Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Productive Restrictions

I was born at the end of 1960. Among my earliest visual memories of media experiences are televised coverage of the Kennedy funeral procession—specifically, the flag-draped horse-drawn coffin and oblique overhead view of the cortege—and images from Osamu Tezuka’s animated television show, Astro Boy. Both can be dated to late 1963. Specifically, several images from the title sequence were emblazoned on my brain.

Recently the entire series became available on DVD through Madman Entertainment in Australia. I bought the first 52 episodes in a boxed set.

Because I have been spending lots of time with students talking about screen sequences, I got a couple of DVDs out to watch a few episodes.

First, the forced discipline of black and white does a lot for these things. The value scales are nicely controlled, and the interplay between line and shape is handsome. In fact, I am struck by the fact that some of my own graphic concerns are presaged in these early visual memories—especially line-shape relationships and value structures. Fascinating…

Meanwhile, what is it about anime and audio? The voice actors and sound designers in anime shows always drive me bonkers, and this is the granddaddy of them all. (I have a son who is fond of Naruto, the sound of which can drive me out of a room in nothing flat.) How is it possible to deliver a track that is both stentorian and infantilizing? And of course the visual style can mimic this as well, but Tezuka has a terrific range of characterization. From my perspective, the visuals are best enjoyed with the audio on mute. But I’ll also confess that the pacing is such that whenever I actually do sit down to watch an Astro Boy episode—with or without audio—I almost always fall asleep in the middle.

But that title sequence is nice and tight! Worthwhile viewing for our screen composers. Especially since the animation is pretty limited in spots.

Synopsis: Astro Boy is introduced via tight shot in front of a pulsating background, then takes off to begin his adventures. Over tbe course of several shots he fights Colosso, a giant robot who makes an appearance in Episode Two.

Subsequently he crushes a tentacled ball writhing in the sky; dives beneath the waves to take on some sea monsterish thing

battles a goofy bug-like robot with whale teeth by flying through his electro-breath all the way into his mouth, then richocheting around inside him and zipping back out [resulting, miraculously, in a series of cartoon bandages instanteously applied to said bot’s head]

after which a borer machine roars up out of the ground to drill the now-compromised robot straight through, only to be dispatched itself by our boy.

Subsequently Astro Boy punches out a row of bow-tied Klansmen like a row of dominoes; faces a battery of criminals with rayguns, plus a few more in tophats and tuxedoes, upon whom he drops a small jailhouse. Finally he zooms across town to pose for the closing shot.

I’m posting stills because I think you get a clearer sense of planning through them.

Images: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom (Astro Boy in English), 1963. The show ran in Japan from 1963 to 1966. An American version dubbed in English ran on NBC during the same period.


C. Board said...

The problem that you seem to be having with anime audio is likely a dubbing issue. Astro Boy dates to 1963, after all, and most television audio from that era does not hold up to modern sensibilities. Naruto, on the other hand, suffers from being licensed in America by a company widely known for butchering any source material it touches. Also, there is a lack of serious voice acting talent in America compared to Japan. On top of all this, both Astro Boy and Naruto are TV shows targeted to children, which tend to sound a bit forced to adult ears.

If you're interested in anime--which covers a much broader range than the two shows in question--I would recommend any of the Hayao Miyazaki films licensed and released by Disney. Miyazaki is a compelling storyteller with striking animation and shot selection. You may have already seen more recent releases, such as Spirited Away or Kiki's Delivery Service (Phil Hartman's voice in the latter being excellent), but I would also highly recommend his older work, such as Porco Rosso. Miyazaki's films are appropriate for both children and adults but feature slightly more grown-up stories than the Disney princess fare (a point in their favor, I believe).

When it comes to works aimed at adults there is a wider variety of options, which makes it difficult to choose representative works. I would personally recommend Satoshi Kon's Paprika (especially the opening credits), a fantastic film dealing with dreams and reality. Also highly recommended for its music (composed by Yoko Kanno, possibly the most respected composer in the industry) is Cowboy Bebop, a 26-episode TV series with a compelling graphic style (again, especially in the opening credits). I'm told Bebop is especially striking if you spring for the surround sound. Finally, I would caution you that while Miyazaki's films are dubbed by Disney (and Disney ought to know their way around animation voice talent), many works such as Paprika and Bebop are best watched in Japanese with subtitles.

DB Dowd said...

C. Board, your points are well taken. Yes, the field is wider, and yes dubbing may be to blame to some degree. But access to voice acting talent in the U.S. certainly isn't the problem. Miyazaki is indeed a compelling director, if occasionally obscure beyond Japan. Bebop is a striking show.

mahendra singh said...

The anglophone dubbing in anime is consistently awful, yet the french dubbing is usually quite good.

Pourquoi? Who knows? Different cultural attitudes towards language and expression?

"paprika" is an excellent example of the latest in anime … its english soundtrack is also painful, the french is perfect!

Good blog, keep it up.