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Moving Words and Pictures

Since almost all the TV anime I’ve been following for the fall season has just finished and I haven’t picked up any winter show as of yet (I notice there are already one or two that just began airing), I decided to pick up older anime to watch. I think I’m going to have to do that a lot more often this time around (that, and to read more manga) as I frankly don’t have that high of an expectation for the rest of the winter anime line-up aside from a few interesting titles. The early chart for spring has been released though, and I’m looking forward to that one more. Aside from that, I thought 2010 was quite the memorable year for anime as a whole, both good and bad stuff included. I still have some gripes with the industry, but they still produce fun shows to kill time on, so it’s all good.

I said I have gripes with the industry in the earlier paragraph, and one of them is the increasingly widespread adaptation of light novels into anime. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way debasing their worth as a literary medium or what-have-you, but most of these adaptations I’ve seen are, quite simply put, bland and uninteresting. Admittedly, there are some obvious exceptions, such as Ryohgo Narita’s Baccano! or in a sense even Nisioisin’s Bakemonogatari/Katanagatari.There are some that have interesting settings, but the other parts are taken from the anime grab bag of cliches and tropes. The medium is close to approaching the diversity, width and far reach of its cousin, manga, and I’d like to see anime choose to translate into motion the really great ones which I presume to be hidden under the deep muck (that, or just do manga adaptations properly, which is wishful thinking). So I guess what I’m saying is that there is no problem with light novels in general, but it’s the choices of which to adapt into anime that irks me. Having something like Index get spin-offs and sequels and what not while gems like Blade of the Immortal get horribly butchered animated versions–thanks a lot, Bee Train–leaves me with a very sour taste in my mouth. At least Tatsunoko chose to reboot Yozakura Quartet and Princess Resurrection. The former proves to be a vast improvement over the original, and the latter looks promising though it is a step lower.

Thankfully there have been adaptations of “real” novels, folk tales or what-have-you in the course of the anime industry’s life, and most of them were done quite well. I find that it is a large goldmine of material, and it is only beneficial for anime to look to them more while waiting for other media to mature, so to speak. Even the much-maligned studio GONZO produced what seems to be their best work in Gankutsuou, which was an adaptation of Frenchman Alexander Dumas’ classic romantic tale The Count of Monte Cristo (a slightly loose adaptation though it was). Mahiro Maeda is that studio’s best director and artist, and I wouldn’t mind him directing all their shows. Recently there have been adaptations of Japanese stories as well. 2008 saw Ryosuke Nakamura‘s take on Natsuhiko Kyougoku‘s murder-mystery Mouryou no Hako produced under Madhouse. Even today I still consider that show to be the dark horse of that year, with its appealing art, measured pace and crafty directing. Nakamura has been one director to take note of after that. The same studio then followed it up the next year with the omnibus series Aoi Bungaku (Blue Literature) taking material from Japanese classic literature. Not surprisingly, Nakamura reappears in the series. (The series also features character designs from Japan’s leading shonen mangaka such as Takeshi Obata, Tite Kubo and Takeshi Konomi, but that’s not important). In 2009, another Nakamura–Kenji Nakamura–took an award-winning novel (In the Pool) and brought it to life; the said anime being Trapeze. And of course, who can forget Masaaki Yuasa’s own 2010 production The Tatami Galaxy?

A Country Doctor (Koji Yamamura, original work: Franz Kafka)

Behind the huge looming shadow of the industry operates creators who utilize their own style of self-expression, presumably because the industry can be too limiting, or their personal artistic calling. The independent animation scene in Japan is home to a lot of creative people, and is also home to industry luminaries. I don’t want to bother going in-depth into it since I only know a handful of people in the indie world and I haven’t gotten a chance to watch their works yet. Much more capable hands have talked about it in detail, and I’d leave it to them (such as who Tadanari Okamoto and Kihachiro Kawamoto are and their various works, for example).

I also have no concrete idea as to how Franz Kafka’s works really read like in their normal prose except for second or even third-hand opinion. So I walked blind into something again. Well, not really blind, but with no clear expectation as to what I could get out of this independent short based on one of his works. The director, Koji Yamamura, is an independent Japanese animator, but he’s hardly unknown. He’s made waves around the world with his various short films (having received multiple awards in Japan and abroad) and his adaptation of Kafka’s A Country Doctor is my first foray into his films. Today, Yamamura is considered as one of Japan’s leading indie animators and one of its best creators. In fact this particular short film was selected for the Excellence Prize in the Japan Media Arts Festival in 2007, joining the ranks of Gurren Lagann and Mitsuo Iso’s Dennou Coil–though the Grand Prize was awarded to Keiichi Hara’s film Summertime with Coo the Kappa (this year’s Grand Prize went to Yuasa and Tatami Galaxy, his second after 2004’s Mind Game).

So then, about the film. What jumps out at people about this film is the visuals. I don’t know whether or not the eerily bleak art and animation is a Yamamura staple, but they are easily the most memorable part of the whole 20-minute anime. It reminded me a bit of the surrealistic atmosphere set by Cat Soup, but just without its disjointed feeling of despair and desolation. Country Doctor feels very unified throughout, and to me that’s what makes it a very strong film. The animation is also creatively praiseworthy, as Yamamura freely plays with his characters in this anime, literally bending their bodies and letting them break logic with their movements every few seconds. It also works well with the narrative, as seen at the moment the doctor arrives at his patient’s place (his legs stretch from the far end of the screen and then into the patient’s doorway, to convey the instantaneous movement implied). Their free lines and pulsating shapes and forms give strength to the surreal atmosphere and to the unusual characters. Yamamura also shows very clever direction, such as having the titular doctor grab the moon with both hands, have his head go through it as the moon transforms into a noose and hangs him.

It is often said that visuals as expressive and stylish as this are marks of experimental works. While that is often the case, I don’t think it explains the oddball scheme in Country Doctor. Artists do try a lot of different tricks in order to find out which style they are most comfortable in, and in which style they feel can express their personality and artistic intent most effectively, but it doesn’t feel like that in this film. Indie films are said to have that raw strength. Rather than experimenting, I feel as if this was done by a master who knows what he wants to do with his characters, his art, and his animation. Yamamura has an assured hand that carefully weaves clever ploys and tricks into his work that feel good as raw animation, and holds up well when put in context with the narrative. In fact, I would call Makoto Shinkai’s first short She and Her Cat or even Atsuya Uki’s short Cencoroll–though the latter is more of an industry-flavored work–more experimental than this. Shinkai establishes his personal brand of limited-animation style there, and I feel that the latter just tried to see what a solo project feels like rather than pure artistic expression (it didn’t work very well). In the case of Country Doctor, Yamamura clearly knows what he’s doing.

The music is quite spot-on too. As I pointed out earlier, the whole thing feels very unified throughout and each part complements the others well. Music helps set the atmosphere, tone and feel of every visual production and it is used cleverly here too. The score is low-key with occasional bouts of energy which meshes well with the eerie set design. Of particular note was the use of the boys choir at the tail-end of the anime. I’ve always had a soft spot for these kinds of background music and I am pleased with what I’ve heard in Country Doctor. It won’t make any soundtrack, but the music does what it was designed to do, and it does the job well.

However, I found the aesthetics and the narrative to be a little too complementary, so much so that I hardly caught anything the anime was saying. Kafka is supposed to read like this based on what I’ve heard, and I’ve had hoped to understand his style better when it got translated to animation. Instead I got almost nothing. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, so I guess most of it just went over my head. Grasping the overall plot is easy enough, but it’s the littlest details that prove vital to absorbing the whole deal. The surreal visuals make the already surreal narrative that much more muddled to me. I guess it’s just a personal thing and a matter of the source material. In which case, I was forced to watch the film mostly for the animation, and I didn’t see any problem with that. The short can stand only on that, and it would still work very well. I can even say that Yamamura and Kafka are almost perfect fits, based on this.

It’s good to see people like Koji Yamamura blaze their own trail and go about animation in their own personal and creative ways. Creativity still exists, be they independent or commercial anime, and credit must be given where it is due. Any anime being superior by sole virtue of independence is a flawed argument at best, but some of the great works happen to exist there. Koji Yamamura is the leading name in the indie anime scene, and it would be nice to see more people find their creative calling no matter where they may be.

Happy New Year, guys. Hope you enjoy anime and manga in the next year, and the years to come.

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