Saturday, February 18, 2012

The stunted frustration known as anime

I saw a poster for The Secret World of Arrietty the last time I went to the movies. And as I get when I see any poster for an animated movie whose story origins are unknown to me, I got excited by the possibility of it being our next great discovery in animated film.

And then I saw the trailer.

Oh anime, you've suckered me again.

I didn't immediately get it, looking at this poster, that the movie was anime. Some of the hallmarks are there, in the eyes of the larger character, and in the general milieu of sprites and other small creatures, possibly of the spirit world.

But the trailer cleared up any doubts for me. Here it is:

Here's my problem with anime:

It's the one form of animation that never seems interested in looking any better.

The action is still a bit jerky. The mouths still don't line up correctly with the words being spoken. And the eyes, the signature of the form, are still exactly the same as when the style was first hatched back in the 1960s.

I'll give you that some of these "deficiencies" can be mitigated by good storytelling. I've enjoyed the storytelling in a number of anime movies I've seen.

But except in very rare cases, the willful insistence on never advancing keeps me at arm's length.

And I find this an especially strange impulse (or lack of impulse), since the Japanese have long been technical innovators in nearly every other endeavor known to man.

Even animated styles that are purposefully rudimentary have grown over the years. Let's take South Park, for example. Originally, the characters and sets were all, literally, shapes cut out of construction paper. That was, you would agree, key to their charm. But I don't think that today, approaching two decades since South Park started as a five-minute short that made the rounds on video tape years before there was such a thing as viral video, we would still tolerate the construction paper approach. Which is why slowly, gradually, imperceptibly, South Park has grown into a very sophisticated animated entity. Next time you watch the show, check out the backgrounds. Check out the character designs. Just check out the detail. Computers have made the show full-blooded and actually beautiful to look at -- without sacrificing the aesthetic that first made it seem so original.

The same can be said for such long-running shows as The Simpsons and Family Guy. If you compare the first seasons to the most recent ones, the style has stayed essentially the same, but the detail has gotten so much richer. I'd say we're better for it.

I know what you're going to say -- the details are much richer in anime than they were at the start, and the characters' faces do conform more to the words they're speaking and the emotions they're expressing than back in the 1960s. I can't argue with you there.

But I can argue the degree to which they've improved. I can argue that in the year 2012, you should not still be animating human beings who speak just by randomly opening and closing their mouths.

The funny thing about anime is that it splits people into two basic camps. One camp agrees with me. They undertake anime mostly out of a sense of duty, giving their attention to the occasional film that scares up enough critical attention to demand a viewing from any serious film fan or fan of animation. And sometimes, they even develop a limited affection for those films. (For me, one of those films is Paprika, which we actually own.)

Then there's the other camp. For that camp, anime can do no wrong. And you might even say that the more rudimentary the art appears, the more it conforms to what they expect. It's a specific form with a specific series of expectations, which sometimes include loud and piercing line readings and melodramatic emotions.

Maybe I should just not judge. Maybe I should just accept what camp I'm in and agree to disagree with the other camp.

But my incompatibility with anime is brought home to me anew each time my hopes are briefly raise for a film like The Secret World of Arrietty. And of course, you should read this post with all the standard disclaimers that this particular movie might be good, that it certainly seems to contain the possibility for wonder. I hate to be a bully toward anime when the story has such potential to be sweet and magical. I mean, I did take one look at that poster and start to imagine myself away into that world.

But then I took one look at the trailer and imagined myself right back out of it again.


Monty Burns said...

I agree, I find studio ghibli anime is just not for me.

Also, the poor lipsync might be due to either the mouths being synced to the original japanese dialog, or it could be intentionally mushy so that it more or less matches all languages it is voiced over into.

But the choppy animation, tendency to long-talk everything, and overly cutesy designs never quite clicked with me.

Vancetastic said...

That's an excellent point about the lip sync, something I obviously did not properly consider. Studio Ghibli certainly realizes that the key to a larger box office is the film's performance in other countries, and by having the mouths be too tied to the Japanese dialogue, perhaps that would be more distracting than the generic mouth-flapping we get here.

One funny thing I did notice when looking up this movie on IMDB is that the voice cast is different for the American release than the UK release. That annoys me as a commercial choice. Because we happen to live in the US, we're getting Will Arnett and someone named Bridgit Mendler rather than Mark Strong and Saoirse Ronan. As usual, the holy dollar rules all ...

Vancetastic said...

Oh, and Amy Poehler also does a voice. Sounds like she and Arnett thought it would be fun to have a husband and wife project they could work on together.