Saturday, July 21, 2007
TEKKON KINKREET and More on Studio 4ºC
I had a friend in town visiting over last weekend who is pretty much the original anime fan -- having been so since he was a wee lad -- and since his timing was perfectly matched up with Sony's US release of TEKKON KINKREET (previous post) we went off to see it while simultaneously experiencing the bizarre pleasure of the flagship LANDMARK CINEMA in West Los Angeles.**
As regular readers know, this was my second time catching TEKKON KINKREET but my first time seeing it with English subs. While I'm not entirely sure that the film really makes any more sense with English subtitles for all of the pseudo philosophical blah-blah-blah that comes out of these character's mouths, it was still interesting to see the choices that were made in translation (example: translating the main character's names as 'Black' and 'White' for 'Kuro' and 'Shiro' seems too literal for my tastes-- it was in katakana to begin with right? Which would imply quotations, but what the hell do I know?).
At any rate, my initial observations haven't changed, the film has a lot of interesting stuff in it, but suffers from poor scripting and some directorial floundering. (Perhaps unjustly) I attribute both factors to the non-Japanese involvement of several key crew positions and the possible collateral that comes from trying to work in a language that is not one's own.
Still, the real star of the film-- and what I want to write about-- is the incredible animation that Studio 4ºC pulls off. My suspicion is that showing off their amazing animation prowess was the true motivation behind Studio 4ºC doing this film and collaborating with a foreign director (who is based in Japan), screenwriter, sound designer and musicians (English techno artists Plaid); in short, 4ºC wanted to greatly increase their global recognition.
Back on Christmas day, 1995, when I watched MEMORIES in a Shinjuku theater I was floored by how much of it looked like 'cinema'. Director Morimoto Koji's installment, MAGNETIC ROSE, was the first time I had seen a true consideration of cinematography (vis a vis light and shadows), camera movements, and mis en scene in an animated movie. Sure, Otomo Katsuhiro's AKIRA had raised the bar for animation with it's precise lip-synching and fluid animation but there was still a 2 dimensional 'confinement' that I was aware of the entire time I watched it: it still felt flat to me.
(Otomo's own entry to the film, CANNON FODDER, with its Stalinist Russia design aesthetic and use of basically one long tracking shot is the stuff of legend and, at the time, promised so much from Otomo that his output since then has been nothing less than disappointing.)
Perhaps then, it comes as no surprise that MEMORIES is considered by the head of Studio 4ºC Tanaka Eiko to be their first movie as a stuido. The icon of the little Boy from CANNON FODDER emblazons the private business cards of Ms. Tanaka and MAGNETIC ROSE's director Morimoto Koji is not only an active animation supervisor and director at Studio 4ºC, he can also be regarded as an unofficial head of the company. (When I was visiting their office, Mr. Morimoto was wearing large SONY headphones and blissfully drawing away at his desk, set without ego amongst the other artists'.)
In the ensuing years after MEMORIES release, with the evolution of computer integration into animation technique, the obvious choice of using computers for full animation proved too tempting for many animators and animation companies-- sometimes with tragic results. But for Studio 4ºC the thinking clearly has always been outside of the box; for them computers are regarded as any other artistic tool that should be used, when appropriate, to tell the best story.
If you were to look at BEYOND C productions (a Studio 4ºC arm) that can be found on many of the GRASSHOPPA! releases, you would find some of the best examples of young directors trying out new animation techniques, including out of the box employment of computers and CGI in animation. But one of the techniques that always struck me as fascinating was Studio 4ºC using CGI to expand the world of traditional cell drawn animation or hand painted backgrounds, occasionally using it to help texture map objects with hand realized images. This allows for more traditional real filmmaking techniques like dolly moves, tilts, and pans to occur in a more convincing manner. Perhaps the biggest compliment to the use of this technique is the fact that as an audience we don't even know it's happening, it's just part of the film.
With both MIND GAME and TEKKON KINKREET we see a different employment of computers in the filmmaking milieu. You're going to find the occasional animated object done in CGI, because it is, perhaps, a more efficient and precise means of achieving a result (example: the exploding crates of rubber duckies in MIND GAME) but the point is, you're more likely to see computer and animation being used to achieve more traditional filmmaking effects: lens flares, hand held shake, film grain, than for animation excess.
In a sense, what was started unofficially in MEMORIES and was harnessed and explored to delirious success in MIND GAME and mastered in TEKKON KINKREET, is the total employment of computers to create a new form of cinematic storytelling in animation. Sure the Studio Ghibli stuff is amazing for it's storytelling and total genius of imagination, but it's still a regular employer of traditional animation techniques for better or for worse. (Just to be clear, I am a huge Ghibli fan.) What makes watching a Studio 4º Celsius work so exciting is that you have no idea what you are going to get -- except for a horizon bending, envelope pushing, totally fresh view of the world.
I recently watched PIXAR's (and Disney's) amazing RATATOUILLE. What made this an example of one of the best animated films I've seen in a while can be boiled down to two factors: 1) Great screenwriting and 2) Incredible employment of technology in animation which is, in turn, in service of the story. The (cgi) animation has never looked more beautiful and the craft has never been higher for PIXAR. (Thank you director Brad Bird!)
I believe that somehow RATATOUILLE is related to TEKKON KINKREET in that they both show off top cutting edge animation craft while showing life on screen in a manner that I've never seen before. However, without question, RATATOUILLE is a better film than TEKKON KINKREET for its commitment to good scripting and strong storytelling.
This, too, is why MIND GAME succeeds: for its brilliant use of animation in service of story. But let's give credit where it's due. Sure Yuasa Masaaki's (湯浅政明) direction is brilliant, but ultimately it's the strength of MIND GAME manga writer and artist Robin Nishi's (ロビン西) original that carries the day. Simply, MIND GAME is inspiring and revelatory in the truths it shares and it leaves us optimistic and somehow empowered-- I can't say the same thing about TEKKON KINKREET (but its goals are admittedly different). (By the way, the fact that MIND GAME still is not available abroad-- legally-- still bugs me.)
As a summation of sorts, it seems clear that with the releases of TEKKON KINKREET, GENIUS PARTY 1 and 2 and the heap of direct to video pieces, Studio 4º Celsius is truly defining themselves as a company of incredible talent with an ability towards radical thinking and invention. With several big come-outs planned in 2008, it could be a big year for them. That said, it seems unclear whether there will ever be anything more than a small fan community abroad that recognizes their genius. However, one way to guarantee an evolution abroad is by upping their storytelling and screenwriting game; their technical ability is there, but let's see some more MIND GAME quality.
Final note: as of this posting, TEKKON KINKREET is no longer playing in LA or NYC. Total length of run: ONE WEEK.
(**The LANDMARK cinema can be summed up as an amalgam of the royal excesses of the now (in)famous Hollywood ARCLIGHT CINEMAS-- where many a Hollywood premier happens, donchaknow-- and pretty much any other multiplex in the United States-- and now, presumably, the world. Of note, some theaters at the Landmark have 'couch seating' and no, it's not as comfortable as it sounds.)