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Life, and Other Things

When I’d started this little blog two years ago, I had aimed to write about the interesting things in the world of anime and manga regularly–which I think I’ve managed to do successfully, though I turned sporadic near the end–but I’d never expected that I would actually stop. But life happened, as it always did, which made me quit even watching anime altogether (I wasn’t even able to finish Apollon). Reviving this blog never entered my mind until fairly recently, thanks to some anime I watched again, and others I managed to sneak some peeks of.

For one, I re-watched Mind Game, which really never gets old: truly, Masaaki Yuasa is one of the industry’s most talented creators, and I look forward to getting a chance to watch his new production, Kick-Heart (Mamoru Oshii is involved as creative consultant, too, which is a rather puzzling situation). It is also interesting to note that the project was crowd-funded–via the Kickstarter website–almost making me wonder whether the team had really been so strapped for resources that they had to resort to such a maneuver. Still, a new Yuasa project is a new Yuasa project, and based on what I’ve seen from the previews, it looks to be a return to his patented Mind Game aesthetic, which is a more-than-welcome sight.

A couple months ago, I’ve also had the occasion to watch three shows from past seasons: namely, Koji Masunari’s Magi (A-1 Pictures), Masashi Ishihama’s Shin Sekai Yori (A-1 Pictures), and Masahiro Ando’s Zetsuen no Tempest (Bones). I was able to watch two eps of Masunari’s series, which were lighthearted and entertaining affairs peppered with snatches of great animation here and there–especially episode 2, I recall–while the leader episode of Ishihama’s TV directorial debut was a visually interesting outing going by the flattened color palette blended with his penchant for cool and stylish angles, with the directing successfully evoking the tension from the typically slight and vague sci-fi story. I had no problems with Ando’s show, but since I had expected a more manic action-based show from the skilled action animator, I was a bit let down when the frankly uninteresting and frustratingly flimsy narrative replaced the exciting action on episode 3. But I would like to continue the three series and see what they’d done with them. (Magi is set to have a second season later this year.)

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Wolf Children: Ame and Yuki (Mamoru Hosoda, Studio Chizu)

More than five years too late, I’d finally watched Takashi Murakami’s Superflat Monogram directed by Mamoru Hosoda–it was a cutely fun short, told using Hosoda’s unmistakable traits as a director: the flat landscapes, the pronounced character acting, the colorfully imaginative alternate dimensions. In other words, it was a condensed version of what made the director someone to watch when he was still directing and drawing storyboards for TV episodes, and what launched him to his current heights when he was finally given the chance to direct full-length feature films.

Though in Summer Wars, it seemed to me that the seams of his style had finally begun to show: the film as a whole felt unsure, vapid, and diffused–the character drama for which Hosoda had been known could not match the demands of his huge cast, as the narrative was confused as to whose story it really was, and even the inevitable sci-fi trappings–while entertaining–seemed too derivative and trite, failing to compensate for the other shortcomings of the grandly staged and exquisitely animated movie. True, it was a highly ambitious film and Hosoda still deserves credit for daring to craft such a definitive statement, but it seems to me that his great skill had fallen short of reaching his tremendously lofty goal.

Turns out that Summer Wars would be his last film produced at Madhouse, too, since credit for his latest movie was given to a new studio on the block: Studio Chizu–with only Wolf Children to its name as yet. (Meanwhile, Madhouse was credited with production cooperation–and so the diaspora continues.) But that wasn’t the only change in this current stage of Hosoda’s career–Studio Chizu’s debut feature was a small step in another direction for the veteran director.

Stylistically, Wolf Children: Ame and Yuki came across to me as a film hovering delicately in the zone between TokiKake and Summer Wars. It was a return to familiar territory for Hosoda, to be sure, the film being a touching family-oriented drama, but what changed here are the tone and pace of the movie–not only because of the material, but this shift seemed to have been brought about by a conscious adjustment on his behalf. The movie was less active and more streamlined, highlighted by a few well-placed shots of great animation in spots to heighten the playfulness or the tension. And this subtle veering was the main virtue of Hosoda’s film: a welcome return to form for him.

The story is about two wolf-children–the eponymous Ame and Yuki–growing up and coming to terms with their dual nature up in the Japanese countryside. Opening with their mother’s story (as narrated by a grown-up Yuki), it tells of how she had met an unnamed wolf-man during her days as a university student, had fallen in love, had children with the man–in short, they had led a satisfying life, right until the man’s unfortunate death: a circumstance which, together with the increasing hardships of a single mother in the city, ultimately forced her to retreat to the countryside.

From the beginning of the movie, one can sense that change is afoot: the other dimension is presented in a more typically anime fashion–a broad, limitless meadow–completely undisturbed by Hosoda’s usual flatly rendered flamboyance. The pacing is steady and economical–Hosoda’s old-school willful directing surreptitiously takes the fore during the meeting scenes between the mother and the wolf-man: shots repeated almost action-for-action, with only minor variations. Even the gesture the shopkeeper makes to the mother is the same on both occasions. Care was given to the narrative progression so as to keep itself from going too fast, bewildering the viewer, instead leaving the important scenes with enough room to breathe and to flesh out the two characters and then to supply sufficient reason for the actions to come later in the film–this is done through the portrayal of the husband and wife’s unremarkable quotidian life.

As in his Utena episode 33, Hosoda portrayed sex in this film, though once again he attacked it only tangentially. The interesting aspect of this iteration, however, was that the action took place hours after the wolf-man had transformed into his werewolf-form, meaning that the couple had sex while he was in his wolf state. In the hands of lesser directors, this scene would have become unnecessarily trashy and disturbing, but Hosoda successfully endowed it with a graceful dramatic touch by keeping the action natural using dimmed lighting and the woman’s realistic expression. It really looks and feels like the logical and inevitable consummation of an ordinary couple’s blossoming love affair.

Hosoda has always been good at fleshing out his characters and giving them substantial affect throughout a film, and in Wolf Children, he hasn’t lost his touch in that department. The scenes depicting their family life before and after the husband dies were made entertaining without falling back to the tired and worn clichés of anime film language: the wolf-children behaved just like real children would, only that these particular children have wolf blood–to serve as examples, one has: the manic Yuki chewing up their living room, running around and growling after she is refused to be given a walk, Ame crying in the middle of the night and howling the next–and the clueless single mother acted just like another one would, except that this one was quite the bookworm. To enlighten herself on the necessities of raising two children–wolf-children at that–she resorted to burying herself in books, even going so far as to refuse to give birth at the hospital for fear of her children getting instantly ostracized by the humans. Seeking practical knowledge in various subjects of literature would be one of the mother’s defining characteristics–from wanting to know more about wolves to wanting to know which vegetables were good to plant, her bookishness helped her a lot. It endeared her to me, and made her more human on the screen.

One scene I especially liked was that in which Yuki got sick after eating silica gel. Hosoda skillfully structured the scene to highlight the mother’s growing immediate confusion and the underlying dilemma facing her about raising her children: trapped at a literal fork in the road between a pediatrician and a veterinarian, the mother eventually ducks into a phone booth and ends up calling the pediatrician for help. What ultimately saved the mother from further trouble was her daughter’s swift recovery, also serving as the scene’s punchline. Instead of turning out to be a stock gag trick common in family movies, the scene was rendered even a bit poignant by the deft lay-out work and character placing, together with their funnily believable acting.

Even if Wolf Children was a family movie deep-down (and animated at that), it saves itself from being a sappy and frivolously manipulative–and ultimately tedious–melodrama, which is again another remarkable hallmark of Hosoda’s directing. In TokiKake, he prevents it from crossing the line into hackneyed teenage drama territory by keeping the dramatic oscillations low-key and natural–saving the high-impact scenes just when the story called for it–while in Summer Wars, he holds it back from crashing into the ensemble family drama sphere by doing much of the same (though in this case, the drama had been buried too deeply in its own confusion to be really effective: whose story it really was, what kind of story it wanted to be). Here in Wolf-Children he showcased that predilection of his once again, and this time it came off as rather feeling more mature, more assured, and more sophisticated.

The film itself feels more minimalistic compared to Hosoda’s first few features. Excepting TokiKake, the other films have a main cast consisting of more than five characters, all moving around in a large-scale plot–getting themselves out of a mystical island (One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island), or saving the world through the sheer power of mathematics and the Internet (Summer Wars). Even in TokiKake, where the main cast is comprised only of three characters and the story itself is grounded in the humdrum realities of teenage life, the premise is grand in scale as befits the sci-fi narrative. The concept of time-travel has been run through the ground many times before in other films both in Japan and elsewhere, and it has always been treated as a world-altering thing–such is the case in TokiKake (still Hosoda’s best work, in my opinion).

Even the music in Wolf Children consists of a single motif, deftly utilized in important sequences–all coming with minor changes. I found it to be a nice complement to the relatively simple dramatic structure accompanying the movie. The focus here is obviously the rigors of the family’s daily life during the children’s difficult adolescence, and it would be horribly incongruous if the film had been blasted with overly eloquent musical scoring.

Curiously, even with the economical pacing, the film sometimes feels a bit uneven in some places. The reversal of Yuki from a rambunctious kid into a feminine prepubescent girl seemed a little too fast, although it was undeniably handled gracefully and was consistent with her character. But bringing about such a drastic change using the device of the dress felt a bit pat and convenient. Meanwhile, the subtle transformation of the timid and meek Yuki into a strong man (or wolf) of the forest was more believable: not only because it was hinted at by the actual narration, but also because it was portrayed rather convincingly by his trips to the forest reserve and then to the jungle. Strange that the gradual shift of the more fantastically imagined character came across as more natural and organic–though maybe that’s just nitpicking.

In light of the film’s low-key and down-to-earth drama, there were some parts that hewed dangerously close to sappiness and melodrama: for example, when the mother is returned to human civilization–after her overnight search for her lost son–there is somehow an upbeat tone, even of jubilance. It’s kind of strange to see the mother waving happily to her son and wishing him well as he ventures off to the forest, running away from home forever. Personally, it would have been more effective had the scene adopted a more viscerally bittersweet tone, something similar to the ending sequence of TokiKake–though obviously they are two different beasts.

I was impressed with Yuki’s scene, though. Her relationship with her classmate Satoshi was understandably cutesy, but most impressive was the climactic scene between the two of them–when the two had been trapped by a storm in school–because not only did it boast the most creative storyboard (in terms of composition) in the film, it encapsulated the organically effective drama which made Hosoda a name to watch in the first place (a little too juvenile, though it was).

Wolf Children’s animation work was consistently nuanced and playful: animation director Takaaki Yamashita (Hosoda’s usual associate) transformed character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s (Hosoda’s partner since TokiKake) sharply angled drawings into more rounded and pliable designs. Instead of the sharp jawlines and chins, they now look more curved and pronounced, facilitating the different mode of expression seen in the film. And when the characters laugh and smile heartily, their teeth also disappear–their gaping mouths drawn in a light shade of red and pink for the tongue–which somehow makes them look even happier and more jovial. Or otherwise their teeth are drawn in an exaggerated way, drawn in huge rows of white inside huge mouths. Their movements are delightfully real yet active in the unique way animation is active.

The animation highlight, though, is Toshiyuki Inoue’s brilliant running-down-the-snowy-slope scene in the middle of the film. The characters assuming different poses all the while launching huge chunks of snow in their wake was a sheer delight to watch–the motion was pure and endlessly imaginative, and the snow flying behind them was exciting and exhilarating to watch: only good FX work can achieve such a satisfying effect.

Inoue leads the animators–followed by such names as Tatsuzo Nishida, Nobutake Ito, Tatsuya Tomaru, Yuichiro Sueyoshi, and Hideki Hamasu. The film is incredibly unified, however, that it precludes spotting the individual styles of these animators–excepting, of course, Inoue’s masterful snow sequence. And I guess that really isn’t the point here.

Returning to form while toning down his style, Hosoda managed to get back up after the blunder that was Summer Wars with Wolf Children. While I don’t think the film surpasses his earlier works such as One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and TokiKake, Wolf Children is a welcome addition to the talented director’s ever-increasing filmography. Now that he’s apparently freelance, it would be interesting to see what he does and where he goes next in his subsequent projects.

POSTSCRIPT:

Speaking of looking forward, I am excited to watch Hiroyuki Imaishi’s new TV show produced at his new place, Studio Trigger: Kill la Kill. As always, the anime has a borderline retarded title, but it should be high-proof Imaishi in that it looks to have the same hyperkinetic and impossibly frenzied animation and directing we all know from the man–all supplemented by his ex-Gainax mates (Nakashima, Otsuka, Yoshinari). Imaishi is , after all, one of the few directors in the industry who have the conceit necessary to conceptualize a project from the ground up and then to actualize the concept successfully, following a personal idiosyncratic style. If Trigger is to have an early flagship anime, this would most probably be it.

Looks like Kyosogiga isn’t a mere ONA anymore, either. Finally a TV show has been produced, though I don’t know if Rie Matsumoto is still on the director’s chair this time. If she is, I would be interested to see if she can sustain the wild and crazily oblique story for the duration of the show. Those things were what made the ONA so good and fun to watch, after all. It’d be painfully disappointing if the series would be swallowed up by the limits of TV production, which is what usually happens with otherwise promising shows.

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