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The Wild Imagination of Mee's Forest
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Happy Sunday! The Animation Obsessive newsletter returns with more. This is our plan for today:
1️⃣ Bringing the Chinese series Mee’s Forest (2009–2010) to the world.
2️⃣ Global animation newsbits.
If you’re just joining us, it’s free to sign up for our Sunday issues. You’ll get them in your email inbox, weekly:
With that, let’s get started!
1: Introducing Mee’s Forest
Busifan isn’t a known name outside China. He’s been working since the 2000s — a pseudonymous animation director, now in his 40s. His projects tend to lack wide, official releases in English.1
But he’s built quite a reputation in his home country. He secured his place in history with The Guardian (2017), the most violent animated feature in modern China. It’s a cult classic, and brilliantly made. We wrote a full story about it last September.
The Guardian didn’t come from nowhere, either. During the 2000s, Busifan first found acclaim in China’s online Flash scene, a hotbed for indie artists. His homemade series The Black Bird (2004), released for free, became a touchstone for Chinese animators. Busifan was a newbie who seemed to be a natural: even this early hobby project was weirdly advanced in its storytelling.
Still, getting from The Black Bird to the scale and quality of The Guardian took years. He had to work his way there. And he did that primarily with a series called Mee’s Forest (2009–2010) at the studio Wawayu Cartoon.
If you’ve been with us for a while, you may remember when we started translating this project. Like The Black Bird, Mee’s Forest is a free online show meant to be downloaded and shared — only way more ambitious this time. We wanted to learn about it, but we couldn’t find English subtitles. So, in September, we started to translate it ourselves.
As it turned out, Mee’s Forest was an amazing surprise — in its story and filmmaking, its characters and world, its sheer imagination. It’s strange and sometimes horrific, and it isn’t for kids, but we love it. And we’re finding that we aren’t alone. When the animation blogger “canmom” watched the translation last month, she wrote, “Mee’s Forest is fantastic. A really imaginative setting, reminiscent of Nausicaä but with its own identity.” The show shines despite its technical rough spots.
Today, we’re happy to introduce Mee’s Forest in English. You’ll find the complete playlist on YouTube, or the third episode (an impressive example of the series) embedded below. Readers more fluent in Chinese may spot errors, but we did our best to offer a smooth viewing experience true to the spirit of the original.
As we translated, we also researched. We wanted to understand Mee’s Forest and its place in history. The story we found isn’t quite like any we’ve seen before. For more information about the show, read on.
Mee’s Forest is a fantasy thriller series set in ancient China. It’s an easy thing to spoil: a lot of its power comes from the way it’s told. Busifan uses all the time he’s got to build tension and mystery in the world he’s envisioned. Even the shorter, 6- and 8-minute episodes feel bigger than they are.
The outline is that a young boy, Xiaomi, winds up in an outstandingly dangerous forest. He’s alone — his monk master has vanished. To make matters worse, Xiaomi contracts a lethal parasite that swims under his skin. The clock is ticking: without a cure, he’ll die.
Xiaomi finds various allies (real or apparent) who claim that they want to help him, but it’s not often clear who can be trusted. Slowly, his journey intersects with other happenings in the forest. It’s a bizarre ecosystem where grotesque, bug-like monsters act as both predators and prey to the human holdouts in the area.
We cut between Xiaomi and other characters in this world, like the small and agile “ghostface barbarians” and the gentle giant Dami. Over the course of 16 episodes, Xiaomi gets caught up in something huge — even a bit apocalyptic. It all builds toward a finale that’s impossible to see coming.
Which is only a tiny hint of what you’ll find in Mee’s Forest. Really, it’s raw imagination from start to finish. This is no ordinary online Flash series: it wants to be much more. Whatever its audiovisual flaws, the story it tells, and the way it tells it, represented a swing for the fences. Maybe a new beginning for Chinese animation as a whole.
That’s what it was supposed to be, anyway. Busifan had been hired for just that reason. Mee’s Forest was an attempt by his friends and benefactors to cultivate him (and the whole team around him) into an animation powerhouse.
The story starts in 2006. A group of animators from the online Flash scene, a hot topic in the Chinese press, were gathered in Hangzhou for a TV interview.
One of them was Busifan, still known for The Black Bird. Joining him were talents like Pan Bin of Tomoto Cartoon (Momo’s Wonderful Journey), Ai Hai of B&T (makers of the Big Fish & Begonia Flash) and more.2 Busifan felt out of place, but only at first. He warmed to the others as the day continued, and they became friends from that point on.
In Busifan’s new circle, maybe the least active animator of all was Busifan himself. He hadn’t finished The Black Bird after setting it down in 2004, and hadn’t released much since. For him, Flash was just a hobby. He worked full time at a telecom bureau — an “iron rice bowl” job, as it’s known in China, because of its stability. Sometimes, he thought about quitting animation altogether.
Fast forward to 2007, and Pan Bin had an idea. He contacted Busifan and several of their Flash friends. His plan was bold and, at that time, maybe impossible: to create wholly original, world-class, director-driven studio animation in China.
Pan Bin was a veteran animator who’d been active since the ‘90s. Throughout his career, China’s animation industry had been in a dark age — most jobs were outsource work for Japanese and Western clients, and ambitious original cartoons were rare. When the Flash boom arrived, and indie animators like Bu Hua started going viral with their personal projects during the 2000s, Pan Bin joined the craze.
In time, he went into business for himself — trying to make an original Flash series through his Tomoto Cartoon studio. But he got stuck in basically the same pattern, doing commercial work to pay the bills, according to Southern People Weekly.
So, Pan Bin left Tomoto. Between July 2007 and March 2008, he created a new studio setup in Hangzhou.3 At its core was Wawayu Cartoon, a small team recruited mainly from the indie Flash scene. They would be supported by a separate commercial wing, isolated from the creative one.
Pan Bin was building an incubator — a space for his Flash contacts to grow into world-level professionals. In the short term, it was a money-losing proposition. Busifan summarized it as “paying for tuition and study time for me and the team.” Pan Bin was thinking longer-term. The only way to get a Chinese creative team on par with something like Studio Ghibli, he felt, was to invest in one.
It was Busifan who he wanted most. The Black Bird was popular and, as Pan Bin saw it, the sign of a great talent waiting to be born. Never mind that Busifan was a self-described amateur who didn’t even know how to use Flash’s pencil tool — he had an imagination, and a classical filmmaking ability, rare in the Flash scene.
Pan Bin talked Busifan into it. He quit his “iron rice bowl” job and, in March 2008, joined Wawayu Cartoon. The first part of the incubation strategy was to create a bold, original animated series as a learning project. So began Mee’s Forest.
Busifan had serious doubts about his own readiness, and about whether his “free and undisciplined” way of working would fit into a studio setting. Yet he was given total creative freedom to invent his series — supported by a team of co-workers, including producer Ai Hai.
They went into Mee’s Forest manga-style, starting with a few basic ideas and figuring out the rest on the fly.
Japanese animation was one of their big reference points. Especially Hayao Miyazaki — who was a god to many in Chinese Flash. Busifan was a student of his work, and even Ai Hai had dreamed for years of making films like Miyazaki’s. Alongside the anime influence, Busifan pulled from less expected sources, like the illustrations in Chinese martial arts novels.
It was messy and free-spirited work. But it was still a full production: there were scripts and model sheets, storyboards and layouts, key animators and in-betweeners.
For each episode of Mee’s Forest, Busifan drew a loose animatic in Flash — nailing down the camera, poses, story progression and even parts of the animation. Other artists drew over his work to create the character layouts, which were then handed to the animators. As the team later explained, they used Flash CS3 Pro for almost everything, including the backgrounds (which Busifan drew). After Effects came in for compositing at the end.
Mee’s Forest debuted its first episode online in September 2009, a year and a half after Busifan joined Wawayu. New entries started dropping weekly or biweekly from there, until they suddenly came to a halt in early November. Wawayu gave a vague reason in public at the time. Behind the scenes, there was panic.
The thing was, Mee’s Forest was expensive. Pan Bin was paying for a full team to make a series that wasn’t intended to earn money. By the end, he would find himself sinking several million yuan (hundreds of thousands of dollars) into this incubation project. The sheer financial drain led to a frantic reassessment after just a few episodes.
It was clear, Busifan wrote, that Wawayu couldn’t afford the “aimless production” they’d started. There was no end in sight. They debated canceling the series, but settled on a compromise: they would rearrange the ideas and plans they had into a tight, 16-episode run. Busifan retooled character arcs and motivations, and even parts of the world, so that whatever they made could “look like it’s finished.”
And it did look finished, in the end. So much of Mee’s Forest is foreshadowed and interwoven that it’s hard to believe its story development was mired in chaos.
Episode launches resumed in September 2010. The final one came out that November, and watching it back-to-back with the first episode is a little shocking. It’s not that the series started badly — it’s that Busifan and the team had grown dramatically during the two-year-plus production cycle.
The response, even from China’s harsh press and fans, was positive. On the movie site Douban, Mee’s Forest holds a user score of 8.5 out of 10 to this day, higher than The Guardian. Wawayu had an exciting series on its hands, with a story that stood out strongly from the crowd.
And Busifan was no longer just a hobbyist. He’d learned how to manage a real production— and how to tell a complete story. He’d become a director.
Pan Bin had been right all along: these people just needed a chance. Without that foresight, Busifan wouldn’t be working today on his anticipated film The Storm. There would be no Guardian. China would be missing one of its most interesting directors — plus the many talents who learned on Mee’s Forest and followed Busifan from there.
Not that there weren’t problems waiting ahead. The two spin-offs teased at the end of Mee’s Forest never came to be. The anguish that Busifan felt over the show’s flaws would haunt him, starting a period of “intense self-blame” that led for a while into a bad bout of perfectionism. He ultimately left Pan Bin’s company over creative differences.
But, as Busifan later said, emotionally, “Wawayu was my starting point.”
Watching it now, Mee’s Forest is a showcase of Busifan’s talent. It’s raw and “undisciplined,” but that’s also a strength. He let his imagination run loose, and the team rushed to keep up with it. They mostly did. The series isn’t really like anything we’ve watched, and the time we spent with it was more than worth it.
For us, discovering Mee’s Forest has been a joy. We hope you’ll feel the same.
The most delightful new animation we saw this week came from Australia: I’m a Witch by Zoë Medcraft, produced by Felix Colgrave. It’s a minute long — don’t miss it.
Deep Sea’s box office passed 700 million yuan (around $102 million). That makes it China’s seventh-biggest animated feature ever. Its success, paired with that of Boonie Bears: Guardian Code, has some in state-owned media talking about “the rise of guoman” again. Is it finally here? Not so fast, says another state outlet.
Brazilian director Alê Abreu (Perlimps) is developing a new animated feature connected to his Oscar-nominated Boy and the World (2013). He hopes to have it done within three years.
The Ukrainian feature Mavka: The Forest Song is coming to North America via Shout! Factory.
In America, Disney is cutting roughly 7,000 jobs, reorganizing and doubling down on safe-bet sequel features.
Despite its availability on streamers like Crunchyroll and Hulu, Chainsaw Man was America’s second-most-pirated series of 2022. Anime News Network adds that “anime titles [made] up 50% of the most pirated series in the U.S. last year.”
In other American news, animator Nancy Beiman (Treasure Planet) published the rest of her 1979 interview with Art Babbitt.
The live-action/animated Cheburashka is the biggest film in Russian history. It’s now earned 6 billion rubles (around $82 million) since its release last month. The second biggest, the original Avatar, sits at only 3.5 billion.
American producer Chris Nee (Doc McStuffins) did a great talk about her career, including Spirit Rangers. “It was an all-Native writing room, an all-Native cast,” she said. They looked beyond “the normal suspects out of LA” to find the crew, so that “the people who were being represented on-screen were making the show.”
In South Korea, Studio Mir (The Legend of Korra, Big Fish & Begonia) has gone public. Its debut on the KOSDAQ this week was a success.
Lastly, our Thursday issue (Who’s Afraid of Norman McLaren?) offered a renewed look at one of the most misunderstood and innovative animators in history.
Until next time!
An exception is a short film that Busifan only co-directed: Valley of White Birds (2017), done with director Cloud Yang. It’s had success on YouTube (watch it here).