The World Of Sensual Animation, Where Cartoons Are Sexier Than Real Life

We go deep on an all-women made film series exploring very adult cartoons.
Still from "Futon"

There are certain times when the world seems to operate more like an animated cartoon than a live-action film. Like, for instance, during the first moments of morning, when squinting eyeballs take in brief spurts of blurry bedroom light between extended stretches of shut-eye, tying together loose ends from the night’s fading dream.

Or how about sex, so much of which takes place in the realm of fantasy rather than reality? Whether fantasizing about a potential sexual encounter or closing your eyes mid-coitus to fully take in the sensation, eroticism transpires in the imagination as much as the body.

It makes sense then that cartoons, with their ability to draw into being things that could never occur in real life, excel at capturing the fluidity, the alchemy and the sublimity that arise during sex. Animation leaves ample space for shapes to mutate, multiply, tremble, melt and fizz.

An independent animation screening playing this week in Los Angeles homes in on this niche genre of “Sensual Animation.” Curated by Jeanette Bonds, the founder of GLAS Animation Festival, the one-and-a-half-hour program features 12 animated shorts all created by women. Some are still students, some are legendary in the field, all know how to draw the body in all its polymorphic glory.

Still from Master Blaster

Bonds founded GLAS in 2015, hoping to create an animation festival and grant program to support independent, animated filmmakers without influencing their process or content. As an animator herself, Bonds was familiar with the limited scope of animated films considered to have mainstream appeal.

“Mainstream animation tends to be geared toward family audiences,” Bonds said. “Or it can be comedy. In the independent circuit, animation can be geared toward adults. It can be dramatic, narratively diverse, experimental. There is room for innovation with daring subject matter. There is just a lot more flexibility.”

Each year GLAS hosts an independent animation festival which receives around 1,400 to 2,000 submissions from all around the world, with participating animators ranging from undergrad students to seasoned professionals. Every festival, patterns emerge in both style and subject matter. Bonds gleans threads that emerge from the submission pool and organizes supplementary programs based on them. This year, it seems, contributors couldn’t seem to get their minds out of the gutter. And thus “Sensual Animation” was born.

Still from Anal Juke

“Sensuality, I think, offers a bit more flexibility than sexuality,” Bonds said. “Some [animations] are more explicitly sexual, but others are sensual in the tactile sense, they’re more stylistically tender.”

After pinpointing sensuality as a theme, Bonds did some research and supplemented her programming with additional erotic animated shorts she felt were critical to the conversation. The result is an accidentally all-women showcase that explores the sensory body in cartoon vision.

“Animation is a medium that can express the sensuality and stickiness of our inner desires in a way that no other form can,” GLAS’ description of the event reads. “A quivering line. An infinite tongue. A slowly split piece of platonic fruit.”

The Los Angeles screening kicks off with “Futon,” a pillowy short by 33-year-old Japanese animator Yoriko Mizushiri. In a muted marshmallow palette, the film depicts a woman groggily welcoming the day while wrapped in a white, fluffy futon. A pair of chopsticks mysteriously enter the frame, grabbing gently at the futon and pulling it over the sleeping woman’s toes.

Before long, the futon transforms into an equally plush pair of lips, then a bed of rice with a thick slice of pink sushi plopped on top. The film captures the glacial pace of those first moments of wakefulness, spent blindly grabbing for coffee and water while desperately denying the fact that your bed is not actually attached to your body.

Mizushiri has described the primary intention of her work as eliciting “the touch you feel through the animation,” and “Futon” surely evokes the feeling of waking up in bed, feeling dazed and decadent, a passive pile of body parts. The film perfectly expresses animation’s particular ability to craft visual metaphors ― between slippers and sushi rolls, toes and puffs of whipped cream ― and devise a visual logic founded solely upon these specific analogies.

“With animation, there is no true reality,” Bonds said. “That, I think, allows for a lot of topical flexibility and visual flexibility. The fact of the matter is you aren’t tied to real things. You can make anything happen, depending on what your abilities are. Anything can morph into something else. It allows you to think about things more abstractly, and sometimes get a little deeper into the subject matter.”

While “Futon” is arguably more sensual than sexual, there are certainly more explicit films on the roster, such as Sawako Kabuki’s neon fever dream “Anal Juke,” which emphatically captures the feeling of really needing to use the bathroom in far less genteel terms. “Sappy sappy sap’s coming out of the ass hole,” a green-haired woman laments as an electric beat pulses in the background interrupted by an occasional foghorn. “I want to shit!” she eventually screams, as an infinite army of headless pink bodies with buttholes for heads shoots into space. It’s as weird as it sounds.

In an interview with Cartoon Brew, Juke explained the short was inspired by a dream she had shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend and experiencing “heartbreaking depression.” The sadness of the breakup fused, in her dream state, with anxiety over the threat of earthquake and nuclear power reactions in Japan to create an absurd flurry of electric hues centered around an impending shit-storm. The man with an ass for a face is the ex, go figure.

Mizushiri and Juke represent the rising generation of experimental animators, having acclaim within the field but little name recognition outside it. Yet the screening also features examples of animators from an earlier generation, when making it as a woman was even more difficult and more rare.

These pioneering women animators include Ruth Lingford, 64, and Maureen Selwood, 71 ― both of whom are included in the screening. Selwood’s 1980 “Odalisque: Three Fantasies of Pursuit,” gloriously imagines if lines could dance of their own volition, as simple contour drawings wiggle, morph and multiply to the tune of an operatic backdrop.

The elegant vision begins with a woman daydreaming in bed, zoning out in the vicinity of her goldfish in their glass bowl. She then finds herself singing an aria on stage, schmoozing in a restaurant, partaking in an under-the-sea dance with a shapeshifting fish and eventually giving birth to a baby who may have been fathered by a swan. All rendered in crisp black-and-white lines punctuated by bursts of hand-drawn color, the short’s humble yet intoxicating technique eclipses the power of many contemporary technologies.

Still from Love Games

Bonds was understandably hesitant to assert that women operate in this domain of sensual animation more than men do. It just so happened that, while curating the series, she realized that women are and have been creating the best quality work of this kind.

“We were excited to host a screening of films made by women that’s not just a ‘token women screening,’” Bonds said. “These films all showcase a sensual aspect of femininity. Of course not all women filmmakers make films of this nature, but there is something worth noting about this softer, more abstract idea of sensuality we’re seeing here, created by women filmmakers spanning across generations.”

There is no easy way to summarize the way sensuality is not only depicted but dreamed up in the films Bonds selected. One revolves around an animal with the ability to regenerate itself ad infinitum. Another, a woman’s obsession with plucking her lover’s chest hairs. A horny train conductor who just loves rubbing down the breaks and pulling the levers. A claymation skin-scape of textures moving in slow motion, devoid of certain form or narrative.

And yet, there are certain feelings that unite the diverse array of films on view. A tactility, a softness, a protean sense of movement. The belief that eroticism occurs as much between the ears as between the sheets. That all senses come out to play as two bodies scan the static between them.

As GLAS put it: “This program is intended to be viewed as a group, side by side in the dark, almost touching.”

Still from Tram

“Sensual Animation” will screen Thursday, July 27, 2017 at 8:30 pm at the Downtown Independent.

Correction: An earlier edition of this article misspelled filmmaker Yoriko Mizujiri’s name. We regret the error.

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