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The New York Times has an article this week on Japanese animation ("anime," or as the Times helps us pronounce it, "AH-nee-may"), timed to coincide with the release of the new Rintaro film Metropolis (thanks to dratfink for catching the essay). The piece, by Dave Kehr, is aimed at non-initiates but gets into some of the theory (it mentions Susan Napier's book, which was discussed on this page a few posts back). The following excerpt, however, is problematic:
"Though Metropolis emphasizes the contrast between the dated, na´ve figures in the foreground and the high-tech design of the background, it isn't unusual to find a similar, if unarticulated, dissonance in other anime. Originally designed for the low budgets of television production, anime--like the American style pioneered by Hanna-Barbera for Huckleberry Hound and The Flintstones around the same time--uses fewer drawings per second than the vintage Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons, which were made at a time of lower costs and greater theatrical exposure. Even so, now that computers have made it possible to create smooth, fluid animation for a reasonable cost, the Japanese films hang on to the jerky, discontinuous movements that characterized the earliest work in the field. This is something that can pose a problem for Western viewers, who risk seeing the anime style as something inherently inferior to the sleeker Hollywood product.
"But there is much in the work to suggest that this jagged, flip-book quality is an effect that Japanese viewers find desirable and pleasurable. Accustomed to manga--the massive comic books published in Japan for adults as well as for children--the Japanese public does not favor movement over composition as a principle of expression. As more than one commentator on manga has pointed out, the most direct precursor of the form is ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints--themselves often erotic or rudely caricatural--published in 19th-century Tokyo. Here, the artists often strove to convey movement--crashing waves, raging battles, swirling geishas, kabuki performers in high dudgeon--in terms of static line drawings, in ways that powerfully suggest the contained dynamism of the anime style.
"Perhaps the best way to appreciate anime is as a series of still drawings with moving details. Even a film like Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, with its clear aspirations to Disneyesque detail and grandeur, animates its characters with only slightly more grace and fluidity than a low-budget television series like Angel Tail. The figures themselves are as flat as the backgrounds, given only a suggestion of dimensionality by solid wash shading. Where Western animators struggle to create a convincing illusion of life, Japanese animators are more interested in capturing single expressive gestures, or in evoking a particular mood through the careful use of color. Unlike Hollywood animation, anime does not aspire to the condition of live-action cinema; it remains its own stubborn self."
My thoughts on the above excerpt: "vintage" Disney and WB cartoons may have more frames per second than the average anime feature, but the character animation in current Disney products such as Beauty and the Beast and Hercules looks just as cheap as Hanna-Barbera, computer or no computer (when a character's head turns, the mouth moves a split second later!). I strongly disagree that the hallmark of anime is "flatness": the action often takes place within dizzyingly deep, perfectly-realized perspective spaces. The phrase "jagged, flipbook quality" also somehow doesn't nail it. It's more like a slide show, where the "camera" pans across frames, slows down to a crawl so the viewer can absorb a given drawing, and then suddenly speeds up into a lightning-fast action sequence. As one animator (I think it was Toy Story's John Lasseter) observed: "No one does action better than the Japanese."
Kehr finds the attempt in Metropolis to integrate hand-drawn figures with artificial-looking, Tron-like computer graphics to be awkward--and he's right, it looks terrible--but then says more conventional anime has the same clumsy disconnect between foreground and background, which just isn't true. Hand-drawn figures and hand-painted backgrounds work well together, it's only when the animators cut into the frame to show off all the cool wireframe stuff they can do that problems crop up. Computers may be useful for generating continuity drawings in conventional-looking animation, but whenever the programming calls attention to itself, as it does in Metropolis or even a smaller-scale project like Richard Linklater's insufferable Waking Life, it's distracting.
Elsewhere in the article, Kehr talks about anime's underground popularity in America. No joke! Someone's buying those $29 tapes off the racks of every chain book and record store in America. I think the average consumer's about 16, and each has put up a web page devoted not just to a particular show but to his/her favorite character. Anime Web Turnpike has an amazing collection of such fan pages, although dead links pop up frequently. (Junior-san goes off to college, Mom stops paying the host server...) I'm fortunate to have a video rental place nearby with a huge selection; some titles I've enjoyed are: Armitage III, Cowboy Bebop, Ranma 1/2, Gunbuster, Iria: Zeiram the Animation, Evangelion, Blue Seed. I've even done some fan art! (See above.)