originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/707507...
Hi everyone! Welcome to Animation Night, the night where we watch animation. We’re running mega late due to insomnia + travelling, so I will be brief.
Tonight the plan is to watch some exciting short animated films from China. First up we have the return of the mighty Shanghai Animation Film Studio.
You may remember from Animation Nights past that for a long time through the 50s and 60s, Shanghai Animation Film Studio was Chinese animation (donghua). They created many beautiful and experimental works, such as the astonishing ‘ink wash’ films of Te Wei, accomplished through an ingenious process of stacking up layers of cels to create the subtle gradients.
SAFS was squashed during the Cultural Revolution, its animators sent to the countryside, and animation was instead turned to heavy-handed propaganda films. Under Deng, the Shanghai animators returned for a brief last hurrah… but the chain of reproduction had been broken, and donghua went through a period where few films were being made, and only cheaply, with Chinese animators mostly working on outsourcing for other countries.
That’s changed in a huge way recently with the rise of what is now termed guómàn (国漫), referring to Chinese domestic animation and comics. Despite a hard-to-please audience at home, Chinese studios have been absolutely killing it lately… but Shanghai Animation Film Studio hasn’t really been a player. That’s changing now, AniObsessive reports, with the release of a series of four ~20 minute short films titled 中国奇谭 (Yao - Chinese Folktales) on Bilibili. A decidedly non-commercial project, with four teams and directors spending about two years on each film, it’s unexpectedly become an enormous hit in China:
Yao’s numbers have climbed dramatically since that report. After 15 days, with four episodes online, the series has topped 99 million views on its Bilibili page — and they’re rising fast. Users of the movie site Douban are often harsh critics of Chinese animation, and yet Yao currently scores 9.4 there, based on more than 132,000 reviews.
Zhang Shengyan, the Bilibili VP, feels that Yao owes its popularity to its ties to China. Not just in the stories and art, but in the Shanghai Animation name — most people in China, Zhang says, have fond memories of the studio’s classics. Yao channels this tradition of artistry for the 2020s, and it may be the start of a new era for the company. There’s already talk of a second season.
So that’s exciting! The four episodes are titled Nobody, Goose Mountain, She-Wolf, and… I don’t have a translation available for the fourth one but in Chinese it’s 乡村巴士带走了王孩儿和神仙, which machine translation renders The Country Bus Took Away Wang Haier and Shenxian. They use a variety of styles from CG to traditional animation.
Our second item is also courtesy of AniObsessive, who have gone to the impressive effort of translating and subtitling a series called Mee’s Forest on their new Chinese Flash YT channel. The series is directed by Busifan, known for the incredible film Dahufa (The Guardian) which we watched back on Animation Night 46 and again on Animation Night 104. (Incidentally, AniObsessive also wrote a wonderful article about the creation of Dahufa, finding all sorts of obscure sources, which is how I know anything at all about Busifan.)
Mee’s Forest is an earlier work, beginning in 2009 about six years before Dahufa’s completion, but after Busifan had made a name for himself with The Black Bird series in 2004. At this time, Busifan had quit his telecoms job, and was working at small animation studios in Hangzhou, chafing against the limits of the industry. This series centers on a young monk who, left alone by his master, is embroiled in some kind of supernatural forest shenanigans. The animation has sparks of what we’d see in Dahufa, notably the abrupt, vicious fight scenes.
I love everything I’ve seen from the Chinese Flash scene and I’m sure this will be no exception. At the time of writing, we’re jumping the gun a bit, with only 15 of 16 episodes translated… but this concords perfectly with Yao so we’ll wrap it up later.
Some further comments
Mee’s Forest is fantastic. A really imaginative setting, reminiscent of Nausicaa but with its own identity. Take for example Episode 3, a relatively standalone one which plays out like a Monster Hunter run:
The story as a whole begins with a young boy, in training to be a monk, whose master disappears. He soon meets an old man who diagnoses that he’s been infected with an incurable parasite, gives him the name Xiaomi (small rice) in reference to the mossy yeti-like creature Dami (big rice), and then leaves him in Dami’s care.
Left to his own devices, Xiaomi is pursued by a group of silent masked figures known as the Ghostface. (Their masks are actually horseshoe crab-like bugs, which exert a kind of dissociating effect on their host.) Followed by one of the ghostface, Xiaomi wanders into the depths of a huge cave system that’s filled with some kind of massive snakelike organism. He meets a man whose body has been grafted onto the surface of this enormous worms, and promises a way to save him - but then the Ghostface intervenes and offers friendship to Xiaomi, introducing him to others who may have seen his master.
The huge worm, it turns out, is the ‘mother pupa’, which some years before the story invaded this area (Jihao), replacing the ecosystem with one made of ‘bugbeasts’ and driving out almost everyone except the workers, who adapted to live with the bugbeasts. But now their former master Boss Luo has sent a group to drive them out - and they join up with this arrogant boy from Pei Ding…
…who is attempting to kill the mother pupa by driving sulphur-filled stakes into a tree through which the pupa protrudes above ground.
The mother pupa, it turns out, has other ideas: the parasite in Xiaomi is part of a much larger plan to give birth to a replacement, which involves similarly parasitising Xiaomi’s master; somehow all these parasites will recombine to create a new mother pupa. The parasite increasingly takes over Xiaomi’s body, and soon all hell breaks loose: the ground collapses and an enormous invisible beast manifests.
And then we have to wait to see how it all resolves because the last episode still hasn’t been translated! Sorry to tease you with all this. But on the other hand… this series is so fucking cool and I’d love for it to get a larger audience in English, so we can wait for the finale together.
Compared to the much more complex animation of Dahufa, this sits in an odd inbetween space between a web flash video and TV animation - close to the TV end. It can absolutely pop off when it needs to, but a lot of the time it leans on the digital equivalent of limited animation techniques. Nevertheless, the designs are very striking, the backgrounds lush.
What’s most exciting to me is the step it represents in the story of Busifan. In The Black Bird, you can see earlier iterations of his main ideas, straining against the limits of what could be accomplished by one untrained animator in Flash. Even if he found the studio work limiting, the design style, the sense of conflicts, the ability to sketch a lived-in world defined by weird fucked up ecosystems, it’s all there - and eventually he got to realise it fully, with all the anger necessary, in Dahufa. That’s really sick, and I respect the hell out of it. I hope it’s possible for this girl to follow some sort of alike trajectory in the future.
As for Yao - Chinese Folk Tales - this was great. Charming, visually rich, inventive. Goose Mountain is definitely the weirdest and thus most fascinating to me, telling the story of a trader travelling in the mountains who encounters a bizarre series of animals with their lovers nested inside each other. The whole series is worth watching.
As it happens I jumped the gun on this one too, and another episode has come out since last week. Perhaps we’ll find time to watch it tonight.
(In other short films news, Gobelins students, bless ‘em, have been doing a series of one minute short films as an effects animation exercise… which since this is Gobelins is a collection of incredibly striking character pieces in all manner of settings. Take a look at that here! how do they do it srsly)