originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/729101...


The Blue Blazes detour is over. We’re back to our home ground: weird obscure animated films.

Recently I found out about a site called Kanopy, which lets you use a local library card to access a pretty neat library of films. I don’t know if it’s per-library or universal, but in any case, the Kanopy I have access to is mostly old films and documentaries - but it does have a pretty fascinating animation section including a bunch of films that are completely new to me.

One of these films is Yamasong: March of the Hollows.

This is a puppet film from 2016. The premise as I understand it is a fantasy world full of turtle people and robots, that’s currently destablised by a conflict between the mechanical Hollows and beasts called the Tricksters, threatening all the other strange species that inhabit the planet. It falls to a cyborg called Nani and a turtle called Shojun to try and resolve the conflict. I don’t know how this film never crossed my radar because the designs are fantastic - of course a puppet film brings to mind Dark Crystal, but equally it’s got that Moebius sorta flavour, have a taste…

In an interview, director Sam Koji Hale describes how he took inspiration from Tezuka’s Pheonix and ukiyo-e artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi alongside the usual suspects like Kon and Miyazaki, trying to bring together images from multiple cultures - omnipresent kami and Matryoshka dolls.

The concept began as a short film that appeared at a handful of film festivals, inspired by the music of Shoji Kameda and his On Ensemble. Although this was successful at festivals, not a lot of studios were keen to back a feature-length puppet movie. The break came when one Sultan Saeed Al Darmarki, the owner of puppet studio Dark Dunes Production from the UAE, met up with Hale and offered to back the film as its producer.

Although certain sources like Wikipedia call it stop motion, I believe that may be incorrect - I think this is genuinely a puppet film, with puppeteers manipulating the figures in real time, draped in green to allow digital compositing…


And besides Hale, the film brings together a bunch of other notable American puppeteers, notably Heather Henson (daughter of Jim Henson) and Toby Froud (behind the recent Dark Crystal reboot, whose parents worked on the original). Puppet animation is something I’d like to cover more on here, especially Strings (2004) which still sits in my memory from many many years ago.

More recently, Hale worked on a Chinese film called 12 Zodiac, in which a group of animals must unite to remind the Jade Emperor that they exist. It sounds fascinating, but unfortunately I have not been able to find any more information than that IMDB page. If anyone knows a way to see this movie, let me know!!

So, if that sounds interesting, I hope you’ll join me in checking this one out. I’m really curious to see what I missed! Animation Night will be going live momentarily, and the film will begin in about 20 minutes (22:40 UK time) at our usual twitch.tv/canmom - hope to see you there!

So… here’s some post-watching comments on this movie.

First of all, before watching this film, I recommend checking out the original Yamasong short. It’s not available in many places (I could only find it on Amazon) and the version there is not great quality, but who knows what might hit the pirate sites in a day or two~ depending on how easy it is to crack Mr. Bezos’s DRM Anyway, that short is basically a music video. It’s not overly concerned with communicating plot, just fleshing out the song (which is an incredible combination of traditional Japanese instruments with throat singing - you can listen here) with images. There’s no dialogue, and you can infer what you want. The puppets are great, the vfx are charmingly goofy, and in general it’s a huge vibe.


The movie by contrast is very heavy on dialogue. Very few moments go by without talking. Nowt wrong with that. The problem that comes is… the dialogue is so incredibly blunt. It’s written with about the subtlety of the Bagger 288. You can absolutely see what they’re going for, because they will basically have the characters all but spell out ‘the theme of this movie is…’ It’s especially awkward in the romantic scenes between protagonists Shojun and Nani. Someone really needed to play the ’George, who talks like this?’ role.

The film’s cast has a bizarrely high celebrity quotient. The villain, Yari the cyborg, is played by Whoopi Goldberg; male protagonist Shojun is Nathan Fillion; George Takei gets to have great fun in the role of Shojun’s elder, Masook, who exiles him for nonsensical reasons.

Alas, voice acting and screen acting are different things. Takei handles his role well (he does a lot of voice acting for animation) but for the rest of the cast… well, my immediate impression was that we were watching a dub, even though it was filmed in English.

Despite these flaws though, it’s a very interesting example of puppet 'animation’! What’s interesting about puppetry is that, while in stop motion the default state is stillness and every movement must be carefully worked out by the animator, and the challenge is to create movement that does not feel mechanical… in puppetry the opposite is true, there is a lot of movement to every character. Characters are constantly moving, looking in different directions, gesturing etc.


It works pretty well in most scenes. The place it struggles the most is action scenes. They were very ambitious with choreography in this movie, with quite a lot of big slow motion shots like the Hollywood films of the time. The problem is that… often the timing and spacing is really off. A puppet might fall off a cliff, but it doesn’t accelerate like something falling off a cliff. A lot of the time, a character will jump in the air without proper anticipation, or move without much sense of weight. It’s charming, there’s a hugely toyetic quality to it, but I don’t think that’s what they were going for.

It’s interesting to compare this with Vordum: Price of Death, the amazing two-animator Russian claymotion film we watched a few weeks ago (which I definitely gotta write a longer piece about). Compared to the detailed puppets of Yamasong, the claymation models in Vordum are quite rough and low detail (though they improve noticeably over the course of the film!) - but their animation and choreography, the way they move and the way shots are staged, is absolutely top notch.

There’s one fairly curious decision, which you kinda get used to as the film goes on. Since the puppets mostly do not have movable mouth parts, they essentially stop motion animate the mouths in post. This might work if the compositing was better but… there are very clear seam and often perspective misalignments. I think this is not a film that needed lip sync at all - it’s entirely possible to project emotions onto a puppet without their face moving, as animators like Jiří Trnka have shown brilliantly (coming soon to Animation Night! if I can find a non-postage-stamp-sized copy of the movie).

The other issue it has is that the plot beats are very… standard American movie. There’s clearly a few ideas borrowed from its inspirations (when Shojun is exiled from his village, it’s definitely leaning on Ashitaka’s exile) but a lot of it is like… here’s the death of the father figure, who forgives his son and bestows succession as he dies. The 'Tricksters’ are never very effectively set up as ultimate antagonists, so the Hollows come across as quite unmotivated villains, turning people into cyborgs just 'cause that’s what they do. There’s some really cool ideas in this film - an imprisoned character asking a weird lizard creature to vape so you can draw forth air spirits to open a lock - but often they’re introduced in an awkward way, overexplained but not given prior setup. Ultimately it’s still a 'beat villain, get with girl, live happily ever after’ sort of movie. (Though the mum getting matryoshka age-regwessied is a funny way to get around the protagonists not being able to have children.)

Another awkward aspect is that of the two protagonists, only Shojun gets to like… actually do anything. Nani is essentially a sexy lamp in this movie, though she gets some amazing cyborg looks. Certain plot threads relating to her, like her mechanical heart, seem to go nowhere. Her attempts to persuade her mother to be less evil are completely no-selled.

The soundtrack to the feature-length movie is pretty sparse. It’s got a couple of good tracks that hit the vibe of the short but… alas.

I think Yamasong has many seeds of a really good film. It would already be heaps better if you cut most of the dialogue, rewrote the remainder to be less mechanical, and let the visuals speak for themselves a lot more. (This is what I think of as the Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron problem.) As it is… it’s kind of a rough watch, though I absolutely was glad to see it all the same.


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