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Rotterdam Turns to Japan

Iain Harvey traveled to the International Film Festival at Rotterdam and was treated to a nice surprise -- an intelligent animation program married to a live-action festival.

I have to confess that I'm an addict.

The wolves of Okiura Hiroyuki's Jin-Roh. Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Working in film allows me the excuse to attend film festivals. Even now, after over 10 years of addiction, I still retain an air of expectation -- that magic moment when the lights go down and a beam of light strikes the screen. The fact that it can re-occur three or four times a day helps shield one from the inevitable disappointments, but even then you can allow yourself a little game: why did the filmmakers do this? There is not always an obvious answer. The best animation festivals are nearly always an enjoyable occasion whatever the quality of films screened -- though the boost a festival gets from a surprise success adds greatly to the excitement. I can still recall the buzz surrounding The Hill Farm (director Mark Baker) after its screenings and win at Annecy in 1989. As commercial pressures thrust Annecy onwards, some of the smaller, more intimate festivals devoted to animation reward one more easily with friendships new and renewed. Amongst the major festivals I count Espinho and Hiroshima as two of the most enjoyable, and I also hear great things about Ottawa. Going the Extra Mile Most film festivals, of course, are devoted to live-action and it is rare for animation to have more than a token presence; features are rarely screened except perhaps in market screenings and shorts are usually screened without any thought to the (live-action) feature that follows. The contrasts can sometimes be ludicrous. Nevertheless I can recommend warmly Berlin, which conveniently screens all shorts in a massive programme at the start of the festival and also has a dedicated Children's Festival which frequently features interesting animation --though always with pedagogical influence.

Oshii Mamoru's Patlabor: The Movie. Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The first major European festival of the new millennium, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, attracted me because, apart from its reputation for informality and friendliness, highlighted a Japanese animation programme. It is all too rare for major festivals to give animation any profile. Rotterdam promised not only this but demonstrated careful consideration of how it could be integrated into the other themes selected by the Festival, in this case the "Bridging the Gap" and "Exploding Cinema" programmes. For once animation was not treated as a minority interest, or purely of interest to specialists, but was thoughtfully included in the body of the Festival.

Oshii Mamoru's Patlabor: The Movie. Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

This, on the whole, was a success certainly judging by the attendance and indeed audience reactions (though the screening I attended of Patlabor: The Movie was ruined by the fact that the fourth reel was back to front!). Besides films being screened, the "Exploding Cinema" theme explored by the Festival had a complete venue devoted to Japanese video and digital technology. This was extremely well presented, with plenty of space and suitable areas for relaxing in while absorbing a multitude of images and even good Japanese food -- though I draw the line at mayonnaise in my sushi (even though I was assured it was good Japanese mayonnaise!). The Belgians have a lot to answer for!

A Wide Selection

Some of the simplest exhibits pleased the most: two large spotlit circles, facing each other at one entrance and containing on their surface a cascade of protruding cones, tempted, indeed encouraged, one to touch. The consequence was an animated image "let loose" by your choice of cone. It could be a cartoon ghost, a flock of birds, a running man or a shoal of fish -- and not necessarily on the circle you faced. A curiously hypnotic effect.

Arcade games seemingly have not advanced, except that some are clearly now aimed at women. The cynic would observe (rightly) that this makes complete sense in a Japanese context -- probably the greatest pool of spending power in Japan is controlled by those girls between school/university and marriage (and this control probably extends to after this as well). I've always despaired at the appeal of random violence in video and computer games, because, ultimately it shows a failure of imagination; the games only present variations on a single theme. The prospect of a wider selection of themes outside of sports and war is encouraging and should help widen the perspectives of designers, and animators, working in these fields.

Guitar Freaks. Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Of great appeal -- if only I was younger -- are two new arcade games. The first is Dancing Stage which teaches the correct steps for the dance of your choice (by following the patterned floor as it lights up) with your fantasy partner up on a screen in front of you, and Guitar Freaks, which allows you to live your wildest dreams as a rock star. Both are great fun. Anime Screenings The films selected for screening were the main body of manga films available with English sub-titles and as such would be familiar to followers of the genre and especially fans of Oshii Mamoru. Nevertheless, seeing the films together emphasizes how much the Japanese are exploring, no matter how simplistically, major political themes rarely tackled in popular feature films. They represent a cry of pain from within modern urban (where over 90% of the Japanese population lives) society.

Night falls in Okiura Hiroyuki's Jin-Roh. Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The most recent film screened, Jin-Roh, otherwise known as The Wolf Brigade, is not Mamoru's. Although he wrote it, the film was directed by his protégé, Okiura Hiroyuki, who supervised the animation on Ghost in the Shell. Surprisingly, Jin-Roh is not futuristic but set in a Tokyo of the early 1960s. Ambitious in its exploration of human motivation and the politics of state versus individual freedom, it suffers from a lack of story development. The result is that whilst its themes are potentially thought-provoking, it is leaden in its plot development. Hollywood would certainly know how to handle this -- at the expense of losing sight, in all probability, of the wider issues explored. Nevertheless there is undoubtedly an ambitious school of animation working on features in Japan. With the right care for story and character development, whilst not losing sight of the larger issues being explored, there is the potential for an animation masterpiece. And that must be good news for all lovers of animation. Thank you Rotterdam for bringing these films to a wider festival going audience and setting a fine example for other live-action festivals to follow. Iain Harvey of The Illuminated Film Company is an independent, U.K.-based producer who produced the award-winning T.R.A.N.S.I.T, directed by Piet Kroon, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Stories, directed by Andrew Goff. He is currently developing an animated feature.