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 2007, 30

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

07:36:41 pm , 1866 words, 7101 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Old anime

Hydrocephalicbunny reminded me of something I've been meaning to write about - a DVD box set entitled Japanese Anime Classic Collection that was released less than a month ago. I pre-ordered the set some months back and it arrived while I was out of town. I haven't had a chance to see everything yet, as there are 4 DVDs worth, so there's quite a bit of goodies to chew on, but I've seen about half so far.

My first impression is just that it's wonderful to be able to see such old animation from Japan, finally. I never thought the day would come. I was really excited when I heard about this set. And having seen many of the actual films now, I can say that it doesn't disappoint. Naturally these are old films and so the art was at a very different stage in its evolution, but I had no trouble whatsoever distinguishing between the films of real quality and the films of lesser quality. Great work in every age stands apart. In every age there are innovators pushing the art forward. That's the case today, and seeing this set shows me that that was the case back then.

I've read little bits about animation in Japan in the 30s and 40s in various places, so I had some idea of who the important figures were. Yasuji Murata and Noburo Ofuji are the two that spring to mind first of all. Others were Kenzo Masaoka and Seo Mitsuyo. Prior to this I had seen almost nothing by any of these figures. Only with Kenzo Masaoka can I claim to have some sense of the continuity surrounding the figure, since it was under him that figures like Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara learned their craft. But with the other figures, particularly Yasuji Murata and Noburo Ofuji, they seemed to stand apart. They didn't seem to have any followers. I didn't know how they fit into the puzzle. This is a vast blank in knowledge about Japanese animation history that will be very interesting to re-discover.

I came away slightly dissatisfied with the selection, as there were a lot of films on there I'd never heard of, but many that I had heard of were skipped over. For example Kenzo Masaoka's 1932 film Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (The World of Power and Women), the first Japanese animation talkie, or Ichikawa Kon's 1935 film Shinsetsu Kachikachi Yama. (And more than anything, the postwar films of Masaoka Kenzo, but the point is moot since this set is primarily focused on pre-war films.) So there are still lots of holes to be filled in, but this is nonetheless a great start. I should complement the producers of the DVD on a job well done. The presentation is very nice, with a pamphlet containing the staff for each film. There are subs in four languages, and the narration and music are very nicely done. Although I don't quite understand why the films are shown at a reduced size in the middle with a huge black border. Perhaps because of quality issues due to the age of the films. Also, it would be nice to see these films restored one day.

Anyway, to go back to what I was saying about the main figures, I can see now that Yasuji Murata and Noburo Ofuji were the main figures of the early years, from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, while Kenzo Masaoka and Mitsuyo Seyo come in a little later, starting around the mid-1930s. These were the ones who really pushed the art forward in their time. A few of Masaoka's and Seyo's films are included, although I haven't gotten up to them yet. So far I've sampled a few films of Murata and Ofuji, and have seen what a few other contemporary miscellaneous figures were also doing, so it's been very instructive. I think I have a good starting idea of how special Murata and Ofuji were.

It's really exciting seeing animation from this period. There are moments when I'll be watching one of Ofuji's films and I become really emotional for some reason. I've always been that way when I feel I'm peeking into the face of someone who lived long before my time through art, be it literature or music, and so being able to experience this feeling of peeking at the face of the artists active during the inception of the form I most love is quite moving. Apart from that, I think it's rare that you can actually pinpoint the time when a whole new art started, so seeing how people from different countries around the world clawed their way in the dark to make their mark on this blank slate is quite fascinating not just about animation history but about the process of artistic creation, how people's personality is reflected in the answers they come up with to the problems posed by the form.

Anyway, since I mentioned Ofuji, I think I'll start with him in outlining my feelings about these artists. Because with Ofuji's films I get the feeling you can't come away nonplussed. All of the films of this period are interesting for some reason or another, even if just for historical reasons, but perhaps viewed by a less easily entertained viewer than myself, many of them might not come across as so interesting. But not Ofuji's films. Each figure at this period came up with their own slight modification on the forms of the period, but Ofuji is one of the only ones who feels like he came up with an entirely different take altogether, who really created a new type of animation. Ofuji was the innovator. I see shades of Fischinger in his films, not so much because of any outward similarity as because of his knack for creating animation of formal and somewhat abstract beauty, which is something almost nobody else at the time was doing. Everybody else was animating raccoons or other cartoon figures. That's not to say Ofuji is formidable. His films are among the most immediately appealing and accessible of those I've seen.

His format of choice is what appears to be paper cutouts. This is an aspect of the history of this period that I feel needs to be clarified in much more detail - the methods each artist used. In this early period the films are mostly paper cutouts illuminated from the top, while later on he seems to have switched to more of a focus on the silhouette approach with Reininger-like shadow puppetry. Unfortunately, some of Ofuji's most famous films in this form like The Whale and The Ghost Ship are postwar films, so they're not included on this set. It's also disappointing that they didn't include Noburo Ofuji's very first shadow puppet film, the original version of The Whale from 1927, which was directly inspired by The Caliph's Crane (1924) by the German E. M. Schumacher.

What set Ofuji apart aside from his style of animation was that he used the "record talkie". I think this shows another aspect of his innovation - that he actively challenged himself and integrated new technologies like this into his art, pushing the form in new directions. He took existing records and basically interpreted the song in animation, so that when you start playing the record at the same time as the animation, it syncs, resulting in what you might say are Japan's first animated music videos. One film from 1929 features adorably designed cat characters dancing around, while another one from 1931 is set to a karaoke version of the old Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo, and focuses instead on slowly moving elegant natural and abstract shapes. (Kimigayo was shunned after the war for its associations with Japanese imperialism, so the shades of meaning are interesting.) Ofuji didn't seem stuck on a single style or form like most of the other animators of his period, but seemed to actively search for new approaches, and had by far the most poetic and 'artistic' feeling in his works. He seems like one of the first to actually approach animation as an art. His films in particular are in dire need of being rediscovered.

Yasuji Murata's work is quite different, and falls much closer to what one would expect of animation at this period - simple line-drawn figures playing out amusing stories filled with gags. But though it sounds pedestrian described that way, Murata is clearly the genius of the early period. His films are filled with real imagination and surprisingly inventive ideas. You can see that he's having tremendous fun coming up with all these ideas and arranging them into an interesting form. He is also an excellent draughtsman, so that despite the simple line-drawing basis of the animation, the work comes across as convincing at every moment. The poses are always interesting and suited to the character, and the facial expressions lively and elastic. He has the instinct of a master animator. Some of the movement has that feeling of awkwardness of the rest of the animation of the period, as they hadn't quite figured out how to animate a certain motion as of yet, but Murata stands far apart from the pack in that it feels like he has really thought about the drawings and movement, and has attained a certain mastery of the form within the stylistic bounds that he devised for himself. The drawings are extremely witty and funny even seen today, and the movement is surprisingly well controlled, even betraying a budding sense of naturalistic timing.

I think that's one sign of great art - that it doesn't grow old. At its best, Murata's humor comes across as just as funny as it must have been back then, even across the gap of cultures. Murata's humor has a certain universality, and the gags are genuinely inventive and surprising. One of the films on the set, The Unlucky Butterfly, an anonymous film from 1931, is simply painful to watch. The art is amateurish, and the gags are mean-spirited and lame and just not funny. The film serves as a good contrast to show the exceptional nature of what Murata was doing - to show that quality is quality, no matter the age. Some adjustment to the different level of the art at that period is necessary, but surprisingly not that much. Often with animated films this old, I find it challenging to simply enjoy the films, but it was very easy to enjoy Murata's films. Murata is also one of the first figures who puts effort into creating an interesting narrative, an actual story with characters interacting rather than just a sequence of gags. Overall his films are among the most watchable and entertaining of the period. Murata is one of the only animators from this era who seems to have gone beyond mere tinkering and become a real pro at what he did.

I'm very interested in finding out in more detail about the history of these figures. I will also possibly write some more thoughts once I've seen through the entire set, as I'm quite eager to see the films by Seo Mitsuyo and particularly Kenzo Masaoka.