So this is a different kind of short animated film, since it’s actually a music video for a 90s Japanese pop duo. Animation and direction, though, was done by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, the man behind Studio Ghibli and some of the most acclaimed and best known anime ever. So I think this is a good entry point into two much larger conversations: anime and commercial art.
I’ll stick with anime for this week.
Anime is a medium that’s largely dismissed in the west or relegated to a niche fringe group who’re typically thought of as strange awkward shutins obsessed with Japan. While there is some truth to that, it mostly sidesteps the entire conversation, losing all possible engagement with this extremely popular artform. And since I’m writing about animation every week, it’d be absurd to just ignore anime, which is actually quite awesome.
Anime is an extremely diverse medium that, unfortunately, is largely defined by its worst examples. This is pretty typical of all non-establishment genres. If you’re not like us, you’re shrugged off, pushed aside. And while it’s certainly true that there’s a lot of terrible anime made every year, the same is true of just about every artform you can imagine. Millions of films and books and television shows are made every year, but very few are worth remembering or even engaging with, and most won’t last longer than it takes to experience them.
I think the problem with anime for most people is that they discovered it while pretty young, and typically through something like Dragonball Z or Pokemon or Yugi-oh and so on, which are sort of the opposite of good [though my heart will forever belong to Pokemon!]. The same isn’t really true for most things. The books you discover while young are typically the ones handed down from the establishment. We get to learn how to read from Dr Seuss and learn how to love stories from Roald Dahl and the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, and on and on. We learn to love movies from Disney and Pixar and Marry Poppins and a thousand others that last. Anime, however, is usually the opposite.
That’s how I came to it. I watched who knows how many hours of Dragonball Z and Pokemon and Gundam Wing along with various other not very well done shows. That was Toonami in the late 90s, early 2000s, and it was all I wanted, because we don’t do animation for that big middle ground between childhood and adulthood. We go straight from Dexter’s Laboratory [best show ever!] to Family Guy and so we’re sort of drifting in between for way too long without animation designed to fill us with love and hope and humor and action. And speaking Dexter’s Laboratory, part of what makes that so great is that it basically plays off the best elements of anime: absurdism and action and awe. And so I discovered anime while pretty young, then ignored it for a long time, only coming back to it a few years ago, after watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, which also sort of follows an anime structure.
Anime works best, I think, when it taps into that mythic and fairytale quality that Disney’s taken advantage of for nearly a hundred years, or when it goes to these insane levels of complexity and depth and darkness that somehow blends itself with surreal absurdism. Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example, is something that could only be anime. Imagine pitching a biopunk science fiction cartoon in the mid 90s, but instead of going the Godzilla route, you turn the genre inside out and then rip it apart. Turn the apocalypse into a backdrop for a story about people dealing with serious psychological trauma, about what it means to be human. Even with all that, they find time for humor. Evangelion takes enormous risks with narrative and character and even structure to bring you something like you’ve never seen or imagined before. And even though Evangelion is an intense and complex work of art, it’s something few will ever bother to give a chance. Because our expectations and assumptions about anime have been informed by jigglypuffs and super saiyans.
But maybe that’s changing now that people like Miyazaki have successfully crossed the chasm from niche interest to internationally celebrated filmmaker, which makes him a good entry point to really engage with anime here, because, I mean, it’s just great animation and beautiful story telling going on. There are those who don’t like Miyazaki, but I’ll probably never understand that. Even if you define your life by hating anime and everyone who’s ever loved it, how could you watch On Your Mark and not feel something?
Because On Your Mark is a music video, it works in a different way than most short films we’ll discuss. A narrative isn’t nearly as important and there’s no room for characters to talk or explain their situation, which puts the weight on the visuals. And that’s what I love about films. It’s the true language of film.
On Your Mark manages to tell a sweet story here, that’s actually quite action packed. Two men save a woman with wings from her captivity, and along the way we have an airship crashing into a huge building, a firefight, and some great futurescapes along with the beauty of the open road all mixed together in six minutes that blend the best of science fiction with the best of fantasy imagery. The song’s all pop, real infectious, and after watching this a few times I keep hearing it play in my head. By throwing this all together, we get a pretty fun and surprisingly beautiful short film.
So while this doesn’t really live up to the best of his films, it still captures so much of what makes him one of the most important animators of the last couple decades. He gives us action, adventure, love, and beauty. But mostly, he fills us with hope, and we’re flying on animated wings through the sky, breathing that air so high, feeling the sky on our backs as we leave the world behind.