Passions and Illusions: A Spotlight on Animation at Fantasia 2021

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Letterboxd’s animation correspondent Kambole Campbell reports on the legends and newcomers in Fantasia’s 2D, anime and stop-motion offerings, from Phil Tippett and Satoshi Kon to Cryptozoo, The Deer King and The Spine of Night.  

As the festival that can probably forever claim the bragging rights of being the first to screen Satoshi Kon’s astonishing debut feature Perfect Blue, it’s always exciting to delve into the animation programme for Fantasia, to see what new eclectic wonders it holds for us animation lovers. 

The 25th edition’s lineup is heavy with anime, notably Studio 4C’s Poupelle of Chimney Town and Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko, as well as Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji’s The Deer King, all players at this year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival. 

A small-scale family comedy, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko, from Children of the Sea director Ayumu Watanabe, might be the section’s most humble entry; it leaves behind the surrealist, spiritual fantasy of its predecessor (and a whole lot of homages to My Neighbor Totoro). It’s not as sensitive as Watanabe’s prior effort—too often making a joke out of its eponymous character—but is otherwise a welcome and lushly presented change of pace.

The Deer King is a highlight of Fantasia’s animated offerings, as it was at Annecy. I found it impressive for the thoughtful detail of its world’s history and political turmoil, its believable and nuanced character animation and its slightly different angle on fantasy adventure. More than that, the found-family story that grounds it simply works; it’s hard not to be moved by the stoic protagonist Van slowly letting his guard down around his adoptive daughter. I’ve already waxed lyrical about The Deer King, however, so as much as I want to expand on its ravishing fantasy world, there’s more in the program to explore.

Anime aside, there are some interesting midnight curios, such as Dash Shaw’s strange and enigmatic Cryptozoo, and Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s gory, Bakshi-esque The Spine of Night (which I spoke to the directors about during SXSW). 2D anime features tend to be more high profile than most, so I loved to see something like Takahide Mori’s passion project Junk Head standing amongst the rest of the lineup. Not only that, but it stands out from that lineup—a little bit Alien and Blade Runner and perhaps Brazil in its depiction of the dystopian consequences of capitalist structures, and a bit Tetsuo: the Iron Man in its aggressive aesthetic sensibilities. 

Set in a post-human underground society, Junk Head, named for its main character, follows a disembodied human head contained in a robot casing, each new part of the film seeing him falling even further into the depths, broken and rebuilt by the underground labor force like a robotic ship of Theseus. Voices, sound effects and score and almost everything else done by the director, Mori’s work is an astonishing showcase of stop-motion craft. He uses stop motion for its more visceral textures, calibrating everything to be visually and sonically abrasive, between the raspy voices and pounding electronic score, dilapidated structures and disgusting monsters. 

There’s a sort of synergy with Phil Tippett’s soon-to-be cult hit Mad God—not available until near the festival’s end—another stop-motion passion project of many years, also built around gross-out, flesh-and-metal body horror. Tippett’s film is a work 30 years in the making, a solo effort as director after working on stop motion and puppetry effects on the likes of Star Wars and RoboCop, and effects supervision on Jurassic Park. To say that he’s a foundational presence in American cinema is something of an understatement. 

Speaking of industry legends: there’s also the documentary Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. Kon is simply one of the greatest directors of all time, in animation or otherwise. His employment of subjective imagery and editing in his work plays with viewer perspective to astonishing effect, his characters feel viscerally real even as they reflect on the illusory nature of the world and the performative nature of their own lives. 

Made around the tenth anniversary of Kon’s passing from pancreatic cancer, the doc looks to emphasise his importance both to the anime industry and international filmmaking. By comparison to the director’s complex approach to narrative, The Illusionist is straightforward, but I was drawn in by the impressive guests, including Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii, Mirai director Mamoru Hosoda, Millennium Actress producer, Madhouse co-founder and Kon’s friend Masao Maruyama, and the animator, story and layout artist Aya Suzuki, who brings some of the most thought-provoking anecdotes and observations. 

While it’s hard not to wish that it went into more detail concerning his manga career or his industry activism, it's an effective guide for newcomers to Kon’s filmography. All in all, Fantasia’s animation lineup—between long gestating passion projects, work by new creators, and reflections on the foundational presences of the industry today—is an enjoyable and eclectic mix of animation’s past, present and future. 

Related:

Alicia Haddock reports for Festiville on the Japanese offerings at Fantasia 2021.