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.)


logboy said...

if i remember correctly, ghibli still have a policy of no more than 10% of any feature they produce can be CGI. now, if that's enhanced by CGI or dominated by CGI or entirely done by CGI, I don't know... for me, as a one-time digital artist still very familiar with those techniques and still very interested in those skills and in particular with the application of technology to express emotion, i'm certain that CGI can be used to advance what it's possible to achieve without being reliant or too obviously generated rather than using it all as a tool. 4C manage this, to see it as a tool for animation, and manage some work which, although clearly different in style and not so obviously based in the skill of hand-drawn animation as ghibli stuff is, it's advancing the art whilst many still struggle to see it as such....

Nicholas Rucka said...

I didn't know about Ghibli's 10% rule. That's interesting and I guess it's cool, but I'm always a little skeptical of the hard and fast rule that makes it feel like a stunt and less like art. (DOGMA 95 comes to mind.)

Anyway, CGI is just a tool to be used, for better or for worse. With 4ºC it's generally for the better, imo.

Michael Arias said...

"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."

Regardless of what you thought of TEKKON's script or my directing, this makes about as much sense as saying that one needs to be African American to play jazz or Japanese to make sushi. Quite unjust indeed.

It's ironic to me that more fuss has been made of my not being Japanese by folks outside of Japan than here, in Tokyo, where I've worked and lived for the past 16 years (longer than anywhere else I've lived, by the way). Not even in the few really bad reviews I got here, did anyone point the finger at my being American.

But thanks anyway for the space you've dedicated to TEKKON and the rest of our work. We need the support.


Nicholas Rucka said...

Hi Michael,

Thank you for making TEKKON KINKREET and for taking the time to read my thoughts on your film, Studio 4ºC and for posting a comment.

You know, you're right, I don't know you and your Japanese language ability so I made an unfair assumption. But to be more specific, I knew that you'd lived in Japan for an extended period of time as you told me so when I met you briefly at the Studio 4ºC offices back in October 2006. Though imprecise in my comment, I was referring more to the screenwriter Anthony Weintraub who is based in the US, if I'm not mistaken?

At any rate...

Having seen TEKKON in both Japan (in Japanese, which I can speak) and in the US with English subs, I was trying to figure out why for a film that has so many components that are working well, does it ultimately not gel for me. My conclusion is that there's a pacing issue with the second act that's a result of an impreciseness of the scripted storytelling.

What I was wondering and what I failed to articulate better on the blog page, is whether what you were aiming for as a director was being lost in communication with the animators and staff or was it just a directing and story shortcoming?

Does this sound like I'm questioning your fluency? I don't mean to. But I do know from living in Japan for an extended period of time at several points in my life, is that sometimes communication can break down in unusual ways and that what I thought I was clearly articulating was in fact, being misread. You can then look at this as my trying to find an external reason for why your film doesn't gel entirely for me-- in a sense I was siding with you, that your vision was intact and got lost somewhere in the process.

Now, as for the prejudice criticism, I think that's unfair considering the fact that I was in no way implying that you need to be Japanese to make a film in Japan. I don't know if you read my previous comments about the film, but I praised your work as a trailblazer, wondering out-loud if you were the first non-Japanese anime director in Japan. This was to me a wonderful thing and a movement in the right direction for more diversified and creative approaches to storytelling. I know that this is something that Eiko Tanaka wants to do: foster international, cross-cultural ties.

I hope this goes some way to explaining my statement. You should be proud of the film, I think, regardless of the problems it has. I heartily recommended it to anyone who would listen to me that they should go see it; even with flaws it's a great movie going experience.

At any rate, I'm not sure if you'll pop back in to see what I've responded with but I hope you will and perhaps agree to an interview for about the film. It'd be great to talk about working in anime in Japan, the creative process of making TEKKON KINKREET, your thoughts on the film itself and its international reception.

I know that the DVD is set for a US release sometime next month (Sept 2007), so perhaps the time is good?

email me off list if you're interested: nicholas*at*



Michael Arias said...

Hi Nicholas,

Thanks again for the space on your pages. I'll try here to address a couple of the points you mention.

First of all, regarding subtitles, I'm sure you're aware what a terrible compromise subtitles are, even the best written ones. You can't possibly read a movie and watch a movie simultaneously and expect the same as one would get experiencing the movie (with it's dialog) as a unified organic entity. The subtitles are not the same as the script: there are limitations related to read-times, overlapping dialog, and screen space (hence subtitles are typically different between theatrical and home video versions of a film). I don't want to blame everything on subtitles: if the movie doesn't work, it doesn't work. But you did mention some of the translation choices made in subtitling, so I thought it worth addressing. By the way, representing "Shiro" and "Kuro" in English as "Black" and "White" (or in Spanish as "Negro" and "Blanco") was my choice. Those are the characters names but they also have meanings that are very relevant to the story, as do "Hebi" ("Snake") and "Nezumi" ("Rat"). I haven't yet heard a method of representing these names in English that doesn't involve sacrificing either meaning or sound.

Regarding writer Anthony Weintraub's involvement: Anthony did indeed write his screenplay in English, based on his reading of the English and French translations of Taiyo's manga. He supplemented his research with several face-to-face meetings and interviews with Taiyo himself. I also took Anthony on some "location scouting" expeditions though downtown Tokyo and Hong Kong just to give him some concrete (no pun intended) reference for the world of TEKKON. And from there he spent about a year going through a few drafts. I provided some fairly detailed specs as to the look and feel of the film and what of the original I intended to emphasize and what to downplay or eliminate. And, though the dialog is taken mostly from the original, the structure of the film is largely Anthony's invention.

But I'm quite happy with our script - it's more than I'd asked or hoped for. In addition, I ended up diverging from the script in enough places while storyboarding (and later, editing) that the final movie is more a blend of the script, the original, and my own ideas. So I don't think it's fair to blame Anthony for whatever you think are TEKKON's shortcomings (I suppose there are various schools of thought on whether the finished film is ultimately the director's or the writer's responsibility).

In this case at least, I don't think language was as much an issue as you might assume. Of course, translation is a difficult and imperfect process, and getting the script into Japanese was quite a lengthy endeavor. But storytelling is storytelling, and I saw Anthony's job as that of creating a structure to best serve the story of the manga in a cinematic context.

...What I was wondering and what I failed to articulate better on the blog page, is whether what you were aiming for as a director was being lost in communication with the animators and staff or was it just a directing and story shortcoming...

Communicating one's ideas to such a large staff of artists is an enormous challenge even if one ignores language and cultural issues. That's really the sine qua non of directing, as I see it. And I would be lying to say that there were no instances in which I felt I wasn't making myself heard properly. But, again, language isn't the culprit you're looking for. I'm fluent in spoken and written Japanese but my Japanese certainly isn't perfect. But it is certainly up to the task of directing. And if I can't get something across with words (as is often the case), I can draw it, photograph it, act it, etc. We were designing and storyboarding TEKKON for more than a year and, by the end of preproduction, everyone had a very clear picture of the journey we were embarking on.

TEKKON's far from perfect, and there's dozens of bits that bother me and that I would gladly give my left nut for the chance to redo! With a Pixar-sized budget and another year to work, I'm sure I'd have been able to better realize TEKKON (who knows?). But it is what it is, and my vision is intact, without question. If the movie doesn't gel for you, please do blame me. I'd never question your taste - honestly, that's really all that matters to me. But your theories about why it didn't work for you don't really hit the mark.

Nice to hear that you liked MINDGAME, one of my favorites too. Sadly, an unabashed commercial failure in Japan (TEKKON arguably being 4C's first genuine domestic hit). I'll be interested to hear what you think of GENIUS PARTY.

Thanks again for this forum Nicholas.


Jason Gray said...

First of all, it's great that in this day an age a director such as yourself will come onto a site and address fans and critics one on one.

When I first saw Tekkon (at La Foret, Harajuku with no subs) you spoke, in articulate Japanese, about the film up on stage. The surprising thing I learned was that despite your background in developing visual software that even Studio Ghibli has used, that you don't (can't?) draw by hand. Though a good number of animation directors over the years didn't either. Though it seems you contributed heavily to the visual world of Takaramachi -- which is stunning. I see bits of Kichijôji, bits of Kowloon, bits of Shanghai...

You talked of your long obsession with the Matsumoto Taiyō gensaku and your devotion to the project, I could understand why you were the inevitable choice to direct.

With the script...Just for contrast, something like Ratatouille (or 『レミーのおいしいレストラン』as it's known here) as well as the The Incredibles, were excellent on the written page before a pixel was rendered. The scripts stand alone.

Asking someone who was at Ghibli, they had heard no hard and fast rule about percentage of CG, but Ghibli wants their work to look like as little was employed as possible. Spirited Away dabbled with it and by Howl's they were using it exensively. This is explained on the DVD extras, I believe.

Enjoyed Genius Party a lot -- looking forward to Part 2 and your next film, Michael.

Jason Gray said...

Oh, and I know Nick -- he definitely didn't mean to question your fluency and Especially wouldn't imply that people stick to their racial lots in life!

Jason Gray
(Screen International)

Michael Arias said...

Hi Jason - and Nick.

I guess posting on Nick's pages is just me wanting to set the record straight as to what my intentions were and how things came about. There was an enormous amount of Japanese press on TEKKON so you won't see me doing this on Japanese sites. But I feel a special need to participate directly in English-language contexts as there's no one else around to champion TEKKON outside of Japan.

There's one director I know of who is quite active in discussing his work in public forums - Peter Chung (the original AEON FLUX). He's the guy who inspired me to start responding myself.

Interesting that you saw the movie at LaForet - a terrible video projection if I remember correctly. But the moderator, Koichi Nomura, is brilliant and I very much enjoyed our conversation.

It's not so much that I can't draw or don't like to - I can and do whenever I can. But, working with some of the best draftsmen in the world, there's a point of diminishing returns beyond which it's better to let the pros do what they do. So I ended up drawing only as much as I had to in order to communicate my ideas to my art director, animation supervisors, or other TEKKON artists. Most often this was in the form of stick figure storyboards or very rough layouts. Just enough so that one of my staff could get the point. Oftentimes words were more efficient.

What I meant by saying that I don't draw is to differentiate between myself and animator-directors (Koji Morimoto, Masaaki Yuasa, etc.) or mangaka-directors (Katushiro Otomo, Kon Satoshi, etc.). All of those guys make movies that are, in a sense, moving versions of their own drawings. I guess the closest relative to me might be Shinichiro Watanabe - he "can't draw" either.

So TEKKON is really a synthesis of my own vision and the pictorial sensibilities of my staff (and of course of Taiyo Matsumoto's, whose influence, though indirect, was far-reaching). Though I didn't draw TEKKON's characters or backgrounds myself, I did spend an enormous amount of time designing, working out effects, and compositing shots, cutting the completed sequences, and supervising post-production.

That's all for today. Thanks (both Jason and Nick) for your support and encouragement.