Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chinese Water-Ink Animation

When it comes to entertainment, media and pop culture in every other form (and especially in the form of used teenage girls' panties in vending machines, no contest there), Japan gets all the attention. It would seem that China doesn't have much to offer in that arena, even though they export most of our own plastic culture and entertainment in a literal, material sense. 

But a few months ago I found out about this traditional animation style that's either dying or coming into vogue, depending on who you ask. It looks at least as tedious and time-consuming to produce as claymation, stop-motion and cut paper animation (all of which I love), and it has a similar soulful charm that all the CG-laden warehouse entertainment being churned out nowadays sorely lacks. I mean, in an aesthetic sense. Despicable Me was generic-looking but still cute.


This was China's first water-ink animated film, Little Tadpoles Look for Mama (小蝌蚪找妈妈), released in 1961:




It's won numerous international awards and accolades. Interestingly, it was also created the same year as the parallel most Americans will immediately draw, the classic children's book Are You My Mother?, was published. I wonder which was first?

The 60's and 70's are regarded as the golden age of Chinese animation. Even though much more is being produced today, it's a classic quantity over quality debacle. According to this article, the number of minutes of animation put out in a single year in those peak decades may not have topped ten. It takes a year or two to produce a film such as the one above. 


Nowadays, with China interested in increasing its GDP on every front as rapidly as possible (and succeeding), the total number of minutes of animation produced in a single year is over two million. The article also suggests that there would be a future for this type of animation if it could be made economically viable, e.g. produced more quickly and efficiently and with accompanying products. Such a contemporary Chinese line of thought: to recognise the artistic and cultural value of something like this and then seek to mass-produce it like those things from which it's just been differentiated, somehow bypassing the entire point you just made. Is that really the only way to save something unique, by turning it into everything else?




This was the first water-ink film I just happened to stumble upon, Feeling from Mountain and Water (山水情), released in 1988. I found it completely mesmerising. It's about a young girl who briefly takes care of an elderly scholar in exchange for lessons.
We're constantly overstimulated by rapid movement, bright colours, expensive special effects and explosions that don't even look very good; I think it's high time for an art nouveau-esque backlash against technology, and the perfect time for things like this to come back into style.

This site is full of other examples of classic Chinese animation, if you feel like branching out from YouTube a bit.

Whether or not it's all being phased out or coming back into style like I hope it will is a question that was partially answered for me a couple of weeks ago, when my boyfriend showed me Bat Man of Shanghai, produced by Wolf Smoke Studios, which you can both watch and read about via that link. It's not fully animated in the traditional style in question or anything, but the influences are obvious, not to mention that it's completely insane and amazing. It's like a high-quality Chinese anime Aeon Flux Batman series. I drooled a little, too. 




Finally, if you'd like to know more, the YouTuber who posted some of the water-ink videos also made a fascinating mini-documentary I thankfully noticed while writing this post, which is about all types of Chinese animation.


And - I know I've said this before - sorry the font formatting on this blog is annoying. It drives me insane.