Thursday, October 22, 2009

Animation: an evolving medium

Since its creation, animation as a form of cinema has been degraded and undervalued, accruing labels like "just for kids" and "cartoony." Admittedly, the majority of animated films released in the US earn these derogatory monikers--recent films like Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters Vs. Aliens, etc. One can make a convincing argument for animation studios like Pixar raising the bar for "family fare," with films like WALL-E, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo striking chords with children and adults alike. As true as this may be, it's not the angle I'm looking for. I crave animated films made for, and pitched to, adults.
Animation as a medium is practically infinite in its possibility. Freed from the tedious rules of reality without needing to rely on expensive CGI, animated films can create a world in which anything is possible. Indeed, such worlds are more likely to succeed in animation than in live action, because of animation's surreal, dreamlike quality. A filmmaker can get away with the ludicrous far more easily with drawings than he or she can with the real world. A prime example: Kill Bill Volume 1. While the whole film is pitched at a pseudo-ridiculous level, the most graphic/hard to swallow part of the film (O-Ren Ishii's back-story) is conveyed through anime-style animation. Not only is this an effective stylistic choice, it allows Quentin Tarantino to dance with his innermost demons in full public display without being laughed down or shunned.
Where is this adult animation? Surely I can't be the only person to pick up on the endless potential of animated films?
I assure you, dear reader, I'm not. In fact, the world is rife with adults-only animated films. The catch? For whatever reason, they can only be found outside the USA.
Animated adult films can be found as early as 1972, in the form of Swedish-made Fritz the Cat. I would, however, like to draw your attention to a later year: 1988. This banner year for animation saw a double-barrelled salvo of quality from Japan that would redefine animation as a medium. The two films, starkly different in subject matter and style, but similar in their target audiences, were Akira and Grave of the Fireflies (as an aside, 1988 was also the year that Miyazaki released the classic My Neighbor Totoro, but, for the purposes of my article, I'll refrain from discussing it, save to illustrate how fantastic a year 1988 was for Japanese animators). Akira, an anime-style tale of biker gangs and super-powered children in a bomb-devastated Tokyo, simultaneously shocked and awed audiences with its violence, sexuality, and disturbingly surreal images. Grave of the Fireflies conveyed reality to great effect: it follows the lives of two abandoned children in the Tokyo firebombings, showing with brutal detail the day-to-day process of death by starvation. These two films opened the sluice gate for animation for adults. Since 1988, Japan has been at the forefront of mature animation, mostly thanks to the popularity surge of anime in recent years.
While Japan leads the charge, they're not the only ones running. I'd like to draw your attention to two recent pieces of cinema that clearly outline animation's potential as a medium.
The first, Persepolis, hails from France. It chronicles the story of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian immigrant, who grew up during the Iranian revolution resulting in the fall of the Shah and the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini. The film works well stylistically: drawn mostly in black and white, its color scheme and stark images play as an effective parable of the mindsets of the people surrounding Marjane. The animation serves another purpose: it riffs on animation's categorization as kid's fare, telling a horrific story from a child's point of view. Everything in the film - the violence and occasional brutal images - seem stylized and unreal, as it undoubtedly would as viewed through the eyes of a child. Persepolis uses its medium to further its thematic intentions.
The other example, which frequent readers will be familiar with, and have no doubt been expecting to hear about, is Waltz With Bashir. Ari Folman's documentary is an exhibit of how animation can free a film from the constraints of reality without diluting the power of the images. Waltz With Bashir can be most aptly compared to a bad acid trip. Bizarre, surreal, brutal images float past the viewer, appearing and disappearing at will, arriving with a serene gravity that would have been impossible in live action (ex.: would the scene in which one of Ari's friends imagines that a giant naked woman floats him to safety away from an exploding boat have played as anything other than funny if done in live action? No. But the animation makes it seem unsettling.). Here, as in Persepolis, the filmmakers use animation thematically. In the film, one character discusses how he seems to see everything through a lens, as if everything he sees is fictional. This is exactly how the animation serves in Waltz With Bashir. Throughout the film, the audience attempts to distance themselves from the horrors displayed in front of them by reminding themselves that it's only a drawing. Then, the ending: suddenly, the animation gives way to live-action documentary footage from the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and Boom! The lens has been removed, and the audience cannot distance themselves from the grim reality presented them. The filmmaker's choice of medium allows them to deliver one of the great gut-punches of recent cinema.

The rest of the world gets the idea: animation is a powerful medium, and should be treated as such. Only America is slow to the punch. This might, however, be changing. Shane Acker's 9, though not critically acclaimed in any sense, represented an attempt to depart from the American animation norm. Andrew Stanton, the director of Pixar classics Finding Nemo and WALL-E, is currently working on John Carter of Mars, which is being touted as "animation for adults." About time.

Should America get on the ball? Am I wrong about animation? Should I have discussed any other films? Let me know!
(To a particular reader: I considered talking about Tekkon Kinkreet, but felt that pulling only one Anime example out would be strange, so I focused on films that exhibited the medium instead.)


  1. I am not a fan of animated movies. They simply are not real and that takes something away from the potential impact of the movie. For me, if what I am watching are not actual people it is hard to get involved and interested in the movie. I am however willing to give the genre a more sincere try and watch Waltz with Bashir with you someday.

  2. Good! I can understand your point, but must respectfully disagree. We'll watch Waltz With Bashir--I hereby challenge you to not find yourself at least somewhat moved by that.

  3. Thank you for this post! Of course, I'm sure you knew I would find this one particularly interesting. I'm not going to spend much time pointing out why I agree with you on this topic, because I'd mostly be reiterating what you already said. I would, however, like to address Tekkon Kinkreet. I definitely think this movie works as a great example for adult-worthy animation. Afterall, stories about orphaned children and gangs definitely don't belong in the children's section. However, I think that more people would be inclined to disagree with its legitimacy than they would with, say, Grave of the Fireflies. There's something about the way the lives of Black and White are portrayed, especially in the beginning, that some might see as childish. And the weird trippy part at the end might scare people off from the medium of animation in general--it may be a bit too outlandish. I don't know if that makes any sense, what I said...

    Anyway, I would also like to point out another advantage animation has over live-action. It has access to certain images that live-action doesn't, particularly images inside or between things. For example, in the anime series Hellsing there's a shot where you see inside the mouths of two people kissing. Although this shot is kind of gross, the point is you couldn't do that with live-action. Drawings have the ability to show you an image from any location, no matter how close, and give you a wide frame so that you can still see the image. Live-action could never get a focus being that close. I guess CG could pull it off, but so far I haven't seen that happen.

    I think it's sort of funny that Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro were produced in the same year. I've heard that they were released a double-feature, Totoro followed by Fireflies. It just makes me laugh because they're polar opposites. Can you imagine being in the movie theater, "Awww that was cute," and then "Wow. Now I'm depressed." I also don't understand why adult-worthy animation always seems to have to have something heavy in it. Why are love stories in live-action considered "for adults" but the same doesn't apply to animation?

  4. Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies were indeed released as a double feature; I can't imagine what terrible, evil film executive decided to do that to all the poor kiddies. You make good points, though I agree in your statement about Tekkon Kinkreet being too outlandish--I imagine people who are more conservative about this medium would file it under "wierd anime crap" and move on. Sad, but true.