Through most of 2013, Hideaki Anno was in a much graver state of mind than his usual. His general skepticism and pessimism were aggravated over the direction of an stagnated animation industry (within the wider anguish of contemporary Japan’s uncertain economy and future) and his concerns over it, as well as the creative outburst of the newest iteration of the Rebuild series (Q/3:33) throwing him on an emotional slump of a level he hasn’t been in since he finished the original series more than a decade ago.
It is likely that it is an attempt to get himself out of that slump by immersing himself into the things he most loved and remembering what made him decide to become an animator in the first place -along with attempting to stem the course of the animation industry in his own little way- that brought him to start this project in which various promising and passionate animators from all walks of the industry, young and old (with a marked focus on the former), were given a space and budget to create any animation to their heart’s content. Anno implicitly asked only three things of them: To give it their all, to make something they really loved and believed in, and to Make Anime Great Again.
But perhaps I should let the man speak for himself:
“We planned this short film project for believing in the pursuit and exploitation of fun of images that Japanese animation has, deepening and diversity of flexible expression, understanding and exploitation of individual talents, and the dreams and possibilities to the future, which are inherent in Japanese anima(tor)s.
I appreciate your kind support and approval with this small resistance as many as possible.”
As you can imagine many people who knew and cared about this industry were very interested (not to say enthusiastic) about this back when it started in November of 2014, but for a sakuga(1) enthusiast such as myself this event easily became one of the best things of the year. Now, while I can’t transmit to you the whole experience of looking forward to every Friday night and seeing the new short’s subsection opened to the public or jumping with joy when you saw Hiroyuki Okiura or Hisashi Mori’s names listed on the next season chart, I can at least tell you my impressions of all the shorts and why I feel that this expo has become one of the best things to happen to anime in recent years.
Two side notes before starting; I’m going to try to keep a relatively stable word count from one short to the other, but in some I’m going to have more/less to say; that’s just how it is. The total word count for the post will remain more solid and any side commentaries, things I want to zoom on, or anything that exceeds the limit of the general reviews will be referred for a later post. Second side note, I highly recommend you to check out the site(2) even if you already got the video itself from the usual channels, as the promotional materials and design of the pages are just incredible by themselves and really help set the mood for the shorts. All right, with the side notes out of the way, let’s begin:
The Dragon Dentist
The expo started with a rather promising start not by the short itself being great, but because of this promotional material giving a decent tour de force of the body of Japanese animation.
You might think that by I refer only to the production values, I meant something more general than that. Basically, with body I refer to all the physical capacity of the staff in performing work and the quality of that result in every area of production. The slick art, the orchestral soundtrack, a writing that embodies style-over-substance (which is what they wanted here), made the trailer to this novel an extremely enticing hype-enabler.
While I don’t have much to say about The Dragon Dentist don’t let it make you think I’m disappointed with this opening to the expo. If I were in a position to, I’d be tempted to hire any of the people involved by the skills they showed here even if the short by itself wasn’t a magnum opus. And I think that’s quite the achievement for an entrance to an expo we’ll soon learn many great things through, it appetizes with some good eye candy and assure us that no matter which direction the various artists want to go through, the skill and drive are there.
Hill Climb Girl
“The essential is invisible to the eyes”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
After some rewatches my feelings on the short evolved from disappointment (at least animation-wise) to not only one of my favorite shorts of the expo, but to a revitalizing reminded of one of the main reasons I watch anime for.
The story and premise are very simple, but this only helps the skill of the staff and the kind of emotional sincerity and innocence (that so much characterizes anime) within the short shine more transparently. Really, all the passion reflected in Hinako’s admiration for Wiggins (A bit amusing considering Wiggins is a bit of a nasty guy) and the simple-minded joy present through the short won my heart up to the end, climaxing in the scene where the bike transforms and the cutesy insert song kicks in.
The execution is simple, but by that same coin it’s a fast entry to a short supported by a solid understanding of animation and characteristic Japanese subtlety. Along with that, it is very sincere and moving in its sentiment. When you see certain cuts, you’ll know what i mean and you’ll see how it develops so much heart from a simple premise. I guess that’s why even when i didn’t think much of it at first, when I started appreciating all the things behind this short, it became one of the shorts that I most loved.
Finally on terms of animation itself -in this case concerning mainly the characters CG(3) -and I’d like to reiterate my 2D>3D bias- it had some strangeness to the movement in general (of the bodies and stuff) bolstered by the particular frame-rate of anime. With the faces i actually came to appreciate a bit more what CG can bring to the table, since with rigging it can, at least in theory, provide a far greater amount of mobility for the facial features by virtue of computerization saving up significant labor cost. Basically, now that the animators don’t have to animate all eyebrow movements every single time, they’re now freer to use them more liberally or to focus their attention upon something else (like some sweet sakuga). With the computer doing a lot of the grunt work you can get a lot of fluidity or focus on other parts.
So yeah, in general Hill Climb Girl is a short that I liked a lot after a few rewatches. It showed a fresh attempt at Japanese CG assisting animation, that I always took more as a successful venture than an unsuccessful one. And a good case in study of subtle storytelling and directing that make many people so drawn to anime.
All right, so I watched ME! ME! ME!. Hahahahahaha FUCK.
I got to admit that, on a personal level, I never cared much for the short myself, at least compared to the rest of internet. It just didn’t resonate that much with me, with the exception of the feeling of debauchery and utter dissatisfaction with his life pissing it away hitting close to home, but it’s rather late and I don’t have the time or inclination to dive into the more intimate aspects of the short -because they very much deserve attention- so I’ll try to get into more general observations.
Anyways, as I said it didn’t catch that much hype with me but I can certainly appreciate how and why it managed to hook so many people, considering what it set out (and achieved) to do visually and content-wise. It’s a world enriched with very carefully designed imagery and animation. In fact the animation is very well thought-out in the narrative-visual department, that both superficial and deeper layers manage to tell the story very well with visuals alone. The music also does a superb job even if we westerners can’t really appreciate the lyrics directly (you ought to check them out when you get the chance btw).
Originally the review had an in-depth/nitty gritty ”””’analysis”””’ of the imagery/elements we see in the short and what my interpretations, along with some comments on the visual aesthetics/graphic design animation, but the word count wound up taking half of the whole post so it’ll have to be passed over to one of its own published someday soon. So yeah, apologies I won’t get much into the details right now. As an aside, generally this wasn’t so much about the animation aside from it being very good (goddamn meme-chan is so sexy when she dances) but more on the visual/design side, and visuals as a narrative rather than animation per se. And in that way it was a pretty interesting work, but again it’s rather late and I’m kind of cramming here as it is, I didn’t get into the emotional and personal side -which I do think it’s important to address too- so I should try to kind of get into that next time I rewatch ME!ME!ME! which is no idea when but again, someday soon.
As a side note, I’m sorry but I just have to say this: I LOVE Memechan. If the goal was to make me feel bad about finding her sexy or anything, I’m sorry but they failed because i simply adore her. I just find her really cute, I really like the way she dances and carries herself, and that little outfit -those red shoes, purple gloves-, her blue long hair, her lovely face, her eyes… they drive me insane. I just love her, find her incredibly sexy, find her incredibly sexy, love seeing her and would give anything to see more of her. Heh, what can I do? She was just lovely.
But yeah. Love it or hate it, ME!ME!ME! has commanded a lot of talk and for good reason. With sleek animation, clever directing, some very rich imagery, and very mysterious narrative with a lot of psychological component to it, it’s no wonder that it evoked as much virtual ink as it has. And for good reason really, because again aside from all the DEEP stuff, it is by itself a very well done short. And something very interesting in a chance for creators to just go wild in a purely psychological/visual tour de force.
Last short of the night: I just watched Carnage. The animation of Carnage can’t really be described as outstanding. It is very solid and very good, but aside from its Okiura-esque realism (at least attempts a more ”’realistic”’ movement compared to some other shorts) it isn’t particularly amazing in that department. What makes it stand out from other shorts, however, is an extremely bold visual and directorial style. The framing of the shots, composition, the visual processing (love that oil painting-esque overlay), the “acting” of the characters, and the impact given to the actions… they all add together to make Carnage a very brisk short. Really that’s the main word that defines it: impact. It is as impactful as it title implies.
The story was presented in a more than acceptable revenge story framed around a western homage. The girl’s “cape” was a clear reference to The Man with No Name for one. As well, as some of the camera’s sensibilities possibly hinted at a western appreciation. And of course the story itself is classical western.
Overall, Carnage has a very clear idea of what it wanted to do and sets single-mindedly to it with all the impact it can. In a way it’s amazing for what little violence there is compared to some more action fare short (about three scenes of bloody violence in 7 minutes) it feels like it has such impact to it, and it’s because those shots and cuts are done with an attitude that they really stick with you. Even when the premise and story(4) could be pretty dry compared to even say, Hill Climb Girl, it is told with so much boldness and backed up by so much skill that you can’t help but be taken over by its strength.
And while many of the things that make Carnage stand out can just as easily be done in film, -in fact might lend itself better to some of these techniques- like grainy and painty overlay, clever framing, proper “acting”, or such visual techniques, Carnage gives a parallel voice to Dragon Dentist in that while the latter shows how animation can serve the intents of film just as well, Carnage is at times consciously emulating the closest it can to a movie… and it gets pretty damn close to it to be honest. One might even be tempted to call rotoscoping on it, haha.
But on the more subtle or secondary aspects… like in the cut where Avenger gets her arm cut off, is one of some things that can in theory be done in film but that done in animation, can reveal it’s unique character distinct from film. It simply feels differently in animation thanks to the particular tools and mediums. That’s the case with the movement too, like with the way Avenger girl carries her gun or fires it, the frame-rate are very different things down to their nature between both mediums. The undertones, subtonalities and its relationship to the wider whole of the screen give it its own unique characteristic to animation.
Of course, these divergences play into the result we call the story and how we receive. And such a bold animation certainly propels this revenge story with flying colors. In summary, Carnage is a relatively simple story told in a very powerful way.
Well, that’s about it for the first post of the expo, next one should be in a week or two. I hope you’ll have as much fun reading these “reviews” as i have in writing them.
(1) I could copy-paste a wiki definition, but instead watch at least the first two videos of this series, there just isn’t a better introduction
(2) Link. Also check out the season openings edited by Anno himself too, because they’re awesome.
(3) And technically also the bike and other objects, but as a general rule Computer Graphics don’t tend to have as much problem with objects, since by their nature many objects are easily compartmentalized/mechanized, which lends them more naturally to the rigging and volume control features of CG compared to cellular-based organic creatures. For example, think of how many (absolutely) straight lines or cubes you can find in nature compared to human handiwork.
Of course the CG gives the movement its own touch of mechanically accurate fluidity to the (rigged) movement. Perhaps not so much subtlety of movement -because they’re essentially puppets with strings on key areas- but you can at least move them a lot instead of confining it to however much as you can draw (or subject the animator to an insane schedule). It also had a bit of a bit of a glossy feel, especially in the eyes but pretty notable in the skin as well. It’s a bit hard to describe and probably co-product of modern design styles than CG itself but still worth nothing.
(4) I can see it as hints of wider world as much as its own short, although i don’t know if they could keep the energy of the short in TV format.