Reflections Inspired by Anime and Manga
By Freddy Milton
As you may know I don’t exclude my interest for stories with caricature design to merely comics. I have all through the years had a fondness for animation, and there has been made great groundbreaking storytelling innovations within that field.
The new CGI animation has contributed with improved exuberant presentation, but it has also led to a kind of conformism, where a large audience expects feature films to be shown in a certain tradition of design, which has had a narrowing effect on the design potential. When something must seem to be three dimensional there are certain rules you have to follow in consistency and regularity in the presentation.
Now you can claim that it also was the case with the old fashioned line art design used for feature films, so all in all it may more rely on a change in the medium, not the actual storytelling, and you can indeed from time to time also go over the top in fantastically rendered sequences in feature length CGI films as well.
Apart from feature films the medium has produced a heavy load of short films over the years, not just from the regular studios but in particular small independent creators, who have wanted to contribute with their narrower attempt, and some of them are also quite interesting to watch. I have many collections of these films as well. You usually find my old mentor and friend, the Academy award winning Børge Ring present in those collections.
My visit to his studio during my youth however did not manage to divert my ambition and go for a career within animation instead. My track along the road with comics was already too evident by then. But it might have been decisive earlier on, if there had been an animation school nearby, and that school did in fact pop up years later when I had long since left town.
I would like to recommend a visit to the website from that institution, Animationsskolen, the Danish School of Animation, where a number of student films have been presented, and many of them are indeed noteworthy. This school is situated in my old hometown in Jutland, Viborg. The original premises there were just a few hundred meters from my birthplace where I spent most of my youth, and I have often figured what might have happened to my career, if that school had been their during my childhood and youth? Nowadays there has recently even been added a comics division to that school.
Well, I guess I would still at some point have reflected upon matters and come to the same conclusion as Carl Barks did, that there went too much trouble into moving a character from one side of the screen to the other. That time could be better used concentrating on the storytelling, which was precisely what he did with Donald Duck distancing the comic books version so clearly to the animated origin.
In my own life I can see, that it is also the storytelling contribution to my abilities that has weighed the heaviest in the long run. This I am being made aware of through my literary attempts these days, where I have discarded the pictorial addition and gained new grounds of emotional depth in a different way with letters only.
The prime reason for this article is actually a revelation for me in the way of handling animation in Japan, where they have kept the tradition of line art animation going and in a voluminous production output.
My opinion for a long time was that apart from a single outstanding producer, Studio Ghibli, Japanese animation was of little interest to me. I thought it was merely animated versions of the vast overload of Japanese Manga comics, such as Dragonball Z and Naruto, where brilliant powerful kids fly through the universe battling mythology opponents, with or without space suits. The animation in the early films was limited, and the facial expressions way overexposed, as indeed a lot of things are within the Manga universe.
But you can say that the same is the case with American superheroes, only here it is adults in tights flying around keeping order in society by fighting legendary super villains, in comics, animation and even in live action films. These renderings have only provoked limited interest with me.
So what’s the difference now? Well, just recently I came across a heavy collection of animation from all over the world I had never seen before. That this could be the case surprised me quite a lot since I had already a collection of hundreds of feature length animation films, and I thought that was about the bulk of that medium, since I have been observing and collecting these storytelling films for over 30 years.
There were noteworthy European examples among these films, that had eluded my attention, but the basic thing was, that there was also a surprisingly heavy amount of Japanese feature length animated films, that was not inspired by the traditional Manga concept. I guess the proper term for that more expanded tradition is Anime. I had heard of groups of people sharing an interest in Anime, but until now I didn’t really know why.
Japan has always had an extensive production of Manga comics. Many of these have come to us in the West in translated versions, and the line art animated films has also been numerous. But it was only recently I discovered that among this heavy bulk of animation there also existed a tender and slow paced Anime production aimed at a different audience than the potent Manga output excelling in violence and all kinds of shrewd maiming of living flesh besides excessive sexual activities.
Maybe this is well known to others than me, but for me this discovery was a pleasant revelation. It actually started by viewing a feature called ‘Junkers Come Here’ about a girl facing the divorce of her parents. It was impressive low key and realistic, yet the animation did something extra to carry the story across. Well, there also seemed to be a talking dog, though, but that detail may lie within the girl’s imagination, as she also stated towards the end. All in all a surprising touch of realism and a sympathetic view upon handling a family conflict.
Some Anime films are very emotional. ‘My Beautiful Girl, Mari’ is such an example and ‘Whisper of the Heart’ is another. Quite surprisingly nations outside South Korea and Japan don’t seem to have found it worthwhile to exploit the more tender feelings in animated features, at least as far as I know.
Later followed viewing of works by Makoto Shinkai such as ‘Voices of a Distant Star’, ‘5 cm Per Second’ and ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’. Those are quite reflective and rather sad stories with a slow narrative and thorough contemplation. They were very moving and I haven’t seen that tone and approach anywhere else, though the graphic novel artist Jiro Taniguchi carry some of the same ambitions.
What the contemplative animation storytellers use a lot is the graphic details of our modern environment, both the old worn down factory districts as well as the urban concrete jungle. Shinkai has a way with electrical wires, railroad tracks, station platforms, long empty corridors, endless staircases, telecommunication centers and untidy apartments. These extremely precisely rendered locations express an aesthetic value that goes together well with the resigned storyline. You might have to possess a weakness for this story angle, but I found that I shared in it.
After that pleasant revelation I discovered Mamoru Hosoda and had a field day with ‘Summer Wars’, ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’ and ‘The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki’. In his work there is more action and fantasy, but the connection to family and basic human emotions is evident, and he takes his time to convey the shifts within the dramatic curve of story development.
I went further on my exploration trip into Anime and landed on Isao Takahata and experienced ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, ‘Chie the Brat’, ‘Goshu the Cellist’, ‘Pom Poko’, ‘Only Yesterday’ and ‘My Neighbors The Yamadas’. Again I was surprised by the versatility of the storytelling effort, and with Takahata it went from the deepest despair to hilarious comedy. That is the range of expression I also feel I try to cover in my books now translated into English and German, as you can see on ‘www.questland.org’.
A creator that often turns up in my surveys is Katsuhiro Otomo. He is the director of noteworthy films such as ‘Akira’, ‘Steamboy’ and ‘World Apartment Horror’, but often he contributes as a screenwriter, as is the case with ‘Metropolis’, ‘Roujin Z’ and ‘Memories’. I also have to mention ‘A Letter to Miko’ by Hiroyuki Okiura. It rang a certain bell with me, since I myself have dived into the alternative in my series of books ‘Between Life and Death’. Here the element of fantasy serves a genuine personal purpose, and that is what so often is missing in the usual run of the mill fantasy turnouts, both in literature and films.
I haven’t mentioned Hayao Miyazaki, but that is because he is so well known abroad, and with his son Goro in the directors seat it is likely that the exceptional Ghibli storytelling tradition will be ensured in the future as well. My prime experience with Miyazaki is still for nostalgic reasons ‘My Neighbor Totoro’, and it shows in a nutshell what I appreciate with Anime, the thorough warm representation of down to earth daily life combined sometimes with an element of fantasy to pinpoint some symbolic significance. Miyazaki has worked as a screenwriter on other films, such as ‘Whisper of the Heart’. I could mention other directors such as Takeshi Nakamura (‘Catnapped’ and ‘A tree of Palme’) and Keiichi Hara (‘Summer days with Coo’ and ‘Colorful’) who also has left a lasting impression on me from my extensive viewing session.
All in all I was very much surprised to find that animation that went to my heart was found in a place where I thought I already knew what to expect. Therefore I had to make this essay to promote interest in a different kind of animation from Japan that what you normally come to think of. It is well worth the effort to dig into that.