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: September 2006, 30

Saturday, September 30, 2006

08:12:53 pm , 1927 words, 3638 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Tokyo Loop

For some reason I forgot to mention one of the items that I've been most looking forward to at the VIFF this year: Tokyo Loop. It was in the back of my mind when I noticed it on the lineup, so it was a nice surprise. I was expecting to have to wait to get it on DVD, but instead I got to see it on the big screen first. This is one of the rare times I felt like I might have been better off seeing it on DVD the first time, in the comfort and safe solitude of my room. Having heard Koji Yamamura was heading the project, I was expecting an 'animation omnibus', but Koji Yamamura's Fig was in fact the only piece in the collection that struck me as being deeply satisfying as animation. I hate making pedantic distinctions between what's animated and what's not, so I won't. I think each of the pieces do work as animation at a fundamental level. You just have to approach it with an open mind. As an omnibus of cool new artsy shorts from a number of great Japanese artists, it was great film. It should have been obvious that it would emphasize the experimental side from the fact that many of the creators involved aren't animators, but experimental filmmakers or artists or the like.

A big pull of the film was the music by Seiichi Yamamoto. I was delighted to see that apparently his awesome work on Mind Game got some attention and he was being tapped for another hour & a half of film music. Masaaki Yuasa's comment about the amazing variety of the music he provided for Mind Game popped into my head during the screening. From one piece to the next you really do not know what to expect, and it's hard to believe a single guy came up with all of those different pieces, which ranged from Zeni Geva-inspired noise to Zoviet France-esque loops to driving drum solos to sweet medolies. This guy can do it all. My one complaint was that I felt that perhaps some of the shorts weren't as fairly served by the music as they could have been, while others benefited from extravagantly labored scores. I think this is an impression that might change watching it on DVD. The simple loops some of the films had seemed appropriate, but the audience was getting restless during some of them, which made it hard to appreciate the piece as it should have been. The experience reminded me of just how important an element music is in animation, how much the score can change your impression of a piece.

The driving drum solo in question came in the first piece, by Masahiko Sato, who is one of Japan's more famous TV advertisement directors. (you can see a number of his spots here) The music provided the perfect rhythm to jump-start the film, and great accompaniment to the pared-down screen, which consists simply of a series of dots representing a stick figure's joints in the process of walking across the screen, with lines dancing out from the joints in various configurations. Like most of the shorts in the film, there was no story. I've noticed a healthy trend of getting away from simple narrative in recent years in Japanese shorts. The opener worked perfect as an opener and as a film - a straightforward exploration of a simple concept: what happens on the screen when you connect the dots in various ways? It was one of my favorites of the movie, doing what I like best - taking a very simple concept and 'running' with it farther than you would have thought possible with such simple means. Watching it I felt digital was the future. I've never been a fan of what I've seen done with 3DCG so far, but it's in conceptually ingenious pieces like this and other shorts I've seen from Japanese students and elsewhere around the world over the last few years, like Robert Seidel's _grau, that I really felt the future of digital.

The indomitably frisky Keiichi Tanaami was here with a piece that was typical of what I've seen from his recent collaborations with the mystic Nobuhiro Aihara, who was also present with a new dose of psychedelia. It felt like Aihara was taking a break from the painstakingly detailed animated mandalas I've seen from him in the last few years and tapping a more primitive root of the animated family tree, with a bewildering three minutes of subliminal flashing imagery straight to your cortex from the land of dreams. I found it a bit exhausting, honestly.

I was glad to see Koji Yamamura accompanied by the latest young sprout on the hale trunk of the great tree: Kei Oyama, who was here with another repulsively beautiful examination of closeups of skin and the approach of consciousness of mortality in youth after his great and ever so upbeat Examination Room. I love his work. I look forward to seeing the kind of films he'll make when discovers the currently very foreign notion of happiness.

Not difficult to identify the most fun had in the film. I knew what to expect when I heard Shiriagari Kotobuki was to be involved, even though the man isn't even an animator: Something extremely bizarre and odd, and somehow funny. I had a foretaste in his strangely entrancing (and addictive) Minna no Uta short Tonosama Gaeru, and this film was close in spirit to that. Shiriagari's heta-uma drawings moving around: What more could you want? The story of a dog on a quest for a bone progressed with video game logic like a metaphor for our neverending hunt for the latest newfangled 'bone', be it the iPod Nano or the next rung on the ladder of all of our careers. I have the impression that Japanese indies in the last few years have been exploring the primitive appeal of children's drawings to explore deep states of consciousness, be it Naoyuki Tsuji with his charcoal angels or Atsushi Wada with his carefully crafted crummy drawings going through absurd yet somehow uncomfortably familiar rituals. I came away from Wada's latest sally on the folly of societally ingrained habit asking myself this question: Would it destroy him or open up new possibilities if he gained technical skill, which he seemed to be doing with this piece. I'm curious to see where he will go. I've never seen such a mismatch - such bad drawings combined with such a feeling of being completely conscious of how bad his drawings are and knowing exactly what he's doing.

The current doyen of indie Japanese animation Yamamura was joined by two other unshakable indie pillars - Taku Sugiyama and none other than the original Japanese indie, Yoji Kuri. I've still not had the chance to see as much of Taku's work as I would like, but the piece here was wonderful and confirmed my suspicion that I direly need to discover his work sometime soon. One of the few of his pieces I'd seen before is his Minna no Uta piece Let's communicate. I loved the execution of the piece, which seems to be about the mental bond that ties two people across the space of time and distance throughout hectic lives using a series of flipbook-like loops with no color or anything extravagant, just Taku's typical simple drawings. The numbers written in the corner of each of page show exactly how many drawings were used for each of the little loops, which adds a great dimension to the piece, emphasising the medium, making it impossible to forget at any moment that what we are watching is animation. The ingenuity of how he plays with this simple concept is what animation is all about to me, and I thought it showed well why he was one of the most famous indies of the last few decades. His piece in this film was a fantastic little fable-like story about the hidden nature of people. I don't know how active he is now, but he sure as heck still has the touch. He's been one of the precious few indies over the last few decades alongside Yamamura who has actively tried to explore the possibilities of animation from his own personal angle, without allowing himself the luxury of getting stuck in the rut of a single approach to the form.

Yoji Kuri's piece was typical of his earlier work in terms of the style and the humor, as was his piece on Winter Days, but here it felt much more successful. It seems like his humor wasn't able to breathe fully under the constraints of that literary-inspired omnibus, but here with more freedom he was in his element. It was a great relief to see this great old master - one of the founding fathers of the indie animation scene in Japan - still up to his wonderful old tricks almost half a century after the original, seminal Animation Festival. His little story about dog poop worked nicely as a arch protest against an aspect of city life with which we're all too familiar. It was actually moving to see him still in action. Long live the king of sukebe oyaji!

I'm being reminded of my old write-up of Winter Days in terms of how I'm starting to run out of steam and consequently won't be able to cover each of the 16 entries... so I'll skip the ones that didn't impress me too much. The surprise of the selection came with Tomoyasu Murata's film. The surprise? It wasn't a puppet film. It was absolutely as far as possible as you could get from a puppet film - treated photos of the Tokyo nightscape. The colored dots of light from the landscape were transformed into a beautiful abstract dance of shapes and colors. What unifies this with his previous work is the brilliant handling of light, shadow, atmosphere and space. These are precisely the elements I remember impressing me most in Tomoyasu's puppet films. Again, a film where very rudimentary means were used to create a film that feels self-contained and whole.

The short that caps this fascinating and not necessarily easy journey across the back alleys of modern-day Tokyo and the possibilities of animation is a digital bookend by technical wizard Iwai Toshio. I remember being impressed by his invention, the Tenori-on, or more specifically, the way that he manipulates the simple electronic device like some kind of an emissary from another planet, a Mozart from Mars speaking a symphony of bleeps and blinks. Here he returns to the deepest of the deep roots of the family tree, exploring the concept of the Phenakistiscope through entrancing digital shapeshifting loops. Amid the frenzy of Tokyo as seen through the lens of the bustle of different approaches on display in this omnibus, some of them successful, some still seeming to be struggling to find a direction, this was another of the pieces that seemed to clear the fog and point, beacon-like, towards the future. The clock ticks endlessly ahead.

If one thing disappointed me about the screening, it's that none of the creators were in attendance. Perhaps I'm spoiled from last year's AA screening attended by three of the young creators. I'm crossing my fingers that one of the AAs tomorrow or the day after will have some guest speakers. If not, no big deal. I'll have seen some great new indie animation on the big screen. What more could I ask?