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 19, 2015

Angel Beats!

Jun Maeda turned the visual novel game studio Key VisualArts into a synonym for true-to-life melodramas infused with a large dollop of magical realism. In Angel Beats, his latest anime series, he skips right past the realism and goes straight for the magical. Or rather, straight for the eschatological.

In the first scene, Yuzuru Otonashi wakes up in the afterlife and promptly gets killed again. He doesn't die because he's already dead. Which is a good thing, because he's fallen in with a gang of like-minded teenagers who have decided they do not want to "go gentle into that good night," and have armed themselves accordingly.

That means fighting "Angel," who's gotten very good at "killing" them in turn (it's like a painful time-out in the penalty box). Angel's ungentle job it is to see that they do go gentle into that good night. And that means being good students instead of a bunch of delinquents.

You see, Angel is the student council president. Purgatory is a Japanese high school. And Angel has appointed herself Charon, the ferryman.

Refreshingly, these rebels really are a bunch of delinquents, and despite all the scheming by Yuri, their bad girl leader, they're not good at being bad. Otonashi admits he would have joined whatever group first approached him. All they know is the status quo, so that's what they defend—to the repeated death.

Though following Jun Maeda's reliable formula, this is executed with a good deal of dark humor that at times (if you like this sort of thing) is quite funny.

Helped along by the fact that Angel isn't a mindless antagonist, and this hapless gang—who admit they don't really know what they're rebelling against (to quote Marlon Brando: "Whaddya got?")—aren't necessarily the protagonists. Because the only true enemy is the self.

Yeah, I know, that's about as trite as truisms get, but stick with it. It pays off.

There's an element of The Matrix here. The "red pill" students know they're dead but alive in an unreal world, while the "blue pill" students remain completely oblivious. Except here Maeda fills in the gaps that The Matrix misses, by giving all parties compelling, even moral, reasons for their choices.

Though in substance and message, Angel Beats! reminds me more of Haibane Renmei, Yoshitoshi ABe's subtle and sublime meditation on grace and redemption. ABe's protagonist is Rakka, who is "reborn" into an afterlife that resembles a semi-rural village in mid-20th century Eastern Europe.

In the pastoral world of Haibane Renmei, there is no presumed god to rail against, no laid-down path to salvation, no sign posts pointing the way. Their "job" is to live out their afterlives in the community while "working out their salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).

But while Haibane Renmei is quiet and meditative, Angel Beats! is loud and obvious. It's the garage band version, with the volume turned up to eleven. Literally, as one of the gang's "weapons" is a student rock band that stages illegal concerts to distract Angel's minions during their "missions."

Angel Beats! also has a distinctly Buddhist slant. ABe created a purposely Catholic version of purgatory for Haibane Renmei. In Angel Beats! Christian "salvation" isn't in the cards. Getting "twinkled" is purely a product of self-realization or satori, and only you can hold yourself back.

On this score, Joseph Smith would agree.

For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence (Alma 12:14).

Everybody in this purgatory is terrified of resurrecting the memories of who they were before they died, obsessed with what could have been versus what actually was. As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." So the dead stay dead until they can face that examination directly.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to have someone show them the way. Perhaps somebody whose last name is a homophone for "gentle" (otonashii), and whose full name (音無結弦) is spelled with kanji that mean "the strings that bind without a sound" (yuzuru).

Related posts

The catechism of Angel Beats!
Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry
Angel Beats! (NF CR)
Set Apart

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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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