This Week: Muybridge‘s Strings and Cat Soup
A late Thanksgiving means December snuck up on me this year, so I need to get cracking on some Really Fun Posts I have planned and eventual end of the year writing shenanigans. As such, while I develop more of a head start on those, the round of dives into the anime backcatalog swamp this week gunned for short artsy pieces.
Muybridge’s Strings (Maiburijji no Ito)
This 2011 piece comes courtesy of Polygon Pictures, who is most notable in anime for the 3D animation sequences in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and The Sky Crawlers, and Director Kōji Yamamura. As one of the few directors in anime to have an Academy Award nomination under their belt (for Mt. Head in 2002), as well as a slew of other international animation accolades, his output is the kind of thing that is often compelling for its experimental applications but often incredibility difficult to actually track down and see for oneself outside of the very particular film festival circuits it tends to thrive in best.
This particular piece focuses on a dialogue free biographical tale of Eadweard James Muybridge, inventor of the zoopraxiscope, a means of projecting motion pictures via glass disks that predates the filmstrip method of the later kinetoscope. If you’ve seen a film or animation homage to a particular horse running cycle, that would be a reference to Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, otherwise known as The Horse in Motion. It was the very first motion picture exhibition, originally produced as an experiment for means of gait analysis and determining if a horse in full motion ever reached a point where all four of its legs were off the ground. Appropriately, the motif of a running horse runs rampant throughout much of the imagery of Muybridge’s Strings, as well as other references and artistic interpretations of his other work during these early years of filmmaking. Laced into this titular story is another narrative of a mother and child in present day Tokyo, utilizing the passage of time and the ability of film as a means of exploring its ability to make this eternal march forward seem to pause if only for a moment. Extensive use of clocks and the like feature prominently, and the tale of film is itself a part of this long held human desire that we carry with us to this day.
On a technical level, Muybridge’s Strings is a real animation treat. Shadows, linework, and large color fills like black backgrounds are repainted in different ways between frames. As a result, even a static background or a character lacking in direct motion will nevertheless have their entire body filled with a vibrant chaos and kineticism. A stew and unyielding torrent of motion, and as the film lacks direct dialogue, it uses this mechanical means of selling the narrative to the viewer and it is very technically proficient and enjoyable to see unfold.
It is tricky, then, to want to fault the film for not being more direct with its actual narrative. Muybridge had a fascinating life with many twists and turns, including a violent head injury acquired during a runaway stagecoach accident that is believed to have damaged his orbitofrontal cortex so badly that it is considered to have possibly been the genesis that actually freed his creativity so much that without it he may never have created the zoopraxiscope at all. He married a woman half his age, who was in her early twenties while he entered his forties. Two years later, he knocked on a friend of hers door in the dead of night with the theatrical tier declaration of “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here’s the answer to the letter you sent my wife” and shot him to death on the spot on the suspicion of adultery. There was an insanity plea in the resulting criminal case, which was he in turn sabotaged, leading to the judge to want to sentence him and yet the jury still ended up acquitting him of justifiable homicide. A rag tag simultaneous comedy and tragedy of errors of a life, in many respects, and this is but a glace of it.
I mention all this because while the film itself represents these ideas artistically and symbolically, unless one already knows and is rather familiar with the life story of Muybridge, it becomes far more difficult to decode and follow along. I think this does hurt the piece to an unfortunate, but by no means unwatchable, extent. While something like Angel’s Egg has innumerably many interpretations, or the second anime Academy Award wining production of La Maison en Petits Cubes tells a tightly woven character narrative without dialogue in an equivalent running time to Muybridge’s Strings, there are far fewer potential outlets for that sort of analysis here. It is a stylized biography intertwined with the larger sentimental idea of the impact of time, and while there is an amount of wiggle room in critiquing and viewing the ideas it presents, the creative well here is indeed banking on a particular previously acquired knowledge base from the viewer to be at its absolute most effective.
It is a by all means a solid short with a dedicated style and ambition, but I do feel this is a case where the animation galloped so far ahead that the internal narrative was unable to fully catch up to it.
Cat Soup (Nekojiru-sou)
To a degree, the initial limited cover for the DVD of this represents one of those moments where I really consider how much money and speculation was well and truly sloshing about in the anime boom years of the early 2000’s. Central Park Media uncaged this into the US media store wilds of 2003 with a case surrounded by a secondary layer containing a squeezable and free flowing liquid gel. For a standalone, roughly half hour long surrealist art film. It certainly stood out a bunch when I saw it in the Suncoast Video at my local mall way back when.
That sort of thing all just seems so unfathomable in the modern market a decade later, doesn’t it?
Given, CPM also slapped a “From the director of Nadesico” line right at the top as well on other releases of this. While this is correct in the technical sense, as Tatsuo Satō did helm Martian Successor Nadesico, it is in absolutely zero way representative of the actual film here. While I liked that series quite a bit back in the day, and it is likely and potentially due for a revist one of these months, I’m not sure Nadesico ever had the clout to get namedropped in such a way. Of course, marketing is marketing, and I can understand the need for them to want to get folks to pick this film up somehow.
Which is not to say that I think it is a particular dreadful movie or anything, but I do find the means of trying to get consumers to purchase it to be rather interesting.
The production itself is a vivid dream of flowing bodies in motion and colors in transit. Even acts of violence, death, and other dark matters which make up many of the narrative scenes carry on with a sort of weighlessness that makes them feel easygoing and mundane in impact. This is to the productions credit and detriment in places, as on the one hand it is a very freeing thing to witness it be so liberal with such material knowing that it is doing so in a manner that is not really directly or viscerally horrifying. Alternatively, one may feel at times like they want it to have more substance, even a defined pebble or something the viewer could tie themselves down to in order to feel an impact.
A lot of it is not so much interpretive, like many surrealist works, but a kind of reactive experience, which I find the less common approach. The narrative itself is very straightforward, that of a brother cat wishing to restore the life of a deceased sister with a lost soul, and going on a journey to do so. The surrounding soup then, the liquid nature of animation surrounding these bits, is as flavorful or barren as one is really prepared for or prefers. A matter of taste then, I suppose, but not in a sort of judgmental or mocking way that phrase is often thrown around. Rather, it depends on where one places their priorities when looking at their art and entertainment and what personally is really tasty to them.
Personally, I err on the side that the film is, well, fine. Better than average, given the raw creative juices on display in representing the adventure in an incredibly wondrous and inspired fashion, as a bounding water elephant walks in desert wastelands and appendages are casually lopped off of a pig to then fry up right in front of their own eyes. Continuing the meal and soup motif however, it is a really delicious broth without a whole lot of richly compelling chunky pieces of narrative meats or noodles and the like.
Some folks really like those kinds of foods, and others despise them, so a lot of it does come down to mere personal preference here. It is not so much a matter of philosophy as it is execution. I think Cat Soup is something people should certainly give a chance, if only to say they tasted it for themselves. In my case, it is the kind of soup order I enjoy at a restaurant that by the time I get to the final third or quarter of the bowl or so, I wonder when my next course is coming along to follow it with as I think towards the future.
Which, in its own way, is also certainly a strength. It arrives easy, it is an appreciated and in many ways delightful course while it lasts, and it begins to move on and freely float out of the way wishing to not overburden and dominate a complete meal set with a heavy starter. I can respect that, and as the story here does primarily follow a pair of characters, the film would go very well if dovetailed with another movie as part of a longer night in.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime series I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.