Resource Spotlight: 100 Animated Features
By Andrew Osmond
Released by Palgrave Macmillan
Stop-motion isn't inherently warm or charming, any more than the witchcraft it resembles. Coraline points this up in its opening sequence, in which inhuman metal fingers unstitch a cloth doll, gut it of stuffing, and rebuild it as a replica of the main character. The sequence recalls Svankmajer shorts such as Jabbewocky (1971), in which plastic dolls are daintily cooked and eaten by other dolls.
On American Pop
Like The Lord of the Rings, American Pop is rotoscoped, the gaudily traced performance defined by overstatement that make many scenes look like filmed theatre, though the background evolve evocatively through the decades, from sepia to psychedelia. Much of the film has the depth of a comic-strip panel, telegraphing reversals of fortune like a brassy biopic, while the fictional family cornily creates real songs from 'As Time Goes By' to 'Night Moves.' But as fans noted, the film plays like a rock ballad, making it easier to enjoy its shameless dealt cues on second viewing. American Pop's pseudo-history makes a far better fit for Bakshi's technique than Tolkein's literal myth-making
100 Animated Features’ entries offer a side bars with creative/production credits, but more than info sheets, the book offers context and evaluation of its subjects. There are few writers better suited to the task than Andrew Osmond. His book is accurate. I’m not sure if an animation historian will find anything to correct or quibble about. I can say that the anime conversation is tight. For example, I greatly admired the pair of paragraphs offering an excellent, economical and accurate well shaded portrait of Osamu Tezuka, identifying him as an innovator who emerged from a sea of pioneers thanks to his hits, but, as a great cartoonist, yet terrible businessman who could only inexactly be compared to Walt Disney. As another litmus test, the book also notably identifies Ninja Scroll as an artifact of anime’s shock value gory/glory days far more significant to western audiences and distributors than to Japanese ones.
More than just getting the facts right, as previously seen in his BFI book on Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Satoshi Kon: The illusionist, Osmond gifts the field with an informed, well reason, well written critical approach. It’s neither too insider nor too outsider. It’s not wrong, grudging or out of nowhere. Axes aren’t being ground and at the same time, the subject is not simply raised up as “magical.”
Familiar with the subject, I found the anime entries to be satisfyingly encapsulations. Not just plot and creative details, but guide markers for what can be read into the features. Unafraid to interpret, evaluate or bring in outside opinions, Osmond accomplishes the trick of being insightful and yet always consistently what a familiar reader is liable to agree is on the mark, or at least consider valid (as compared to something like Clements and McCarthy’s Anime Encyclopedia, a valuable book, but one which offered opinions with which I frequently disagreed). Few would call it unfair to point out of Sky Crawlers that "as usual with Oshii, there's an adorable basset hound (based on the director's beloved dog); characters musing on strangeness of an existence they can't change; and slips into extended static monologs.”
In the End of Evangelion entry, he mentions the notorious opening, then after contextualizing it, spells out what appears on screen, chained into the observation "Compared to the series, the fill recalls a certain kind of fan-fiction which proclaims its nature through sex and violence forbidden in the source, like an X-rate Star Wars. Paedophilia and incest figure in barely sublimated form."
When it comes to movies that I spend less time thinking about, the survey proves perspective expanding. The point is less that it’s new than that it’s well presented. For example, the unawed, but appropriately appreciative view of the classic Disney features. This includes pointing out that the discussion of animation turning too live action, currently surrounding 3D and CG works, was already a talking point for Snow White. Osmond notes that critics felt that Pinocchio was too dark, and observes that its greatness is “haphazard,” that it had five villains, and "untidily sprawling set pieces,” that its magic is “almost shapeless.” He points out that largely due war in Europe, Pinocchio and Fantasia were box office albatrosses. And, in turn, war played a signficant role in the context of Bambi.
I'll again admit to being subject to the geek pathological desire to classify things into neat niches. That niggling insistence gets more pronounced when it comes time to address something in an AICN Anime column. One of the few conceits to the "X Entries" style of compendium is an insistence on drawing connections, some of which are insightful or unobvious, some of which don't seem entirely necessary - such as pointing out that Ice Age and Tokyo Godfathers both reprise John Ford's Three Godfathers. To the extent that I have an issue with 100 Animated Features, it’s that there’s not really a naked proposition here. It’s not simply a collection of essays nor is it comprehensive. Any “this book serves this purpose” or “this on your shelf will give you this” is a bit loose. It’s not a “Top 100 Animated Feature Films” or a “100 Animated Feature Films You Should See.” Good on it , for not succumbing to that over used proposition.
Then again, that quality suits the book’s subject well. Osmond opens by the book with the statement that animated features are “one of the most unruly changelings in cinema.” From underground to populist. Fantasy to documentary and memoir. Hand draw to stop motion to CG. Rotoscope to motion capture. In the discussion of Prince of Egypt, Osmond calls it an elastic medium. He points out how “in Hollywood cartoons, slapstick routinely gives way to song, to spectacle, to tragedy, to slapstick again.” Likewise, a strength with which anime has been credited is its infidelity to a particular genre or tone, leaps between sincere seriousness and levity, grounded drama and extraordinary sc-fi. And, as this flexibility is true of particular work, it's true of the medium as a whole. Animated cinema is anything but monolithic.
Osmond constructs a mosaic image of the field. There’s Disney... not all of the major and some of the significant minor (Aladdin, Bambi, Beauty and the Beat, Dumbo, Fantasia, Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Jungle Book, Lilo and Stick, Lion King, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Pinocchio, The Rescuers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Three Callaberos).
There’s Dreamworks (Antz, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Prince of Egypt, Shrek), Fox Animation (Ice Age) and Pixar (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. Toy Story, Up, Wall*E).
There’s Ralph Bakashi (American Pop, Frtiz the Cat), Dave Fleisher (Hoppity Goes to Town) and Don Bluth (Secret of NIHM). There’s Sylvain Chomet (Illustionist, Tripplets of Belleville/Bellevelle Rendez-Vous) and Michel Ocelot (Azur and Asmar)
There’s Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli Isao Takahata (Grave of Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Takahata’s pre-Ghibli Little Norse Prince. My Neighbor Totoro, Takahata’s Only Yesterday - not available in North America, Ponyo, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away , Whispers of the Heart - a Ghibli movie from Yoshifumi Kindo), Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocense, Sky Crawlers), Mamoru Hosoda (Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) and Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers, you can probably also include Memories - Osmond has a book out about Kon - Satoshi Kon: The Illustionist).
Relevant to this column, other anime covered include Akira, Mind Game, Neon Genesis Evangelion: End of Evangelion, Night on the Galactic Railroad, Ninja Scroll, Tezuka’s One Thousand and One Nights.
There’s early features, such as 1926’sThe Adventures of Prince Achmed and recent ones such as recent Persepolis, Secret of Kells, Sita Sings the Blues, Waltz with Bashir. And, there are a number of surprising inclusions such as Avatar, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, King Kong, Scanner Darkly and Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (which I only remember for the inclusion of the trailer’s inclusion on Manga Entertainment VHS - I half suspect that its inclusion here is a minute UK bias.)
Still, Osmond's writing and not the organization are the essential elements of 100 Animated Features. Feature animation is special. It's difficult and expensive, and so, even if it feels like we've been inundated by far too many CGI productions, it's important to remember that really, there haven't been that many animated movies produced. The subject of feature animation deserves and rarely receives the attention of a writer like Osmond. The book is not an essential reference guide, but if you value quality writing on animation, there are few places where you can find a better collection.
Anime Spotlight: Durarara!!
Released by Aniplex
Country boy Mikado Ryugamine leaves home to attend high school near Tokyo's Ikebukuro entertainment district. He's not in town long before he's reunited with gregarious to a fault childhood friend Masaomi Kida; a peer who'd already spent a few years developing a familiarity, and history even, with the environment. The pair both turn an affectionate/protective eye towards quiet, bespectacled classmate Sonohara Anri.
Durarara's opening credits feature this trio running out of school into a darkly fascinating cityscape, the apparent dangers of which include the circumstances surrounding a missing classmate, a recent development in which various flashy "color" gangs faded in favor of the more nebulous Dollars, rumors of a headless "Black Rider" motorcycling through the streets, attacks by a phantom "Slasher," and the stalking likes of monstrously strong debt collector Shizuo Heiwajima, and scheming, quick with a knife information broker Izaya Orihara.
If haven't watched Durarara!! online at Crunchyroll, watch out because one of the post cards packed in with the second set is a pretty apparent give away one of the series' fundamental mysteries... This set collects the end of the first season, the 12.5 bonus episode and the beginning of second. The stories/mysteries climb from each other, with each wrapping up to some extent, but also offering a purchase from which to dangle onto the next. The spoiler in question relates to one of these threads, setting up the major relation of the first half of the second season.
I've called Durarara!! an "urban mystery," and, unlike weaker anime, it is actually a mystery and not just a loose nod in the direction of the genre. Beyond seeing how gripping it remains, a second viewing of the series does underscore how the it does lay out clues, such that a spoiler does actually spoil some of the fun.
Piecing together Durarara's secrets is part of the series' pleasure s, but it's not the extent of them. The mysteries are in fact a function of the main point of attraction.
Light novel author Ryohgo Narita has created a series of interconnected chronicles. There's vampire clan conflict Vamp!, almost released in North America by Seven Seas back in 2007. There's Etsusa Bridge, set a couple decades in the future, concerning the outcasts living on a giant bridge being built between Sadogashima and Niigata, and, there's Baccano!, about the actions of a cabal of 18th century alchemists and the repercussions in Prohibition era America - adapted by Takahiro Omori, Noboru Takagi and Brains Base (the crew who adapted Durarara!!) in a broadly recommendable anime series.
Light novels typically specialize in being quick, entertaining reads, with a lot of attention paid to world building. That development might be a fantastic setting, as in Guin Saga or 12 Kingdoms. And/or, it might be in a convoluted mesh of characters and personalities, like in Narita’s stories.
These are large casts. In its first, Guy Ritchie style - label the players opening credits, Durarara!! names 15 characters. It’s close to 20 in the second intro. Then, Narita puts these hosts into something like a closed system. Others might serve as active agents, but the catalysts are those named individuals.
Baccano (from the Italian, "noise") shatters a film and constructs a kaleidoscope out of the serialized fragments. Through this fractured lens, it relates a unique circumstance, in which dangerous people bump into each other on the narrow corridors of a transcontinental train. It's the "black suits," organized fanatics who boarded under the guise of an orchestra, versus the "white suits," literally homicidal maniacs, dressed for a wedding party, looking to make a buck off their thrill kills, versus the "red monster." To really exacerbate the situation, the train is also transporting a pair of gleefully irrational thieves, a senator's wife and daughter, a youth gang lead by a weeping boy with a tattoo of a sword covering half of his face and a young woman with a missing eye and significant burn scarring. The ensemble cast is arranged to form a guns blazing, knifes drawn Rube Goldberg, propelled on the gears of complementary psychoses.
Defined by being set in city that is not only bustling, but characterized by attracting visitors and strangers, Durarara!! by its nature has a more permeable membrane around its nuclear cast than Baccanno. Armies like the Dollars and color gangs are likewise a fundamental element. At the same time, the anime dims out the unimportant. There are plenty of scenes in which the irrelevant classrooms full of students and streets full of pedestrians are grayed out - not just an animation short cut, but a significant adaption of blinders. Plot wise, police eventually take some notice, and break up the massive incidents, but a yakuza boss articulates why the career criminals don’t bother with the Durarara!! doings.
Though less pronounced as the plot gets moving than earlier on, episodes of Durarara!! shift their focus between cast members, accompanied by voice over commentary, often with one character offering insight into another. Significantly, much what is said by this narration proves to be deceptive or mistaken and, in that, sometimes more revealing at a second glimpse.
Though by no means "about nothing" or liable to invite the overused "slice of life" label, Durarara's focus is its characters. There is plot and there is action and both are entertaining, but what drives Durarara!! is that network of motivation and perspectives. As I’ve said in the past, I believe that anime is generally at its most appealing when it is offering characters that draw the viewer's empathy and a presentation that offers a new experience. This set of episodes in particular reaches a point where Durarara!! locks down that appeal.
There is a pair of characters who worry about their survival to some extent. It's not entirely ironic that these are two of the series' most powerful figures. For the most part, characters aren’t in fact living hand to mouth. Mikado Ryugamine worries about whether he can afford junk food. These aren’t people engaged in battles for survival, or at least not battles that aren’t of their choosing. Instead, their running into the traffic of Ikebukuro with the aims of asserting who they are and attempting to define how they relate to their environment.
Mikado Ryugamine has a name that invites comment (it evokes dragons and command, people think its something like a pen name), but, he's an otherwise non-descript teen. If Durarara!! conformed to conventions, he'd be complaining about being in danger and put upon. Early on, the included set of episodes explain that Mikado Ryugamine entered the Ikebukuro scene looking for something more fantastic than what was offered in the rice paddies of his home prefecture. His aim to find or create a more interesting world is reminiscent of Haruhi Suzumiya, the eponymous heroine quick to brush off anyone not an alien, ESPer or time traveler. I’m prone to be distrustful of pop culture that aims to boost a geek mindset, and there’s something in that heroic search for something larger, more conforming to the expectation of anime/manga than mundane reality, that I’m wary of.
On a second viewing, I found myself thinking that that’s not an entirely correct reading of Mikado Ryugamine. Distinguishing the character, he’s neither born special nor a cipher muted for the purpose of allowing the audience to project onto him. Like many elements of Durarara!! you see clues of it before its significance becomes evident. Mikado Ryugamine is missing a certain bit of expected fear, a bit extra fascinated in dangerous elements, and a bit notably adept at thinking under pressure. He’s a bit like the Mark Gatiss/Steven Moffat read on Sherlock Holmes, though more smart than genius, and more socially inclined.
Mikado Ryugamine is a significant gear, but still just one element, of a fascinating, complex moving machine. Baccano does that too, but Baccano fits it into a more genre-based romp. Durarara!! catches all the pieces with a Hello Kitty like right level of balance and abstraction. The thought comes to mind because the Black Rider has this great, yellow helmet with ear protrusions: eye catching, perfectly iconic and ready for merchandise. But, more than that, the whole composition works in the Hello Kitty way of being specific, but also open. People and circumstances are both exotic and identifiable dangerous and comfortable, fantastic and defined enough to actively think about.