The Art Of Animé 2/6/16
I confess to especially liking Kung Fu and ninja movies. Fortunately for me and my guilty little secret, the first few encounters were good enough to keep me coming back for more. Time passed, and I discovered I wanted more than just action movies with subtitles and good production values, like “Saving General Yang,” “Red Cliff,” or “Little Big Soldier.” But then, on “Adult Swim,” I discovered cartoons like “Cowboy Bebop,” “Samurai Champloo,” and “Ghost In The Shell.” Around the same time, I happened to purchase a beautiful little movie, called, “Metropolis.” I had no idea they were related. All were uniquely mature and surprisingly watchable, and they made me want to see more. Now comes the “confession” part…
I have discovered that I really like animé.
Animé (“anna may”) is an interesting art form which usually starts out with black-and-white comic magazines, which eventually are made into cartoons for television, and even sometimes made into live-action movies. As an artist, the expressive, talented artwork attracted me.
The first non-mechanical show I saw was a fun time-travel Japanese style called, “InuYasha,” with watercolor background art that was masterfully painted. The characters were cartoonish, but the story was strong, the animation was well done, the dialogue was frisky and funny, and those beautiful backgrounds drew me back again and again. For the best shows now out there, the artwork on the backgrounds has only improved.
The closing credits on season 1 of “Chihayafuru” contains a gorgeous watercolor view of translucent red needlepoint maple leaves falling into a shallow brook that will take your breath away. Delicate watercolors of hardwood forests in autumn, surrounding gorgeous “red leaf rain” backgrounds of red maple leaves in “Hiiro No Kakera,” a pure eye-candy piece, has as its ongoing theme those incredibly perfect red leaves, falling gently outdoors, or appearing repeatedly in numerous scenes in furnishings or decorations. Looking at the loose, softly juicy watercolor backgrounds of “Blue Spring Ride” brings back memories of my watercolor mentor of long ago. My top artistic choices? “Hiiro No Kakera,” ” Noragami,” “Chihayafuru,” “Your Lie In April,” and “Nobunaga Concerto.” Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
The very good shows which have music central to the story are always superior. The smooth, precise animation and careful and accurate portrayals of every movement of the characters’ hands, fingers, and instruments, the music chosen, and even the use of actual brand names in stories, such as Yamaha™ (“Kids on the Slope”), Steinway & Sons™ (“Your Lie In April”). Mizuno™ appears in “Ace of the Diamond”). Impressive, and expensive to produce.
Without the big-eyed, pastel-haired characters, most purists would probably not consider the more realistic recent offerings as true animé, but even as a spinoff, the beauty of the newer, more realistic art work is indisputably gorgeous, and may help the genre appeal to a wider audience.
Newer background art is subtle and beautiful. The characters are skillfully rendered, varied, and believable, like those in “Noragami,” or the breathtaking artwork in “Nobunaga Concerto,” with backgrounds of beautiful watercolors and designs that could easily be framed to stand on their own. Masterful treatment of clouds, sunsets, forests, and mountains will challenge any artist watching.
Also featured in many contemporary stories is an artistic fascination with street and business signs, brickwork, sidewalk cracks, and especially, power poles and tangles of overhead wires, something that US artists strive to leave out, while animé artists seem to be drawn to include these detailed signs of life as picturesque, even in ninja stories like “Naruto Shippuden.”
For the hardcore fan, there is at least one online streaming service similar to Netflix™, devoted almost entirely to manga, animé, and Asian television series, most notably one called, “Crunchyroll.™” Animé can also be found on Netflix™ and Hulu.™
Animé has an enormous and mostly rabid following worldwide, not just of the shows themselves (most of which are made from the art stories in thick, black-and-white comic-book magazines called “manga“, like Shonen Jump™), but the games, spinoffs, aftermarket memorabilia, expositions and role-playing, a popular Japanese pastime. Just recently, for instance, I saw Edward and Alphonse Elric, the alchemist brothers from “Full-Metal Alchemist” crossing the street in downtown Denver.
The latest transition has been to move the manga story from paper to cartoon animation to the live-action screen, with varying degrees of success (“Dragon Ball Z” was surprisingly almost watchable, but “The Last Airbender,” a great animated series, was unfortunately a live-action flop). “Usagi Drop,” The movie version of which is called “Bunny Drop,” is about a young bachelor who adopts his deceased grandfather’s abandoned six-year-old lovechild. “Space Brothers” has found its way onto live-action video media, with good results. Both of these are recommended.
The best live-action version of an animé show I’ve seen is “Ruroni Kenshin,” which has a history similar to comic book characters like Superman, Thor, or Batman. The cartoon was an early effort from the Seventies, with formulaic characters, minimalistic animation, washed-out color, but a great story line, powerfully philosophical dialogue, and plenty of tense action. The live-action film by the same name is a trilogy of about 7 total hours (3 DVD disks) altogether, but is stunning and thrilling, and is satisfyingly exciting, beautifully produced, and skillfully acted by big-name Japanese stars. Attention to period detail in the movie is meticulous. Scene after scene of masterful Samurai swordsmanship will have you on the edge of your seat, and the cartoon series ran long enough to provide plenty of material for another movie. One can only hope…
When I watch animé, I see a wide cross-section of the genre, from the outright “classical” animé character like Aladdin in “Magi, ” original “Kenshin,” or the characters in “Fairy Tail,” to the delicate and sensitive art in “Noragami,” “My Little Monster,” “Nobunaga Concerto,” “Say I Love You,” or “Usagi Drop,” to musical masterpieces like “Your Lie In April” and “Kids On The Slope.”
“Chihayafuru,” which is about a strenuous Japanese poetry card game called “Karuta,” considered almost a national sport, in which the contestants often compete wearing hakama kimono, is another choice for clear, clean art and unexpectedly exciting action.
I catch myself watching them all with a comparative eye, even repeatedly, as in the case of some favorites, Like “Seven Deadly Sins,” “Say I Love You,” “Naruto,” or “Your Lie In April,” always looking for more of that beautiful art, rich music, and strong story line around well-developed characters that defines Japanese work.
I often find that the eye-catching, finely-tuned animation or lush background art are missing from productions done in China or Korea. Cost-cutting by outsourcing frequently results in a decrease in art quality in this genre. Later shows of “Naruto,” for instance, being mostly computer renderings, have little resemblance to the original art at the beginning of the series, but better work reappears in the most recent episodes. Most people might not notice the differences, because they can be subtle. But, they are frequently there, in the art, in the sketchy animation, and even the music.
The stories of the good series are strong, involved, and bring out the characters and their personalities. For instance, in “Naruto” (one of the oldest series running, now in its 17th season), we got not only delicate watercolor backgrounds, but we got to watch the main character, Naruto Uzumaki, go from a sad, ostracized little orphan boy acting out his anger, to strong manhood and public respect, surrounded by a large cast of supporting characters, memorable villains, and lots of action and comedy. This is the real formula for a great animé series.
The characters in the good shows are very well-developed as the stories progress, a quality which, in most US animation movies and series, frequently seems missing. For instance, Japanese animé stories frequently narrate each episode from the characters’ thoughts and feelings. This is an excellent device for sucking the audience into vicarious participation, something that doesn’t work well in live-action features.
With animé, the Japanese have a real phenomenon on their hands– just as enduring and maybe even more fun than Top Ramen™, Hello Kitty™, or Karaoke.