Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: May 2005, 09

Monday, May 9, 2005

11:18:51 pm , 1518 words, 4053 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Shanghai Animation Film Studio

Bell on a Deer (Lu Ling) 1982

This Thursday, NHK's satellite station will be broadcasting a 90-minute documentary about the making of Kihachiro Kawamoto's recently completed film The Book of a Dead Person. The documentary will look in on both the director's studio and the film set in Hachioji where the film was shot over the length of one year, providing a comprehensive overview of the making of the film - what it was like on the set during filming, how all the lighting and heavy set material was transported and set up, how the puppets were made and so on. The documentary will also provide insight into Kawamoto's views on the art of puppet creation and animation, which have occupied Kawamoto constantly for fully half a century now.

I've been perusing the films made by Shanghai Animation Film Studio lately, so by chance I recently got to see Fushanosha 不射之射, a 25-minute film made by Kihachiro Kawamoto at the studio in 1988. Soon after completing the latter, back in Japan Kihachiro Kawamoto made a version of Sleeping Beauty, following which there appears to be a hiatus of a decade until Winter Days in 2003. The animation and all the technical aspects of the production of Fushanosha (which is a zenlike phrase that is difficult to translate, but means approximately Shooting Without Shooting) were done entirely by the team over there. Only the puppets and directing were done by Kawamoto. Otherwise the production quality is good enough that if I hadn't seen the credits I would never have known that it wasn't made in Japan like all of his previous films. The making of this film at Shanghai Animation Film Studios surely had symbolic significance for Kawamoto. By making it there he had now come back full circle from his earliest work in the 50s under Tadahito Mochinaga, the man who had pioneered puppet animation in China in the years immediately prior to that.

Even besides Kawamoto's link to Chinese animation, Shanghai Animation Film Studios had been making great object and cel animation films for decades by that point, so it only makes sense that they'd have the skill to be able to make a film exactly the way Kihachiro Kawamoto wanted. From what I've seen, despite being a big studio, Shanghai Animation Film Studio brought real love of the art to everything they did. Technically the animation can be a little crude at times, particularly with their drawn animation, but with each project they innovated and tried new techniques - be it a completely new visual style or a new material in stop-motion animation - and they had a knack for figuring out ways of overcoming any limitations and making interesting films with limited means. Combined with the fact that their films are all aimed at children, this inevitably bring to mind Tadanari Okamoto, the independent stop-motion animator who, with very little at his disposal, similarly turned deficiency on its head into an opportunity to innovate constantly with techniques with each film. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s they created a vast body of short children's stop-motion films that is surely among the richest in variety of any made anywhere in the world over the same period.

The films are always full of invention in the designs and art, and charming and convincing in the way the simple stories are told. The taste of the designs and layout of the screen are impeccable, always with a good eye for an unforced and clean visual appeal. The style changes radically depending on the material, and there is more of a variety of techniques here than anywhere else I've seen. Semi-relief animation is the most common of the methods used after puppets, but cel also figures, and in all cases the materials are constantly reinvented along with the designs.

In the second film pictured above, The Mouse Marries of 1983, the background is kept dark the entire time, focusing attention on the sprightly and unpredictable movement of the mice dashing around the screen. Paper cutouts are ideally suited to creating a piece full of as much movement as this one. The dark background suggests the environs but also helps to focus attention on the appealing but not overdone bright pastel clothing of the lively white mice, who are excellently defined by a few simple shapes and touches. The protagonists and visual and narrative style are reminiscent of a film from another decade and country, Story of a Streetcorner (1962), one of Mushi Pro's most unique and memorable creations.

In the fourth film pictured above, The Hunter Hunted of 1978, another semi-relief paper cutout animation, the designs are more detailed, and the movement less frantic. Everything from the color to the pacing and narrative style is toned down and lusher. The characters and backgrounds seems straight out of the storybook world of Peter and the Wolf, or perhaps Sleeping Beauty, designed with incredible refinement and skill, flat and intricate like the work of a traditional craftsman. Many of these films are cautionary stories of comeuppance, including this one, which has two wolves picking on a lackluster hunter until the tables are turned. The endings can often be shockingly brutal, true to the nature of traditional folktales. The soundtrack is a solo piano score of a Bartokian vein.

The Straw Man of 1985, pictured below, tells the story of two waterfowl who antagonize a rural fisherman by stealing his fish. The antics of the two bird characters are both naturalistic and invested with genuine wit, which makes them interesting and convincing characters. Converseley, the hunter is portrayed as a sort of sourpuss country bumpkin. Which is why it's such a surprise that the main characters, or the ones we've come to root for as the main characters, the birds, get outwitted by the hunter in the end, presumably ending up as dinner. The films often have endings that seemed shocking, bizarre or abrupt to my eyes, which obviously stems from cultural differences. If it's a fable pitting humans against animals, the humans will always win, which is a little dissatisfying, if realistic.

The music in all of the films is invariably an essential part of the whole, especially in the wordless films such as The Straw Man. As is often the case, the sound is traditional in instrumentation, and expository like an opera score commenting on the events at every moment. Te Wei's films have the most beautiful soundtracks, full of evocative and virtuosic instrumental solos, like a symphonic translation of the visual music being played out on the screen, and the soundtracks of all of Shanghai Animation Film Studio's other films are always equally well considered. In The Straw Man the mood of the music is more boisterous to suit the playful atmosphere, but the music is still incredibly inventive and responsive to the events throughout. To ears unattuned to the traditional sounds, there's admittedly a certain element of exoticism in the enjoyment, but whatever - it's beautiful.

The other semi-relief films are too numerous to list here, though I can mention in passing the popular 13-episode Calabash Brothers TV series of 1986 and the memorable Monkeys Catching the Moon of 1981, both films with real dynamism and punch. Wong Bai-Rong, the only Chinese creator involved in Winter Days, is probably most famous for his 1984 film Fire Child, the ornate, colorful designs and sharp lines of which are at the opposite end of the spare and evocative ink and brush animation of a Te Wei.

The third film pictured above, Weighing the Elephant of 1982, is a good example of what makes me admire the studio's films - daring and bold use of materials to achieve strong visual impact. In this case they've used what would appear to be some sort of traditional handcrafted wooden doll, looking like nothing so much as oriental Lego figures. But they're magnificently gorgeous, carved and painted with painstaking precision and detail, and they feel alive on the screen. The movement and camerawork is spare to provide ample time to appreciate the beautiful figurines. Watching the film surprisingly evoked a strange sensation in me, as if I was a child again watching the film in the genuine belief that those wooden blocks were really alive and moving around. The studio's films are full of that kind of magic.

There are numerous other puppet films, including the 13-episode Afanti (Effendi) series made between 1979 and 1988, as well as quite a lot of cel-based animation of equally high caliber, such as the beautifully stylized Butterfly Spring of 1983 and the witty, popular Three Monks of 1980. There are also a number of films done in a brush and ink style reminiscent of Te Wei, like 1982's Bell on a Deer (Lu Ling), pictured atop. All to say nothing of the feature films for which the studio is most well known, the classic Uproar in Heaven of 1964 and Ne Zha Fights the Sea of 1979, the country's first widescreen animated feature. With well over 50 films in every style imaginable, the studio's back-catalogue offers an unbelievable array of riches just waiting to be discovered for the fan of world animation.

The Straw Man (Cao Ren) 1985