Wednesday, 11 January 2012

茄子 アンダルシアの夏 / Nasu: Andarushia no Natsu / Aubergine: Summer in Andalusia

With this artsy short film, Kousaka Kitarou managed the rather bizarre feat of becoming the new figure to watch – after already having had a remarkable career that meant he had a significant role in many of anime’s most important films. He started out in Oh! Production while Takahata was still working for the studio, and though he had no credited part in Takahata’s Gauche the Cellist, nor in the animation the studio produced for Miyazaki’s Cagliostro, by 1984 he had worked with both future Ghibli helmsmen through key animation in 1981’s Jarinko Chie (by Takahata for TMS) and 1984’s Nausicaa (for Topcraft), the latter as one of a long list: the role of a key animator is often integral to the story of the rise of a significant Japanese animator – especially when it comes to Miyazaki and his contributions to Horusu and Gulliver’s Space Travels. After that he strengthened ties with Miyazaki as animation director on Sherlock Hound, worked with Ghibli for Laputa and provided key animation for what most of the Ghibli associates had walked away from – the lengthy project that became the disappointing Little Nemo.

It was during this period that he left Oh! and branched out in remarkable ways. After Laputa, he was there to provide key animation in a number of landmark titles, all released within two years – Gainax’s first film Wings of Honneamise, the weird but interesting Mamoru Oshii half of Twilight Q (with Studio Deen), Takahata’s most well-known piece Grave of the Fireflies and Outomo’s seminal Akira. As if that were not already a remarkable enough resume, he followed it up by associating himself with episodes of Yawara!, which as well as being made by Madhouse as they moved into becoming a powerhouse studio able to make features was the first manga by Urasawa Naoki to become an anime (Kousaka also had a hand in Master Keaton and the superb Monster). He then worked for Rintaro on the early X2 anime, one of the first time Clamp’s work had been adapted for anime, a year after its predecessor Tokyo Babylon. He tried his hand as a director with the OVA A-Girl before returning to Ghibli for some of their best films, rising up through the ranks to become an animation director for Whisper of the Heart and then a supervising animation director for Princess Mononoke – my two favourite Ghibli works. His second work as a director saw him return to Clamp to adapt Clover, and then in 2001, he was not only a Ghibli supervisor again for Spirited Away, but also provided more key animation for Rintaro with his remarkable Tezuka adaptation Metropolis.

So yes, he was in a good position when it came to make this short film in 2003. I’m sure that’s the most I’ve ever written about a director’s history, but I just find it remarkable. Usually, it amuses me to find that someone in anime has a link or two to another significant figure, but Kousaka seems to have worked for almost every highly prominent figure in anime short of Kon Satoshi and Hosoda Mamoru, who probably nodded to him as their Madhouse sempai.

The story Kousaka decided to adapt was from the manga Nasu (‘aubergine’). One of the stories there was about a cycle race, and the story is that since they were both cycling fans, Miyazaki suggested Kousaka animate it. Kousaka asked Miyazaki if he wanted to collaborate, but it was during the period Miyazaki was saying he had burned out and was retiring, so Kousaka went off to Madhouse. Set, as the title suggests, in Andalusia, the film follows professional cyclist Pepe Benengeli as he takes on a difficult stage of the Vuelta a España. Not stylised and comical like the Tour de France in Les Triplettes de Belleville, this is a fond but realist take on the event, emphasising the strategies cyclists use on a field where so many are so equal, the politics of being sponsored and the difference it makes being supported by a home crowd. Pepe is an interesting main character for such a brief piece, rather prickly and unwilling to show his emotions even to loved ones, but they support him wholeheartedly anyway, because they know what he really feels underneath. The real human link here is his family watching him on television and later in person – especially his brother, who is newly married. There are lovely vignettes of local culture, especially the food (mmm, giant paella), but what’s most remarkable is how much is said in such a short time, with such sparse dialogue.

The art remains mostly realistic, and the influence of Ghibli on the character design is noticeable, especially when it comes to the wife, to the point that I’m sure if it were more well-known this would get mistaken for a Ghibli work as much as KumoKaze. At the end, though, in the final sprint, the sheer speed and exertion is expressed in looser art, scratchy lines and distorted faces – but it is done with such superb timing and taste that it manages everything that the race segment of The Animatrix fails to pull off.

It may not sound like there is much to this film, nor that it is a very interesting subject, but it is trying something different with animation and managing it extremely well, and will appeal to arthouse fans – indeed, it was the first anime ever to be shown at Cannes. A sequel exists, also much-lauded, though it sounds like its flavour may be somewhat less unique. On the strength of this, I will certainly be watching out for it – and everything else Kousaka does. Perhaps with a feature film or two he can fill the voids that Kon Satoshi and Yoshifumi Kondou so tragically left.

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