Thursday, November 29, 2012

December Previews: More Miyazaki and Finally Back To Color Analyses

While preparing a lecture on HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE I have come across many aspects of Miyazaki's earlier films some of which I would like to further explore on this blog. And since my preoccupation with color analysis is the one thing that sets colorful animation expressions apart from other animation blogs, I will soon launch a loose series of posts about complimentary colors - in particular red vs. green and magenta vs. green.

Aware that most people in the USA have yet to discover Takahata's 1974 TV adaptation of Heidi I nevertheless come back to it once more. There is quite a difference in how it is presented to Japanese and European kids in terms of voices and music.

Comparison of German DVD and Japanese Bluray.

Studio Ghibli Colors
Color designer Michiyo YASUDA is one of those great unsung Studio Ghibli employees whose work is admired across the world but who is hardly known to Western fans. From Nausicaä (1984) to Ponyo (2008) her extraordinary flair for color compositions has been on display in many a Ghibli feature including Grave of the Fireflies (1988) where she was responsible for character colors. There is a Japanese book dedicated to her work (unfortunately the text is in Japanese only so far) but not much information available in English.

Candy colors for pirates in Laputa.
Color work in Miyazaki's films is sometimes taken for granted because it looks rather realistic and changes occur far more subtle and unobtrusive than in flashy anime like Metoroporisu (2001). However close the final films reflect Miyazaki's watercolor image boards, upon closer examination films like Laputa - Castle in the Sky (1986) or Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) demonstrate Yasuda's stunning sense of color.

In-your-face complementary colors in flashy Metoroporisu...

...and Michiyo Yasuda's more subtle use in Kiki's Delivery Service.
The Colors of Holly and Mistletoe
Red and green are the colors most often found in American Christmas illustrations. So December seems to be a good month to start a loose series of posts about this ubiquitous pair of complimentary colors that was especially en vogue in early Technicolor films.

Norman Rockwell's typical use of red and green for Christmas illustrations.
Gene Tierney with red lips against an emerald backdrop in Leave Her To Heaven (1945)
Giulietta Masina in her husband's first color film Giulietta Degli Spiriti (1965)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Miyazaki Screening

November 2012 seems to be Studio Ghibli time: While the GKids Studio Ghibli Retrospective is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City and at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis I'm very happy to be able to present Howl's Moving Castle in the Cinema Gotthard in Zug, Switzerland!

Nov 27, 8:00 pm (movie in Japanese with German subtitles, introduction in German.)

In case you have never seen one of Japan's biggest blockbusters: according to A.O.Scott from the New York Times Howl's Moving Castle is "a fitting introduction to one of modern cinema's great enchanters."

Lupin III about to enter the fictitious European kingdom Cagliostro in The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

My half-hour introduction will focus on Japanese depictions of romanticized Europe from Heidi (1974) to Howl's Moving Castle (2004), character metamorphosis as well as Miyazaki's ambivalent fascination with war machines and the age of steam in films with strong anti-war statements.

Flying Kayaks in an 1880s illustration by science fiction author Albert Robida...
...and Miyazaki's version in the fictitious European kingdom Ingary in Howl's Moving Castle.

Of course, one cannot talk about Howl's Moving Castle without bringing up Miyazaki's unique way of eliminating explanatory scenes and his increasing reliance on intuitional rather than realistic storytelling which results in fantasy worlds closer to those created by Federico Fellini than Jules Verne.

If you know any Ghibli fans living in central Switzerland, please pass this on to them! Given the general lack of audience in Ghibli screenings around here, I'm already having nightmares of speaking to an empty auditorium!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Respectful Distance: Kore-eda Hirokazu (2/2)

And here is the rest of my Kore-eda Analysis:

Avoiding Eye Contact
More often than not, the camera waits respectfully at a distance, is already there before someone enters a room and waits for the characters leaving again. This evokes the typically Japanese impression of overlong shots (a favorite Ozu technique):

With Nobody Knows Kore-eda started to include close-ups but not yet shot - reverse-shot setups which would enable the viewer to be in the middle of the conversation [Kore-eda has included this device in his latest film Kiseki (2011), although only sparely]. The next clip is a shot - reverse-shot situation from Clint Eastwood's Japanese Letters from Iwo Jima followed by a typical Kore-eda conversation among adults (from Still Walking, 2008). Especially older characters hardly look at each other when they are talking. So whenever there is real eye contact it feels like a visual accent:

It's hardly a co-incidence that we see the father/grandfather through a doorframe. Kore-eda's grandfather characters usually keep aloof for a long time. In the next clip dialogue continues even after the grandfather (the protagonist's father) is out of the frame while we are focusing on the son's silent reaction that suggests a difficult father-son relationship:

By contrast, in Nobody Knows the mother-son-relationship is reversed: The fickle mother burdens Akira with the responsibility for his younger siblings. Again Akira is a taciturn observer and again we witness both characters performing daily routines:

Akira: "Are you coming home late?"
Mother: "Tonight? Which day is it? Yes, it could get late."
Akira: "Do you eat when you come home?"
Mother: "What's on the menu?"
Akira: "Maybe curry."
Mother: "Curry? Well, then keep something for me. That'd be nice, maybe I'll eat it."
A Sense of Space
Japanese cinema has always been good at communicating atmosphere and a feeling for the characters' surroundings. Kore-eda in particular reveals the personality of his characters by repetition and variation of daily routines like cooking, cleaning or shopping. All these details add up to characters we seem to have known for a long time. And since we keep getting new information on them over the whole length of the movie they stay interesting. By repeating their way to school or to the supermarket we slowly get an impression of their environment. The following montage of Akira's way to the supermarket not only indicates seasons (the tree in the upper left corner) but also how Akira feels when ascending or descending the stairs.

Downplaying emotional moments
One of the outstanding strengths of Kore-eda's films is his handling of emotional or even melodramatic scenes. As the following two clips demonstrate, they hardly evoke any emotions when seen out of context although they depict moments within the story that are truly heartbreaking and it is hardly possible to see them dry-eyed within the context of the film.

When Akira's sister discovers that Akira faked the last sign of life of their mother she does not confront him or show any emotion. But since the audience knows that this discovery is breaking her heart we are deeply moved nonetheless:

Kore-eda's films are in line with Japanese cinema's great humanistic tradition which reveals itself in characters who constantly seek to get rid of selfish behaviour. Moreover, there is a higher-than-average amount of well-meaning and benevolent characters.

When Akira is finally out of money he still appears in the supermarket as usual. Without a word he receives the necessary food from an employee he has slowly befriended over the course of a year.

Altruism is a universal concept that works with almost any audience - as Kore-eda demonstrates - even without the help of sweeping music and emotional close-ups.

The only animation director that shares many traits of Kore-eda's style (though relying heavily on romantic music und close-ups) might be Takahata Isao whose films keep intriguing me more everytime I manage to see one of them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Respectful Distance: Kore-eda Hirokazu (1/2)

Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of Japan's most interesting contemporary directors. Contrary to the classical drama concept of revealing character in how they react to extraordinary circumstances, Kore-eda reveals the personalities of his characters through daily routine situations. Although he does not force identification on his audience, he is able to deeply move spectators around the world.

Ever since the decline of the Japanese film industry - certainly no later than after the bubble economy crisis - a young generation of independent auteurs put Japanese cinema back on the map by winning festival awards around the world. Among them is Kore-eda Hirokazu, best known for his Cannes winner Nobody Knows (Dare Mo Shiranai, 2004) about four abandoned siblings trying to survive in the anonymity of city life.

Kore-eda initially wanted to become a writer but quit university in order to work on documentary films for TV. To this day, he seems to be more interested in revealing the dynamics of family structure than making a statement about Japanese society on the whole or about history and politics.

In the mid-1990s he began to translate the stories he encountered during research for his documentaries into fictional feature length films. Today he is in line with the great humanists of Japanese cinema like Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi or Miyazaki.

Kore-eda Hirokazu
Although his basic themes have always been loss, separation, memory and death, thanks to a pleasantly sober approach his films never feel heavy-handed or dispiriting. So how is Kore-eda able to deeply touch our hearts while avoiding sentimentality and pathos?

First we have to distinguish emotions that are evoked by content (those feel real), i. e. the story in itself, and emotions that are triggered by way of cinematic devices (those can feel fake). A film feels sentimental when formal elements like overwhelming music trigger emotions that the story alone would not evoke and of which we might feel embarrassed afterwards. Or even worse, we sense that the film makers desperately want us to feel sad and it doesn't work to a point where the whole setup becomes ridiculous. Of course, there are several possibilities in between such as classic Hollywood or contemporary Eastwood films which merely support genuine emotions with appropriate music.

Emotionalizing is the more successful the more we identify with a character - the closer we are to his or her face and the more we know about their feelings and motivations. In a Hitchcock movie this is essential because this type of suspense story only works when we are willing to be manipulated by the storyteller.

Kore-eda on the other hand is trying to admonish us to reflect on what we see rather than to sympathize immediately. He once said in an interview that he prefers looking over his characters' shoulders rather than embracing them. This makes clear that he approaches the characters like a documentary filmmaker. He never exposes them. Moreover, without judging himself he reveals family structure as interactions of several generations with different sets of values.

Most often his protagonists are pensive, introverted and taciturn. They merely observe life and often feel that they have come too late.

To me, the keyword for Kore-eda's directing style is "respectful distance". Let us now look at the formal devices he utilizes to create this respectful distance:

De-emphasizing Facial Expressions
As a former documentary filmmaker Kore-eda aims for realism preferably using natural lighting. The following excerpt from Nobody Knows shows how he approaches Akira with a documentary style hand held camera:

We also learn from that short and wordless scene that he is alone, even when he is in town. There are no other children because they are in school.

Another trait of his films is a laconic acting style. Actors often look as if they were filmed during their daily routines. Kore-eda even gets kids to act naturally.

However, the more restrained someone is acting the harder it is to read his facial expressions clearly. Thus, we start paying attention to gestures and body language. Visually Kore-eda emphasizes this reduction by way of showing the characters from a distance that downplays the importance of facial expressions. Sometimes we only see the backs of conversing characters.

The next example is from his fictional debut Maboroshi no Hikari (1995) which does not contain any close-ups at all. Again we have an extremely long lens that compresses the whole space into one layer of silhouettes (especially in the shot on the bridge):

Girl: "Please don't go away, or else father will be angry!"
Grandmother: "I prefer to die at home that's why I go back to Shikoku."
Girl: "It's too early to die! You need money for the ferry to Shikoku and that you don't have, do you?"
Grandmother: "I want to die in Sukumo. That's why I leave for Shikoku."

Although the dialogue is quite melodramatic, we cannot see the characters' faces. Due to the telephoto lens the characters seem stuck in place, even when the grandmother walks away. She doesn't even get smaller when further away.

Kore-eda's other strategy of shifting our focus away from facial expressions consists of repeatedly showing characters' hands and feet because a person's psychology manifests itself in movements and gestures as well:

These scenes are in chronological order as they appear over the course of the narrative. We learn from them alone, that Akira's shoes get increasingly worn-out. The pattern of appearance is more than once: feet, hands, face. Also note the finger movement when we see Akira's sister for the first time. It is later revealed that she dreams of playing the piano. This is just one of innumerable details in Kore-eda's complex network of foreshadowing.

To be continued...