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Avatar – echoes of a thousand anime? December 24, 2009

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Film.
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Avatar poster

Does this look like a Zentradi to you?

I saw James Cameron’s Avatar at a midnight screening at the BFI IMAX last night. I’ve read a million reviews, generally positive but with a fair-bit of backbiting as well. Having now seen the thing, I can see all their points of view but agree with the vast majority: Avatar is a stunning cinema experience.

Seriously, you’re unlikely to have seen anything this visually arresting on the big screen, and certainly not in 3D. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but the animation was immaculate, like the best Final Fantasy cut-scene improved to such an extent that you quickly accept it as the real world.

I actually hadn’t realised that there was any live-action in it all (which had me stupidly pondering for the first 10 minutes whether Sam Worthington was the real Sam Worthington or incredibly photo-realistic CG >_<). What’s remarkable is how good the CG is — to the point where it blends almost seamlessly with the live-action stuff. By the end, you fully believe that big blue alien really is in the room holding Sam Worthington in her hands.

It’s not all good of course. The story is incredibly stupid, but anyone walking into this to analyse the story is missing the point. Avatar is a cinematic experience, a thrill ride, a popcorn movie to lose yourself in for 160 minutes (and it never feels like it’s that long). What Cameron understands incredibly well is the language of cinema, or rather, Hollywood movies. He guides you using all the standard symbols and signifiers a modern multiplex audience knows inside out. Of course, one man’s signifier is another man’s cliché, but what that does is free your mind up to just accept the experience and go with it. You know what’s coming next — you’d be an idiot not to — but your Hollywood-trained mind is comfortable with that, which allows you to absorb the atmosphere and feast on the visuals.

Speaking of clichés, for anyone who watches their fair share of anime, Avatar is going to raise a few eyebrows. There are big echos of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa and Laputa, complete with the environmental hokum (mind you, every vaguely futuristic/post-apocalyptic anime preaching the importance of the environment is going to remind you of these….). More interesting to me was the size difference between the humans and Nav’i, which more than reminded me of the Zentradi in Macross, particularly since the humans have to pilot mecha in order to match them in hand-to-hand combat.

Thinking about it, any film that has a big fuck off battle at the end with explosions and mecha suits fighting dragons was going to do it for me. But Avatar really impressed me with Cameron’s skill in presenting a coherent, flowing (if cliched) narrative and, above all, pulling off the finest animated visuals I’ve ever seen in a big-budget western animation. It really does raise the bar in terms of 3D movie graphics and cinematic experiences, in the same way the Lord of the Rings trilogy did. As such, there’s really no point watching this at home on DVD — you have to see it on a big screen in a cinema, and preferably in 3D and in IMAX. And with the movie industry worrying about falling audience attendance, a movie like this is a timely reminder of just what makes the cinema experience different.

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Comments»

1. Le Chat - December 24, 2009

EPIC WIN!

2. jonsquared - December 24, 2009

Nice review! I, for one, can’t wait to bring it home on DVD or BluRay, but I agree with you that this needs to be a theater experience first. As a fellow anime fan, I liked your comparison with certain titles. But, like you, I totally did not go into it with just the storyline in mind. I was definitely in it for the visuals, and boy was I rewarded! Cheers!

3. ayasawada - December 29, 2009

Thanks!

It might be ok on Blu Ray if you have a really huge screen. And polarised 3D specs :P

4. Danny - January 1, 2010

Narrative aside (to which I can only say: ‘Get over Vietnam. The funny-coloured people won *without* any help’), it’s interesting that you should see so many anime references. Though to me, much of the forest imagery had the look of an animated 1970s prog-rock album cover, there are clearly a lot of tropes and memes embedded in Avatar that come directly from a different tradition of animated movies. 

It’s a familiar phenomenon in English language writing that writers of ‘literary fiction’ are enduringly snobbish about their debt to ‘genre fiction’. Martin Amis may have borrowed the entire conceit for ‘Time’s Arrow’ from Kurt Vonnegut, but Martin is literature and Vonnegut’s ‘sci fi’. Likewise, while Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood might write post-apocalyptic scenarios, they’re got something that sets them apart from weirdos like Ballard. (See Michael Chabon’s introductions to the McSweeney’s Thrilling Tales series for a better, and funnier, take on this). 

I’d always thought that science fiction cinema was immune to this phenomenon because it’s relatively mainstream — if you want to see a Spock-figure and you like that sort of thing, you just go and watch Star Trek, because it’s on. There are no guardians of culture.       

So I’m intrigued by the idea that anime constitutes mainstream science fiction’s ‘genre other’ (for the English-speaking world at least): the source of unacknowledged references and ideas. Is this enabled because of the language barrier, is anime inherently too niche (geeky), or am I missing the point entirely in thinking that a ‘mainstream’ even exists in the era of pervasive media? More on this, please.  

ayasawada - January 3, 2010

It’s the fallacy of all geek groups that we enhance our identities by feeding the flames of perceived neglect and indignation at stolen elements from your own niche interest.

My post heading is a little misleading — it doesn’t echo of a thousand anime any more than it echoes of a thousand other stories that have come before it (as most stuff does). As I wrote, I think what Cameron does well is to take what we are already familiar and comfortable with and feed it back to us in order to provide a better platform for immersion into his own fantasy.

You make a good point that, perhaps because anime is an overseas medium, originally in a different language and with large amounts of it still inaccessible to the general English-speaking public, it is easier for the anime community to feel slighted or stolen from. There might well be some of that there — I’ve not doubt Cameron will have seen at least one of Nausicaa or Mononoke.

But I wouldn’t say anime is a niche, given how widely known it is in the modern day and with access to even the most obscure stuff growing every day. And even if Jim Cameron hadn’t seen any Miyazaki, some of the stuff he did see may well have been influenced by them. And lest I think that naive sentiment is the preserve of the Japanese, the worst American forest animations, like Ferngully, had all the same defects in them as well. Maybe it’s just that this sub-genre is always going to look the same.

An obvious point: we’re all getting stuff third or forth or twentieth hand. Of course, the anime industry (and the Japanese in general) is heavily influenced by US culture. And in the post I referred to Macross, but that itself was subsumed and recut into the US animation Robotech, which old Jim probably did see, and which may have given him the idea. As you say, perhaps there is no ‘mainstream’. There are no original ideas. We’re all just feeding the reconstituted bits back to each other, and James Cameron is laughing all the way to the bank!

5. Danny - January 1, 2010

PS Happy New Year! And I stole a pair of the 3D specs so you can check if YouTube 3D comes up to scratch.


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