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: July 2005, 15

Friday, July 15, 2005

10:15:31 pm , 1137 words, 2464 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Thinking and Drawing

I was lucky enough to catch a program of Japanese independent shorts at the Vancouver International Film Festival last year, but outside of one-shots like that it's a real uphill battle finding, or even hearing about, Japanese independent animation, even though I know there's an ocean of it out there. It's thriving, but where is it? We get to see a small portion of it that usually fits within certain very narrow stylistic boundaries on NHK's Digital Stadium, but even then that's only a small selection, and there's no English explanation there, so it's probably hard for people to have any idea of context (not that that's necessarily always a bad thing). Although that excellent program has shown us some good items, many others I've found to be less than impressive and/or predictable, so that I've never really felt that I've gotten a representative picture of the best indie animation that's being made out there in all the different forms and styles. Imagination Practice was probably the single best picture I've seen of the scene, with shorts from upcoming names and old masters stewing in a diverse and interesting brew of approaches.

Obviously not being in situ in Japan is largely to blame for this. The internet has made it possible for me to keep up with the scene to an extent, finding out about small screenings at a university here or a club there, which gives me a vague idea what's going on, but at the end of the day I still haven't seen any of it, and I know I'm still not hearing about the great proportion of it and hence probably missing a lot of the most interesting stuff. Nonetheless, it was through the internet that I was able to discover more about interesting independents like Reiko Yokosuka and Takashi Ishida, who aren't exactly regulars on NHK. This had the side-effect of bringing Reiko Yokosuka to the attention of one foreign festival, confirming my faith in the effectiveness of word-of-mouth. Many of the older independents are at least known to some extent, with a handful even on DVD in Japan, but it still feels like living and evolving indie animation is a vast blank waiting to be discovered. If you're lucky enough you can catch a program at a festival - and there is something to be said for catching just a sampling of the best without having to wade through the vast ocean of it - but otherwise there's no way of really following it.

In the end there's probably no real solution to this, only different partial solutions: samples on the internet, Tomoyasu Murata releasing his own DVDs, scattered festival programs. The solution I liked best was that suggested by the paradigm of the Animation Show - a yearly show collecting the best of the best combined with accompanying DVD. Very little recent Japanese indie animation has been available on DVD anywhere as far as I know. In any case, a great start would be a DVD providing a sampling of the best work of recent years, with this possibly followed up depending on whether people respond or not. And that's exactly what's coming out soon. The Image Forum will be releasing a DVD entitled Thinking and Drawing: Japanese Art Animation of the New Millenium. Headlining it is Imagination Practice by Suwami Nogami, which is precisely the film that opened the program I saw at the VIFF, making this feel like just what I said, although the lineup is different. Also present is Naoyuki Tsuji, who was also represented at the VIFF by the film included here.

This is the lineup:

Mika Seike: A Place Where there are Moths, Dialogue Between Two
Suwami Nogami: Imagination Practice
Kei Oyama: The Thaw, Consultation Room
Takashi Ishida: Gestalt
Tetsuji Kurashige: U-SA-GUI
Naoyuki Tsuji: A Feather Stare in the Dark
Norihito Iki: Kaidan


Takashi Ishida working on his latest film, an outdoor animation
Naoyuki Tsuji working on his latest film, 3 Clouds
Biography of each creator
U-SA-GUI dice game

(via soapland)

It sounds like an excellent lineup, even though I'm not familiar with three of the creators. This is particularly pleasant news because I talked about Takashi Ishida a while ago, lamenting the fact that it was unlikely that we were going to get to see any of his work any time soon. Here we'll be seeing his most famous and well-regarded piece. It's interesting that the Engrish translation of Tsuji's piece has stuck. In a way it's more evocative than an accurate translation, so who's to say it's bad. I'm pleased to see his wonderful improvised charcoal film being put out on DVD, as I'd been wanting to see it again ever since having thoroughly enjoyed the baffling but incredibly mysterious and rich experience of viewing the film. It's got an oneiric, totally unpredictable atomsphere that no other animated film I've seen comes close to, and it's exactly the sort of film where I think the current Japanese indie scene shines its best. Something I've found that runs through many of the films being made today is a similarly lo-fi aesthetic of simple and sometimes crude drawings and an emphasis on atmosphere over narrative, which makes the films refreshing and worth discovering.

Norihito Iki's film, which translates as A Ghost Story, will be familiar from Digital Stadium, where it won one week to be elected to the hall of fame. It too is a film with a convincing dreamlike flow and atmosphere, but done by a combination of eerie transformed photography overlayed with spare animation. Both are favorites of recent years. Without even being familiar with the other films, of which U-SA-GUI in particular I've heard good things about, I can tell that this is a good lineup that will give a fairly representative picture of the state of indie Japanese animation today, and so it's one of the most welcome DVDs I've heard about in a very long time. The lineup is a little short, but hopefully that's because this will be only the beginning of better coverage of indie animation on DVD.

While the new generation is still being discovered, the old generation has recieved a degree of recognition, though again this feels confined to the festival circuit. The most famous have been covered a bit on DVD, but the fact that people as good as Nobuhiro Aihara and Reiko Yokosuka are largely unknown and unseen seems to suggest that there are probably at least a handful of other interesting older animators waiting to be (re)discovered.

I like the title of the DVD, which succinctly expresses the act of animating. What I like about Naoyuki Tsuji's work is that it strips everything down to those bare essentials. No planning, no background - just an unpremeditated forward vector of thinking and drawing.