Oftentimes, there is an unfortunate dichotomy, an almost absolute divide, in animation discussions between “American” and “Japanese” styles and modes of production, as if these are the only two countries on earth. As it happens, animation is an art form with more than a century of history, and from the very earliest times some of the world’s most creative, experimental and criminally underlooked animation has come out of Russia. From the earliest days, when Ladislas Starevich’s stop-motion animations with dead insects at once fascinated and unnerved audiences worldwide, Russian and Soviet animators have used their craft for visual and artistic experimentation rarely seen elsewhere, utilizing everything from puppetry to Disney-inspired cel animation to paintings on glass to create stories that are in turns comical, abstract, tragic and life-affirming. While Russian and Soviet animation has an enormously complex and varied history (much of which can be learned from the excellent documentary film Magia Russica, released by Yonathan & Masha Films in 2004) it remains almost completely unknown outside its country of origin, except by cartoon buffs such as your dear author. So rather than launch into a specific analysis of any one stream, movement, or aesthetic style, I wish only to recommend a few exemplary works produced in the Russian tradition, works of art that deserve appreciation, enjoyment, and yes, critical appraisement as much as any work in any place. The world of Russian animation encapsulates countless facets of ideology, history, memory and emotion, and if I can convince others to become part of a discussion about it, then all the better.
The cute, precocious Cheburashka is perhaps the closest thing the USSR ever had to a Mickey Mouse (although Tove Jannson’s Moomins is probably a more accurate analogy), and his antics and adventures have delighted generations of Russian children. Alongside his closest friend Gena Crocodile and forever harangued by the mischievous Old Lady Shapoklyak, Cheburashka grew from a kid’s book written in 1966 by Eduard Upensky and starred in 4 stop-motions films produced in the 70s and 80s, all of which remain popular today. The Cheburashka films have a light, unhurried feel, as well as a great deal of philosophical and introspective discourse for ostensible kid’s films. Cheburashka remains popular, and has even gained international attention as the Russian Olympics mascot throughout the past decade. Meticulously crafted and lovingly written, Cheburashka is timeless and sincere in a way few films, animated or not, even attempt to be.
If Cherabushka was the Soviet equivalent to Mickey Mouse, then Nu, Pogodi! was its Looney Tunes. Produced throughout the 70s, 80s and up to 2006, Nu, Pogodi! chronicled the misadventures of a wolf named Volk as he tried (and of course, failed) to catch a hare named Zayats in a variety of outlandish and hilarious situations. Like the best Looney Tunes cartoons, Nu, Pogodi!’s relies on almost no dialogue and prefers to use the dynamism and creativity of its own characters to convey a strange, fantastical world where animals stretch and squash, gravity doesn’t always apply, and nothing is ever fatal. And like those cartoons, it is the predator, the wolf, the coyote, the hunter, who ends up earning the lion’s share of our sympathies. Sure, he’s a crazed killer bent on getting his due, but he’s such a screw-up! He’s just tryin’ to get by! And more than 30 years since their first escapades, I still hope Volk catches that rabbit someday (or something equivalent, the guy really deserves to catch a break).
The Old Man and the Sea
The 1999 adaptation of Hemingway’s classic novel, besides being a beautiful and emotional film, is a must-see if only for one reason: its stunningly original medium of production. To create the films gorgeously detailed painting style of animation, director Aleksandr Petrov utilized more than 29,000 panes of glass painted with pastels, a technique few at the time had mastered and even fewer today. Sacrificing smaller design details in favor of smooth compositions, the film truly looks like a painting in motion, something at once unbelievable, magical, and unmistakably a labor of love.
Tale of Tales
Of all the Russian animators, Yuriy Norshteyn is the only one who can make a real claim towards international recognition. If you aren’t exasperated with my hackneyed analogies yet, you could even call him the Miyazaki of Russia: in 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics Art Festival declared by vote Tale of Tales, a short, abstract film about a little wolf looking for a home, to be the greatest animated film, of any country, ever made. Beginning with a woman whispering a poem to a child suckling at her breast, Tales tackles the big themes, showing war, jealousy, growing up, selfishness, folly and love through its transient and silent imagery. A bison and a little girl play jump rope, a poet searches for inspiration, a bitter couple argue in a snowy park, a wolf wanders about through the skeleton of an abandoned house. Memories come and go, things live, breathe and die, and by the end, you don’t feel as if you fully understand what happened, but you feel better for having seen it, more alive, more human. Nostalgic, delicate and beautiful as an unsullied snow, Tale of Tales is about, Norshteyn’s own words, “the simple concepts that give you the strength to live.” Tale of Tales is like a happy memory. You can see it, you can feel it, but trying to touch it, to make it real only blurs the image. It is a drop of the past, helping you remember to live in the present.
Hedgehog in the Fog
Although I’m personally more partial to Tales, it seems unfair to mention one of Norshteyn’s masterpieces without mentioning the other. Like Tales, Hedgehog in the Fog is deeply allegorical, telling the story of a little Hedgehog who goes to watch the stars with his dear friend the bear cub, only to find himself lost in the shadowy world of an immense fog. Following him is a sinister eagle-owl who represents the danger of the fog; silent and scary, the eagle-owl remains on the periphery of the hedgehog’s vision, an unspeakable fear that cannot be shaken off. And yet, the hedgehog remains curious; he willingly explores the fog, meeting a friendly dog, a beautiful white horse, and a whispering catfish before finding his bear cub friend and the warmth and comfort therein. The fog is impenetrable and treacherous, beautiful and imposing; nothing is certain about it. And yet, the hedgehog presses forward, knowing that even if he does not know where the fog ends and begins, somewhere is his friend, with a warm cup of tea, kind words, and a place to watch the stars. Rated the top animated film of all time in the 2003 Tokyo Animation Festival and praised by Hayao Miyazaki himself, Hedgehog in the Fog is, like Tales, deceptively simple; even with its heavy allusion and symbolism, it is the word of someone exploring the human condition, of the human seeking their place in a fog they cannot grasp, and finding it in the warmth and care of others. It is a gentle reminder to take of ourselves, and of one another, and of the world around us. Even in the fog, with danger nearby and the unknown all around, there is always some reason to push forward, something to discover, somebody to love.