The Illusion of Unlife: An Animation Ghost Story


It is often said that the (western) concept of animation is captured in the Illusion of Life. The illusion, that is, of moving drawings as living beings.

In simple terms, the Illusion of Life posits that, through a technical understanding of physical and psychological reality, an animator might spark the semblance of a subject (character) within an object (drawing). By animating a form such that, in spite of its abstract and stylized nature, it is possessed of a recognizably human reality – becoming a “real boy”, as Pinocchio has it – the animator creates an indelible impression of life.

We might say that this concept of animation is the representation, or imagination, of a living human form, or conversely a human form of life, by means of moving drawings.

For Disney, the Illusion of Life was at once the end of animation as a craft and the condition of animation as an art. Only by enlivening the human element of moving drawings, creating real characters, real pathos, and real stories could animation hope to touch the hearts and minds of human beings.

And, in truth, Disney was not wrong. Indeed, if the history of international animation reveals anything, it is a base-level inability of the medium to tell stories through technically unrefined character work. Even today, when the sway of American animation has waned and good craft is truly an international practice, the Disney Illusion of Life remains an exception.

Are we to conclude, then, that we occupy the twilight years of animation? No, I think not. On the contrary, my experience is that we are entering a hitherto unseen golden age of international animation. It is true we are no longer within the Disney paradigm, but as always, with the loss of old standards comes the potential for new forms of expression.

To experience something of this potential, let us consider the other side of the story. If there is such a thing as an Illusion of Life, should there not also be an Illusion of Unlife? By this I don’t mean the animation of dead matter, which is commonplace, but the animation of something that is recognizably inhuman. Is there really no character animation that subverts the Disney standard without sacrificing its dramatic integrity?

It is a small question, concerning a small thing, yet it has great implications for the expressive potential, the aesthetic range, and the technical acuity of animation as a form of art.

As we know, the Disney artists never pursued the inhuman. Instead, the they solidified their mastery of craft, articulating the twelve principles of animation as a technical guide and ideological bulwark for the realistic representation of the human form of life.

However, as history would have it, there are others.

Operating at the limit of convention, standing at the avant-garde of the Japanese animation industry, Shingo Yamashita is doubtlessly one of the premier animators of our time. His work, at once subtly executed and overtly experimental, oscillating between sensitive beauty and grotesque dread, provides a powerful vision of the potential of an animated art unbound by the Illusion of Life and its attendant principles.

My realization of this side to his work, along with my impetus for writing the present article, came after I saw the following short sequence.

Let me describe what I see in it.

The scene opens to a man foraging within a wooden glade.

Beset at all sides by thick bramble woods, the foreground trees quickly receding into a diffuse mass of black outlines and murky shadows, the man, himself a lineless figure of subtly textured light, stands in stark relief to the surrounding gloom.

The mood, abstract and melancholy, is enlivened by the human figure. Coordinating hand and eye, the subtle minutia of his movements expressing the intense yet mundane dexterity characteristic of seasoned labour, he appears as he is; a coherent form of life, intent on a single purpose.

Before long, however, the spell is broken. A startling sound, or a gastly premonition, demands his attention. As he turns his gaze upwards, the perspective shifts to reveal a figure appearing in the dell. A mute, billowing flame, and within it, a dark, humanoid shape.

The manifestation of this presence colours the scene, turning tenebrous the once tranquil forest. The man, wasting everything but time, takes flight. Under the dread hand of death, he leaves it all. His basket, overturned. His hatchet, held fast.

The true subject of fear is the world itself. As the man stumbles, so does the flow of time; the eternity of the moment is captured in the dilation of movement. Overcome by nothing, the scene fades to white.

Can nothing be outrun? Caught in the midst of things, the man finds himself at one with the path before him; crossing the homeward gate, he envisions the light of the nearby village.

Looking back, he bears witness to the pursuing nightmare. Erratic, irrational, unnatural, it enacts a macabre dance of death. Its arms and legs flailing wildly, the impression of the whole is of something not-whole, a being truly not-of-this-world.

The illegible visage of the enemy is met by its human ditto; the all-too-familiar face of childlike terror. Crying out in agony, shedding tears and composure alike, the man is as pathetic as any human being.

Before long, the forest opens onto a chasm. Light overtakes the scene, hiding the man; this is truly his element. Yet he is not met by safety, but by a narrow, wooden bridge spanning the naked abyss.

Careful not to fall, the the man edges his way across. His pace is laggard yet hurried; escaping danger only by way of danger, his movements are burdened by the complexities of his panicked flight.

Suddenly, the scene changes; an abrupt perturbation darkens the sky, sending quivers across the length of the bridge. The man cannot help but glance towards the shadow.

Too fast. Much too fast. The creature closes in at frantic speed, revealing itself not as a coherent gestalt so much as an unliving image of chaos. Its face, now visible, expresses not one but a multitude of physiognomies; melancholy, mirth, innocence, gloom.

The man has only a moment to take it in. Brandishing his hatchet, he cuts the support.

Alas, choosing death is no escape. As is its nature, the ephemeral spark of life cannot outrun its fate. Caught in the gaze of the dark fire, the light of human vision is blotted out. As the bridge falls, the moment once more elongated, it is already over.

In end, nothing fades to nothing.

What we have here, or at least what I have attempted to bring out in my retelling, is what Disney deemed impossible: An example of a dramatically complete animated story unbound by the principles of animation.

Indeed, Yamashita’s work is worth considering because it manifests a dramatic register that is, as yet, unexplored. Crafting, as he does, a sense of life-unlife utterly alien to the western canon. Enacting a visual horror story with no counterpart outside of the art world. Surely that is a feat worthy of consideration?

Of course, Yamashita’s piece is fundamentally a conceptual. One cannot help but consider it a visual manifestation of ideas, the dramatic content of which is indelibly fused with the form of the aesthetic presentation, e.g. it renders visible the dualism of life and death, light and dark, realism and abstraction. As such, it is far removed the invisible dramaturgy implied in the Illusion of Life.

Yet unlike the independent autodidacts of the art world, Yamashita is a tenured professional. He knows the craft of character animation. Indeed, he is fully capable of working in continuity with the Disney paradigm, and his treatment of the man is a knowing recreation of the sort of life born out of a careful and considered, if limited, adherence to the aforementioned principles.

What is truly striking, however, is the way in which he deliberately eschews those same principles in bringing to “unlife” the demonic spectre. This ghost is in many ways a negative image of Disney’s own process; it is what canon has left undone, the potential of animation unbound by western dogma.

I mention this because I think it is is crucial to realize the non-coincidental yet complementary nature of these approaches to character animation. Yamashita brings together two distinct animation philosophies, and uses them to elevate the whole of his work.

On one hand, there is the considered use of Disney’s principles – archs, overlapping motion, and so on, as well as a general respect for the simplified ideal of newtonian physics – that clearly informs the animation of the man. That character is conceived and presented as a conventional human being, by which I mean recognizable form of life – a living, feeling, thinking being.

By contrast, the ghost is animated so as to enact a direct rejection of those ideals. It is perfectly inhuman – deliberately at odds with the the realistic comportment of the man – yet is that not precisely its role within the story? In being something other than human, an Unknown, the ghost is a perfect instance of dramatically antimated unlife.

Note that is made possible only because Yamashita is not strictly bound to the Illusion of Life. Indeed, where Disney praises continuity, coherence, gravity, and solidity as “good form”, Yamashita celebrates incongruity, incoherence, weightlessness, and ephemerality as a “formless form.” The ghost and man represent the two sides of this duality, over which the contemporary Japanese animator presides.

The contrast in the treatment of the characters is born out not just in the shape of their bodies as they move through space, but also in the rhythmic cadences of their figures as they move through time. Indeed, modulating framerates so as to consistently render the “realistic” man on two twos and the “unrealistic” ghost on ones serves both conceptual and dramatic purposes. Not only does it ensure that the movements of the ghost are perceptibly faster than the movements of the man, but the artistic purpose of these specific framerates are directly opposed to their conventional affordances; twos being used not as a shorthand for abstract movement but to highlight the minutiae of full animation, whereas ones are not intended to achieve a continuity of motion but rather to effect a surreal sense of incongruity. Here, the artist uses the medium to render visible not just life, but a form of unlife completely unlike our own.

The Ghost of Yamashita

Had Disney been correct, Yamashita’s experiment would be empty of dramatic potential. After all, how could one feel for what is unliving? And yet, I feel it by far a more effective use of dramatic horror than anything Disney produced.

It might be that the drama of the situation is principally carried by the man. Perhaps, as Disney says, a human subject is needed for true pathos. But does the ghost not possess its own sense of character? Is it not an emotionally expressive presence? And even if it is not, is not the terror, the man’s and ours alike, only realized through Yamashita’s phantom work?

If I am right, Yamashita’s ghost story is a manifest illustration of the dramatic potential of moving images beyond the Illusion of Life. With it, he shows us that the Disney principles, although sound, ultimately provide just one method of animation. They outline an aesthetic recipe that can and should be critiqued in the pursuit of other means of artistic expression.

Such critique concerns the very nature and purpose of animation. If one is strict, the ghost is not really an “illusion” of unlife – it simply is unliving. As such, just as it does with the notion of “life”, Yamashita’s work puts into question the idea of animation as inherently illusory. Perhaps that notion is the true illusion.

The implications of this statement are simple, yet difficult. It suggests a new way of thinking about animation as a form of art, an horizon beyond which have only glimpsed. That potential can be terrifying, but it is also a cause for wonder.

For good or ill, I believe that dark specter is a form of animation that will not stop haunting us.

Indeed, it seems to me not only undead, but an image of the living future.


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