animation in the 30s

This blog could use some more content, so I came up with the idea of doing a regular series where I watch a ton of animated films and cartoons from a specific decade, create a shortlist for what I think are the essential works from that decade, and then describe what I noticed in terms of trends and standouts from the selection. We’ll start with the 30s and work our way up to the present from there [the shortlist is at the bottom of the post].

Why the 30s specifically? Even though there’s plenty of great animation from the 1910s and 20s – Lotte Reiniger’s Cinderella, Oskar Fischinger’s Seelisch Konstruktionen, Len Lye’s Tusalava, Winsor McCay’s Lusitania and his short-lived Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend series, Ladislas Starevich’s Frogland and The Cameraman’s Revenge, Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel series, and the first batch of Bill Nolan Oswald cartoons – there simply isn’t enough that I’m personally excited about. By contrast, the peak years of the so-called Golden Age are packed with quality. Even the worst American cartoons of the 30s and 40s can have a shot of ingenuity in them, and the mediocre ones put almost all of modern American commercial animation to shame. It’s crazy!

Histories about the Golden Age tend to be overly teleological. Most of the time it goes like this: Walt Disney moved out west and started the first Hollywood animation studio, using his newly created Silly Symphony series to develop the foundations of traditional character animation that culminated in the “first” animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (not actually the first; Disney was beaten to the punch by Argentinian political satirist Quirino Cristiani and German cutout animator Lotte Reiniger, though Snow White was the first one animated on cels), the standard upon which all future animation is built. This reading tends to look at the various Disney shorts as linear breakthroughs in technique: The Three Little Pigs introduced realistic squash and stretch, Playful Pluto is the first example of “personality animation”, The Tortoise and the Hare has the first effective portrayal of speed in animation, The Old Mill was a testing ground for the multiplane camera, and so on. It’s not that this interpretation is incorrect – watching through the Symphonies it’s clear the studio was always building towards something bigger – but that it both demeans the best ones as being little more than tech demos and props up the ones that were tech demos as something more. The Old Mill is clearly on a different level, filmmaking-wise, than an inanity like The Three Little Pigs.

But the worst part about this official history is how it obscures the great work that was done on the East Coast. Before the rise of the Hays Code in 1934, East Coast cartoons were ahead of Disney in their inventiveness and clarity of vision. The typical East Coast cartoon from this era was a free associative trip, full of racy humor and the occasional nightmarish image, and unlike the early Disneys they haven’t aged a day. Though strictly speaking these cartoons are “comedies” in the sense that most theatrical shorts are comedies, they often double as a kind of giddy surreal horror, the ultimate in Depression era entertainment. The wide umbrella of East Coast animation includes the amateurishly-made but whimsical Van Beuren cartoons produced by John Foster, the well-made but awkwardly directed Flip the Frog series by Ub Iwerks after he broke off from Disney, the independently produced work of Ted Eshbaugh, the wonderfully cynical Scrappy and Toby the Pup cartoons directed and designed by Dick Huemer at Charles Mintz, the Oswald the Rabbit cartoons produced at Walter Lantz with animation by Bill Nolan, master of the rubber hose style and apparently a mentor to Tex Avery, and of course the kings, Fleischer Studios.

The Fleischer animators and directors were masters of the New York style. Their Talkartoons are the most rhythmic, transgressive, and all-around weird of any cartoons produced during the decade. The conflicting demands of their rigidly even timing and Dave Fleischer’s insistence on at least one gag for every shot gave the animation a peculiar quality, characters marching on a precise beat yet everything constantly morphing into different shapes. The best Talkartoon and one of the best cartoons ever made, Swing You Sinners!, shows how these elements could cohere into something greater. Bimbo, the mascot of the series, is caught trying to steal a chicken. Fleeing from the cops, he hides in a graveyard where ghosts and demons confront Bimbo with his crimes before breaking into a lively big band chorus, singing about the different ways they’re going to murder Bimbo as he desperately tries to escape, all building to a hellish climax where narrative is dispensed with completely. Later Fleischer cartoons would play with the dynamic of a sympathetic protagonist succumbing to an otherworldly power but few framed it in such moral terms, as if Bimbo was a vaudeville Don Giovanni. Seeing Bimbo ineffectually running from a horde of demonically smiling ghosts, all pulsating to the beat like a rhythm game, is the kind of thing that reminds me why animation is worthwhile.

Dave Fleischer was a 1930s Akiyuki Shinbo: he always got credit for things he didn’t direct. It was usually the first credited animator who actually directed the Fleischer cartoons. Sinners was directed by Ted Sears, future story man at Disney, but it was one of the animators, Willard Bowsky, who would do the most to further develop the style of Sinners and he ended up directing the creepiest work the studio ever produced. His “mystery cave” cartoons in the Talkartoons and spinoff Betty Boop series are essential viewing. Other Fleischer artists of note include Roland Crandall, who solo animated Hide and Seek and Snow White, the latter being the pinnacle of the mechanical Fleischer style of animation, and Grim Natwick, a versatile animator who would end up working all over the industry but whose eccentric timing in the early Fleischer cartoons stands out as my favorite work from him.

The best of the early Talkartoons and Betty Boops were easy to pick but the standouts from their later adaptation of Popeye were harder for me to decide on. The Fleischer Popeyes might be the most consistently great animated series of the 30s but each episode is usually great for the same reasons: the charmingly ugly designs, the gritty New York feel of Erich Schenk’s backgrounds, the ingenious bits of slapstick, the dynamic shot composition (a rarity in 30s animation), Jack Mercer’s ad-libbed voice acting, and the subtle deviations from the predictable “Popeye swallows a can of spinach and beats the shit out of Bluto” formula. And as much as I like this Slice of Life version of Popeye, I think the most interesting of his 30s cartoons are the ones which translate the fantastical adventure quality of Segar’s original strip into motion, namely Goonland and the first 2 two-reelers. The studio’s decision to chase after Disney with their first feature rather than make a full-length Popeye adventure has to be one of the most egregious missed opportunities in animation history.

The New York tradition felt apart with the enforcement of the Hays Code and everyone started following Disney’s lead, and not without good reason. In the early 30s, the output at the Disney studio was polished but they were essentially making the same style of cartoon as their competitors, a style that was ill-suited for cheery sentimentality. Once they evolved beyond the “music box” quality of the early Symphonies, their storytelling became increasingly refined. In the later Symphonies it’s apparent that the artists at Disney weren’t just great at creating plausible fairy-tale milieux but also at populating those worlds with effective characters and scenarios. Wilfred Jackson was the best director at balancing the aural, visual, and narrative dimensions of these films, which is probably why he’s considered the closest Disney’s own sensibility. That sensibility underlies Snow White, such that, as in Bill Tytla’s Grumpy, the character animation is inextricably linked to the larger storytelling goals of the movie.

But my favorite of the studio’s work during this era might be the Mickey, Donald, and Goofy comedy trio shorts directed by Ben Sharpsteen. I feel like these ones are underrated since they’re often compared unfavorably with the Looney Tunes from the 40s. The argument goes that the logical nature of Disney animation was incompatible with fast-paced slapstick, but that misses the point. Mickey et al may not have supernatural control over their environment like Daffy or Bugs, being able to put out various props or tricks on a dime in service of the director’s comedic timing, but they’re so completely ineffectual that that in itself becomes the draw. In Mickey’s Fire Brigade, the main conceit is that they can’t even do something as simple as pour a bucket of water on a small patch of fire without the fire coming to life and turning the tables on them. But the rational cause-and-effect structure of the gags implicates the three in their own fuck ups, which helps to make the Disneyesque personality animation seem like a natural fit with the traditional gag structure. It’s kind of like an enormously stupid ballet. That might not make for a great laugh but it is amusing and it would be terrible if all animated comedy tried to be Warner Brothers (a problem seen even as early as the late Silly Symphonies, ex: Mother Goose Goes Hollywood). Oh, and the Sharpsteen cartoons have incredible animation all around, so it’s got that going for it too.

Outside of the United States there’s less to talk about, both because overseas cartoons aren’t as easily accessible online and frankly because the rest of the world was still a step behind the US. Many foreign animation industries from this era either tried to copy the US to no avail or were still developing their own tradition. The films of Yasuji Murata and Ivan Ivanov-Vano, for example, simply don’t stack up to the best that Japanese and Russian animation would eventually have to offer. The exception seems to be France, as an Art Nouveau reverie (La Joie de vivre), a painstakingly constructed pinscreen animation by engraver and animation legend Alexandre Alexeieff (Une nuit sur le mont Chauve), a Caligari-esque cutout film with overtures of social commentary (L’Idee), and an early Paul Grimault commercial (Le Messager de la lumiere) all made the cut. Ladislas Starevich was doing stop motion in France too but I feel the added expressiveness of his models in those films came at the cost of the wry commentary of his early work. In terms of stop motion, George Pal and his Puppetoons feature a bigger jump in technique than anything previous. Pal would essentially sculpt individual dolls for each key pose in his films, leading to a kind of stop motion squash and stretch that simulated the plasticity of 2D animation, bringing sculpture into stop motion as Disney had brought traditional draftsmanship into cel. As with a number of foreign animators, Pal wound up in the US by the end of the decade.

In the independent sphere, abstract animation dominated. Oftentimes abstract animators fall into the pattern of either too literally evoking concrete phenomena (like how the Bach segment in Fantasia transparently represents the strings of the violins) or by being too repetitious and obvious in their motion (as in the primitive style of Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie diagonale). Oskar Fischinger’s best work is definitely an exception, as is the fantastic Spook Sport directed by Mary Ellen Bute and animated by Norman McLaren, but among 30s abstract animators the one to solve this problem the best was Len Lye, not so much by answering it directly but by sidestepping the entire issue. When we look at McLaren’s animation, much of it is essentially figurative even if the “figure” is a cluster of lines and shapes. On the other hand, Lye’s ‘direct animation’ takes the entire frame as its subject, so it’s hard to tell where one form begins and another ends. If the aim of the early abstract film is to reach a higher level of contemplation by stripping away all reference to the material world, then Lye’s films, despite the shoehorned advertising, are the quintessential abstract films of the decade.

I don’t have many controversial opinions to give out this time. I think the Warner Bros cartoons during these years aren’t that exciting but I don’t think anyone would defend Clampett’s, Avery’s, Tashlin’s, or Jones’s 30s output as their best anyway. The list below doesn’t contain every important or even every great animated film from the 30s, and chances are a few of these entries would be different depending on when you ask me, but there’s nothing on there whose placement I couldn’t at least defend as high quality and representative of the times. If you want to see 30s animation in all it’s glory, you could do a hell of a lot worse than the ones chosen here.

******************************

1930/
The Hash Shop (Bill Nolan/Walter Lantz)
Hells Heels (Bill Nolan/Walter Lantz)
Mysterious Mose (Willard Bowsky)
Spooks (Bill Nolan/Walter Lantz)
Swing You Sinners! (Ted Sears)

1931/
Bimbo’s Initiation (Unknown/Fleischer)
Halloween (Dick Huemer)
Mask-A-Raid (Unknown/Fleischer)
Sunday Clothes (Dick Huemer)
Toby the Milkman (Dick Huemer)

1932/
The Bad Genius (Dick Huemer)
Betty Boop, M.D. (Willard Bowsky)
The Flop House (Dick Huemer)
Hide and Seek (Roland Crandall)
L’Idee (Berthold Bartosch)
Minnie the Moocher (Willard Bowsky)

1933/
I Heard (Willard Bowsky)
Une nuit sur le mont Chauve (Alexandre Alexeieff)
The Old Man of the Mountain (Bernard Wolf)
Snow White (Roland Crandall)

1934/
A Dreaming Walking (Seymour Kneitel)
La Joie de vivre (Anthony Gross/Hector Hoppin)
Red Hot Mamma (Willard Bowsky)

1935/
A Colour Box (Len Lye)
For Better or Worser (Seymour Kneitel)
Kaleidoscope (Len Lye)
King of the Mardi Gras (David Tendlar)
Komposition in Blau (Oskar Fischinger)
Mickey’s Fire Brigade (Ben Sharpsteen)
Mickey’s Service Station (Ben Sharpsteen)
Music Land (Wilfred Jackson)
Three Orphan Kittens (David Hand)

1936/
Allegretto (Oskar Fischinger)
The Country Cousin (Wilfred Jackson)
The Moving Day (Ben Sharpsteen)
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (Willard Bowsky)
Rainbow Dance (Len Lye)
The Returned Sun (Olga Khodatayeva)
Thru the Mirror (David Hand)

1937/
Clock Cleaners (Ben Sharpsteen)
Colour Flight (Len Lye)
Lonesome Ghosts (Burt Gillett)
Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (Willard Bowsky)
The Old Mill (Wilfred Jackson)
An Optical Poem (Oskar Fischinger)
The Paneless Window Washer (Willard Bowsky)
Philips Broadcast of 1938 (George Pal)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand et al)
Trade Tattoo (Len Lye)

1938/
Cavalcade of Music (George Pal)
Cops is Always Right (Seymour Kneitel)
A Date to Skate (Willard Bowsky)
Goonland (Seymour Kneitel)
Le Messager de la lumiere (Paul Grimault)
Mickey’s Trailer (Ben Sharpsteen)
Porky in Egypt (Bob Clampett)
Porky in Wackyland (Bob Clampett)
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (Graham Heid)

1939/
Jitterbug Follies (Milt Gross)
Spook Sport (Mary Ellen Bute/Norman McLaren)
Swinging the Lambeth Walk (Len Lye)

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disney post

Chernabog

If there’s anything the latest Banksy stunt has revealed it’s that there’s no easier target than Disney. The company’s brand has been so thoroughly discredited that to be a fan seems like an admission of middle class complacence, coded misogyny and racism, and, worst of all, bad taste. This puts animation critics in a tough spot. Disney the company and Disney the animation studio are often conflated, with the latter seen as complicit in the former’s gutless business practices. Surely Disney animation – relentlessly white, middle class, and crowd-pleasing – feeds into the mercenary stance of the company. But this line of thought has become a convenient excuse for skipping over the studio’s history which, regardless of your opinion on the films themselves, is extremely important to the development of the animated medium.

This doesn’t completely acquit the animation side of the company and for fairness’s sake I’ll run through the most common criticisms. Yeah, Golden Age animation in general is pretty WASPy, but Disney films go further in their erasure of class and race difference than the rest. A utopian world where minorities are nowhere to be found is, if anything, more offensive than the crude caricatures you find in Warner Brother-style slapstick. Walt’s hard-on for the Germanic pastoral look is harder to swallow in a post-WWII world, and his fascination with Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and his one-time meeting with Leni Reifenstahl can only add to the insinuations. Disney wasn’t a militant racist by any means but his support of America’s dominant institutions, his McCarthyism, his “aw shucks” folksy disdain of academia make it tough to defend him from the charges. More than that, unerring faith in the industrial process is intellectually unfashionable; like the Chrysler building and the Model-T assembly line, Disney animation is something of a monument to the protestant merchant class, the capitalist analog to a triumphal arch. Its values feel outdated.

More abstract is what Theodor Adorno identifies as the Disney cartoon’s lack of tragedy. This goes beyond mere fairy tale endings and towards something fundamental in traditional character animation. With animation, consequence can be practically nonexistent. If you get hit in the face with a pie, all it takes is one gesture to remove the slime from your face. You can be disfigured and deformed but you’ll always snap back to your original shape. Many great comedy animators have used this to interesting effect (as in Tex Avery’s self-referential cartoons) but always through conflict. In the Disney world, however, everything is soft, accommodating, and pleasant. It’s as if every inanimate object and wild animal was placed there for convenient use. Even when tragic scenes crop up, you can’t help but feel like you’re being played, every emotion calculated and without genuine risk.

Then there’s the complaint (common among anime fans) that Disney is responsible for ghettoizing animation as kid’s stuff, effectively putting the stops on animation as an artform in the States. While historical background can only mitigate the first two complaints, this last one is just demonstrably false. Pre-Disney, animation was systematically restricted to comedy. Most cartoons were little more than moving comic strips with no emotive possibilities. Disney wanted to challenge this bias and to that end he invented a new series, the Silly Symphonies, to prime audiences for the idea that animation could depict something other than gags. Disney’s plan makes sense if you chart the progress from the early Symphonies to later ones like The Old Mill or Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. In fact, the character acting system developed in tandem with the series as the idea of connecting with audiences on a level other than comedic spectacle required characters with real, substantial personality.

There were various major steps made in the early features. Though Snow White wasn’t the first feature length animated film, it was the first to embed the notion of one into the public consciousness, setting the stage for Toei Doga, Jiri Trnka, Paul Grimault, and any number of overseas innovators. Disney animation was just as ambitious technically with Walt recruiting art school grads and promoting strong draftsmanship skills among his staff, helping to set a technical bar that no studio in the world has yet to surpass. Moreover, the early features helped class up the public perception of animation. Not only were most of them based on literary sources (as the Silly Symphonies were based on Aesop’s fables and German folklore), they frequently experimented with their format too. Pinocchio is split into episodes like the original novel, Dumbo‘s script was written in chapters, Fantasia is presented as a concert, and Bambi was conceived as a symphony revolving around the four seasons. Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle provided background art for several of the Golden Age films too. This experimentation shored up after the war due to the constant financial risk finally getting to Walt, but the strides made during the first five can’t be ignored.

I wonder whether the anime fans who hate on Disney aren’t thinking of the so-called Disney Renaissance films instead of the studio’s early work. With regard to some of the most hated Disney cliches, like the morally unambiguous villains and the “Disney Princess”, the Golden Age films generally come up clean. Bambi‘s villain is never seen, Pinocchio and Dumbo don’t have villains so much as an unaccommodating and prejudiced society, and the concept doesn’t apply to Fantasia. Likewise, of all the Disney films stretching into the 70s, only 3 are traditional “Disney Princess” stories. The Renaissance films fare far worse, largely because each one conforms to the same static formula instead of evolving organically from a few base ideas as the older ones did. Both eras had their share of corniness, but the Renaissance era’s reliance on cheap pop culture gags have made those films age much worse than the vaudeville-esque idiots of classic Disney. If anything, the heavy reliance on comedy in the Renaissance films goes against the very spirit of the Disney feature. Though Disney has always been an extremely conservative studio, Walt and co exposed themselves to a wide range of artists to keep ahead of the game and reading about the company’s history I was surprised to see names like Len Lye, Alexander Alexeieff, Oskar Fischinger, Jean Cocteau, and Igor Stravinsky turn up. By contrast, the only source of artistic inspiration in the Renaissance movies is the Broadway musical. He may have butchered the material in the process (as most music critics agree Stokowski’s arrangements for Fantasia did), but at least Walt was attempting to do something elevated. By contrast, there isn’t much room in the modern American animated film for classical music and literature.

There’s also the fact that during the 30s and 40s Disney was stacked with talent. Though Walt was “the Supreme Court”, to quote Ward Kimball, it was the hard work and distinctive voices of individual animators and directors that made Disney a success. The radically different styles of Ward Kimball, Woolie Reitherman, Milt Kahl, and Bill Tytla, to name a few, helped cultivate an unique identity for each major release. Compare Kimball’s egg-headed, pigeon-chested, oval feet eccentricities, a major influence on the characters in Alice in Wonderland, with the studied, angular designs of Milt Kahl, whose art dominated from 101 Dalmatians and on. Though directors are harder to isolate (Sharpsteen evidently liked fancy FX, Wilfred Jackson was great with musically oriented pieces, and David Hand generally did well with the dramatic stuff but that’s about as deep as it gets), individual sequences like Norm Ferguson’s ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ in Dumbo or Reitherman’s climactic finale to Sleeping Beauty still manage to stand out. And as Disney’s influence over the theatrical shorts receded, anarchic comedy directors like Riley Thomson and Jack Kinney were able to take a stab at established characters. Even if this means more often than not you’re recommending individual parts rather than a completed whole, nevertheless you don’t have to search far to find the hand of an individual artist. In a world where “producer auteurs” like John Lasseter and Jeffrey Katzenberg regularly suppress rising talents like Chris Sanders and Brad Bird in the name of “giving the audience what they want”, the older Disney films can feel strangely idiosyncratic.

If this all seems like a feeble, relativistic defense of the Disney style, it’s because the films themselves are too diverse to be discussed collectively, and in a lot of cases it’s unclear what was intentionally nuanced and what was merely coincidental. Pinocchio is a kind of secular Pilgrim’s Progress set against the backdrop of 19th century Bavaria, Dumbo is essentially the story of Hollywood, where ethnic minorities used performance as a way of achieving social legitimacy, Bambi‘s cyclical structure can only really be interpreted alongside the musical and visual cues, and so on. But what makes the Disney films worth revisiting more than anything is that they form a tradition. In the same way that Hollywood’s continuity system, with its invisible craft and character actors, was the bedrock of 1960s New Wave filmmaking, so too is Disney (and Golden Age animation in general) the foundation for almost all animation that followed. Even in anime, where its ostentatious camerawork, cheap production, and layout-dependent KA finds it at odds with American convention, the underlying traces of the Disney system can still be found. After all, you can’t have that capital-M Modernism without an established canon to respond to.

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An introduction to independent animation in Japan

crazy for it (yutaro kubo)

As consumers we’re conditioned to think that the industrial model is the only possible option out there, so it isn’t surprising that animation produced by a single individual, free from the constraints of production committees and TV broadcast standards, tends to fly under the radar. Japan’s independent animation tradition is both varied and active, but it remains relatively obscure even among fans of world animation.  The issue isn’t just a lack of press; even if you were aware of all the newest indie releases, most of it never ends up on DVD/BD and the little that does is usually limited edition and import only. Until recently the best the average consumer could hope for is to read impressions online and hope someone hosts VHS rips on streaming sites.

2015 has seen a seismic change on that front thanks to a blogger known as Anonymoose. Throughout the year he’s been uploading an impressive backlog of rare and out-of-print indie anime releases. Even though the torrents on Anonymoose’s site contain far and away the best “anime” of the year, the lack of easy and accessible information about their content has probably limited their appeal to most anime fans. To help remedy that, this article will provide a brief overview of the various strands of independent animation in Japan. For detailed background and analysis on the artists mentioned here, I recommend Nishikata Eiga and Anipages. As a warning: most indie anime is completely unlike traditional anime, not only in terms of visual style but also in terms of narrative modes and media (claymation, stop motion, paper cutouts, etc vs 2d cel exclusively). Since these animators have few, if any, superiors to answer to, they don’t have to acquiesce to convention. A lot of what gets produced in the independent sphere is non-narrative, abstract, sometimes even nauseating and hard to watch, but rarely uninteresting.

First I should clarify what I mean by “independent animation”. For the purposes of this article, pre-Toei Doga animators like Noburo Ofuji, Kenzo Masaoka or Mitsuyo Seo don’t qualify, even though they were independent artists and Anonymoose has uploaded their works to this site. The reason is that 1) that’s a topic deserving its own separate post and 2) pre-Toei Doga, there was no industry for independent animators to contrast themselves against. Independent animation in Japan is very much a tradition, in the same way that conventional anime is a tradition, and that tradition only really began in the 60s.

Specifically, it started when three illustrators – Yoji Kuri, Ryohei Yanagihara, and Hiroshi Manabe – established the Animation Sannin no Kai (“Animation Group of Three”). A small festival originally intended for the display of their work only, it grew in its fourth year and saw participation from other corners of the industry. Osamu Tezuka began to dabble in experimental films for the festival and would continue to produce similar films on the side throughout his career, including the cult favorite Jumping which placed 18 on Yuriy Norshteyn’s top 20 of world animation. Other participants included Sadao Tsukioka (Toei Doga animator), Makoto Wada (illustrator), Ryuichi Yokoyama (founder of Otogi Pro), Seiichi Hayashi (illustrator and Mushi Pro animator), Tatsuo Shimamura (Toei Doga and Mushi Pro animator who did the painting procession scene in the Animerama Cleopatra), and even a one-time appearance by Ryousuke Takahashi, the creator of VOTOMS. Anonymoose has uploaded a number of shorts from the festival (under ‘Volume 11: Experimental’), of particular note are Hayashi’s Ki Renka, a poignant depiction of sexual violence that ranks among my favorite pieces of animation from the era, and Shimamura’s Toumei Ningen, considered a classic by festival-goers at the time. Works by Masaoka, Ofuji, Seo, and Otogi Pro are also on the same torrent. Yoji Kuri was far more prolific than the two other co-founders and has had his works anthologized on their own, found here. Tezuka’s experimental films can be downloaded here.

oni (kihachiro kawamoto)

One late participant in the Animation Festival was Taku Furukawa, a protege of Kuri who went on to have an active career throughout the 80s and 90s. Although his visual style was influenced by Saul Steinberg, Furukawa’s films are extremely diverse in their structure. His earliest work had a psychedelic undercurrent to it but starting with Nice to See You, his interest in illusions, structured repetition, and perception came to the fore. Phenakistoscope, Portrait, Calligraphiti, and Play Jazz are probably the best in this vein, although he made plenty of ‘traditional’ narrative shorts using his signature doodle style (the most notable being SpeedThe BirdSleepy, Tarzan, and Tyo Story). Furukawa was also a regular contributor to Minna no Uta, NHK’s music video program. Many of Japan’s best independent animators have participated in Minna no Uta, and for some (Atsuko Ishizuka, Koji Nanke, Osamu Sakai) Minna no Uta is largely the extent of their ‘independent’ work. Furukawa’s films are collected in two volumes here and here.

Another major figure to emerge from the Animation Festival is Keiichi Tanaami, an illustrator associated with the pop art movement. His films during the 70s are considered classics and are marked by oneiric imagery and a sense of collage. Tanaami didn’t direct any animation from the mid 70s until 2000, when he began collaborating with the late abstract animator Nobuhiro Aihara. Aihara’s own films are poorly represented online, but he and Tanaami evidently made a great team. Tanaami’s films, including the Aihara collabs, can be found here, here, and here. Another pop artist, Tadanori Yokoo, produced 3 short animations in the 60s as well and his work can be found here.

dreams (keiichi tanaami/nobuhiro aihara)

Stop motion in Japan was pioneered by Tadahito Mochinaga, and many of his successors have taken the medium in interesting directions. Kihachiro Kawamoto is one of the most famous independent animators in Japan. His reputation rests on his beautiful renditions of Japanese mythology, but his output was surprisingly diverse (Tabi, Anthropo-Cynical Farce, Briar Rose). Kawamoto’s most complicated project was Fuyu no Hi, an omnibus adapting Basho’s poetry collection of the same name, which assembled animators from around the world to contribute short ~1 minute ‘stanzas’. Isao Takahata is among those that participated and he voiced his support for independent animation around the time of the film’s release. Kawamoto’s films can be found here.

Tadanari Okamoto is considered a legend in stop motion, although he didn’t exclusively work in the medium. In fact, Okamoto forced himself to change what medium he’d work with for every film so that no two consecutive films of his would ever look the same: he’s made films with puppets, woodcuts, 2D cel, paper dolls, papier-mache, crayons, and much more. He produced a number of masterpieces – The Magic Ballad, Praise Be to Small Ills, The Monkey and the Crab, Restaurant of Many Orders – and the bulk of his career has been collected here. Takashi Ito is sometimes classified as a stop motion animator, but his work is so unique it defies easy classification, and in recent years he’s received praise from overseas experimental film critics like Blake Williams. Anonymoose has his entire career up hereTomoyasu Murata is a younger stop motion animator famous for his Michi series, but most of his films aren’t online, though he does sell DVDs through his site.

One advantage for artists in going independent is freedom from the strict content restrictions that limit commercial work. Japan has had a few “guro” animators that have taken advantage of that. Hiroshi Harada courted a good deal of controversy with his adaptation of Suehiro Maruo’s Midori Shoujo Tsubaki. Harada combined violent ero-guro content, left wing politics, and vivid mixed-media animation to stark effect and screened the film at a fake circus, where audience members were forced to navigate through a maze-like interior to get to the screening room. Harada’s emphasis on audience experience has made video transfers of his earlier work nonexistent, although a bootleg of his breakout film, Lullaby to the Big Sleep, a riff on the Narita Airport protests, is available online. Other animators in the guro/expressionist mode include Naoyuki Niiya and painter Keita Kurosaka. Like Harada, their work is poorly represented on video. [EDIT: A number of Kurosaka’s films are now available here and here].

midori-ko (keita kurosaka)

Koji Yamamura is the most influential indie animator of the last 20 years. His own work, particularly Franz Kafka Ein Landarzt, Muybridge’s Strings, and Atama Yama, matches literary pretension with expressive draftsmanship and has been widely praised by critics. Perhaps more influential than his own films is his role as a professor at the GEIDAI program at the University of Tokyo. GEIDAI is one of the best animation schools in the world and a major force in the indie sector, and every year they holds screenings of their students’ graduation films with Yamamura as curator and presenter (a trailer for this year’s selection can be found here). GEIDAI is also known for the diversity of its student body; not only are half of their graduates women, but in recent years they’ve taken on more and more Chinese and South Korean applicants. Some of Yamamura’s more accomplished students include Ryu Kato, Saori Shiroki, and Yutaro Kubo. Though Yamamura’s work is easy to find online, the yearly GEIDAI DVDs aren’t, although some of past years’ films can be found on Vimeo.

Along with GEIDAI, another major development in indie animation during the last decade has been the formation of CALF, a production studio dedicated wholly to independent animation. CALF was formed by a trio of animators who saw the need for a better support structure for what they do: Mirai Mizue, Kei Oyama, and Atsushi Wada. Mizue is an abstract animator who produces “visual music” a la Norman McLaren, using biological patterns as the basis for his drawings. Mizue has a large filmography, and his recent film Wonder is one of the best works of Japanese animation, independent or otherwise, of the last 5 years. Oyama makes visceral, confrontational films with a nauseating impact (he often uses his own skin for texture in his drawings). Wada is known for his minimalist, witty comedies but has since left CALF to further his solo career (although he still collaborates with them). Time lapse animation duo TOCHKA also used to collaborate with CALF. Recent additions to the studio include Shin Hashimoto, Ryo Okawara, and Yoriko Mizushiri. They’ve pioneered the use of crowdfunding in independent animation as well: Mizue’s Wonder was crowdfunded, as is an upcoming film by Oyama.

airy me (yoko kuno)

But more than anything it’s streaming services like Vimeo and Youtube that have opened up the most possibilities for young animators. The ease of access stands in stark contrast to the old guard’s methods and it’s easy to spend a day digging through random accounts on those sites. To list a few off the top of my head: Hirotoshi Iwasaki, Ryo Hirano, Satoshi Murai, Ryoji Yamada, Shishi Yamazaki, Takashi Ohashi, Moe Koyano, Saho Nanjo, and that’s only scratching the surface. Some of the highlights of the last few years, like Yoko Kuno‘s Airy Me and Masanobu Hiraoka‘s My New Animation, debuted on Vimeo. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and the high level of technical polish in these videos puts most commercial productions to shame. If Kuno or Hiraoka were featured in a TV anime, sakuga fans would lose their minds.

There are a number of animators who I’d like to talk more about but limited access to their work prevents me, namely: the husband/wife team Renzo and Sayoko Kinoshita, ink brush animator Reiko Yokosuka, Vermilion Pleasure Night alumni Kawai + Okamura, palimpsest animator Naoyuki Tsuji, flipbook animator Maya Yonesho, digital collage artist Mika Seike, and stop-frame painter Takashi Ishida. There’s others that don’t fit in with any dominant trend or style but are still worth mentioning as well, like Kunio Kato and Isamu Hirabayashi. And Shigeru Tamura. And Kojiro Shishido….

The independent field in Japan is too expansive to be summarized by a single blog post, but I hope this inspires some to at least check these guys out. I want to close by thanking Anonymoose for continuing to fill the gaps in this obscure corner of the animation world. In addition to older indie releases, he’s been keeping up with new releases (including a number of anthologies), working to make 60s TV anime like Wolf Boy Ken more accessible, and even uploading a (relatively) high quality version of the DAICON openings. This kind of archival work is valuable and essential; for all their differences, both commercial and independent art share a tendency to be forgotten.

ki renka (seiichi hayashi)

praise be to small ills (tadanari okamoto)

franz kafka ein landarzt (koji yamamura)

land (masanobu hiraoka)

wonder (mirai mizue)

columbos (kawai + okamura)

midori shoujo tsubaki (hiroshi harada)

a feather stare at the dark (naoyuki tsuji)

gestalt (takashi ishida)

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The worst anime ever made

The late aughts saw a number of major changes in the anime market. The golden age of experimental late night programming kicked off by Evangelion in 1995 slowly came to an end, though it partially survived in dedicated programming blocks like those of Fuji TV and NTV. There was the rise of the slice of life/”moe” genre. Though it had predecessors in the iyashikei (“healing”) genre (Haibane Renmei, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou) and the yonkoma comedy (Azumanga Daioh), slice of life shows reached their apex as a commercial form during this time. There was also a global financial crisis that inevitably affected the production and distribution of anime. Though these three phenomenon might be completely unrelated, it’s easy to see how most of us would conflate them: moe destroyed good anime. Reliable stats on attitudes and biases are hard to measure, especially in a niche hobby like anime, but in my experience this is when a number of casual fans renounced their membership. Even as the advent of streaming services have helped anime out of the hole it was in circa 08/09, lingering biases remain and seasonal charts do little to reverse this.

And I don’t really dispute that. TV anime was never better than it was from the mid/late 90s to 2007. But that simple narrative has a tendency to obscure facts about the changing nature of the industry. No studio embodies these changes better than Kyoto Animation. They’re the big winners of the decade, going from a minor subcontractor in the 90s to producing their first show in 2003 to starting their own publishing label in 2011. They’re known for having one of the if not the best work environment in the entire industry with good pay, a reputable in-house animation school, and equal gender representation in their staff. They also produced several megahits in the late 00s: The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star, and K-On!. All three inaugurate the studio’s move away from the melodramatic KEY visual novel adaptations that were their stock-in-trade to the mellower ‘bishoujos in a club’ aesthetic that would define their newer work.

Of those three, perhaps none has faced harsher condemnation than K-On!. By 2009 the above developments had played out and the show was seen as emblematic of what had ‘destroyed good anime’: four to five kawaii girls join a club and do nothing of consequence for a dozen or so 20 minute episodes. There was always an aura of voyeurism around it, a charge the comparatively fanservicey Haruhi never faced, as if it existed to give deviants a glimpse into a area of life they really shouldn’t have access to. Shameless merchandisers and magazines, not owned or controlled by KyotoAni, made the situation worse. More than anything, people directed their ire at the show’s banality. Many of these ‘healing’ shows, like Junichi Sato’s Tamayura series, derive their appeal from a deadening anaesthetic effect. They don’t seem to risk anything narratively or stylistically. It’s kitsch. And frankly, without doing research into the studio and having more than a few sources I trust tell me otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought K-On! was anything else. The slice of life genre has a terrible batting average, worse than the gory hardcore 80s action/horror OVA, another boom market, and the vast majority of slice of life shows are exactly as bad as their critics think. But not all of them are.

First, some interesting facts. A study by the Ascii Institute found that of K-On!’s viewers, 37% were women and 15% didn’t regularly watch anime (for comparison, the study found 100% of Madoka Magica’s viewership were hardcore anime fans). That’s just one study but anecdotal evidence suggests the show has more of a strong female fanbase in Japan than it does overseas, probably because it aired on Disney Japan rather than a traditionally otaku-oriented late night programming block. It was also the first anime production ever to have female staff for every major creative position. The director, screenwriter, character designer, and chief animation director were all women. Many of the major animators and episode directors were women as well. The participation of women in the highest levels of anime production has been a growing trend in recent years. A recent Madhouse expose revealed that most of their contract hires are women. Women consume more anime now than they ever have and shows that explicitly cater to a female demographic are becoming widespread. Before K-On!, the number of female series directors was in the single digits, but that number has steadily climbed every year since its broadcast. K-On! itself may have had little impact on this trend (although two of K-On! episode directors, Hiroko Utsumi and Noriko Takao, are now series directors in their own right) but the show can be seen as a symbol for the changing status of women in the industry.

But that on its own doesn’t prove shit. Plenty of female directors in the commercial film industry have produced utter drek. Moreover, KyotoAni’s committed focus to YA and high school settings has cultivated a fanbase among the more obnoxious and creepy corners of the forums/tumblr world, another red flag. The show should be taken on its own terms, not external factors. But what show are we talking about? In reality, there are two K-On!s to consider, season 1 and season 2 (called K-On! and K-On!! respectively). The first, a close adaptation of the original manga, is a middling Azumanga Daioh clone. Naoko Yamada was promoted to series director too abruptly for she and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida to have enough time to work their magic, and it shows. Outside of the bonus episode 13, which anticipates the tone of the second season, season 1 is thoroughly mediocre. It’s understandable why so many people wrote the series off when it debuted. Season 2 is a different story, however. The second season effectively abandons the manga and its rote yonkoma joke structure for Yamada and Yoshida’s own approach. The result is not only successful but represents the pinnacle of the slice of life, ‘bishoujos in a club’ format.

I should get some caveats out the way because while K-On!! is good kitsch, it’s still kitsch. Dialogue is cutesy, jokes are heavily telegraphed, the main cast all fall into strict comic archetypes; all this comes with the territory. Even though it’s funnier than it often gets credit for, it’s not exactly a comedy. Episode 1 has an eye-rolling moment where a character makes fun of another’s flat chest, though thankfully these otakuish scenes are basically extinct in season 2. For me, the biggest problem in approaching K-On!! for the first time was the theme song. Not only do the visuals have a trace of the voyeuristic skeeze of the first season (the opening was directed by KyotoAni old guard Tatsuya Ishihara of Chuunibyou and Clannad fame, not Yamada), the song itself is an unlistenable chiptune abomination. Thankfully the in-show music is much better, ranging from smooth and subdued muzak for ambient tracks to generically pleasant pop rock for the band’s performances. Aside from that, K-On!! is completely tame and any reading otherwise wouldn’t be able to rely on the show alone as evidence (the Western fanbase, on the other hand, is as terrible as it seems but that’s a different discussion). The only real issue is it’s girly as hell, which will understandably turn off a number of male viewers, but sometimes it’s good to indulge in your feminine side between the manime gore and shounen angst. It took about three episodes for me to be fully sold on the show but once I was I had no trouble getting through the remaining 21 episodes.

K-On!! is about five high school girls (four seniors and one junior) in an after-school light music (rock) club. While the first season is relatively unconcerned with its metastructure, the second season covers a discrete interval – a single year – with the first and last episodes set against graduation ceremonies. The girls spend most of their time messing around but there’s a strong sense of the passing days and seasons. There’s a greater sense of narrative continuity too, with callbacks to previous episodes and foreshadowing in the early ones, which is refreshing since so many of these slice of life shows box themselves into a rigid gag structure. The club is utopian in a sense but by putting a specific expiration date on it in the first episode the show strikes a subtler tone than it appears to at first glance. Azusa, the junior and the one left behind with no-one when the four graduate, becomes something of an audience surrogate and a few episodes, like episode 13, explicitly riff on this outsider dynamic. The lack of typical high school drama might seem unrealistic but in many ways this captures the remembered feeling of high school best. It’s not simply a nostalgic show but a show with nostalgia as its central organizing principle, affecting all areas of the presentation. This aspect was noted by a number of Japanese critics and sociologists when the second season first aired (see here).

A major stumbling block for first time watchers is the lack of attention to the actual process of running and playing in a band. While Houkago Tea Time is never at risk of disbanding, how the show depicts the act of playing an instrument is far closer to reality than you might expect. Throughout the second season there are several scenes where characters aimlessly jam on their instruments with no particular song in mind, and these scenes see the show at its best. Through the naïve act of strumming a chord or hitting drum sticks on a table, K-On!! gets closer to the immediate experience of music than any number of band dramas that focus on everything else.

But more than any perceived skeeziness or lack of musical cred, the most commonly cited complaint about K-On!! is that it’s boring. Subjective responses are impossible to refute but the show’s mundanity can’t be held against it in an aesthetic sense. It isn’t a secret that ‘slice of life’ shows indulge in utopian fantasy, becoming thoroughly unlike ‘life’ in the process, but K-On!! is the only show of this type where a structural relationship exists between the banal and the nostalgic. Anime fans are usually fine with this style if it’s livened up with supernatural action or ecchi comedy so it isn’t surprising that K-On!!, in toning down the saccharine colors, exaggerated manzai slapstick, and bouts of romantic idealism that plague the genre, wouldn’t cater to that mindset.

Of course, this would all be for naught if the direction and animation weren’t up to par. Thankfully, KyotoAni’s talented production staff were up to the task and K-On!! ended up as one of the best-produced TV animes ever made, only surpassed by KyotoAni’s own Hyouka two years later. Toshiyuki Inoue, star animator of the films of Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Oshii, has called K-On!! the pinnacle of television anime from a technical standpoint and praised character designer Yukiko Horiguchi for avoiding the unrealistically pretty female body types common in anime. KyotoAni’s character animation is the closest anime comes to the American full system (as explained here), to such an extent that you tend to forget that what you’re seeing are drawings. I also appreciated how it integrated its physical comedy into the motion itself rather than rely on stiff “funny faces” like most shows in the genre (compare that to S1 which, while looking fantastic, is more visually predictable in this sense). Though subtle, the level of detail in the motion is very impressive and anyone with a technical interest in animation ought to check it out for that alone. It’s this fastidious attention to detail that pushes K-On!! above its peers.

Experiencing K-On!! firsthand has made the overblown reaction to it all the stranger. A few indicative reviews from the time of its release:

K-ON! is another entry in the moe slop-bucket of shitty anime. Once again, all the girls are totally cute, and we get to see their adventures of daily life. Nothing much actually happens. We really just have a voyeuristic sensation as we watch the teenage girls. That must be why it is so popular. It can’t be the plot (it doesn’t have one), it can’t be the action (it doesn’t have any), it can’t be the incredible acting (it doesn’t have that), and it can’t be the amazing character growth (it doesn’t have any). If the writers/director/animators had put one tenth of the effort into storytelling that they did into making cute character designs, then this show could have been good. It would be better if it ended like this:[picture of K-On! character Yui having murdered her friends with a guitar]

Look, the basic gist of K-on! is that Kyoani has lost its soul. Every studio caters to fanservice to some extent, but nothing could feel more “by the books” than what K-on! demonstrated in its twelve uninspired episodes. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi had its fair share of moe, but it was, at the very least, self-aware of its harem qualities. You could even call it meta, but that might be giving Kyoani too much credit. K-on! is unabashed in its moe glory. […] K-on! is just dumb. You can have moe and be smart about it. You can have fanservice and be smart about it. Haruhi was somewhat clever about it; Maria+Holic was clever about it. K-on! is just dumb. It’s like getting a big puff of pink cotton candy and cramming it all down your throat in one go. So what if Kyoani made it with the best of sugar. At the end of the day, its content is pure fluff, fake and absolutely bad for your health. But man, how little boys eat it up.”

And this is one of the biggest reasons why K-On is a giant piece of pigshit; watching a few episodes of it will give you a shockingly accurate idea of K-On as an entire series. Characters do not develop, personalities do not change and jokes are constantly reused. So in the end, what you get is a shitty anime, with a shitty story and shitty characters, which tries its utmost best to stay shitty. Also, Yui’s clumsiness and silliness is way, way overdone. I’m presuming it’s meant to be cute, but it’s not. It’s just bloody annoying. Every time we’re forced to endure Yui’s antics, I feel nothing but the unquenchable desire to reach into the screen and punch Yui in the face. And then kick her. Continuously. For about an hour.” [This guy’s review had a rape joke in it]

Maria Holic? Are you shitting me? Anime fans love taste wars but in their zeal to land a hot take they forget to be consistent. A whole host of mainstream or accepted anime (to name a few, EvangelionGurren LagannKill la KillHaruhiRevolutionary Girl Utena, Gunslinger Girl, Sailor Moon) are far less innocuous than K-On!! and many of K-On!!‘s peers in the genre (Hidamari SketchAria, Non Non Biyori) are far more susceptible to claims of frivolity and voyeurism even though they never face similar scrutiny. K-On!! is not only the best ‘all-rounder’ of the slice of life camp, it’s the only slice of life show to fully succeed on its formal, technical, and narrative grounds. It’s the Gurren Lagann of moe.

Though its compromises to genre limit it somewhat, for an anime it does a fine job and as the later episodes build towards an honest-to-god emotional climax you might find yourself surprised at how attached you’ve become to the group. The overwhelming impression I got from K-On!! is that it was made for its creators’s own satisfaction rather than for a presumed male otaku audience. Apparently Naoko Yamada spent much of her school life in clubs and anyone who belonged to a close clique of friends in high school will see some of their experiences reflected in the keions. This quality makes it uniquely suited to the weekly episodic medium of television: unlike those binge-ready cable dramas on AMC and HBO, K-On!!’s snapshots of the club’s activities over the course of a year make it best seen spaced out, as routine. As a matter of principle you should never trust “despite appearances, it’s really good!” from an anime fan but when it comes to K-On!!, despite appearances, it’s really good!

———————

Now someone please murder me for writing all these words about K-On!!.

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Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Although Mamoru Oshii is one of the greatest anime directors of all time, his reputation among anime fans remains divisive. He’s perhaps the only anime director to have had well-rounded cinema education; his favorites include Chris Marker, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrzej Wajda, Jeray Kawalerowicz, Andrej Munk, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Federico Fellini. These influences are reflected in his films and have unfortunately limited his appeal. Oshii works in the slow and deliberate mode, often alienating the fanboy crowd. He frequently disregards the source material he adapts for his own interpretations of their setting and characters. His audience is the international film community, those with the stomach for abstract, patience-defying cinema. He’s one of the few anime directors where academic film analysis and flowery poeticisms are appropriate. This is probably the main reason for Oshii’s relative marginalization – the audience simply wasn’t right.

Though I’m a big fan of Angel’s Egg and Gosenzosama Banbanzai!, Ghost in the Shell is easily Oshii’s best work and the capstone to his entire career. It’s a shame, then, that both the film and Oshii have fallen into a kind of disrepute among the anime community. The common line on GITS is that it’s wordy, masturbatory, and pretentious with nothing going on intellectually and that the (plainly inferior but more easily accessible) GITS: SAC is a better alternative. I wanted to write this article to respond to that notion. GITS is a highly thoughtful film and worthy of comparison to virtually any scifi feature you could name. Before going into the ideas of the movie, however, it’s worth addressing two major aspects of Oshii’s direction:

1) The cinematography- long takes, slow pans, etc. Despite being a cyberpunk police thriller on the surface, Oshii’s direction is indebted to the European arthouse tradition. Impassive characters, spacious pacing, a lack of emotional identification…this all serves to invoke a pervasive neutrality throughout the film. Though GITS is allegorical scifi focused on the present day, Oshii has no ‘message’ to deliver. The society he depicts isn’t meant to be good or evil, just that it is. The intent is to provoke questions, not answer them.

2) The use of dialogue. The characters in GITS speak in highly philosophical terms, sometimes dropping concepts that seem out of reach for the average police procedural. There’s an irony that the SAC TV series is far worse in this respect, with characters speaking in a constant declarative tone devoid of ambiguity, but rarely faces similar criticism. At least at his worst Oshii still delivers in terms of evocative imagery, but Oshii has said that in GITS he used dialogue as “texture”, not purely to make a point. This connects him with the European modernist school of filmmaking, Godard et al, where there’s a tendency to depict language as impotent, able to describe the world but never affect it. The society of GITS has rendered many old concepts obsolete so naturally trying to understand life through them would feel alien and strange.

Since I watch a wide diversity of films from all over the world, the above doesn’t phase me much. And anyone trying to make a serious case against GITS would have to say the same. So the main point of contention around GITS should be the ideas. The most common misconception about GITS is that it’s some Blade Runner-esque meditation on AI, whether robotic intelligence can be ‘real’, but that reading is upside down. Where Blade Runner shows how technology becomes human, GITS proceeds in the opposite direction, showing humanity evolving into machines. The title Ghost in the Shell is a reference to Gilbert Ryle’s critique of Descartes’s mind/body dichotomy, the term “Ghost in the machine” used as a pejorative against Descartes’s system. Crudely put, Ryle critiqued the lack of a mechanism for the interaction between mind and body in the Cartesian worldview, and GITS confronts this issue head-on. Made in the mid 90s, Oshii was responding to the rise of the internet and globalization, but in our modern age where smart phones and interconnectedness have profoundly transformed day-to-day life the suggestions in GITS take on even greater weight.

I want to go through and analyze the different ways Oshii expounds on these ideas throughout the movie:

We start with multilingual radio chatter over a 3D map of the city. The numbers in the above screencap matchcut to what are presumably the helicopters they’re representing. Right off the bat Oshii is introducing the idea of interchangeability into the story. As in the Patlabor films, Oshii uses video monitors (and their implied simplifications) as the ideal means of representing modern society. Oshii deserves special praise for how varied and interesting he makes the monitors in his films look. Our protagonist, Major Kusanagi, is busting a diplomat. Rather than have her assume the moral high ground in the eyes of the audience, her first appearance is punctuated with the brutal murder of her target, his head vividly exploding into machine parts and viscera. It’s gruesome, and similar sights make it hard for the audience to fully ally themselves with the officers in Section 9 (Oshii’s politics prevent him from ever siding with the state), but it raises the first of many questions: Should the sight of murder disturb us if the body can be easily rebuilt, consciousness in-tact? The scene ends with the famous shot of Kusanagi turning on her invisible camo, dissolving into the surrounding city. Even in the movie’s few bursts of action, Oshii maintains his uniform contemplative tone.

This leads into the legendary credits sequence, the birth of a robotic body complete with birth water and a placenta. In the world of GITS, any part of the human body can be replaced by a machine analog, yet without consciousness the body cannot function so this opening ‘birth’ has a hint of irony to it since the body being formed is technically dead. The body looks identical to Kusanagi’s but as we later see the design is not unique so it’s unclear whether what we’re seeing is Kusanagi’s ‘birth’ or someone else’s. As if to tease this ambiguity further, the shot after the credits is Kusanagi waking up, looking as if she’s been dreaming. Furthermore, the jump from this robotic womb to an nondescript box-like apartment can’t be taken as arbitrary; it’s one of many signs that aspects of our modern living are already mechanical in nature, cyborg bodies or not.

Next, the chief of Section 9, Kusanagi’s unit, is approached by a representative of the higher-ranking Section 6 about apprehending a political figure of a 3rd world republic. We learn that taking out the diplomat was requested from the same source. The world of GITS is international both in its economics and politics – Oshii modeled the city after Hong Kong – yet traditional ideological motivation is drained from these encounters. As the opening murder of the diplomat demonstrates, there’s no nobility to Kusanagi’s profession. Policing, as with everything else, is a business. In fact, we could go further and suggest that the flow of data in the world’s vast information network is a metaphor for the global flow of capital. Ditto for the many scenes of cars on roads, usually shot from above in a way that resembles a blood vein. Traffic, whether caused by cars, boats, or pedestrians, is one of the central conceits of the film.

And what better profession to handle this wide range of traffic than policework? After dealing with the whitest of white collar criminals, Section 9 pursues the polar opposite, a garbage man and his accomplice. In an exciting set-piece moment, Kusanagi and her partner Batoh try to track down the accomplice, who’s using the same invisible camo Kusanagi used at the beginning. As with his camo, his armor-piercing submachine ammo is state of the art. Everything in GITS is either new or obsolete, the old is discarded in service of the new. When the criminal is chased into an abandoned part of the city, the vista that greets us seems to confirm this: high rises growing out of the surrounding slums.

Both the criminal and the garbage man have had their memories altered by a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master. This is the first hint of the rather unsettling theme that the ‘ghost’ is indistinguishable with the material of the body (Kusanagi at one point says she “feels it in her ghost” as one might say they feel it their gut). GITS is based on an extreme materialism, where memories, ideas, and experiences are able to be replicated, bought, and exchanged and have no unique being of their own. GITS presents a world where mind/body dichotomy doesn’t exist or is at least slowly becoming irrelevant. Everything is the body, all of human experience can be reduced to matter. As Batoh states “Even simulated experiences exist as information, and are simultaneous reality” with real, lived experiences only a “drop in the bucket”.

We segue into a scene of Kusanagi diving. In a parallel to the intro, she is ‘born’ out of the water after breaking through her reflection. Reflections are a common image in Oshii’s films but here they’re in nearly every scene. Besides embodying this idea of interchangeability and infinite substitution, reflections are a great means of representing the Cartesian dichotomy, the reflection as the ‘body’ and the subject perceiving it as the ‘mind’. Kusanagi explains that if she and Batoh left Section 9 they’d have to forfeit their cybernetic bodies, which Section 9 legally owns, and that to a certain extent, flesh or metal, her body defines her as a person. And yet she states she’s “confined within boundaries”, with the implication that the body is a restriction on her consciousness (“When I float back to the surface, I imagine I’m becoming someone else”). Kusanagi is rare in that she has had her entire body turned into a machine but it still isn’t enough. She needs to ‘transcend’, a concept which contradicts the strict materialism of GITS’s world.

This leads into the most remarkable scene of the film. In a tour de force 3 minutes Oshii shows us every idea covered up till now and introduces a few more. Of particular note is Kusanagi seeing a woman in a cafe with the same body as her before turning her head towards a building under construction, a brief but poetically charged moment. The film often tries to intimate us with individual gaze, usually taking the form of first person POV shots although here a simple eyeline match, but the second half of the film complicates this by having the boundaries between one subjectivity and another unclear. Detritus of outdated technology are scattered in the river, the screen is plastered with reflections and video screens, and brief shots of fashion mannequins connect the development of GITS’s mechanical subjectivity with the present day (ie conspicuous consumption and broader economic changes prefigure GITS’s world, clothing a clever metaphor for the gradual colonization of the body). The sequence ends with a shot of the mannequins stripped of their clothes, a symbol for the ghost without its shell.

A car hits a naked woman on the highway. The woman turns out to be the infamous Puppet Master, an intelligence without an original body. The developments in the second half have led some viewers to mistake the film as a meditation of whether AI can replicate human consciousness. On the contrary, even with the Puppet Master’s introduction the focus is still squarely on Kusanagi. After learning that the Puppet Master is without an original body, we’re given a scene of Kusanagi venting her existential angst to Batoh. In the world of GITS, the Puppet Master is a singularity that humanity might feasibly reach. He’s a philosophical problem, complicating the systems the film set in place in the first half. He only matters inasmuch Kusanagi matters.

The Puppet Master believes that humans are already machines, arguing that DNA is code and science has failed to provide an adequate definition of what constitutes humanity. The film has already flirted with this line of reasoning; when Kusanagi says that Ishikawa was selected to join Section 9 because machines are prone to error and “Overspecialize and you breed in weakness”, her statements necessarily beg the question “Isn’t that true of the human body now?”. And when Batoh asks Aramaki whether they can fully trust the mechanics who manage their cybernetic bodies, Aramaki shrugs and says that “they’re only human”. The second half of the film throws the ambiguities and uncertainties introduced thus far into sharp relief.

The Puppet Master was the side effect of a project by Section 6, yet another iteration in hacking technology that spun out of control. The Puppet Master is the key to Kusanagi’s earlier comment about “boundaries” and will provide a means for her to transcend them. As with the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, the conventions of GITS’s genre correspond to the spiritual development of the protagonist, where solving the mystery of the crime corresponds to Kusanagi resolving her own personal struggle. She chases the Puppet Master into an abandoned museum, the only example of classical architecture and antiquity seen in the film. She duels with a spider-like tank, blowing apart the surrounding fossils and a tree of life display in the process (probably the most obvious of the film’s images but since it’s the film’s emotional climax it’s excusable).

After destroying her body in the process of fighting the tank, Kusanagi dives into the Puppet Master’s consciousness. Through their conversation we learn a few interesting facts: when the Puppet Master started gaining self-awareness, Section 6 tried to “confine” him to a physical body. He is an intelligent life form but lacks the ability to reproduce like living organisms, worrying that a copy wouldn’t be a certain guarantee for survival. Echoing Kusanari’s comment towards the beginning of the film, the Puppet Master stresses the importance of diversity. He proposes that he and Kusanagi merge, a sort of mechanical analog to sexual reproduction, in order to produce something new, the only reason he created a body for himself in the first place.

The Puppet Master isn’t merely an AI – he’s a higher lifeform. He exerts god-like power over the networks of information that normal humans can only partially control. This isn’t a cliche story about an AI trying to become human; he doesn’t even want a body, he only needs one temporarily. Like the Christian God, he’s come from above to impregnate a human woman to bear his offspring (Oshii, who was once religious but suffered a crisis of faith, can’t avoid an Abrahamic reference like this). The film even associates him with angelic imagery.

Kusanagi wakes up in a replacement body and Batoh tells her the diplomatic situation “ends in a draw” (as with any political action in Oshii’s films, the end is always stasis). After some chitchat, Kusanagi states that neither Kusanagi nor the Puppet Master exist anymore. An enigmatic series of shots bracket this scene. At first we start here looking at Kusanagi in a child’s body

But then the shot is reversed.

A reverse shot? Was the first shot from a first person perspective and what we saw was a mirror? Plausible, except later in the scene

Clearly there’s an actual room back there and not a mirror. Was that the Puppet Master, and his presence is only visible to Kusanagi? A continuation of the doubling theme?

The film ends with the Kusanagi hybrid looking on the horizon, a long pan stretching over the city. She smiles for the first and only time in the film. She’s finally transcended. A surprisingly idealist ending for a film with such firm roots in materialism. But can we call it idealism? After all, god-like though he may be, the Puppet Master was originally formed from physical material. The central question of the film, where does the mind end and the body begin and how do they interact, is what philosophers of mind like Gilbert Ryle seek to answer and by making these boundaries permeable and fluid Oshii winds up with something far less Cartesian than the initial impression might suggest. And that smile is such a perfect note to end on: Is Kusanagi’s transcendence (and god-like superiority) a good thing? The film gives us no proper mooring to make that judgement, it’s all on the viewer to decide. Oshii has spent the entire film convincing us that this end point is an eventual possibility and leaves us to deal with that fact.

Some miscellaneous notes:

1) Animal imagery crops up here and there. Besides the obvious example of Mitsuo Iso’s spider tank, the two appearances of planes in the film, black and featureless, tend to look like birds.

2) Despite the doll-like faces and casual nudity, GITS has been praised by feminist critics for its unconventional treatment of the body. Kusanagi jokes that it’s her “time of the month” in the cold open despite lacking reproductive organs. The Puppet Master is referred to as a man and has a masculine voice but resides in a woman’s body. In fact, the Puppet Master exemplifies this new form of identity; no race, no gender, no class. I always found it funny how Batoh and Kusanagi flirt even though it could never result in sex.

All in all, a magnificent film, an unparalleled achievement in world animation. In the realm of feature film animation, only Feherlofia can compete. The best film in Oshii’s career, seamlessly combining his political, religious, philosophical, and artistic interests into a lean 80 minutes. Quite possibly the greatest anime ever made.

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Brief overview of the American animation system for anime fans

So I’m gonna begin writing entries for camonte about non-Japanese animators/directors. I’ve always wanted to do this but the lack of a comparable fan infrastructure dissuaded me. Now that animator showreels are being uploaded to YouTube and people are adding western stuff to the booru it feels feasible. Since American animation will probably hog most of the attention initially, I thought I’d write down a brief overview of what makes the American system different from the Japanese. I’m just a fan with no working experience in either industry so I recommend doing further research on your own (and if any American animators reading this notice any mistakes please point them out). My sources for this are mostly comments/interviews from Golden Age animators, parts of Richard Williams’ book, and Peter Chung’s posts on the Anipages forum.

Traditional American animation (that is full animation “on the 1s”) is generally restricted to two formats: the theatrical short and the Disney film (and their derivatives). Theatrical shorts are cartoons about seven minutes long that would play before feature films as a bonus. Fleischer, Warner Brothers, Walter Lantz, MGM, and Disney before they committed to feature filmmaking were big names in the genre. Though most of the common techniques and practices of full animation apply to them as well, in general theatrical shorts were more experimental in their use of animation and had a tendency towards “auteur” directors (Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett) that Disney and Disney-esque films didn’t have.

Full animation is organized into a system of key animation and in-betweens like anime but with a significantly greater workload given the increased drawing count. A 7 minute Warner Brothers cartoon could take months to produce. One of the major differences between the Disney system and the Japanese system grew out of this: animators at Disney weren’t assigned scenes but individual characters. They would have an animator or small team of animators working on a single character throughout the film to guarantee perfect consistency. An animator working on drawing Dumbo wouldn’t have to worry about drawing the fire effects or any other character in frame, just Dumbo. This is why in Disney films you’ll see more stylistic diversity between characters than between scenes – the realistic Snow White and the cartoony Seven Dwarves look like they came from different universes (although strangely it was a very cartoony animator, Grim Natwick, who did most of Snow White). The animation workflow for Disney style animation is far more convoluted and complex as a result, with different animation directors/supervising animators for each character and an extensive clean-up process. Again, theatrical shorts are the exception here as animators could do entire scenes because 100% perfect consistency in character animation wasn’t a priority for slapstick comedy.

Storyboarding is also quite different between US and Japan. Storyboards in American animation aren’t nearly as detailed as Japanese storyboards and often undergo significant changes during production. In Japan the storyboard is law. The storyboard must be completed before production on a project begins and can’t be altered except with express permission from the storyboarder or director. I believe it was Peter Chung who compared the Japanese process to Hitchcock’s storyboards, where the storyboard is the essence of the film and the actual filming/animating is just the process of rendering it into reality. In America the storyboard goes through intermediate stages like animatics and decisions are frequently subject to committee. Most Disney films don’t really have a director in the conventional sense. Their aesthetic, one born out of the norms of classical Hollywood filmmaking that emphasizes clear and consistent blocking like a stage play, necessarily relies on detailed character acting and mise en scene more than cinematography.

In a theoretical sense American animation privileges believable character animation above all. The ideal in American animation is to bring a character to life, not to produce a series of interesting drawings. Disney standards demand that the audience never look at a film and “see” the drawings either. Style shifts are bad because they foreground the element that animators are trying to hide, their own hand. Disney animation is supposed to create an illusion of reality even if the scenarios and designs are fantastical in nature. There’s also a strong emphasis on draftsmanship; Milt Kahl believed you couldn’t be a good animator until you mastered classical drawing skills and many of the major Golden Age animators had conventional art school training. This is part of the reason for Disney’s success – the characters seem to exist as independent personalities outside of their material construction. This is also the reason for the occasional snobbishness from American animation fans over anime. It’s easy to pick out the keys in anime, and things considered critical for the central “illusion” of traditional animation like good lip sync and facial animation are regarded as incidental or unimportant. This is also why Americans embraced CG so readily – CG characters can get the job done with a less restrictive margin for error (in fact, many of Pixar’s top animators have training in classical 2D animation). Strangely the effects animation in Disney films tended to skew towards impressionism. Compare the water in most Ghibli films to Pinocchio and the latter looks way more stylized.

It’s easy to laugh at these Golden Age animators, most of whose work was exclusively on kitschy Disney pap with minimal artistic value, turning up their nose at Japanese and European animation when the latter have far more variety and nuance than what the Golden Age produced, but it’s important to remember that American animators don’t animate ‘scenes’ like Japanese animators do. Japanese animators are filmmakers first and foremost while American animators are more similar to actors, with the added narrowness that distinction implies. Imagine professional Hollywood actors with immense range and experience going to see an arthouse film where the major roles are played by random dudes taken off the street. They might like the film overall, but they’ll never recommend it for the acting. By the standards of classical animation even if the drawings are interesting, Japanese animation fails as animation. I suspect too that this obsession with draftsmanship has to do with legitimizing animation as an artform, that animation is the “next level” of traditional art (Chung hypothesized this has to do with the Western art historical tradition of naturalism/perspective vs the Japanese lineage of impressionistic art). Japan has a different view, perhaps one that is more medium specific. You learn how to animate mainly by animating a lot, not by mastering a completely different medium and applying those principles to animation. While classic Disney was organized in a rigid hierarchy that could take ages to advance to the position of key animator, it’s relatively painless to go from inbetweens to keys in Japan. The average Golden Age key animator is more skilled than the average Japanese key animator, but there were far fewer of the former so the results are somewhat skewed. On the other hand, despite the freedom key animators are afforded on anime productions, the entire Japanese system seems designed around minimizing the influence of actual KA by relying on good storyboards and layouts (the famous anecdote of a Disney animator applying to Ghibli getting rejected when he refused to draw his own layouts) as well as the animation director ensuring a consistent visual style via removing specific key animator idiosyncrasies (most Japanese key animators aren’t Ohira or Yuasa, their ‘idiosyncrasies’ are usually just lazy drawing habits). Anime is based around synchronizing all its elements into a single cohesive whole. For American animators accustomed to the idea that the character animator is the only thing that matters in animation, the Japanese system must seem barbaric (this is where Japanese anime is decidedly not medium specific, with several artists moving between directorial and animation duties).

Both viewpoints have their merits and though limited is ultimately the more practical of the two I would hate to see full animation die off. Even if the films themselves might be manipulative and cheap, the animation surely isn’t. Many Golden Age animators are worthy of study and when the vision guiding full animation is as imaginative as it was in The Thief and the Cobbler, the results are entrancing. But Disney’s monopoly on what animated filmmaking entails for America prevented that movie (and no doubt many others like it) from being fully realized. This is the genius of Osamu Tezuka, who was willing to take the quality loss of television as long as it meant diversifying animation’s appeal. Tezuka focused on teaching cinematography and good filmmaking techniques to his directors over pure drawing skill. By creating a market for different genres like sports drama, romance, scifi, etc you create the possibility for lavishly animated adult feature films down the line. Though not animated on the 1s, films like Patlabor and Only Yesterday are the ultimate realization of that ambition. I should also stress that not all full animators are closed-minded either. When Miyazaki showed some of his work (iirc Cagliostro) to famed Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, they were legitimately impressed. In an ideal world there’d be a niche for interesting full animation. While Disney-level features in that style might be inobtainable, theatrical shorts or OVAs done in full probably aren’t an impossibility.

Still, full animation purism is an absurdity, well-intentioned or not. Skill obviously has a lot to do with what Disney’s Nine Old Men & co accomplished but so does production context. Disney animators had much better schedules, tons of reference material including custom 3D models and scenes filmed with real actors, top notch in-betweeners and subordinant key animators, and the requirement to focus only on a single character rather than everything in-frame. There’s also the reality that animation on the 1s will look smoother just by virtue of being on the 1s (there’s a bunch of bad full animation that still looks super smooth). To suggest that no Japanese animator could ever draw good animation on the 1s is dumb. You need to triple or quadruple the drawing count in one of Toshiyuki Inoue’s scenes before you can begin to make comparisons. This isn’t even considering the significantly greater stylistic diversity in Japanese animation which, skillfully drawn or not, can’t be discounted as part of the artistic whole.

I should also highlight that TV works a lot differently from what I hear. American TV has had a few examples of dynamic animation over the years (Superjail S1 and Motorcity are recent standouts) but the vast majority of it is either outsourced or ugly flash puppet rigging with insipid motion and designs. This probably explains why Americans hate limited so much; all the prominent American examples like Hanna-Barbera and Filmation suck and the anime that gets the most attention overseas (like Sailor Moon or Naruto) are usually unimpressive in their motion. I remember seeing John K, arch defender of the traditional system and hater of anime, praising a clip of Tatsuyuki Tanaka’s scenes from the Download OVA on his blog’s comments section so maybe the issue is more a lack of exposure to good limited animation than it is full animators snorting at Space Dandy before turning back to their desks to perfect the timing for Hercules’s douche smirk.

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Introduction to Crayon Shin-chan

Crayon Shin-chan is one of the biggest anime franchises of all time. The series has spanned over 20 years of constant production and has a level of popularity overseas that rivals The Simpsons. And yet, you’d be hard pressed to find many fans of it in most anime communities. It isn’t surprising: with the series as long as it is, it can be hard to know where to begin. This post will give a clear introduction to the series for those interested in trying it out.

Shin-chan is a family cartoon in the style of The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, King of the Hill, and others: it stars a middle class family’s daily life and their occasional run-ins with extraordinary, supernatural phenomenon. The appeal of these kinds of shows comes from the characters and the main family members here are all very endearing. The titular Shin-chan is an elementary school boy with a constant poker face and unwillingness to take anything seriously. Even when he and his family are in dangerous life-or-death scenarios he’ll go out of his way to make dumb jokes. With him are his infant sister Himawari, his nervous dog Shiro, his parents Hiroshi and Misae, and a large expanded cast set against the backdrop of the Saitama Prefecture. While Shin-chan’s unserious personality generates much of the show’s comedy, I find the best characters to be Hiroshi and Misae. As is the case in most of these family shows the parents can be as selfish and juvenile as the kids, but they always rise to the occasion without it feeling inauthentic. In contrast to the parents of American family cartoons like The Simpsons or Family Guy, they’re more overworked and stressed out than lazy, which makes it easier to emphasize with them for me. They’re always having to rescue their reckless children from strange and implausible circumstances despite being completely out of their depth. They have great chemistry too, even if they’re easily distracted by attractive members of the opposite sex.  It’s this honesty in Shin-chan’s portrayal of the Japanese middle class that made it such a hit.

Part of this honesty is the show’s extreme lowbrow comedy. You might not know it going in but Shin-chan runs the gamut of toilet and sex jokes. Everything is caricatured; no one is allowed to be cool in Shin-chan without also having a name that sounds like “Poop” or being excessively ticklish. Body humor is the great leveler in the Shin-chan universe and is usually the reason why Shin-chan himself comes out on top. A few of the jokes might feel outdated or come across as sexist and homophobic but it all follows from the show’s anarchic satire of the middle class mentality.

When talking about Shin-chan it should be noted that there’s really two Shin-chan series: the weekly television show and the highly successful yearly film series. Though I’d recommend starting with the latter before getting into the former, it’s worth covering the TV series in detail as it was where everything started.

Each episode of Shin-chan TV is split into 2-3 vignettes that depict everyday scenarios of the Nohara family and their acquaintances. Each vignette has a separate director, writer, and animation director so it’s fairly common that episodes will be a mixed bag but the quality is quite high overall for a Shin Ei show. Given the flexibility of the format, the success of any given Shin-chan episode usually has to do with execution. Thankfully Shin-chan in its prime had more production muscle than Shin Ei’s other big franchise Doraemon. The most immediate differentiator is in the animation, which is what initially drew many normal anime fans to the show. The weird wavy-line designs weren’t present in the original manga but were an innovation brought about by various animators, most notably Shizuka Hayashi. Hayashi not only spearheaded the development of the new designs, she also introduced the idea of greatly modulating framerate during funny scenes (including animating Shin-chan’s “butt dance” on the 1s). Three other sakkans followed her lead and diversified the show’s animation style further: Masami Otsuka, Yuichiro Sueyoshi, and Masaaki Yuasa. Background animation, psychedelic colors, and strange designs became part of the show’s visual identity. Even today when the show is firmly past its prime, the series likes to present its experimental animation front and center.

Over the years Shin-chan TV has hosted several talented directors: Sunao Katabuchi (Mai Mai Miracle), Kazuki Akane (Escaflowne), Masayuki Yoshihara (Eccentric Family), and Itsuro Kawasaki (Sengoku Basara) are among the most prominent. However, far and away the best director on the series was Masaaki Yuasa. Today Yuasa is famous among anime fans but back in the early 90s when Shin-chan was taking off he was relatively unknown. Shin-chan was actually his first opportunity to direct rather than just animate and the setting’s mixture of trippy whimsy and low slapstick fit his sensibilities perfectly. Yuasa’s two best contributions to the show are the “Adventures of Buriburizaemon” specials and the SHIN-MEN miniseries. “Adventures of Buriburizaemon” was a four-part story released over a couple years in the numerous specials. Set in Japan’s past, it’s a sublime mix of sword fights and sight gags wholly directed, written, and animated by Yuasa himself. The specials also represent the apotheosis of the show’s designs with many shots so abstract that characters look like assemblages of geometric shapes. SHIN-MEN, on the other hand, is a mini-series from 2010, long after Yuasa had left the show and reflects Yuasa’s development as an artist by combining the aesthetics from Kaiba with tokusatsu action and Shin-chan’s peculiar brand of comedy. If you can only watch two things from Shin-chan TV, make it these two specials.

Unfortunately, due to Shin-chan’s obscurity in the English-speaking world, actually watching the TV series can be a pain. Fifty or so episodes were licensed and dubbed in English but they’re hardly a cross-section of the show’s best. Torrents for older Shin-chan episodes are often dead or nonexistent. If you want to watch Shin-chan TV the best method is hunting down Spanish dubs. Shin-chan is huge in Spain and Spanish sites generally have the most complete backlogs of the older episodes. However, another difficulty arises in that the broadcast order for the specials and even some of the episodes isn’t the same as the Japanese broadcast order, making it frustrating to track down a specific episode. That and the fact that it’s a hard series to marathon are the main reasons why I caution against starting with the TV series. If you wind up getting invested in the series, I recommend watching a few episodes here and there, keeping on the lookout for episodes sakkan’d by the main four (Hayashi, Otsuka, Yuasa, Sueyoshi), rather than bulk-watch entire seasons.

Another reason to skip the TV series and start with the films is that, well, the films are really good. The films are what got people watching Shin-chan in the first place and are a distillation of everything that makes the show great. They were intended to expand Shin-chan’s audience and cater to non-fans so you don’t need experience with the TV series to enjoy them. Above all, the films set a new bar for the yearly franchise movie. It isn’t that there haven’t been well-produced franchise films before – Hosoda’s One Piece film is still the pinnacle – but that they kept up this consistency unbroken for a decade. The first ten Shin-chan films represent the strongest streak of work in Shin Ei’s history.

Shin-chan defies the stereotype of the rote, procedural franchise film by having tons of creativity and verve injected into every installment. Starting with the second film, the director would always write the script themselves. Outside animators like Hiroyuki Nishimura, Yoshihiko Takakura, Hiroshi Shimizu, Yoshiji Kigami, Masahiro Sato, Mieko Hosoi, and Masahiro Ando (yes that Masahiro Ando) were brought on to spruce up the action. Each film after the first got a claymation opening by Takuya Ishida in what has become a tradition for the series. Ambition in animation, storytelling, and direction was the norm.

The Shin-chan films are broken up into different eras based on who was chief director of the TV series at the time. The chief director was always responsible for directing the films with the second most prominent director on the show as the assistant director. Whoever was assistant director would take over the series once the chief director retired from the series, leading to a pseudo-teacher/student relationship between the chief director and assistant director. The first in line was Mitsuru Hongo, who directed the first four films as well as directing the early seasons of the TV series. Hongo was the one who pushed for the Shin-chan films to become as lavish and well-made as they are. He used the TV series as a training ground for animators and directors, and whoever stood out there would be assigned big roles on the films. Hongo’s M.O. has always been to encourage unique animator talent (as in Outlaw Star and Kizuna Ichigeki), but the long-running nature of Shin-chan allowed this to an even greater degree. Yuasa in particular has sung the praises of Hongo’s supervision in interviews, saying that it was on Shin-chan under Hongo that he first experienced true creative freedom.

Hongo’s films are freeform, gag-heavy adventures that showcase the diverse range of talent on the Shin-chan series. Many of the norms for the series were set by Hongo: the musical interludes, the CQC fight sequences, and the tendency for each film to riff on a different genre (globe-trotting adventure, espionage, tokusatsu, etc.). The characterization is weaker than the subsequent films and the storytelling, while structured and coherent, isn’t exactly gripping. What they lack in pathos, however, they more than make up for in cool shit; Hongo’s films are full of grandiose setpieces that brilliantly mix comedy and action. Most significantly, Masaaki Yuasa was “setting designer” for the first six films, meaning he designed the different fantastical locations Shin-chan & co visit. Nowhere is Yuasa’s presence more strongly felt than in Hongo’s films, which are more fantastical in nature than the later films. The first, Action Kamen vs Haigure Mao, shows the most age of the ten and outside of Yuasa’s scene towards the end there isn’t that much that impresses. The second film, The Secret Treasure of Buri Buri Kingdom, is closer to the later films than the first, especially in terms of its tightly choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes and extravagant presentation. Strangely, Yuasa didn’t animate anything in the second film despite doing so for the rest of the first eight films. The third and fourth films, Unkokusai’s Ambition and Adventure in Henderland respectively, are the best of the Hongo set. Unkokusai is a Sengoku era time travel mecha adventure which, despite the premise, is probably the most straight-faced of the Hongo films with tons of intense fight scenes and striking compositions. Yuasa designed the alternate future world towards the end and animated the over-the-top mecha battle finale. Number 4, Henderland, is set in an amusement park where Shin-chan gets entangled in a magical battle. The big draw here is the Henderland amusement park designed by Yuasa. Not only is the park’s design imaginative and vivid, the art director for the film was Eriko Shibayama, who did Yuasa’s Space Dandy episode and the best backgrounds in Rolling Girls, so the designs are done great justice by the background art. It also features a stunning finale animated by Yuasa which is in the running for his best scene in the entire series. Movie 4 is currently unsubbed.

Hongo’s films are good fun but never really displayed a strong authorial voice. Hongo conceived of the films as a way to promote the talent of others rather than a director’s singular vision. This changed when he passed the torch of chief direction to Keiichi Hara. Hara was a minor figure at Shin Ei whose previous projects 21-Emon and Esper Mami hadn’t taken off like he wanted them to. Hongo recognized Hara’s skill and let him storyboard all the quiet, lowkey sections of his films, something Hara evidently had a talent for. Hara directed films 5-10 and under his direction the Shin-chan series reached its broadest appeal. While Hongo’s films were great spectacles, Hara’s films aimed for something more “cinematic” in their presentation and storytelling. They served as an outlet for Hara’s many ideas and a springboard for his later solo career. The best comparison to Hara I can think of would be Mamoru Hosoda, who was doing similar work at Toei around this time. If you want to start somewhere with Shin-chan, Hara’s films are the best place to start.

The fifth film and the first by Hara, Pursuit of the Balls of Darkness, is a parody of martial arts films that has better action that most actual martial arts films. Masahiro Ando did great work on other entries but his fights here are incredible. The movie has a higher density of musical sequences too, a commonality of the Hara films. The climactic standoff on the tower has that classic Shin-chan balance between dead serious situations and goofy anticlimactic humor. Hara would revisit the tower motif in the ninth film and his later Summer Days with Coo. The sixth film, Pig Hoof’s Secret Mission, somehow goes farther in the production values. It’s a spy thriller parody with an amazing cold open animated entirely by Masayuki Yoshihara. Yuasa’s section, the film-within-a-film starring his favorite character Buriburizaemon, is another standout moment. One thing Hara’s films clearly do better than Hongo is the chase scenes – the car chase in 5 and the dogfight in 6 have no parallel in the earlier installments. There’s also a (mercifully brief) bit of experimentation with CG, which back in 1998 would not have been a cost-cutting measure. Hara’s films are satisfying both as conventional Shin-chan misadventures and as the genres they parody. They’re damn good at the basics while having a willingness to try new things. Above all Hara’s biggest accomplishment in these films was his mixing of the serious and the stupid and not making it feel strained.

The seventh film, The Hot Spring’s Feel Good Final Battle, is the weak link among the Hara films. It isn’t bad – the onsen mecha scene at the end is fantastic – but it’s not on the same level of the other Hara films. It lacks a distinctive identity even though the production is generally on-point. However, you should definitely watch the ‘Made in Saitama’ short film preceding the actual movie. It was directed by Tsutomu Mizushima, Hara’s assistant director who went on to establish a successful career in TV animation (including the recent Shirobako). It’s a collection of random vignettes featuring a musical about constipation and the debut of Yuichiro Sueyoshi’s brilliant background animation. A friend of Yuasa, Sueyoshi had contributed mock ‘gekiga’ scenes with thick sketchy lineart in the previous films but it was here that he first displayed his talent with hallucinogenic moving backgrounds. The eighth film, The Jungle, is a tropical adventure with the one-two punch of Ando and Yuasa for the finale. Interestingly it was something of a spiritual remake of the second film, as the tenth film would be for the third. Unfortunately Yuasa’s regular contributions to the films ended after the eighth. Movies 6 and 7 are currently unsubbed.

The ninth film, The Adult Empire Strikes Back, is generally singled out as the best in the series. It succeeds in the same way the previous Hara films do – loads of great setpieces, a structured narrative, effective characterization, and unusually good cinematography – but there’s a greater thematic pull than the others, jabbing at Japan’s culture of nostalgia and how it relates to Shin-chan’s popularity. By this film Hara was frustrated with the yearly grind of Shin-chan and wanted to branch out into non-franchise filmmaking, and Adult Empire contains a lot of that restless ambition. Some of the scenes, like the finale on the Tokyo Tower, reappeared in Hara’s first non-Shin-chan film Summer Days with Coo because Hara was already sketching out ideas for original stories. The ninth film saw Shin-chan at the height of its popularity and was for many a fitting capstone to the series.

However, the last Hara film, The Battle of the Warring States, might be my favorite of the ten. It’s neglected compared to the ninth but is in its own way just as ambitious. Here the Shin-chan characters are a thin pretense for Hara to make an Akira Kurasawa-esque historical drama with a surprisingly sophisticated depiction of contemporary ground warfare and behind-the-scenes politicking. It’s the only Shin-chan film to have uncorrected or at least minimally corrected drawings from Masami Otsuka. Otsuka was one of the most distinct sakkans on the show and mentor to Yuasa and Masatsugu Arakawa (character designer for Windy Tales and yet another talented person to emerge from Shin-chan). His style is Shin-chan at its most cubist and though he animated many of the song and dance sequences on the preceding films, his drawings were always heavily cleaned up. The film also originally had a lengthy crane shot that had to be ditched due to time constraints but the expertly staged mass battles that remain are just as impressive. Warring States retains much of Shin-chan’s signature humor but while watching you can tell that yearly films couldn’t contain all this talent anymore. You get the sense that Hara et al were too good to be wasting their time on family cartoons and deserved to work on bigger and better projects. This is the downside to fostering so much individually-minded talent: eventually they’ll want to move on.

After the tenth film, Hara more-or-less left the show to pursue his own ambitions as a director. It was a decisive moment for the franchise, when both the films and the TV series significantly declined in quality. Hayashi, Otsuka, and Sueyoshi stayed on as regular sakkans but the directorial pool dried up and the series suffered a poor transition to the digital era (the show’s vivid color being the biggest casualty). Tsutomu Mizushima was Hara’s successor as chief director but his tenure was brief. He directed the 11th and 12th films and though they aren’t failures per se and have plenty of great setpieces (from a production standpoint they feature Tetsuya Takeuchi, Yasunori Miyazawa, Ryoutarou Makihara, Kyoto Animation, and the triumphant return of Yuasa to the franchise), it was clear Mizushima didn’t have a vision for the future of the series. He was more interested in television direction anyway so his talents were ill-suited to yearly feature film releases.

Shin-chan after Mizushima’s departure and under Yuji Mutoh is even more of a desert. Occasionally the recent films have brought on outside talent (I’ve heard the 15th and 19th ones have some good animation, and the 21st has a script by Yoshio Urasawa of all people), but nothing comparable to the early run. However, even in its degraded state Shin-chan can still produce talented individuals. Two from recent years that are worth keeping an eye on are Kimiko Ueno and Wataru Takahashi. Ueno is a screenwriter who made waves last year by writing some of the funniest episodes of Space Dandy. She still works on the series with regularity but has been branching out recently and I hope she continues to do so.

Wataru Takahashi is a director who worked closely with Mizushima during his short reign and seemed to be the next in line to run the show but for whatever reason didn’t get an opportunity to direct until last year’s film Robot Dad Strikes Back (the 22nd movie). Takahashi’s film is easily the best entry since the 10th and a return to the spirit of the show’s glory days. Kazuki Nakashima of Gurren Lagann and Oh! Edo Rocket fame wrote the script and his penchant for bombastic unsubtle allegory works wonderfully in Shin-chan’s bizarre version of Saitama. Nakashima personally knew Shin-chan mangaka Yoshito Usui before Usui died and helped him edit the Shin-chan manga early in its run. He’s been a producer on some of the later Shin-chan films but this was the first one he served a creative role on. There’s more attention paid to the animation as well. Michio Mihara makes a guest appearance and the finale mecha battle was produced by Science Saru and directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Yuasa’s part is done in flash and though the animation feels floaty, the actual designs and choreography are well done. The storyboarding is also quite good and has a level of polish the other recent Shin-chan films noticeably lack. While I don’t think Robot Dad comes close to the highs of Hara’s films, I’m hoping that Wataru Takahashi directs more features and we see a modern revival of Shin-chan in the vein of Ayumu Watanabe’s revival of Doraemon in 2006. He isn’t directing this year’s film, so it’s unlikely he’ll be taking the reigns completely, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t make another one in the next couple years. Movie 22 is currently unsubbed.

….And that’s the gist of Crayon Shin-chan. It’s a shame Shin-chan is so underrepresented in the English speaking world. It’d be great if a fansubbing group took the initiative to sub the first decade of the show or at the very least the remaining films that don’t have subs but the interest doesn’t seem to be there unfortunately.

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