Many people write off animation as something exclusively for children or comedy, when the educated film world flocks to animation for inspiration, entertainment, and intellectual stimulation. I hesitated writing this article at first because I don’t want people to mistake my intentions: I love children’s animation! This post, however, is directed specifically at those who claim that animation isn’t a serious or mature form of art.
Often I’ve heard the excuse that people just don’t like animation, but I find that really difficult to believe. Contrary to popular wisdom, animation is not a genre, but a medium. To claim that one doesn’t like animation is comparable to claiming one doesn’t like music. While it’s possible, it’s highly unlikely that out of all of the different animated films and series out there, not one would appeal to a person. While I feel like some of this may be a result of close-mindedness, I realize that the most probable cause of such a belief is that people just don’t know where to look for quality adult animation. Hopefully, this list can serve as a good reference for adults who are willing to give animation a try.
Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon, 1997, Japan
Few directors create anime the way Satoshi Kon created anime. His characters aren’t cookie-cutter archetypes that all look relatively similar, but characters whose outward appearances wholly reflect their inward struggles. In Perfect Blue (my personal favorite of Kon’s films), Mima is a naive pop idol developing into a mature television actress, a metamorphosis that compromises her comfort and sanity. Upon leaving her career as a singer, she begins receiving threats via fax and mail from a stalker claiming to be her old, “true” self. Tortured by the pressures of her new career and this creepy fan who begins attacking the people around her, she loses her grip on reality.
What makes this anime truly special is not only the ambiguity throughout most of its duration, but the importance of the questions it asks related to the entertainment industry, and even more broadly, about the concessions we make in order to please other people. Kon uniquely uses the medium of animation to illustrate the tortured psyches of his characters, and for those who have seen Black Swan, you may notice many similar tricks embedded in its art direction (most notably, reflections that interact with characters) taken straight from this movie. Aronofsky actually bought the rights to Perfect Blue to use one scene in Requiem for a Dream, so it’s no doubt was a source of inspiration for Black Swan. Actually, all of Satoshi Kon’s movies are visually and conceptually impressive – I highly recommend them, particularly Paprika, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers.
Rocko’s Modern Life, Joe Murray, 1993-1996, USA
Because I was about eight years old when Rocko aired on Nickelodeon, I really only appreciated it for the distorted colors and slapstick humor; the rest was completely over my head. Early last summer, however, I revisited the Wacky Deli episode on YouTube, and then watched the entire first season when Netflix uploaded it to instant view. I was completely appalled not only by the overtness of sexual humor (including Rocko’s brief stint as a sex hotline operator), but the maturity of the themes in the series. Although Rocko’s Modern Life was marketed towards children, it’s hard for me to consider this a show for children at all! With heavy commentary on middle-class culture, consumerism, and sex, only an adult could truly appreciate the things that make Rocko’s Life both hilarious and depressing.
Waking Life, Richard Linklater, 2001, USA
I first walked into Waking Life at the end of the movie, and wrote off the style and story as distracting and confusing. However, when my friend made me watch it again (from beginning to end), I found that the rotoscoping in Waking Life was completely purposeful, and the movie altogether thought-provoking. The story follows an unnamed narrator as he stumbles through multiple dreams in a lucid dreaming state, each time interviewing different people who contribute to his understanding of the nature of dreams and unconsciousness. Linklater uses different animation styles to distinguish between each dream, tailoring the effects to reflect the personalities of individual characters or responses to the narrator’s questions. Although some of the dialogue is insufferably pseudo-intellectual, the medium is so seamlessly fused with the content of the film that it’s worth seeing if only for that.
Cowboy Bebop, Shinichiro Watanabe, 1998, Japan
Because I consider this list introductory, I was hesitant to include any anime series: often they can get lengthy, with many “filler” episodes to pass the time. Cowboy Bebop, however, is different. Although there are many episodes that don’t advance the main storyline, each one is created as if it were a short movie, to be appreciated alone with fully developed characters (often unique to the one episode) and self-contained plots. Shinichiro does this masterfully: I’ve found myself crying at the end of an episode when I’ve only just met a character twenty minutes prior. The soundtrack, too, is classic- Yoko Kanno draws from Miles Davis as her primary inspiration, creating jazz songs that fit perfectly not only with the stories to which they’re attached, but can be appreciated on their own (a few of my favorite songs are What Planet is This and Piano Black). Some Cowboy Bebop episodes are available on Netflix streaming, and while I always encourage watching movies in their original language, Cowboy Bebop actually has a good dub! And as stated above, one need not dedicate themselves to this entire series to appreciate it (though you may not be able to resist after you start watching it). A few episodes that fly solo rather nicely are Heavy Metal Queen, Waltz for Venus, and Pierrot le Fou.
Madame Tutli-Putli, Chris Lavis & Maciek Szczerbowski, 2007, Canada
If the National Film Board of Canada is any indication, Canadians love animation, and they take pride in their dedication to it. Through their website or iPhone app, you can access a ton of really beautiful animated shorts: some stop motion, some computer, and some traditionally-animated. Madame Tutli-Putli is one such short that almost feels as if it were lensed with a video camera rather than animated in stop motion. Aptly summarized by the NFB, this short is about “[a woman traveling] alone on the night train, weighed down with all her earthly possessions and the ghosts of her past, [facing] both the kindness and menace of strangers.” The eerie, vintage quality of this movie created by the setting, props, and muted color scheme is sure to appeal to those who loved the aesthetics of movies like Amélie. Other short animations featured on the NFB website with a mature appeal are When the Day Breaks, Animando, and Ryan.
Cat Soup (Nekojiru-So), Tatsuo Sato, 2001, Japan
Cat Soup perfectly epitomizes the creepy-cute aesthetic very characteristic of Japanese art. In this 33-minute surrealist film, a cat Nyako falls ill, and as Death attempts to steal her away, Nyako’s younger brother, Nyatta, steals a piece of her spirit, saving her (just barely) from dying. He pursues Death and his sister’s soul across surreal landscapes, dragging her lifeless body behind him. Unpredictable, entertaining, and eerie is the quickest way to sum up this animation. Although it’s fairly hard to obtain a copy (legally), some video stores do stock it (Premiere Video in Dallas is one), and in the event that you’re able to snag it, I highly recommend it.
Triplets of Belleville, Sylvain Chomet, 2001, France
If Triplets of Belleville rings a bell, it’s because it was nominated for two Academy Awards in 2004 for Best Animated Film & Best Original Song. Although decried by some as “anti-American” for its obese portraits of New Yorkers (including an overweight Statue of Liberty bearing a hamburger in lieu of a torch), the film doesn’t spare the French either, laughing at their perceived dependence on wine and obsession with the Tour de France. While the director was French, Triplets was actually a collaborative effort between many international studios located in the UK and France – so its humor, while offensive and merciless, is ultimately good-natured. Because of the dark caricatures and heavy sexual undertones (such as the repeated use of the number “69″, for example), this movie is likely to scare kids when it isn’t flying completely over their heads. Furthermore, its minimal dialogue that alternates between English, French, and gibberish would most likely be too boring for the young or impatient viewer. If you consider yourself a fan of improvisational music, surrealism, and French cinema, you NEED to see this movie.