Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On Your Mark (1995)

I was reminded today of a short animated film called On Your Mark.

There is a copy of it here:
As the following review will contain massive spoilers, I recommend watching it before continuing. It's only six minutes 49 seconds.

Technically speaking this is a music video, in the sense that it was created to accompany a song, at the request of a Japanese pop duo called Chage & Aska. Its two main characters are drawn to resemble the singers, but otherwise its connection to the song has remained mysterious to me. I've read translations of the lyrics, and I've listened to the (completely, utterly different) English-language song that was also sung by Chage & Aska to accompany the movie in English-language market. Still no idea what the video might have to do with the song.
But that doesn't matter. What matters is that On Your Mark is gorgeous, and disturbing, and moving, and mysterious. It is a masterwork of cel animation, as you might expect if you have ever heard of Studio Ghibli. They're the guys who made Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, among many other wonderful animated films (including It also displays the power of visual storytelling - since, as I mentioned, the song fails to shed light on the film, we have only the film itself to show us what it means.
I love the opening shot: first, green trees and grass, a ruined barbed-wire fence in the foreground, then a monstrous industrial hulk of a building in the background, then empty houses and a radiation warning sign with Russian lettering. In fifteen seconds, the filmmakers have eloquently described a setting with only a pair of simple pan shots.
After the title, we move into the main plot, and one of the things I appreciate most about the film - it doesn't answer questions. Instead, we are left to guess. Why are the police raiding Nova's Church? Why does a church have a skyscraper with a gigantic neon sign that says "God is Watching You"? Why are the cultists (we get to call them cultists because they're bad guys) so heavily armed? The movie was made in 1994 and 1995. The Branch Davidian complex outside Waco, Texas was besieged and eventually burned in 1993. Is this a reference to that?
Then we are introduced to the main plot point, the girl with wings, and there are so many more questions. Who is she? Why do the cultists have her chained? The empty soda cans strewn about always strike me in this scene - how can these people take such a lovely creature and keep her in those conditions?
For the first time, in this scene, the film's timeline fractures. The policemen discover the girl, the first of them fading into view partway into the room. Then they are driving on the road from the opening, releasing the girl into the sky. Then they are discovering the girl again. Why?
The following sequence is a lovely bit of characterization. The faceless policemen unmask themselves, showing their humanity. They rescue the winged girl, and the looks on their faces as she recovers enough to suck from the juice box illustrates how much they care. They stand on the edge of empty space and stare for a long moment after she is whisked away by the men in radiation suits.
If the shot of the water glass seems to linger a little long, I'm told that's because water is super hard to animate.
It's amazing how much personality can be injected into the characters without words. The two leads are both policemen, but entirely distinct individuals; both clearly affected by their encounter with the winged girl, but dealing with it in different ways. And again, the unanswered questions: why is there a bouquet of roses and a bottle of champagne on Aska's desk? (we know he's Aska because the other man has a mug that says Chage)
During the rescue sequence, I love the sound effect of the device that inflates the suits with gas.
Where did Chage & Aska's radiation suits come from? Why do they just appear, and later disappear? And by the way, what is this place, and why do they have the winged girl under such heavy security?
I love the design of the escape vehicle - it's ungainly and unbalanced but still looks like a things that could exist.
I love that in the first version of the escape, as the vehicle is falling, Aska tries to lift the winged girl into the air, and she won't let him go. I love that Chage flaps his arms as if trying to teach her to fly.
Again the timeline fractures - is this a power that the girl has, to rewrite time? Does she also create the jets that carry the escape vehicle into the wall the second time around?
I love the looks on the faces of the people in the hallway after the crash. I love that Chage kicks over the tire while carrying the girl.
Where did they get the car? How did they evade pursuit? How did they get outside?
And then we're back where we started, on the country road with the ugly industrial building in the background, and the policemen put the winged girl into the sky. I love the happy looks on Chage & Aska's faces as she stand up and spreads her wings. I love the trepidation on hers as she flies for what we presume is the first time. I love her smile, and Aska's wink, and Chage kissing her hand as he lets her go. I always feel  absurdly happy as she flies away into that beautiful sky, but at the end we have no more answers than we did  at the beginning. Who is the winged girl? Where did she come from? What will happen to her? What about the policemen? Are they doomed to die of radiation poisoning? The countryside is so vibrantly green that it's hard to believe that it's poisonous, but if it's not why is it deserted, and littered with danger signs?

A friend of mine used to show this to anyone he thought might be interested in anime - which was everyone he met, pretty much. In less than seven minutes, he could discover if they could deal with the animation style, the semi-linear storytelling, the Japanese language audio. It's good for that, but it's also a beautiful piece of art and storytelling.

I may write reviews for some of my favorite TV shows and movies from Japan, most of which are either from the time when I was in college, in the late '90s and early '00s, or by Studio Ghibli.
If you liked On Your Mark, then I encourage you to give the reviews, and maybe the shows, a try. If you didn't, you can always ignore the reviews based on the label "Anime."

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