The Other Side of Animation 260: Tekkonkinkreet

(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keep the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

There was an article going around in Japan that talked about the current climate of animated films that aren’t big anime franchise films. After Your Name was a smash hit in 2016, the industry has been trying to find the next big Your Name hit, and unfortunately, or what was apparent from that article, the returns haven’t been promising when the big franchise films like Demon Slayer: Mugen Train and Jujutsu Kaisen 0 have been smash hits. That isn’t all true, with Belle becoming a financial hit, but it makes you hope that they do not regress into doing big IP-driven ONLY films. Now, we could talk about the fact that the industry all over the world keeps glomping onto the next big hit and trying to replicate it, and how chasing the trend first and making a good film second is always going to end in tragedy, but you know how the industry works. It takes action first without thinking about the long-term game. It’s a shame, because while making money is important, letting the art and the teams make something distinct is also important, because most franchise-based films are underwhelming. When you want to see something that looks like it goes off the beaten path, then you need to see films like Tekkonkinkreet

Directed by Michael Arias, one of the first non-Japanese directors for a major Japanese-animated film, this film is written by Anthony Weintraub, and was animated at Studio 4°C. The story follows two young boys named Black and White, dubbed by Scott Menville and Kamali Minter. They live on the streets of Takarmuchi, a once-thriving metropolis that is now bloated and overrun with criminal gangs trying to take down one another. Black and White try to take control of the streets by protecting everyone from said gangs. Can the two boys survive these dangerous times inside a crumbling city? What else is this character-driven city hiding or dealing with? 

While this is the part where we talk about the plot of the film, let’s instead focus on the standout feature of the film, the animation. If you were looking for something unique, then it would be tough to find something as distinct-looking as this film. The art direction was handled by Shinji Kimura, who also helped out in films like Children of the Sea and The Portrait Studio. Character designs were handled by Shojiro Nishimi, who also did character designs for MFKZ. They were able to translate the immensely detailed buildings and city life and blocky character designs from the original manga by Taiyo Matsumoto to life. Some moments in the film even go into this dream-like imagery that looks like it was all drawn by colored pencils. Even the action beats are as fluid as ever, despite the designs being blocky at points. The city feels intensely lived-in with so much of the city feeling like it’s falling apart. Most of the metal and buildings are covered in rust or chipped paint. There doesn’t seem to be much that isn’t overrun by industrial factories as the many civilians from the typical citizens, the different gangs, and everyone in-between give off vibes of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Shanghai, which were the direct inspirations for the city as they were looking for a Pan-Asian look. Even with the grime and roughness of the overall city via its visuals, there is a lot of love put into the world and how people love living there. The voice cast is also distinct because it’s more US-animation-driven than the usual anime dub casts you see in most Japanese animation. You have the likes of Scott Menville, Maurice LaMarche, John DiMaggio, Tom Kenny, Phil LaMarr, Dwight Schultz, Rick Gomez, Kamali Minter, David Lodge, Quinton Flynn, Alex Fernandez, Yuri Lowenthal, Kate Higgins, Steve Blum, Matt McKenzie, Crispin Freeman, and Dave Wittenberg. It’s a nice mix of what you would normally see in US and Japanese animation. The music is composed by the group Plaid, and they bring this minimal touch to the world mixed with some industrial and fantastical beats. 

Now that we’ve got the talk of the visuals out of the way, what is this film actually about? It’s not that it’s a complicated story, it just follows more of a vibe or mood-like approach to its storytelling. It’s vastly different from what you would see back in 2006 and some would argue even now. Then again, with a film from the same studio that made Children of the Sea and is usually the origin of those fantastic anthology films like Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond, you should expect something off the beaten path. It’s more flowing and not in your face as we follow the two brothers and the police chasing after the multiple gangsters trying to squeak out a living in a world that is constantly changing. It brings back historical moments like the change from 1970s New York when it was filled to the brim with sex, drugs, and violence before it was cleaned up. The city around them is dying and pushing them out, but some love the city as it is, while reminiscing about what it was like back in the day. The loss of childhood innocence, freedom, and dealing with your personal demons is rampant throughout this film, as there are tales of kids that run and fight freely throughout the bustling city streets. Corruption slithers its way through the alleyways, and this is all while the two brothers at the center of this story are both at the forefront and at points on the sidelines to focus on everyone else. It results in a story that is working on a more emotional than logical level, and that will definitely turn off some people. It’s not the most cohesive story as it goes through the different seasons, and much of what can be interpreted by the audience is either hidden within the dialogue or through visual storytelling. You might not want to focus too much on a film’s plot to get everything, and it’s not the best-told story, but with everything listed above, it’s one of the easier to follow films, whereas the similar-looking Mind Game, which Masaaki Yuasa directed, was a touch more complicated to follow exactly what the story and themes were without breaking them down yourself. However, sometimes, you may want to simply watch a movie that’s an experience and hits a certain part of your brain that likes those less straightforward stories.

 

While its visuals and atmosphere may overtake the story and how the story is told, Tekkonkinkreet is a film that you don’t get too often and should be celebrated when we are all, as of right now, looking for films that are different from the big franchise fodder or tentpole releases. Yes, they might not always work out 100%, but no film is ever going to be quote on quote, “perfect.” Yes, that would be nice, but then every film would be boring. Wouldn’t you rather talk about a film that has some big hits and maybe some misses of varying sizes? At least you have more to talk about than just, it’s good, it’s bad, or something in the middle that doesn’t leave that much of an impact on your filmgoing experience. As of writing this film, there has been no re-release and there is a Blu-ray and DVD release, but the Blu-ray seems like it’s hitting that out-of-print situation where it is hitting absurd prices on Amazon and the like. It’s a shame, because this is a fantastic film, and you would hope a company like Discotek or GKIDS would re-release the film. Still, if you can get a hand on a copy out in the wild, you are in for one of the many examples of why animation is such a vibrant medium, and how it’s not just for kids. Now then, the next time ya see a review, you will be hanging out with DreamWorks The Bad Guys

Rating: Go see it!

The Other Side of Animation 140: Big Fish & Begonia Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

In the span of a few years, China has started to throw its hat into the ring of animation. They have now made it a goal to not just be the country other countries use for their animation, or the creator of a flood of mediocre features. While The Monkey King: Hero is Back was a good first step, I would hardly call it a good movie. The true first step for the country would come in the form of an animated feature that came out back in 2016, but finally got a release here in the states, Big Fish & Begonia. This unique and important title was the passion project behind the directors, Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun. It was based on a Chinese Taoist story called Zhuangzi, but apparently drew from other Chinese classic tales as well. After going through up to over a decade of financial troubles of getting funding, spending it, and lack of animation talent, the film was finally finished. It was picked up by Shout! Factory last year, and was a feature that people payed major attention to during film festivals, including being one of the big features of the Animation is Film Festival. So, was a decade of development worth the hype and final product? Well, let’s check it out.

The story follows Chu, dubbed by Stephanie Sheh. She is a 16 year-old girl who lives in a world that lies on the other side of the human world’s ocean. It’s full of powerful individuals and spirits. Chun has to go through a rite of passage, and venture into the human world as a red dolphin. While in the human world, Chun is smitten by a human male named Kun, dubbed by Todd Haberkorn. After a few days swimming around, Chun gets caught inside a fishing net, and Kun tries to save her. Luckily, he gets her out, but ends up drowning in the process. Feeling guilty as all get-out about Kun dying, Chun ends up going to a place called the Island of Souls to try and bring Kun back. She offers the caretaker, Ling Po, dubbed by JB Blanc, half of her life to bring Kun back. After that, she spends the next chunk of her life taking care of Kun as he grows bigger, and makes sure he can go back to the human world. The bad news is that while Kun is there, the world that she lives in is in major peril. Can she make sure Kun gets back alive? What is she willing to sacrifice to make sure that happens?

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A problem I see with many passion projects that take a good decade or so to fully complete is that the creators try to shove in too much into the film, and never think about cutting certain story elements, or redoing some of the script. Of course, animation can be a huge endeavor, and making changes on the fly can be costly, but you can run the risk of making the film feel too busy, bloated, and or unfocused. Unfortunately, a lot of the problems with Big Fish & Begonia is that there is too much going on. Much of the film is Chun’s relationship with Kun, and her learning about life, death, sacrifice, and the consequences to certain actions, but they shove in a lot of characters, and a lot of time spent with Chun over vast landscapes. I’ll admit, many of the logical issues I keep questioning throughout my time watching the film are probably more of a cultural thing, and how the film wants to be more of a fairy tale. However, how far can you go with those kinds of defenses until they become too distracting? How much homework does one need to do on Chinese culture to fully understand the magical logic used in the film? It shouldn’t turn into a homework project to fully get what’s going on, and who everyone is. I don’t mind learning about the culture, but the film should be explaining to me visually what’s going on. For example, there is this rat woman who is an obvious threat, but you don’t get why she wants to go to the human world, and you don’t see her again after a certain period of time. I mean, yes, you can tell by her design and the way she interacts with everyone, that she is a threat, but why? I also get that having Kun stay in their world brings upon a lot of damage and danger, but why? Why does having a human spirit cause such chaos? The story also goes at a rather fast pace. It’s not a truly horrible thing, but I think the film’s atmosphere and emotional investment would have been stronger if they let some time pass between certain moments. While Studio MiR, the same studio behind Avatar: The Last Airbender and Netflix’s Voltron series, has some breathtaking animation done for Big Fish & Begonia, its use of CGI is definitely distracting. It’s not as bad as, say, Blue Submarine No. 6, but you can always tell when it’s CGI. It becomes more distracting when you see the giant flying whales that look like something out of that Fantasia 2000 short.

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With all that said, Big Fish & Begonia has great elements in its overall package. Like I said above, the animation is gorgeous. The backgrounds are awe inspiring, the designs are whimsical, the movements are fluid, and it’s an incredible visual feast for the eyes. You can tell there was a heavy dose of passion throughout this entire film’s visual presentation. It’s an incredible treat for the eyes that you need to see on the biggest screen you can. I even regret not seeing this one when it came out in my neck of the woods! As for the dub, I have seen both the original with subtitles, and the dub that Funimation helped out with. I think the cast is pretty stellar that includes actors such as Stephanie Sheh, Johnny Yong Bosch, Todd Haberkorn, JB Blanc, Cindy Robinson, Yuri Lowenthal, Greg Chun, Kate Higgins, Kyle Hebert, Erika Ishii, and Cam Clarke. The music by Kiyoshi Yoshida is full of that Chinese flair. It’s fantastical, mystical, and epic when needed. You might have heard of his name and his music if you have seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, where he did the soundtrack for that film. Another strong element is the relationship between Chun, Kun, and Chun’s friend Qui, dubbed by Johnny Yong Bosch. Most of the time you see Chun and Kun together is done with very little dialogue. The visuals tell the story, which, you know, is sort of important in a visual medium like animation.

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Big Fish & Begonia might be a bit of a mess, but it’s an important film for China and the Chinese animation scene. If you watch the trailers or clips, and you think you would like this film, I definitely recommend checking it out. It’s an impressive start, and I hope that means that other 2D animated projects that are going on over in China, can start raising the bar as time goes on. Well, after this, I definitely need something a bit zanier, a bit more focused, and maybe something that can make the night go on forever. Next time, we are going to check out Masaaki Yuasa’s other hit film, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go See It!