November 26, 2015

Baby on board

This is one of those funny juxtapositions that tests just how big an anime geek you are.

Sitting on the back of the truck is a baby ohmu (okay, a plastic replica), a species of giant bug dreamed up by Hayao Miyazaki for his post-apocalyptic epic, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

In the movie, a baby ohmu is kidnapped by the bad guys in order to stampede the rest of the herd into destroying the last defensive redoubt outside of Nausicaä's village.

When ohmu really get their dander up, their eyes glow red. These particular ohmu are not happy campers. So you'll want to steer clear when the parents show up (triggering a classic eucatastrophic climax).

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November 12, 2015

Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry

Tracing the provenance of an anime title can get tricky at times. Anime titles often originate in manga and light novels, though sometimes the anime comes first and the manga follows. A third important source is the visual novel.

In the U.S., the visual—or interactive—novel is the medium of the future, and always will be. But it's been well-established in Japan for twenty years (there's a lot of cultural information in that fact that deserved a Ph.D. dissertation). One of the big players in visual novels is Key VisualArts.

Co-founder and scenario writer Jun Maeda is largely responsible for Key's first three titles, Kanon, Air, and Clannad, which established Key's own sub-genre of magical realism fused with operatic melodrama.

Kanon and Clannad (that's the two-part anime series, not the New Age Irish band, though they're not bad either) are two of my all-time favorite tear-jerkers in any medium. Hope Chapman does a good job analyzing how  Jun Maeda pulls it off in "Why Clannad Made You Cry."

The paradoxical reason, Chapman points out, is not because "life sucks and then you die." Even done well, that approach is only depressing and ultimately silly and self-indulgent.

If a likable character dies in a story, that's sad. If a likable character dies and their loved ones suffer for it, that's sadder. If a likable character dies, their loved ones suffer for it, and then they get killed in a freak accident right after a messenger runs up to tell them that their family dog has also kicked the bucket, you've started spinning a bad comedy routine.

Rather, the exact opposite. "Make 'Em Laugh," as Donald O'Connor argued. And so, "For every five minutes of weepiness in Clannad, there's at least twenty minutes of comedy (and that's a conservative estimate)."

This joy—far more than suffering (Tolstoy was largely wrong on this point)—draws us into the lives of the characters and builds the expectation that more good things can and ought to keep on happening.

Just as importantly, though, when the good things stop happening, they can't stop happening forever or we're right back to nihilism. As Chapman puts it, with Maeda, "Karma Always Comes Through." The scales of justice balance, even if it takes a bit of magical realism to make it work.

Maeda uses magic to express his own feelings about the unfairness of reality, by "breaking" it just enough to give his characters what they've earned. If tragedy is usually absurdly unfair, why can't triumph come from equally absurd fairness?

C.S. Lewis noted the ("educated") human propensity to infuse more "authenticity" in the negative than the positive, even when the one is no more factually substantive than the other. And when it is that essential faith in the "happy ending" that accounts for the human will to exist in the first place.

The joy of the happy ending, or more correctly of the "good catastrophe," the sudden joyous turn (for there is no true end to any fairy tale)—this joy, which is one of the things that fairy stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially "escapist." It does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure, but it denies universal final defeat, and thus is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy.

Tolkien's word for this was eucatastrophe, "the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom." Like Lewis, Tolkien applied it not only to fiction but to theology.

The universality of the eucatastrophe has fashioned it into a framework on which solid storytelling can be constructed. It shows up across the spectrum of style and genre, from thoroughly westernized fairy tales like Disney's excellent Tangled to anime like Scrapped Princess and Madoka Magica.

The pervasiveness of the form and the formula is easily criticized as "convention." But the key word in the "same only different" is the "same." That sameness exists for a reason: ignoring convention is a good way to create uniquely bad art.

His respect for, and mastery of, the formula is what makes Jun Maeda a storyteller whose work always deserves a second look.

Related posts

Angel Beats!

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November 05, 2015

Anime vs. animation

Rich Duffy explains at Tofugu how anime evolved in a cinematic art form distinct from Hollywood (namely, Disney) animation, and now is evolving back. Economic necessity was the original impetus, and is still a factor, the typical anime production being budgeted at a third its Hollywood counterpart.

But the techniques established way back when have come to define the very "look & feel" of anime.

Citing Nobuyuki Tsugata and Marc Steinberg, Duffy defines anime as being "cel-based," while using a variety of tricks to lower the cel count. This drive to simplicity is countered by "a strong tendency toward the development of complex human relationships, stories and worlds."

On the business side, anime is organized around television and video distribution, making it "inherently transmedial."

At the same time, the economic necessity of simplifying the production process cannot be overstated. In the 1960s, television saw the same adoption rates in Japan as the U.S. (95 percent by 1964). What makes this all the more remarkable is that in 1960, GDP/capita for Japan was one-fifth that of the U.S.

The pioneer here was the animated television version of Astro Boy, produced by Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Pro. Tezuka had published the manga since 1952. The television series debuted in 1963. And to meet the budgetary requirements, Tezuka chose to animate the story, not necessarily the images

At the heart of Tezuka's cost-conscious approach (which he used to underbid the competition, except the low profit margins eventually drove Mushi Pro out of business) was "three-frame shooting." Each cel is held for three frames instead of one, resulting in an effective 8 frames-per-second. The standards in Hollywood are 15 fps for television and 24 fps for general-release movies.

This is known as "limited animation" in Hollywood, where "two-frame shooting" ("on the twos") is the standard cheat. What makes the difference is the magician's box of animation tricks and optical illusions employed to keep the story literally moving.

Duffy discusses these at greater length, but I'd like to draw attention to two. First is animating only those features of a moving object likely to be noticed. The most obvious (and most economizing) application of this is animating only the mouth in a static face.

The second is moving the camera instead of the image, the techniques that Ken Burns popularized on PBS (called the "Ken Burns effect"): zoom in on still photograph and slowly pan across it. Anime got there a long time ago. The upside of emphasizing backgrounds over the frame rate means that the backgrounds can become the main attraction.

One of John Lasseter's innovations (first at Disney, where it was initially ignored, then at Pixar, then back at Disney) was using computer graphics to produce complex, three-dimensional backgrounds.

Late 20th century Disney films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin boast foreground animation that only a few Japanese studios like Ghibli can match. But the backgrounds are surprisingly bland.

Note the attention given to the backgrounds in the second season of Shirobako, to the extent of tracking down a specific artist to do the work. Keeping one artist on retainer is cheaper than a room full of animators. Makoto Shinkai is the current master of the background. Thanks to digital cameras and Adobe Photoshop, he can do most of the work himself. That's the real sea change.

There's an episode in Shirobako where Masato Marukawa, the president of "Musashino Animation," gives Aoi a tour of the boarded-up studios where he used to work ("Musashino Pictures" is an obvious reference to Mushi Pro, which went bankrupt in 1973 and reorganized in 1977).

Dusty old celluloid "cels" are still scattered about, the shelves lined with hundreds of jars of acrylic paint. It's a stark reminder of how labor-intensive animation used to be. Now sending artwork to "photography" means scanning them, after which they can be animated at the touch of a button. And that's if line drawings are used; otherwise everything's done in the computer.

This is one important variable that Duffy doesn't discuss. He points out that Hayao Miyazaki belongs to a school of Japanese animation (called "manga film") that eschews these "anime techniques" in favor of the more "traditional" Disney approach. Though it is getting increasingly difficult to tell the difference.

Hollywood borrows from anime and anime borrows from Hollywood. And from Silicon Valley. Along with motion capture, 2D and 3D computer graphics have become standard equipment in the anime toolbox.

CG-generated images can be interpolated to any frame rate you want. That means the differences in "quality" between Appleseed (2004), the Appleseed XIII (2013) TV series and Appleseed: Alpha (2014) come down to the cost of rendering. Those costs (in time and hardware) have fallen orders of magnitude since Toy Story (1995), and the revolution has barely started.

Shirobako illustrates the conflict between "old-school" animation and 3D CG, which comes to a head in a comically overblown argument over hand-drawn explosions vs. digitally-rendered explosions. Another development is keeping the old school alive: in-betweening is regularly contracted out to South Korea, China, and Vietnam.

I think the now ubiquitous practice of seamlessly fusing digital and hand-drawn in Japanese animation will continue for some time, if only for purely aesthetic reasons. The ultimately outcome will likely be the emerging school of digital animation impossible to distinguish from hand-drawn, as in Isao Takahata's Princess Kaguya.

Princess Kaguya is the most expensive animated film made in Japan. Creating the "new old look" ironically takes more time and costs more money. But give it a couple of years and that whole look and feel will be a filter in Photoshop.

Related links

Makoto Shinkai
Appleseed: Alpha
Shirobako (Hulu) (CR)
Appleseed (Hulu)
Appleseed: XIII (Hulu)

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