By Bob Clark
This weekend marks the closing of this New York International Children’s Film Festival, which has been one of his highest profile years yet, with releases in multiple theaters throughout the city, from the IFC Center all the way to Lincoln Center. Over the past several years the festival has become one of the best, if not only places to check out recent releases of international animation in Manhattan on a regular basis, with new works from Europe sharing ample screentime with established anime voices like Mamoru Hosada, Makoto Shinkai and the storied house of Studio Ghibli. And though it can be more than a little disheartening to mull over the fact that even in the art-house circuit the only animated works that receive any real attention or release are bound to be ones targeting the youngest of viewers (it’s an uphill climb to even get a teen-oriented movie like Evangelion a stateside release), the contrast that can be seen here between the lush, mature work from around the glob and the crass, polished-plastic output of Pixar and the like in the United States couldn’t be clearer. Between this and the other myriad retrospectives and new releases gracing New York screens I was only able to check out three of the films, but they stand out as easy contenders for some of the best animation to reach our shores this year, though not without a few points to clarify.
The Day of the Crows– Jean-Cristophe Dessaint
Based on a children’s book in France and produced by various studios reaching from Luxemborg to Canada, first-time director Jean-Christophe Dessaint’s Day of the Crows covers a lot of familiar children’s fantasy beats that will make it easy for most audiences, young and otherwise, to get used to some of its more unusual aspects. Following a young boy who’s raised in the wild by a voracious bear of a father who views the outside world with hostility, there’s a whiff of The Jungle Book and Dogtooth in the way that Dessaint convincingly shows us a world of childlike fears and paranoia, especially ones that don’t necessarily come from children themselves. In the director’s painterly treatment of the natural world and the supernatural– the boy encountering friendly forest ghosts who appear as human beings with animal heads– it’s hard not to see a bit of the Miyazaki of Princess Mononoke and other Ghibli classics leaking through, and blending with the more Western bande desinee style in appealing ways.
Perhaps standing out most of all is the fact that the film is done in 2.35:1 widescreen, an aspect ratio that’s seldom used in animation, a medium traditionally so expensive and time consuming that even big production studios like Disney have only used it in recent years for CGI releases, where computer rendering can take out as much of the grunt-work of animation as possible. In the effort-intensive realm of hand-drawn animation, where every second of the film has to juggle dozens of different succinct illustrations at once, the labor is positively herculean, and it’s to the film’s credit that Dessaint never wastes an inch of his panoramic frame to portray the beauty of nature and the charm of civilization, as the boy brings his wounded father to a small provincial town to be healed and winds up domesticated by the doctor’s daughter.
At the same time, as the film’s story wears on there’s an element of fairy-tale fatigue that sets in when it comes to the somewhat predictable series of resolutions involving the reasons for the father’s madness, and the boy’s ability to see ghosts. In tying up all the loose ends Dessaint and his team certainly succeed in creating a film that will easily please families looking to find worthwhile entertainment outside of the usual Disney classics and recent releases (so long as they’re willing to sit through subtitles– even if a dubbed version is ever done, it’s unlikely that anyone will top the performances that Jean Reno and the late Claude Chabrol, among others, give here). And the sheer beauty of their imagery will be more than enough to delight serious fans of animation, especially those who have been longing to see the canvas of widescreen cinema painted directly by hand. But when the craft of a movie’s visual spectacle is this rewarding, is there really such a need for such tidy endings, for every question to be greeted by unambiguous answers? Can’t beauty sometimes stand for itself?
Wolf Children– Mamoru Hosada
On the other hand, when it’s possible to have equal doses of narrative closure and visual beauty, as there are in the works of writer/director Mamoru Hosada, it’s hard to argue why other filmmakers wouldn’t want to reach for the highest of brass rings. Hosada’s features have been a constant fixture of the NYICFF, all the way back to his original debut The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and with his stand-out hit Summer Wars being so popular it seemed to run for nearly two years at the IFC Center in subbed and dubbed forms, variously. Now with Wolf Children, we see the director tackling a subject matter that’s both more original than either of his previous efforts (neither being based on a book like TGWLTT or bearing resemblance to similarly themed sci-fi concepts from his work on the Digimon series like SW), yet at the same time owing much to both the backlogs of anime classics and the wellspring of Japanese folklore many of them take point from. For any experienced viewer of Japanese animation there will be much to recognize in Wolf Children, but it’s the warmth and naturalism with which Hosada renders all these familiar archetypes that makes the viewing a pleasure, even at its most bittersweet moments.
Even the story’s broad premise will doubtless ring enough bells to lift up a heavenly choir of angels with newly minted wings– once upon a time, girl meets boy. Girl finds out that boy is not just a regular boy, but instead is a werewolf-style okami, able to transform between canine and human forms but never really feeling at home in either. Girl falls in love with boy anyway, and gives birth to two okami children. But soon enough her baby-daddy (puppy-daddy?) meets a variation of the fate that befalls most lycanthropes, and she’s force to figure out how to raise two children who can’t seem to decide how many legs they want to spend their legs walking on. Along the way there’s pit-stops to locales and dilemmas that will be easy for anyone with even a minor knowledge of anime tropes– the buzzing of cicadas in the mountainous countryside, the trials and tribulations of elementary school and childhood crushes, the wisdom of elderly folk with flinty-personalities from all manner of species. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it in My Neighbor Totoro, Neon Genesis Evangelion or Summer Wars, for that matter– to a certain extent you’ve seen much of this before, and seen it done well.
And now you just have to add Wolf Children to that list, because for all intents and purposes it’s done just as well here as in past cases, and occasionally then some. One aspect that stands out here is the sheer variety with which Hosada renders his world as opposed to both The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, both of which were restricted to more contained locales of urban landscapes, the Japanese countryside and an online virtual fantasia. With Wolf Children, Hosada spends almost equal time in the cityscape where girl and wolf have their college-campus meet-cute and the rural adventure where she raises their children. Though he reserves the bulk of his animation for the latter portions, there’s a studious detail to the earlier scenes that stands out, and helps give weight and intimacy to the more fantastical elements as they begin to pile up. Whether it’s the slow transition of the starry night sky over the city or the dense maze of flora and fauna that the children find themselves drawn to the more they dive into their wolf heritage, there are few voices in Japanese animation today that are capable of delivering as impressive a range of sequences and characters as Mamoru Hosada.
From Up on Poppy Hill– Goro Miyazaki
If Hosada and Shinkai represent some of the best animators of today, while somewhat older hands like Anno, Otomo and Oshii stand for a yesterday only just recently torn from the calendar, where does that leave the perennial garden of delights that is Studio Ghibli? Though they’ve spent the past ten years gaining more and more recognition and adulation in the west, they arguably saw their best years come and go in the 80’s and 90’s, when Hayao Miyazaki classics like Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke were in constant supply. Though he may have experienced some of his most acclaim at the start of the last decade for the beautiful Spirited Away and his follow-up Howl’s Moving Castle, the gradual decline of his output as director (both in terms of quantity and quality– you’ll be hard pressed to find too many fans of Ponyo even among the most jevenile-minded animation devotees) has somewhat slowed the studio’s advances in the public eye, just as some of their bargaining with Disney has begun to pay off (though heaven knows if it’s worth it to gain that much extra publicity and distribution if it means bastardized dub-work).
At the same time, it’s worth considering that from the start of the studio’s heyday that the director was always looking to share the burden of creative work and at times seemed to be looking for the right hands to pass on projects and retire with grace. Even from the earliest days he shared the burden of leading the studio with Isao Takahata, whose more experienced hand in television gave him a more mature and sober voice on works like Grave of the Fireflies and the eco-myth Pom Poko. In the mid-90’s it almost seemed that the ideal candidate had been found to pass on the Ghibli torch to a new generation, when Yoshifumi Kondo directed the Miyazaki scripted Whisper of the Heart. It’s tempting to wonder what the studio might’ve looked like today if Kondo had not died prematurely soon after that feature, and whether or not the master animator might’ve indeed stepped down and allowed younger hands to take the reigns on projects that he himself steered to almost universal acclaim. Would Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle be anywhere close to the sheer depth and quality that they have under someone else’s stewardship? Would the drop-off of quality have been worth it to see a new generation of animators rise, and be able to pitch their own passion projects in the future? Perhaps it’s best that so many of the various younger apprentices went off to do their own things– I’m much happier seeing Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion than for all those ideas and impulses to go into a mere sequel to Nausicaa.
Since then there have been occasional films from other directors– Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns, last year’s The Secret Life of Arietty from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and the long-planned Ursula K. LeGuin adaptation Tales of Earthsea, which was directed by Miyazaki’s own son, Goro, who has now gone on to helm the latest feature scripted by the master, From Up on Poppy Hill. With the exception of the more unhinged feature from Morita (the director has since gone on to helm series on his own with other studios), the very best that can be said about these films is that they continue the dedicated house-style of Studio Ghibli with aplomb, mimicking the visual and narrative voice that Miyazaki and Takahata perfected over the past several decades, without adding quite as much as Kondo has with Whispers of the Heart. Perhaps that’s as much due to the changes in animation techniques as the technicians themselves– though all their features are hand-drawn, the fact that Ghibli has slowly but surely turned from photographic cel animation to digital work results in a thinner, colder image than the majority of their earlier classics– and perhaps it’s something owing to the elder Miyazaki’s treatment of the material himself at the script-stage.
Most of the film’s problems truly rise in the screenplay, from its paint-by-numbers story of a schoolgirl teaming up with nerdy boys to clean up a school clubhouse in time to save it from demolition for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, to the way in which various narrative strands are cut-together, with little in the way of smooth transitions. It’s bad enough that the film largely consists of so many of the old anime dilemmas (even the way that family backstories intersect with school-day romance seems a little old-hat), but it’s especially disappointing that so little is made of so many of the same cliches that Miyazaki and Kondo once turned to gold together with Whisper of the Heart. Without the benefit of having read the shojo-manga it’s based on, it’s tempting to think that perhaps this film suffers from not having enough of Miyazaki’s personal additions to the story– much of what made his collaboration with Kondo wonderful were his idiosynchratic and personal touches that weren’t present in Aoi Hiragi’s original If You Listen Closely comics. And perhaps with stronger material, the younger Miyazaki’s talent as director might shine brighter– he already proves himself an adept hand at coming up with images and sequences as deep and varied as anything in the Ghibli canon past, and he does so with a comfort using the new digital tools that escaped even his father on Ponyo. I’d like very much to see Goro prove himself with material worthy of his talents, and step out of his father’s shadow– that would perhaps be the best thing of all to see, especially in a children’s film festival.