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The Surreal Whimsy of 'Tortov Roddle'
Plus: animation news worldwide.
Happy Sunday! We’re back with another round of highlights from the world of animation. Our lead story today is one we’ve planned for a while, as with most of our issues this month. Everything is coming together at once — it’s been fun.
Here’s our slate:
1️⃣ Looking at The Diary of Tortov Roddle (2003) by Oscar winner Kunio Kato.
2️⃣ The news in animation from around the world.
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Now, we’re off!
1: Subtle spiritual change
In 2009, Kunio Kato made history. His heartbreaking film The House of Small Cubes (2008) became the first Japanese animated short to claim an Oscar. It remains Japan’s only winner in this category to date.
Kato’s career was just starting when he made that film. Since then, though, he’s kept a relatively low profile. He’s animated Frog and Toad and done ads with Studio Ghibli, but he’s dropped out of the international limelight. There was no grand follow-up to Small Cubes.
Which puts Kato’s legacy in an unusual spot. There’s almost a sense that he appeared from nowhere, set a world record and vanished. You’re left to assess his body of work on its terms. It doesn’t look like other people’s. Kato is a talented artist with a singular vision, and he’s pursued that vision in his own way.
That was true even before his Oscar win. Prior to Small Cubes, Kato got attention with a cult, online Flash series called The Diary of Tortov Roddle — a quiet, surreal and beautiful piece that’s been a favorite of ours for many years.
Beginning in March 2003 and ending that June, Tortov Roddle premiered in six episodes on Japan’s version of Shockwave.com, for free.
Its origins were humble, but its ambitions were not. The series had Japanese internet users writing things like, “I didn’t know you could make Flash animations like this!” Even now, many of Tortov Roddle’s fans abroad don’t know that it was once squeezed into SWF files.
The series follows a traveler named Tortov Roddle, and the spindly-legged pig he rides. Tortov dresses like Professor Layton and navigates a whimsical, watercolor, European world like Layton does — although Kato’s character came first. And Tortov’s focus is less on solving mysteries than dwelling in them.
In every episode, unlikely things happen in the land of Tortaria, where Tortov exists. He witnesses them and at times takes part in them. But, ultimately, he’s just passing through.
Tortov Roddle is wistful and often melancholy, with moments of humor. There’s a sense that profound things are happening, even if you can’t explain them. Giant frogs rest in a lake with cities on their backs. Rabbit people take a trolley to the moon. Tortov observes it all. His poetic diary notes, appearing on screen like intertitles in a silent film, are our only real window into his thoughts. As Kato said:
Subtle spiritual change is the key for Tortov. Thinking about how to face life’s moments that differ according to each episode. I put almost no expression into his face and didn’t make him talk. I wanted people to feel the subtle change.
There’s a strong element of surrealism to it. Kato quotes surrealist art, taking the legs of Tortov’s pig from Salvador Dalí — and more than a few things from Magritte. “I wanted to resist the trend of emphasis on reality,” Kato said. When asked whether Tortov was imagining all this stuff, Kato once replied that it was “too simplistic to decide the answer.”
Those reference points suit Kato’s style here. The look of Tortov Roddle is painterly — he animated in pencil, then scanned his work and colored it with a tablet in Photoshop. This was, as Kato admitted, a “reckless use” of Flash. He didn’t lean on tweened vectors. It’s almost all frame-by-frame bitmaps, which ballooned the episodes’ file sizes to then-ridiculous heights of four to almost six megabytes.
Yet he wanted to do something different from the Flash standard, he said. Tortov Roddle had a shot at standing out.
Kato never had a strong interest in animation growing up. He told one Japanese outlet that he saw what most people saw: Disney and Ghibli films. When he went to Tama Art University in Tokyo, his focuses were graphic design and illustration.
But something happened in his third year at Tama, setting him on the path to making Tortov Roddle just a few years later. Kato joined an animation course. “I decided to take the class not because I wanted to study animation,” he said, “but because I was drawn to the presence of the professor [Masahiro Katayama].”
Katayama had ties to the Japanese animation underground, and his course mostly involved screening and discussing animated films from around the world. Kato was hoping for something more technical. Yet his life took a dramatic turn when Katayama showed the paint-and-wax-pencil film The Hill Farm (1989) by Mark Baker, who later co-created Peppa Pig. It wasn’t animation like Kato had seen before.
He was suddenly on a new path. Kato would become an animator inspired by foreign artists, from Baker to Yuri Norstein and beyond. And the course at Tama let Kato learn in person from the best — Japanese animators like Koji Yamamura (A Country Doctor) showed up for special classes.
In 2001, Kato’s graduation film The Apple Incident became in many ways a precursor to Tortov Roddle.
Kato got hired fresh out of college by another of Katayama’s contacts: Tatsutoshi Nomura at the animation division of Robot, a Tokyo production house. After a year of assistant work, Kato got the opportunity to make a Flash series for Shockwave.com — Tortov Roddle. Nomura let him write, direct and animate it himself.
“If you think you can do it alone,” Nomura said, “why not try?”
In early 2002, Kato had his first work meeting with the composer for Tortov Roddle, Kenji Kondo (Kuricorder Quartet). Music would play a central role in the series. Kondo completed Kato’s scenes, adding strong melodies and motifs that stand out as boldly as the pictures. The instrumental palette changes to match the tone, moving from mysterious little bells to piano — and even to dark, ambient electric guitar.
Trying to get all this richness into a low-quality SWF file, Kato noted, caused serious trouble.
But the pain and delays were worth it, as they were with every part of Tortov Roddle. Kato’s art and stories, and Kondo’s music, were pushing the limits of what could be done in Flash and shared online with a broad audience. Just like Bu Hua’s Flash animation Cat (2002), this series represented the birth of something new.
As the final episodes of Tortov Roddle went out in mid-2003, Robot’s official forum was full of glowing messages. “I was healed,” wrote one fan, by this “soft, warm, somehow nostalgic and mysterious” experience.
“I’ve been waiting for this kind of music,” posted another. “I want to listen to it all the time when it becomes a soundtrack.”
Soon, Kato bundled The Diary of Tortov Roddle together as a 16-minute film for the festival circuit. It won the grand prize at Tokyo’s 2003 Laputa Animation Festival, and was selected to appear in France at Annecy 2004 — leading to Kato’s first trip outside Japan.
All the international notice led to another deeply meaningful event for Kato. A certain animator sent him a letter: the great Reiko Okuyama of Toei. She praised Tortov Roddle and his earlier work, and wrote, “I’m rooting for you with high expectations.”
Tortov Roddle was successful enough to warrant a DVD release in 2005, complete with a whole new episode. We’ve embedded the first six and the bonus seventh above. The last one is very different in style, with far more movement. Kato said that he enjoyed the chance to “create detailed character performances” without file-size restrictions. He made it while getting lessons in After Effects from a junior at Robot.
Over the next few years, Kato’s profile continued to rise. Tortov Roddle was that rarest of achievements: an early-career classic, celebrated around the world. He got commissions from MTV Japan. In 2004, his short series Fantasy screened at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. In 2005, he met Yuri Norstein.
And then, in 2007, work began at Robot on The House of Small Cubes.
Not many animators have had careers like Kato’s. Given his first-in-history Oscar win, you could argue that no one has had a career like his. His taste, sensitivity and creative ambition made him stand out at a young age — there just weren’t many online Flash cartoons similar to Tortov Roddle in the 2000s.
Now, in his mid-40s, he’s still a singular talent. His short gallery works like Scenes (2012), or that recent Frog and Toad film (see a few clips here), are as beautiful as ever. No one animates quite like him. But he seems content to exist far, far away from the glitz of the Oscar stage. His films remain more focused on that quiet feeling, that subtle spiritual change, that Tortov Roddle gave us so many years ago.
2: Animation news worldwide
Chinese animation on the upswing?
A couple of weeks ago, we reported on Yao - Chinese Folktales, the hit Bilibili series sweeping China. Its success is ongoing: with six of its eight episodes released, it’s reached 170 million views on Bilibili. On the Chinese film site Douban, it’s one of the highest-rated works of animation ever among users, up there with Spirited Away.
And Yao is just one of the Chinese successes of 2023 so far, after a brutal and grinding 2022.
This month, China’s Spring Festival filmgoing season was a box-office revival — it’s the second-biggest one of these events on record, according to the Yangcheng Evening News. And two animated films have been making waves.
One is Boonie Bears: Guardian Code. It’s grossed more than 778 million yuan (around $115 million) since its premiere on the 22nd. The film shows that the Boonie Bears franchise is still huge in China, despite its lack of crossover elsewhere.
There’s more crossover potential for the second animated hit this month: Deep Sea. It’s the latest feature from the director of Monkey King: Hero is Back (2015), a film credited with starting the modern blockbuster era of Chinese animation. Expectations for Deep Sea were high — its colorful, mind-expanding visuals keep going viral, even outside China.
Sure enough, the latest figures have Deep Sea’s take at 440 million yuan (over $65 million) since the 22nd. Forecasts put it at 792 million yuan over time. Given a reported investment of 200 million yuan (roughly $29.6 million), that’s exceptional.
We lost Lloyd Morrisett (93), the co-creator of Sesame Street — one of the most significant homes for American indie animators from the ‘60s through the ‘90s.
As you know, the Oscar nominations are out. The outsider candidate Marcel the Shell with Shoes On made the cut, as did Pinocchio, The Flying Sailor (Canada), Ice Merchants (Portugal) and more. See the full list.
The Brazilian feature Chef Jack debuted in theaters, and its director Guilherme Fiuza Zenha spoke about the joy of that moment. When Bolsonaro slashed culture funding, he said, artists suffered. Chef Jack’s theatrical run is a triumph by itself: “making movies all over the world is difficult, but in Brazil it is even more so.”
The head of Russia’s Riki Group (Kikoriki) says that her company stays “outside of politics” amid the business turmoil caused by the war. By contrast, this month, the Russian animation organization AAK started a school program in occupied Ukraine. Called “Russians,” it tasks kids with creating art based on Russian literature. The AAK shared a classroom photo whose vibe could hardly be worse.
In America, Nielsen reports that the four most-streamed movies of 2022 were all animated: Encanto, Turning Red, Sing 2 and Moana. Also interesting: Encanto, a 2021 release, more than doubled the minutes-watched of any other film last year.
In France, the César nominees were announced. The animated features in the running are My Sunny Maad, Little Nicholas and Ernest & Celestine 2.
The Mexican festival Pixelatl revealed the results of its Short Way pitch — animation projects from across Latin America competed for a chance to appear at Annecy. Twelve finalists will now start a mentorship “bootcamp” in Guadalajara. The films look great (see images on Instagram).
In France, Gobelins released nine cool-looking mini-films by students, focused on the art of special effects.
One more American story: Philharmonia Fantastique by Gary Rydstrom and Jim Capobianco is part Fantasia, part Pixar credits sequence, part Tissa David’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. See more via Animation Magazine.
Until next time!