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The Animated Body
Animation is generally defined as “the process of inducing movement into something sentient“. Plants that cast off their natural roots, develop legs and burst into dance or prehistoric animals roaming the streets of New York are not real life, every day occurences. However, in animation, such examples are more than abundant. Since it is a lot easier to manipulate drawn objects than to tamper with the laws of physics, animation is a liberating medium. Here, anything is possible and part of the pleasure of watching animation is being invited into that destabilized and fluid world.
In this absolved reality, certain objects, whose never changing role in life we take for granted, can be seen in new light. Take the body, for example. For the past hundred years, it has “suffered” immensely at the hands of the animated medium. Men and women have been stretched, squeezed, cut in half, grown wings, merged with robots, transformed into hideous monsters and benevolent angels, etc. Indeed, what animation can do to the human body is one of the most interesting and provocative aspects of the medium that deserves further analysis.
Animation started out as a form of novelty act. Eccentric artists like Charles-Emile Reynaud, Emile Cohl and Winsor McCay experimented with “moving drawings” and created short cartoons that were supposed to shock the audiences by making the body (both human and non-human) do the impossible. The first animated work on standard picture film was “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” (1906) by J. Stuart Blackton. It features a cartoonist drawing faces on a chalkboard, the faces coming to life and doing all sorts of ridiculous stunts. While not an intellectually engaging work of art, Blackton’s cartoon opened the floodgates for future bodily experimentations. Winsor McCay, a famous American animator and comic strip writer, gained fame by bringing long-extinct creatures like centaurs and dinosaurs back to life for the amusement of his audiences. His most famous cartoon is probably “Gertie the Dinosaur”, an animated short from 1914 that quite realistically depicts a cute, female dinosaur doing funny things. “Gertie” was also the first film to ever use a special effect intended to show live-action, flesh-and-blood performers interacting with animated characters within the context of a work of fiction. Along with “The Centaurs”, Winsor McCay’s work illustrates the early fascination with bodily transformations and the possibility of bringing mythical creatures back to the big screen.
With the rapid development of technology, animation grew more and more sophisticated. Drawn caracters became very realistic and with that, it become possible to play with the viewers’ expectations. This technical maturity was accompanied by a philosophical one, stemming from the tragic historical developments of the 20th Century. A new genre, dubbed “body horror” was born. While nowadays there are numerous live-action “body horror” movies, the genre has its roots in animation. It is defined by the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. Instead of a clean, smooth change from one form to another (exemplified by many works of Walt Disney), it is painful, organic, and usually quite disturbing. Such works may deal with disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation. A typical example is “Akira”’s horrific scene which involves Tetsuo, the main protagonist, losing control of his psychic powers and mutating out of control into an hideous amorphous monster that consumes anything it touches. These images are usually deployed to portray characters’ major personality changes. In the above given example, Tetsuo’s transformation reflects his troubled adolescence, alienation, isolation, vengefulness and a deep, monstrous hatred.
Not everything is all doom and goolm on the animation front, however. There are many instances when a metamorphosis of the body can be used to comic or elegiac efect. Another Japanese anime, “Ranma 1/2“, subverts the grotesque and threatening destructveness of “Akira“, embraces it and engulfs it with a festive attitude. It tells the story of Ranma Saotome, a teenaged martial arts prodigy who, upon returning from a lifelong training journey with his father, finds himself engaged to marry Akane Tendo, the 16-year-old martial artist daughter of his father’s best friend. Complicating matters is the fact Ranma and his father Genma both bear shapechanging curses. Due to an accident at a magical training ground in China called Jusenkyo, Genma turns into a giant panda and Ranma turns into a short, busty girl whenever they are splashed with cold water. Splashing them with hot water restores them to their normal selves. Further complications arise in the form of other engagements arranged by Ranma’s amoral father, the boys pursuing the girls so engaged, plus various other persons wanting to kill or marry Ranma in either or both of his forms. Several of these folks also bear curses from Jusenkyo. Almost all of them are world-class martial artists, which results in considerable property damage most of the time and comic situations. This is the series which took “The Unwanted Harem“ trope to its ridiculous extreme, and created nothing short of a love dodecahedron. The core cast numbered more than a dozen persons caught up in a complex web of love, hate, duty, honor and rivalry, all of it played for laughs. Through these comic love-stricken interations and transformations, “Ranma 1/2“ explores the themes of pursiut, mistaken identity and ambiguous character interaction.
While the above mentioned examples are clearly not the only ways animation deals with the body and its various transformations, they should provide the reader with a general sense of what can be expected in the medium. Probably the most crucial point that should be stressed is that almost always, there is a hidden philosophical layer underneath every metamorphosis. Uncovering it is essential to understanding any animated work of art.