What Made Studio Ghibli Animator Isao Takahata (RIP) a Master: Two Video Essays

Among the many acclaimed animated films of Studio Ghibli — and indeed among recent Japanese animated films in general — those directed by the outspoken, oft-retiring-and-returning Hayao Miyazaki tend to get the most attention. But even casual viewers overlook the work of the late Isao Takahata (1935-2018), the older animator formerly of Toei with whom Miyazaki founded the studio in 1985, at their peril. Though he most often played the role of producer at Ghibli, he also directed several of its films, first and most memorably 1988's Grave of the Fireflies, the story of an orphaned brother and sister's struggle for survival at the very end of the Second World War.

"Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation," wrote Roger Ebert in 2000, adding the picture to his "Great Movies" canon. "When anime fans say how good the film is, nobody takes them seriously. [ ... ] Yes, it’s a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made."




No Western critic would frame it quite the same way now, with the implicit disclaimer about the nature of Japanese animation, thanks in no small part to what animators like Takahata have done to show the entire world the true potential of their medium since.

The quarter-century after Grave of the Fireflies saw Takahata direct four more features, Only YesterdayPom PokoMy Neighbors the Yamadas, and his visually unconventional, long-in-the-making final work The Tale of Princess Kaguya. You can get a sense of Takahata's distinctive sensibilities and sensitivities as an animation director in the Royal Ocean Film Society video essay "Isao Takahata: The Other Master" at the top of the post. It gets into the questions of why Takahata chose to tell essentially realistic, drawn-from-life stories in a form most know for its way with the fantastical, and how the visual exaggerations in his films somehow imbue them with a more solid feel of reality.

Just above, "Isao Takahata Doesn't Get Enough Respect (A Retrospective)," by Youtuber Stevem, goes in other directions, exploring the director's technique as well as his career, life, and personality, drawing not just from his work with Ghibli but the considerable amount he did before the studio's foundation as well. Still, Grave of the Fireflies may well remain most filmgoers' gateway into his filmography for the foreseeable future, not least because of its still-refreshing "anti-Hollywood" qualities. "Hollywood will have you believe that heroes are needed when times are tough," says writer on Japanese culture Roland Kelts in a recent BBC piece on the movie. "Isao Takahata shows us the humble opposite, that when times are tough what you need most is humility, patience and self-restraint. That's how one survives."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Famous Schrodinger’s Cat Thought Experiment Comes Back to Life in an Off-Kilter Animation

Schrödinger's Cat is one of the more famous thought experiments in modern physics, created by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger back in 1935.  The Telegraph summarizes the gist of the experiment as follows:

In the hypothetical experiment ... a cat is placed in a sealed box along with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison.

If the Geiger counter detects that the radioactive material has decayed, it will trigger the smashing of the bottle of poison and the cat will be killed.

The experiment was designed to illustrate the flaws of the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics, which states that a particle exists in all states at once until observed.

If the Copenhagen interpretation suggests the radioactive material can have simultaneously decayed and not decayed in the sealed environment, then it follows the cat too is both alive and dead until the box is opened.

The University of Nottingham's Sixty Symbols YouTube channel provides a more complete explanation. But with or without any further introduction, you can watch the off-kilter animation, above, which imagines the origins of the original experiment. It was created by Chavdar Yordanov for an animation show in London.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site early last year.

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Watch the Original Black Panther Animated Series Online: All Six Episodes Now Available Thanks to Marvel

Last month, I was thrilled to learn of a talk coming to my town called “The Writers of Wakanda.” I scored a (free) ticket, thinking that maybe the massive blockbuster movie’s director/writer Ryan Coogler might make an appearance (or his co-writer Joe Robert Cole), or maybe one or more of the high-profile writers who have expanded the comic’s world recently, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxanne Gay, or Nnedi Okorafor. Well, either there was some kind of bait-and-switch at work or I naively failed to read the fine print. The event was a panel of devoted fans of the comic having a discussion about their lifelong fandom, the many iterations of the character through various Marvel writer’s hands, and the film’s huge cultural impact at home and abroad. It was slightly disappointing but also quite enjoyable and informative.

I learned, for example, that some of the most well-loved and highly-praised characters in the film appeared very late in the series’ run (which began with the character’s creation by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966) and were introduced by its first black writers, the “chronically underappreciated” Christopher Priest and the filmmaker Reginald Hudlin.




In the late 90s, Priest invented the Dora Milaje, the elite all-female fighting force who protect Wakanda’s kings (who each take on the mantle of superhero Black Panther once they ascend the throne). Hudlin created the character of Shuri, King T’Challa’s younger sister and the scientific mastermind behind his high-tech empire of vibranium-powered gear and gadgetry. Which brings us, at last, to the subject of this post, the Black Panther animated series, co-produced by BET and Marvel, who have released all six episodes on Marvel's YouTube channel. Stream them all above.

Taking its story from Hudlin’s 2005 comics run, the series is less animation and more “a stop motion comic,” as Nerdist writes, “added to the artwork of John Romita, Jr.” This is all to its credit, as is its star-studded voice casting, with Kerry Washington as Shuri, Alfre Woodard as the Queen Mother, Jill Scott as Storm, and Djimon Hounsou as T’Challa/Black Panther. How does it compare to the blockbuster film? From its first salvo of Wakandan warrior prowess in a cold open set in the 5th century A.D., to its seventies-African-funk-inspired theme song, to a present-day scene in the White House, with a blustery racist army general (played by Stan Lee) who sounds like a member of the current administration, the first episode, above, suggests it will live up to Hudlin’s casting of the character as “an unapologetic African man,” as Todd Steven Burroughs writes at The Root, “openly opposed to white, Western supremacy.”

Hudlin wrote some of the comic’s most politically challenging stories, delving into “serious European colonization themes.” These themes are woven throughout the animated series, which features such characters now familiar to filmgoers as Everett Ross and the villain Klaw. Captain America parachutes in—in a flashback—meets an earlier Black Panther during World War II, and takes a beating. ("These are dangerous times," says Cap, "you need to choose a side." The reply: "We have, our own.") The X-Men’s Storm, formerly the first most-famous African superhero, plays a significant role. Not in the series, likely to many people’s disappointment, are the Dora Milaje, at least in starring roles, and the film’s primary antagonist Erik Killmonger.

But not to worry. The ass-kicking general Okoye and her cadre of warriors will soon get a spin-off comic written by Okorafor, and there’s been some speculation, at least, about whether Killmonger will return (resurrected, perhaps, as he was in the comics) in the inevitable Black Panther 2. In the meantime, both longtime and new fans of the character can get their fix in this six-episode series, which offers a thrilling, bloody, and historically fascinating take not only on the Black Panther himself, but on the complicated relationship of Wakanda to the machinations of the Western world throughout colonial history and into the present.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Pablo Neruda’s Poem, “The Me Bird,” Becomes a Short, Beautifully Animated Film

From 18bis, a Brazilian design & motion graphics studio, comes this: an animated interpretation of “The Me Bird," a poem by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. Writes 18bis, “The inspiration in the strata stencil technique helps conceptualize the repetition of layers as the past of our movements and actions. The frames depicted as jail and the past as a burden serve as the background for the story of a ballerina on a journey towards freedom. A diversified artistic experimentation recreates the tempest that connects bird and dancer." It's all pretty wonderful.

Bonus material: You can watch The Making of The Me Bird here. And find the original text of the Neruda poem here. We have more poetry put to animation below.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2013.

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When Japan’s Top Animators Made a Thrilling Cyberpunk Commercial for Irish Beer: Watch Last Orders (1997)

When it came out in 1995, Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell showed the world what the art of Japanese animation could do with the kind of gritty, tech-saturated, globalized cyberpunk visions popularized in the previous decade by William Gibson and other writers. The film's particularly successful release in the United Kingdom got some culturally savvy marketers in Ireland thinking: why not use this sort of thing to sell beer?

But rather than ripping it off and watering it down — all too par for the course in advertising — they hired animators straight from Production I.G., Ghost in the Shell's studio, to create a whole new animated cyberpunk reality, the one in which Last Ordersthe minute-long spot above, takes place. The 1997 commercial tells the story of six samurai rushing through a cityscape that has everything we've now come to expect from this genre: forests of high-rises, bustling streets, mysterious women, artificial humanoids, the technological everywhere merged with the organic, and neon signs aplenty.




The samurai converge on their destination, a tavern, just in time to silently but firmly signal their demand for their drink of choice: Murphy's Irish Stout, a Heineken-distributed brew offered as a lighter, less bitter alternative to the market-dominating Guinness. But no matter of the steely determination of the samurai in Last Orders, the first anime-style commercial ever to air in the UK and Ireland, it seems that one challenges such an iconic brand at one's peril: Murphy's currently has only a five-percent share of the Irish stout market, and that mostly thanks to a 28-percent share in its native Cork.

The Japanese animators who worked on the commercial have fared rather better, going on to, among many other respected projects, Blood: The Last Vampire and Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. Though I've never encountered Murphy's on any tap, I'd gladly watch a movie or even an entire series set in its world. The stout market, the mighty Guinness included, may have been on the decline in recent years, but cyberpunk, in our own ever more globalized and tech-saturated reality, seems about due for a comeback.

via Kotaku

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Animated Scores to Music by Radiohead, Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem, Photek & Other Electronic/Post-Punk/Avant-Garde Musicians

A few weeks ago, we told you about Stephen Malinowski and the Music Animation Machine, a popular and pretty expansive YouTube channel that features scrolling, color-coordinated animated “scores” for classical works from Debussy to Bach and Stravinsky.

But what if there was a version of this, somewhere somehow, for electronic music?




Ask the question of the Internet, dear reader, and the gods will provide. For just over a year motion graphics designer Johannes Lampert has been working in a similar style to interpret the work of electronic, post-punk, and modern composers like Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt in which every sound is represented by a different animated symbol.

In the above video, Lampert takes on Talking Heads’ multilayered, Fela Kuti-inspired “The Great Curve” from Remain in Light. The video gives us jagged lines for Tina Weymouth’s bass, a steady border of dots for Chris Frantz’ propulsive drum tracks, and several gaps into which the three vocal lines of the song—David Byrne’s lead, and Nona Hendryx and the band's multitracked call-and-response backing vocals—drop and pulse. Add to that an unbroken jagged line that replicates Adrian Belew’s searing and soaring solo.

Currently there are 12 tracks available on Anatomy of a Track’s Youtube channel, with a posting record that suggests Johannes Lampert is working on one every two months.

Lampert experiments with the layout and graphics of his animations, making their design complement the music. Hence "The Great Curve" looking like African textiles, Gil-Scott Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me” aping the New York Subway map, and Photek’s “The Rain” as a puddle filled with pulsing raindrops.

Maybe the most complex video so far is for Radiohead’s “Bloom,” which is just as chaotic as the band's tumbling drum machine. But it does uncover how steady the bass is in this track while all around the other instruments are shimmering and ethereal. And for just a good time, Justice’s “Phantom” is turned into a dynamic light show that looks like a night drive down a Japanese expressway.

I would put it to you that modern electronic artists think about their music much like these animations. I mean, what are music editing programs like ProTools or Logic Pro but horizontal scrolls of dots and sound waves?

No doubt Lampert has more tricks up his sleeve and more tracks to animate. Stay tuned.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Celebrate the Women’s March with 24 Goddess GIFs Created by Animator Nina Paley: They’re Free to Download and Remix

As millions of women, men, and friends beyond the binary gear up for Women's March events around the world this weekend, we can’t help but draw strength from the Venus of Willendorf in Graphics Interchange Format, above.

Like the pussy hats that became the most visible symbol of last year’s march, there’s a strong element of humor at play here.

Also respect for the female form.

As Dr. Bryan Zygmont notes in his Khan Academy essay on the Venus of Willendorf, her existence is evidence that “nomadic people living almost 25,000 years ago cared about making objects beautiful. And … that these Paleolithic people had an awareness of the importance of the women.”

Animator Nina Paley has taken up our Paleolithic ancestors’ baton by creating two dozen early goddess GIFs, including the Venus.

As further proof that sisterhood is powerful, Paley is sharing her unashamedly bouncy pantheon with the public. Visit her blog to download all 24 individual goddess GIFs. Disseminate them widely. Use them for good! No permission needed.

Paley is no stranger to goddesses, having previously placed the divine heroine of the Ramayana front and center in her semi-autobiographical feature length animation, Sita Sings the Blues.

She’s also incredibly familiar with rights issues, following massive complications with some vintage recordings her Betty Boop-ish Sita lip-synchs in the film. (She had previously believed them to be in the public domain.) Unable to pay the huge sum the copyright holders demanded to license the tunes, Paley ultimately decided to relinquish all legal claims to her own film, placing Sita Sings the Blues in the public domain, to be freely shared, exhibited, or even remixed.

If Paley's the poster child for copyright issues she’s also a shining example of deriving power from unlikely sources.

As she wrote on her website nearly ten years ago:

My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there's a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I'm happy to be part of that. But we're still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it's time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.

As for Paley's own plans for her goddesses, they’ll be a part of her upcoming animated musical, Seder-Masochism, noting that “all early peoples conceived the divine as female.”

Download Nina Paley’s Goddess GIFs here. Watch Sita Sings the Blues here. March ever onward!

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her on February 8 for Necromancers of the Public Domain, when a host of New York City-based performers and musicians will resurrect  a long forgotten work from 1911 as a low budget, variety show. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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