Sieze the Day: Zoötrope / by Erik Sugay

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We continue our look at Andrea Tsurumi’s work with her cleverly named Zoötrope. A zoetrope is a device that takes a series of static images and, through rapid succession and a visual filter, blends them together to create a sense of movement. While this short story might not have any actual motion to it, Tsurumi captures a captivating cast of animal characters in the most bustling and lively group of stationary images I’ve seen. Tsurumi continues to show off her fine artistic range here. Compared to Yakitori’s inky, smudgy, grimy, grotesqueness or Terka’s scratchily detailed, uncanny whimsy, Zoötrope opts for a softer tone to reflect its fantastic fairy-tale quality. And similar to Terka, Zoötrope features a charming and imaginative world, this one about a theatre run by a diverse collection of intelligent, anthropomorphic animal characters. (A dog balancing on a unicycle while juggling octopi as an alligator coolly waits backstage? How can you not smile?) Watching how these animals prepare for and execute this huge show, there’s this constant state of motion to the goings-on that really brings this line of work to life.

With the common, isolated, yet overlapping conversations, even any perceptible downtime is bursting with activity. There’s an unrelenting sense of disarray as simultaneous individual errands run down to the wire. The taut, stressful atmosphere is authentic.

Considering the limited color scheme Tsurumi employs, it’s amazing, how meticulous and comprehensive each scene is. The cooler blues handle the darker behind-the-scenes settings (since they aren’t meant to be seen by the audience), while the brighter shades of yellow indicate the limited light sources, shining strongest when the curtains finally open. Fitting the fairy-tale attribute and reminiscent of children’s books or early-90s midday cartoons, the animal character designs suitably lean more toward the realistic than the exaggerated (as contradictory as that all sounds).

The storytelling is balanced, offering momentary, but memorable highlights (a joke here, a contemplative look there) to each of the dozens of nameless characters. With the exception of two characters, everyone is known by their tasks and specialties. This contributes to the idea that every element of this troupe is working toward a singular goal of putting on a worthwhile production.

There’s actually little plot to speak of. Rather, interspersed throughout, you’ll catch characters going over scheduling, rehearsing scenes, practicing acts, or waiting in incredibly long lines for the bathroom during intermission. Tsurumi provides a wonderfully accurate peak at the hectic theatre production life.

Beyond that, there’s a very small love story, told through no more than five tiny frames. Extraordinarily, everything happens in the background because, without putting too much focus on anything in particular, everything is the background. As such, there are little clues strewn throughout that answer pressing questions or lead to various events. You can go back and figure out why the love note was sent in the first place and the reason is incredibly sweet.

Offering humor, mystery, and love in a tale that’s both comprehensible to younger readers while remaining entertaining for older ones, Zoötrope is a prime example of how to craft a superb children’s book.

TL;DR: Tsurumi presents a brief, but substantial glimpse of a completely realized and established theatre troupe composed of animals working harmoniously toward a singular goal. Zoötrope completely captures the essence of bustling energy while delivering a simple and notably sweet story.

Andrea Tsurumi is an illustrator, cartoonist, and graphic designer. You can read Zoötrope in full here.