By Bob Clark
Sometimes the cutting edge comes at the end of a blunt instrument. In a career that has included live action, animation and special-effects supervising, Fumihiko Sori has assembled a diverse creative output in the past fifteen or so years. That mix in his work from live action films, like 2002′s Ping Pong and 2008′s chambra Ichi and his three CGI animated efforts put him in a somewhat different register than other directors who freely jump from one discipline to the other. Plenty of anime creators have put live action time under their belt as well– some, like Mamoru Oshii, have almost as many traditional features to their credit as they do animation, and others like Hideaki Anno have pushed their craft in new experimental ways that even their animated fare has trouble keeping up with at times. But for the most part, these cross-disciplinary filmmakers have based their talents in hand-drawn animation, constituting a much sharper contrast between the qualities of their work in that medium to how they handle live sets, actors and cameras in the other. For directors working in CGI, however, the line is a bit more blurred, as even in animation they’re forced to work with physical sets, characters and action, albeit of a synthesized nature. This makes Sori’s work an interesting case study in the creative evolution of computer animation as a maturing art form in and of itself, and of the trajectories in general for digital tools in 21st century filmmaking.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves– Sori’s Vexille and TO are by no means game changers as far as quality cinema goes. Story wise, they constitute little more than different blends of recycled tropes familiar in various kinds of sci-fi and anime cliches– a matter of humanity on the brink of being turned into android drones by an evil corporation on one hand, and a rudimentary Die Hard in space bottle-episode on the other. Dramatically, they perpetuate a lot of the same narrative and emotive tactics with their hand-me-down love affairs and family splits from recent past coming back to bite people in the ass in the present-tense of the not-too-distant future. Even much, if not most of the visualization that Sori engages in for the various set and character designs, and action set-pieces aren’t particularly note-worthy on their own, and it’s all too easy to find weaknesses in the quality of the character animation in particular throughout. For the most part this is attributable to the obvious step down in budget from domestic CGI efforts from mainstay studios like Pixar, Dreamworks or Lucasfilm– one could say that we’re lucky that Sori’s features have a look that outpaces most video game cutscenes, at the very least.
And yet, one doesn’t have to look very far at all to find game designers whose in-game cinematics offer far more compelling stuff in terms of creative quality and technical craftsmanship both– from the soaring visions of the Final Fantasy games and films to the breakneck visceral qualities of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid titles, there’s plenty of people in the game industry who could afford to at least contemplate giving up their day job for a life in the movies and not break a sweat. As such, Sori would seem to strike the ground as very much a middleground anime journeyman, with the CGI in his efforts mostly helping to distinguish themselves from their overly familiar plots and characters by injecting some aesthetic newness to their recognizable story beats. If these movies were done in traditional 2D animation we’d have something about on the same level of quality and craftsmanship as some of Tetsuro Amino’s better works, and if they had been done up in full live-action perhaps something as impressive as a very polished low-budget indie sci-fi epic. As CGI animation that’s somewhere south of the Hollywood budgets, we instead get something that has much of the same fluid-ness of live action fare, but without any of the same naturalism, and some of the same sharp iconic dynamism of traditional anime, but without the same level of discipline that experience builds.
Still, one doesn’t have to plumb too deep to see the advantages of this kind of CGI-anime prospect can have, despite the losses one finds in technical and artistic professionalism. One of the most obvious things is that, coming from the Japanese anime industry, Sori’s CGI efforts can be allowed to go places that American animation still can’t touch as far as sex or violence goes, even at their most mature levels. Sori’s characters may sometimes exhibit a stiff mannequinism as far as their designs and animations go, something that’s especially hard to ignore the more he ups the brightness and contrast on them in close-ups almost to the point of artificial cel-shading, but who gives a damn as long as they can take their clothes off or hack off their limbs every once in a while? As familiar as the stories can get, as well, Sori can push the narrative momentum into much darker places than any Western works would dare to go– a midpoint killing in Vexille especially underlines itself as a challenging and daring treatment of characters we’ve been encouraged to sympathize with, and if it doesn’t quite pull itself off thanks to the technical limitations, it’s hard not to feel a momentary pang of emotional gut-wrenching or admire the chutzpah of it all, even if the aftertaste makes it all feel a little artificial.
There’s also a refreshing maturity in the treatment of themes and dramatic elements, all awkwardness in the CGI aside, that one would be equally hard-pressed to find in domestic fare. That sort of thing is to be expected as far as the contrast between traditional anime and Western animation, but it helps make Vexille and TO rise above their shortcomings and provide interest for the ways in which they can deal in the threats of unrestricted technological growth and the ways in which it can impact humanity negatively, or the painful social and emotional tolls taken on those who commit themselves to exploration on any frontier. In the case of Vexille, the uncanny-valley effect of the CGI animation can even positively reinforce the themes of disconnect from reality that the film seeks to explore, the unnatural qualities of the digital becoming an aesthetic metaphor for the increasing artificiality of a cyborg humanity on the road to singularity. At times, Sori even manages to balance the aesthetic and dramatic question even better than Oshii could in his own hybrid CGI-animes like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, though never quite outpacing the master as far as quality and craft go.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Sori’s work is how, despite the occasional awkwardness or stumbling throughout, he manages to build a convincing array of new creative disciplines for the CGI anime, building both off the disciplines of traditional hand-drawn works and live-action alike to help create a new brand of animation that in the future could potentially outstep its rivals around the world. Sori’s best moments are those that avoid close inspection of his character models, allowing them to either live out in full, dynamic action sequences or to play off each other in surprisingly convincing long-shot scenes that play with light, shadow and backdrop almost in the same way that theatrical puppeteering can. The best dramatic moments of Vexille and TO are ensemble pieces, and they showcase how perhaps the CGI anime may best benefit from stories driven by large casts rather than focusing on single protagonists, the better to spread the attention of a scrutinizing eye on as many digital actors as possible. Sori also makes a canny blend of expository montage, and narration common in game cut-scenes (Kojima’s Metal Gear games at times being as much PowerPoint presentations as they are games or even movies), combining it with the traditional anime conceit of burying as much of a scene’s dialogue as possible within long-shots, cross-time cutting and judiciously framed angles in order to spare animation and get by on still imagery. By juggling his content with editing and presentation techniques like these he keeps the audience on their toes, and distracted at times from the lingering artificiality of the animation.
Finally, Sori uses the Western habit of injecting small camera movements in nearly all scenes, even the largely static ones, and the live-action and anime technique of compositions emphasizing direction and speed-lines to guide the eye through the frame, to keep the CGI imagery as active and visually engaging even apart from its digital source as possible. It’s a set of creative disciplines that are wise for almost any cinematic offshoot, but for something as relatively young and unschooled as the particular medium these films rest in, one that is especially valuable. On their own Vexille and TO aren’t going to set the world on fire, but as time goes on and more lessons are learned and repeated from the experiments Sori has done here, they may yet turn out to be stepping-stone trail blazers after all.