In 2007, as a response to the hellish working conditions and terrible pay young animators in Japan were getting, a union called the Japanese Animation Creators Association was set up. We don’t get to see much of what they do since it’s normally just union things, but in 2010 they set up the Young Animator Training Project. Since so much of the in-between animation was being shipped abroad to cut costs, young animators in Japan weren’t getting hands-on experience. The project got off the ground thanks to the Japanese government giving them a huge pile of money to work with. The project has produced 4 pieces each year for the past 2 years, with 4 more only just coming out this year under the snazzier banner of Anime Mirai. There’s been a bit of underground hype growing for this year’s batch, primarily due to one of the pieces coming from Mr. Gurren Lagann’s new animation studio Trigger.
So with that in mind, I’m going to take a look back at the 8 individual pieces from the past 2 years and give my verdict on which ones are worth checking out and which ones you should just pass over.
Oji-san no Lamp
The first, and many people argue the best, of the young animator training projects. It has the highest ranking on MAL anyway. It tells the very human story of a guy who followed his dream and started up a lamp business, only to see it crumble in the face of new technology. The tone is perhaps a touch on the maudlin side, with a lot of “oh gosh aint this sad”, but it does an excellent job of humanising the story. The man’s transition from childlike wonder at the lamps to a successful business family man is well paced and does a good job at making us empathise with the character, which is why I don’t feel too down on it getting all maudlin towards the end. They earned that through good storytelling. Ojisan himself perhaps isn’t the most memorable character, but the story is built around him having the standard reactions to these events, so we feel the same pain he does as we’d do the exact same things in those positions.
The most vibrant of the young animator training projects (at least until Trigger’s Little Witch Academia descends upon us), it tells the story of a kung-fu family and a reporter trying to interview them about some fighting tournament the youngest daughter has been in. It’s all incredibly silly, with the old man randomly referencing K-ON in the middle of it, and a lot of fun due to the visual variety in the martial arts battles. It goes for a sketchy-line look, which works well with the tone they’re going for. That said, it is rather shallow. At the time I did prefer Kizuna Ichigeki to Ojisan no Lamp, but 2 years on I can remember Ojisan no Lamp beat-for-beat while I’m struggling to remember anything that happened in Kizuna Ichigeki. It’s a trifle. A fun side dish that you’ll instantly forget about once it’s over.
Wardrobe Dwellers is basically Snow White if Snow White was a Japanese salarywoman. Also if Snow White didn’t have any singing or dancing or evil witch or basically anything interesting at all. A salarywoman moves into an old flat where magical fairies live in her wardrobe who tell her to kill hookers and something about her grandmother also owning this wardrobe. It’s supposed to be about the passing of generations and tries to lean on the nostalgia button, but never really pulls it off. Characters don’t show enough emotion or personality to feel anything from their reactions to events. The wardrobe dwellers themselves are pretty boring people. Once they show up, they don’t really do anything else interesting. I was expecting them to do some funny stuff, maybe crack a few jokes or some slapstick humour, but the overall mood is too busy lounging around that it can’t work up the enthusiasm to have anything energetic happen.
Super Veggie Torracman
I feel I should have liked Super Veggie more than I did. The whole veggie eating thing is just part of a larger theme of overcoming your fears, which is a pretty universal narrative anyone can understand and empathise with. Plus I usually like stories with little kids as protagonists. They have energy and enthusiasm but I can also sympathise with their small-time conflicts which translate into much broader and more universal feelings of loss or regret or fear or whatever. Thing is, Super Veggie doesn’t lean on that side heavily enough. The kid doesn’t feel fleshed out. Instead we spend too much time on the craaazy carrot character, who is a bit too wacky to the point that he gets irritating and he ends up overshadowing the kid entirely, and in doing so overshadows the entire story. More story less Dirty Harry references please.
Buta is a story about a lone samurai guy helping a kid find some lost treasure. Except the samurai is a pig. And the boy is a fox. Yes, all the characters in Buta are anthropomorphised animals. Anthropomorphisation does have narrative purpose beyond trying to appeal to furries. Sometimes it’s about grafting these animal traits onto human characters to emphasise that characteristic. Sometimes it’s about distancing us from the reality of events so we’re able to take a step back from the reality and spend more time analysing the symbolism which is the reason why Night on the Galactic Railroad decided to turn its brothers into cats. In Buta, it doesn’t really serve any purpose. If anything, it cheapened its story because turning the characters into animals distanced me from them enough that I didn’t really care about them. At least, that’s my theory as to why I never got into Buta. It could have just been the story was boring. But I’m rather baffled as to why they decided to go the anthropomorphised animals route anyway, so I’m going to blame it on that.
Wasurenagumo tells the story of some nerdy researcher dude and a schoolgirl who has a crush on him, or is possibly his brother? I forget which, and since it’s Japan, they’re practically the same thing anyway. They discover a cutesy little monstrosity that is half adowabubble little girl and half giant spider, which treads this perfect line between the ka/owaii oh man see what I did there I’m so weeaboo it hurts. In my humble opinion, Wasurenagumo is the standout of all the young animator training projects so far. The two lead characters have actual personality and their relationship is pretty well realised, with an awful lot not being said but implied through their actions. The slapstick with the spider girl is genuinely funny, and that line they tread with her creepiness is so perfect it’s eerie. And then there’s the ending, which I won’t spoil, but it completely blindsided me and left me feeling dazed and confused for the rest of the day.
Dudu the Floatie
Dudu the Floatie tells the tale of a little girl who wants to go to the beach with her dad but the dad keeps putting it off because of work and partly because he’s terrified of water. The directing in this one is remarkably good in how it pieces larger story beats in silly little asides. Things like the shots of the dad playing golf with his bosses, where they keep missing the golf ball entirely, signifying how utterly tedious his work obligations are. The story does get a bit silly when it reaches the fantasy bit. The kid buys the dad one of those floating killer whale things kids bring to swimming pools all the time, except instead of a fucking awesome killer whale, it’s some dumb manatee floatee instead. The floatie comes to life and they go off to magical land and do shit together which allows the young animators do animate something more exciting than a little kid with an oversized head sulk. I get why this part is in the story. It’s part of the child’s imagination and how they come to deal with their problems through elaborate fantasies that make no sense to parents. But the story works fine without that extended sequence. I was even welling up a little inside at the end where the dad and the daughter come together, because they manage it in a way that’s not aggressively maudlin and works well with the light-hearted tone of the rest of the piece.
Minding My Own Business
The rest of the young animator training projects definitely feel like they’re aimed at a family audience. Even Wasurenagumo, although that ending would probably give the children nightmares. But their stories are generally well told enough that they’re engaging without feeling condescending Minding My Own Business doesn’t manage that balance at all. It’s about bullying in school. The artwork looks like children’s scribble drawings, which suits the tone its going for, since it’s meant to be a child recounting their observations on bullying. But the whole thing comes off as a 30 minute infomercial your primary school teacher shows you when she’s too hungover to actually do any teaching. Which is fine if you are a hungover primary school teacher, but as a dirty foreign pirate illegally downloading obscure single episode pieces airing on Japanese television as a training scheme for young animators, it isn’t really worth your time.