Course Japanese Movies 7 · The Current Situation of Japanese
Published by Iwanami Shoten; January 28, 1988.
Translated from Japanese to English by Ryoko Toyama
© 1988 by Iwanami Shoten
Translated without permission for personal entertainment purpose only. This is not, by any means, an accurate word for word translation, and the translator is solely responsible for any mistranslation or misunderstanding due to it.
It was 1958 when Hakujaden (The Legend of White Snake), the first feature length color cartoon movie in Japan, was released. In the end of that year, I, who was a senior high school student and was supposed to be preparing for the university entrance exam, met this movie at a third-class cheap movie theater.
I have to make an embarrassing confession. I fell in love with the heroine of a cartoon movie. My soul was moved, and I stumbled back home in the snow that had just started. Comparing my pitiful situation to their (characters') earnestness, I was ashamed of myself, and cried all night. It could be my depressed psyche during the entrance exam time, underdeveloped adolescence, or cheap melodrama-- it's easy to analyze and dismiss it, but the meeting with Hakujaden left a strong impression on me, who was still immature at that time.
It made me realize what a fool I was, who was trying to be a manga writer by writing an absurd drama, which was in fashion at that time. It made me realize that despite the words of distrust I spoke, I yearned for such an earnest and pure world though it may be a cheap melodrama. I could no longer deny the fact that I really wanted to affirm the world.
Since then, it seems that I came to think seriously about what I should make. At least, I came to think that I should work with my true heart, even if that's embarrassing.
It was 1963. I was a rookie animator at the Toei Animation Studio, but the work wasn't interesting. I couldn't agree to the projects I was working on, or the projects in plan. I was yet to abandon my dream to be a manga writer, and I was lost. The inspiration Hakujaden had given me was long gone, and I could only recall its imperfections. I doubt if I would have continued to work as an animator, had I not met Snow Queen at the screening hosted by the union.
Snow Queen proved how much love could be put into a work of animation, and how much the movement of the pictures can sublimate to acting. It proved that when you draw a simple and strong emotion earnestly and purely, animation can strike people's hearts as much as the best works of other media can. I think that Hakujaden also had it despite its weakness in the story.
I was thankful for the fact that I was an animator. Someday, we might have an opportunity. I decided to settle down and continue this job.
Both Hakujaden and Snow Queen are popular movies. Although I don't like enka, I must admit that I myself am a man of popular culture. I kept going to see the works of ATG (Art Theater Guild) since Matka Joanna od aniolow, but I prefer Modern Times more than all of them combined. For a popular movie, the moment of the meeting is important. The state of mind of the audience determines the meaning of the movie, as much as the contents of the movie do. Its value as eternal art isn't a question. The audience, including myself, have only limited ability to understand, and tend to overlook important clues. If such an audience can be released from the stress or sorrow in their daily lives, can release their gloomy emotion, can find unexpected admiration, honesty, or affirmation in themselves, and can return to their daily lives with a bit more energy, that's the role of a popular movie. Even if you laugh at the sentimentalism in the movie a few minutes later, the movie has a meaning to you. My meeting with Hakujaden meant a lot, not because it affected my choice of profession, but because I met it when I was a lot more immature than now.
Hence, I think that a popular movie has to be full of true emotion, even if it's frivolous. The entrance should be low and wide so that anyone can be invited in, but the exit should be high and purified. It shouldn't be something that admits, emphasizes, or enlarges the lowness. I don't like Disney movies. The entrance and the exit are lined up at the same low height and width. I can't help but feel that it looks down on the audience.
The reason why I wrote something which might be considered as a religious confession or simple empiricism before I write about Japanese anime is because I wanted to make clear where I stand. Today, I can't talk about our business without some bitterness. Compared to several works in the 1950s which inspired me, we in the 1980s make animation as if it's an in-flight meal served on a Jumbo Jet. Mass production has changed the situation. The true emotion and feeling that should be carried through have been replaced by a bluff, neurosis, or teasing. The craft that we should put our love into has been worn down in the piecework production system. I hate the abbreviation anime because I can't help but think that the word symbolizes the desolation (of Japanese animation).
I don't feel like defending, speaking for, or analyzing Japanese anime. Anime is more suitable to be discussed together with computer games, foreign cars, or playing gourmet. When I discuss anime with my friends, it somehow turns into a discussion about our cultural situation, the desolation of the society, or our tightly controlled society. Something called the anime boom had come and gone, but about 30 TV series per week, several scores of theatrical and video anime, and subcontract works for the United States are still produced in this country today in 1987. But there is no use talking about it. If there is something we have to talk about, it's the "excessive expressionism" and the "loss of motives" in Japanese anime. These two are corrupting Japanese popular animation.
Excessive expressionism in anime
There is no limit to the techniques of animation. You can make animation without drawing a picture. If you put a camera somewhere, and continue to film a frame, meaning 1/24 second, per day with the same angle, you can make a movie of about 15 seconds after a year. If you continue doing so in Tokyo, where there are a great many changes, it should be a very valuable work. What kind of film will we get, if we keep filming a nude person one frame per month, from the time that person is a newborn?
There are countless techniques, and classy and excellent short works are still produced somewhere in the world. But we can pretty much say that our popular animation is made in the technique of cel animation.
Cel, meaning celluloid sheet, has become vinyl chloride sheet, but we still use the abbreviation today. In this technique, a picture on paper is transferred to cel (by adhering carbon via heat treatment). Then it is colored with water-based vinyl paint and filmed with the background. By the way, this technique was developed in Japan almost at the same time as in the United States.
Cel anime is a technique suitable for group work, and the images in cel anime are clear and have strong appeal. The clarity of the images at the same time means their shallowness. In other words, they are pictures with little information. You can easily tell this by looking at picture books using cels. They are appealing and easy to understand at first glance, but you soon become tired of them. A really bad drawing can become tolerable when it is made into a cel picture, and a good drawing loses its power when it is made into a cel. In short, cels make both good and bad into mediocre. This characteristic makes the mass-production (of animation) with many animators possible.
To make cel animation with a certain quality, you need a group of technicians with talent and patience. At the core of this group are animators who give movement to pictures. And how difficult it is to foster a group of good animators! Some say that animators are the same as actors, but if so, an improvised play at a year-end party would be better. The basic laws such as gravity, inertia, elasticity, fluidity, perspective, timing, etc. There are too many lessons you have to learn before you think about acting, and animators get lost in the mountains of homework. It is not too much to say that if there are 100 animators, 100 of them can not make animation acting. If a director of an animated movie demands that characters in the movie act, he will immediately fall into distrusting animators and get frustrated. Rotoscope, which is a technique to draw poses and timing from live action film, was developed in the United States and the Soviet Union because the limits of animators' imagination and ability to draw was clear from early on. However, if you just transplant live-action into drawings, even the acting of a great actor can change into something peculiarly slimy and indistinct. That's because acting is not just movement. It is made of the subtle changes of shadows and lights, texture which can not be expressed with cels, wetness and dryness, and a succession of signs which are faster than one twenty-fourth of second.
Skillful staff members demanded the model actors to act in a more simple style that expresses itself through body silhouette. They thought that the acting style developed for theaters was better suited for cel animated movies than the style developed for movies. That is why the gestures of Disney characters look like a musical, and why (the characters in) Snow Queen act like (they are in) girls' ballet. There are many disastrous failures in rotoscope. Bakshi's The Lord of Rings could not be a success when it was based on poor live-action. Also, Disney's Cinderella has proved that seeking "more realistic" movements using rotoscope itself is a double-edged sword. The search for "more reality" just expressed a common American girl, and it lost the symbolism of the story more than Snow White did.
In Japan, rotoscope didn't become popular. It isn't just because of economic reasons. I myself hate this technique. If animators are enslaved by live-action films, the excitement in the animator's work would lessen by half. Though we can also say that we didn't have an acting style after which we could model. Bunraku, kabuki, nou, or kyougen are too far apart from our works, and Japanese musicals or ballet which are just borrowed (from the West) didn't interest us. We have been animating with our passion, hunches, and feeling, based on various experiences of movies, manga, and others, as much as time and money allowed us. Gestures (of the characters) tend to be constructed by symbolizing and breaking characters' feelings down to facial parts (i.e., eyes, eyebrows, mouths, and noses) and reconstructing them. But we tried to overcome the decay of symbolization by animating through "identifying with the character" or "becoming the character."
You shouldn't look down on the simple power (of such an approach). It is far from style or sophistication, but if you can capture the true essence of what you should express, a picture with a true feeling has power. I love such power much better than the smooth movement of rotoscope.
Let's get back to Japanese anime. Japanese anime make manga into anime, use character designs of manga, absorb the vitality of manga, and are made by staff members who wanted to be manga writers. Of course, there are exceptions, but I think that this is pretty much the case in general. Before 1963, when the TV series (anime) started, there were other styles of Toei Animation Studio than manga, but the mass production of TV series and manga severed this tradition (of Toei style). Based on manga, Japanese anime started as TV series with weekly production schedules, which is overwhelmingly shorter than feature-length movies. Due to limited time and budget, the number of drawings had to be reduced as much as possible. The lack of staff brought the mass introduction of unskilled and inadequate workers. That wasn't limited to animators. It was the case for all the divisions including direction and script, and there was unprecedented padding and promotion of staff. The horrific thing is that this trend continued for 20 years.
(A TV anime) has to be ready in time for the TV broadcast at any cost. And we have to make the product by using "movement," the biggest characteristic of animation, as little as possible. The reason why such a strange (style of) animation was accepted by viewers was probably because the image language of manga, an older brother of anime, had already penetrated society.
Japanese animation started when we gave up moving. That was made possible by introducing the methods of manga (including gekiga). The technique of cel anime was suited to obvious impacts, and it was designed so that the viewers would see nothing but powerfulness, coolness, and cuteness. Instead of putting life into a character with gestures or facial expressions, (character design) was required to express all the charm of the character with just one picture.
Strangely, theorists who justified this situation appeared during these times. There were people who said that it was time for limited animation, or that a still picture was a new expression and we no longer need movement.
Not only the design and personalities of the characters, but time and space were also completely deformed. The time needed for a ball thrown by a pitcher to reach the catcher's mitt was limitlessly extended by the passion put into the ball. And animators pursued powerful movement (to express) this extended moment. Depicting a narrow ring as a huge battlefield was justified as it is equal to a battlefield for the hero. Strangely, the way of such storytelling has become closer to koudan. How these animations resemble the depiction of Heichachiro Magaki running up the stone steps of Atago mountain on horseback.
The role of the techniques to move pictures was limited to emphasizing and decorating the extended and skewed time and space. The depiction of characters' action in everyday life, which (Japanese anime) was not good at to start with, was actively eliminated as something unnecessary and out-of-date. Absurdity was strongly pursued. The criteria for judging an animator's capability was changed to (the capability to animate) battles, matches, or detailed drawing of machines, an emphasis on the power of any arm, from nuclear to laser weapon. If there were a depiction of (character's) feeling, the method of manga was easily borrowed to get it done with music, angle, or decorating one still picture, without motion. It came to be considered as a rather uninteresting sequence, a section where the animators could take a rest. Animators became more inclined to judge only on the flashiness of the movement when they considered the value of the sequence they were to animate.
For example, a hero who can only sneer, since if he smiles that would screw his face up. A heroine with huge eyes that suddenly turn into dots without any connection between these two types of eyes. Extremely deformed characters with no sense of existence pretend to be cool in a deformed colorful world by extending time as much as they want-- that has become the major characteristic of Japanese anime.
When this expressionism first appeared, it was justified by "passion" which was in fashion at that time. Indeed, when the audience got excessively involved with the piece of work, and sympathized with it more than the work expressed, this method was overwhelmingly supported (by the audience). Kyojin no Hoshi in the high-growth era was one example. However, as the passion wore out, it merely became the easiest pattern of technique. And to turn around the adverse situation, expression in anime more and more became excessively decorative. At first, two robots were combined to be a robot, then it became a three robot combination, then five, and finally the twenty-six robot combination. Character design became more and more complicated. Huge eyes had seven-colored highlights. More and more shadows were painted in different colors, and hair was painted in bright colors of every possible shade. It makes animators suffer, by increasing the workload of those who are paid by the quantity of animation they drew. The pattern has become prevalent to a frightening degree.
Maybe I, too, am exaggerating (the situation of) Japanese anime. Not all Japanese anime is run by excessive expressionism. I do not say that there was no effort made to establish their own (style) of acting under various constraints. I do not say that there was no effort made to depict time and space with a sense of existence. I do not say that there was no effort made to refuse to be a subordinate of manga. However, most of them followed this trend of expressionism, and many of the young staff have joined the anime industry because they admired this excessive expressionism.
As the formula of "anime = excessive expressionism" becomes widely accepted by society, anime hit a wall. In the same way that koudan cannot meet the needs of today's audience, anime creators lost the support of the audience. They brought it on themselves by losing their flexibility and humility towards the diversity of the world. Even so, many of them are still unaware of the strangeness of their views on anime. They are still convinced that excessive expression is what makes anime appealing.
Actually today in 1987, excessive expressionism has been forced to retreat as it loses share with the end of the anime boom. The remainder has moved to videos, but the market remains small although it (the video market) has been hyped a lot as a new medium. It has been pigeonholed as a market for anime maniacs by anime maniacs in typical reduced reproduction. Rather than feeling pity, I cannot help being reminded of the frog with a ballooned stomach in Aesop's fable. Meanwhile, there is now a strong trend in the TV anime world to return to works for children, as we regret that we have raised the age of the targeted audience too much. However, none of the conditions that created the expressionism of Japanese anime have changed. Because the conditions which leade to anime using few moving pictures haven't changed, many animators think that it is just a degradation, rather than think that they are making anime to please children.
There is a phrase, "Saturday Morning Animator," in the United States. On Saturday morning, TV is filled with animated programs so that it can babysit while parents sleep late. It is a self-mocking phrase of the animators who make such programs. After the boom has ended, it is likely to be very difficult for Japanese animators to rediscover their work as a craft that they can put their love into.
The loss of motives
In one of the episodes of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson says "you saved humankind!" Things would be much easier if we were able to think like that. Making a story would be much easier if we were able to conclude that love conquers all. Making an action movie would be much easier if we were able to conclude that justice is on our side, and all evils belong to other people.
If we could say that one should not hesitate to make any sacrifice or devotion for a noble ideal, or, if we could even believe that such an ideal exists, our work would be much easier.
On the other hand, things would also be easier if we could conclude that humans are all stupid, nothing can be believed, all causes and beliefs are dubious, and all self-sacrifices are self-serving in the end. It's very easy to find ugly and dirty things in this society.
Among all popular culture, anime was probably the one that kept its preoccupation with love and justice the longest. But maybe that was not because we had strong beliefs, but because we were just behind the times due to such facts as anime being made by groups, or anime following behind manga.
Today, creators can no longer give heroes spontaneous motives. It seems that for some reason, we have just accepted the vanity of human effort in this managed society. Our old enemy "poverty" somehow disappeared, and we can no longer find an enemy to fight against.
The only remaining motive is, as in other genre, professionalism. Characters fight because they are robot soldiers, pursue criminals because they are police, beat competitors because they want to be singers, or work hard because they are sports players. Or else, (the remaining motive) is an interest in something in skirts or pants.
Of course (we ran out of motives). Even the last resort (of motives), "the organization who wants to conquer the world," bores us after seeing such things several times a week. It would be strange if love did not look so pale after it was so commercialized by Space Battleship Yamato. Yamato started the anime boom, but it's ironic that it was actually the grave of love and justice.
It was not just because of excessive expressionism that Ashita no Joe, made way past the 1970s, was left behind the times and became a smelly corpse.
Loss of motives: Japanese animation has proven how terrible it is to keep making works without motivating characters based on their value system.
You can't hate your opponents just because you belong to the Giants and others belong to the Dragons, Carp, or Tigers. "I don't want to lose, but I can understand your position"-- there have been many such themes in TV anime series about robot space wars. They were filled with torn-apart characters, and the audience accepted it as a realistic simulation of the society into which they have to go out, but at the same time, they were fed up with it.
Professionalism is a kind of no-value view, and it somehow resolves into the "survival of the fittest." And what happens when we pursue it with the excessive expressionism I mentioned before? Everything becomes a game.
Love is a game of the mind, war is a game of killing, and sports is a game which brings money.
Japanese anime have come to be filled with games. Even the deaths of the characters became games, and creators became gods and reached a dead end. It is natural that anime has been replaced by computer games. Players can get a bit more satisfaction since games allow more participation.
American movies got fed up with the loss of motives, and they made an alliance with (Ronald) Reagan. They overused Nazis as villains, so they asked the Soviet Union and its underling guerillas to get on stage again.
If creators depict something they don't believe, that soon becomes apparent. And still, we were convinced that such things as vitality or energy were important. When I see that those "today's kids," whom people thought so highly of in the 1960s, have now become parents and are living in bewilderment as baby boomers, I realize a self-evident thing: things which are born out of situations and fashion cannot become more than that after all.
Even if the creators cannot have motivation, kids are born and growing every day. Their battles are not lessened at all. Even if they aren't encouraged by a hero of justice as kids used to be, kids today still want to get encouraged, still want to learn how to feel the world is beautiful. Otherwise, why are they so violent or self-destructive?
The loss of motives is today's situation. Distrust, resignation, or nihilism has been born out of the situation. Without realizing it, what can we make that is only based on our sensitivity? I think that the cause of the corruption of Japanese animation is the foolishness of making anime just by professionalism.
A conclusion which cannot be a conclusion
The wishes of the public cannot be changed so much. I think that their wishes are buried in the very things they call uncool or out of fashion. No matter how times change, I believe that children want such an impact as the one I received from watching Hakujaden. If this turned out to be untrue, I would quit such a job (as an animator) in a minute.If I can be so arbitrary, I say that we are running relay. We are running to pass the baton to the next runner. I think that our work as a popular culture is fundamentally different from such a terrifyingly radical thing as art or creation. Let's not deceive ourselves by using such words as "artist."
We are fed up and disgusted, but if you live in today's Japan without being disgusted, that would be strange.
I've been working on cel anime for a long time, and I feel that there are more things we cannot do than things we can do. Still, I think that seeing a wonderful animation when one is a child isn't such a bad experience. But on the other hand, I am very much aware that our business targets children's purchasing power. No matter how we may think of ourselves as conscientious, it is true that images (such as anime) stimulate only the visual and auditory sensations of children, and they deprive children of the world that they go out to find, touch, and taste. This society has bulged out to the point where the sheer volume has changed everything.
Today, many people in my business are having difficulties in making a living. But I can not justify what we have been doing enough to proclaim our distress too loudly. Our profession has been corrupted.
The ambivalence in myself is also getting worse. While turning my back on the flood of images, I am still struggling to do at least a little bit better job. For that, I even rationalize the techniques to get on in the world. While saying I hate pros, I know that at work, I myself judge people solely based on their talents. While saying I don't want to talk about it, I always talk about animation. While bellowing "to hell with Japanese anime," I worry about my friend who is out of work. Right after yelling why do we need more anime, I start talking about a new project. Although I know that we have to accept that we have to live inhumane days if we want to make humane anime in today's situation, I become a workaholic as a matter of course.
Still, for our works to make some sense, what should we do? We can't see anything if we stay in Tokyo. We can't find anything if we look for a hint in the TV or movie industry. Unless we make an effort to get a viewpoint to see far away, we will end up in a small closed world. I think that my ambivalence is the same with the bindings from which the audience wishes to be freed. We need the will to sustain. Hence, I have no choice but to go back to my starting point time after time.