There are times when you just want to see some animation that doesn’t have a toy line attached to it.
You know that’s heresy, especially for American cartoons. Animation licensing has been around since Pat Sullivan made Felix the Cat pull off his tail and sign on the dotted line. Walt Disney perfected the process, making as much money off of Mickey Mouse watches as his shorts (the cartoon ones, you filthy beasts). I understand Popeye did wonders for the sales of spinach. Heck, Samurai Jack glowers over a drooling Jimmy The Idiot Boy plush in my living room. For as much as we anxiously awaited Wall*E this summer, we are now looking for the RC this holiday season.
There’s something to be said for animation that’s just done for its artistic value…with no licensing deal attached (or at least no toy or game line). I want some entertainment that will confront me only on its artistic merits. In America, those kinds of animators, especially the ones who are truly self-supporting, are very few and far between. On the other hand there’s Europe.
Yes, the Old World can be as base and venal as Hollywood. You can cite examples ranging from Tintin and Asterix to the upcoming Fly Me To The Moon (which is Belgian). At the same time it seems one can find the occasional exception to the rule. You can now acquire a proper handful of some of the best of these artful animations through New York City’s Kino Video.
Kino, primary through its subsidiary KimStim, recently released or reissued nine different DVDs from four of the world’s most respected animation mavericks. They also picked up the rights to a collection we covered in minute detail several years back. You may not know the history of Soviet animation, or such names as Jiri Barta, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Michel Ocelot or Jan Svankmajer now, but you will. The long term impact of these various true cinematic artists are just starting to be felt. Don’t be surprised if their reputations grow as the years go on.
Let’s start with Barta.
He’s probably the least known of the four, most likely as his filmography is the smallest. Barta is part of the incredible chain of Czechoslovakian/Czech Republic stop motion animators including the late Jiri Trnka (who’s studio Barta primarily worked for) and the incendiary Jan Svankmajer.
Barta first made a name for himself with one of the oldest forms of animation, cut-ups. For those not familiar with the process, think of the early days of South Park, where everything is made with cut-up construction paper. The process goes back to the earliest days of animation, including Emile Cohl (the first animator to work with paper, period).
His early shorts, such as “The Disc Jockey” (1980) and “The Design” (1981) are much brighter and, quite frankly, don’t take themselves as seriously as Trnka and Svankmajer. He was playing it safe because of the oppressive Communist regime of the day. It’s interesting to note that Barta started in 1980, just about the same time Svankmajer was banned from producing animation by his government.
After “The Design,” Barta started moving both creatively as well as politically. Films like “The World of Gloves” sees him moving into stop motion and puppetry, much like his elders. His one true great work though is his one and only feature film, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (aka) Krysar (1985).
Before you watch this film, understand this Piper isn’t your Robert Browning or the cleaned up versions of Grimm fairy tale. It’s set in a dark, venal, clockwork society where its greatest citizen is the money maker. By this time Barta had moved into puppetry, and there’s hardly a pretty face to be seen among the town’s citizenry. With the exception of our hero and his wife, they are carved to look like penurious beasts in generally rich medieval robes and gowns. The rats themselves look warmer and friendlier, probably because Barta primarily used real ones, than the characters.
Even more pointed is the ending, which without giving it away, turns the film into an incredible screed against the negative aspects of capitalism. It’s a true master statement that has powerful applications even today.
Unfortunately for Barta, his animation career would soon be cut short after this international award winner. The fall of the Communist regime and the rise of Vaslav Havel and democratic principles to the Czech Republic apparently were great for just about everyone but Barta. His ability to get state funding was cut. His last short was “The Club of the Laid Off” (1989). According to my research, since that attack on commercial pop culture, he’s ironically primarily been producing TV commercials.
Kino/Kimstim has collected Barta’s entire library in one DVD, The Labyrinth of Darkness. It’s only seven shorts and the feature length Pied Piper. On the other hand, Barta’s reputation has been growing, and rumors of him doing another feature film have been flourishing again.
Probably the most illuminating of the Kino/Kimstim releases are two DVDs featuring the work of Kihachiro Kawamoto, The Exquisite Short Films of… and The Book of the Dead. Before you think it have this indelibly stamped on your head, Kawamoto is not your fan service-providing anime director. He’s something entirely unique, even by Japanese mass production standards.
Currently celebrating his 80th year on the planet, Kawamoto is the oldest of the animators represented here. Apparently he started as a puppet maker and illustrator, and even spent time in Czechoslovakia to pick up some of their filmmaking techniques.
That absolutely does not mean he’s anything like Trnka, Svankmajer or Barta. Yes, one can say he has a strident anti-capitalist stance in his own way, just check out his animated short “The Poet’s Life” (1974), based on a story by Kobo Abe, if you don’t believe. He can also do some incredible psychedelic-styled traditional animation, as witnessed by “The Trip” (1973), where he puts 60s masters like Peter Max to absolute shame.
Still, his favorite technique is puppet animation, and he prefers to keep his subjects set in Japan’s feudal eras. He also doesn’t like to use the more expressionist puppets of Eastern Europe. His figures look like they are made of porcelain, with facial expressions modeled after Noh opera. His backgrounds tend to be watercolors of that same period. Finally, his anti-commercial stance stems more from deep beliefs in Buddhism, The morals are expressed more through example than be plainly stated. In total, looking at a Kawamoto film is, as the shorts collection implies, exquisite in all senses of the word.
Still, his masterpiece has to be the feature film The Book of the Dead. Featuring the voice work of Japan’s leading v.o. artist, Rie Tanaka. (who’s a guest of honor at this year’s NY Anime Fest), Book tells the tale of a young noblewoman haunted by the ghost of a murdered saintly prince. He can not ascend from his grave because she is the reincarnation of a woman he fell completely in love with just before he was executed. This tale of unrequited love reaching beyond the grave is both highly original in its narrative and just jaw-dropping beautiful to look at. If you want some quality view time, you can do no worse than here.
Speaking of some serious eyecandy, some of the most unique and eye pleasing work has been coming from France in the name of Michel Ocelot. Just the man’s history alone is one of the more amazing tales in animation.
Born in the French Riviera, Ocelot’s parents were missionary teachers and moved the boy to French Guinea when he was very young. Once there, and based on an interview I did with him back in 2000, he was the only white student in his parents straw-thatched school house. He didn’t just learn his 3 R’s while there though. He developed an incredible love of West African folk tales, something he would soon apply in his own work.
He would eventually return to France, where he first lived in the province of Anjou (the home of the royal family the Plantagenets), then moving on to Paris. During this time he also established a love for classic fairy tales and the work of the creator of the first animated feature film, Lotte Reiniger. During his young days he did just about everything someone interested in film making could do, from being an actor on to designer and more. Still, in the 1980s he started working in animation. By 1994, his reputation was so strong that he became the president of ASIFA, a post he held until 2000. Also, during this time he helped establish the animation collective called Les Armeteurs, a group who’s output not only includes his work, but such films as Sylvain Chomet’s Triplets of Belleville and The Boy Who Wanted To Be A Bear. Among Ocelot’s fans are Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who believe enough in Ocelot’s work that they now distribute his features in Japan. His latest effort was the award-winning Azur and Asmar as well as a music video for Bjork. No doubt he’s got more features in the very near future.
While one of Ocelot’s features, Kirikou & The Sorceress had been distributed by Facets for a few years, it had recently been discontinued. Even though Azur and Asmar also won its share of international film awards, that doesn’t mean it’s available domestically, at least not yet.
Kino/Kimstim is starting to rectify this onerous condition with the release of two other Ocelot features, Kirikou and the Wild Beast (2005) and Princes and Princesses (2000). You can’t find more representative examples of Ocelot’s wide range of styles than in these two disks.
As the title implies, Wild Beast is a sequel to Sorceress, telling further adventures of the young West African magical boy before he finally defeated, and married(!), the evil Karabas. In these adventures, he takes on such things as a wild hyena ravaging his village’s crops, an unruly ox who wreaks a different kind of havoc on his village, and escapes from one of Karabas’ more incredible plots to kill him with the aid of a gigantic giraffe.
Two things about these Kirikou tales. First and foremost, Ocelot applies traditional animation techniques in a manner that is truly original. He has a truly brilliant and lush color palette at his disposal yet uses a very naturalistic approach to his character design. The other thing is his storytelling. Ocelot shows that even though Kirikou is exceedingly small and can out run just about any creature in Africa, he wins every confrontation he’s in by using unorthodox yet brilliant plans. He’s a kid who wins more from brains than any squash and stretch or superheroic shenanigans. To top it, his approach is comparatively non-violent when compared to other animators. No big guns. No extreme savagery. Just a gentle sense of humor and some amazingly addictive Afro Beat from the likes of Manu Dibango (“Soul Makosa”) and Youssou N’Dour. If you don’t mind that nearly everyone walking around the screen is completely or half-naked (which is the way over in the West African wilds), you’ll find some amazingly original animation here, and well worth showing to your kids, to boot.
Now Princes and Princesses (2000) is an entirely different experience. Here Ocelot pays homage to Reiniger and her incredibly unique silhouette style of animation. He also comes up with his share of European fairy tales one wouldn’t be ashamed to tell alongside the likes of Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. Again, his use of color is especially striking, this time sticking primarily to bold primaries as opposed to Kirikou’s wider palette. The end result are like the classic Victorian block prints jumping off the page and telling their share of joyous and farcical tales.
In all, Ocelot is already considered one of the true great masters of animation throughout much of the rest of the world. Is he going to be the next Miyazaki? Actually, he already is everywhere but here. Hopefully these two releases will go a long way towards showing the American public the errors of their ways.
Next up are three releases by the revolutionary and incendiary Svankmajer. A card carrying member of the Czeck Surrealist Society, the man actually brought the weight of the Communist Czech government on his head, actually having him banned from doing any film work for nearly a decade. It wasn’t until the Republic’s “Velvet Revolution” that the man was able to begin producing films again.
Svankmajer mixes just about everything he can into his work. Not just his nation’s obsession with puppets, but extremely facile clay animation, other forms of stop motion, live action and even some traditional pen and ink. About the closest to his style are the works of the aforementioned Trnka and Canada’s Norman McLaren. You should be warned, his imagery is exceedingly disturbing. Shorts such as his post-liberation short “The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia” (1992) or his homage to Edgar Allan Poe, “The Pendelum, the Pit and the House” (1982) will simultaneously shock and fascinate.
Kino/Kimstim has released two collections, The Collected Short Works of… and The Ossuary and Other Tales that compiles just about every short the man has done. They have also started releasing his post-Revolution features under the straight Kino label, starting with one of his most respected works, Faust (1994).
Starring the actor Petr Cepak, Svankmajer mixes elements of both Goethe and Marlowe’s tales of the scholar who sells his soul to Mephisto for knowledge. He also sets it in contemporary Prague, with our Faust being a bored actor instead of a frustrated alchemist. From there though, just about anything goes.
Primary to the entire mix is Svankmajer’s use of gigantic and horrendous puppets, which he alternatively animates or has live actors running around in costume. He hasn’t forgotten his stop motion approaches either. The way he has Mephisto pop in and out of scenes along show he hasn’t forgotten his early works such as “Dimensions of Dialogue” (1982).
As it stands, Svankmajer appears to be concentrating mainly on feature films these days. His Little Otek (2000) actually got on American TV for a while through channels like IFC. His other features include Alice (1988), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Lunacy (2006) and the recently completed Surviving Life (2008). All but Life are readily available through the ‘net or at a truly illuminated DVD shop. I can’t recommend any of them highly enough. Svankmajer is now cited as a major influence from just about everyone like Terry Gilliam (who calls “Dimensions” one of his ten favorite animated films, ever), through the Brothers Quay and onto Tim Burton and Henry Sellick. Find out why with one of his collections. Then, when you are ready for the real deal, move on to his features.
Finally, Kino has struck a deal to pick up the rights to the collection Animated Soviet Propaganda . Initially released through highly independent Films By Jove. This multi-disk set covers the 80-plus year history of Moscow’s Soyuzmultfilm Studio and is a great primer for the Russian approach to animation, mixing Disney with Lenin and coming up with their fair share of art in the process. For more details, I did a multi-part feature on this set right here at Newsarama (http://forum.newsarama.com/showthrea...hlight=Soviet).
Anyway, it appears that various political skullduggeries by the Putin administration nearly cost Films By Jove their complete rights to this collection. Now the set is being jointly released by FBJ and Kino. Suffice you should get it before the current Russian regime tries to throw another spanner in the works.
One last detail. I originally didn’t intend to make this column exclusively about Kino, but licensing played a hand in that. Another company, New Video, was going to release a collection of Dave McKean shorts under the title of Keanovision on July 31. Unfortunately, some rights issues have put the kibosh on its release. Hopefully this issue will be resolved in the near future. As his work on the film MirrorMask proved, McKean is every bit as great an animator as he is a comic book cover artist. His work should be made more widely available in the future.
Also, don’t think world animation is the exclusive domain of everyone but Americans. My source at New Video informed me that the works of Bill Plympton are starting to show up on iTunes. You can’t find a more original and exception talent that this New York City maverick. Do yourself a favor and download a few. You won’t regret it.