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Drawing Inspiration: Japanese Animation


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Akira - Sun 13 (13.00) & Wed 16 August (18.15)

Akira is, perhaps, the most “anime” of all animes. Katsuhiro Otomo’s legendary 1988 animation bears many of the tropes that are commonly associated with animation from Japan: simpler character animation than America’s squash-and-stretch style; teenagers with a flair for melodrama; an utterly insane finale where everything seems to fall apart. It excels in these areas and few animations – from any nation – have matched the energy of its action sequences or the scope of Otomo’s vision. It was a gigantic crossover hit that introduced huge chunks of western cinema audiences to the animation of Japan.

Yet for all that anime has recognizable tropes and a familiar aesthetic, the Drawing Inspiration season shows just how diverse Japanese animation can be. Anime is not a genre, it is a medium. Although stereotypes of anime abound (and Akira gleefully perfects many of them), it is no more uniform a medium than animation made in America. If you see every film in the season, you will witness sights such as ink-blot explosions in World War II, underground worlds populated by brawling gods and a silent movie about a stranded man and his turtle nemesis. Every film has its own distinctive look, while the themes and storytelling techniques are equally varied.

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Your Name - Sun 6 (14.15) & Wed 9 August (18.15)

One thing that is certainly true of the medium as a whole is its rapidly increasing popularity outside of Japan. Netflix’s push for big-name anime titles and the advent of anime streaming services such as Crunchyroll have made animation from Japan more accessible than ever in the UK. Miles Thomas, the founder of Crunchyroll, described the growing appreciation and awareness of anime in Britain: “I'm seeing all the major papers covering a smaller, more niche anime film in A Silent Voice. That was very inspiring to me, since I feel like that kind of film is the kind of thing that would not even be noticed by the traditional anime audience ten years ago, let alone mainstream British newspapers.”[1]

Your Name, the latest film from Makoto Shinkai, is further evidence of the growing popularity of anime outside of Japan. As it stands, it is the most successful Japanese animation at the worldwide box office, ever. Shinkai is one of a younger generation of directors who are making a name for themselves among western audiences, alongside people such as Mamoru Hosoda (The Boy and the Beast) and Naoko Yamada (A Silent Voice). These increasingly  famous directors are often lazily cited as “the next Hayao Miyazaki,” a sign of the animation titan’s fame in the Western World – evidently, the legendary figure behind Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away will continue to dominate public perceptions of anime for many years to come. However, all of these newer names are fantastic directors in their own right, who have their own preoccupations, styles and voices that are distinct from Miyazaki’s own brilliance.

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Howl's Moving Castle - Sun 30 July (14.00) & Wed 2 August (18.10)

Although there is great variety in Japan’s animated output, western audiences are increasingly drawn to anime for qualities that repeatedly appear in the medium. Part of it is the sheer beauty of the animation. Although modern anime often uses computer generated imagery to enhance its visuals, most films maintain a traditional, 2D aesthetic that is painfully lacking in western animation. Howl’s Moving Castle, one of Miyazaki’s very best films, is a visual marvel. The eponymous mobile home is a whirring, clanking, hand-drawn beauty; a morass of moving parts that manages to be equal parts beautiful and ungainly. It marches around lush, mountainous landscapes and passes by immaculate European towns.

Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World feels inspired by the films of Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli’s other giant of the medium. The story, which follows young families during bombing raids in World War II, obviously draws comparisons to Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. However, the soft palette tones and the dramatic use of white space in the frame reflect his other works, such as Only Yesterday or The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Meanwhile, The Red Turtle, which was produced by Studio Ghibli but directed by the Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, is one of the most visually sumptuous animations of recent years. Dropping any kind of dialogue from the film, de Wit relies wholly on his hand-drawn mise-en-scène to tell the story. Lush forests fill the frame with green, or wide-angled shots of the ocean shimmer with a tranquil but menacing blue.

Another reason crowds are increasingly drawn to anime is the compassion that characterises so many of the films in the medium. Many anime films that cross over to the UK focus on teenagers or young adults, yet they never look down on or patronise the characters and their feelings. Take the films of Mamoru Hosoda, who effortlessly melds coming-of-age stories with dizzying fantasy concepts. In The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the lead character’s romantic life is of equal (or greater) importance to her than the fact that she time travels. Wolf Children tells a story of self-actualisation through the lens of werewolves, managing to make an initially alienating premise immensely moving and heartfelt. The Boy and the Beast, his latest and most ambitious work, makes this blend of real and fantastical even more clear, with a boy torn between finding a life for himself in our world and his second existence as a martial artist and friend of the Gods in an underground realm.

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A Silent Voice - Sun 27 (13.45) & Wed 30 August (20.05)

Makoto Shinkai, like Mamoru Hosoda, treats the turbulent emotions of youth with utmost seriousness and sincerity. In Voices from a Distant Star, the central relationship literally has cosmic complications as they are separated by both time and space. Your Name takes a classic cinematic trope of bodyswapping and uses it, once more, to explore what it feels like to grow up and to experience adolescence. Other films in the season, from the bullying saga of A Silent Voice to the exam anxiety of A Napping Princess, look at high school life with a seriousness that appeals to audiences around the world. Anime may be hand-drawn and often fantastical, but it tells empathetic stories about real people.

Finally, the one thing which binds almost all Japanese animations – and the reason this writer was first drawn to the medium – is the spellbinding imagination that is always on display. Animation is a purely imaginative medium, where the artists have an entirely blank page onto which they can spill their ideas. Drawing on everything from Japanese folklore to Welsh novels to densely detailed manga, anime can create images unlike anything we’re used to seeing in American or British cinema.

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Napping Princess - Sun 20 (15.15) & Wed 23 August (18.15)

Cinema is at its best when it is showing you things you have never seen before, and little does that as well as anime. Think of the explosive strangeness of Akira’s finale or the supernatural samurai showdown in The Boy and the Beast. Even animations more restrained and less fantastical than Akira, such as In This Corner of the World, overflow with imaginative power, using simple images such as a shattered window hanging from a tree to hint at a distant tragedy.

Once you’ve had your fill of the films in the Drawing Inspiration season (and exhausted the stunning back catalogue of Studio Ghibli), a whole world of imaginative cinema awaits you. You could explore a complex digital future in Hosoda’s Summer Wars, enter the dreamscapes of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika or witness the heartfelt romance of Shinkai’s Garden of Words. As more and more Japanese animation crosses over the ocean to reach British audiences, there has never been a better time to discover the magical brilliance of anime.

Nathanael Smith 

Freelance copywriter, copy editor and film critic 

July 2017


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