In the dimmed depths of The Book Club’s basement, 40 people braved the rain for a Passengerfilms evening of dark ecologies and dream worlds. The night began with shorts, including Yamamura’s Aquatic (1987) and Fig (1996), Tezuka’s Legend of the Forest (1987), Hara and Brenner’s Abita (2013), with Sugiyama’s Origin: Spirits of the Past (2006) as our feature film. We were joined by a fantastic panel of animation and film studies academics: Chris Holliday (KCL), Caroline Ruddell (Brunel) and Lilly Husbands (RCA).
The evening was inspired by Miyazaki’s Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind (1984), where real-life influences of mercury poisoning see a film based on surreal, man-made natures. Social, cultural and political events often act as the inspiration of anime films, where recurring images (such as mushroom clouds) and humanistic themes (including the dangers of and the responsibility for the natural world) are used to constantly negotiate a relationship between nature and human life. Animation becomes a comment on the ideal.
Covering themes from deforestation to the after-effects of nuclear disaster, the cinematic and sonic qualities of the films captured the fragility of the environment and the impact humans have. Lilly spoke about how Japanese culture has often been linked to huge human-led devastation, so animation provides a way for us to see the world in a way that surpasses human capacities. The environment often becomes a living, breathing entity in anime films, taking on post-human qualities: creatures adopt personalities and become people-like, providing a unique perspective on how earthly spaces are inhabited.
The technological advances in anime productions were highlighted through the shorts, starting with Yamamura’s hand drawn films which made visible the labours of animation. The stylistic Legend of the Forest had elements of computer graphics, altering the processes of production. Chris noted how this short had similarities with the stylistic elements used in Disney, particularly Fantasia (1940). Its use of different forms of animation techniques – including chalkboard sketches – see the producers trying to give different depths and details to the forest. Technology is harnessed to provide luxurious illusions of reality.
Caroline spoke of her interests in split personalities and troubled identity in anime productions, noting how there is a theme of resilience in the films: an ability to retain identity throughout change. Metamorphosis is a continuity between all forms, providing viewers with something we can all value – Legend of the Forest followed the squirrel from its place of birth and throughout its course of life, creating an empathetic link for the audience. Using the example of the Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter series, Caroline discussed the link of forests being viewed as threatening spaces, which has roots in anthropomorphism seen in post-9/11 fantasy films. Avatar (2009) was discussed between the panel, showing a similar conflicted relationship with the environment – arguably, without human or human-like ties, we as an audience struggle to fully grasp the meanings of nature, which can be problematic.
Following the discussion, the floor was opened to ask questions and raise their own comments:
The first comment noted the long history of drawing the natural world -particularly,the Japanese style of drawing nature on a vertical scale was discussed, as a perspective that also shows spiritual journeys. Its links with calligraphy and Buddhist art were highlighted to show the long history of visual production in Japanese culture.
Chris spoke about how Legend of the Forest showed stark comparisons with Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective (1986): both films include a scene of running in a circular motion, the former around a tree and the latter around the inner of Big Ben. The use of computer graphics in 1980’s Disney films shows use of CAPS tech, a way of digitally painting. Chris suggested that, due to the similarity in chronology, both films could have used to same technique to show the holistic movements of the 3D world.
The last comment came from a member of the audience who was Japanese, and asked the panel why anime had been chosen as a theme – in Japan, it is enjoyed for its visualisation of domestic, political messages. Now, the panel discussed how it has become a commodified form of entertainment in the West as the critical messages of industrialisation, man-nature relations and technological advancements can also relate to a more global audience. Caroline said how landmark anime films opened a gateway to instrumental fans, aided by Japanese-to-English translations. The social and political mediation and metaphors in anime films has influenced a widespread fan culture – which includes the Passengerfilms audience and panel,who came together to appreciate the genre and its lasting impact on cinema.