When Old Animation Looks New
Plus: retro ads and the animation news of the world.
We’re back! Welcome once again to the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Today’s plan goes like this:
1 — old animation that feels like new animation.
2 — animation news items from around the world.
3 — the retro ad of the week.
All set? Here we go!
1. Ageless animation
It’s a discussion that crops up a lot on Twitter. Someone will share a piece of animation from the past — and folks will respond, “How is this so old? It looks new!”
This week, it happened when we tweeted a clip from Brigand Jurko, a classic Slovak cartoon. Responding to the film’s 1976 release date, the Japanese animator Kai Ikarashi (Promare, Little Witch Academia) wrote:
On the contrary, it looks extremely current. Even if I was told that it was made yesterday, I would believe it.
People had a similar reaction when we tweeted about the retro Hungarian series The Rabbit with Checkered Ears. “The art looks so ahead of its time for being made in the ‘70s,” remarked one person. A number of other commenters felt the same.
Both Brigand Jurko and The Rabbit with Checkered Ears are Eastern European cartoons made almost 50 years ago. They were animated with totally different tools, in a totally different world, than we have today. By all accounts, they shouldn’t look new — but people perceive them that way.
Why? The answer is complicated.
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No single factor makes retro animation feel recent. It varies. Sometimes, it’s not even the animation itself — it can come down to our own views of the past.
When you picture ‘60s anime, for example, you might think of Gigantor: black-and-white and barely animated. Up against a modern series like Jujutsu Kaisen, it’s like a Model T versus a flying car. Yet Japan produced ambitious, richly animated projects in the ‘60s, too. If Gigantor is your reference point, your first encounter with one of these films can be bizarre, like finding modern animation that’s traveled back in time.
We’ve seen it happen with Toei’s The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963). “Can’t imagine how animation this intricate could be made in the ‘60s,” read one tweet. There were dozens of similar comments.
It’s a perspective thing. The Little Prince built on Toei projects like Journey to the West (1960), and it fit snugly alongside them. The film looks incredible even today — but it feels new mostly in contrast to the idea that Gigantor represented ‘60s anime.
Still, the “newness” of old animation doesn’t always come from this type of contrast, or from our views of the past. It can happen because an older artist discovered a style or sensibility that meshes with today’s in an unexpected way.
Brigand Jurko is like that. Replying to Kai Ikarashi, one person likened its animation to current Cup Noodles commercials in Japan.1 You can see them on YouTube. These ads embrace Japanese “kuso anime” (crappy anime) aesthetics you might recognize from Pop Team Epic. The humor comes from their weird, absurd drawings and timing.
The director and animator of Brigand Jurko, Viktor Kubal, had a similar way of doing things. It intensified across his career, peaking in the ‘80s. As we wrote earlier this month:
… these are films where traditionally “good drawing” has no place, and where a lot of the laughs come from how far Kubal is willing to push the goofiness and crudeness of the artwork.
He came to this style for his own reasons. The Cup Noodles ads pull from internet humor, but Kubal was a magazine cartoonist turned animator, who discovered the comedic power of drawing and animating in a chaotic, messy way. He didn’t get the idea from the internet or have reference points like ours — but his style suits our time.
It’s similar to how a clip of animation by Estonia’s Priit Pärn (a grandmaster of drawing badly on purpose) passed 6.4 million views on Twitter this week. He made it in the ‘80s, as a budding rebel against a Soviet system that hasn’t existed in decades. But its success proves that his ideas couldn’t be more modern.
Because it matches online aesthetics, it can feel “new” when old animation, for effect, ditches accepted ideas about good drawing and motion. We recently mentioned this about The Tender Game (1958), whose characters “ooze and twist incredibly in defiance of the laws of animation,” per historian John Canemaker. It’s a film where, as he wrote, “anything is possible in expressing an idea or emotion.”
On the other hand, The Rabbit with Checkered Ears comes off as modern for another reason — it has cute, bright, minimal art direction that people compare to everything from The Powerpuff Girls to Japan’s Pop’n Music games.
That style resonated with Hungarians in the 1970s. When it traveled overseas, it resonated with Japanese viewers during the peak Hello Kitty era. And it resonates now, at a time when it feels slick and calls back to turn-of-the-century aesthetics that everyone still loves.
Like with Brigand Jurko, The Rabbit with Checkered Ears had its own reasons to look this way. Its aesthetic predated it, appearing for years in Hungarian children’s magazines and illustrations. And yet these visual ideas suit today’s world, too, for reasons unique to our time. Kind of like how retro Soviet cartoons can surge in popularity now because they resemble ENA by coincidence.
“Newness” is complex. We’re only scratching the surface. Sometimes, an old cartoon feels new because it had a massive impact on later animators. Other times, because it was an early adopter of filmmaking or comedy styles that we take for granted now. Or because of other reasons entirely.
Why does a Hungarian TV series from the ‘70s feel more current than certain ‘90s anime, like the delightfully dated A-Girl? There’s no single, straightforward answer. But it does make you wonder what animation made today will feel old-fashioned in 30 years — and what will feel newer than the day it was made.
2. Global animation news
Graduation season in China, continued
Chinese animation students are still graduating across the country. As always, that means graduation films — lots of them. The celebration continues via Wuhu Animator Space, which is showcasing hundreds of stills, GIFs, film descriptions and team photos.
These projects offer a window into the skills of China’s next batch of animators. But they’re also a rare opportunity to see what young Chinese artists are thinking. Their graduation films often have statements to make — about life, art, politics and more.
In Wuhu’s highlights from the Nanjing University of the Arts, one visual standout is the film “金鱼罐儿” (a pun name you could translate as Goldfish Bowl Child). It shows the struggle of a mother and her young child in China’s education system, where competition is fierce and students face a crushing pressure to succeed.
The film advocates for something better — a world where imagination is allowed and parents’ expectations aren’t so harsh. It’s in favor of China’s recent “Double Reduction” policy, aimed at decreasing homework and curtailing the powerful for-profit tutoring industry. (Last month, The New Yorker recounted one infamous tutoring ad: “Come, and we’ll tutor your child. Don’t come, and we’ll tutor your child’s rival.”)
But the graduates’ concerns aren’t all so specific to China. On Twitter this week, we shared a clip from Dogmatism — a 2022 graduation film from the Chengdu Academy of Fine Arts. The response to its message, that young people are forced to conform and compromise in exchange for almost nothing, was enormous. It’s our second-biggest tweet of all time.
Many of the year’s graduation films speak to both China and the wider world in this way. Another Nanjing University piece, Lead, follows a man kept going by his connection to his grandmother. She gives him a scarf, a symbol of their attachment that he carries with him in his day-to-day life.
Meanwhile, in Wuhu’s highlights from the Communication University of Zhejiang, we find Children of the Clouds. It’s a pretty piece that addresses the problem of modern isolation, in the context of a children’s story. The GIFs from the film show off charming design and strong animation. It’s one of several impressive-looking pieces from Zhejiang this year.
Best of the rest
Ukrainian sand animators Olga Kryzhanovska and Svitlana Danylchenko have been displaced by the war. AWN published an important article that shows off their art and lets them speak about their experiences.
Cartoon Saloon in Ireland is getting close to wrapping My Father’s Dragon. Director Nora Twomey shared the team’s progress (along with a great sketch).
Speaking of Cartoon Saloon, it’s set to pitch a new preschool show at Cartoon Forum in France this year. It’s called Natu Natu, and the early concepts are adorable.
Meanwhile, Nick Jr. is bringing over a visually stunning stop-motion preschool series from New Zealand. “Handcrafted in paper and clay, the show is created by Antony Elworthy (Coraline, Corpse Bride and Isle of Dogs),” reports AWN.
In Taiwan, the Taichung International Animation Festival is entering the final submission rush. It’s open to animators worldwide until June 30.
There’s a new video from the American stop-motion feature Wendell & Wild.
Japan’s Dwarf is one of our favorite stop-motion studios. On August 25, its eight-episode series Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure premieres on Netflix.
Thanks for reading today’s issue! We hope you’re liking it so far.
The last part below is for paying subscribers (members). With the help of a rare book, we’ve uncovered a fun and funny TV commercial from 1961. There’s unusually detailed information about this one — it’s an interesting find.
Members, read on. We’ll see everyone else next time!