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.