Japanese animation is versatile enough to cover the entire canvas of human emotion, writes Anirudh Chakravarthi
There is a widespread misconception that animation worksfrom Japan (well known as anime)are cartoons aimed at kids and adolescents. This is because, when anime was first discovered by global audiences in the eighties and nineties,the most popular animated shows were aimed at the most likely audience to watch them: teens.
Toonami, a timeslot on Cartoon Network channel, aired shows like Dragon Ball Z, Card Captors, Naruto, Once Piece and Bleach. These shows initially fit the cartoon tag and then some of them slowly evolved into something more ambivalent, harder to define.
Naruto, Bleach and One Piece are the best examples of this transition.Their characters journey from one fantastical place to another, slightly darker and more realistic fantasy places in a gradual progression, going through experiences that changed them. In the process, their viewers also changed.
In the hundreds of episodes that have been produced (episode 824 of One Piece is currently airing), the storylines became increasingly complex, multiple plotlines cropped up, new worlds that the characters travelled to revealed rich histories and vibrant cultures.
One Piece, written by Echirio Oda, managed to do this most successfully. That explains its incredible longevity, as many middle-aged peoplein Japanand otherparts of the globehave spent the better part of their lives contemplating its themes, making it a cultural phenomenon.
This is how both teenagers and adults couldsimultaneously get into these shows. They have both wackycartoonish humor and serious adult themes co-existing in the same fictional environment, creating a unique experience. They connected with kids and kept tempering the storytelling to theiryoung-adult concerns and beyond.
These aside, there were a number of works that also shot to modest fame in the nineties for their thematic depth and artful storytelling. Neon Genesis Evangelionis a show about teenagers using giant robots to fight off aliens. Though it is tempting to call it juvenile from that one-line synopsis, one would be tragically off the mark if you do so.
Hideaki Anno, the creator of Evangelion, grappled with depression in the beginning of his career and poured that experience into the show, imbuing it with an existential angst that gave the show a philosophical edge. The teenage characters had to keepmaking tough choices and take quick decisions that adults usually make. They are in constant fear and resent the great responsibility that life had forced them to shoulder.
Unlike a cartoon where the protagonists manage to fend off the villains without a scratch, there are real consequences in this show. The aliens that attack earth are symbols of destructive thoughts that are caused by depression. The giant robots that the characters use to defend the planet are metaphors of hope and the human spirit that drive us to keep on living. All of it plays out like a sweet bedtime story that subconsciously turned into a nightmareafter falling asleep.
With fluid animation and an art style that is full of subtext and symbolism, Evangelion uses the artistry of animation to the fullest and tells a human story that resonates with anime fans to this day (there have been 2 reboots of it post-2000).
Two more landmark shows that were created during this period are Serial Experiment Lain and Revolutionary Girl Utena. The latter is a show that subverts the ‘girls with magical powers’ genre and shockingly introduces elements of the horror and psychological thriller in parts where they are least expected. Serial Experiments Lain is another philosophical show about technology and what it means to mankind; it was made during the infancy of the Internet and predicted many current trends in the virtual world.
A young man walks into the office of an upcoming filmmaker who just started his own studio. The young man takes out a number of drawings from his bag and places them in front of the filmmaker. The filmmaker examines the drawings with his experienced eye and is impressed. He decides to give the young artist a break and hires him for his second feature film.
The young man is Hideaki Anno, the creator of Evangelion, and the filmmaker is the Oscar-winning Japanese animation legend,Hayao Miyazaki. This is how the two met in the 80s and seared their names on anime history.Though Miyazaki had been directing films since 1979, it was after 2001 when he made Spirited Away and won an Oscar for it that he cemented his status in the international arena.
Spirited Away became the highest grossing film in Japan beating Titanic’s record. It is about a girl named Chihiro whose parents turn into pigs when they stop by at a deserted shrine and she discovers a spirit world hidden in the place. In this world, Chihiro ends up in an inn where many strange creatures dwell. She strikes a deal with a fat lady who is the owner of the inn and works for her.
As we follow Chihiro’s adventure and finally see her parents turn back into humans, we might not notice what the film is about. A keen viewer with some knowledge of Japanese culture and history would notice that the inn Chihiro works in resembles a brothel of the Edo era. If we take the thought further, and look back at the movie again, we will identify the various subtle ways in which Miyazaki has woven anotherdark story right at the edges of the seemingly innocent fairytale we were watching. The film is a cunning tapestry that tells you a sex-worker’s tale in the guise of a fairytale. The director has verified this interpretation of the movie on many occasions.
Other films of the master with such adult themes include Princess Mononoke and Nausica of the Valley of the Wind. He later made simple films with equally exquisite artistry such as Ponyo, Castle in the Sky, Howls Moving Castle and Porco Rosso. Today, he is known as the Spielberg of Japan. His studio Ghibli has supported directors who have made many other great films like Arriety and the gut-wrenching film about the Second World War’s toll on a brother and sister,Grave of the Fireflies.
Satoshi Kon’s work, Paprika, inspired Christopher Nolan’s Inception.He is a venerated artist who has made only four animated films and one TV series until he met his untimely death in 2010. Kon’s films are known for their surrealism and layered storytelling. Certain anime connoisseurs and critics have put him on a pedestal higher than the one Miyazaki stands on. His seemingly modest filmography is more than what meets the eye. Each of his works has been subjected to extensive study by film students in Japan and the world over.
Paprika, a puzzle of a film with dazzling animation and endless visual surprises throughout its 86-minute runtime, is a masterpiece. It exploresthe concepts of dreams, fantasy and reality leaving us wonderstruckrather than confused.Inception took so much from it that it would not exist without this movie. But, Nolan’s film is no match for the visual splendor of Paprika, as animation’s inexpensive and limitless possibilities combine withKon’s imagination and artistic skill.
His earlier film, Perfect Blue, inspired Oscar-winning Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky. It is a mystery thriller that deals with the dangers and drawbacks of stardom. Aronofsky actually wanted to remake Perfect Blue but could only buy the rights to certain scenes.
Millenium Actress, his swansong to the Japanese film history, is about two journalists who go to interview an aging superstar. Once the actress starts narrating her life story, we are drawn into a story of Japanin the 1930s and its film industry which Kon picturizes with such nostalgic tenderness that is completely immersive. But it’s not a straightforward story.
Kon jumps forward and backward and toall the points in between, showing us similar incidents in different phases of her life and drawing thematic parallels between them. He also makes references to the cinema of each era where we see the actress at different points of her career.The ending of the movie is the logical conclusion of all the strands of her past and hits us with explosive emotional power.
His Tokyo Godfathers is a lighthearted movie about three homeless men finding a baby and their hilarious struggle to return it to its family. Paranoia Agent is a hard to explain surrealistictale that explores psychotic tendencies in human beings in 11 episodes.
When Kon was working onDream Machine, a movie he had almost completed drawing storyboards for, he discovered he’d been diagnosed with cancer. Kon wrote a blog post titled Sayonara(goodbye) explaining his ordeal to his fans. He had given up on the project as his health wouldn’t permit him to finish it and he struggled to accept that his movie was not going to be made. His final words to his fans:“With my heart full of gratitude for everything good in the world, I’ll put down my pen.Now excuse me, I have to go.”
Naoki Urasawa’sMonster is the story of a neurosurgeon who operates on and saves the life of a 12-year-old boy. But he’s struck with deep guilt when he realizes, many years later, that the child he saved has become a serial killer. He decides to take responsibility and embarks on a quest to slay the monster he unleashed onto the world. On the way, we get is a compelling thriller that reveals twists and turns that make us rethink everything we previously took for granted. Monster is a Hitchcockian work with a lot of heart.
Death Note is also a thriller but a modern-day take on Dr.Faustus. What would one do if he has a death notebook that can kill people 40 seconds after writing their name on it? Is it okay to pass judgement, play god and kill criminals? Aside fromthese moral questions, Death Note is a detective story, a cat-and-mouse game that is nothing short of extraordinary. We see characters plotting and counter-plotting in such an intricately complex plot that we never know who has the upper hand. The show pushes the viewer to the edge of her seat with its suspense and shocking reveals.
Anime contains an inexhaustible reserve of work that cannot possibly be covered in its entirety, no matter how much is written about it.It is simultaneously cartoon, wacky and silly,anddeadly serious and heart-rending. It accommodates every human situation, every human emotion, it’s the most flexible form of storytelling in existence.