Utena’s Shadow Puppets and Lotte Reiniger

This blog is supposed to come from my perspective as a writer and animator. If you scroll back (Please do. It helps my stats.) you see a lot more about writing than animating, which is one of those things that is what it is, if you know what I mean.

But every once in a while I see something that makes the animator in me go, “Hmmm…”

One of those was the use of shadow puppets in Revolutionary Girl Utena. Every episode the puppets come out and dance around and say, “Have you heard? Have you heard?”

Utena shadow puppets

Have you heard? Have you heard?

Bizarrely, those little scenes have deep roots. D-E-E-P roots.

One is that they form a sort of Greek chorus. The Greek chorus would sort of stand on the stage during the play telling the audience stuff they needed to know, and shutting up the rest of the time. In Utena the shadow puppets have that specific function, of telling the audience about the gossip going on at the school and pointing to the next major confrontation about to occur. By including such a scene in every episode they turn it into a motif, a stylistic element that helps visually and narratively define Utena’s look and feel.

That’s what the writer in me said. The animator in me said, “BOOM! Lotte Reiniger!”

Lotte Reiniger is one of those footnotes in animation history, someone that animation students and scholars know about that makes the general public say, “Dude! You are such a nerd!” if it should happen to come up in passing at a cocktail party or in the mosh pit. You know what Lotte Reiniger is famous for?

She made the first feature-length animated film.

BWA HA HA! No, it wasn’t Walt Disney, and it wasn’t Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The first feature-length animated film was Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventure of Prince Achmed) (1926), a pastiche of stories from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

Utena Achmed puppets

Prince Achmed (left)

Yes, it’s a silent film, and unfortunately the currently available copies are reconstructions. What can I tell you…Germany? 1926? Reiniger was a liberal? Old Joe Goebbels was not exactly fond of Lotte, and so her flicks didn’t get much in the way of care. But there are reconstructions out there. Scroll down.

What ties Reiniger and Utena together is that Reiniger animated shadow puppets. She created these marvelous characters in cardboard, articulated them with thread and tape, and moved them around in front of the camera, backlit so they showed up as shadows.

Shadow puppet animation is interesting to watch because of the strangeness of the movement. A shadow puppet is flat, of course, and it only moves at the joints that have been articulated, so there is a strange angularity to the characters’ actions that can be striking if properly done. This contrasts with traditional cel animation, where characters need not have joints or even stable shapes. (I keep waiting for the live action Cowboy Bebop. I wonder how they will find an actor that can move like Ed. Did you notice Ed HAS NO BONES?)

Because it’s based on the contrast of shadow and light, shadow puppet animation works especially well in black and white. This also differs from traditional cel animation, which went to color even before there was such a thing as color film. (Certain films were hand colored back in the day.) The use of black and white creates a nostalgic feel, just as it does in films like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. Note that in Utena, a color film, the shadow puppet scenes are all in a common white-pink-black palette.

Utena Reiniger animating

Dude, that is THE Lotte Reiniger, actually animating.

Then there was Reiniger’s take on character design. She was highly expressionistic and willing to create elaborate characters, all sinewy and spikey, because she could. In a day and age when animators strove for simple designs, and sometimes created characters whose designs needed to be simplified over time to simplify animating them (To name two: Wile E. Coyote and Chise Hatori), because she was working from a reusable cardboard cutout she could make the character as elaborate as she liked…and BOY, did she like! Her characters are spectacularly ornate, simultaneously elegant and terrifying. I mean, look at that headdress on Prince Achmed. Who the heck would want to draw that frame after frame? Later on, when she started to use white cardboard with the black, the contrast was striking.

So when I watched Revolutionary Girl Utena, when the first shadow puppet scene popped up, my eyes bugged, and I flashed on Prinzen Achmed. Not just the puppets, but the character designs as well. I don’t know who cooked that stuff up, but they’d seen Prinzen Achmed.

Utena is a really strange series, probably a little too long, probably a little too goofy in places, but at the same time buried under layer upon layer of symbolism, artistic reference, and deep hidden inner meaning. I think you could watch it over and over, seeing something new every time. Next time you watch it, when you see the shador puppets remember Lotte Reiniger.

Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed is right here. Enjoy.

There’s a personal note here: When I trained in animation I studied under Deanna Morse at (then) Grand Valley State College (now it’s a university). Deanna’s retired and lives in Florida now. Good for her. The key thing is this: apart from being seriously cool, Deanna (excuse me while I fangirl here) INTERNED WITH LOTTE REINIGER!!!!!

Deanna has one of the shadow puppets she worked with. No, we were NOT allowed to touch it! But I was once in the same room as an artifact from Lotte Reiniger’s life.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

2 thoughts on “Utena’s Shadow Puppets and Lotte Reiniger

  1. That was a fascinating article! I didn’t know of that about the old animation or the first feature length animated film or Lotte Reiniger. It was so educational. Plus, I adore Revolutionary Girl Utena, so thanks for making a post about it!

    Liked by 2 people

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