By Bob Clark
If there is one basic rule of humanity that stretches across generations and cultural borders of every ilk, a good candidate might be that people will generally be as inhumane to one another as they see fit in order to stay alive. As such, telling stories about those who are trapped in and grow up around all kinds of suffering is an easy way to transcend national and other differences and elicit sympathy from filmgoers when aiming for as large an audience as possible. It’s an especially canny decision when you decide to engage in hybrid animation that mixes traditional hand-drawn 2D practices with newer CGI models for a blend that has every chance of alienating crowds as much as winning them. Granted, we’ve seen plenty of film and television animation that mix the two, usually just as a cost-cutting measure or to allow for more spectacularly explosive scenes than the time and labor intensive demands of purely hand-drawn craft allow (the Rebuild of Evangelion revamps of athletic Eva units and mind-bending Angels being an obvious example), but in some cases all of these considerations can come together into something that’s either affecting or at least tries hard enough for the attempt to stand out on its own. Might as well try to aim for the heart with experimental weapons if you’re going to fire them at all.
Two of the three animated releases from the New York Asian Film Festival this year highlight the creative challenges and virtues of joining new flavors of animation with visceral violence and affecting, almost downright sentimental content. Last year’s The King of Pigs from South Korean animator Yuen Sang-ho has been busy capturing attention in festivals like Cannes, while this year’s Asura (showcased as a part of the joint-participating Japan Cuts festival along with an adaptation of the Junji Ito manga Gyo) from The Big O designer and Tiger & Bunny director Keiichi Sato builds off the storied reputation of one of Japan’s most notoriously controversial mangakas, George Akiyama. Both are studies of abject brutality and inhumanity throughout all levels of class and society in contemporary South Korea and medieval Japan, but with a particular emphasis on how they affect children growing up amidst such hardship. Both are also horrifically, sometimes spectacularly violent, in ways that both disguise the limitations of and showcase the highlights of the cross-disciplinary digital melting pot they both practice, and help illustrate the creative potential for a new brand of animation when most practitioners and audiences alike are stuck thinking about 2D and CGI as competing strands of differing artistic value.
In a sense it’s fitting that both projects stem from creative geneses from a past that far precedes any of the hybrid animation that makes them possible on the screen. Akiyama’s manga was originally published from 1970 to 71, where it was quickly banned and deemed unsuitable for younger readers for its rampant depictions of sordid violence and cannibalism (today, it would seem positively quaint by even Western comics standards), while Sang-ho’s King of Pigs originated as a premise he dreamed up 20 years ago on the topic of classroom bullying and the potential fall-out of adolescent suicide. As he noted in his post-film interview at Lincoln Center, the cultural landscape has shifted a good deal in the time between his initial conception and when he finally began work on the feature. During his own time in middle school, he elaborated, bullies were more prone to be troubled kids from the lower classes, perhaps venting their frustration at being born on the wrong side of the tracks, while in today’s more intensively mediated world the bullies are much more likely to b rich kids with good grades seeking to dominate anyone and everyone they view as beneath them, including one another.
As such, the subject of bullying and its consequences becomes a fine way of exploring the whole food-chain of hostility between and within the South Korean class system of the 1990′s, which Sang-ho renders with a fine sense of observation that both makes the most of the dated elements while rendering them as simply and contemporary as possible. He gives just enough visual and narrative elements to illustrate how wearing a pair of jeans with the wrong color logo can lead to an agonizingly embarrassing social crisis, especially in a boy’s only school where petty homophobic slurs and over-the-top violent encounters are seemingly everyday occurrences. There’s an element of knowing, but all-too-real absurdity to the way that one crop of privileged kids can get away with beating classmates to bloody pulps without teachers even needing to feign the effort of looking the other way, while any sign of violence from a trio of put-upon boys seeking to fight fire with fire against their tormentors is greeted with all manner of shocked official and corporal outrage. The shock that most of the higher stratified characters throughout the film bear isn’t so much the intensity and brutality of the violence that the kids pursue against each other and the world around them, but rather that the poor kids dare to fight back at all.
Sang-ho goes through great lengths to establish the linear pyramid of violence between the different classes of students, between parents and children, employers and workers, even husbands and wives, making the film a study of a whole social order in moral decay, rather than just another mere personal travelogue of school-day memories good or bad, as is popular in a great deal of Asian animation (at times, with its flashback structure, it feels like a more aggressive, testosterone injected cousin to Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday). The lengths to which he goes to define and deepen the social dimensions of the story help to overcome the occasional uncanny-valley effect he gets from his blend of CGI and hand-drawn animation. For the most part he sidesteps any awkwardness by relying on many of the tried and true tricks and disciplines animators have used to mask budget limitations by focusing on environments and still characters during speech-heavy sequences, only here he’s using it to hide the sometimes stiff appearances of the motion used by the CGI character models in the cheap, but otherwise richly drawn world they’re placed in. For everyday motions like walking, talking and other casual interactions, the effect doesn’t work entirely– all the more reason it pays off that Sang-ho saves the bulk of his character’s actions for their frequent and wild fight sequences, which thanks to his inventive and economical staging and coverage come off much more naturally.
What’s interesting about Sang-ho’s work on King of Pigs is that while it strains for naturalism and realism in most of its story, the moments where the hybrid animation works the best are where he plays up the theatrics of the violence or variously surreal trauma-hallucinations to grotesque effect. Animation is a medium of exaggeration, among other things, and something that many Eastern CGI animated works have forgotten to do is make judicious use of that same level of exaggeration that helps so much of the best Asian anime stand out from the crowd of Western works. A great deal of CGI anime attempts to achieve the same level of attractiveness that’s possible on a natural level in 2D hand-drawn works but just winds up looking stiff and unnatural with three-dimensional models, producing a puppet-like appearance that almost feels a mimic of Thunderbirds style supermarionation. One of the best aspects of Sang-ho’s design is how he works to make his characters look interestingly ugly over the course of their violence-saturated lives, rather than make too much effort for them to look attractive. Keiichi Sato’s work on Asura, on the other hand, sometimes falls into the trap of literally objectifying attractiveness with the lynchpin character of a pretty young pauper maiden, but with nearly every other figure over the course of the film he succeeds with flying colors at transforming their designs from the pages of Akiyama’s static, two-dimensional source material into the full motion and three-dimensions of the film’s CGI-heavy look.
In telling the story of a young boy growing up feral and cannibalistic in the wartorn wasteland of medieval Japan, Sato employs a hand-drawn art heavy variation of cel-shading CGI animation that will be familiar to those who have played any given anime-based video game from the PS2 or PS3 eras, or most especially anyone who has spent time on the visual marvel of Capcom’s Okami. The visual effect that Sato achieves is very similar to that game, in that the blend of traditional and digital arts aims to and very often achieves a look that is akin to a classical Japanese watercolor come to life, with the effect it has on the ferocious violence doled out by the young boy and those wishing to murder him in cold blood is revelatory. As the character/mech designer and co-creator of The Big O (along with writer Chiaki J. Kanaka and director Katsuyoshi Katayama) and director of the cult-hit anime series Tiger & Bunny, Sato displays a marvelous sense of energy and pageantry when staging and illustrating the variously scaled fights for survival throughout the film, pitting the wild child against all manner of beasts, petty thieves and whole armies in his battle against man, nature and self to stay alive at any cost.
Sato’s sense of scope and pacing help the bloody havoc wreaked throughout the film achieve a hyperstylized kinetic feel that makes one forget that they’re watching a hybrid anime, or at the very least use the hybrid tools in a way to put something on screen that one is increasingly aware would be impossible to achieve in anything other than a hybrid, showcasing the potential for the form on sheer spectacle levels. What’s perhaps more impressive, however, is how he’s able to use the visual grammar of this new animation with its emphasis on over-the-top exaggerations and marry it to the grotesque illustration style from Akiyama’s original manga, creating character models of everything from the feral beast-child and his low and high-born enemies to the soulful Buddhist monk who strives to save the boy and rekindle the spirit of humanity in him with finely rendered visualizations as stylized as the violence they’re engaged in. It’s only occasionally when Sato brings the more even-featured characters like the aforementioned peasant girl who helps bring out the humanity of the feral child that the use of CGI models stumbles somewhat, failing to employ the same kind of exaggerated design or animation that helps bring the other, more stylized figures to life in such vivid detail.
Granted, part of the more even nature of her prettiness may be to better bring out the harrowing and tragic side of the story when starvation begins to cave in her features, and whatever plastic qualities there are in her visualization are more than made up for in the warm portrayal from voice-actress Megumi Hayashibara (Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Rei Ayanami, one of several anime-voice veterans on the project including the 75 year old actress Masoko Nozawa, still playing young boys after all these years). But it helps illustrate one of the classic pit-falls of the uncanny valley effect, that the most alienating distance occurs when a character is almost, but not-quite in the realm of passing for human, and that it would’ve been safer to err on the side of inhuman if one wanted to elicit a truly natural response. So far the best uses of CGI models in animation have been when animators have used the tools in order to promote more of an exaggerated sense of design, one that takes advantage of the digital arsenal rather than attempting to duplicate reality in full. Ironically, it’s when the digital animated figures are designed to look as non-realistic as possible that they gain more verisimilitude, and even more of a visceral sense of physicality that makes their puppet-like models more of a genuine asset, rather than a drawback.
Asura and King of Pigs make the most of their digital filmmaking and create animation that delivers stand-out thrills and deeply affecting emotional tolls while also illustrating how to advance the medium in key ways. They may not always look exactly right, but with every knock-out punch, bone-snapping thunk of the axe or heart-rending appeal to the soul, they feel it in ways you can’t capture on camera.