The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Makoto Shinkai, Japan, 2004, 90 minutes)
Netflix: In this animated film, Japan is under two regimes after the country's loss in World War II. Hokkaido remains under Japanese rule while America holds the rest, a bitter division that's wrenched the nation and left its citizens confused. Curious, Sayuri and her pals decide to build a vessel that would help them investigate a looming tower in Hokkaido, a plan they abandon when Sayuri falls ill. Is there a connection between her coma and the tower? Netflix link.
First, it must be said that the Netflix description is a bit misleading; one might think that it is set in an alternate reality in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Instead, it is set in the near future within that alternate reality (there are laptops, modern cars and equipment, etc.). I don't want to say much more about the details of this alternate reality because part of the pleasure of the film is figuring out how the interpersonal stories that are central to the plot fit into this alternative political landscape. The characters talk as if everyone knows the basics about this reality, which is challenging sometimes but fun to work out. (Anime News Network lists the date as 1996, which is plausible if you assume a faster rate of technological change in this alternate reality. The Hokkaido Tower couldn't be built now, let alone 15 years ago.)
That said, one often forgets the alternate reality component of the film because the first third focuses so meticulously on the relationship between two young boys and a girl, Hiroki, Takuya, and Sayuri. Although it perhaps depends a bit too heavily on tropes common to coming-of-age anime (including the sound of cicadas, all too familiar to fans of Neon Genesis Evangeleon) the relationships develop at a leisurely pace and the film conveys a tranquility that is clouded by a threat that the kids do not yet understand: the Hokkaido Tower that hovers over them. Once they engage that threat the film becomes somewhat more conventional, but still engaging and often quite gorgeous.
In terms of style, it is an interesting mix of what some people call the limited animation associated with anime and extreme attention to the textures created by different kinds of light. So-called limited animation became the norm in Japanese animation for various reasons, but once it was established as a norm some animators began to play with the style beyond mere cutting-corners. In this regard it is interesting to compare the original Neon Genesis Evangeleon television series with the current "rebuild" films. In the new films, the sequences that have changed most radically to incorporate new computer animation technologies are the battle sequences. Instead of re-conceiving the overall style of the film, the main narrative scenes are done in much the same style of the old show, with the important addition of light, shade, and texture effects that are now possible with animation software. A similar interest in light and texture can be seen in The Place Promised in Our Early Days, sometimes with dazzling results.
For example, there is conversation between Hiroki and Sayuri on a train that is composed as a long shot in which the ceiling of the train car dominates the frame and the two characters are in the lower half of background. Cynics who emphasize the word "limited" in limited animation would say that this is just cutting corners, keeping a relatively static frame for a conversation that is conveyed almost as a voice over. But there's more going on here, as the salient property of the shot becomes not the conversation but the play of light as it refracts and reflects on the surfaces of the train's interior. The so-called limited animation enables this kind of play with texture.
Dead Leaves (Hiroyuki Imaishi, Japan, 52 minutes)
Netflix: After awakening on Earth with no recollection of who they are or how they got there, otherworlders Pandy and Retro go on a crime spree. But they're soon apprehended and sent to Dead Leaves, a high-tech prison on the moon, and discover that the facility is also used for cloning and bizarre genetic experiments. Before long, the duo enlists the aid of their deformed fellow inmates in an attempt to escape from the prison. Netflix link.
I'd rather that you just hit play and see if this is for you--you will know almost immediately. If you're game this is quite a trip. Netflix View Instantly also has volume one of Imaishi's mecha series, Gurren Lagann, which Anime News Network called "one of the liveliest series of the decade."
Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2008, 103 minutes)
Netflix: This Japanese anime feature from famed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki follows the adventures of a 5-year-old boy, Sosuke, and his burgeoning friendship with Ponyo, a goldfish princess who desperately wants to become human. After running away from and then being recaptured by her strict father, Ponyo -- with some help from Sosuke -- becomes more determined than ever to make her dreams come true. But will her wishes throw the entire earth off balance? Netflix link.
Hopefully I don't need to introduce you to the work of Hayao Miyazaki. If you're unfamiliar with his work, take the plunge with this or with any of his classics. Possibly the best fan site is The Hayao Miyazaki Web, which is a fine starting point for the uninitiated. Ponyo is absolutely charming and has some genuinely exhilarating sequences. Netflix View Instantly also has his earlier work, The Castle of Cagliostro, which is good, but less typical of his work and related to the Lupin the 3rd manga and anime television series.
Wednesdays will also feature animated shorts and experimental films. Below are two recent stop-motion short films.
Bottle (Kirsten Lepore, USA, 2010, 5.5 minutes)
Vimeo: Animated on location at a beach, in snow, and underwater, this stop-motion short details a transoceanic conversation between two characters via objects in a bottle. Vimeo link.
Lepore has found success on the film festival circuit with her film, Bottle. She won a prize for Best Animated Short at the Slamdance Film Festival and Best Student Film at the Anim’est International Animation Film Festival. She was a finalist for the first Vimeo Awards, and the film has been featured at the AFI Film Festival. Thanks to Bad Lit for showcasing this film.
Bottle from Kirsten Lepore on Vimeo.
Big Bang Big Boom (Blu, 2010, 10 minutes)
Vimeo: An unscientific point of view on the beginning and evolution of life ... and how it could probably end. Direction and animation by BLU. Production and distribution by ARTSH.it. Soundtrack by ANDREA MARTIGNONI. Vimeo link.
I thought about posting this in my Banksy-related post last week, but thought it would be more appropriate to feature it in an animation post. You should also check out Blu's other short from a few years ago, Muto.
BIG BANG BIG BOOM - the new wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.
I look forward to your feedback and comments. --JLK