July 2010

Everyone always post a picture of Re-L whenever Ergo Proxy gets mentioned. You'd think this poor guy would get more exposure, considering the series is named for him.

Bateszi and Celeste recently posted an ingenious 2-part feature talking about an interview with Dai Sato, creator of Ergo Proxy and Samurai Champloo, as well as having been a contributor to other series. You can find the interview here.

What struck me in particular about the interview was the quote here: (emphasis mine)

Sato was upset with the lack of respect for stories in Japan… Sadly, he believes that fans are losing their media literacy – the ability to read narratives and stories and the meanings in the background.

What Sato talks about here is something in literature known as intertextuality, the literary context in which a work takes place, as well as the allusions it makes to other works. I think the real bitter pill for him to swallow is perhaps that in today’s world of hypertext links and Wikipedia – in spite of the easy access to information and the ability for viewers to quickly grasp at allusions – viewers are losing the whole ability to get intertextuality, and understand allusions outside of the medium.

Consider three of his works – Wolf’s Rain, Ergo Proxy, and Eureka Seven – all three evoke images and sensibilities that viewers can only get outside of the animated sphere – Wolf’s Rain creates folklore and mythology in its prophetic narratives; Ergo Proxy grapples with themes from cyberpunk science fiction and existential philosophy; and Eureka Seven grooves to musical and social upheavals from various counterculture movements during the last few decades. I’ve always found all his works brilliant for that reason – they’re crafted for very specific audiences but still retain some appeal even without it.

The flip-side of this, and what I think what he is really complaining about with the trend of K-ON (“kuuki-kei” or “atmospheric-type”) and the like, is that intertextuality in anime is becoming increasingly incestuous. The vast majority of allusions strike me as “otaku-isms”: simple reference-drops to other animated works (always Japanese ones, of course) or other aspects of the entire culture. While fascinating perhaps in an anthropological sense, it does create a certain barrier to the casual viewer (not to mention it may be construed as a breach of professional ethics). I think there’s some truth to this – to the untested viewer who has never cut their teeth on anything animated aside from Disney, K-ON is the last thing I would recommend. On the flip-side, I think the intertextuality behind shows like Wolf’s Rain, Eureka Seven, and Ergo Proxy is precisely what makes them feel so very mature – it gives them a certain weight that no amount of gratuitous sex and violence can accomplish.

Part of what makes Spice and Wolf such an enjoyable watch is that it focuses so much on normally underappreciated aspects of medieval settings. There are tons of little details to be found here that usually are brushed by – food, for example, is lavishly rendered, and there is an attention to the changes in folklore, feel, custom, and characters in each town that Lawrence and Holo pass through. Each is uniquely fleshed out as a culture, but is ultimately expendable – both characters certainly do not double back to particular locales over the course of the series. And, if anything, the series chooses to focus on what most regular people would find important – where to sleep, what to eat, who are friendly people to get to know. It’s a series I find difficult to classify as fantasy – or well, at least the same sort of fantasy anime whose lineage goes back to illustrious predecessors like Record of Lodoss War. I’m hesitant to group it with that nebulous category of shows known as “slice-of-life”; it has some similarities in plot structure, to be sure, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to really put it in the same group.


“For every animator, the indisputable postulate has always been that animation is best suited for conventionalization and worst suited for realism. Animation’s task is not to compete with the natural image, but only to turn it into a parody. Petrov hit at this fundamental, self-evident position.”

-from the obituary of Anatoliy Petrov, the creator of “Polygon”. With special thanks to Animatsiya in English for translation.

Polygon was produced in the Soviet Union in 1977 with a completely analog animation technique known as “photographica”, where characters were coloured using two sets of cels, rather than one – having two sets allowed a very complex portrayal of colour which gives Polygon a rotoscoped or almost computer generated look. It is a profound work. It’s only ten minutes long but it captures the themes of the tension of war and pacifism perfectly.

Absolutely flawless, down to the last detail. I can see why anime|otaku dropped everything to get to it first. There is barely anything to add or interpret here, rather, I’ll focus again on the small visual details and provide my own annotations. Absolutely no visual quirk has been spared – this final episode does not misstep even once, and absolutely everything is in there by intent.