The Art of Anime

By de Wit, Alex Dudok | The World Today, April 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Art of Anime


de Wit, Alex Dudok, The World Today


Last summer, it was a rare teen in Japan who didn't go to see Your Name. By January, Makoto Shinkai's gender-bending tale ofyoung love had become the top-grossing anime - Japanese animation - film of all time. Before long, the world's media anointed Shinkai 'the new Miyazaki'.

Whether Shinkai is the spiritual heir to Hayao Miyazaki, the revered director of dazzling fantasy epics such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, is up for debate. That Miyazaki is a megastar, the reigning emperor of anime, is not. 'The new Miyazaki', really, is just shorthand for 'This guy is a big deal.'

The irony is that Shinkai's wistful meditations on romance in contemporary Japan put me in mind of another great anime filmmaker - one closely related to Miyazaki yet completely divorced from him. Isao Takahata is popular in Japan, and known to animation buffs elsewhere: the 81-yearold has been in the game for six decades. It was on his films that Miyazaki cut his teeth in the 1960s. In 1985, the two cofounded the legendary Studio Ghibli, where Takahata has made five exquisite features. However, like an anime George Harrison, he has been eclipsed by his flamboyant and more prolific partner. Nobody is ever called 'the next Takahata'.

Even as their careers intertwined, the two took pains to differentiate their styles. 'I was very conscious of making films that he would steer clear of,' Takahata later recalled. 'I hear he was doing the same as far as I was concerned.' Miyazaki deals in fantasy: his films are centred on wildly fanciful set pieces and powered by the sheer inventiveness of his designs. Takahata is the master draughtsman of social dynamics. Miyazaki's characters are mavericks; Takahata's are ordinary folk. The former exist outside of society as we know it, while the latter strain against its confines.

Some of Takahata's films contain elements of fantasy, often deriving - as in Miyazaki's works - from Japanese folklore. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya opens with a homunculus emerging Thumbelina-like from a bamboo tree. Pom Poko features a cast of shape-shifting raccoon dogs who use their testicles to fly - Disney this ain't. Yet these magical flourishes are not just for spectacle: they are there to cast a satirical light on human follies. The homunculus grows into a beautiful princess whose fey naivety exposes the vanities of aristocratic Japan. The raccoon dogs disguise themselves as humans in order to sabotage an urban development project that threatens their habitat.

Most affecting, though, are his 'realworld' films. As a child, my favourite was My Neighbours the Yamadas, a delightfully zany series of vignettes about the humdrum existence of a dysfunctional household. In its own caricatural style, the film sketches the trials of modern family life. Neighbours quarrel, children struggle with homework, a father ponders his own mediocrity. It's the closest thing Japan has to The Simpsons.

Later, I warmed to Only Yesterday, a romantic drama that weaves together scenes from a Tokyo woman's holiday in the rural north and her recollections ofher awkward school days. The film touches on familiar Takahata themes, such as childhood innocence and environmental despoliation. It moves at a measured pace that is unusual for animation but typical of the director. Moments of epiphany and beauty are related in entirely still shots - ironically, something animation is better equipped to create than live action.

Then there is Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata's most famous work. Set in the dying days of the Second World War, it follows a teenage boy and his little sister as they flee their bombed-out city. When they seek the help ofstrangers, the children are rebuffed; as things get desperate, the breakdown of the social fabric is mirrored in the deterioration of their health. Although Fireflies is based on Akiyuki Nosaka's story of the same name, Takahata drew on his own memories of the war, and the film is shot through with a horrible plausibility. …

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