Michaele Jordan is the author of the period occult thriller Mirror Maze and her stories have appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, The Crimson Pact, Volumes 4 and 5 and Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can visit her website at MichaeleJordan.com while waiting for the upcoming steampunk adventure Jocasta and the Indians.
I first started watching animé in July of 2009, having been invited to sit on an animé panel at the Montreal WorldCon. Naturally, I wanted to sound like I knew what I was talking about, so I did a lot of homework into the Japanese canon, and was immediately hooked..
It was years before I came up for air. But eventually I did begin to sense a sameness. Certain tropes became excessively familiar. I still loved animé, but I grew jaded, and even sought out stories that did not feature adorable high school students fighting demons. Can you guess what I found? French animé!
French animé is distinct. Barring a few exceptions, it can be distinguished at a glance. So naturally I’ll start with an exception.
Time Jam: Valérian and Laureline looks very American. This may be because, in keeping with tradition, it’s based on a comic book. (I say comic book rather than manga. Valérian and Laureline was intended for kids and was not written with an eye to the video market.)
The Japanese firm Satelight co-produced the TV series, creating a dramatically new (but still not very French) look. Also, despite the enormous popularity of the comic book, the show rewrote the story drastically. No matter. It’s still fun-pure SF if you’re not particular about the scientific basis of time travel, with armloads of cool alien planets and alien babes for those who care nothing about planets.
French animé is more about feature films than television anyway. The Secret of Kells (a 2009 Irish-French-Belgian collaboration by Cartoon Saloon) still hews fairly closely to American expectations. (It was nominated for the 2010 Best Animated Feature Oscar.) Perhaps it’s too Celtic to be wholly Gallic.
It is a tender fantasy about an orphan in the monastery where the Book of Kells is being compiled. But while the story is merely pleasing, the artwork is a miracle of grace. I’m not suggesting that Japanese animé isn’t often (maybe usually) lovely, especially when evoking nature; just that The Secret of Kells draws on a more mannered (or perhaps just differently mannered) artistic tradition. The children here are large-eyed, but they look more like Madeleine than Inuyasha.
Of course, as any French intellectual can tell you, art is not necessarily about beauty. It is about expressing a truth. In The Rabbi’s Cat (2011, directed by Joann Sfar, the author of the graphic novel, and Antoine Delesvaux) the title character is as homely as he is unreliable. But what do you expect-he’s a cat. (Although he can talk, because he swallowed a parrot.)
Certainly, The Triplets of Belleville, a 2003 musical comedy written and directed by Sylvain Chomet, completely eschews traditional prettiness. The imagery is carefully matched to a goofy story about the Mafia kidnapping bicycle racers.
The influence of French painting becomes, not merely obvious, but inescapable in The Painting, directed by Jean-François Laguionie in 2011. This movie is not just artistic. It exists within art, being the story of three friends who are unhappy with their life in an unfinished painting. So they go on a quest to find the artist and persuade him to finish the piece. Watching the film is almost like strolling through a museum, with every frame invoking the expressionist and post-impressionist masters. Strangely, its simplicity of tone manages to neatly duck pomposity.
Since the point is expression, the genre can return easily to something more typical of animé. Persepolis – 2007, written and directed by Marjane Satrapi, based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel – is eye catching simply because it’s in black and white. It’s the story of a young girl coming of age against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. Because the girl is ordinary, she is not depicted in exotic imagery. But because her experiences are grim, she is pictured in a gray world.
There is more to be said, but there is not enough room here to say it. Just be aware that there are many more movies for those weary of the mundane to explore. So consider these selections to be a sampler plate, aimed at enticing you into the ring.