were trying crazy things to make up for their 30,000 dollar budgets - but this is good because Kawajiri can draw from that same well of craziness and has the talent to make it work.

I might be making a mistake by associating it with a lot of those other anime though, because despite the punched-up Manga UK dub, it's actually not nearly as violent or lewd as a lot of its contemporaries, including Kawajiri's other work. While there's certainly blood, and the heroes are criminals, it's actually not that dark. It's not misanthropic, it's not misogynistic, its heroes are likable, and there's never any real risk of the heroes dying. As far as anime of its ilk go, you could almost call it a lighthearted adventure.

One of the things that makes it work is the Manga Entertainment dub. Since this was the period when publishers saw anime's biggest obstacle being the age ghetto, Manga overcompensated by inflating the age rating with added profanity completely absent in the original Japanese script. The result, in this case, is not strictly a good dub, but in a lot of ways it is a good script rewrite. Here's a line from the original Japanese with its subtitle script translation.

「長谷川十蔵、心配すんな。あんたの思う壺にはまってやらあ」// Don't worry Hasegawa, I'm swallowing your bait.
Here's the dub line.
"Okay, okay, I don't wanna buck the trend. I accept your most generous goddam offer."
Now to be fair, the subtitle script doesn't really capture the spirit of the original.「あんたの思う壺にはまってやらあ」is a hell of a lot more brusk than "I'm swallowing your bait," but even so, the English line is just plain better. Even if the dub is ridiculous, it's still by far the most enjoyable way to watch the OVA.

So where does this leave Cyber City Oedo 808 standing?

On a space elevator, fighting robodogs that fire lazors from their maws.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have the sudden urge to read the Cyberpunk 2020 SRD again.

*not actually last night anymore

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This Is Why I Don't Do Ratings: Star Trek Into Darkness

I am having a very difficult time talking about this movie, because I find myself constantly reassuring people that I actually did enjoy it. It’s true, but maybe you shouldn’t have any reason to believe me, because as I watched the movie, every single observation that occurred to me was negative. I agree with Tarantino when he says “never hate a movie,” but that doesn’t stop me from saying that this movie is actually pretty terrible.

So how do I reconcile all this?

(by the way, there will be spoilers, if you care about those)

The first sequences we get in this movie are of Kirk and McCoy running across a vibrant red landscape. This opening is effective because of the punchy character interaction and flurry of images which give us something interesting to look at every few seconds.

The problem is that this movie never stops running. It never pauses to take even a single breath of air and keeps on running with more or less the same character dynamics, same editing style, and the same cramped framing right up until the end credits. I feel as though the film is yelling “I’m late, I’m late” as it passes by, leaving only a vague impression of a movie.

Khan’s character helps illustrate what I mean. The idea that he’s evil is telegraphed by camera angle and musical cues before the second act even begins. How do we know he’s evil? We don’t even have any idea of what he plans to do from one scene to the next, and the only thing Khan actually does is look intensely into the middle distance. He does nothing else, because the movie doesn’t dwell on any one scene - or even one shot - long enough to give us much information.

Part of this is the writing’s fault. In fact, most of what’s wrong with this film can be found in the script, because while the characters themselves are entertaining, the actual character writing is very, very lazy. I had trouble not giggling in the theatre during the first act while Kirk and Pike basically talked about each others character in the guise of having an argument. It’s easy not to notice it sometimes because the editing and acting is so out-there that you almost don’t notice what anyone is actually saying - as if what they’re actually saying isn’t important.

It’s not that the script doesn’t try to do some interesting things. Kirk and Spock discover some things about how each other face death, and about their characters, and those were some of the strongest moments in the movie for me. They’re interesting thoughts. It’s just that the movie doesn’t seem to have any time to dwell on them before it’s all swept up again in the overall plot, and overall, the script really doesn’t do much with the characters which isn’t strictly required by the plot itself.

On the other hand, maybe I’m not being fair. Star Trek is a latter day tentpole action movie, and when you’re making a film to those specifications, you can either have your characters be complete milquetoasts with guns, or vibrant but very broad. This movie, like The Avengers, goes for the broad approach, and it works. Orci and Kurtzman assembled some good actors, and JJ knew what to do with them. I don’t think any movie ever chooses to have boring characters, but the new Star Trek franchise seems to have chosen not to.

The plot itself, it seems, is concerned largely with connecting its action set pieces in a way that makes sense from moment to moment (and tries to make a statement about the war on terror, because that’s what smart movies do I guess). I don’t ask that a movie have a plot that makes sense, but the problem is that it informs the decisions characters make, and makes things feel inorganic. Characters end up doing things and showing up in places out of convenience and since nobody in the movie seems to notice how weird everything is, it takes a while for it to register with the viewer as well why everything feels like it’s taking place in some kind of weird, lens flare filled dream.

As much as it’s easy to make fun of the lens flare, I do think JJ Abrams can be a good director, but this movie is jarring visually, and it’s not just the editing. Simple sequences of characters walking or talking are shot at weird angles, and there are precious few anchoring shots to be had. Everything is very tight and very dramatic, and it’s all very weird and sometimes disorienting. The action sequences especially fall into the category of films that try to use disorienting montage to convey urgency a la Saving Private Ryan or The Bourne Trilogy without realizing the things that made it work in those films. They’re not exiting, they’re just there.

Some of the film’s most effective imagery is the imagery that it borrows from The Wrath of Khan, which also helps because this is also the point where the movie slows down the most. When Kirk dies a dramatic death after fixing the warp core (by kicking it a lot - I kid you not), the movie actually succeeded in making me feel something. It’s a good moment until the dramatic music starts and the sound fades out. After that, it’s just a matter of waiting until Spock has a fight scene with Khan and they bring Kirk back with Khan’s blood (which is telegraphed rather obviously towards the end of Act 2).

So the one most sincere moment in the film is cheap and kinda manipulative, even if it is effective. That alone is something praiseworthy, I guess. I don’t fault films for being “manipulative,” though on its own, I don’t think it makes a movie. It does not make this movie, in the end.

I guess I can sum up how Star Trek Into Darkness went for me like this: I sat in a theatre for 2 hours while stuff happened and I wasn’t bored but I had no real experience otherwise.

I’ve written far more than I thought I would, and honestly, I could probably write even more about how it shows how filmmaking has changed since 1982 when The Wrath of Khan came out, but maybe I’ll do that another time. After all, it’s been many years since I last saw that movie. Maybe it’s time to revisit it.