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Realism as Absence: Thoughts of An Undergraduate
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VelaCiela


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PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 5:59 am    Post subject: Realism as Absence: Thoughts of An Undergraduate  Reply with quote

First off, this would be a thread where I would be sharing my critical thoughts on the works of Mr. Shinkai--basically salient points of my in-progress essay. Which would be further developed over due time:

1. Technology as blurring the distinction between the fantastical and the real. With a heavy usage of rotoscoping (which is the technique of tracing over photographs) and the effect of lens flare, anime has become more "real" than ever.

2. Certain implications of retaining the simplicity of the character design insofar as the characters can be deemed to be unrealistic vis-a-vis classical notions of film realism. Mr. Shinkai has stated in a DVD interview that his emphasis on background art is to draw the viewer's attention to details that are commonly taken for granted in everyday life.

3. A further implication of his statement seems to somewhat suggest that his central aesthetic so far as been that of alienation, the effects of modernity on  the New Millienium Japan--the pastoral, nature, becomes sidelined in the rush for success. The Japanese tradition of naturalism or shizenshugi may perhaps be useful in studying Mr. Shinkai's works.

4. It is perhaps ultimately reductive that we compare Mr. Shinkai to Mr. Miyazaki since both directors encompass relatively different aesthetics as much as one is even tempted to do so. It would be however, fruitful to argue that Mr. Shinkai is spearheading anime in another different direction . And perhaps even within the larger framework of (global) animation itself.

5. Theme of communication vis-a-vis alienation: spatiality and temporality is emphasized in his three major works so far. Handphones, trains, telegraph poles, trams, distance, time.

Here, I'll end off. Such arguments would be further polished as time progresses. My apologies if the language gets too heavy-handed at times.

A useful point:
We know that they…are drawings, and not living beings,
We know that they are projections of drawings on a screen.
We know that they…are ‘miracles’ and tricks of technology,
that such beings don’t really exist.
But at the same time:
We sense them as alive
We sense them as moving
We sense them as existing and even thinking
—Sergei Eisenstein, quoted in Leyda, 1988: 55
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Dy.laneA
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 6:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was happily reading this during a spare in my classes, however times u. I will read this more later, yo have very interesting points that you put forth very clearly. I could learn alot from you, your a very good writer.
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VelaCiela


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PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 7:46 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you; you flatter  Embarassed  The whole essay will be up soon Very Happy
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 9:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Terrific!

On a side note, your quote deals with some very absract thoughts it seems even though it's very factual. Symbols have as much life as the things around us sometimes more since we are given a third person perpective on the things around us.

Like you said the images are not real, but he tries to bring out the things we take for granted in our lifes. There all around us.
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PostPosted: Thu Apr 17, 2008 1:19 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

In Takaki's opening dream for episode two, held a striking similarity to the hill he sits on with his cell phone out. Something I just noticed so brining it up inc the instance it's something you missed. The things around him are similar but he is looking off into something far off in the distance inside this fantasy world.

Some more evidence Very Happy
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PostPosted: Fri Apr 18, 2008 12:05 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

AT,

I guess this answered my question in another thread, this is for class. Is this for a film studies class ? I saw the Eisenstein quote and I flashed back to my film studies class in college.

To your second point, I hear a lot of people who are not big fans of the character design and I wonder if it's not better that way. Sometimes I get the vibe that you could probably take the people out of all the scenes and just have the background and the audio and it would be as meaningful. The look of the characters is less important to me than the "feel" of the characters. If that makes any sense.

Good stuff ..I look forward to reading your essay ^_^
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VelaCiela


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PostPosted: Fri Apr 18, 2008 7:14 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

The characters are there for a reason Wink disembodiment is not as simple as it seems. Now be warned, it's around 2400 words.


Quote:

Copyrighted 2008: The author claims copyright to this essay and as such no parts may be reproduced without his permission. Also, stylistic inconsistencies may result because I am too lazy to go italicize every single title; and footnotes cannot be reproduced too. Thanks to Cardcaptor for her translation of Shinkai's quote.


Realism as Absence: An Examination of the Works of Makoto Shinkai
If realism is the issue of a number of aesthetic movements such as Neo-realism, cinema verite and surrealism, then realism could be argued to be the non-sequitur of animation. The ontological status of animation vis-à-vis film recedes as form, the mode of representation, invariably comes to the forefront. Yet we simply cannot dismiss the notion of realism in animation as the binary of fantasy/reality is constantly challenged by technology such as computer-generated imagery (CGI). If we consider realist movements such as poetic realism or Italian neo-realism to be attempts to locate a mode of expression that comes as close to reality as possibility—given that any accurate expression of realism is impossible insofar as the expression of it will always be mediated by its formal structure—one can then consider the anime of Makoto Shinkai to be another form of realism. This paper will therefore assert that realism exists in Shinkai’s works insofar as it is manifested as an absence and I will recuperate it through a culturally specific reading insofar that scholarly research on anime in such terms have been lacking. More importantly, a culturally specific reading I argue, would further nuance my argument by enabling the paper to examine aspects of anime that non-cultural specific readings have not been able to see: one example would be the Japanese tradition of naturalism or shizenshugi. This will be done with an examination of three films: specifically Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007), The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) and Voices of a Distant Star (2002); and ultimately it is this paper’s position that realism is a symptom of modernity.


The position of the rotoscope in history is a contested one. It can either be seen as a technical/aesthetic progression or a technical/aesthetic regression, depending on whether it allows animators to produce characters of “startling naturalism” or does it just involve a “‘simple’ tracing of live-action footage.”  For Makoto Shinkai however, the technique is appropriated in two notable ways: firstly, instead of imparting naturalism to character movement, as many Western animators would have done, he chose to rotoscope the background art. Secondly, by leaving the character design as “unrotoscoped,” the reality of the background and the somewhat flatness of the character design generate an awkward tension that seems irresolvable.


I would return to address these issues later but on a whole, rotoscoping enables Shinkai to feature background art in realistic effects. The photographic image that is used as the basis for rotoscoping, for creating the background art, recreates the scene itself: the opening sequence in The Place Promised features a train station in Japan. Except for the form, there is not much difference. Similarly, the opening sequence in 5 Centimeters evokes the realism of Sanguubashi Park in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.   Besides the prodigious number of such rotoscoped images, motifs familiar to the Japanese viewer also make their appearances. Inevitably, one also comes across similarly rotoscoped motifs of trains, train station (familiar because most Japanese have to travel for at least two hours everyday, to work or otherwise), the ubiquitous conbini (Japanese convenience stores such as 7-11), telegraph poles in Shinkai’s films. Such motifs lend a certain concreteness to his films unlike the Fleischers’ rotoscoping of Cab Calloway’s dancing sequence for the ghost dancing scene.


Notably, in Shinkai’s introduction to 5 Centimeters, he points out that

Quote:
「そのかわり徹底したロケーションを行い、今この現実をアニメーション表現の中にすくい取ろうと試みています」
(“Instead of ‘sci-fi’ elements, we have performed a thorough location hunting. I want to attempt to represent today’s reality in the anime.”)
「観終わった後に見慣れた風景がいつもより輝いて見えてくるような、そんな日常によりそった作品を目指しています」
(“In the finishing look, we are shooting for [images] in which familiar scenes shine brighter than they normally do.”)



The culmination of what some Internet fans have called Shinkai’s “distance trilogy” (so called because most of his works deal with the theme of separation through an evocation of spatiality and temporality)—5 Centimeters—is also perhaps the culmination of Shinkai’s aesthetic of realism as his background art becomes more grounded in modern-day Japan.


However, just reading Shinkai’s works through what I term as the aesthetic of realism, is reductive. But if we take into account that Shinkai shoots “for [images] in which familiar scenes shine brighter than they normally do” then Shinkai’s aesthetic of realism, does not simply stop at that of cinema verite, an objective portrayal of reality. His portrayal of reality relies heavily on accented details and rich colours. In Voices, sunlight is reflected off the roofs of the factories while casting the stairs in shadows; trains and telegraph poles are depicted in painstaking details in Voices; scenery is reflected off the windscreens of patrol cars in 5 Centimeters and the glare of the sun seems somewhat reflected in the lens of the camera as it pans from left to right in The Place Promised.   Somewhat reminiscent of the Poetic Realism movement in France, stylistics dominates in Shinkai’s artwork and results in an uneasy balance as the character design, while still traditionally drawn, remains in the background, so to speak.


For now, it would be useful to first examine the theoretical construction of the photographic image. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes makes a material connection between the photographic image and the referent. Using the metaphor of the umbilicus, he observes, “The photograph is…an emanation of the referent…A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium…”  This physical representation that is established between the referent, representation and the viewer, is also theorized by Andre Bazin in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” He describes the photographic process as a transference of reality from the original object to its copy, thus, in a sense, allowing the image to become the object itself.


The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.
Consequently, in photography it is the image itself, and what it is an index of, which connects the viewer to reality. For Bazin writes, “[N]o matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discoloured, no matter how lacking in the documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is a reproduction; it is the model.”  Such is the transference of reality from X to Y that evenn Shinkai’s rotoscoped image (of which behind stands an actual photograph) may emanate the very same radiations as the original.


For Shinkai, the photographic image that is used as the basis of rotoscoping becomes that index which links the “photographed thing” to the spectator’s gaze, that which becomes a reminder of reality, or more accurately, a reminder of the lack of reality. Inasmuch as the viewer recognizes Sanguubashi Park in 5 Centimeters, s/he also realizes that it is the absence of the park which allows Shinkai to deploy its materiality. Significantly, cinema scholar Steven Shaviro argues that the cinematic image possesses “a fugitive, supplemental materiality” that “haunts the (allegedly) idealizing process of mechanical reproduction” by citing Maurice Blanchot’s claim that “the image is not a representational substitute for the object so much as it is—like a cadaver—the material trace or residue of the object’s failure to vanish completely.”  Although I would agree with the notion of “supplement materiality,” I maintain that in this case, it is not the “residue of the object’s failure to vanish” but rather a summoning of the referent that results in the coming forth of the residue, the trace—Veni foras, Lazarus.


Shinkai’s rotoscoped background art, then becomes that very “supplemental materiality”—one which is somehow too real for anime yet not real enough for reality; one which some Internet fans have decried as “eerie” and “unnerving.”  Moreover, the artwork of Shinkai seems to mimic the ability of the camera as a recording device: besides the reproduction of the photographic image, the seemingly heavy-handed usage of lens flare (for it appears almost everywhere in Shinkai’s films) also affirms the films’ “photographic” status as one of capturing reality, even as we know it does not.  Yet does not a photograph connote the very sense of loss as reality as we know is displaced and even, as Walter Benjamin puts it, the scene of the crime. At the moment that the object is captured on photographic film, its aura is irretrievably lost, murdered. The photograph is thus another “supplemental materiality” and by employing photographs as the basis of his artwork, Shinkai’s background art becomes a reminder of a reminder of a lack of reality. Paradoxically, as rotoscoping represents reality through mimesis, the inherent artificiality of the medium also deconstructs its very mask as the real, rendering realism into a problematic concept. But it is this problematic of realism, I contend, that Shinkai adeptly mobilizes as a critique of contemporary society while simultaneously positing an aesthetic of redemption.


The problematic of the aesthetic arises at the moment of viewing: the uncanny reminder of the real, the “supplemental materiality” of the rotoscoped image seemingly alienates the spectator when juxtaposed against the unrealistic 2D characters. Just as play-within-the-play, “The Murder of Gonzago” continuously  performs the split between reality and fantasy by deconstructing each other’s ontological status, so does the unwieldy character design deconstruct the rotoscoped images and vice versa. Such a juxtaposition dissolves the reality/fantasy binary as the background art throws into question the realism of the character; and the character throws into question the over-realistic depiction of the artwork. This continuous questioning reinvigorates the vehicle of anime by defamiliarizing the viewer who expects a formal congruity between the aesthetics of background art and character design. This is not unlike the original intention of Animeshon sannin no kai (The Group of Three Animators). In 1960, the first festival of Japanese animation, organized by Kuri Yoji, Manabe Hiroshi and Yanagihara Ryohei, was held and played a fundamental role in imbuing Japanese animation with a distinctive and experimental identity. The Group of Three Animators produced anime that play the role of a social critique through satire, a psychological study or a formal experimentation, one that notably stands in contradistinction to the Western notion of animation—propagated by Disney in the 1930s—as entertainment.  

The notion of anime as social critique, rendered by this strangeness, becomes more apparent when we take into consideration the Japanese tradition of naturalism or shizenshugi, as I have mentioned in the beginning. In a culturally specific reading (for do we not miss out such nuances when we only read for content that applies to our version of reality?), Shu Kuge points out that one might trace the Japanese tradition of shizenshugi “in Japanese myth as well as Japanese Buddhist cosmology and ethics, which asserts that the world is intrinsically “pure. Meanwhile, humans disturb its equilibrium, out of fear and greed.” For Kuge, the word “shizen” can be translated as “nature” but like all languages in translation, it could also point to “jinen” which means “to become by itself,” indicating the homeostasis of the world.

Quote:
Four seasons repeat and will repeat even after all the humans disappear. Stellar constellations existed before human civilization; planets surely return even after you die. Shizen is such absolute continuity itself….Landscapes and everydaylife became these naturalists’ [Kunikida Doppo, Shimazaki Tonson and Tamaya Katai] preoccupations because they saw natural continuities and inherent rhythms, which are free from civilization.



In almost every close-up shot, the viewer observes that the character is like any other anime character. But as the camera steps back into an establishing shot, the viewer is discomforted as the surroundings become more real than the character itself; the beauty of the background art far surpasses the character design even as the lens flare threatens to destroy the vision of the viewer.  The over-emphasis of realistic background art, the almost irrelevance of character design, the continual disembodied narration style as monologue, the effect of the lens glare, the rapid musical montage utilized in the ending of 5 Centimeters, takes on meaning as a “play of familiarization and defamiliarization that accentuates the natural” is mobilized by Shinkai, even more so through the usage of rotoscoping.  At the end of Voices, the spatial and temporal separation of Mikako and Noboru seem to be overcome by their “visual memory of the ordinary.” While one is in Earth and the other in space, both simultaneously recall "“the smell of blackboard erasers,” “the smell of asphalt during a shower at dusk,” “the summer clouds,” “the cold rain,” “the sound of rain hitting the umbrellas,” “the softness of the spring soil,” “the reassuring atmosphere of conbini at midnight.” The images at the beginning of the movie, the places that they have been to, interweave with their voices in a rapid succession, the worlds corresponding to the images. Yet, as Kuge as notes, those images are not merely repeated for Mikako and Noboru are not in them. Their absence merely indicates that the existence of these places will continue even after their demise and in this way, Shinkai’s aesthetic of realism differs from that of the poetic realism on the aspect of human experience; an emphasis on nature rather than human experience.


Another aspect of realism insofar as it comments on reality comes forth when we take into account the socio-economic conditions of Japan from 1990s to present time. In an article, Yumiko Iida points out how the increasing technologization of Japan, as a result of its economic success in the 1960s and 1970s, had resulted in what could be termed as technological narcissism and fetishization. The intrusion of virtuality into the real, such as the Tamagottchi and Date Kyoko, a virtual idol that attracted large numbers of young male mans, suggest “the emergence of a form of pleasure induced by artificially created images… [and] the true object of this self-referential pleasure economy is one’s own consciousness. ”  Miyazaki similarly quotes, “Children are losing their roots, being surrounded by high technology and cheap, industrial goods. We have to tell them how rich a tradition we have.”  In an age where the human vision now looks inward to the body, where a rural exodus has depleted the countryside of its able youth and modernization continues its march, Shinkai’s aesthetic of realism calls upon the viewer to look outwards at the details, the surroundings that one has ignored for so long.


As the photograph summons forth the ghost of reality through its image so does realism inhabit the shell of anime. For Shinkai, realism exists insofar as it can only manifest itself through its absence. The root meaning of the term in Latin is “to stand out of or apart from” something. A priori, realism ex-ists insofar as its ex-sistence can only be possible through its absence in any form of representation. For the only way in which we encounter reality, is through its prior mediation, through media itself. This way, all animation becomes a summoning of the real. For it is only by denying the uncritical mode of expression of real, the “objective” mode of portrayal, “warts and all” that any form of realism can be achieved.










Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and
Wang, 1980.

Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” In What is Cinema? Vol. 1
Berkeley: U of California, 1967.

Cavalieri, Monica. “Animeshon no Mugen no Sekai: Kuri Yoji’s Infinite World of
Animation.” In Animation Journal 10 (2002): 36–49.

Daike. “Pictures of Actual Places: Oukashou [Extract of the Cherry Blossom].” Makoto
Shinkai Fan Web: Unofficial Fansite.
http://daike.hp.infoseek.co.jp/03...raphy/5cm/5cm_actualplace_1.html.

Iida, Yumiko. “Between the Technique of Living an Endless Routine and the Madness of
Absolute Degree Zero: Japanese Identity and the Crisis of Modernity in the 1990s.
In positions 8, no. 2 (2002): 423–464.

Kuge, Shu. “In the World that is Infinitely Inclusive: Four Theses on Voices of a Distant
Star and The Wings of Honneamise.” In Mechademia: Networks of Desire. Edited by Frenchy Lunning, 251–66. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2007.

Miyazaki, Hayabi. “The Purpose of the Film.” The Hayao Miyazaki Web.
http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/sen/proposal.html.

Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993.

Shinkai, Makoto. 5 Centimeters Per Second, DVD. AD Visions, 2007.
———. The Place Promised in Our Early Days, DVD. AD Visions, 2005.
———. “Weekly Official Insight.” 5 Centimeters Per Second.
http://www2.odn.ne.jp/~ccs50140/short/index.html.
———. Voices of a Distant Star, DVD. AD Visions, 2003.

Ward, Paul. “Rotoshop in Context: Computer Rotoscoping and Animation Aesthetics.” In
Animation Journal 12 (2004): 32–52.


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gleowine
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 19, 2008 12:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Good job, AT!

A very insightful and thought-provoking essay. I would only recommend a grammatical edit before submitting it somewhere for publication. Otherwise, well done.

I want to read it again then re-watch the three movies.
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 19, 2008 7:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Very good AT, however your critical writing skills far surpass my own so I have no comments on improvement. The writing kept me interested though out.

Many words I had a vague idea of what they meant. But from the topic you were discussing I was able to get an idea of what you meant.

Very Happy
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PostPosted: Sun Apr 20, 2008 7:15 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Ya know ... I was thinking the same thing you were AT ... Smile

Just kidding.

Good essay. I think much of what has been discussed in these forums would support your points. We have talked about posting "shinkai-like" photos. We've discussed how the works cause us to look at "everyday things" more closely to look for that hidden shine (perhaps the "shine that never fades") in the places and objects that surround us in our own lives.

Kudos! Please let us know how the essay is received.

Laz


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