A version of this article appeared in The Age, July 14, 2012.
Think of Japanese cartoons, and a host of stock images will likely spring to mind: giant robots, futuristic cities, strange beasts. Yet alongside the flourishing anime industry, Japan, like many countries, has a tradition of “fine art” animation permitting freer experiment with style and content.
This year, the reliably wide-ranging Melbourne International Animation Festival is devoting two sessions to new developments in this area – one focused on students of the University of Tokyo course taught by the famed animator Koji Yamamura, the other on a group of young artists who call themselves the Calf Collective. Both sessions are uneven but worthwhile, showing how animation has a special ability to shift rapidly from narrative to abstraction and back again – whether hinting at social or psychological disturbance, or for the sake of pure play.
Mirai Mizue's light-hearted Playground suggests a throwback to the work of pioneer avant-garde filmmakers such as New Zealand's Len Lye. Brightly-coloured, hand-drawn forms mutate and combine into creatures resembling bacteria, birds or sea anemones, accompanied by a “neo-primitive” percussive score that even includes what sounds like a didgeridoo.
More formally rigorous in its way is the mock-sinister Steps, a brief skit in which the hapless hero is plagued by a tricksy demon rendered as a luminous stick figure. Credited to a duo known as “Tochka”, this is one of the most technically innovative films in the program – transforming a human actor into a puppet through stop-motion, while using long-exposure photography to record the trail left by a penlight “drawing” in the air.
Other filmmakers favour deliberately elusive forms of narrative, dramatising mental processes that block and distort as much as they reveal. In Masaki Okuda's Uncapturable Ideas, black-and-white visual fragments evoking enslavement to routine are interrupted by blasts of chaotic colour and noisy jazz that register as threatening rather than liberating. Writhing like fish in a net, the abstract “ideas” that haunt the hero are given just enough personality to again resemble demons – or at least giggling poltergeists.
In Kei Oyama's comparably grim Consultation Room, a medical diagnosis triggers an wave of traumatic fantasies, portrayed in greyish pencil drawings that waver as if left out for too long in the rain. A headless female body spins on a stool and splatters the walls with blood from its many wounds; an actor in a dog mask performs on stage, lifting a leg against another actor disguised as a tree. Everything is studiously weird – a bit too much so to be truly disturbing.
In contrast, Alimo's Island of Man contemplates lost time in a corny, wistful style, with nostalgic voiceover narration backed by piano and solo violin. The glimpses of a world left behind – a man dragging a statue over the sand, a discarded toy at the edge of the water – convey a conventional poignancy or a surrealism minus any erotic charge.
Set against a blank backdrop that recalls the parchment of a scroll painting, Atsushi Wada's attractively deadpan The Mechanism of Spring mocks the dream of a return to innocence, with a trio of obese, infantile figures inhabiting a world of animals and enigmatic rituals (the strangest image: a pudgy finger prodding at a furry, phallic object that proves to be the antler of a baby deer).
Wataru Uekusa's The Tender March comes closest to the tradition of commercial anime, albeit distilled into a free-associative video-clip format. Like a character in a platform computer game, a schoolgirl with a backpack marches across the screen, while monsters get on with their business of ravaging cities or simply bob by her side. Nothing can shift the heroine from her straight-ahead trajectory, although miniature screens that pop up around her like thought bubbles illustrate how fragments of the passing scene are preserved in the filing system of her brain.
The comic-strip imagery and the bouncy repetition of the music maintain a familiar mood of cheerful alienation. Why worry about anything, when even the apocalypse is just another cliché? Yet the joke of combining the bizarre and the mundane works the other way round as well – suggesting how everyday life can feel like a scary, bewildering struggle.