Švankmajer, Yuasa, Nishimi, and Renard
By Young Film Critic Hectór Oyarzun Galaz
Animated films are not generally a priority in most big film festivals’ programme. Experimental animation, particularly, has been generally left out of most festival’s main competitions and has been commonly neglected to exclusively animated festivals.
This year’s IFFR didn’t include any animated film in one of its competitive categories, but it featured three very different forms of non-traditional animation. Jan Švankmajer’s hyper-meta experiment Insect, Masaaki Yuasa’s digital delirium Night is Short, Walk on Girl, and Studio 4°C’s gritty Mutafukaz are all examples of the possibilities of animation as an exploration of movement.
Švankmajer’s Insect, the last full-length film by animation’s greatest living maestro, is his most self-conscious effort to date. It is not a surprise considering how the Czech animator played with the self-referential nature of animation before. In his previous films, Švankmajer worked with domestic materials, meat, dead insects, and skeletons in a way that fascinated the audience while still making them wonder about the process. A classic film like Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) is capable to catch our interest, and yet it is hard not to ask us about how did he do most of the scenes. In his latest film, he brings these interrogations up to the front, blocking any kind of suspension of disbelief. Insect is a film interrupted constantly by its own process, mixing the story of a live-action amateur theatre company with the film’s making-of. With only small doses of animation in the film, Švankmajer doesn’t let us make our own guesses about the animated process this time. Instead, he explains every trick step-by-step within the film.
The first minutes of the film, with a prologue with Švankmajer on screen, work as a final reflection on the audience’s experience with animated tools. Experimental animation, probably more than any other kind of film, is always making us think on the technique itself. Insect recognizes this and changes the game by displaying all of its tricks directly. Even if the combination works as a thoughtful experience at first, the recurring use of the distancing effect makes the film hard to enjoy. The insistent appearance of the director working on set actually blocks two of the most joyful pleasures of animation viewing: making your guesses about the process on one hand, and completely forgetting about it on the other. There are still sparkles of his genius - particularly in the 'metamorphosis' animated segment - but the extreme self-reflectivity of the experiment gets tiresome after some scenes.
The Maximum Overdrive section – dedicated to films that experiment with mash-ups and pop culture – included another consolidated animator, considered by many critics among the most refreshing voices in anime. Masaaki Yuasa’s Night is Short, Walk on Girl features a new story within the universe of his previous series The Tatami Galaxy (2010). Since the development of Tatami, Yuasa’s latest colorful experiments are mostly done using the Adobe Flash software. There has been some criticism towards this new approach – the simplicity of the software is considered “less professional” than the standard – but instead of stepping back, Yuasa goes even deeper into the aesthetic of Flash for the characters’ movements in this film. The crazy-as-usual plot follows a “Girl With Black Hair” drinking liters of alcohol, joining a theater group, healing a bunch of people, and doing a series of multiple tasks on an impossibly long night.
Like in his previous films, Yuasa relies on absurd and genre blending to create this sort of romantic comedy. Night is Short, Walk on Girl could look at first like a series of random events, but as the characters develop it turns out to be a complex tale of identity and adulthood. The experimental use the 'layers' of flash animation – which allows Yuasa to erase or modify any element of a character or background– work as a metaphor for the character’s inner crisis and construction. Even if the film is not on the level of a piece like Mind Game (2004), Yuasa’s new direction is much profound than what it looks at first.
The latest animated surprise, also presented as a part of the Maximum Overdrive section, came from Yuasa’s ex-studio 4°C. Shôjirô Nishimi and Guillaume Renard made one of the bleakest animated portraits of urban life. In times when everybody seems to agree that things are getting kind of 'dark' around the world, Mutafukaz feels almost like a parody of today’s consensus on negativity. Set in the dystopian Dark Meat City, the film opens with the young Angelino walking around like a humorous version of Travis Bikle.
Mutafukaz works because of this contrast: even if the film’s bad guys are dangerous and the art of the city is as gloomy as it can be, the light tone of the film turns every scene into a funny look on darkness. The animation style resembles the character design of Tekonkinkreet (Michael Arias, 2006) and the nervous digital 'camera movements' of Satoshi Kon's films. The film blends these elements with action, neo-noir, rom-coms situations, and conspiracy films with a permanent light sense of humor.
Even if animated films were not a part of any main section of this year's IFFR, we can still appreciate how this edition's animated films are pushing the boundaries of animation. Švankmajer's surrealism, Yuasa's Flash madness, and Nishimi and Renard's bleak designs are all concerned with using animation as something more than a simple route to illustrate some narrative. These three films explore cinema’s elementary matter: time and movement. These films reflect Norman McLaren's elementary definition: "Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn".
Photo in header: Big Talk with Jan Švankmajer at IFFR 2018