Tuesday, 19 February 2013

彼女と彼女の猫 / Kanojo to Kanojo no Neko / She and Her Cat / Their Standing Points

The Shinkai Makoto story really starts with the surprise release of the iconic Hoshino Koe, It must be close to a decade since I saw that, when it was the hot new thing, much-lauded for being made almost in its entirety by one person – and since Shinkai has become one of the auteurs of anime, alongside such prestigious names as Miyazaki Hayao, Takahata Isao, Satoshi Kon, Hosoda Mamoru and Yuasa Masaaki. I don’t snap up his works as they come out, I must admit – I still haven’t seen 5cm per Second, let alone Hoshi-o Ou Kodomo – as somehow they always strike me as needlessly slow, pretentious and uninspiring in terms of story and character, which for me takes precedent over art or individual effort.

But before that beginning was this little vignette, a five-minute animation that won minor awards and had some in the know sit up and pay attention. Who knows? Perhaps without this, Hoshi no Koe wouldn’t have been taken seriously…

It really shouldn’t work. The black-and-white short film full of oblique angles, rain and a sombre, overly poetic narrator is such a cliché of French arthouse film that even the hook – that the narrator is a cat – has been used in viral send-ups of the genre such as Henri 2, Paw de Deux, which does similar things to this short but in the choleric rather than melancholic mode. And I’m fairly sure it was not influenced by She and Her Cat. In animation terms, it is horribly transparent throughout that this is an exercise in how to make almost no animation look like motion, and one gets a little sick of the camera panning across a still image to give the illusion of movement. There’s some very nice exterior shots, but it’s very obvious what we’re looking at is essentially a photograph that’s been traced for animation – and the same goes for most shots of the kanojo in question. The cat itself is amusingly incongruous, a cutesy blob that screams Japan, and generally it feels almost disingenuous, how many shortcuts are made in a blatant attempt to masquerade as finer animation.

And yet, oddly enough given my objections to Makoto’s other films, it works because it is subtle and heartfelt. It’s clever and simple and doesn’t have to spell everything out. The cat’s simple love and adulation, its childish pride in believing itself so much more adult than its little feline girlfriend, its inability to understand how anyone could make its owner sad and its simple life are pitched perfectly so that they are adorably naïve yet not sickly sweet like Chii in Chii’s Sweet Home.

There is much to criticise in artistic terms here, but of course a person making their own little animation as a personal project will want to make the most of the little they have. And the key is a script that doesn’t mind its unoriginality and lack of subtlety – yet spins things in a way just vague and yet adorable enough to make the short work very well. More than either of the longer animations I’ve seen from Shinkai, this makes me want to see more.  

Saturday, 16 February 2013

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (season 3)

 As I wrote in my impressions of the Bronies documentary, season 3 was where I got a more involved with the fandom and all its extreme oddness (and fundamental similarity to the much-mocked Sonic the Hedgehog fandom). Indeed, writing about that there rather than having to take the space to talk about it here is partly why I wrote about the documentary at all. But I quite enjoy that I’ve seen a fandom as its bubble bursts, and this season has certainly been divisive.

Season 3 has forced its fandom to reign in its more extreme rhetoric – no horsey pun intended. Just about every disappointed fan has been one who forgot that this is just one of many, many cartoons. That the writing is still for cartoons. That even if Lauren Faust wanted sprawling Avatar-like adventures, by season 2 they were out of the question and she’s no longer even involved. This is just one strong cartoon amongst numerous others, with good characterisation and visuals that remarkably manage to pull off the bubblegum-coloured flash world and not look plain obnoxious – at least in the context of cartoons in general. That the season was only 13 episodes rather than the 26 of its two predecessors was a clear sign of that – the cartoon is fitting the syndication pattern, where episodes can largely be rerun in any old order with only minor continuity contradictions. Character development is largely stunted and if they learn some important lessons, they will be back to their old sitcom selves next episode – because the episodes are written by different people side-by-side. Pets, villains-turned-good and new friends will have gone without a trace in the next episode, though may show up again soon – and honestly, I think it’s only because the writers know how much scrutiny the fans put this show under that we had a little photo-montage of what happened to the little phoenix hatchling Spike rescued last season.

One element that changes the minimal continuity is the big finale, which will have to bring with it a very visual change to season 4 (more or less confirmed, first by a payment – though arguably that could be for heavily-rumoured humanized spin-off Equestria Girls – and then by a writer saying the first two episodes of s4 will follow on from the s3 ending). Yes, Twilight has upgraded to immortal princess status, in a rather bizarre half-episode with a whole lot of singing that will amusingly bring with it a whole lot of theorizing that she died and everything from now on is her idealized afterlife. It was leaked months early through posters, new toys and sticker sets, and really is at the core of what is so ‘divisive’ here. It’s amazing how many fans think it a step too far, how it will change the dynamic from now on and ruin the show, and so on and so on. Again, I feel far less invested than these people, but I personally am interested to see where it will take the next season but largely see it as inconsequential, as it’s not like writers can’t come up with exactly the same stories, only Twilight has wings and more respect.

Otherwise, while accepting it’s been very uneven, I’ve greatly enjoyed this season. The opening two-parter, very much following on from the two-parter closing s2, was a bit shaky, with a daft non-character as a baddie and a saggy middle part, but the second episode picked up with the main ponies being very entertaining trying to distract a crowd, adorable scenes of Twilight and Spike having to face their fears, and a very daft spectacle to end it. The episodes that followed were largely throwaway, as befits a character-based comedy cartoon, and if they had a uniting fault, it was poor pacing, with a lot of rushed endings that often became the focus of the excessive scrutiny of the crowds. They loved taking things too seriously – clones of Pinkie Pie were sent back to a magical pool in apparent pain, so some idiots thought it acceptable to spam the show writers’ Twitters claiming children were being shown a mass slaughter of sapient beings. Trixie enslaves a whole city, but her apology is heartfelt so that is all that’s needed. An inspector is shunned but makes an unexpected decision based on some stranger’s word. Discord is the embodiment of Chaos and has been imprisoned in stone for a millennium, but realizing he might lose his one friend (of a day or two) makes him completely change his nature, with naught but a short ‘most of the time’ aside to hint that he can’t reverse his personality quite so easily – and no further hint (yet) of what Celestia had planned for him.

I can’t say I enjoyed every episode. ‘Apple Family Reunion’ I found decidedly dull, ‘Wonderbolts Academy’ rang false for me as I couldn’t believe Spitfire was such a poor manager or that a drill sergeant would just roll over like that, and ‘Spike at your Service’ saw Spike randomly totally useless – almost as if it had been planned as a Derpy episode but in the wake of some ridiculous campaigning that claimed Derpy was politically incorrect (as if most of classic Warner Bros or Disney aren’t) was changed without it really managing to fit. Derpy herself was never seen clearly until the very last episode.

But season 3 brought with it some favourite episodes of mine. I enjoyed seeing the Cutie Mark Crusaders fleshed out from annoying kids to loveable multifaceted individuals, with Scootaloo in particular endearing herself to me forever in ‘Sleepless in Ponyville’ – though I already liked her enough that she was key to bringing me into the fandom looking for speculation about that episode. I liked the idea of the pony Olympics, and while the episode about the pony inspector wasn’t at all clever, I liked the sidekicks episode and the way it ran concurrently. For all their flaws, the Trixie, Discord and alicorn Twilight episodes had me smiling throughout. And they are definitely making efforts to make the show look more and more impressive.

The lesson is simple: relax and treat this as any other show and you will enjoy it. Take it too seriously and treat it like it’s life-changing and every little change or experiment will ruin it, and you are going to have a bad time. Simple as. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

Little Postman

Quite a few of these short animations get showcased on the Nintendo 3DS, but this is the first one I've felt compelled to comment on individually. I had the notion to do a compilation post one day, but this one needed a few more words.

A Polish animation with money from the kinds of bodies that make arthouse fans pay attention, including that country's Canal+, it deals perhaps inevitably with the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. It aims for profound and moving but lands on rather mawkish in a remarkably similar conceit to Disney's recent Paperman- albeit of course far less light-hearted – but what it does manage is a great beauty.

The short was made by BreakThru Films, not to be confused with Atomic Betty’s Breakthrough Films, but one of the two studios behind the Oscar-winning Peter and the Wolf short, which beat out such extremely strong competition as Madame Tutli-Putli and Aleksandr Petrov’s My Love – the latter of which shares with this its hand-painted quality.  Its style is nothing if not ambitious: the story of a sweet little boy scout who acts as the only form of communication between the oppressed peoples of occupied Warsaw, only to be blown up yet still manage to send his letters to their recipients in the few moments of afterlife that remain to him, is quite brilliantly told as if through animated graffiti. The boy appears on walls and billboards, leaving a trail behind him, as do the bomber planes and the fantastically-rendered explosions. The twisted form of the barricade that results from the explosion is seemingly a reference to the studio’s feature-length The Flying Machine, as is the rather obvious use of Chopin, and indeed I now read that this is in fact one of 25 short films made to accompany that project.

If I see more, I may have to add to these impressions, or it may be that this entry becomes an anomaly. But enough impression was made on me by the striking visual style that even out of context, I wanted to write something.

I think this also stands as the shortest piece of animation I’ve reviewed yet. Will it be outdone by She and Her Cat?