Why 'Invisible' Is a Modern Anime Classic
Plus: global news and a Slovak cartoon.
Welcome! We’re here with another issue of Animation Obsessive. This is the plan today:
1️⃣ On the anime gem Invisible (from Modest Heroes).
2️⃣ Animation news.
3️⃣ A cult Slovak cartoon.
Have you signed up yet? It’s free to receive our Sunday issues:
There’s also a paid subscription available, which lets us keep our newsletter independent and ad-free. Now, on to our lead story!
1. Animating nothing
This is a revised reprint of an article that first ran in our newsletter on March 24, 2022. It was exclusive to paying subscribers then — now, we’re making it free to all.
That one scene from Invisible went viral again. And why not?
Whenever someone shares it, Invisible has a tendency to mesmerize people — and terrify more than a few. The film is mind-bending, adventurous and a little dark. It’s a technical tour de force. And it’s a statement on Japanese animation itself, by one of Ghibli’s ace animators from Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Arrietty.
Invisible began with a question: how do you move, and bring life to, a character you can’t see? At Studio Ponoc, director Akihiko Yamashita gave us his answer. When Ponoc released this short in the Modest Heroes anthology back in 2018, it wasn’t like anything else — not even a Ghibli film.
The famous clip, which caught on like wildfire again this week, shows the protagonist floating away into the sky as he fights to stay earthbound. You can see it below:
This clip encapsulates what’s so great about Invisible. It portrays incredibly complex movement in a way that looks effortless. It brings real weight and emotion to an impossible scenario — creating moments never before depicted in animation. There’s little dialogue in the film, and basically none in this sequence. Instead, Invisible is something that you feel before anything else.
That was exactly the goal. Yamashita, who also storyboarded and character-designed the film, has said as much in interviews. As he told one Japanese outlet:
This is not a simple, clear-cut entertainment piece; it’s a piece that is packed full of things and does not explain them at all. It is difficult to understand it with the mind, and I am not trying to tell a story. I want to make it a work that you can feel. […] I’m drawing the inside [of a person].
The idea of revealing someone’s interior life, and letting the viewer feel it, extended to every part of the film. The main character of Invisible isn’t experiencing the usual, H. G. Wells type of invisibility. No one can see him because he’s an invisible person — like many in modern-day Japan.1 His existence is so tenuous that even gravity forgets him.
Invisible was the product of conversations between Yamashita and the founder of Studio Ponoc, Yoshiaki Nishimura. Modest Heroes was revving up, and Nishimura felt that Yamashita should handle the most difficult film in the anthology — one that capitalized on his strengths as an animator.
“If there were nothing to move, if there were no faces to convey emotion, how would an animation genius approach it?” Nishimura wondered. “I know this is a little mean, but ‘how about an invisible man?’ ”
Yamashita took that idea and made it all his own.
He wanted the character’s emotional state to play out across the entire screen. Yamashita asked for dark, distressed backgrounds, which let up only a few times to match the changing feelings of the protagonist. He found himself dramatically pushing the character’s animation, too, since there was so little to work with. (Yamashita served as Invisible’s animation director, overseeing four key animators.)
As reference, Yamashita drew from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Gravity, the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu and the manga of Junji Ito, among others. They contributed to the dark, unusual vibe and look of Invisible.
The final film makes all of this seem casual. The protagonist’s emotions, like his motions, come across seamlessly — as proven by the anxiety that so many people feel while watching the sequence above.
Zooming out, though, it becomes clear that Invisible wasn’t just a product of Yamashita and Nishimura’s talks. It was also a product of desperation.
Studio Ponoc appeared in 2015 as a home for animators displaced after Studio Ghibli, in late 2014, temporarily stopped making films. Ghibli left behind a gaping vacuum inside the industry. The point of Ponoc’s first film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017), was just to keep the spirit alive.
“We felt that if we didn’t do it now,” Nishimura explained, “these kinds of films would disappear according to the rules of entropy; the heat would dissipate and disappear.”
The anime industry was, and still is, in dire straits. There’s a crisis-level loss of artists. “Perhaps the biggest problem in the Japanese animation industry is that there are no more young animators,” said one director in 2019. Anime has always been brutal, but things have gotten bad enough that its future is vanishing. The conditions that allowed artists like Hayao Miyazaki to rise to greatness no longer exist.
Before his time at Ponoc, Akihiko Yamashita had discovered this for himself. He was one of those displaced Ghibli workers. Rather than join Ponoc, though, he decided to try his luck in the wider industry for a year or more. Nishimura frequently met with him during this time, as Yamashita’s “complexion got worse and worse.”
Animation production sites are harsh, especially for TV animation, which is even harsher than film. The number of productions is large and there is not enough manpower, so the workload per person is very heavy. Director Yamashita, far from making the most of his abilities, witnessed the miserable situation at the production sites and thought, “Maybe this is the end of animation…”
What restored Yamashita’s faith was a chance, in the mid-2010s, to work with Ghibli again. Miyazaki ended his retirement to make the short film Boro the Caterpillar, and Yamashita contributed to its early stages. He found his way. Then he joined Ponoc.
The idea for Modest Heroes, and Invisible with it, was a reaction to the state of the anime industry. It arose during the last months of Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Looking around, Ponoc came to believe that Japanese animation was missing the spirit of invention that had once led to risky films like Grave of the Fireflies. (Nishimura correctly noted that Ghibli has never had just one style — it’s always tried new things.) Entering a kind of survival mode, though, a lot of anime grew “conservative.”
“Today’s animation isn’t that different from what was produced 20 years ago,” Nishimura told Cartoon Brew in 2019.
The threat here is existential in nature. The masters who rose in past decades are getting older, and many are dying. Isao Takahata originally agreed to direct a short for Modest Heroes based on The Tale of the Heike, but he passed away, at the age of 82, before the film’s release.
Losses like this one represent the loss of the old spirit of invention — something rarely ingrained in younger Japanese animators who, more and more, are used up and thrown away.
Modest Heroes and Invisible were meant to bring renewed creativity, to generate animation that’s unexpected in both form and content. Not to copy the masters, but to find their spirit again and discover new things as they once did. “Making short films isn’t economically rational,” Nishimura admitted, but that wasn’t the point.
Which isn’t to say that Invisible casts Miyazaki’s influence aside. As Yamashita has made clear, Miyazaki is his great inspiration. Even the idea of portraying the internal life of Invisible’s protagonist through the appearance of the world came from Howl’s Moving Castle, where the design of the castle represents Howl himself.
Plus, Boro the Caterpillar wasn’t the only time that Miyazaki changed the course of Yamashita’s career. Yamashita has explained many times that, in his early 30s, he hit a wall and became unable to work. He got back on track by getting hired to the game series Suikoden, and then receiving an offer to animate for Spirited Away. His time at Ghibli, he said, helped him to “rediscover the fun” of animation.
Given this, it makes sense that the fellow invisible person who finally notices the protagonist looks, in the words of one Japanese reviewer, “exactly like Director Hayao Miyazaki.”
But Invisible doesn’t end by looking back. After this ghostly version of Miyazaki encourages him, the protagonist goes on to discover his own purpose — one tied directly to new life. Likewise, Yamashita hasn’t copied Miyazaki’s past work, despite how much it informs him. Invisible is something new.
Although it came out a few years ago, and Yamashita hasn’t directed another film since, there’s something invigorating about watching this piece. It’s thrilling and human. By Yamashita’s own admission, it speaks to the misery and invisibility of many Japanese animators right now — and it points toward a path out of the darkness.
Thanks for checking out today’s issue! We hope you’re enjoying it.
Today marks one year (!) since we opened up paid subscriptions to Animation Obsessive. It’s an exciting milestone for us. To celebrate, this issue has been unlocked for all readers — just like our last two on Satoshi Kon’s final film and lost projects.
As we gear up for another year of deep research into animation, we’d love to have you along for the ride. Paying subscribers make Animation Obsessive possible. They let us tell these stories.
Even if you aren’t in a position to take out a paid subscription right now, reading and forwarding make a difference. We appreciate your support — thank you so much for sticking with us!
2. Animation newsbits
We lost Gerald Potterton (91), who worked on classics at the National Film Board of Canada — and much more.
Also on Netflix: the American series Lost Ollie.
The Warner/Discovery debacle continues in America: Driftwood canceled, major projects shopped to other streamers and DC features pushed back to cut costs. As one producer reportedly said, “They have no money and no clues.”
In China, the film New Gods: Yang Jian recently premiered at #1. GKIDS just snapped up the distribution rights for North America.
The American Sailor Moon remake from the ‘90s had its pilot unearthed and released by Ray Mona, a YouTuber who explores lost media.
A popular meme right now sets a clip from the Ukrainian cartoon Treasure Island (1986–1988) to phonk music. Novoye Vremya looked into this trend.
Anime Taizen, a massive anime encyclopedia project in Japan, is online.
Lastly, Keyframe profiled Chris Aguirre, a Chiricahua Apache tribal member with a long career in animation. He’s working on Netflix’s Spirit Rangers now.
3. Quick look back — High Noon
We first learned about the “father of Slovak animation,” Viktor Kubal, in early 2021. A reader introduced us to Kubal’s retro series Puff and Muff — which turned out to be great fun. The historian Toadette showed us even more of Kubal’s films this year. So, we featured them in our newsletter this past June.
Kubal was a strange artist. He had creative partners, but he personally did a startling amount of the work on his films. His mark is all over them. Animation in the Kubal style is rough and often sloppy — a good part of the humor, particularly in his late-career ‘80s films, comes from his purposely crude art. Folks in Japan have noted how modern it looks, like the kuso anime style of recent Cup Noodles ads (or Pop Team Epic).
And it does look modern — crude drawings and weird motion are comedy staples online today. Which has the side-effect of making Kubal, who’s basically unknown outside Slovakia, popular on the internet.
This month, we learned just how popular when we shared a clip of Kubal’s High Noon (1988) on Twitter. We figured it would get no attention, but it racked up over 130,000 views and 10,000 likes. People loved it, especially on the younger end. On Tumblr, someone clipped our clip and got over 19,000 notes.2 We’ve seen High Noon fanart.
Which is really odd. This little film is a satire of late-stage bureaucracy in the Eastern Bloc, starring a group of triangle-faced pencil-pushers who stamp and erase papers, endlessly. Their look was inspired by cubism. Amazing soundtrack aside, High Noon doesn’t read as viral material.
On the surface, at least. The thing is, people can feel something current in High Noon. Many commenters related the office job in the film to their own lives. And the visuals resonated — one person even compared them to Victoria Vincent’s work. (Her lo-fi animation is more refined than Kubal’s, but there are similarities.)
After all this, someone tracked down High Noon and uploaded it to YouTube. For now, the world can see this film dubbed a “small masterpiece” by the authoritative book Slovak Animated Film. That’s quite a thing to claim about a cartoon this messy — but it’s probably true regardless. Find High Noon below:
See you again soon!
Thanks to writer and artist (and reader!) canmom for the tip about High Noon’s spread on Tumblr.