'An Appropriate and Unique Universe'
Animation news and Chinese Flash.
Happy Sunday! We’re back with another issue of Animation Obsessive. This is our slate for today:
1️⃣ The week’s animation news.
2️⃣ Unearthing a Chinese Flash series.
New here? We publish twice a week — Sunday and Thursday. You can sign up to receive our Sunday issues for free, right in your inbox:
There’s also a paid subscription available. If you have an academic email address, you can get a 40% discount here. (This now applies even to readers outside the US.)
1. Animation news worldwide
Shichirō Kobayashi, 1932–2022
This week, the story came out that Shichirō Kobayashi, a seminal figure in Japanese animation, passed away on August 25. He was 89.
Kobayashi spent decades as an art director, putting his touch on a long list of famous projects. He worked on Isao Takahata’s Panda! Go, Panda! and Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro, on Mamoru Oshii’s Beautiful Dreamer and Angel’s Egg. You find his name on Revolutionary Girl Utena, Nodame Cantabile — and many more.
Via Catsuka, we recommend the short documentary on Kobayashi embedded below (with English subtitles). The program toco toco spoke with him about his life, process and career back in 2015. We see him drawing, and going through some of the countless background paintings he made during his time in anime.
“I tried to create an appropriate and unique universe for each series,” he told toco toco. “This is what I aimed for during all my career.”
How is the business of animation faring?
Amid the worldwide economic upheaval, caused especially by COVID-19 and Russia’s war in Ukraine, animation sits in an uncertain place. This art form has a business side. How is it doing?
That depends on where you look.
In France, at least, things seem promising — according to a new government report. While its figures only go through 2021, they show that animation remains France’s leading film and TV export. There was a significant year-over-year decline between 2020 and 2021, but signs for the future point upward. As Cartoon Brew explains:
Despite being the largest contributor to the strong overall numbers for the French AV sector, animation sales fell 18.5% to €60.8 million ($60.14 million) in 2021. The report’s authors don’t appear too worried though, attributing the drop to the cyclical nature of animation and pointing out that the past five years have seen animation sell at a “very high level” […] The study also suggests high exporter confidence for 2022, with sales expected to rise.
In Russia, the situation isn’t quite so rosy. We’re still a ways out from the end-of-year results for 2022, but this week brought another hint of the beating that Russian animation is taking. Julia Nemchina, the head of Riki Group (The Fixies, Kikoriki), told the newspaper Kommersant:
The events taking place, known to all, have affected the entire media market in our country, and, of course, the animation industry is no exception. We were faced with a number of restrictions, with a number of deals and negotiations with international partners being put on hold.
Now we have to diversify both risks and revenues. We are not announcing our financial figures, but if you look at the revenues, we will be short by 20% to 30% for the current fiscal year.
That tracks with other reports coming out of Russia — back in June, Soyuzmultfilm predicted a devastating 30% decline in revenue for 2022.
Things look a bit rocky in China and Japan, too, but for reasons unrelated to the war.
In a report this week, the Chinese media analysts at Poison Eye broke down the country’s all-important summer film season, which just ended. COVID-19 continues to batter the Chinese economy, as the government’s controversial “dynamic zero-COVID” policy leads to widespread lockdowns. Theaters are struggling.
For 2022, China’s summer-season take was 9.134 billion yuan (around $1.31 billion). That’s up from roughly $1.1 billion in 2021, but still far from 2019, when theaters pulled in over $2.56 billion. This decline applies to all theatrical films, but animation is included.
The summer’s only real domestic animated success was New Gods: Yang Jian, which recently hit 407 million yuan (around $58.7 million). Even that performance is being called disappointing — it places second for the year, behind the $152 earned by Boonie Bears: Back to Earth in early 2022.
These developments have led Leap Screen, another group of industry watchers, to wonder whether the much-discussed “rise of guoman” has any hope left. They note that only three works of Chinese animation have broken 100 million yuan ($14.43 million) in 2022.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the anime industry’s data for 2021 isn’t wonderful. Earlier this month, the magazine Dime looked at a report by Teikoku Databank, showing that the production industry shrank for the second consecutive year. Over 42% of subcontractor studios, which do most of the grunt work in anime, were in the red.
It’s a combination of COVID-19 and the structural problems within the industry — anime is making huge amounts of money overseas (Dime notes that deals with the US market are growing fast), but the profits get siphoned off by a small group of companies at the top. Actual animation workers don’t reap the benefits.
While France, China, Japan and Russia are only four countries, they’re all key buyers and producers of animation. Their situation may not necessarily mirror what’s happening elsewhere — but it’s still representative of a large part of the animation business. Given what we’re seeing, much about the future remains up in the air.
Best of the rest
The big news this week came out of Disney’s D23 in America. They talked new Pixar movies (Inside Out 2, Elio, Elemental), a Disney film “about how the iconic Wishing Star came to be,” a trailer for Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and more.
Another item you’ve probably seen is the trailer for Wendell & Wild, the hyped American feature by Henry Selick (Coraline). If not, you can check it out here.
In China, there’s a gorgeous teaser for a film we’re just hearing about now — Flying to the Moon (奔月). It’s based on the myth “Chang’e Flying to the Moon.” The clip gets bonus points for its homage to classic Chinese animation.
In Japan, One Piece Film: Red has spent five weekends at #1, raking in over $92 million. It’s now the country’s biggest premiere of 2022, beating Top Gun: Maverick.
In America, Netflix will launch the preschool series Spirit Rangers, created by Chumash tribal member Karissa Valencia, on October 10.
Dragonkeeper, a co-production between Spain and China, is coming stateside. Sergio Pablos (Klaus) and Salvador Simó (Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles) are involved.
A modern American classic, WALL-E, is getting released through the Criterion Collection. It’s the first Pixar project to receive this treatment.
The French studio Folimage is making a stop-motion feature with paper cutouts. It’s called Le Secret des Mésanges, and it’s due in 2024. (There was great behind-the-scenes footage recorded a few years ago.)
A documentary about animator Theodore Ushev (The Physics of Sorrow) will premiere in Canada this month, at Ottawa. It’s called Theodore Ushev: Unseen Connections.
Lastly, we wrote about the tumultuous history of The Man in the Frame, an iconic piece of Russian dissident animation by Fyodor Khitruk.
Thanks for reading today’s issue! Hope you’re enjoying it.
Below, we’re talking about our long-term project to make the Chinese Flash series Mee’s Forest available to English-speaking audiences. It’s an early work by director Busifan, the pseudonymous mastermind of The Guardian (2017). We look into the series and check out its first episode in English.
Projects like these are time-consuming, and only members make them possible. If you haven’t joined yet, we hope you’ll consider it.
As we noted above, our discount for students, teachers and academics now applies even outside the United States. If you have an academic email address, there’s never been a better time to join:
With that said, here’s the final section!
2. Quick look back — Mee’s Forest
In Chinese animation, Busifan is one of the most interesting directors right now. You wouldn’t know it in the outside world — like we’ve mentioned, The Guardian has seen little distribution beyond China. But Mee’s Forest (2009–2010) has it even worse.
This is the project that sharpened Busifan into the director he is today. It’s acclaimed. And yet we’ve never found Mee’s Forest in English, anywhere.
When he made his popular Flash series The Black Bird (2004), Busifan was a gifted amateur. He got more serious around 2007 — joining his online friends to start Wawayu Animation in Hangzhou. The studio’s leader, Pan Bin, hoped to change Chinese animation by putting visionary directors in charge. His model was Studio Ghibli.
At Wawayu, though, Busifan quickly found himself out of his depth. “I thought I knew a lot about animation,” he said — but working beside trained animators was a wakeup call. He didn’t even know how to use Flash’s pencil tool. The point of Mee’s Forest was to cultivate him and the team, and to turn Wawayu into a real studio.
They embarked on a two-year, 16-episode journey to make this series. Pan Bin gave them immense creative freedom. As Busifan wrote, Mee’s Forest had “no clear commercial intent.”
Although Busifan worked in a group, everything we’ve seen from Mee’s Forest is shot through with his unusual vision. It’s weird — with a “gloomy thriller feel,” per one outlet. There’s a heavy anime and manga influence. The art and sound aren’t ultra-slick, but Busifan’s rock-solid filmmaking is here. It even has a degree of body horror.
At this point in his career, Busifan’s creative spark — the one he felt was fading by 2013 — was still present. “In Wawayu’s view, purity of heart is more important than exceptional ability,” a Chinese publication reported in 2010. The project isn’t fully polished, but it feels alive.
Mee’s Forest is a free series, designed to be downloaded and shared. For English-speaking viewers, only the language barrier gets in the way. So, we want to do something about that.
Our goal is to upload translated versions of all 16 episodes of Mee’s Forest. It will take time — a few months or more. And viewers with better Chinese skills may spot a few mistakes (hopefully not). But we want to watch this series and share it with a broader audience. When the translations are done, we might dedicate a full issue to Mee’s Forest and its creation.
The first episode is embedded below with English captions. It’s tense and unsettling, with a rustic charm — note imperfections like the frame rate in the opening titles, fixed in later episodes. We don’t totally know where the story is headed, but we’re excited to find out as we go:
See you again soon!