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Director: Wan Gu-chan
Release Date: January 1, 1941
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Princess Iron Fan © Wan BrothChina owes its animation industry to the Wan brothers, four brothers (including a pair of twins) from Shanghai who started animating in 1923.

The Wans made their first film, ‘Uproar in an Art Studio’ in 1926, which mixed animation with live action, like Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series. They also could boast making the first Chinese sound cartoon, ‘The Camel’s Dance’ (1935). But when the Japanese invaded Shanghai in August 1937 their studio was destroyed, and they temporarily went to Wuhan to work on patriotic war films, until that city fell, too, in 1938.

Luckily, in 1939 the twins Wan Lai-ming and Wan Gu-chan were invited by the Xinhua United Film Company to work once again in Shanghai. There the brothers saw Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and decided to make a feature film of their own. The Xinhua company was seated in the concession of Vichy France, which allowed for some freedom, which the Wans clearly used in their film.

Made by 237 artists in the course of sixteen months, the result was ‘Princess Iron Fan’ (or ‘The Princess with the Iron Fan’, 1941), China’s very first feature film. This film takes its inspiration from the very popular 16th century novel ‘Journey to the West’, and tells about the 7th century monk Xuanzang (or Tang Seng as he’s transcribed in the DVD), who really existed, and who was famous for travelling all the way to India to learn about Buddhism, and take important scriptures back to China with him. In the novel Xuanzang has become a legendary figure, travelling with his disciples, the monkey king Sun Wukong, a pig monk called Zhu Bajie, and a man called Sha Wujiing, who’s portrayed as having a stutter in the movie.

The movie tells about an episode in which Xuanzang is confronted by a flaming mountain, which he cannot cross. The local villagers then tell him about a princess who has an iron fan, which can make the fire go disappear. Xuanzang then sends his disciples to the princess to borrow the fan, which turns out to be no easy feat.

The film’s story is a delight: it’s full of surprising plot twists, strange magic, and unexpected metamorphoses. If it’s anything faithful to the novel, it becomes clear why it has become so popular. The film’s moral is that only together one can beat defeat. Indeed, the Wan brothers have given the film a long motto in the beginning of the movie:

This film was made for the purpose of training the hearts and minds of children. The story is pure, untainted fantasy. Fiery mountain blocking the path of Tang Seng’s company is a metaphor for the difficulties in life. In order to overcome them, one must keep faith. Everybody must work together in order to obtain the palm leaf fan and put out the flames.“.

This must have rung very true in war-plagued China, which suffered heavily from the brutal Japanese invasion.

Despite the difficulties of war, the film can also boost a rich orchestral soundtrack, beautiful, poetic background art, and some spectacular effect animation of smoke and flames. The body of the animation, however, is not that good. Although prompted by the Disney feature, there’s practically no Disney influence visible. Instead, the Wan brothers made a heavy use of rotoscope, which accounts for fluid, but all too often excessive movement and weird camera movements. The rotoscope is juxtaposed to disappointingly primitive animation, sometimes no better than say the work of the Van Beuren studio ca. 1930-1932. Most of the animation looks very stiff and mechanical, and designs are often very unstable, varying from one scene to the next. Moreover, there’s dialogue, but absolutely no lip-synch, and the staging at times is very odd, making the action sometimes hard to read.

Strangely, the film features two songs, which are accompanied by a bouncing ball, inviting the audience to sing along. I assume that these songs were already familiar to the audiences, otherwise these interludes are quite incomprehensible additions.

Nevertheless, the story is well told, and builds up to a spectacular finale, in which the disciples and the villagers fight a giant bull. The most bizarre scenes, however, are the pig monk rolling up a dragon as if it were a carpet, and the monkey king walking through the princess’s intestines, in the shape of a beetle. It’s images like these that make the film a worthwhile watch, and if ‘Princess Iron Fan’ may not be an all-time classic (it’s too primitive for that), the movie is an admirable effort, coming from a war-beaten country.

Moreover, the film was a huge influence on Soviet animation, and even on the Japanese animation industry, which made its very own first animated feature in 1945. Yet, Wan Lai-ming would top himself with another feature film based on ‘Journey to the West’ called ‘Havoc in Heaven’ (1964), which without doubt still is a timeless classic.

Watch ‘Princess Iron Fan’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Princess Iron Fan’ is available on a Cinema Epoch DVD

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Director: Sanae Yamamoto
Release Date: 1942
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

The Animal Village in Trouble © Sanae Yamamoto‘The Animal Village in Trouble’ tells the tale of three families: the monkeys, the bears and the raccoon dogs.

The monkeys’ family is very large, and hard to feed. But when a storm breaks out, it’s the only family that manages to protect its home. Moreover, the monkeys save the other two families from drowning. Is this a message to the audience to produce more offspring in times of war?

This film is essentially silent, with a voice over. The designs are quite elegant, and more clearly Japanese than usual in pre-war/wartime anime. The animation is mostly fair, with the storm scene in particular being quite spectacular. Also interesting is the occurrence of metamorphosis, a rarity in prewar/wartime Japanese animation: one raccoon dog transforms itself into an alarm clock, while another changes into a bridge at one point.

Sanae Yamamoto (1898-1981) came into prominence as an animator in the 1920s. In the 1950s he would join the Tōei animation studio, where he became supervising animator until his retirement in 1967.

Watch ‘The Animal Village in Trouble’ yourself and tell me what you think:

https://www.senscritique.com/film/Doubutsu_Mura_no_Daisodou/21070972

‘The Animal Village in Trouble’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

Director: Yoshitaro Kataoka
Release Date: 1942
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

Sankichi the Monkey The Air Combat © Yoshitaro KataokaWith ‘Sankichi the Monkey: The Air Combat’ we’re clearly in propaganda area. The film’s motto says it all: “Protect our sky! The best defense is offense!”.

In the film the monkeys (Japan) are attacked by an air squadron of bears (Soviet Union). The monkeys shoot the bears out of the sky by the dozen, and win the day. But the film warns the audience: ‘There still are other enemies. We must protect our sky!”.

The film’s message, as if Japan were threatened by other nations and had to be aggressive out of defense, is sickening. When the film was released, in 1942, Japan was already the cruel occupier of most of South East Asia, an aggressor on a scale only matched by Nazi Germany.

‘Sankichi the Monkey: The Air Combat’ is a silent film, and the animation is poor and old-fashioned. In fact, the film looks like as if it had been made in 1929, not 1942. At least the short sheds a light on how the military government sold its actions to the Japanese public: with lies and seeds of fear. And while in 1945 the Soviet Union did declare war on Japan (on August 9, after the U.S. had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Japan was on the brink of collapse), the Soviet air attack never materialized.

Watch ‘Sankichi the Monkey: The Air Combat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sankichi the Monkey: The Air Combat’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

Director: unknown
Release Date: 1940
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

Baby Kangaroo's Birthday Surprise‘Baby Kangaroo’s Birthday Surprise’ tells about the birthday of Kan-Chan, the youngest kangaroo in a family of five.

All goes well, until a hungry wolf arrives. The wolf eats all the food, and kidnaps Kan-Chan to eat him as well. The family comes to the rescue, aided by a troupe of moles, who dig a bunch of holes into the wolf’s hut. They taunt and finally bind him, so the family of kangaroos can reunite.

‘Baby Kangaroo’s Birthday Surprise’ is a silent film, but the animation is more advanced than in contemporary Japanese films, incorporating various lessons from Disney animation (squash and stretch, follow-through etc.). The wolf is clearly modeled on Disney’s wolf from ‘Three Little Pigs‘, and he’s animated best, probably because of the more sophisticated source material.

Watch ‘Baby Kangaroo’s Birthday Surprise’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Baby Kangaroo’s Birthday Surprise’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

Director: Ikuo Ōishi
Release Date: 1939
Rating:  ★★
Review:

Swim, Monkey, Swim © Ikuo Ōishi‘Swim, Monkey, Swim’ tells about monkey, who learns to swim, and immediately joins a swimming contest.

The monkey wins by cheating, riding a ‘water imp’. In the end he succeeds in “cheating the others, but not his heart”.

‘Swim Monkey Swim’ is a primitive film, with the designs and animation looking like an Aesop Fable from the 1920s. Indeed, Ōishi was a Japanese animation pioneer, already making films in the 1910s. But if this film really was made 1939, it seems he had little learned since. The designs are nice and readable, but the film’s timing is too slow, rendering endless footage of the race. With its ten minutes the film is overlong and overstays its welcome.

Watch ‘Swim, Monkey, Swim’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Swim, Monkey, Swim’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

Director: Unknown
Release Date: 1938
Stars: Mabō
Rating:  ★★★
Review:

Mabō as Tokichiro Kinoshita © Satō Film Production Works‘Mabō as Tokichiro Kinoshita’ is the sixth of twelve Mabō films, produced by Satō Film Production Works.

Mabō is a young boy, and in this film he plays Kinoshita Tōkichirō, the legendary pseudonym of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a 16th century Samurai warrior. The film reenacts some scenes from Hideyoshi’s life, most probably instantly recognizable for Japanese viewers, but, alas, not for us Westerners. Some of the reenactments involve modern warfare like machine guns and tanks, a clear sign of the ever growing militarization of Japanese society at the time, even invading children’s films like this.

The animation is a strange mix of 1920s animation and more modern techniques, and some of the battle scenes are most impressive. The designs even look forward to postwar anime. But none of the animation matches the dialogue, and lip synch is nowhere to be seen.

Watch ‘Mabō as Tokichiro Kinoshita’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Mabō as Tokichiro Kinoshita’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

Director: Yasuji Murata
Release Date: January 31, 1933
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Larks' Moving Day © Yokohama Cinema ShokaiIn ‘The Larks’ Moving Day’ we follow a family of anthropomorphized larks who live in a cornfield.

The owner of the cornfield plans to harvest, but first asks his neighbors, then his relatives to help him. Father lark isn’t impressed: as long as the farmer keeps asking others, he will not harvest, and thus their home will not be in peril. Only when the farmer exclaims ‘we’ll do it ourselves’, the lark family moves from the field to a safer area. Thus father lark’s moral to the audience is ‘You can’t do a job, until you stop relying on others and do it yourself’.

This silent film is one of Murata’s more enjoyable films, as his elegant drawing style is on full display. The animation, too, is superb, even if it’s limited. The short shows once again that Murata was the undisputed leader in the field.

Watch ‘The Larks’ Moving Day’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Larks’ Moving Day’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

Director: Yasuji Murata
Stars: Norakuro
Release Date: June 14, 1933
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Private 2nd Class Norakuro © Yasuji MurataNorakuro is a black dog who has joined an army of white dogs.

But like Donald Duck in his later World War II army films, Norakuro is far from a good soldier. When he has to clean an officer’s office, he starts wearing the officer’s sabre, and smoking his cigarettes. Later, Norakuro follows marching orders without thinking, and walks blindly into a stable, where he’s kicked out. In the second episode Norakuro manages to capture a tank, only to find out that it’s manned by his own supervising colonel…

‘Private 2nd Class Norakuro: The Drill’ is a silent film with a strong 1920s design. Norakuro had been a manga star first, making his debut in 1931. Norakuro is drawn sympatherically, and is a relative of silent stars Bonzo and Felix the Cat. In this film, Norakuro’s first, his antics are pure for fun, lacking any moral or military subtext, even though it’s a film about the army during the militaristic Shōwa period. Norakuro would star four more films (1934-1938), which would become increasingly propagandistic. The comic strip lasted until 1941.Unfortunately, Murata’s drawing style is less impressive than in other films, and the film a little too long and mildly amusing at best.

Watch ‘Private 2nd Class Norakuro: The Drill’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Private 2nd Class Norakuro: The Drill’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

Director: Teizô Katô
Release Date: October 22, 1932
Rating:
Review:

The Plane Cabby's Lucky Day © Kyoryoku Eigasha-Marvel GraphSurprisingly, the story of ‘The Plane Cabby’s Lucky Day’ takes place in the far future of 1980. By then the animals have inherited the earth, as people have taken the skies. Thus the film first takes place in an urban landscape of endless skyscrapers.

Unfortunately, the aimless story of a young flying cab driver soon hits more traditional settings, when the cab driver crashes on an island with talking animals etc. Moreover, Cabby’s behavior is shown to be very traditional, as he takes good care of his mother and helps a wounded bird. The story’s moral is that charity is a good investment.

Director-animator Teizo Kato was a newcomer in Japanese animation and it shows. His animation is incredibly primitive, and akin to American studio films from the 1910s. His animation lacks all hints of weight or personality, and is tiresome to watch. The long and boring story doesn’t help either, resulting in one of the worst products of early Japanese animated cinema.

Watch ‘The Plane Cabby’s Lucky Day’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://cy.cyworld.com/home/22635133/post/4C403230C5957824B7388401

‘The Plane Cabby’s Lucky Day’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

Directors: Yasuji Murata & Chuzo Aoji
Release Date: 1932
Rating:
★★
Review:

Sports Day at Animal Village © Yasuji Murata & Chuzo Aoji‘Sports Day at Animal Village’ is one of several sports cartoons Aoji and Murata made together (earlier examples are ‘Our Baseball Match’ and ‘Animal Sumo’ from 1931).

In this film we watch several sports events: monkeys turning, a judo match between a tiger and a lion, several polar bears and a hippo diving, a boxing match between a pig and a kangaroo, and finally, a tug-of-war between an elephant and numerous other animals.

There’s pretty little to enjoy in this lighthearted film, but it contains one nicely staged scene of a polar bear diving from a ridiculously high platform. However, the best animation is found in the tug-of-war scene, in which Murata manages to put a real sense of weight and muscle tension.

Watch ‘Sports Day at Animal Village’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sports Day at Animal Village’ is available on the Japanese DVD Box Set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’.

Directors: Yasuji Murata & Chuzo Aoji
Release Date:
 1932
Stars: Momotaro
Rating:
Review:

Momotaro's Underwater Adventure © Chuzo AojiAfter ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure‘ Aoji and Murata send Japan’s folk hero off in a military submarine to fight a large shark.

Like in his earlier film Momotaro is asked by others to do that, and the film vaguely seems to glorify the navy, even though it’s much less successful in doing so than Momotaro’s earlier nationalist film was for the air force: the film runs rather short, Murata’s 1920s style animation is not particularly exciting or convincing, and for today’s audiences it’s quite unsettling to watch the hero fighting a large fish with a surplus of warfare, including numerous torpedoes. The Japanese clearly had less difficulties with this slaughter. In any case, the hero, and his friends Monkey and Dog (Crane couldn’t join them as he can’t swim) are awarded as heroes at the end of the cartoon.

Watch ‘Momotaro’s Underwater Adventure’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Momotaro’s Underwater Adventure’ is available on the Japanese DVD Box Set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’.

Director: Chuzo Aoji
Release Date:
 1931
Stars: Momotaro
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Momotaro's Sky Adventure © Chuzo AojiIn ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ (also known as ‘Aerial Momotaro’) Japanese animation pioneers Aoji and Yasuji Murata tell a tale about that great and friendly warrior from Japanese folklore, Momotaro, who had been brought to the animated screen by Takamasa Eigasha in ‘Momotaro the Undefeated’ (1928).

Surprisingly, Aoji and Murata move our hero into the present. Momotaro is visited by a couple of Antarctic island birds who call for help against an evil (American?) eagle. Together with his loyal friends, monkey, dog and pheasant, he flies to the remote island in a propeller plane, being fueled twice by birds on the way. When the quartet arrives, they battle the eagle in the air in an overlong fighting sequence, which at times is strangely reminiscent of a modern computer game. Momotaro finally decides to capture the fiend alive, and he’s celebrated as a hero by the grateful birds.

‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ is Japan’s very first propaganda cartoon. It shows an early form of nationalism and anti-Americanism. Momotaro would grow very popular during World War II, representing Japan in many wartime films, and starring Japan’s very first animated feature, ‘Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors’ (1945), commissioned by the Japanese navy. This transformation of the folk hero into a nationalistic figure begins with this cartoon from 1931. Indeed, ultra-nationalism and militarism overtook Japan in the early 1930s, which e.g. resulted in the annexation of Manchuria in the summer of 1931.

Importantly, ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ shows Japan’s national hero as the military strong friend of its weaker neighbors. This portrait of Japan as a benevolent big brother to all other Asian nations was played out throughout Japan’s militaristic period, and this propaganda story indeed managed to delude people like for example those Malay who, when Japan invaded their country in 1941, at first welcomed the Japanese as liberators from colonial Britain, only to find them far worse oppressors than the British had ever been…

‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ is available on the Japanese DVD Box Set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’.

Director: Osamu Tezuka
Release Date: 1987
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Legend of the Forest © Osamu Tezuka‘Legend of the Forest’ is Tezuka’s longest and most ambitious short film.

Like many of his films it shows Tezuka’s concern with environmental issues. However, foremost, this film is Tezuka’s answer to Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ (1940). Based on the first and last movement of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony it portraits the fight of forest creatures against the demolition of their forest.

The first movement tells about the struggle of a lone flying squirrel against one lumberjack and against the jealous fellow-forest animals. This part is the most extraordinary for its diversity in styles. It is as if Tezuka wanted to show the evolution of animation itself within his emotional story. At first, the story is told in manga-images only. There’s no movement, even though the realistic images are very lively. The next episode is in Émile Cohl’s style, followed by a very convincing homage to Winsor McCay’s ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘ (1914). This is followed by a scene in which the little squirrel looks like Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat or as an early Disney character. This episode is particularly beautifully animated. When a man comes into the forest with a chainsaw, Tezuka’s jumps to the style of Fleischer’s Popeye, including Fleischer’s tabletop-technique for 3d effects.

It’s followed by the first episode in color, in which the squirrel finds a female companion. This part starts as a clear tribute to the very first animation film in technicolor, Disney’s ‘Flowers and Trees‘ (1932), but is mostly drawn like a 1940s cartoon. The final episode of the first part, in which the man shoots his girl and the squirrel sacrifices himself, is quite Bambi-like. Interestingly, throughout the episode, the backgrounds and the staging retain a typical anime-like character.

The second part, using the symphony’s final movement, is less impressing than the first part. It starts with a very Fantasia-like fairy scene, but when we watch very anime-like breasted foxes, we know we’re in a different film. This part tells how magical forest characters (including a few dwarfs) win a war over a forest from a Hitler-like foreman. This part in particular resonates in several Ghibli-films with similar themes, like ‘Pom Poko’ (1994) or ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997).

The complete film is an original and unique statement, which deserves to be much more famous than it actually is. Tezuka’s animated output was of a high quality anyhow, but this film may stand as a particularly artistic highlight within his extraordinary career.

Watch ‘Legend of the Forest’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Osamu Tezuka
Release Date: 1987
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Muramasa © Osamu TezukaThis film is named after a medieval sword smith who made swords that were supposedly cursed, creating blood lust in its wielder and finally making him commit suicide.

The film is an illustration of this curse and of its own motto: “A man with arms which can kill people like puppets is not aware that he himself has already become a puppet”. For this dark anti-violence film Tezuka uses realistic imagery and limited animation, which make the film look a little like an animated comic.

The film’s visual language is utterly Japanese, accompanied by equally Japanese music. But its message is universal, and another example of Tezuka’s strong dislike of war and violence. Even if it is not amongst his most impressive works, the film still manages to deliver its dark message.

Watch ‘Muramasa’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Osamu Tezuka
Release Date: 1984
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Jumping © Osamu TezukaOsamu Tezuka is known as the founder of commercial animation in Japan, but he never lost sight of the artistic possibilities of animation.

No film of his shows this more clearly than ‘Jumping’, arguably the best film he ever made. In ‘Jumping’ we watch the world from the eyes of rope jumping girl. As the short progresses she jumps higher and higher, and further and further, even jumping to Africa, to a war-ridden country and into a mushroom cloud, straight into hell.

‘Jumping’ is not only strikingly original, it is very well-made with its constantly moving backgrounds, and as funny as it is disturbing in its finale. The mushroom cloud, the nightmare of man, but especially of the Japanese, the only nation to have experienced it, is a frightful sight, even in this animated short. Together with the girl, we sigh with relief when in the end of the film we return to the familiar and peaceful territory of our home street.

‘Jumping’ maybe a clear product of the cold war era, its impact is still at work today, and its message still as significant.

Watch ‘Jumping’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Gitanjali Rao
Release Date: May 2006
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Printed Rainbow © Gitanjali RaoAn old woman lives in a little flat and uses her collection of matchboxes to dream away to more adventurous lives.

In this film Rao contrasts the dull and lonely reality (in grey tones) with the colorful matchbox-based fantasies. The mood is poetic, and the film progresses at a gentle speed. Rao’s designs are sometimes naive, but her animation skills are splendid. She’s absolutely one of the masters of painted animation. Especially noteworthy is her animation of the cat. Also important is Rajivan Ayyappan’s sound design, which is spot on.

‘Printed Rainbow’ is by all means a mature work. Rao’s work is even more impressive, when one considers that she wrote, animated, directed and produced the film on her own in India, a country with a rather short animation history. Although India has made some strides in commercial animation, independent animation is still very rare. Thus Rao’s work is all the more wonderful. Luckily, more people saw it that way and Rao’s film won no less than 22 awards.

Watch ‘Printed Rainbow’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Printed Rainbow’ is available on the DVD ‘International Animation: Modern Classics’

Directors: various
Release Date: June 3, 2003
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The enormous success of ‘The Matrix’ (1999) not only spawned two sequels, but also a direct-to-video release with several animation films, expanding the film’s theme and providing some background history.

‘The Animatrix’ is an American/Japanese/South Korean co-production and consists of nine parts, produced by four different animation film studios (Square, Studio 4°C, Madhouse Studios and DNA). The nine parts differ a lot in style, content and quality, and the end result is pretty uneven to say the least. However, for fans of ‘The Matrix’ it contains very welcome background material to The Matrix universe.

The Animatrix - The Final Flight of the Osiris1. Final Flight of the Osiris
Director: Andy Jones
Rating★★★½

The first of the nine segments of The Animatrix is the most straightforward. It’s a dark action episode that tells what happened to the Osiris, a human vessel that shortly appears in ‘The Matrix’. The Square Studio, then already famous for the groundbreaking animation in ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’ (2001), tops itself with for 2003 ultra-realistic computer animation, with human characters of a then unsurpassed realism. Especially its opening sequence, an erotic martial arts fight, is impressive and made many viewers doubt whether it was real or not they were looking at.

The Animatrix - The Second Renaissance2. & 3. The second Renaissance
Director: Mahiro Maeda
★★★½

Made by Studio 4°C and brought in two episodes, The Second Renaissance tells us what happened before the Matrix in an American anime-style. It uses a robotic female voice-over to tell us about a robotic revolution and a human-robot-war which ends in defeat for the human population, which is then used as an energy source for the robots. These episodes are the most satisfying as an addition to The Matrix trilogy.

The Animatrix - Kid's Story4. Kid’s Story
Director: 
Shinichirô Watanabe
Rating

‘Kid’s Story’ is the first of four episodes dealing with people who discover the matrix. This episode is about a teenager who doubts reality and who wakes up in the real world. The episode uses a very realistic, yet graphic style that is very American and rather ugly. Especially the animation (by Studio 4°C) is slow, unsightly and unsteady, making it one of the most unappealing parts of ‘The Animatrix’ to watch.

The Animatrix - Program5. Program
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Rating: ★★

‘Program’ is another weak entry in ‘The Animatrix’. Animated by Madhouse Studios and drawn in a rather American comics/anime-style and using sharp shades, it tells about a treacherous character trying to persuade a girl to join him in a Japanese samurai setting (the program the two are in). The whole episode is rather melodramatic and forgettable.

The Animatrix - World Record6. World Record
Director: Takeshi Koike
Rating: ★

By far the most unappealing of all episodes of ‘The Animatrix’, ‘World Record’, by Madhouse studios, is drawn in a a gruesomely ugly comics design to tell the story of an athlete who discovers the matrix and who has to pay for it.

The Animatrix - Beyond7. Beyond
Director: Kôji Morimoto
Rating:★★★★

Studio 4°C’s ‘Beyond’ is the third of four Animatrix episodes about people who discover the matrix, and it is easily the best of the lot. Set in Japan, it tells about a young woman, who is looking for her cat Yuki, and who’s led by some kids to a house where the ‘program’ has gone haywire, resulting in some wonderful surreal effects (like objects defying gravity). Unlike the rest, the episode has a lighthearted feel to it, which is enhanced by its appealing graphic anime design and its excellent animation, which makes clever use of 3D-effects. More than in any other part of the Animatrix one has the feeling that this episode is about real people in a real environment. The short is another showcase for Morimoto’s great direction skills, which he had already shown with the ‘Magnetic Rose’ sequence in the compilation feature ‘Memories‘ (1995).

The Animatrix - A Detective Story8. A Detective Story
Director: Shinichirô Watanabe
Rating: ★

‘A Detective Story’ is the fourth and last episode about people who discover the matrix. This episode is about a private detective and it uses all film noir cliches, including a very trite voice over. The nice black and white backgrounds evoke a forties atmosphere, even though the story is about hackers and chat rooms. But they cannot hide Studio 4°C’s very limited animation or the corny story, making ‘A Detective Story’ one of the weakest episodes of this package film.

The Animatrix - Matriculated9. Matriculated
Director:
Peter Chung
Rating: ★★★★

Penned and directed by Æon Flux-director Peter Chung and produced by the Korean DNA studio, ‘Matriculated’ is the most philosophical of the nine episodes of ‘The animatrix’. The story is set in the ‘real’ world. It deals with humans who try to make robots defending them by making them dream. Although its angular human designs are once again quite unattractive, this episode’s clever story makes it one of the highlights of ‘The Animatrix’.

Watch the first part of ‘The Animatrix’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Kôji Morimoto, Tensai Okamura & Katsuhiro Otomo
Release Date: December 23, 1995
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Seven years after ‘Akira‘,  Katsuhiro Otomo returned to the animated screen with ‘Memories’, a package film, which impresses, but fails to reach the heights of ‘Akira’.

Based on his own short stories, ‘Memories’ consists of three unrelated parts: Magnetic Rose, Stink Bomb and Cannon Fodder, which are discussed separately below.

Memories - Magnetic Rose © Katsuhiro OtomoMagnetic Rose
Director:
Kôji Morimoto
Rating★★★★

‘Magnetic Rose’ starts the Memories trilogy, and it’s arguably the feature’s most satisfying episode. It is the only part that clearly deals with memories (screenplay writer Satoshi Kon’s favorite future subject). In this episode a rescuing squad of space garbage collectors is ensnared in the memories of a long deceased opera singer, who still seems alive in her remote satellite home in space, blurring the boundaries of reality.

Even though the science fiction setting with its touches of horror is typical anime, the underlying drama is very mature and quite unique. This episode’s screenplay was penned by future director Satoshi Kon. Kon certainly established himself with this screenplay, and he would further explore the theme of memory and loss in ‘Millennium Actress’ (2001), and the blurring of reality and fantasy in both that film and ‘Paprika’ (2006) with even more spectacular results. Director Kôji Morimoto, meanwhile, would prove his worth in ‘Beyond’, the best episode of ‘The Animatrix‘ (2003).

In ‘Magnetic Rose’ the characters are from all over the world, and this is one of the few anime, in which the Japanese character looks distinctively Asian compared to the European characters.

Memories - Stink Bomb © Katsuhiro OtomoStink Bomb
Director:
Tensai Okamura
Rating★★★

‘Stink Bomb’ feels like a comical interlude between the two more serious outer episodes. The story is set in present day Japan and features a very stupid, but surprisingly indestructible protagonist who turns into a nonsensical lethal weapon. The story is simple: our ‘hero’ accidently swallows the wrong pills, wich turn him into a lethal weapon, sweating poisonous gasses that kill everything in sight. Although he remains unaware of this, he becomes the cause of the destruction of Japan. This story is rather silly, and there’s a lot of broad comic acting, but the short also has some disturbing undertones, with the fear of mass destruction weapons and corrupt governments played out well.

Memories - Cannon Fodder © Katsuhiro OtomoCannon Fodder
Director:
Katsuhiro Otomo
Rating: ★★★★½

Otomo himself directed the last and most beautiful sequence of Memories. This episode has an original graphic style that doesn’t resemble any other anime. The film is ‘shot’ in one long camera take (with a little bit of smuggling, but very impressive nonetheless) and deals with an alternative, distinctively European, world where a totalitarian military regime enters every aspect of life.

In this sequence we’re following a single family. They live in a city were all work and school is directed to the war with a mysterious and unseen moving city. This war is fought entirely by using cannons. Despite the caricatured humans, the atmosphere is hardly comical, but dark and disturbing. However, the drama is less engaging than in ‘Magnetic Rose’. Nonetheless, because of its unique style, and strict control of cinematography, ‘Cannon Fodder’ is a small masterpiece.

Watch the trailer for ‘Memories’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: July 20, 2001
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Spirited Away © Studio GhibliAfter several very fine films, like ‘My Neighbor Totoro‘ (1988) and ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997), Miyazaki tops himself with his masterpiece ‘Spirited Away’. This film single-handedly places him among the greatest masters of animation of all time.

The film depicts a strange and inexplicable, yet surprisingly complete fantasy world, with a conviction and originality that has rarely been seen since Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. At the same time, unlike several of Miyazaki’s earlier films, one feels that ‘Spirited away’ could only have been made in Japan. Its setting of a public bath, with its numerous gods and demi-gods, is totally Japanese.

Yet, its story about coming of age is universal as is its appeal. The little girl Chihiro (or Sen, as she’s called during most of the film) is the greatest of Miyazaki’s heroines. Like Kiki in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989), she matures during the film, but the fears and terrors she has to conquer are far more alarming than Kiki’s, and her growth is way more convincing. Not only has she to prove herself, she has to regain her name, and most importantly, she has to rescue her parents, who have been transformed into pigs in a particularly horrifying scene. At one scene we see her stricken with traumatic stress. In another we watch her breaking down. Despite some exaggerations (a flood of tears, for example), these scenes are so surprisingly real, they startle the viewer who’s used to the formalized emotions of many commercial animation films, whether Japanese or Western.

However, the character animation of Chihiro is outstanding throughout the film: she is a true girl and not an adult in disguise, and her emotions feel genuine and seem deeply rooted in observation of real human behavior. We identify immediately with her, and she’s strong enough a character to make her extraordinary journey in that strange, mysterious and dreamlike world believable.

Typical for Miyazaki, even in this hostile world our young heroine is not without friends, and even the most unpleasant characters (Yubaba and Without Face) are not without their weaknesses or positive character traits. On the other hand, even the good can look fearsome and unpleasant, as Yaku does in his dragon form. Also typical for Miyazaki is his depiction of children at work (see ‘Laputa – Castle in the Sky‘ (1986) and ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’). On the other hand, his recurring theme of man versus nature is less apparent in this film, although it does appear in the form of a polluted river god.

In all, ‘Spirited Away’ is a rich film of pure delight and will enchant everyone everywhere in the world.

Watch the trailer for ‘Spirited Away’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Te Wei
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Feeling of Mountain and Water © Te WeiAfter a hiatus of 25 years, China’s pioneering star animator Te Wei returns with this powerful and serene film, which is probably the most Chinese film ever made.

‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’* tells about an old master passing of the Guqin, a Chinese zither, and most revered of all Chinese classical instruments. Feeling his time has come, the old master passes his art on to a musical boyish fisherman. In the end we watch the boy playing an ode to his master and to nature on the guqin, which is now his.

The designs of this short are extremely beautiful, the watercolor backgrounds are on the verge of the abstract, and the animation is delicate and sophisticated. The film knows no dialogue, and much of the story is more suggested than shown.

Te Wei must have felt close to the film’s subject, as he himself was already in his seventies when he made this. Meanwhile, a younger gang of Chinese animators had taken inspiration from his films from the 1960s in what must have been a Chinese animation renaissance since the devastation of the cultural revolution.

‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ is a very beautiful and meditative film on nature, music and life, and to me the masterpiece of Chinese animation.

Watch ‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film is also known by its French title: impression de montagne et d’eau

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