Japanimation: The Barbican celebrates contemporary Japanese animation

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The Independent Culture

Japanimation is a season of events at the Barbican, in London, that will celebrate contemporary Japanese animation and explore its relationship with world cinema. Curated and presented by the anime expert and co-author of The Anime Encyclopaedia, Helen McCarthy, the first event will reveal how Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and David Fincher's Se7en (1995) influenced Satoshi Kon's animated psychological thriller Perfect Blue (1998).

Perfect Blue tells the story of the increasingly paranoid Mimi, whose decision to leave the pop group Cham! to become a serious actress does not please her delusional online stalker. Film sequences show her battling with different aspects of her personality brought into being by her career change, and it is unclear whether her descent into paranoia is due to the malign influence of her jealous assistant or the work of the old self that she has killed off.

"Kon tries to make a real movie," says McCarthy, of the director who also made Tokyo Godfathers (2003), a reworking of John Ford's classic Western 3 Godfathers merged with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. "He treats each frame of animation exactly like a frame of film. When Mimi is travelling on the train, the images have the same kind of lens refraction and flare that you get in a camera if you shoot through glass. But this effect has actually been animated."

The second event in the season will demonstrate how Disney films of recent times have influenced the work of the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, "particularly in the animation of water," says McCarthy. There will be a screening of Hayao Miyazaki's fantastical and intensely colourful anime My Neighbour Totoro (1988), about two sisters whose mother is hospitalised with TB - the relationship between the two sisters bearing strong similarities to that of the siblings in Disney's Lilo and Stitch (2002). "The artwork is mesmerising, as the sisters use the magical aspects of the real world to accept life, death and growth," says McCarthy. "The film was entirely hand-painted and, unusually, most of the individual drawings were personally retouched by Miyazaki.

"He is a director who sees living spirits in everything. When Totoro (who can only be seen by children) makes seeds that the girls have planted grow into huge trees and then takes them on a magical night-time flight over the countryside, the cycle of nature is compressed into one fantastic dream. It is as thrilling as any battle in Star Wars, but it is non-violent, and celebrates life."

There is a darkness to Miyazaki's work, too. "Lurking in the back of the older girl's mind is the terror of her mother dying. When she opens the door at night, trees assume strange shapes, the wind makes strange noises," says McCarthy. In another scene, the younger sister gets lost and is found sitting at the feet of a row of Jizo statues, a Japanese divinity who protects children. "You see this row of classical Japanese statues being crossed over by a row of telephone wires," says McCarthy. "The old and the new, side by side."

Finally, in the third event, McCarthy will explore the world of the cutting-edge television series Samurai 7, directed by Toshifumi Takizawa, an updated, futuristic version of Akira Kurosawa's classic film of 1954, Seven Samurai, in which despairing villagers hire a band of samurai to protect them and their rice fields from bandits. "Takizawa's film isn't trying to be realistic, and is strongly influenced by computer-game graphics," says McCarthy. "But, with its anti-commercialism subplot, it has a modern morality message for a media-savvy generation. The samurai are in the same position as a modern teenager. Their world has changed completely - neither they or the peasants can go back to where they once were."

Naturally, this cyber version is very different from the original. "The great samurai war that takes place in Samurai 7 involves giant robot machines, flying ships and robotic samurai," says McCarthy. "The designs are still heavily influenced by Japanese armour and clothing, but they have a cyber edge. And the women are more cute in Samurai 7 -a young audience doesn't expect to see peasants in kimonos up to their ankles in paddy fields!"

Japanese anime touches upon serious topics that Western cinema prefers to deal with in live-action films. "The main link between all three of these animated films is that they are about how you grow up and deal with the hand that you have been dealt in life," concludes McCarthy. "In Japan, animated films span all generations. This is what makes anime so unique these days: it's far from just a children's medium."

Barbican, Silk Street, London EC2 (08451 207 531; www.barbican.org.uk/film), 30 January, 20 February & 27 March; 'The Anime Encyclopaedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation since 1917' (second edition) is out now, priced £19.99