New York City’s Metrograph theater is currently screening Eiichi Yamamoto’s psychosexual masterpiece Belladonna of Sadness, from Japanese animation studio Mushi Production. “One of the great lost masterpieces of Japanese and adult animation, has never before been officially released in the U.S,” writes the theater. “With its horned demons, haunted forests, and explicit eroticism, this mad, swirling, psychedelic light show is equal parts J. R. R. Tolkien and Gustav Klimt.” The newly restored film inspired us to collect other surreal animated movies that transcend the medium.
Speed Racer artist Yoshitaka Amano and director Mamoru Oshii collaborated on this nearly silent animated painting.
From critic Zev Toledano:
Oshii is no stranger to engimatic anime animations but this unique entry goes way beyond into the surreal and bizarre. It is also as punishingly slow as a slow Tarkovsky, which means many meditative scenes of nothing happening for many minutes. A young girl in an alien landscape is protecting an egg. She meets a soldier, they wander around for most of the movie, wondering about each other’s identity, and the soldier seems to have a hidden agenda. They wander through bizarre structures with skeletons, machines of war roll by, a strange spaceship lands, they talk about birds, Noah’s flood and existential questions, and the locals run in a frenzy to hunt huge fish-shadows. What does it all mean? Who knows.
French writer and artist Roland Topor (author of The Tenant), who is the film’s production designer and co-writer, creates a psychedelic sci-fi landscape populated by mesmerizing humanoid giants.
From Senses of Cinema:
The animation techniques used in Fantastic Planet are vital in understanding the evolution of global animation trends. The film exemplifies Laloux’s radical theory that extensive movement and character development do not necessarily coincide with metaphorical graphics in animation. While believing that the latter approach was more purely European and the former more American, Laloux was adept in Fantastic Planet at drawing the line between these two competing schools. Throughout, his graphics often resemble Renaissance or medieval gallery paintings. The compositions are often fixed and static, and movement within each frame is minimal at best. The compositions rely primarily on limited foregrounds, juxtaposed against middle grounds with limited action, coupled with backgrounds that contain minimalistic expressionist objects, figures and images. Graphics abound in symbolic imagery, and it is difficult to watch any scene without being aware of its symbolic and metaphorical potential. Historical and political allegories and not characters drive the movie. As the film unfolds, viewers are drawn more to the situations the characters find themselves in than the characters themselves. The film is filled with paper cutout images animated like hand puppets; the hand that eventually kills the mother Om early in the film is a good example. This style has often been associated with Terry Gilliam’s comical Monty Python animations and creates an almost geometric, and therefore rigidly defined, sense of space, unlike the fluid watercolour-like designs of Disney.
Satoshi Kon’s entire filmography could appear on this list, but Paprika takes place in a dreamworld unlike any we’ve seen before.
From the Austin Chronicle:
It’s almost impossible to imagine an animated film like Paprika ever being produced in America. Not to knock the fine work of Pixar and the occasionally somewhat less fine work of the Disney gang, but Paprika’s cypher-punk story of futuristic psychotherapy and the inherent perils of messing about with the minds of the masses falls outside even the Dick-realm of A Scanner Darkly, its closest domestic contemporary. That said, Paprika, directed by the legendary Japanese animator Kon (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers) and adapted from a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, is – no pun intended – heady stuff, shot through with the kind of psycho-social metaphors and grim, end-time observations that put Yanks like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson on the literary cyber-map. In the multilayered world of Paprika, reality and dreams commingle, collide, and eventually override each other after the theft of a prototype psychotherapy tool, code-named the DC-Mini, which allows therapists (and, more dangerously, others) to enter peoples’ subconscious minds and retool their personalities where necessary.
This 1985 film, featuring vignettes based on several of Mark Twain’s works, is centered on a skybound adventure and a bizarre character known only as The Stranger, who is a stand-in for Twain’s social commentary and feels entirely out of place in what is supposed to be a family fantasy movie.
From the Digital Fix:
Made entirely using the director’s own Claymation techniques (3D stop motion wherein everything from the surfaces down to the tiniest of details has been fashioned out of clay), this particular Adventures of Mark Twain imagines the author’s final days aboard a steampunk concoction that is part air balloon, part paddle steamer and part spaceship. Along for the ride are three stowaways – his own creations Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher – plus a frog and mysterious figure, barely glimpsed. He’s travelling towards Halley’s Comet, which had last appeared on the day of his birth, but in the meantime he’s able to tell his youthful companions a tale or two… The resultant film is a bizarre mixture of science fiction, comedy and, arguably, biopic given how much of Twain’s dialogue was drawn from his own words. Obviously they weren’t originally spoken aboard Vinton’s paddle steamer-spaceship-balloon, but nevertheless it could be said that a certain fidelity of character is present.
Adventure Time‘s Masaaki Yuasa made his directorial debut with this adaptation of Robin Nishi’s cult Japanese comic of the same name.
From the Village Voice:
A virtuoso narrative loop-the-loop that travels through a phantasmagoric catalog of animation styles, Mind Game is not just one of the most fantastically experimental anime features seen stateside. It’s a superflat cousin to the grown-up cartoon head trips of the ’60s and ’70s like Yellow Submarine, Fritz the Cat, or Fantastic Planet, replete with grand metaphysical themes, gloriously extended avant-psychedelic sequences, and Japanified bits of Bakshian bawdiness. Though director Massaki Yuasa eschews typical anime roundness for characters sketched in lanky angularity, flashbacks and fantasies visit hyper-kawaii lands resembling Astroboy-Pokemon kid vid, re-envisioned as sugary-sinister dreamscapes.
Kittens traverse a psychedelic landscape in a soul-searching journey. Enough said.
From critic Zev Toledano:
A very unusually bizarre and surreal 30-minute anime. The background plot is a cat who tries to restore his fatally ill sister’s soul after he wrestles for it with a Buddha-like cat, after which he goes on a metaphysical, surreal and grotesque quest full of visually bizarre adventures to bring her back to life. The imagery is mever-ending and includes a huge transparent balloon-cloud creature in a whale-circus that causes a flood, carving up a live pig for food and giving some of his cooked meat back to him, a water-elephant that comes out of the sand which they ride and swim in, a pervert fetish-robot that tries to make soup out of them, time standing still as God grapples with metaphysical levers and tries to eat planet Earth, and much more, and this is only the describable stuff. This is somewhere in between random acidic imagery, a surreal-mystical exploration of life and death, and Dali mixed with Bill Plympton. A must-see at least once for fans of the bizarre.
The attention to detail is astonishing in this stop-motion short by the Quay Brothers (one of their best), based on Bruno Schulz’s short story of the same name.
From critic Keith Phipps:
Street Of Crocodiles (1987) is an early Quay masterpiece, creating a nightmarish dystopia using actors made from found objects, wonderfully evocative miniature sets, and graceful camera techniques. (Consider the implications of performing a tracking shot with stop-motion animation and you have a sense of the craft that goes into the Quays’ work.) When these films work, as in an inexplicably moving video for the His Name Is Alive song “Are We Still Married?” (starring a melancholy, high-strung toy bunny), they work on an almost dreamlike level; trying to figure out a literal interpretation is not only difficult but distracting.
Jan Švankmajer manages to outshine Lewis Carroll’s tale about Alice, leading us to the story’s darkest corners, creating a new world of bizarre symbology.
From the Washington Post:
What the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer does in “Alice” seems more akin to alchemy than moviemaking. His is an art of dark conjuring, brought to life more by the wave of a wand than the slap of a clapper board. Anyone who’s ever slept in the same room with a larger-than-normal-sized doll will have some idea of the atmosphere of vague dread in “Alice.” The film begins with the words, “Now you will see a film for children. Perhaps.” They’re recited by a pretty blond child (Kristy’na Kohoutova’) with large intelligent eyes and a willful expression. The child is surrounded by her toys, some bits of food left over from tea, drawings and other everyday items, all scattered in disarray.
A kind of parody and remake of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Bruno Bozzetto’s 1976 animated film uses classical music as a backdrop for its expressionistic visuals.
From critic Noel Murray:
The film is firmly of its decade, favoring trippy spectacle over storytelling, but Bozzetto’s stream-of-consciousness vignettes are wittier and more smartly conceived than most ’70s light-shows. When he turns the fruit on a tree into breasts, or the branches of a bush into women’s legs, it’s not just a sketch of psychedelic erotica, but also a piercing illustration of how the ubiquity of youthful sexuality tortures a sad old man. Bozzetto also riffs on evolution by tracing the rise of a civilization from the sludge in the bottom of a Coke bottle, and in Allegro Non Troppo’s most moving segment, he shows a cat stepping through the burned-out wreckage of an old house, remembering where the furniture and people used to be. The movie as a whole ponders the absence of permanence.