Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mysterious Object Found on Beach! (And On Invertebrates)

The other day, when I was out for a walk by the ocean, I found an odd object on the beach. It appears to be some sort of segmented plate from the calcified remains of an exoskeleton. Perhaps it is from some type of arthropod or mollusk (chiton)? Any information would be much appreciated!

The object from the front. It has a very smooth texture with little pits in it. 

Back view of the object. It looks somewhat like a pelvis. 

Side view of the object. It seems to be a calcified plate from an exoskeleton.  

The way this item looks reminds me a lot of a pillbug, trilobite, or chiton. I can't help but to think of the ancient insects and marine creatures from the Cambrian Period that once roamed the Earth. It's amazing how huge insects and invertebrates could grow to be. (One of the largest being an ancestor of the millipede over eight feet in length!) Fortunately, for those who are more phobia prone, bugs this size can physically no longer exist. This is mostly due to lower oxygen levels in today's atmosphere. (Of course, if something happens to the atmosphere in the future giant bugs could return.) Some people also theorize that birds ate larger insects out of existence. What ever the case, large invertebrates are no longer with us except for in horror or sci-fi films.

I used to love to catch and play with these as a kid.

The object I found is most likely from a chiton (which is technically not a bug but a mollusk). 

Terrifyingly gigantic invertebrates dominated the Cambrian.  

Sorry, not possible in today's world. (Science ruins any possibility of an alien bug invasion.) 

Call me weird, but I have always been fascinated by insects and how strange and unearthly they seem. Perhaps its because they are so ancient and I admire how long they have been able to survive on this planet. Insects and invertebrates are the world's most populous species. About 8.7 million are estimated to exist in the world today! Most insects are relatively harmless. (Out of all the species, only about forty are considered venomous.) Many people still seem leerily of them however. Could this be because we are aware of how huge they once were, or that we are just creeped out by how unlike us they are, or how little most people know about them? 

Coincidentally, one of my favorite movies happens to be Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (and not only because it has giant insects in it). It is 1984 Hayao Miyazaki film about a princess who must save her world from warring peoples in a post-apocalyptic future. Nausicaa is parable about how human and nature get along (or rather don't get along). The titular character must find a way in which the insects in the spreading toxic jungle and humanity can peacefully coexist because they are dependent on one another. It is truly a great film about learning not to fear the unknown and many subsequent anime and sci-fi films were influenced by it. (If you have seen both Nausicaa and James Cameron's Avatar, for instance, the forests in both films bare an uncanny resemblance to one another.)    

Never question a princess who loves insects. 

James Cameron is a huge Miyazaki fan. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Disney's Next Film: Taking a Disappointing Turn?

After many, many years in production, Disney is finally planning to release their adaptation of The Snow Queen this November. Well, ....sort of. The was film originally set to be released as early as 2002 and was meant to follow the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale fairly loyally (by Disney standards anyway). It seemed like an excellent choice, especially considering that The Little Mermaid was also a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. The Snow Queen's plot is about a young girl, Gerda, who must brave dangers to save her friend, Kai, from the elusive and cold-hearted Snow Queen. The story has been adapted several times, most famously by the Russian animated feature which was released in 1957. (More can be read about that version here.)

Illustrations from the original tale by Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. 

The Disney version of The Snow Queen has had such a troubled history likely due to the fact that the film entered production right after The Disney Renaissance had ended. Michael Eisner was very harsh and likely thought that this sort of fairytale film would not be successful. Many of the lackluster films produced when he was CEO were attempts to be more 'modern', but lacked the warmth and appeal of earlier Disney films (i.e. Dinosaur, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range, Chicken Little).

Eisner was eventually replaced by Bob Igner and production on The Snow Queen began again. However, the project was drastically altered. Following the new popular trend of Hollywood films, the film was given an unimaginative and cliche one-word title, Frozen. Is Hollywood implying that American audiences are so dense that that they can remember movies with names such as Hop (2011), Wanted (2008), Taken (2008), and Epic (2013)? Heck, if the executives are that lazy, they should just pitch their next film as 'Careless'. This trend has affected Disney's adaptation of Rapunzel was well. Since The Princess and the Frog 'underperformed', Disney figured that they should rename their Rupunzel movie Tangled, so that it would be a 'catchy' and 'easier to remember'.

But renaming the film Frozen is the least of the concerns. The film's plot has been changed so much that it is not even The Snow Queen anymore. Disney should try to experiment with new ideas and storylines (in fact it would be good for the company to do it more often!), but when they take a classic tale and turn it into something so generic, it only hurts the company's reputation. Here is the official press release of the plot: 

"Featuring the voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel, “Frozen” is the coolest comedy-adventure ever to hit the big screen. When a prophecy traps a kingdom in eternal winter, Anna, a fearless optimist, teams up with extreme mountain man Kristoff and his sidekick reindeer Sven on an epic journey to find Anna’s sister Elsa, the Snow Queen, and put an end to her icy spell. Encountering mystical trolls, a funny snowman named Olaf, Everest-like extremes and magic at every turn, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom from destruction."

Frozen sounds exactly like Tangled. So much, in fact Disney might as well rename it 'Tangled on Ice'. The plot is far too familiar and lacks the character development and heart in Anderson's original tale and the 1957 version. Renaming Gerda Anna and making her a princess just seems like a cash-grab to sell little girls more makeup and Barbie dolls. The proposed character designs for the film also seem very uninspired and look a lot like those from Tangled. Disney just seems to be playing it safe and not being innovative at all. This is particularly disappointing since Disney's recent efforts seem to have been  trying to renew the spirit found in their Renaissance Era films.  

Some lovely character designs for Gerda and Kai by the late and great Herald Seipermann.

And these....are the designs for Anna and Kristoff Disney chose.

Frozen looks just like Tangled.

Here is how Gerda and The Snow Queen looked in the original 1957 film.

Here are some sketches by Seipermann of The Snow Queen.

This is what Disney choose in the end. Not intimidating.... at all!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Most Influential Animations You Never Heard Of (Part 3)

This is final part of the blogathon about significant animations that most people are unaware of, but should recognize. The following are all films from around the world, except for one anime series.

11. Horus: Prince of the Sun (1968): The First Modern Anime

Hilda, one of the most complex (and troubled) animated characters ever to grace the screen.  

Why is anime so different from American animation? This film is one of the primary reasons. Similar to how Osamu Tezuka's The Vampires changed the face of manga, Horus: Prince of the Sun forever altered anime. Horus has been dubbed by some as The Citizen Cane of animated films. It was directed Isao Takahada, and had a huge influence on Hayao Miyazaki who was one of the primary artists working on the film (under the guidance of Yasuji Mori). Both Miyazaki and Takahada would become some of the most respected figures in animation history and later established Studio Ghibli.

All major anime films made at the time were being released by Toei Doga, a company that aimed to be as successful as Disney in the Asian hemisphere. Toei Doga movies tended to be 'Disney-like' in formula, with cute animal sidekicks and musical numbers (The Little Prince and the Eight Headed Dragon being somewhat of an exception). The company's earlier efforts were mostly based off of traditional Asian folktales or Japanese mythology, but it later began producing films based off of Western fairytales (such as Puss in Boots) and cheaply adapting low-grade manga (like The Flying Phantom Ship) to try and appeal to wider audiences and save money.

However, the animators were beginning to become restless. They wanted new material to work with and were growing weary of making the same type of films. Many of them were also angry with the authoritarian manner in which Toei Doga was run, upset with the Vietnam War, and were involved with unions. Thus, Horus: The Prince of the Sun was born out of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

The movie was a huge undertaking. Horus spent over three years in troubled production. Some of its scenes were so complexity animated / large scale, that they were never fully completed. Takahada originally wanted Horus to be two hours long and be based off of a play about Japan's ingenious Ainu. But the Toei staff refused believing that the film would never sell. So its time was cropped down to a mere ninety minutes and the story's setting was moved to Iron Age Scandinavia. The Toei staff also insisted that the film must have stereotypical 'cute' animal sidekicks.

Takahada and his staff were not deterred. Horus dealt with several social issues in the film under the guise of a children's fantasy film. For instance, Horus's mad pursuit of the silver wolf may, in fact, be no more than a projection of his own mind. Horus is also betrayed by the town that takes him in and must win back their trust. By far the most well defined character in the movie is Hilda, a girl who acts a lot like a shell-shocked war survivor. It is often unclear whether she wants to help the protagonist and be re -welcomed into society or to completely reject him. She is constantly tormented by her opposing views of humanity, unsure whether she wants to belong or distance herself as far away from it as possible.

Upon release, the film bombed at the Japanese box office. This was due to the fact that Toei had removed Horus from theaters after only a week, angered that the movie took so long to complete and declared the film was too dark for the studio's standards. Takahada was forbidden ever to direct a film at the studio again. But all this did not matter in the end. Horus: Prince of the Sun began to garner the attention of other young artists and college students. People had began to realize that animation could be used to cover a wider array of subjects. Thus, anime began to address more adult topics and continue to break away from the Disney mold. If Horus had not been made, it is unlikely anime would have ever given us films such as Belladonna, Grave of Fireflies, Akira, Princess Mononoke, or Perfect Blue.

Original trailer for the movie with (poorly translated) english subs.

12. Yuri Norstein: Master of Short Films

Tale of Tales conveys loneliness (and hope) like no other film does.

Yuri Norstein's work is profoundly beautiful. Each of his films are painstakingly created with paper cut-outs, layered over several sheets of glass to create a sense of depth. Yuri is one of the most celebrated Russian animators who ever lived and was a major contributor to the studio Soyuzmultfilm. Since 1981, he has been working on feature length film, The Overcoat, but it has yet to be finished due to budget problems arising after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two of Norstein's most acclaimed short movies are The Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) and The Tale of Tales (1979). Both of them were voted as the best two animations ever created at the 2003 Laputa Animation Film Festival. His unique sense of style, attention to detail, and emotionally charged storylines exhibit how small, independently produced films can sometimes be more memorable (and heartfelt) then what larger studios put out.

The Hedgehog in the Fog is about a small hedgehog who must gather his courage and travel through a foggy forest to visit his friend, Bear. Along the way Hedgehog, meets several other animals, some friendly and others not so friendly. Although he is frightened, Hedgehog's curiosity and appreciation for the natural world keep him motivated to find Bear. The short's contemplative nature allows the audience to remain engrossed the entire time. The Hedgehog in the Fog provokes a sense of wonder and innocence that is often associated with childhood.

Norstein's other short, Tale of Tales, is more abstract in nature. Its plot is more complex and it is full of symbolism. The main character is a small grey wolf from a traditional Russian lullaby. The wolf is said to kidnap naughty childern. However in this film, he is portrayed more sympathetically. He is a lonely figure who is actually attempting protect babies from the harmful outside world. The wolf acts as our guide into the world of Tale of Tales, which plays out as many interconnected memories of a dream. The film then proceeds to show many events in Russia's past. It makes references to the Civil War, the Stalinist Regime, and contemporary times. All of this is represented by images such as decaying Soviet-era buildings, impoverished families, and lives lost in battle. Yet the film is not completely bleak, it shows how people try to make the best of difficult situations and how we all strive to live the best we can. The child-like innocence of the little wolf and childern in the film suggest that we can continue to work towards a better future.

The Hedgehog in the Fog in its entirety. Well worth your time.

13. Watership Down (1978): The Opposite of Disney

What's this? An animated movie that is actually loyal to its source material?

As mentioned earlier, the 1970s was a time for experimentation in the animation field. The studio system associated with large companies such as Disney was crumbling. Smaller producers, artists, and film makers began to create movies in a wide variety of unorthodox styles, reflecting the social change of the era. In particular, a growing number of animated films were beginning to be made for more adult audiences. Thus, in 1978 John Hubley set out to create a film based off of Richard Adam's acclaimed novel, Watership Down. Unfortunately, Hubley died during production, although some of his original work can still be seen in the finished film (such as the stylized animation in the opening). The movie was then taken over by a British team lead by Martin Rosen.

Like Animal FarmWatership Down is a fairly loyal adaptation meaning that it deals with darker subject matter than the typical American animated feature. If this film were made by Disney, it would likely be nothing more than a fun romp with fluffy bunnies. Watership Down is the story of a band of rabbits who must journey to a new home when their warren is gassed to make room for human development. They eventually decide to settle on the hills of Watership Down, after a long and perilous journey. However, they soon realize that they have very few members of their warren left, especially does. After being informed by Holly, the sole survivor of their previous home, the rabbits hear about General Woundwort's warren and become determined to save its inhabitants.

Woundwort's tyrannical regime is reminiscent to that of Nazi Germany. His warren is tightly regulated and any distention is quickly put down. Several of the main characters were also based off of people Richard Adams fought alongside with in WWII. Watership Down is an allegorical tale in the tradition of the heroic epic. The movie does not shy away from the violence in the original novel. Characters bleed, die, and the film contains scary imagery. Watership Down is a better film for older children and adults. The risks it took payed off though, it is know considered one of the greatest animated films ever made. (And thus, we will forgive it for the inclusion of that horrendously dated song, "Bright Eyes".)

I would love to know how many ignorant parents took their kids to this movie thinking it was children's film.

14. Future Boy Conan (1978): Miyazaki makes his Debut

A TV show popular worldwide! Except in English speaking countries...

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most famous animators alive today. His impressive resume includes films such as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, and Spirited Away (which he won an Academy Award for). After years of working at Toei Doga and in television, Miyazaki directed his first sole project Future Boy Conan, a 26 episode TV series. It was a huge success not only in Japan, but several other countries including France, Italy, Spain, and (surprisingly) the Middle East. Future Boy Conan was never translated into English and never aired in the USA, which is truly a shame considering that it is one of the greatest anime series ever made.

Unlike some of Miyazaki's more contemporary work, Future Boy Conan contains a lot of exaggerated and slapstick humor, in a similar vein to his work on Lupin the Third (1971) and Sherlock Hound (1980). However, despite being a family program, Conan never disregards its audience's intelligence and addresses several contemporary issues about human nature. Many of the themes that would come to dominate Miyazaki's later work can be seen for the first time here. This includes his love for flight / aircraft, feminist and pacifist values, respect towards nature, and avoidance of stereotypical, one-sided villains.

Future Boy Conan is about a young boy named, (unsurprisingly) Conan, who has lived alone on a deserted island for years with his grandfather after the advent of WWIII wiped out much of humanity and drastically altered the rest of society, making technology limited to very few people. When a mysterious young girl named Lana washes up on shore one day, she and Conan must hide from the militarized army of Industria. Industria is a city ruled over by Lepka, who aims to reunite Earth's remaining inhabitants under a totalitarian regime. Lana's grandfather, who disappeared years ago, was a scientist studying solar technology. Lepka desperately wants to utilize this technology and plans to hold Lana hostage. Lana and Conan must find a way to evade capture and strive to find a way which people in the future can live peacefully. 

It's interesting to see the wacky humor in Miyazaki's earlier work.

15. The Secret of NIMH (1982): Reviving the Art of Animation

Don Bluth's dark family film is his best.

The Disney Renaissance was part of many people's childhood, but what if it had never happened? If it wasn't for Don Bluth and a few other factors (such as the filming of The Thief and the Cobbler and the contributions of animator Glen Keane), it is quite likely it wouldn't have. The 1970s was the Dark Age of American Animation. Walt had died and his studio was adrift, causing it to make very few films that often met little success. To make matters worse, other companies were making cheaply produced cartoons that lacked the artistic sophistication of those made during the Golden Age of Animation. In 1979, Don Bluth and several other animators, including John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman, left Disney. They were upset with the studio for the lack of credit they received and felt ignored for their efforts on the short films The Small One and Banjo the Woodpile Cat.

Don Bluth and his colleges wanted to make a film that would help revive interest in restoring animation to its former glory and encourage better movies to be made. So he boldly chose to adapt the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH into a feature length picture, which Disney had considered filming, but later rejected for being 'too dark'. Bluth wanted to make NIMH in the style of animated films made in the 1940s-50s but with more mature plot elements and more modern sensibilities. When he and his crew left Disney, it delayed the production of The Fox and the Hound by seven months.

The Secret of NIMH is about a timid mouse, Mrs. Brisby, who must overcome her fears of the dangerous world around her in order to find a cure for her son's pneumonia. Brisby was widowed when her husband was killed by the farmer's cat. She seeks help from her husband's friend, Mr. Ages, and even goes to see the Great Owl. She later uncovers the secret of the Rats of NIMH and how her husband and Mr. Ages were involved. NIMH is a beautifully animated film. Its visual style is based off of the classic Hollywood style, but also uniquely its own. NIMH's utilization of different color pallets, backlighting, and multi-plane camera are astounding even though the film was made on a very tight budget (and Don Bluth would continue to face finical problems for the rest of his career). Even though the film is perfectly appropriate for children, it addresses several complicated issues including animal testing and the questioning of human nature. Mrs. Brisby is also a very relatable character. She isn't born brave, but must become strong in order to protect her family. Don Bluth has always had the philosophy that childern can handle certain mature themes or onscreen death as long as the story ends happily or with some aspect of hope.

Even though NIMH underperformed at the box office, the critics loved it. NIMH even caught the attention of Steven Spielberg who helped fund Bluth's next two films, An American Tale (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988). Both films were critically and commercially successful. So much in fact, that they earned more money than the two Disney films released at the same time (The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company)! Disney then realized it had to shape up and began to strive towards producing better films. They were successful when The Little Mermaid was released in 1989. The Little Mermaid squashed Bluth's All Dogs to Heaven, and led Disney into its successful period of the 1990s. So Bluth was successful in reviving the art of animation, at a price. Disney ultimately came back and killed off the rest of his career. Bluth produced several duds during most of the 1990s, except for Anastasia (1997), which while a decent film, came off as a bit of a Disney clone. Bluth threw in the towel in 2000, after his Titan AE failed miserably at the box office. 

The iconic scene were Brisby Meets the Great Owl.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Most Influential Animations You Never Heard Of (Part 2)

Here are the next five animated works that are historically important, but often overlooked by the public. All of entries here are from outside of the United States.

6. Animal Farm (1954): The First 'Adult' Animated Feature

"All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others."

Animal Farm is one of the most famous cautionary tales ever penned. George Orwell's novel was more than just a warning about Russian communism, but also about dictatorship and corruption in general. The film adaptation of Animal Farm was directed by Halas and Batchelor and was the first British animated feature to ever be released. Ironically, many of the animators who worked on Animal Farm formally were employed at Disney. However, the adaptation remained very loyal to the book (save for its slightly more 'optimistic' ending). Although the film is a bit heavy on the narration and the animation is somewhat dated, it is a compiling example of an 'adult cartoon'. It is intellectually mature not just dubbed 'mature' for using harsh language or glorified violence. (Yes, I'm looking at you Adult Swim!) Animal Farm is bleak, but it is an important film. It is not a perfect film, but it is a notable effort.

"Pig Brother is watching you!"

7. The Snow Queen (1957): Another Example of European Animation Influencing Anime

"Do you remember what love is, Kai?"

Russia produced many great animated films and shorts back in the day. One of the most acclaimed film directors during the country's 'fairytale film era' was Lev Atamanov. His most acclaimed movie was The Snow Queen, based off of the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name. It was hugely important and inspired many generations of Russian animators and remains very popular in its homeland today.

The film's animation is simply drawn, but somehow seems complex at the same time. Each background of the film is lovingly rendered. The visual style of The Snow Queen and other European animated films from around the same time also hugely influenced the look of anime. Toei Doga and Hayao Miyazaki were particularity impressed by the film's aesthetics and storyline, urging them to create unique and ethnically inspired films to stand out from Disney.

The Snow Queen is about a young girl, Gerda, who must go on a perilous journey to save her friend, Kai, who was stolen away by the Snow Queen after he mocked her. One of the great things about this film is that it allows the audience to relate to each character. We obviously feel for Gerda and want her to be successful in her quest for Kai. However, we also come to sympathize the Snow Queen. She is cold and harsh, but also very lonely. Kai is probably the only company she has had in eons. Many other characters, such as the Robber Girl, seem bad at first, but are then shown to be relatable people stuck in difficult situations. It's a shame that this film has never been restored in the US and remains in the public domain, poorly dubbed.

Gerda and Kai, the two protagonists. 

8. Hakujaden (1958): Japan Becomes a Dominant Player

 Japan's first major animated contribution. 

Ever since the late 1980s, Americans have been increasingly aware of (and influenced by) the impact of anime on pop culture. However, many are unaware how far back anime's history goes. (That will be covered sometime in the near future on this site.) The Japanese found it very hard to compete with animation overseas, particularly from the USA and China. It wasn't until after WWII that the animation industry started to become more mainstream. Manga artist Osamu Tezuka and the animation studio, Toei Doga, were among the earliest to popularize home-grown cartoons. Toei Doga made its big break when it released its first film, Hakujaden (The Tale of the White Serpent), in 1958. It was based off of a Chinese folktale of the same name. Hakujaden was also Japan's first ever (non-propoganda) animated film and one of the earliest anime to be in color. 

The movie was a huge undertaking, but paid off well. It was hugely successful in its homeland, despite never garnering much attention in America. (Which might explain why we are stuck with yet another crappy public domain copy!) Hakujaden was Toei Doga's attempt to try and be the 'Disney of the East'. In many ways, it certainly resembles a Disney film more than most modern anime. ('Modern' anime did not begin to emerge until the late 1960s - early 70s.) The film has many musical numbers, cutesy animal sidekicks, and stars two lovestruck protagonists. However, it is also distinctively Japanese. Hakujaden's art style, character designs (by Yasuji Mori), and overall appearance have just as much influenced modern anime as Osamu Tezuka's manga. In fact, legendary anime director Rintaro first began working in the animation on this film (at only 17!) as an in-betweener. A young Hayao Miyazaki also saw the film which inspired him to become an animator.

A really nice promo for the film, showing animators at work!

9. The Thief and the Cobbler (1964 - 1995): How it Saved the Art of Animation

The most significant animated film 'never' made.

Since this film has been mentioned on this site several times before, this entry will be 'brief'. In the early 1960s, animator Richard Williams planned to create the greatest animated film ever. However, he met several financial and backing issues which kept the film in production for years. The Thief and the Cobbler was not released until 1995, as a horribly butchered version after the project was given to another director. (Fortunately, a non-profit restored version known as the Recobbled Cut is now available on Youtube.)

Despite The Thief's long and troubled production, it was very important for preserving the skills of famous animators and passing them on to a new generation. During the 1970s and up until the late 1980s, the art of animation in the West was literally in danger of dying out. This was due to several factors. Walt Disney had died, leaving his studio in chaos and tight on money for several years. The company released relatively few films for the next ten years after his death. It even resorted to reusing / retracing animation from previous films due to inflating costs. (For those finding this hard to believe, check out this Youtube link!)

Also, the 1970s marked the rise of independent and adult animation. It was certainly a good thing that many new styles were being experimented with and more people were becoming involved with the animation industry. However, there was one unintended drawback, not many of these new artists had learned the skills that animators of the Golden Age had been trained in (i.e.: realistic figure drawing, professional art classes), nor did they have accesses to high quality materials.

The dominance of television also encouraged drawing cheaply and as quickly as possible. Over zealous parental watchdogs (the most notorious being Peggy Charren), demanded that childern's television must be censored to discourage 'antisocial behavior.' (Apparently, these people failed to realize that many theatrical cartoons were never intended for children in the first place! Betty Boop or Red Hot Riding Hood anyone?) Thus, the production of mediocre and forgettable cartoons was encouraged and even today animation faces the degrading label of 'kid's entertainment.' (TV Tropes has an excellent article on this issue entitled, 'The Animation Age Ghetto.')

As a result of all these factors, the artistic quality of animated films produced in America during the 1970s and most of the 1980s plummeted to all time low. But several famous artists who had formally worked for Disney or Warner Brothers (including Ken Harris, Grim Natwick, and, Art Babbitt) worked with Williams on The Thief and the Cobbler. They trained an entire new generation of animators. It is quite possible that, if these artists were not kept busy on The Thief, there would have been no Disney Renaissance or rebirth of animation during the late 1980s and into the 1990s. 

CGI? Nope, this film was completely hand-drawn. 

10. The Vampires (1967): The First 'Mature' Manga

A game changer in the field of manga (and anime).

Osamu Tezuka was one of the most famous manga and anime artists who ever lived. He was responsible for popularizing both mediums in the East and in the West. Many of Tezuka's creations (such as Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Princess Knight) are as familiar to Japanese audiences as Disney and Pixar are to American filmgoers. The vast majority of Tezuka's earlier work was primarily aimed at family audiences. However, Tezuka was never afraid to allow some heavy topics enter his work. He commonly addressed death, gender identity, and the abuse of science and technology.

But manga and anime were still considered to be primarily for children when Tezuka first entered the industry. When his manga was adapted into anime on television, it was commonly watered down to avoid upsetting more conservative viewers and American broadcasters. In the process, some of Tezuka's stories lost part of their meaning when adapted to TV. For instance, when Jungle Emperor Leo (Kimba the White Lion) was first brought to TV several changes were implemented. Kimba was to remain a cub and not grow up (as he is shown to do in the manga). This was to make the series more 'marketable' to young childern. Also, Kimba dies at the end of the manga, sacrificing his own life so that animals and people could continue to strive towards peace. This, of course, was axed because the distributors feared that it would disturb the children too much.

In the late 1960s, things were beginning to change. The advent of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and Counterculture movement, and other social changes began to reflect in the media. Manga and anime were not exempt from this. Artists began to take more risks, speak out, and create darker stories reflecting the change around them. Osamu Tezuka created one of the first manga to be influenced by such change, The Vampires. Which paved way for series such as Lone Wolf and Cub, Black Jack, and the controversial works of Go Nagai.

The Vampires starts out as humorous take on the classic horror genre, but quickly evolves into a more mature work focused on the ugly side of humanity and the abuse of power. The antagonist, Rock MacBeth, desires nothing more than to dominate others. Rock is not below anything. As he tastes more and more power, he becomes intoxicated with it. He murders an entire family to steal their wealth and even kills the protagonist's, Toppei's, potential love interest. At one point, Rock nearly realizes he has gone to far when he kills his childhood friend in a fight, but then blames the world for his problems. He also loses the other only person who cares for him, Ruriko, after his scheme using the vampires backfires.

Rock gained his power by abusing Toppei, a young man who unfortunately changes into a wolf every time he gets angry or is threatened, forcing him to carry out much of Rock's dirty work. Toppei is a vampire, but not of the Hollywood sort. In this manga, vampires are people who change into animals by some sort of trigger. (For instance, Toppei's little brother, Chippei, becomes a wolf whenever he sees anything round.) As a result, of their transformations, the vampires have long been feared by the rest of humanity and historically were hunted down and killed. (This alludes to the wrongs of the witch hunts in Salem and in Medieval times.) The modern vampires in the manga are forced to go into hiding and are commonly segregated from the rest of society (which alludes to racism). Because most of the vampires were persecuted by society, they are eager to aid Rock who promises them glorious revenge. Only Toppei and a few others are able to see through Rock and recognize his true nature.

The original layout of a manga page from The Vampires.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Most Influential Animations You Never Heard Of (Part 1)

Animation's history spans over one hundred years. People have long been fascinated by the illusion of movement. Many film enthusiasts are aware of this history and can name several innovative breakthroughs (like the development of the zoetrope, cels, xerography, and CGI). Even the average person is aware of influential works such as Steamboat Willie (1928), Snow White (1937), Astro Boy (1963), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and Toy Story (1995). Yet, there are many works that are just as historically important which are often sorely overlooked. Below, listed in chronological order, are just a few of such animations from various countries over the years.

1. Koko the Clown (1918-1929): Early Usage of the Rotoscope and Revolutionizing Animation 

A typical Koko cartoon.

Koko was the first cartoon star of the Fleischer Studios (famous for Popeye, Betty Boop, etc). These cartoons were among some of the first to use animated characters interacting with live action actors. Max Fleischer himself, would often appear at the start of the shorts and draw Koko and his dog sidekick, Fitz, into being. Often Koko and his dog would get into trouble, go on adventures in far away lands, or play a prank on their creator. The series was also the first to use the technique of rotoscoping, the tracing of live action footage, for more realistic human animation. Like many of the early animated shorts of the time period, the setting was often very surreal and made heavy use of sight gags.

Koko was popular enough to star in a second series, "Song Car-tunes" in 1924. This series was the first to use the famous 'follow the bouncing ball' sing-along technique. Koko would later make appearances in a few Betty Boop cartoons, most notably in "Snow White" (1933) and "Ha Ha" (1934). The cartoon above is "Koko's Earth Control" (1928).

2. The Films of Ladislas Starevich: The Father of Stop-Motion Animation

 One of the most overlooked animated films ever made.

Ladislas Starevich was a true pioneer in stop-motion animation. His style has been hugely influential on many directors such as Tim Burton and Terry Gilman. Starevich's attention to detail, social commentary, bizarre visuals, and fantastical plots inspired an entire generation of animators.

Born to Polish parents in Russia, Starevich had a passion for studying zoology. In 1910, he was named director of the Museum of Natural History in Kovno, Lithuania. Because he was unable to naturally photograph the lives of certain species of insects, Starevich began creating puppet animations using dead insects. His first film, The Beautiful Lukanida (1910) was the first ever to use puppet animation. He gradually started to make films with plots and relatable characters, such as The Cameraman's Revenge (1912) and The Insects Christmas (1913).

After WWI, Starevich moved to France. Here he began to create films utilizing sound and actual puppets (not insects). Two of his most acclaimed works were The Mascot (1934) and The Tale of the Fox (1937). The Mascot was an half an hour short starring Duffy, a small stuffed dog, who must retrieve an orange for a sick girl and winds up at a devil's ball. The short was successful enough to be followed by three films about Duffy.

The Tale of the Fox was Starevich's masterpiece. It was the sixth animated film ever made and the second to utilize puppets and sound (the first being The New Gulliver [1935]), beating out Snow White by eight months. It's sophisticated use of motion-blur techniques and heavy use of dialogue made The Fox a true landmark in film. The plot of the film involves a wily fox who must be trialled before the King for his constant pranks. Below is a small clip from The Tale of Fox featuring the Queen being wooed by a minstrel cat.

The animation is utterly amazing to this day.

3. Claude the Cat & Hubie and Bertie (1943 - 1951): The Cartoon Series That Broke the 'Disney' Mold.

Claude, the world's most neurotic cat. 

This cartoon series marked the turning point in Chuck Jones career. Most of Jones's cartoons and other Looney Tunes of the the 1930s and early 1940s were far more 'cutesy' in nature (save for the occasional wild card by Bob Clampett).  Jones shorts, in particular, would tend to come across as Disney-like. For instance, his first cartoon star, Sniffles the Mouse, was a naive and sweet character who would later fad into obscurity, in favor of more funny slapstick characters.

While Jones's early shorts were praised for their elaborate animation, audiences found them very generic. Thus, Jones created the short, "The Dover Boys" (1942), the cartoon that taught him how to be funny. While "The Dover Boys" is well remembered by animation fans today, many overlook Jones's equally important cartoon series featuring Claude the Cat and Hubie and Bertie. The series was short lasting, but very important in forming the trademark Looney Tunes style. It was one of the first series to be purposely funny, rather than cute. It was the polar opposite of typical Disney shorts. Fast paced action, physical humor, and over the top gags hence forth became associated with Looney Tunes.

The largest impact that Claude and Hubie and Bertie had on Jones was it defined his great usage of characterization. Each personality in this series is distinctively defined and believable. Claude is a cowardly and nervous, extremely sensitive to his surrounding and a pill popper. He would much rather spend most of his day sleeping without worries. However, Claude is constantly tormented by two mice, Hubie and Bertie, who try to move into his home. Hubie is the smarter of the two and comes up with schemes to fool Claude or take advantage of his fearful nature. Bertie is....not. Even though Claude is the antagonist, the audience often ends up feeling sorry for him, yet cannot help laughing at the antics of two mice. 

4. Rooty Toot Toot (1952): Pioneering Limited Animation and a Bold New Style

UPA at its best.

John Hubley was an animator who formally worked at Disney. After seeing the Russian animated feature, The Tale of Czar Durandai (1934), he became inspired by its unique art style. Hubley then left Disney during The Animator's Strike of 1941. He then helped found the studio UPA (United Productions of America), famous for pioneering limited animation and cartoons such as Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing.  

Hubley's "Rooty Toot Toot" best exhibits UPA's motto of 'less is more.' Each scene has a distinctive color scheme to emphasize the mood. The drawings are stylized and simple but manage to convey each character's personalities perfectly. The plot is more 'adult' than what many people think of when it comes to cartoons. (Actually, many theatrical cartoons were for more mature audiences. It wasn't until the arrival of television and parental watchdogs overacting that cartoons were deemed 'kid's stuff.') "Rooty Toot Toot" is a courtroom drama retelling the song, "Frankie and Johnny." Frankie is on trial for shooting her lover, Johnny, who was with another woman. She is defended by the lawyer 'Honest' John. With it's jazzy soundtrack, unconventional storyline, and black humor, "Rooty Toot Toot" is a truly inspired piece of cinema.  

"Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts..."

5. The King and the Mockingbird (1952 - 1980): Animation as a Moving Art   

A classic in French cinema.

Paul Grimault was to France what Walt Disney was to American animation. But unlike Walt, Grimault's films tended to be far more lyrical in style, satirical, and contained little to no dialogue, being primarily a visual experience. His unique style has influenced countless contemporary French animators (most notably Sylvain Chomet), and Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. He tended to animate simplistic yet appealing drawn characters contrasted with elaborately detailed backgrounds. Grimault's works also contained social commentary and moral issues, proving that animation can be enjoyed by any person, of any age. Early on in his career, Grimault made many widely acclaimed shorts, including The Scarecrow (1943) and The Little Solider (1947).

In the 1948, Grimault began to work on his planned masterpiece, the feature length The King and the Mockingbird (Le Roi et l'osiseau). However, Grimault lost control of the film and it was shown, incomplete and against his will in 1952. It wasn't until 1967 that Grimault got his film back, and not until 1980 that it was finally released as originally intended! (Barely beating out the time The Thief and the Cobbler's production took!)

 The King and the Mockingbird is a fascinating film. Loosely based off of the fairytale The Shepherdess and The Chimney Sweep, it is the story of a very egotistic king and his rivalry with a mockingbird (who is upset with the King for shooting his wife). The King is a lonely and ugly man who finds comfort in creating large monuments of himself and is love with a painting of a shepherdess. One night, the paintings of the Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep come to life and escape. They are then pursued by the painting version of the King (who disposed the real king) and are aided by the Mockingbird. This film is a work of art and gives insight on both sides of human nature. It is absolutely criminal that the completed version was never released in the US. All we have is a worn-out public domain copy of the 1952 version.

A Japanese trailer for the film.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Won't Disney Release The Sweatbox?

The Sweatbox was a documentary released in 2002 by Sting's wife. Sting was hired by Disney to write music for The Kingdom of the Sun in 1997. Due to prolonged production, the film went under a complete overhaul. It's original storyline and Sting's songs were scrapped and the movie became The Emperor's New GrooveThe Sweatbox may be a bit of a controversial film to the studio because it does not always portray it glamorously. However, it is a very honest film and it gives insight into the struggles Disney's animators faced at the end of the Animation Renaissance.

Concept art for The Kingdom of the Sun by Paul Felix.

Fortunately, I managed to download The Sweatbox onto my computer before Disney removed the film from the internet. Normally, I don't do these sort of things, but if big companies like Disney refuse to release an important film like this one, then we must circulate the tapes! Below is a small clip from the film showing Eartha Kitt's deleted song. (For those curious, you can read more about the documentary here.)

Admit it, Eartha Kitt was awesome.

500 Page Views!

Thank you to all of my followers! To celebrate reaching over 500 page views (within the first month that I launched this site!), I have installed a page view counter on this site. Also, here is an animated GIF for you. If you can guess what movie it's from, I will be your new best friend. (Hint: It's a Hayao Miyazaki film.)