Time for part four of the never-ending lecture on Isao Takahata's objectivist filmmaking. I think the theme of this installment will be, "The Paradox."
When trying to describe the idea of objective narration in animation, I'm beset by a rather complex paradox. It's a great challenge to successfully pull it off, and yet I still feel as though I'm working my way through to understanding it. It's the central paradox of those exercise.
Perhaps your first experience with a Takahata film was much like mine, seeing Grave of the Fireflies on video, years before any of his other works were available here in the States. Watching that movie for the first time was emotionally overwhelming, nearly devestating. I had to actually pause the movie halfway through in order to build up the strength to sit through the rest of it.
My first thoughts after finally reaching the end of Fireflies were a mixture of tears, sorrow, and confusion. The sadness I'm sure you all know. The confusion came later, after my brain started asserting itself again. "Just what the hell happened here?" I thought. "How is this possible?" And the clincher - "What else do ya got?"
The very idea that an animated cartoon could pull such strong emotions out of me was baffling. Certainly, Walt Disney treaded on the waters of pathos with Bambi and Dumbo, but this was a quantum leap forward. This was the full immersion, the suicide leap into the river. Butch Cassidy would be proud. That basic question is at the heart of the mystery.
Remember that Scott McCloud writes to us about the iconic power of the cartoon. It's strength comes from its abstraction, its subjective ability to draw in the readers (and viewers). Iconic characters are employed for viewer identification. This is one of the cornerstones of animation, almost by necessity.
There are various degrees as you go from pure realism to pure abstraction. You start with a photograph, working your way steadily down to the most basic face of all, the smiley face. Thanks to evolution, our brains are hard-wired to recognize faces, and even with a circle, two dots, and a small line, you can make out a face. You cannot see anything else. It's really a miracle, one ofthe many tricks of the brain.
Now, I think there must be a distinction between subjective characters, in terms of the visual design, and subjective narration. Perhaps the two have always been assumed to be one, perhaps they were merely joined together for ease's sake. I'm really not sure, and I've yet to come to a satifactory answer.
But, in any case, you can utilize subjective, iconic characters in the service of objective narration. This is what Takahata achieved. He's proved it again and again, going all the way back to Horus, Prince of the Sun. I'm watching Heidi episodes right now, and this is probably the best example of this paradox at play. And a paradox it is, at least to my mind.
How can iconic characters, which are designed to serve as black holes for the audience, serve effectively in objective narration. Objectivism requires a measure of distance from the audience. The characters are not avatars, they are not the tour guides. We can identify with them, but it must be purely on their terms. It must be because of the qualities they possess as people.
Yoichi Kotabe was the character designer on Heidi, Girl of the Alps - in fact, this is the first time the term "character design" is used in anime, named by Takahata - and he employs a very iconic, cartoony style. This isn't cartoonish in the American, "stretch and squash" notion, but iconic in that smiley face sort of way. There's a simplicity in the design that's still flexible with a large cast of characters.
I think the Japanese are influenced far more stronly by comics than we are, especially the French comic artists. There's something akin to the Rintin style in the designs, with the iconic characters over the highly detailed watercolor backgrounds. This is what Scott McCloud calls the "masking" effect. Again, this is method to bring the audience into the world; a technique in the service of viewer identification.
To me, this is a mystery. Again, using Heidi as an example (although you can look at 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother for the same thing), we see that a visual style that is used for one effect is countered by a dramatic narration that buttresses against it. We are called upon to look into Heidi's world, but we are not of her world. We are not Heidi. We are not the Grandfather. We are not Clara. We are not Peter.
I suppose this is really the true nature of the icon. McCloud highlights this as a significant point. This is really the key to understanding the visual arts. The painting of the Mona Lisa is not the Mona Lisa herself.
Perhaps the paradox lies within ourselves. The West seem trapped by the notion of literalism, by taking everything they see at face value. This is why so many Americans remain puzzled and baffled at the sight of Marco, the Porco Rosso. Why is he a pig? Hey, he's a pig! What's with that? Did he bump his head? Was there a magic spell? Was there a fairy godmother?
Because we are trapped by our literal acceptance of Marco as a pig, we lose sight of the crucial truth - we are not seeing Marco the Pig, but the notion of Marco as a pig. We are seeing the icon,the symbol, the archetype - we are seeing what the image of Marco as a pig represents.
The Japanese understand this crucial point, and Hayao Miyazaki has terrific fun playing with this imagery in Porco Rosso. He really lets it loose in Howl's Moving Castle, playing with the symbolism and his famous archetypes (Romantic Hero and The Heroine), and this is where Americans really get themselves lost. They're expecting The Wizard of Oz, or Harry Potter. They didn't expect Juliet of the Spirits.
So perhaps this is something that we need to work on. Political cartoonists have effectively used icons as symbols, but it's lacking somewhat in animation. Here's something we can really work on.
In the end, there's this tension between the visual style and the narration, one subjective and the other objective, with the narration driving the whole train. Visual style is the servant. Back to Heidi, we see moments of joy and happiness and the discovery of youth, but there is also a tremendous amount of complex human drama. Tragedy, sorrow, complicated emotions, and deep psychological states all play themselves out, and it's not very easy to read. You aren't being handed the key to everyone's emotions. Unlike stretch and squash, these characters move with restraint, yet gracefully and lifelike. There is no real exxageration. We must piece together the scenes for ourselves, try to understand these people from the outside, and choose for ourselves who fits into those childish cubbyholes, "good guy," "bad guy."
I don't think anyone in Heidi - or the rest of Isao Takahata's work - fits neatly into any one category. Even Heidi has her darker side, her weaker side, that pops out every once in a while. She's nowhere in the league of, say, Hilda or Marco or even Anne (remember Anne's imaginary friend in the cupboard from episode 4?), but there are still shades of grey.
I don't know about you, but I'd much rather have that than tapdancing penguins any day. And I'm the sort of hippie that likes penguins.