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Dog Apartments and Funny Birds
Welcome! We’re here with another Sunday edition of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. The plan goes like this:
1️⃣ Recent animation we enjoyed — at Animasyros.
2️⃣ International newsbits.
3️⃣ The last word.
On we go!
1. And pink mountains
This week, the Greek island of Syros hosted the annual Animasyros International Animation Festival.
Artists from Greece and other countries showed their films — virtually and in person. We saw maybe a hundred works via the festival’s streaming page. Now, we’ve sifted them down to bring you our favorites.
Dozens of Greek projects screened at Animasyros. For us, the very best was a stop-motion piece that’s drawing almost zero buzz outside its country so far. It’s Pink Mountain by Thomas Künstler, a foreign-born director who lives in Athens. He’s made one of the most memorable animated films this year.
Pink Mountain is a quiet fairy tale set in old Epirus, in the time when the Ottoman Empire ruled that area of Greece. A young, lower-class flower grower falls in love with a woman favored by the ruler, Ali Pasha. The young man gives her a flower. Ali reacts by filling her room with flowers. The man then plants an entire mountainside in view of her window, covering it with a miraculous blanket of roses in one night.
The film is wordless, but supported by wonderful traditional music. It might also be the most evocatively shot project here. Künstler makes it seem easy to craft a scene, to balance light and shadow. Pink Mountain is full of stillness, with animation only where essential — but it’s a tense, rich stillness that holds you in its atmosphere until the end.
Greece was just one of the 43 countries showing at Animasyros 2022, though. And highlights from elsewhere weren’t in short supply.
Take the “Stand with Ukraine” collection, where we saw new and relatively new Ukrainian animation. There, we really liked Unnecessary Things, a sci-fi film about a man who puts himself up for sale and gets bought by a robot. Its elongated shapes and futuristic, hyper-composited look are indebted to Robert Valley (Zima Blue). Yet it builds on that style to create something recognizably its own.
The film isn’t a straight retelling of The Old Curiosity Shop, the story it’s based on, either. It adds heart and nuance. In Unnecessary Things, protagonist Rob (the robot) becomes someone who really does care about his human, in his odd, special way.
From Ukraine as well is Paper or Plastic (watch on Vimeo). It’s a funny, vicious satire whose 2D animation leans zany. A Ukrainian man moves to America to fulfill his dreams — only to find himself sleeping in a small box and, after a time, living with a knife in his back. Director Nata Metlukh wrote:
The film is devoted to all the immigrants who are stuck in-between the worlds: not quite fitting in the new country, and becoming strangers in their homeland.
Ukrainians weren’t the only outsiders with standout work in Greece. Two films from South Korea, Persona and Things That Disappear, impressed us in a major way. Neither has a single line of dialogue, but both have plenty to say about life in modern Korea.
Things That Disappear is about an old woman who lives alone in a South Korean “redevelopment area” — a dying place. But she’s someone who knows death. She finds and buries dead cats in her neighborhood. It feels morbid until you see how she cleans and cares for their bodies before putting them in the earth, giving each one a name.
In this film, respect and love restore meaning, even in death. Things That Disappear extends that respect to Korea’s elders in a way that The House of Loss, a hyped short at Animasyros on a similar topic, doesn’t quite pull off. What finally happens here — a magical procession that recalls Night on the Galactic Railroad — earns its tears.
As for Persona, it’s a disturbing watch in the Satoshi Kon style. It depicts a Korea where women wear grotesque, rubbery flesh suits with hollow eyes. They become the people they’re supposed to be, and that persona overtakes them. They turn into dolls.
Director Sujin Moon, a student, based the look on anime. As she said:
I see the Japanese animation style as an extreme exaggeration of the Asian standard of beauty. Such exaggeration can invoke a feeling of otherness, but people also feel attracted to the Japanese animation style. I can understand that duality, and I also find that style to be cute. I thought that feeling was very fitting for the main character’s situation, so I used it in the film.
The vibe is in the vicinity of Perfect Blue, Paprika and Paranoia Agent, and it will turn your stomach. But Persona is very, very good. It deserved its win at Annecy earlier this year.
Gender stereotypes were the subject of a project from Chile, too: #BinaryGenderNorm: Girls (watch on YouTube). This one is a commissioned film, but directors Bernardita Ojeda and Cristián Freire deliver much more than a standard-issue PSA.
There’s artistry here, compressed into a very small space — under three minutes. The film had the honor of competing at Annecy 2022, and of winning at the Quirino Awards in May, for a reason. It’s an example of how good visual design and a good script can make message-driven work compelling. “More meticulous, prettier, more well-groomed and more smiley,” the narrator says, reading down the list. You feel it.
Due to a technicality at Animasyros, commissioned films compete directly with TV specials. This leads to the odd situation where Looking for Santa (Opération Père Noël) sits right in the same category as #BinaryGenderNorm: Girls. They both deserve mention, but for wildly different reasons.
Co-produced in France and Belgium, Looking for Santa is a Christmas special about a rich kid who wants Santa as his Christmas present. His dad hires an evil hunter to capture him. So begins a charming, attractively-produced romp for all ages.
Even watching it out of season, there’s a lot to like about this special. One standout (of many) is the elf Gérard Patrick Sophie, or GPS, who navigates the sleigh. Plus the art direction, which mixes graphic shapes with soft, warm textures in a way that feels like a moving children’s book.
Looking for Santa opens with a list of production partners longer than we care to count. Using tax shelters, grants and other programs, Europe’s co-production model continues to fund creativity in animation that couldn’t happen in a more capitalistic system. This film is exhibit B — you’ll see A in a moment.
But, first, we want to talk about Dog-Apartment.
This was a surprise for us. Directed by Priit Tender of Estonia, at Nukufilm, it’s a stop-motion puppet project. It’s also one of the sharpest, best-realized, most poignant and most unique things we saw at all of Animasyros.
It’s common for animation to gesture toward surrealism — but not many animated films qualify as genuine surrealist films. Dog-Apartment is a surrealist film.
It originates from a poem, To Be a Dog-Apartment, by the Estonian surrealist Andres Ehin. That piece is a visual sketch of “a dog-apartment with three barking rooms,” where the characteristics of an apartment and those of a dog blur together. Tender’s film shows this apartment, and then builds a world around it.
In Dog-Apartment, the protagonist sleeps in a padded suit to stay safe in his rowdy, angry room. There’s an ominous rooster with an axe blade for a head (it seems to have cut down every tree in the region). The main character does ballet for the cows of a one-legged butcher. A fish locked in a guitar case swims in milk.
Again, it’s real surrealism. And it tells a real story. Dog-Apartment takes a well-worn festival format — a looping, book-ended day in the life — and does something radically different with it. We were bracing ourselves for it to miss the landing, to end up trite or mean-spirited, but that didn’t happen. It worked. It’s an incredible film.
Finally, we have our favorite project at Animasyros. It’s exhibit A in the case for European co-production — and proof that some of the best animation in the world is happening in Europe, right now, under the radar.
It’s the French TV special Funny Birds by Charlie Belin.
We first saw a preview of Funny Birds back in March, and it caught our attention at the time. Then we forgot about it. Finding it again at Animasyros was a revelation akin to seeing Summit of the Gods last year.
Belin has made a special that’s somewhere between Isao Takahata and Michael Sporn, but with a French touch. She directed, storyboarded, co-designed and co-wrote it, and is one of the two credited layout posing artists. The result has a specificity — an attention to detail — unmatched by anything else we saw at Animasyros.
Funny Birds is an all-ages story about a girl who likes to read about birds, and her attempt to return a book about them. But the first thing you notice is that the sound isn’t mixed the way you expect. It’s full of ambient noise — it feels almost raw. Slowly, you realize that this is the point. Everything in Funny Birds is nearer to life.
The dialogue doesn’t sound like TV or movie talk — it sounds like people. The tropes and forced drama of school stories aren’t here. There’s a narrative arc to Funny Birds, but it moves quietly. Belin puts our attention more on the correct method for stern sculling, and how rabbits behave in a flood, and how Arabic letters are written.
For 34 minutes, you live in Belin’s world and with her characters. She and her team pair a deep, studied naturalism with a spare, non-realistic watercolor style. We see only what we need to see — but everything that we need to see appears with tactile believability. The animation follows suit: pared back, but only true. There are no off notes.
You can’t describe Funny Birds in a way that isn’t surpassed by watching the special itself. It’s not a list of bullet points — it’s an experience. And it’s one that everyone should have, young or not. The kind of animation you can grow up with and grow old with. For us, an instant classic.
All in all, we’re extremely glad we took the time to check out Animasyros. It wasn’t easy — there was a lot on offer, with plenty of interesting projects we didn’t mention here. But what we loved, we loved.
We’ll be carrying some of these with us for a long time to come.
Per Anime News Network, Crunchyroll is taking a hard line against unionization among its voice actors, to the point of recasting roles for hit shows like Mob Psycho 100. (Meanwhile, actors Anairis Quiñones and Tara Jayne Sands claim to have earned $150 each for their dubbing roles on the film Jujutsu Kaisen 0.)
One of the top-billed projects at France’s Cartoon Forum this year, Shepherdess Warriors, has a trailer. Also, we’re learning now that the international co-production Leo’s Workshop was one of the best-attended pitches of the show.
Animation Magazine has a write-up on another Cartoon Forum project we’re watching closely — Mogu & Perol, animated by the Japanese studio Dwarf.
In Canada, the Ottawa International Animation Festival just announced its winners. The grand prizes went to Bird in the Peninsula (shorts) and Koji Yamamura’s Dozens of Norths (features). Yamamura has now taken both of Ottawa’s top awards — he won among shorts in 2007, with A Country Doctor.
For its fifth anniversary, the Japanese film A Silent Voice is getting a limited run in American theaters.
Yugen, a Mexican stop-motion film, has been funded on Kickstarter and is aiming for its stretch goals. Its characters are carved out of clay and dressed in paper clothes. Sofia Alexander (Onyx Equinox) has promoted the project.
In Japan, One Piece Film: Red continues its unstoppable rise. With around $103 million at the box office, it’s become the country’s seventh-biggest anime film ever (and 13th biggest film across all mediums).
The fourth annual Native American Animation Lab is open for applicants.
Lastly, the Spanish feature film Once Upon a Time (1950) has been painstakingly restored in color and is returning to the big screen, El País reports.
3. Last word
That’s a wrap for today’s issue! Before we go, some housekeeping.
Our translation project for the Chinese Flash series Mee’s Forest continues. We’re 25% of the way through — the playlist updates with new episodes as we finish them. It’s homespun animation, and not quite as mature of a work as The Guardian (Dahufa), but we’re enjoying it. The scary, violent third episode has been a standout for us so far.
Also this week, we shared a clip from the independent animation Appearance and Reality (2014) on Twitter, and it went viral. The film was animated and co-directed by Elena Rogova, in our opinion one of the most talented (and unsung) 2D animators of modern times. She’s also an expert storyteller, as the response to this clip proves again.
Lastly, our Thursday issue for members was about Samurai Egg, a film by Yoshiyuki Momose. He’s known as the “right-hand man” of the late Isao Takahata. Samurai Egg in many ways feels like a descendant of the work they once did together. As we wrote:
Samurai Egg resembles a Momose-Takahata project first and foremost in its unlikeliness. It’s animation about something that, normally, would never be animated at all — a realistic, everyday story.
See you again soon!