By Daniel Zelter
I got to the Egyptian Theatre just in time to see a young lanky guy in a t-shirt and jeans being interviewed by paparazzi. I wasn’t sure who he was, until he went up on stage to present the award-winning Korean cartoon Aachi and Ssipak. It was then I realized he was the director of the work, Jo Beom-jin. What made it interesting was how he suggested that the audience view the “R-rated”[At least according to the accompanying flier… IMDB says it was rated 18 in S. Korea…] feature through the lens of childhood, since it’s clearly not for children, or at least children who never saw movies before the invention of the PG-13 rating. Due to the quick pace of the film, I’m still a little confused about its premise, but it basically revolves around a semi-post-apocalyptic future where the only “renewable” resource is human excrement. As a result, dung has become a commodity. And those who have access to the most digestion bars are the most successful. A black market for the bars emerges, and is run by mutants who were former humans exploited by the government. For some reason, their skin is blue from too many trips to the bathroom…
Anyway, Aachi and Ssipak are regular bounty hunters out to stop the gang, but they become targets when they run off with an aspiring “actress” whom the gang was trying to manipulate into producing the “brown gold” for their own empire. Turf wars result, and the cops and a cyborg are brought in to stop the thugs. Obviously, this film wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, which is why it baffles me how it won awards, and was even chosen by the local Korean Culture Center to represent it. It’s lowbrow, it clearly swipes scenes from Hollywood blockbusters, and in terms of character design, it’s rough around the edges.
Still, compared to the likes of Dead Leaves, A+S’s crude humour doesn’t feel forced into the plot. Jo “seamlessly” incoroporates the scatalogical and sexual situations into the story. In addition, despite the sets essentially being an homage to films as varied as Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and even Akira(as the director acknowledged to me after the show), it’s impressive, that, with a budget which is a fraction of those films, Jo was able to re-create the same angles, same speeds, and even the same lighting and textures of said films in animated form. Also, despite looking slightly freakish, there’s obviously a lot of detail put into the clothes and hair of the characters(for example, piercings and afro puffs) when the director could have easily just tried to make them as generic as possible. As Jo’s translator confided to me, Aachi was meant to mainly appeal to animation buffs, and in those instances, it succeeds. At the end of the show, it seemed to garner a fair amount of applause, too, so I guess it wasn’t as niche a production as I presumed from watching it. Though it didn’t draw out the same number of people as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. (Of course, the planners intentionally limited the seating for the former film for obvious reasons.)
Moving on to The Girl Who Leapt Thrugh Time, I was actually surprised that the Cinematheque would host an exclusive screening, since, lately, they’ve been lacking in fresh content after they bought the Aero. In fact, the east coast seems to be where all the anime guests are headed nowadays. But there were still a number of eager fans who wanted to see Tokikake-enough for a packed house. And that’s actually impressive, since, even though American otaku would be familiar with One Piece and Digimon-some who even recognize his specific contributions to those shows-I wasn’t aware that Hosoda might be a household name here like Miyazaki or CLAMP. Even Satoshi Kon and Takahata never got this sort of reception, and their work’s been on dvd for years. The group which showed up for Aachi consisted mostly of middle-aged individuals, while young adults, teens and even children showed up for Tokikake. Hosoda himself also drew a larger crowd of photographers than Jo, possibly due to his sharp business suit and tinted glasses. Unfortunately, that also made him less accessible, which made it nigh impossible to get an interview out of him. I had to settle for an autograph and the screening, which, considering I didn’t pay anything, was still a good deal on both counts. In fact, I enjoyed the casual atmosphere so much that I’d pay to be there. Nonetheless, I really wanted to know things like his intended vision for Howl’s Moving Castle, which given the possible animosity between him and Miyazaki, might not have been discussed anyway.
Getting to the point, the anime film is about a semi-clumsy, yet enthusiastic, girl named Makoto Konno who avoids a fatal accident by “time-leaping” a few seconds earlier, thus snatching herself from the jaws of death. She finds out through her aunt that it’s actually a “normal” ability; and soon she exploits that new power to grant her more success at school and at home. For example, she’s able to study in advance for a test she was previously unprepared for; and she gets to eat her pudding before her sister gets to it first. While it might seem like a blissful fantasy on the surface, as her aunt warns Konno, when she benefits, other people lose. So, for example, when her classmate takes the fall for an overheated tempura bowl which nearly causes a fire, he gets bullied to the point that he becomes aggressive and violent. And Konno’s academic success has a downside, too. Her close male friends are either turned off or attracted to her, and that changes the dynamics of their relationship. Tensions flare, rifts are created, and people get emotionally and physically hurt in the process. Makoto eventually realizes the error of her selfishness, and tries to change her mistakes.
From an animation point of view, I was slightly disappointed by the low resolution in Tokikake’s foreground. While there’s a lot of detail in the character designs and settings, the color seems downplayed in favor of the occasional cg background consisting of clocks and timelines through which Konno soars. Of course, the film revolves around ordinary situations, so you wouldn’t expect there to be a lot of extravagant hues in the outfits or the locations. But I’ve heard so much praise for that aspect of the movie that I was expecting more impressive visuals. Of course, it could all be done digitally; and that types of print tends to look more artificial…Regardless, it’s definitely less vibrant than Aachi.
Yet, unlike Aachi, Tokikake’s energy comes from the urgency of the daily situations of the main characters. Whether it’s school, love, or baseball, the teen protagonists live their lives to the fullest by trying to make the most of their humdrum days. Even people who hate high school would appreciate the bonds and memories these individuals share together. Of course, viewers might still be slightly turned off by the repetitive nature of the film, as certain events get changed frequently. In fact, I was also going to ask Hosoda if he was a fan of Oshii’s “Beautiful Dreamer”, since the “time-leaps” were clearly done in that style, albeit with better pacing. Also, some of the situations are taken a little too seriously, as if they’re a matter of life-and-death. Still, it’s easy to warm up to the characters. What really helps is that Tokikake explores different outcomes for them which help to shed some light on their personalities which might not have seemed apparent in the beginning. (In fact, people who work on dating sims and their anime counterparts should use this film as a reference, so that we don’t continue to get stuck with shallow writing.)
The panel was quite lengthy and, in addition to the directors, was joined by a sociologist studying youth trends(Mizuko Ito) a Korean animation studio president(Ken Duer) and a producer(Jae moh). The panel was preceded by reps from the Korean Cultural Center and the Japan Foundation who stated how proud they were to have their pop culture attract international attention. They also hoped to see many more cross-cultural presentations in the future.
As for the Q+A, the topic prominently discussed was Asian animation’s international appeal. Ito believed that this was due to the global village aesthetique of the internet which made it easier for youths to be aware of cultural trends. Moh cited animation as the key, since the format was able to break language barrier. He told an anecdote of animators he knew who communicated with an American producer by drawing pictures. Duer felt that current trends in which more collaborations are occuring were the result of a need for different ideas to compliment international media. Ironically, Western influences were among the factors in Jo and Hosoda’s decision to engage in animation. Jo enjoyed Spielberg, while Hosoda particularly liked Woody Allen’s, “Everyone Says I Love You”.
Jo also credits seeing anime for his choice. He mistakingly thought what he watched was Korean, and upon finding out it wasn’t, wanted to produce his own Korean animated film specifically targeted for adults. It took him eight years to finish the job, partly because of so many investors bailing out of the project. His next goal is to be a producer on a live-action film from the director of Sky Blue.
Hosoda, on the other hand, seemed to find his calling after going to film school. He currently works with a staff of 300, and is proud of being able to produce an animated film which is a reflection, as he considers it, of their different visions. While he acknowledges that one person can produce an animated feature on computer, he believes it will only appeal to that one person. He also favors the idea of a culturally-specific approach to cinema, since he feels that copying animation styles(for example, 2-d animators adapting, say-Pixar’s approach to cg) could result in monotony, rather than creativity. His approach to the animated version of Tokikake, in contrast to the novel and the live-action production, was to make the female lead more extroverted. His own message through the film is that he believes that young people should seize the moment.
I wish I could remember more of the event’s proceedings, but I won’t forget the one-two punch of quality animation and story-telling from the unique visions of both directors. I hope that there is a similar event in the near future, since I really enjoyed this one. I also hope that more anime and animation fans will get the opportunity to catch these movies. While none of them qualify as the next big thing, each one of them is a crowd-pleaser in their own right.