Takahata's Objective Style, Part V

I think this installment of the Takahata lecture will be a bit brief. At least, that's what I'm aiming for. I'll need to chop this part up into smaller bits, because I want to go into specific examples without writing a 10,000-word article. Ah, who am I kidding? Let's talk 'bout Hilda.

I want to continue on the idea of objective narration and how you can create better, more complete characters as a result. The one thing that sorely needs improvement in American animation is the depth of the main characters. All too often, the either fit into generic melodramatic stereotypes - the good guy in the white hat, the bad guy in the black hat - or they are little more than ciphers for the audience. Your buddy on the roller coaster ride. And always with the preachy moral lessons. Oy vey! Stop with the preaching, don't hit my knuckles with the ruler, Mother Superior Nice Laaydyyy!!

Ahem.

Takahata's characters are infintely more complex, often carrying a darker side to their personality. I think this is necessary for objective narration, since, remember, we cannot have simple cut-outs but fully realized people. To achieve that, we need to be honest about the darker sides of human nature. We need to face the tears and the sorrow, and sometimes we simply cannot be allowed to relate.

The quintessential Takahata character, in this regard, is the tragic heroine from Horus, Prince of the Sun, Hilda. She's the genesis of it all, the real breakthrough in the filmmaker's new theories of creating characters. Here is a person we can relate to, a person who has qualities we admire and respect. When we meet Hilda, the sad girl sitting alone on a masthead, singing her heartbreaking songs, we accept her and give her our confidence. And when she follows Horus back to the village, everyone grows to like her.

Then Takahata grabs the rug and rips it out from under our feet. He does that a lot in this movie, especially when dealing with those cutsey cartoon characters imposed upon him by the studio. But we're not talking about revenge; Takahata doesn't aim to make Hilda bad to get back at the suits, they way he beats down Coro the bear and Flip the child. This is much more methodical. We're meant to see a character who is figuratively torn in several directions at once.

One of the reasons for making Horus was to tell the political allegory of the times. This movie was meant to be a running commentary on the Vietnam War, the aniwar movement, the global youth movement, and the various civil rights and equal rights struggles around the world. It was also a commentary on the battles between Toei Doga and its labor union, led by such young firebrands like Yasuo Otsuka and Hayao Miyazaki. If The Beatles' animated picture, Yellow Submarine, released the same year as Horus, was meant to capture the peace and love of the late '60s, Takahata aimed to capture its darker side. Yellow Submarine is hippie love and acceptance, the moon landing, All You Need is Love. Horus, Prince of the Sun is the assissination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, war, unrest, Street Fighting Man. Yellow Submarine is Woodstock. Horus is Altamont.

Hilda stands at the center of this hurricane. She's the soul of the movie. Cautious, uncertain, wounded by trauma, and yet fiercely defiant. Tell her to accept the domestic life of a housewife, and she'll likely ransack your village with rats as one enormously emotional fuck-you. And yet, she desperately wants to belong.

One of the great paradoxes about Hilda is her singing. She is at her happiest when she sings, sitting on a tree like Joan Baez with a harp, and this is when the people love her. But have you ever listened to the words? They're terrifying, an endless whirlwind of trauma, sadness, isolation, pain and death.

When you look at the allegorical side of things, Hilda plays the role of the shellshocked refugee whose defining event - the violent destruction of her hometown - completely overwhelms her. It swallows her whole. Consider the dialog from her first scene with Horus as she explains her story. Imagine that the movie's villain, Grunwald, represents the United States (he also represents, among other things, the Toei studio itself, but we'll get to that later), and the iconic nature of the characters takes on a new layer of meaning.

"I live alone. No village will accept me. My home village was destroyed by the Americans. I am the only survivor. The Americans have cursed me; now no one will take me in."

This, again, illustrates the symbolic power of animation; we're working in symbolism. Nothing you see on the screen is real. Everything is an icon, a symbol of something else. You are not a tree. You are not a girl. You are not an owl.

Hilda's greatest tragedy is that she cannot make her peace with her past. She has become convinced - largely because of her unwilling use by Grunwald as an assassin - that she can never embrace life again. Death becomes the thing that defines her. She turns her back on everything that represents humanity, since human beings were responsible for reducing her to this. So she wraps herself in her trauma, convinced that this alone will protect and preserve her.

This is the inner meaning of the medallion that Hilda wears around her neck. Again, this is a symbol, and Westerners reared on literal-minded Disney fairy tales will wind up being confused. They're expecting tales about devils and magic spells and magical trinkets. That's missing the whole point. You need to look beyond the icon to the thing the icon represents. We must, in a sense, dissolve all of our notions and concepts.

Hilda still has her kinder side, and it's left for you to decide whether this is the "true" Hilda or not. Remember, we're not being pushed in any one direction. She does many things that earn our sympathy, her suffering most of all. But she is also violent and murderous, given to anger and vengeance. Horus chooses which Hilda is the "true" one only, really, as a matter of faith. Also, of course, he connects with her lonliness. Doggonit, he really likes the girl. They'd make a nice couple if she'd stop lashing out.

There are many scenes that stand out for me, most of the major Hilda scenes, really. Her swordfight against Horus is especially telling. There's a mixture of emotions across her face, and through her movements, as she fights him one last time. Anger, resentment, helplessness. She feels powerless, despite Horus' pleading to embrace her humanity. All of her movements and body language offer us clues to the battle raging within. She runs circles around poor Annakin Skywalker and his descent into Darth Vader. How is that, I wonder?

There's another haunting scene, a few minutes later in the film, the scene where Hilda finds the frozen Koro and Flip (again, Takahata has lashed out in revenge, just like Hilda), and in a moment of true compassion, finally rejects the pain and darkness within. She sends the pendant away, accepting death in order to embrace life.

This scene is Takahtata's triumph, and even his lieutenents Miyazaki and Otsuka didn't really understand just what was going on at the time. But for them, the scene carried an eerie, haunting power. Now anything was possible, it seemed. You could create any kind of character in animation, tell any sort of story from any perspective. You could create Edith Pfaff stories in animation now, Miyazaki later remarked.

Strangely, she becomes an archetype for Miyazaki himself, as Porco Rosso many years later. I do not want to be human! Another story, another time.

Coming to An End and Facing a Mountain of Riffs

I think the true reason I put off watching the second half of Heidi was the looming sadness that would await me at the series' end. It's a magnificent series, as I've said a thousand times. That's a large part of the problem, really. I went through a serious period of withdrawl after reaching the end of both 3000 Leagues and Anne of Green Gables, and I know that the burning feeling in the center of my being - what Maude Montgomery called the "terrible, dull ache." I'm not looking forward to that.

The other reason is one I think I've mentioned back when I bought the Heidi box set. This is the final major work in my Takahata/Miyazaki collection. I've got everything in their careers from Horus, Prince of the Sun. The only exception is Toei's 1971 movie Ali Baba and the 40 Theives, which was the studio's last great work, released just after Animal Treasure Island. That's another one of Miyazaki's children, another wacky comedy classic that pays heavy homage to Puss in Boots. That's the last one.

So I'm down to the final six episodes of Heidi, building towards the final, magnificent climax when - I hope I'm not spoiling it for anyone who hasn't read Johanna Spiri's book - Clara's legs are restored to her and she stands on her own feet for the first time. That's a guaranteed tear-breaking moment if there ever was one. And then, that's it. The totality of Isao Takahata's directoral career since Horus. I've seen it all.

Whatever. All things must pass.

One great discovery, of course, is finding all those cool riffs throughout the Heidi series. It's really amazing to me just how many moments, movements, and camera shots have been riffed in Miyazaki and Takahata's later work. It's gotten to the point where I have to keep track in a notebook - my handy Riff Log.

As soon as I get connected with my computer again, I'll have to really catch up with the Miyazaki and Takahata Riffs. I really enjoy doing those, since they're so informative and, well...ahem, they help pad out this blog. Ahem.

I started seriously writing everything down since episode 30, and the appearance of riffs is striking. It's almost one per episode; I think one episode has two or three of them crammed in together. There are "aha!" moments that later appear in Future Boy Conan, Nausicaa, Laputa, Mononoke, yadda yadda. Those are just Miyazaki's riffs; Takahata also quoted the show a number of times.

Clearly, the masterminds behind Heidi look upon the series as one of their crowning achievements. It was the result of many years of hard work, built upon little innovations and ideas tried out in several productions, including a few projects that fell through. Pippi Longstockings is the most infamous example. So, in that sense, I suppose, Heidi is just like Horus. Only this time, Takahata was rewarded. He was vindicated. This was the payback against all the criticism and grief from battling the Toei studio over Horus, losing the director's chair, taking supporting roles in Lupin III and Panda Kopanda.

Heidi was immediately an enormous success, giving birth to the anime boom of the 1970's, just as Horus had given birth to modern anime itself. It's beloved by generations of fans the world over - everywhere, of course, except here in America. Oh, how I wish this series could be picked up for broadcast on television and DVD. Am I wrong to think PBS would be the perfect network for this show? Could children and adults tune in once or twice a week for an anime show from 1974? Would they be willing to put in the patience?

I don't think this series, or any of the WMT for that matter, would succeed in the States if it were simply dropped on store shelves on DVD box sets. Even a successful American soundtrack and marketing push wouldn't work. The audience is out there, but they won't take the bite until they've been properly hooked. They need to see it on television, and have that shared experience together, as families. Remember when TV was like that? Seems like an eternity ago.

Cartoon Network is an obvious candidate, but they seem to specialize in the kind of action-oriented, comic book anime shows that appeal to the teenage anime crowd. They're not going to be very interested in a literary drama set in 19th-Century Europe. That's just gonna happen. They want their bloody robot battles and naked chicks. That's why I'm thinking public television would be a better alternative. It has the right aura of respectibility. You expect a higher standard than cynical toy commercials or epileptic fights.

Anyway, those are just my thoughts on the matter. I think if we had the right cast, and we went after it in the right way, we could make Heidi succeed. I really think this would work. Who's with me on this?

Which reminds me, we need to get the exposure out. If anyone connected to the animation industry wants me to send them a copy of entire Heidi series, send me an email and let me know. I'll be glad to wear out my DVD burner. Also, if you know anybody who'd be interested, pass along their names and I'll take care of the rest.

Like, oh, I dunno, if you have Spielberg's address. Or Brad Bird. Heck, just get the word out to everyone at Pixar.

Upcoming Anne Article in Read Magazine

I received an email today (Tuesday) from the photo editor from Read Magazine, which is published by the Weekly Reader Corporation. They're assembling an article on Isao Takahata's Anne of Green Gables for an upcoming issue. The editor asked me for some hi-res photos or screenshots that they could use, so naturally I'm more than happy to help out in any way I can.

I'll be calling tomorrow - hopefully - and I'll be sure to pass along whatever news I can. I happen to have a lot of stuff on my hard drive, so this is a good opportunity. If only I could afford to pay my damned cable bill. DAMMIT!!!

Life just ain't fair sometimes.

Takahata's Objective Style, Part IV

Time for part four of the never-ending lecture on Isao Takahata's objectivist filmmaking. I think the theme of this installment will be, "The Paradox."

When trying to describe the idea of objective narration in animation, I'm beset by a rather complex paradox. It's a great challenge to successfully pull it off, and yet I still feel as though I'm working my way through to understanding it. It's the central paradox of those exercise.

Perhaps your first experience with a Takahata film was much like mine, seeing Grave of the Fireflies on video, years before any of his other works were available here in the States. Watching that movie for the first time was emotionally overwhelming, nearly devestating. I had to actually pause the movie halfway through in order to build up the strength to sit through the rest of it.

My first thoughts after finally reaching the end of Fireflies were a mixture of tears, sorrow, and confusion. The sadness I'm sure you all know. The confusion came later, after my brain started asserting itself again. "Just what the hell happened here?" I thought. "How is this possible?" And the clincher - "What else do ya got?"

The very idea that an animated cartoon could pull such strong emotions out of me was baffling. Certainly, Walt Disney treaded on the waters of pathos with Bambi and Dumbo, but this was a quantum leap forward. This was the full immersion, the suicide leap into the river. Butch Cassidy would be proud. That basic question is at the heart of the mystery.

Remember that Scott McCloud writes to us about the iconic power of the cartoon. It's strength comes from its abstraction, its subjective ability to draw in the readers (and viewers). Iconic characters are employed for viewer identification. This is one of the cornerstones of animation, almost by necessity.

There are various degrees as you go from pure realism to pure abstraction. You start with a photograph, working your way steadily down to the most basic face of all, the smiley face. Thanks to evolution, our brains are hard-wired to recognize faces, and even with a circle, two dots, and a small line, you can make out a face. You cannot see anything else. It's really a miracle, one ofthe many tricks of the brain.

Now, I think there must be a distinction between subjective characters, in terms of the visual design, and subjective narration. Perhaps the two have always been assumed to be one, perhaps they were merely joined together for ease's sake. I'm really not sure, and I've yet to come to a satifactory answer.

But, in any case, you can utilize subjective, iconic characters in the service of objective narration. This is what Takahata achieved. He's proved it again and again, going all the way back to Horus, Prince of the Sun. I'm watching Heidi episodes right now, and this is probably the best example of this paradox at play. And a paradox it is, at least to my mind.

How can iconic characters, which are designed to serve as black holes for the audience, serve effectively in objective narration. Objectivism requires a measure of distance from the audience. The characters are not avatars, they are not the tour guides. We can identify with them, but it must be purely on their terms. It must be because of the qualities they possess as people.

Yoichi Kotabe was the character designer on Heidi, Girl of the Alps - in fact, this is the first time the term "character design" is used in anime, named by Takahata - and he employs a very iconic, cartoony style. This isn't cartoonish in the American, "stretch and squash" notion, but iconic in that smiley face sort of way. There's a simplicity in the design that's still flexible with a large cast of characters.

I think the Japanese are influenced far more stronly by comics than we are, especially the French comic artists. There's something akin to the Rintin style in the designs, with the iconic characters over the highly detailed watercolor backgrounds. This is what Scott McCloud calls the "masking" effect. Again, this is method to bring the audience into the world; a technique in the service of viewer identification.

To me, this is a mystery. Again, using Heidi as an example (although you can look at 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother for the same thing), we see that a visual style that is used for one effect is countered by a dramatic narration that buttresses against it. We are called upon to look into Heidi's world, but we are not of her world. We are not Heidi. We are not the Grandfather. We are not Clara. We are not Peter.

I suppose this is really the true nature of the icon. McCloud highlights this as a significant point. This is really the key to understanding the visual arts. The painting of the Mona Lisa is not the Mona Lisa herself.

Perhaps the paradox lies within ourselves. The West seem trapped by the notion of literalism, by taking everything they see at face value. This is why so many Americans remain puzzled and baffled at the sight of Marco, the Porco Rosso. Why is he a pig? Hey, he's a pig! What's with that? Did he bump his head? Was there a magic spell? Was there a fairy godmother?

Because we are trapped by our literal acceptance of Marco as a pig, we lose sight of the crucial truth - we are not seeing Marco the Pig, but the notion of Marco as a pig. We are seeing the icon,the symbol, the archetype - we are seeing what the image of Marco as a pig represents.

The Japanese understand this crucial point, and Hayao Miyazaki has terrific fun playing with this imagery in Porco Rosso. He really lets it loose in Howl's Moving Castle, playing with the symbolism and his famous archetypes (Romantic Hero and The Heroine), and this is where Americans really get themselves lost. They're expecting The Wizard of Oz, or Harry Potter. They didn't expect Juliet of the Spirits.

So perhaps this is something that we need to work on. Political cartoonists have effectively used icons as symbols, but it's lacking somewhat in animation. Here's something we can really work on.

In the end, there's this tension between the visual style and the narration, one subjective and the other objective, with the narration driving the whole train. Visual style is the servant. Back to Heidi, we see moments of joy and happiness and the discovery of youth, but there is also a tremendous amount of complex human drama. Tragedy, sorrow, complicated emotions, and deep psychological states all play themselves out, and it's not very easy to read. You aren't being handed the key to everyone's emotions. Unlike stretch and squash, these characters move with restraint, yet gracefully and lifelike. There is no real exxageration. We must piece together the scenes for ourselves, try to understand these people from the outside, and choose for ourselves who fits into those childish cubbyholes, "good guy," "bad guy."

I don't think anyone in Heidi - or the rest of Isao Takahata's work - fits neatly into any one category. Even Heidi has her darker side, her weaker side, that pops out every once in a while. She's nowhere in the league of, say, Hilda or Marco or even Anne (remember Anne's imaginary friend in the cupboard from episode 4?), but there are still shades of grey.

I don't know about you, but I'd much rather have that than tapdancing penguins any day. And I'm the sort of hippie that likes penguins.

A Couple Quick Post-Oscar Thoughts

I wanted to throw together a couple random thoughts about last night's Oscars. I'll try to stick to the script, lest the orchestra boot me off stage.

I've been a fan of the Oscars for some time, and always tune in every year, rain or shine. But now, I'm seriously thinking of quitting the tradition. This was a dreadful bore. BORING! - And the problem is that it's been consistently boring for a number of years now. Change of hosts, change of movies, doesn't really matter, does it? The fun is still missing.

I miss the spontanaeity. I miss Jack Palance and his one-arm pushups. I miss Michael Moore's anti-war speech. Where the hell are all the political statements? The closest we got was Melissa Ethridge's mention of her wife. That and some Jerry Seinfeld cracks at the movie theatres. There's no more fun in this show. There's no scandal. There's nothing to really talk about the next morning.

There were a couple susprises, here and there. I'm happy to see that American Idol's reputation for spotting talent was exposed as the fraud it always was. Can we cancel that lousy show now? Bring back The Gong Show, dammit!

There's too much obsession over timing and getting the actors off the stage. Say your thanks, shut up, get off. Still, the show runs four hours. What's the deal with that? We were having fun and still staying up until 11:30 at night. What's the use? It's become so lifeless and dull that I'm praying for....Roberto Begnini. At least he knew how to have a good time.

On the animation side, the dancing penguins are probably going to be seen as a portent of doom from animators, fearing that their art will become obsolete in the name of cheap, assembly-line CGI mo-cap. There's probably a lot of truth in that; however, I wouldn't sound the alarm bell so soon. The problems with American animation run deeper than the toolsets. It doesn't matter how the movies are made if they're going to stick to the same tired, worn-out, marketing-dictated scripts. The medium, as I've always said, needs to grow up.

I spent the rest of the night catching up on my Heidi episodes, and dammit all to heck if this isn't a more compelling show than anything that was up for an Oscar. What's the story with that? Are we so timid? Are we so dependent upon cliches and safe profit streams - which is the real reason most of these animated cartoons get made at all - that we'll never try anything different? Heidi isn't exactly Igmar Bergman, folks; and, yet, it's still far more challenging, compelling, and emotionally honest than anything seen today. A television series from 1974.

Then again, I remind myself that the movies from 1974 were better than the crap today. Small world.

I'd also like to remind everyone hoping for a Disney renaissance, the dream that they will embrace traditional animation and lead the revival - those bastards buried Howl's Moving Castle. If given the proper exposure, Howl would have broken $100 million at the American box office. I'll bet money on it, and I've got the traffic logs to my website to prove it. That movie had a following, and it had legs.

And Disney buried it alive. Did they just want to snub a rival studio? Was it a casualty in the short-lived war against Pixar? Was it a calculated decision in light of their move towards CGI clunkers like Chicken Little? Doesn't do too well to have the public discover you made a major screwup like...oh, I dunno...abandoning classic animated movies when there's still a wide audience for it.

I'll always maintain that there is a greater audience for the movies we're getting, and that extends to animation as well. Someone just needs to drop the fairy-tale schlock and drop the sitcom schlock, and get to work on something better. The animated shorts awarded Oscars give us a good clue. Oscar doesn't want Cars. It doesn't want theme parks. It wants "All About My Father" and "The Danish Poet."

Finally, one reader to this blog asked about Goro Miyazaki's movie and why it wasn't nominated. I wouldn't worry here. Since Tales From Earthsea cannot be shown here in America until 2009 at least, that leaves a slot for Best Animated Feature off the table. There could be a slate for Best Foreign Film - and remember that Takahata's Pom Poko was Japan's entry into that category a decade ago - but the animation categories probably negate that option.

Also, remember that the Oscars very rarely bestow top honors for a first-time work, especially from the son of the world's most famous filmmaker. Goro needs to prove himself. Here's what will happen. If he continues to make movies - and this is still very questionable right now - he will eventually create a classic that makes his name. And then it will be snubbed by the Oscars, in favor of something hideous and painfully bad. Cough, Ordinary People, cough. Then, a few decades later, he'll finally get his long-overdue Oscar for some picture that's good, but not in the league of his greats. And we'll all be happy. Amen.

Oscar Night - Best Animated Feature

WOW!!! That's a shock! I thought John Lasseter was a lock for this one. Hmm. What does this portend for Pixar? Cars wasn't as highly received by critics, and its performance at the box office was below the studio's last two features. You just know that after the money Disney paid for Pixar, the knives will be drawn at the first sight of blood in the water. The real pressure will be on Lasseter to perform with Ratatouille this summer - Brad Bird was brought in to save the project, so we're told - and the next Disney animation feature. If those movies aren't monster hits, then our friends at Pixar are in real trouble. Winning an Oscar tonight would have provided some needed ammo for the studio. But it seems the Academy would prefer the dancing penguin. Ah, well, that's life, kids. What are your thoughts on the matter? How far off the mark am I on this one?

Oscar Night - Al Gore's Speech

Ha ha! That was a great gag. I'm one of those who secretly wishes "President" Gore would take the job that's so rightfully his, so I was laughing through this. And, of course, I'm always mad at the Oscars for cutting off acceptance speeches so soon. So, yeah, two laughs for the price of one. Good stuff.

Oscar Night - Best Animated Short

Congratulations to everyone involved in the making of The Danish Poet for winning the Oscar for Best Animated Film. Once again, the Academy credits the hard work of traditional, hand-drawn animation, shunning the big-budged, computer animation from the major studios. Congratulations to all involved. Your award was a win for all of us. Oh, and one more thing, Oscar? What's with the children? Nice. Animation still has a long way to go towards full respectability in this country. Let's get to work, gang.

Isao Takahata's Objective Style, Part III

Alright, it's time for part three of our Takahata Isao discussion. I think by now I've given you a clear indication of the Western subjective storytelling style, and just what I have in mind when I use the term. This is pretty much the dominant method of telling stories, both in live-action and animation, but especially in animation. Now let's take a look at the alternative.

Takahata is the great champion of objective storytelling. By this I mean a number of things. First and foremost, objectivism rejects the notion of a central character as a void, a black hole into which we pour ourselves. It rejects the notion of the tour-guide hero, with whom we are meant to almost solely identify with.

I guess a better way to think of objectivism is to think of distance. We do not inhabit the inner minds and souls of the hero. We take a step back, and observe them from a distance. We are not so completely detached that we lose all emotional connection. On the contrary, by becoming objective we can embrace characters and stories that are far more emotionally involving and intimate than the subjective style can achieve.

The subjective hero charges at the screen, at us, desperately screaming, "Hey! Love me! Pay some attention to me!" It is a cry of desperation. "I can tell jokes and stories! I'll sing and dance for you! We can learn...(cue violins)...valuable mowal wessons!! Love me! I used to do standup!! I used to be famous!!"

Subjective cartoon characters is where overripe comics go when they die. Remember when Robin Williams was funny? Remember when Eddie Murphy was dangerous? Remember when Carrot Top got more attention than Bill Hicks?

Oops, sorry 'bout that last one. It's always been a thorn in my side. Now that I think about it, Carrot Top should do animated cartoons. He's been a desperate cartoon character all his life.

Takahata's objective hero is not any of those. They are complex, fully fleshed-out human beings, full of the qualities, gifts and foibles that we all possess. They are the characters from literature, the characters from Shakespeare. They do not rush to meet us, desperate for our approval. They live their lives completely and fully, just as we live as seperate beings.

We meet the objective hero on his terms. Not ours. That's probably the key statement.

Takahata has keenly noted that the best literary characters are beloved because of this, because they exist at a slight distance from us. We identify with them because they remind us of ourselves. They are not a black hole that we inhabit. This hero is a person that we befriend.

I'm pretty thouroughly convinced that this is the most important trait of Takahata's works. This is the most important lesson that we can learn. I've written and raged many times about the current state of Western movies, and American animation in particular. We've all been doing this, most of all the many skilled writers, artists, and filmmakers who work in the animation industry. We're not happy with the current arrangement. Nobody's needs are being met - neither the audience nor the artists. And, eventually, as the marketplace becomes saturated with a sea of cheap imitators, the needs of the businessmen will be unmet. We need to change the current course if we are to have any kind of a future.

Employing the objective style just may be that key.

Let's take a quick look at some of the advantages of objectivism, and I'll have to go into detail on the next posts this weekend. But here's the short-short version:

- Better defined characters that portray greater depth. Characters with a wider dramatic range, with more complexity.

- A greater attention to realism, both through characters and through the dramatic form. Needless to say, cheesy melodrama will have to go by the wayside. We're going to have to produce better scripts.

- Stories that demonstrate greater respect for the audience. Films that demand the audience's attention and their intelligence. These are not escapist amusement park rides. If you want cheap thrills, then play Nintendo (and even Nintendo's giving you a real workout these days).

- Multiple points-of-view. Freed from the need to place the hero at the center of the universe, we can now present the world through more eyes. We can see everything in greater detail, with more complexity and luminosity this way.

- The hero can be shown to possess faults. They can say or do things that earn our criticism. They can be flawed human beings. They can make mistakes. We can disagree with their choices, and understand just why the mistakes were made. In fact, objectivism requires central characters to possess faults and failings.

These are the short bullet points I wanted to highlight this time. We'll go into detail on each one, giving examples from Takahata's work. I also want to touch on his other main characteristics, from his documentary realism, attention to human drama, emotion, and psychology. Time's up, once again! Gotta go!

YouTube Shuts Down Anne Shirley

Great. Just great. It seems that YouTube has just shut down all of the Akage no Anne episodes on its site. What a pack of jerks.

This issue always rears its ugly head, and as much as I've tried to be diplomatic and fair about the whole issue, I'm frankly tired of it. The notion of copyrighted material on YouTube is self-evident. It's the very reason the site exists. We all know it, and YT especially knows it. They've promoted and drawn attention to copyrighted material on their home page countless times. They've built their site upon the appeal of catching old shows or clips you missed on the TV. They've built a fanbase by offering a forum for anything that cannot be found normally - like, oh, you know, foreign animation. And then the founders cashed out to Google for a king's ransom.

So it's a complete fraud to put on a face of "legality" and arbitrarily shut down videos like Anne of Green Gables. This series is not held under any domestic copyright. No company in North America holds the rights to the 1979 WMT series. And, clearly, there's no connection to any of the Canadian productions of Anne. You're not about to confuse this for the live-action version or the animated cartoon.

There's no damn excuse for this. It's a con-man's game. I have to assume that, eventually, the videos of Future Boy Conan and 3000 Leagues and Horus and all the rest willbe shut down. Again, nothing I've uploaded exists here in the States. Ifthat were so, then, obviously, I'd be pointing everyone towards the nearest retailer. We're all about supporting the scene, and promoting these great works. You'd think the suits at Google would understand this. You'd also think they'd be capable of telling the difference between an actress playing Anne Shirley and one of Yoshifumi Kondo's drawings.

You'd also think that exposure on YouTube would be a good thing; offering an outlet outside the normal channels - television, radio - to reach the public. The first thing I'd do is post something ofmine to YT. Clearly, you're more likely to pay for something once you actually know what it is. And you'd much rather watch it on your big-screen TV than a 400-pixel window.

What the hell is wrong with these people? It's always the same thing, the battle between the artists and the suits. So, anyway, that means no more Anne clips on this site.

Hey - lookit that! You can download the entire series and watch it at home! What a novel concept. See, Google, you didn't achieve anything. All you accomplished was the loss of a few more fans. Thanks for trying to be the gatekeepers and all, but we'll pass.

Once more, with feeling, class - "We can know for ourselves the beauty and cruelty of the world without the help of a giant tomb and its servants."

Takahata's Objective Style, Part II

Alright, now for another (hopefully) quick installment of our little Takahata chat. Another 15-20 minutes at Dunn Bros in Uptown Minneapolis.

Anyway, I was highlighting the subjective narration that dominates Western animation. It's dependent to a great extent on what Scott McCloud descibes as the icon, that simple, abstract figure that becomes a black hole into which we pour ourselves into. We identify with Bugs Bunny, we want to be just like Bugs, and to an extent, we are. We are inhabiting the cartoon and comic character.

This is especially prevalent in animation, which mixes iconic characters with detailed backgrounds. There are a variety of artistic styles to choose from, ranging from naturalistic (Bambi) to stylized (Chuck Jones) to the surreal and psychedelic (all those cartoon shorts from the '70s on Sesame Street). Then, most cynically, there are the cartoons which are little more than overt toy commercials and propaganda for a whole line of cheesy merchandise. Into this circle of hell we will throw most afternoon cartoon shows, and, sadly, most of today's feature-film animation.

The key to subjective narration is the primary focus on the main character. Because we inhabit the hero, in a sense, they can become our tour guide, our archetype, through the dream worlds within. We are being taken through the lands of Middle Earth, or Bambi's forest, or inside the belly of a whale. And there's little doubt who we are supposed to root for. The world ofthe story literally revolves around the hero.

An excellent example for us - and this is perfect because it stretches outside animation - is the Canadian television productions of Anne of Green Gables. I'm thinking of the live-action version from the '80s, and not that animated cartoon that slogged its way onto PBS (why couldn't PBS instead carry, say, Heidi?) that we're all best to forget. This Anne is rooted very firmly in subjective storytelling. In this production, Anne Shirley is our heroine. She's the one we can most identify with.

It's not a matter of choosing whom to identify with; by subjectifying the main character, this simple isn't possible. Everything is perceived from her point-of-view. All of the adults are seen from her eyes, from her perspective. This is probably the easiest path to take when adapting Maude Mongomery's novel, since it's mostly comprised of Anne's chatty dialog. You could probably do a one-woman play about Anne without missing much.

For me, I think this was the secret reason I never liked the Canadian Anne. I saw it in 8th Grade English class, which was around the time that Anne first aired. The girls in the classroom, naturally, loved it. They cheered with Anne, their own personal savior. The boys were mostly bored. For me, the reason I couldn't enjoyit was because of theway all the adult characters were portrayed. Marilla Cuthbert, most ofall, was an ogre, a menacing, frightening figure that towered over your head. I could never relate to her as an actual person. I still cannot.

Marilla was depicted the way that Anne would see, or, more precisely, theway the filmmakers want you to see her as you identify with Anne's point-of-view. Marilla and everyone else could never be seen as anything else than emotional sketches to boo or cheer in tune with Anne's fortunes. This is all too often the way these kinds of stories are told, and to be perfectly honest, I find it opressive. It's not honest, and it's not fair. This is an easier way to write, so I cannot fault anyone for choosing this path, but it is ultimately less rewarding.

In the hands of the worst offenders - hell, everything that hit theatres last year - this is beyond patronizing. It is manipulation.

As is so happens, Isao Takahata holds nearly the same view. He's devoted his career to moving in the opposite direction, into the realm of objective storytelling. When you consider the iconic nature of animation, this is a radical break. Perhaps it's merely an extension of the cinema that stronly influenced him - Renoir, Fellini, French New Wave, and of course Ozu. But I think there's more at play here.

Next time, I'll go into greater detail, and I'll explain how Takahata uses objective storytelling to create the definitive Anne. Time's up! Gotta go!

Takahata's Objective Style

Okay, I'm going to try to be as quick as possible, since I have the use of the Dunn Bros. Coffeeshop computer for 15 minutes. I wanted to get into this topic last month before getting sidetracked (yet again), but it's a pretty beefy topic, and will probably require multiple posts.

(BTW, the space bar on this keyboard isn't working too well. Please bear with me.)

One of the essential texts that should be in the hands of all visual artists - painters, cartoonists, animators, filmmakers, what haveyou - is ScottMcCloud's "Understanding Comics." It's also crucial for anyone who wants to understand the visual arts, and appreciate how the modern-day meduims of cartooning and animation stem back to the roots of our written language. In short, you need this book, or graphic novel, if you will. Ipersonally place it alongside Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga and Art Spiegelman's Maus as the crowning masterpieces of the graphic novel.

Now, one important point Scott McCloud teaches is the reason why the cartoon character has such a universal appeal. In short - and this really is the short, short version of this - it is the iconic nature of the cartoon that creates its subjective appeal. We identify with Bugs Bunny. We identify with Mickey Mouse. We pour ourselves into the characters, and the more iconic, the more abstract - think of a smiley face - the more universal. So goes the theory. As a drawn character becomes more realistic, it becomes more distant, more objective. We aren't called upon toidentify with it as much.

The best cartonists have tried to strike a balance, depending on what they wanted to communicate. From Sunday morning comics, to Jack Kirby's superheroes, to theavant garde of underground and foreign comics. This is the general rule.

Now, animation, by its nature - that is to say, the technical means it is made - requires characters tobe somewhat iconic and abstract. It's partly because this is easier to create, and this is also very largely because of Walt Disney's early experiments in the early days of cartoons. He and his animators learned, through trial and error, how to effectively create characters that audiences could identify with and connect to.

This touches upon another crucial subject that I need to really get into, the issue of movement and character being defined through action. It's arguably the most significant break between the animation style in America, and what evolved in Japan during its evolution (1950's and 1960's) into modern anime.

Anyway, the key thing here to pay attention to is that American animation isbuilt upon the notion of subjective storytelling. You have a central character, or a small collection of characters, thatyou are called upon to identify with and connect to. This is pretty much how we do things here.

However, the Japanese master Isao Takahata, the leader of the Horus Rebellion in 1968, has always staked a different view. His philosophy has been largely built around the rejection of the subjective model. Instead, he embraced a notion of objective animation storytelling. It's very different from the Western notion of "objectivity" and it carries its own traits. And I believe, personally, that this is absolutely essential for us to understand if we are ever to understand Takahata, as well as his peers like Miyazaki.

Oh, look! Time's up! I've gotta go! Sorry. We'll have to continue this, hopefully tomorrow, and go into greater detail. For now, here's your homework assignment - watch the last episode of Anne of Green Gables again. Take note to how the characters are portrayed. Ask yourself, how is this different, structurally, from American animation. How is this version of Anne different from the Canadian television series?

We'll pick up on this again. Take care!

Life Without the Internet

Howdy, folks! I just wanted to write a short post about the blogs. I'm currently without internet access, so I can't pop on and continue with posts. Hopefully, that will change within the next week or two. A couple weeks ago, my bank card + driver's license was stolen on my way to work, and the crooks immediately went to town with my money. Jerks. So, I'm a little caught back in my bills, which includes the cable bill. I'll just have to wait until I have the money to spare. Oh, and did I mention that I'm planning on moving to a better apartment in April? HA!! No money!! Isn't that fun? Oh, and btw, this computer - I'm using one of the free computers at the University of MN - doesn't have a working Enter button. So that's why this is all in one large paragraph. So, anyway, I always appreciate all the attention, and all the traffic to the videos on YouTube. I want to upload more episodes of Conan and Marco; and, of course, I have some commentary for the latest episode of Anne that I need to get off my chest. Maybe I should find another computer....

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