Commentary &Independent Animation 04 Jan 2013 08:35 am

Combustible Shorts

- Having seen most of the films in the Oscar race, I have a lot of thoughts about many of them, most particularly some of the animated films. Not the features, I don’t really have much to say about cgi films except that I wasn’t crazy about any of those I saw. There was a lot I really enjoyed about Brave, but that wore away over time, and I now find it hard to watch again on DVD. I will before the final vote.

A couple of the animated shorts have really dug into my mind, and I’ll try to comment on them before the nominations come out. The film that was entered that haunted me most was a puppet film called Oh, Willy!, but that didn’t end up on the short list, so I’ll wait to see it again at some Festival screening.

Of those on the short list, only one seems to be by a genuine Master of the medium. Otomo Katsuhiro deserves more than a little respect in that he’s made several giants in the Japanese Anime medium. AKIRA (1988) was considered a classic when I was told about it in the early 90s. I made many attempts to get through it, but had problems following the film’s story and gave up at least five times. There was no doubt that enormous work and craftsmanship went into the making of the film, with its unusual angles and forceful drive. Every scene seemed to be overwhelmed with activity, and so much came at me that I pulled away.

Otomo was a writer on the film, MEMORIES (1995), which I was quite taken with. It didn’t have the heart of Myazaki, undoubtely my favorite Japanese director today, but there was quite a bit to enjoy there. I’d like to see it again and look closer at Otomo’s sections. In 2004 he wrote and directed the enormously respected STEAMBOY. This film, like others he has directed, is stunningly produced with enormously gifted graphics, but I tend to find myself unable to emotionally connect with its characters and story. There was much less of a problem than I’d had with AKIRA, but it didn’t wholly connect to my taste.

This year we have the extravagantly attractive and completely alarming 12 minute short, COMBUSTIBLE. I don’t for the life of me see how this film could be left off the nominee list, so I want to write about it before those nominations come out. I haven’t met an animator, yet, who hasn’t praised the craft of this film to the hilt. Yet. again, it seems to be an emotional thing that affects many I’ve spoken with. This film does speak to me with its pent up feelings and hidden emotions ready to combust at any moment.

The courtyard leads from the unravelled scroll into
the claustrophobic home with pent up emotions.

The movie starts out with a slowly moving scroll that unravels for us and we begin to pan down the very long image until bits of it start animating. Then the first big sequence grows out of the scroll. We see two children, neighbors, as they play with and around each other. It’s all played out in long shot on that scroll – an extension of that first image, above, and it isn’t always certain what their game is. We do realize that both the boy and girl are close with each other and grow up that way.

We learn that the two are separated by their parents, especially the girl’s father. The boy is all but disowned by his family as he has developed a passion for a career as a fireman. We see this when a nearby fire breaks out, and the perishable buildings immediately ignite.

The girl is made to behave as her middle class society demands of her.

The girl’s father has no kindness for the boy, and often throws nasty comments and remarks his way, at one point degrading him for getting a large tattoo. The boy has marked himself with a fireman’s imagery, and he runs away to become one. The girl’s father plans to marry off his daughter to a suitor, though there is no doubt she is in love with her childhood friend, who has left her.

To me the key scene in the film shows the girl, alone in a room, bored, throwing paper fans to fly in circles about a room. One accidentally falls on a lantern, and slowly ignites. The girl, at first, races to get help, but ultimately stares with a thrill as the lantern burns and other objects in the room catch fire.

This fire, I’ve learned is ased on historic incidents. The Great Fire of Meireiki which was also known as the Long-Sleeved Kimono Fire and the Great Fire of Greengrocer Oshici were similar fires of the time. The secret love affair ends in flames, but the film glows with strength of this love and other hidden emotions. Something I have no doubt which is close to the author, Otomo.

The girl, from her POV, throws fans circling about the room.
Her ennui takes form in these fans, searching for that flame.

As I said the film’s life burns with a fury during the sequence in which the heroine accidentally lights the great fire, and her emotional games wreak havoc in many homes, hers included. Although her love tries to save her, she ultimately dies among the flames. The tedium on her face as she throws the paper fans shows all the hidden and pent up emotions within her. The fire she starts brings out an excitement as she realizes her one love will return to try to save her. He does and comes close to achieving the happy ending for her.

Crowds of firefighters descend upon the city as the flames
immediately burst into a violent and dangerous fire.

They work out of the darkness of the night with
the light of the fire burning against them.

I’m not sure of the exact order of these scene, these images were
sent to me and Ive assembled them in the numerical order they came.

Finally, the girl hears her love come to save her.

He has been placed in charge of separating and destroying the
building that is the fire’s center. The girl’s house and his own family’s.

He goes at his task methodically and swiftly.

Unfortunately, the girl does not know his plan and she moves directly into the fire.

This is a complex story told in a very complicated way, and the techniques of animation must employ every beat to pull it off. Otomo has the craft in hand and works hard to relay the story. He adds many aspects of his own culture to wash into the sory driving home the realism of the story.

His normal difficulties in having characters who properly emote, at least for Western audiences, seems to be employed to add to the emotional thrust of the story. It’s a very well executed short film and firmly acts like a great short story bringing so much to a short slice of a tale. The tale of a culture and the people who not only make up that culture but act out in history.

It’s one of several excellent films on that short list this year, and I look forward toward seeing the nominees that will be chosen.

3 Responses to “Combustible Shorts”

  1. on 04 Jan 2013 at 10:44 pm 1.Scott said …

    Best short film of 2012, and will most likely win the Oscar.

  2. on 05 Jan 2013 at 4:11 am 2.Michael said …

    I’m not so sure I’d agree with you.

  3. on 27 Mar 2013 at 7:32 pm 3.Star said …

    I’ve been Dir. Otomo’s fan since Akira, and he IS an acknowledged master. Though unlike Dir. Miyazaki he seems to be waning in enthusiasm toward traditional 2D animating… :( I’ve seen his quote somewhere from his fansite saying that he’s going toward directing movies than animating.

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