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 2007

Monday, July 30, 2007

11:40:11 am , 878 words, 3715 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Mononoke

I've been stuck in a wilderness chalet for the past week, so I've been unable to post here. I've had a chance to watch the first arc (i.e. the first two episodes) of the new series Mononoke directed by Kenji Nakamura as a follow-up to his acclaimed Bakeneko segment of the horror omnibus Ayakashi. I was simultaneously pleased and disappointed when I heard the news that they were making the series. I was glad that we were going to be able to see an entire series directed by Nakamura, who already has an original style despite not having many years under his belt as a director (which makes it particularly nice that the producers gave him a spinoff just because his segment was so popular), but honestly I would have preferred to see him do something new instead of just re-hashing what he'd done in Bakeneko. Bakeneko was great because it was so unexpected and new. But at the same time, I thought it would be interesting to see in what new directions he might push this material. Even if weren't anything new, it would still probably be tremendously watchable stuff, so it seemed like a win-win situation.

Well, this series maintains the same level of quality as Bakeneko in terms of directing and animation and storytelling, so it is no disappointment. Beyond the newness of the directing and the use of the CGI interior, the story of Bakeneko was powerful and interesting in its own right, which was undoubtedly an important part of what made it so watchable. Vivid directing combined with appealing characters and an unusual situation, and the results were great. The story here is also very interesting, reinterpreting the traditional idea of the 'bakemono' with a historically informed perspective. What happened to the women who worked in the red light districts of Edo Japan who happened to get pregnant through their line of work? It had to have happened a lot. What happened to the children? This series opens with an unexpectedly moving story that touches on this topic. This historically informed background makes it all the more engaging.

I was holding out judgment until I saw more than episode 1, which was done by Kenji Nakamura himself, because I wasn't so sure how well the material would hold up in anyone else's hands. Shinbo Akiyuki's work is interesting when he's the one doing the storyboarding and directing, but in a series his style is watered down and completely loses its appeal, and I thought the same thing might happen here. But no, episode 2, which was done by a different team and indeed by a very small team of animators, was almost up to the level of the first. The first built on what made Bakeneko so fresh and new, that use of CGI mapped interiors to create a strong feeling of the characters moving through and inhabiting this vast mazelike space, with the camera zooming around and being moved around into all sorts of different locations constantly. The scene with the camera moving up the stairs here retained that feeling, and generally the camera moved very freely and unexpectedly around the space as before, creating that bewildering feeling of disjointed time and space that Nakamura is so good at creating, mixing the past with the present and the imagined with the real, so that the fabric of the narrative is full of logical gaps and question marks that you have to fill in for yourself, making the experience much more enriching.

I think using the CGI space as the defining concept of the story is a savvy idea, too, since it permits even a small team to create that unique feeling that defines the show without putting too much of an onus on the frames. You just move the camera around to create an interesting spatial feeling. In the end, that's been the defining strategy of anime since the beginning (focus on interesting story and directing to distract from the technical limitations), so it's an interesting update on that.

The animation is allocated like in the original - very spare throughout until being unleashed during climactic moments when the camera whirls around like crazy throughout the CGI space as the monster reveals itself. Takashi Hashimoto has admitted that people tend to turn to him when they need some kind of 'special animation', such as smokes or explosions. In this case the monsters are animated in a very tactile and expressive way when they finally appear on screen. The slow buildup of tension to this burst of interesting animation has great effect. Also typically Japanese is the way that playing around with the shots draws attention away from the lack of animation drawings. All of the action occurs off-screen, and shots shift disjointedly without explanation revealing unexpected sights. We're supposed to piece together what's just happened, keeping the viewer guessing and engaged. I noticed even all of the the 'zashiki warashi' were usually cut-'n'-paste copies colored differently, which was a good method - time-saving and visually satisfying.

Just before this Nakamura would have done episode 10 of Kemonozume, and a while back the first episode of Karas, which are worth checking out alongside Bakeneko to get a picture of this interesting new director's emerging style.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

01:36:56 am , 1016 words, 2797 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume DVD box extras

For anyone who hasn't seen it, there's an interesting site featuring a single shot of one interesting animated sequence from each episode of Gainax's current TV show Guren Lagan here. It's a nice idea for a feature, and is what one would expect from a series directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, who used to put out fanzines of his own key animation. He's the quintissential animation otaku, so it's nice to see him delighting in all the great work people are turning in for the show. He's managed to pull together great animators from all over the industry, even Norio Matsumoto and Takaaki Yamashita not long ago, and each episode has had tons of interesting work. It's been a real explosion of animated frenzy, even more than I was expecting from the man. The quality is amazing. I just wish I found myself enjoying the show more. Interesting to note that a shot by Tadashi Hiramatsu from episode 15 was the latest installment. (They also have a shot of his from ep 2) I was particularly happy to be able to see a shot by Hisashi Mori from ep 4.

Speaking of whom, I was again happy to find that the shot that Hisashi Mori drew for Kemonozume was included in the selection of key animation that is part of the extras to the recently released box set, as I'd hoped it would be. Mori reportedly drew 125 drawings for the 7-second shot, so they only included about the last 40, which is a bit of a shame, but it's still nice to be able to see. Mori's drawings are incredibly loose and unpolished, functioning as rough tiny slices of a movement so fast that from frame to frame the character is an indistinguishable blob, but in the final animated sequence he comes alive in spectacularly kinetic movement.

I'm a big fan of seeing the drawings up close to be able to get a feeling for the line of the animator, and these extras provided a great tool for doing that. You can page through each drawing of the shot at screen size, which is the best method I've yet seen for presenting full sequences of key animation - better than books, where entire shots often have to be crammed onto a single page due to space considerations. This is an ideal way of dealing with this sort of material, and I wish we'd see more stuff like this. I can't complain, but I do wish they had included more, since they went to the trouble of doing it. There was so much other great work in the show. I would have liked to see Hiroyuki Aoyama's keys, or more of Michio Mihara's keys. They apparently wanted to include a shot by Koichi Arai from episode 3, but the keys had disappeared, so they weren't able to do so.

They included one nice sequence from the fight between Kazuma and the monkey in episode 1, where Kazuma swings at the monkey. It's a particularly interesting shot because it's very educational about the difference in line between animators - how much of a difference subtle differences in line-drawing style can make in the impact of the final drawing. The shot was originally animated by Hiroshi Shimizu, who later did episode 11, but each of his drawings was completely redrawn by Nobutake Ito. The nice thing is that, for this sequence, they present both Shimizu's original drawing and the correction by Ito right afterwards, so that you can see the original line of the animator and how the animation director re-interpreted it. Shimizu's drawings are about as far as possible as you could get from Ito's. The degree of difference is surprising. Ito left virtually none of Shimizu's lines intact, but basically traced over the character. Shimizu provided just the backbone of this sequence. It shows that Ito was maniacally thorough with the work on this episode, and all of his other episodes for that matter.

Another thing in the extras was the 'animatic' style video put together from alternating bits of raw key animation and storyboard for the voice-recording session, or 'afureco' as it's called. This was easily one of the coolest things on the set. They included the one for episode 13. It was fascinating viewing, letting you see in one go all of the materials that went into the polished version in their raw state. What it means is that it's a lot easier to see just how dramatically each animator's drawings differ. You see bits of Yuasa's storyboard, with its distinctive simple forms, followed by bits of corrected animation by Ito, with his very different but equally unmistakable style of rendering facial features, then some animation by an animator, such as the opening animation by Takashi Hashimoto, and so on, which I almost found more satisfying than the final product. Watching it this way I realized immediately when suddenly we entered a sequence drawn by Nobutoshi Ogura, for example - the one on top of the building where Yuka tries to chop off her arm. His style was much more obvious in the raw state like this.

I came away wishing they'd included this for every episode. Instead, they have a commentary for four random episodes by the voice actors that I'm sorry to say is just lame. Why the voice actors? Their comments bring absolutely zero insight into the production of each episode. It's an unfortunately wasted opportunity. It would have been great to hear commentary from Ito, Yuasa, Takahashi, Nakamura et al. on the episodes they did. They could have provided insight into the production style for a show that had an incredibly unique production style that we haven't really gotten much insight into yet. There was an interview with Ito in the booklet that was very interesting to read. Ito is a really interesting guy full of genuine enthusiasm for his work, a real dynamo of an animator willing to push the envelope to create animation with raw power. Otherwise, also included were storyboards and image boards by Yuasa and the standard character sheets by Ito, which were all very welcome.

Monday, July 16, 2007

08:35:22 pm , 576 words, 1755 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #10

This was one of the most finely crafted episodes in the series. Everything felt more nuanced than usual, almost to the extent of feeling like a different approach altogether. You really felt 'in the moment' while watching each scene. Things flowed in a way that was very natural and spontaneous. The episode looked the same as the others on the surface, but felt fundamentally different somehow. It has a much more refined sensibility. The director was much more sensitive to how the different characters would be feeling at each juncture of the story, and how to present each scene and each moment in such a way as to best complement the buildup of the various elements in the episode. You could feel the love and work he put into the episode. It felt like great craftsmanship.

Tadashi Hiramatsu is the one to thank. Hiramatsu has long been known as a great animator, but he was unique as an animator in that, whereas well-known animators tend to become well-known simply because they have a flamboyant style that anyone can identify whenever they see it, Hiramatsu was the opposite - all subtlety and refinement, without a flamboyant style. His animation was low-key but highly worked and with a rare feeling for bringing alive characters with everyday behavior. A craftsman as opposed to an auteur.

In the last few years he has begun the transition to directing after a long time as an animator, and his directing seems to be a logical extension of what we were seeing from Hiramatsu the animator. He now creates extremely sensitive drama with a lot of thought put into the presentation and into getting into the mind of the characters. The drama he creates is both convincing and moving, coming across as polished yet spontaneous. The layout, i.e. the position of the characters in the frame, is always extremely pleasant to look at and studied for naturalness and elegance. He uses the camera subtly and effectively to control the rhythm from moment to moment.

Hiramatsu's sensible directing is here supported by an animation director who's somewhat new but also proving to be a name worth keeping an eye on, Takashi Mukoda, who recently did some nice work on Guren Lagan. Mukoda is free with the expressions and poses in a way that reminds of Takeshi Honda, but he definitely has his own line and style. His drawings are very effective during both the comic and the more heartfelt moments. I don't know to what extent Hiramatsu was involved in the drawings, as many moments felt like Hiramatsu had to have been involved somehow - either his storyboard was very precise, or he provided layout or something - but Mukoda seems to be very talented and flexible, and the two were a great match.

One of the things that I've liked the most about Denno Coil, besides the imaginativeness of the ideas, is simply being able to watch nuanced characters given room to act out their personalities, and the fact that body language plays a large part in this. This episode excels in this arena. The characters came alive wonderfully here, felt revivified. They really inhabit the spaces on the screen. Scenes like the one where Yasako is lounging on her back in her room (on an oyaji beanbag?) bring the characters alive nicely with very natural and unforced behavior. There's a sense of physicality, of presence, that I haven't gotten before now.

Friday, July 13, 2007

06:38:09 pm , 471 words, 1699 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde

Aurora

Link: http://www.aurora.org.uk/

AURORA (www.aurora.org.uk), the new incarnation of the festival previously known as the Norwich International Animation Festival, will be back again this autumn for four days from November 7 to 10.

The festival has dropped the traditional moniker but remains a festival devoted to animation in the broadest and deepest sense of the term. Belying this is the fact that this year's festival will feature a retrospective of a great audiovisual artist whose work straddles the notions of the animated and the purely experimental, compelling us to rethink the very idea of animation - Takashi Ishida.

The festival will also be presenting a retrospective of the work of another iconoclastic Japanese indie figure who has been seen at animation and alternative film festivals in recent years - Tsuji Naoyuki, that purveyor of oneiric charcoal visions of angels and clouds.

These retrospectives and those of various other artists such as Robert Breer and Jim Trainor will be curated by the artists in question themselves. I don't know the other artists, but it promises to be a compelling selection gravitating towards the more experimental and edgy side of things, which is a welcome change in a climate where experimental or abstract works seem increasingly sidelined among animation fans. The real possibilities of animation as it relates to us today are being explored by these people.

In addition to the compelling screening selection, the festival will again be presenting a series of forums examining a number of issues exploring the possibilities of animation, so overall it seems to be a very well conceived and appealing event that I would love to attend if I could.

Last year the festival also featured an interesting selection, including Atsushi Wada's Day of Nose (see Alt anime), Run Wrake's Rabbit, and other films from various countries, but the focus was more conspicuously on works that would fall within the conventional framework of an 'animated short'. In that sense I think this year's festival has evolved in a very interesting direction, and seems a model of its kind - forward-thinking and cross-disciplinary.

Last year's edition of the festival featured a retrospective tribute to Walerian Borowczyk, which I very much would have liked to attend. The site also has a section where they present articles from past festivals, among them a very nice memorial article on Boro by Daniel Bird and a fascinating recollection of Boro by Szymon Bojko, who worked briefly with Boro during the early 50s. I considered myself a die-hard fan of the man, but it's tribute to the extent that his oeuvre has fallen into neglect over the years, for whatever reason, that the articles mention a number of short films, both animated and live-action, that I'd never even heard of. It's a positive thing that festivals such as this can help revive works like these.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

02:37:41 pm , 7352 words, 14923 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview, Indie

Yuri Norstein interview

About a month ago one of my readers, Mihai Luchian, pointed out an interesting interview in Russian with Yuri Norstein about the making of his short segment for the Basho-inspired omnibus of short animated films Winter Days. Mihai kindly translated the interview for me, which I touched up a bit, so I'm pleased to be able to offer up this insightful piece about how one of the true visionaries of animation works. There's a palpable similarity between the way Norstein talks and the language of his films - sometimes opaque, but always with the lucid clarity of good poetry. His explanations occasionally seem to turn into pure poetry as his excitement in describing the process of creation crescendos to a fever pitch, but it is always fascinating to peek into the thought process of a great mind. The interview helped me look at the short but masterful piece in a new light, with a better understanding.


powerful verses or the sound of pine trees on a sumi-e


Who came up with the idea to make an animated film out of Bashō’s haiku?

Actually, the idea to make a film based on a cycle of Basho’s poetry, called “renku” or “linked verse”, was proposed by the Japanese. The "renku" cycle comprises 36 strophes, so the concept of the project was to give each strophe to a different director. Each director was to do a small piece without any limits on style, script or form, meaning completely in accord with his individuality. After that, the small pieces would be strung together.

The Japanese decided that it was to be an international project, so they had invited different directors from China, Canada, Belgium, England, Russia and so on, a total of 35. Each director had to make a 30-second piece. Later, the artistic director, Kihachiro Kawamoto, would string together the different pieces, bridging them each by a narrator reading the verses.

I was assigned the first three verses that open the cycle “Winter Days”. Immediately I thought out a winter plot: A boy is cooking a meal on a brazier. He throws on some coal. The shoji screen is open, and through it you can see the mountains in the distance. It’s snowing, overwhelming the rust-colored hills. The boy turns away from the brazier, intensely admiring the view. The food is burning a little. The father (or some other grown-up) enters the room. He senses that the food is burning. Swearing, he grabs a teapot and pours water over the brazier, giving the boy a slight kick to the head. The boy is scared. Still swearing, the father lifts his head and freezes, watching the snow slowly covering the hills. The water continues to pour from the teapot.

At this point, the producer waved his hand - “What are you thinking? The movie must start with autumn. Winter comes along later.” So I had to think out a new plot. I gave it a lot of thought. Later, as little details brought the animation to life during production, the plot began to take on a life of its own.

What does “linked verse” mean exactly? What is renku?

The poets sit around in a circle, and the verses travel from one poet to the next. The 1st one writes the first three verses (called the “hokku”), then the 2nd poet adds his two verses, and so on down through the 3rd, 4th , 7th, 32nd, etc, each poet in turn borrowing the previous poet’s last verse and adding 2 verses to it to construct a new poem.

That is where the expression “linked verse” comes from. You could say that the basic poetic idea wanders around the circle of the poets and in the end locks onto somebody, maybe even the first poet. Each one has 2-3 verses. Basho composes the first 3. He’s the teacher, the respected master. The first three verses provide the later ones with energy. The system for writing the hokku, like the haiku, is fairly well known: 3 verses, each one with a specific number of mora or Japanese syllables: 5-7-5. The couplet that follows is 7-7.

A translation can’t have the same effect as the original, because the number of mora will be different, thus changing the rhythm. Russian and Japanese have a completely different structure. A literal translation would be just as meaningless, though it might sometimes produce interesting coincidences. Vera Markova, who translated Basho, is a great albeit underappreciated poet. It’s laughable to say that someone can translate Japanese poetry without being a poet. Same with film - transferring haiku to the screen is equally hopeless. Especially when you only have 30 seconds!

Seriously, it’s naive to think that such a short piece can even compare to Basho’s poetry. Only when the power of a verse lies in its conciseness can 30 seconds of film hope to come close to the verse. But in this case we were in a rather restrictive situation, proposed by a different creator. Nolens volens [willing or not], you swim in this channel of verses and you can’t run away. Everything that you create is bathed in the glow of the energy of the verses. I’m a slow-witted person, so I wasn’t able to capture the essence of the verse in 30 seconds, or even 3 times 30 seconds – even though a single couplet would have been enough to make a whole short film. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used exposition, plot, and instead just gone with one scene. But it’s too late now.

It’s hard to imagine that such a thing could be possible, but the work on this film was actually harder than the work on “The Overcoat”. I didn’t use such detailed backgrounds when creating “The Overcoat”. Compared to how long it took me to do the short for Winter Days, the work on “The Overcoat” seems like the speed of light compared to the speed of light. 2 minutes of tube time took me 9 months of work, actually more. And the result? I feel like everything I did is beyond hope... though the producer liked it. I feel that I didn’t achieve the intonation that was needed. I’m not talking about technical mastery or the visuals. I’m talking about the intonation of those 3 verses, through which I was hoping to achieve tranquility. Mastery is when one needed path replaces a whole bunch of unneeded paths. You come to the truth only when you achieve mastery.

Could you recite Basho’s verses in your own words?

     “Mad verse”
     In the withering gusts,
     a wanderer ...
     How much like Chikusai I have become!

Basho precedes these lines with the words: “I have suddenly remembered the master of the wild verse, Chikusai, wandering in the old days on these paths.”

Who exactly is Chikusai?

An imaginary character of popular lore. He exists in the imagination of the Japanese in such a high level of reality that they settled him in some small town. He even owns a pharmaceutical store. But he doesn’t treat anybody. He’s a charlatan and everybody understands that he can’t treat. At the same time he is a joker, a holy fool and idler, like our little fool Ivanushka [a character from the traditional Russian fables]. He is a blessed little fool, not an idiot or a simpleton, but a very sharp and clever thinker who plays the game of stupidity, thereby freeing himself from some of the conventions imposed by life itself. However, Basil the Blessed [holy fool during the time of Ivan the Terrible and Russian Orthodox saint] also didn’t care about the church or the rich.

The Japanese were very surprised when they saw the script. They would never have imagined that Chikusai and Basho could meet. In my case, they met thanks to my ignorance. It didn’t even occur to me that there is no way the two could have met. My plot wound up a kind of circus side-show – the antics of a clown in white and a clown in red. Basho/Pierrot, the clown in white, and Chikusai/Harlequin, the clown in white, the one who might, or more likely will pinch you or steal your hat.

A journalist once told me about a meeting she had with the poet Marietta Shaginyan not long before her death. She was an old but very lively lady – already almost 100 years old, or at the very least 90. Imagine the scene: There she was, seated near Blok’s grave. [Alexander Blok, one of the greatest Russian poets after Pushkin] It’s moments like these that bring history closer to home. Shagiyan, withered and bent, sprang out from behind the table, ran to the journalist, grabbed her by the hair, pulled the hair and asked: “Are these natural?” After that she pinched her cheek, sat down and only then began to answer questions. For Shaginyan it was totally natural behavior. She wasn’t a dying old lady who behaved the way people around her expected an old lady to behave. When she was asked where her vitality came from, she answered using the words of Stravinsky: “I want to live the time I received, not to die it.”

preliminary sketches for Chikusai

In your movie, Chikusai goes around listening to the trees with his medical horn in the same way a doctor might listen to a patient’s lungs with a stethoscope. That’s all - you don’t have to say anything more, or explain his buffoonery in some artistic way.

There are different kinds of sounds – a woodpecker, a magpie’s flight, a worm gnawing a tree. This 'crescendo' section of the film lasts until the wind starts to blow. Chikusai must be introduced with the help of the underground rumble - the way with an earthquake you first feel the earth take a deep breath, and this is followed by a slight shudder. I think this short segment could provide the plot for a whole film. You could make a film about how old trees breathe, how they creak, how they suffocate (the action takes place in autumn), how the branches tremble from the cold and the trees freeze, engaging in their winter slumber... although the winter in Japan in not our hard frost and blinding snow.

However, the paths on which Basho walked rhyme in a way with our Russian paths. As a poet, he is an eternal wanderer. His way of life is to always wander. The road returns him to himself. Try for a second to imagine Basho’s way of life, what it’s like – Basho’s never-ending journey. It’s not like driving car or hitch-hiking. Imagine the darkness. Not even a small fire or even a living soul near you. The only light is your torch. If the torch burns out, the darkness will devour you. Also, there are robbers, who don’t care if you’re a great person or not. They just see a poor wanderer who might have something precious. Maybe there’s something in his bag. The great Polish sculptor Wit Stwosz created a famed altar-piece in Krakow and died on his way to Hamburg. Where are his bones? Maybe in somebody’s pit for beggars and cripples. And what about Mozart or Rembrandt?

Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who owned nothing and lived in the wilderness, where he stood on a rock for 1000 days and nights and ate only grass, was beaten almost to death by some robbers.

He didn’t even fight back while they were beating him.

When Seraphim was attacked, he had with him an axe that he used to cut trees. But he didn’t use it. He didn’t fight, even though he was very strong. The Diveevsk Monastery still retains the extra-large rags he wore, and his heavy hoe. After he was beaten and they hit his head, he became even more hunched. When the robbers were found, he forgave them and asked for their freedom.

Now that is a feat. Or maybe not a feat, just a way of life. He didn’t think about it as a feat. It was the natural course of action for a holy man. Basho couldn’t be lured by money or good conditions or with the words: “Why are you walking in your rags when it’s raining and snowing?” His words roamed the paths. His verses were his messengers. He used to walk barefoot. Nobody had the power to make him settle down, find a home, enjoy a nice fire and write poetry. He kept walking and walking on his roads and paths. Sometimes a helper would assist him, help him with the load, but most of the time he was alone. The burdens of the road weighed heavily on his swollen feet. His hands were freezing. After all, you are the only one who can feel the burdens of your own life. You can’t feel the pleasure of a walk if you send someone instead of you to do it. It has nothing to do with money. You have to overcome these burdens with your own power, and no one can take your pain away. But too often modern man relies on his possessions, which in the end separate him from the essence of life and devour him, so that he loses even the tiniest amount of knowledge about life and feelings for other humans.

I recently saw a documentary about a new living complex in Moscow called “Scarlet Sails”. I don’t think the people who chose this name [after the story by Alexander Grin] realize the price Grin paid for the book! “A high-comfort community”, announced the presenter excitedly, as if in an attempt to convince us that comfort can be bought by cutting down trees, cementing rivers, creating isolated communities, and the like. A kind of a capitalist bunker with a high level of comfort. As they said, the region has everything a man could need. I really wanted to ask if it had a cemetery. But then this complex is itself a cemetery because it isolates man from creation itself. A dead place for poets. Only computer faces with a high level of comfort. A piece of river just for the district. Maybe the sky will also be divided into pieces, proportionally to a person’s bankroll. What do you think? Will the people of this district want to understand Basho’s life and his verses? This unnatural way of life leads to dependency and impossible expectations. The result – lack of social consciousness. The poets will cease to exist, nobody will hear the trees. In essence, today, the trees are seen as units by which to measure the forests. The forests were privatized, and soon you will be able to see them only by special admission.

preliminary sketches for Chikusai

But there will always be a need for poets like Basho!

Yes, there will always be this need. I remember Natasha Guttmann’s story about Richter [Sviatoslav Richter, the pianist], who used to walk 45 kilometers a day. He was so powerful. When he walked towards his grand piano, the crowd before him would split in two, like the water before a ship. Like Basho, he was a wanderer who didn’t gather money, didn’t try to gain anything. He didn’t even need fame. He surpassed it. He had more subtle and great things in his life. He surpassed his mastery and life wasn’t about playing the piano anymore. He didn’t want to play in his last 2 years. Only, from time to time his eyes would light up. His destiny was somewhat similar to Michelangelo’s. To me, these two giants are united in their understanding of life. And that bitterness they felt about the absurdity of their lifelong struggle for perfection, once they had attained the heights of the humanly possible in their later years. I think for Michelangelo it was death. He craved it, he'd screamed about it since the age of 16. Basically, Richter discovered the same thing. “I don’t like myself” – this is how he speaks about himself in the documentary “Richter – The Enigma” directed by Bruno Monsaingeon. There he sits in a cowboy shirt, sharp elbows on the table, before him a writing-book, his expression overwhelmed by an unspeakable melancholy: “I don’t like myself”.

Such masters as Basho and Richter are united through their philosophy: constant motion. Never allow oneself to remain the same - like a river, always renewing itself. I’m always wondering about the paths that would lead animation to the real dramatic art. Mastery is simply a question of mechanics. Mastery is nothing in comparison with the subtler things, the things that you can’t even imagine or postulate. You feel it in your breath, like a kind of fine matter, when something that looks rough and awkward possesses an ineffable hidden compassion and tenderness. It’s an interesting idea: the physics of fine matter, intangible matter. Matter that can only be apprehended by means of photographic plates and careful experimentation. The physics of intangible matter is beyond imagining, but you can at least get a sense of the form of this unthinkable, holy substance. To paraphrase Lev Landau’s wonderful words: “Physics has allowed us to calculate the unimaginable.” Niels Bohr described the quality of a discovery with the words: “An idea not crazy enough to be something true”. In other words, the physicist is one who calculates the unthinkable. Mathematics becomes more and more abstract, and logic ceases to be pure logic. These concepts merge when it comes to the act of creation. Basho would translate everything he had seen and felt into his verses. Essentially, he would grasp the world with his poetry, and the world would become substantial in order to convey something invisible to the eye.

When you compose a frame, you inevitably think about these things. But I was still unable to achieve the intonation I wanted. That’s why, despite the fact that the Japanese accepted the film, I began to make a different version of the main episode, the meeting of Chikusai and Basho. I doubt the producer would agree to remaking the whole piece, as doing so would take money and time, and I’m not even sure that the new version would be what I wanted this time either. The eternal problem in art (including animation) is taking the risk of following your instinct in seeking the right intonation, and not caring about money (which is of no value compared to your answers). To be exhausted with suffering and apprehension that the final result is on film and no editing knob can save it. You cling to false hope, pleasant self-deception. (Can you admire a ragged wound when you bandage it?) Wave after wave of anxiety washes over you. You begin to see the true value of your work only upon examining it as a whole.

You must feel the wind that rustles the rusted leaves, that travels through space rearranging the fallen leaves. Every leaf harbors the energy of the wind. With a creation it’s like with a stove: you’ll get burned if you don’t hold onto the viewers strong enough. With a stove there’s clearly an energy present; but what about when two people meet? Their communication attaches itself to your life. They become your every step. They inhabit your thoughts. They are the continuation of your suffering. The energy of discovery happens here, during the filming, during the endgame and not during the writing of the script. In poetry your creation is the product of hours of madness and a drop of ink. It’s the same in film, but only with more money. A writer takes a pen and writes a line. If it’s bad, he crosses it out and writes a new one. But in cinematography, to make a line you need lights, cameras, time, film, and so on and so on.

You say that you couldn’t find the right intonation in the main episode. Could you be a little more specific about what went wrong?

Maybe I should retell the episode first. Chikusai is having a walk, listening to the trees, and kicking about the fallen leaves when suddenly he sees a stranger doing something important to him. Chikusai approaches the stranger. What’s it to him if it’s Basho or not? You can even presume that he doesn’t know who Basho is. Normally the two wouldn’t be able to meet, for one because one is a fictional character, but also because these two lived in different periods. I already mentioned how the Japanese were surprised to see them meet. They said that nobody had thought about such a simple situation. Clearly I happened upon this idea thanks to my ignorance and freedom from the burden of historical facts. I just knew that Basho mentioned Chikusai in his verses. That’s why Basho and the holy fool Chikusai exist on the same level for me.

Of course, they are also formally united through their poverty – both of them have holes in their kimonos, which they present to each other. But in reality the interchange between them happens on a different level. By no means is their meeting limited to the physical. Yes, they wear rags, but this shabbiness must be funny and should not evoke feelings of sorrow and compassion in the viewer. The essence lies in this ordinary exchange between two ordinary human beings who have a taste for life and the aspiration towards harmony. And despite the fact that Basho is a master poet, he preserves his sense of humor towards his clothes and confrere.

He doesn’t have the pride that often accompanies with such talent.

Does the person who wrote these lines have pride?

     "Perhaps the wind
     will whiten your bones,"
     breathed the cold into my soul.

Does this verse reveal room for pride? There is no place in his heart that would let in pride, not even for a moment.

But returning to the subject. Chikusai sees this strange fellow we call Basho and observes how the stranger is seriously engaged in his louse hunting. Chikusai is fascinated, like a small baby. He sits down and helps Basho in this serious matter. Then when Basho finds holes in his clothes, Chikusai also finds some in his. In the end, they start showing off the holes in their clothing – who has the biggest one? Chikusai acts like he is also a traveler, and brags like one. Then, having exchanged hats, they separate. Chikusai sees that Basho’s hat is completely useless and his is better, so he gives his hat to Basho, taking Basho’s hat and putting it on. The wind starts to blow, steals the hat and bowls it along the road. Chikusai runs after it trying to catch it. Finally he catches it with his stick, sees that the hole has gotten bigger and throws it towards the sky. A gale force wind blows his hat around for a while. Meanwhile Basho has gone in the opposite direction and he’s attacked by a powerful gust of wind and leaves that messes up his clothes. But he goes on.

Anyway, that’s the story. When I spoke about the intonation of the film, what I meant was that I think I didn’t achieve the needed subtlety in their buffoonery, which was intended to have the effect of intensifying the feeling of fate – the fate of the creator, the fate of a simple traveler, of a simple man who embraces nature and can die at any given moment in its embrace. I wanted to create the effect of going from a naive, comic situation to a tragedy. I even used sound to achieve this effect. When this powerful wind arises and practically rips apart their clothing, you hear a monastery bell. At first I wanted it to ring just in the background, but in the end I put it in the foreground. The bell strikes with full power, like the blow of fate.

storyboard of the meeting between Basho and Chikusai

Why the tragedy? Isn’t it enough that the two met, despite it being impossible? Why does everything have to be given tragic proportions?

But at the same time the two are at the mercy of the elements. “Kings are powerless in God’s element.” What about poets then? They are higher than kings, but all are equal in the embrace of the elements. Basho’s last verses are all tragic. He would write that death was near and he was free and captive at the same time. He can only laugh at his rags, but there is something more – something that is connected to memory and death or to what we call “a poor soul”. You can’t say it more precisely. The phrase “Blessed are the poor souls” is true.

In the first centuries of Christianity, two monks lived on Mt. Sinai in a small monastery. One was always praying and crying for his sins. The other enjoyed life and thanked God for his mercy. When both died, both having lived a righteous life, the other monks didn’t know what to think. Which of the two was right? Then the father superior had a revelation: All the paths that lead man to God are right. It’s well known that Saint Seraphim of Sarov greeted everyone with the words “My joy”. Constant grief for your sins doesn’t imply a constant low spirit. Those humble “poor souls” have the same attitude toward life as they do towards death. A tragic point of view is something a simple man might have, whereas Basho was a monk, an ascetic.

I agree but nevertheless, not long before his death, his verses became truly tragic.

     To grieve hearing a monkey’s scream!
     But do you know a baby’s cry
     thrown on the autumn wind?

Or here’s another one: [this is Basho's death poem, his last]

     Sick on a journey,
     only my dreams will wander
     these desolate moors.

You get a feeling of both grief and dignity in his portraits...

Absolutely. I read an interesting anecdote once. One day an Aztec ruler was being burned alive by the Spanish. Sitting near him was his servant, who was screaming his lungs out. The ruler asked his servant: “Why are you screaming? You can see for yourself that I’m not in a pleasant situation myself.” It’s natural that I would want to represent this hidden dignity in my film with humor. Chikusai understands that his presence amuses Basho. And when they are changing their hats, Chikusai roars with laughter, while Basho is just slightly smiling. But I just couldn’t find the right pose.

Maybe instead of a Japanese pose, Basho should have gotten on his knees like a Christian monk praying? After all, ascetics are always praying, even when they are sleeping or talking.

But I don’t know how to do it. I wouldn’t want such an obvious emphasis on the pose. I tried to draw it, but I would always find something wrong. There was always something wrong or unnatural or fake.

In that sense, is there any parallel between Basho and the traveler in “The Tale of Tales”?

He is in a different light, a different space. He’s different. The traveler isn’t necessarily a tragic figure. He doesn’t expect some robbers or other dangers, he just travels. He is free of convention and as free as a human can get whilst walking on a warm autumn road and being sure that nothing can harm him. Basho’s way involves some kind of intense and dramatic effort. Basho’s image is probably closer to a Russian ascetic who has voluntarily thrown himself into a different life. Basho is a poet and at the same time a monk.

What exactly is the different between the poet-monk Basho and the Poet from “The Tale of Tales”, who sits at the table in front of the shining paper?

First of all, the two find themselves in different ‘elements’. Basho is in the element of restriction and self-restriction, while the Poet, like the Traveler, is a stoic and a hedonist. He loves life in all its manifestations.

A stoic and a hedonist in one person?

Yes, because a stoic can suppress his desires and at the same time live in reality. John Galsworthy has a story called “The Stoic”, where an old feeble man orders a dinner of good wine and the finest meats. He truly enjoys the meal, because it’s the last thing he possesses. A man who lived an austere life, deliberately refraining from worldly pleasure, organizes a wonderful feast at the end of his life. In this way he creates a bridge between the pleasures of the world and its madness. The Poet is the same. And like all poets, he can restrict himself at the same time. Like Brodsky, who knew that he had a bad heart, but still smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. [Joseph Brodsky, “Russian poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1987)” – Wikipedia] He just couldn’t stop even if it would prolong his life for a few more months. This act was a part of his poetic system. Or for example, he would enter a restaurant and order everything prohibited to him. For him, this represented the pleasures of life, its zest.

Basho was different. He restricted himself completely. He was a poet and had a large circle of friends, admirers and students who would happily have supported him so he could lead a peaceful life. But it’s hard to imagine that his talent would have blossomed under such circumstances. As I understand it, he cut himself off from everything that would have harmed him as a poet. There’s this one painting where the students are seeing off Basho in a boat. They throng on the shore while he sits there with a pouch and a staff in his hand, a proud expression on his face, looking exalted - just like Jesus. Even the way the edges of his sleeves hang down bring to mind a Russian icon. Here he is the epitome of a great man.

Basho has a very subtle sense of humor.

     The cold penetrates my bones.
     Maybe I should ask the scarecrow
     for a pair of sleeves!

     Hear me merchant!
     Want to buy a hat?
     The one in the snow.

     On the way!
     I will show you how the cherry blossoms in distant Yoshino,
     you old hat of mine.

While I was preparing for the film, I was taken to a town where Basho would often stay at one of his friend’s places to sleep. They rebuilt the shack where he used to sleep. They showed me one of Basho’s drawings: a drawing of reed or cane. Just a few strokes of the brush and the paper comes alive, as if the characters had seeped into in the paper’s structure. All of the Japanese are painters because drawing Chinese characters trains the hand. The essence of drawing these characters is such that every time they show me something or draw a scheme I’m in awe of the pencil’s movement. In Basho’s case there is also his poetic thinking. It’s obvious that, on a subconscious level, the sense of sound is fused with the sense of the physical in the great poets (Pushkin also possessed these abilities). I was also shown a drawing where Basho graphically represented the snoring of a man. It was so funny! This kind of graphical representation of the abstract is somewhat similar to what the painters of the 20th century did, but they did it seriously, whereas here you have a sense of humor, without the tragic element. You could write a whole article about this drawing, about the concept of poetic vision. Mayakovsky once wrote: “Burlyuk came madly climbing from his screaming, torn eyes.” So visually expressive!

But you weren’t hired to make a Japanese film!

No, I wasn’t. From the very beginning I said: “Franya, let’s use the least amount of detail possible for the costumes. Aim for a vague image. The point isn’t to accurately portray the sleeve of a Japanese kimono. We’ll fail if we insist on ethnographic or local accuracy. Detail must be blurred to the point that only the stain remains, like Kandinsky, where the color is more important than the details. But at the same time, the color must not dominate.” I remember how we would sit with Francesca and make the colors. The colors weren’t working, weren’t fusing with the models.

And then bang. Everything fit. A short deep-brown shirt, a long, gold-ish kimono for Basho and a dirty, bluish one for Chikusai. Then I said: “Franya, we used a classic color scheme, just like Rublev’s Trinity.” It had the same blue, gold and deep-brown. We came up with many variants, but why did we choose this combination? The situation wasn’t similar – there was no castle, or castle rock supporting the cup. And then suddenly everything sparked and a fire ignited – just like when a strong wind blows a conflagration, expelling a stream of air that speeds up the fire in a self-perpetuating cycle. When this happens in film, instead the fire begins to produce more and more details. The color stains begin to expel a frantic energy. Rough, dirty, offhand images gain purity and lucidity. I’m not talking about color anymore, but about something stronger than color.

All the fuss over the image evaporated the moment this harmony materialized. The next phase of the work was the animation, that’s why the movement of the color masses is important. But here, you have again a double task: You must develop the movement of the characters, and support it with color movements. The balance between these two elements is important. The challenge is that the action must not lose itself in a kind of plastic illusiveness. It shouldn’t be empty. It shouldn’t be distracting. The balance between these two elements mustn’t weigh upon the characters. The color mustn’t shout like a street market vendor, “You there! Get over here with the rest of these colors! There isn’t enough for everybody!” The challenge lies in the fact that every action, every gesture, must be absent unnecessary accents, shouldn’t overwhelm the viewer or distract attention to the screen. It’s a real challenge to construct the mise-en-scene of two characters in such a way that their every movement plays out over a sort of unseen grid. The result of this is what creates the ‘intonation’ of the film.

working table - Basho

You didn’t use any specifically Japanese elements in the film. Only the woods, the sky and the fallen leaves. You once said that when working on “The Overcoat” you deliberately avoided using historical elements or topographical signs like street signs so the viewer wouldn’t be able to identify the location. In the film about Basho, you not only avoided showing elements depicting the Japanese way of life, you even refused to adopt the basic Japanese drawing style, the way rocks and water and so on are drawn.

We refused to use the obvious stylistic elements, but nevertheless there is a Japanese feeling to the ‘drawing masses’ in the film. Kandinsky wrote that even belonging to a certain nationality can be represented at an abstract level. Every developed culture has its own color scheme. For example, Greece’s colors are white, black and brown. Russia’s are red, blue, gold and white. When you see Japanese landscapes, the color masses are very clearly delineated. The whole effect of the drawing makes you think: “Maybe time did all this. Maybe time dipped this piece of paper into the wind and streams and rain, spilled a little fog here and there, a little mud.” Even though we talked about the French, about Corot’s landscapes and how he drew the wind, we had this general feeling about the surrounding scenery. Corot has a famous drawing of the wind. When we finished filming, I suddenly realized that the film is really similar to that particular drawing. How could this be? Why? Well, it’s only natural! At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the French themselves were fans of Japanese art. Émile Zola introduced French artists to Japanese prints. As a result, the impressionists began to see things differently. The impressionists weren’t the only ones influenced. Van Gogh also saw them. The blooming apple-trees – that’s Japan. I believe Cézanne was also influenced, and Lautrec, and many, many others.

You see, to me this kind of (often unconscious) cultural interchange is more important than trying to understand the specifics of a certain culture.

So you weren’t out to express a Buddhist or Zen Buddhist view of the world?

No, I wasn’t. At least, these idea didn’t influence my creative process. The character’s behavior must express what I didn’t formulate. I mean, what kind of idiot would go and listen to the trees? A French doctor would visit his patient only with a practical goal. He collects the urine in the test tube, checks the patient’s pupils and tongue, feels the pulse, writes out a prescription with an intelligent look on his face, and then proceeds to fleece the money off his patient - all without any hint of emotion, except maybe for the money part. The Japanese doctor, on the other hand, would speak at length about chrysanthemums, about the snow, about how many moons have passed since he first met the patient. He recalls how the drops of dew trembled in the rays of the sun. In this way the doctor tears the fantasy from the passing body. The disease, distraught by the lack of attention, loses its memory and fades away.

So in reality, your movie is in fact somewhat Japanese.

I believe so. In any case, the Japanese said that if they hadn’t known that a European had made the film, they wouldn’t have believed it.

And what about their ecstatic, even religious, contemplation of the tracks on the first snow, of the frozen waterfall in the fog, the blooming tree bathed in the sunshine? These serve something the same role as our icons. Were these things also important to you?

No. It would have been disingenuous of me to pretend that I naturally felt these Japanese expressive symbols. For me, what was more important was to be in a state of mind were I could readily answer why I like Japanese poetry, art and philosophy. But at the same time, I will never be able to create an ikebana. Well, maybe, if nobody is around I could do it, but in public I would get scared and probably do something awful. With this film it’s same – if I’d have attempted to show off by flaunting some kind of touristy Japanese chinoiserie, I would have been laughed at by the Japanese themselves. I once brought to Japan some drawings made by a painter for a story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. My friend, Saitani-san, was indignant: “What is this? This is all China!” That’s why I would never have succeeded if I had tried to work with explicitly Japanese motifs.

When Francesca was drawing the trees, I didn’t bother with whether they were European or Japanese. I just knew that the wind must be here, and the stream there. Even when we were filming the scene with the hat, I didn’t make any attempt to study Japanese prints closely, in spite of the fact that I had a lot of reference material at my disposal. I intentionally refrained from doing something Japanese, but nevertheless I understood the fact that it must have a Japanese coloring, a Japanese wind. Francesca and I were trying to distance ourselves from the obvious symbols and come up with something more subtle.

But the characters themselves had to be recognizable...

Yes, that’s why it took a long time to work out their faces. It was especially hard in Basho’s case, because many variations of him exist. There are no detailed portraits, but it is known that, say, one painting is probably more accurate than another, and these two are so different as to practically look like two different people. But this had the effect of freeing me from a lot of background work. The face concealed by time can be reconstructed through the creator’s work. We can visualize Rublev’s face through his paintings. In this case, we weren’t striving for an accurate representation. A film about Pushkin would be harder to make because we know what he looked like. It’s even harder in Gogol’s case, because we have photographs of him. Rublev’s appearance is lost in the fog, and his own drawings of himself are the only way to reconstruct his image. But not every painter is able to draw a poet. We can paint his exterior, but not all painters can evoke the small details that cannot be seen by a normal eye. It was extremely challenging to find Basho’s image.

In your film he has a big, heavy head, like Socrates.

You see, he has to feel physically present to the audience. It’s like when you see the neck of a boy covered in a ragged shirt thrown over his gaunt shoulders. On looking at him, you feel a powerful wave of pity. But suddenly you see his face, filled with dignity and hidden humor, and understand that his poverty is precisely what gives his face those traits. It’s enough to uncover just a little of Basho’s shoulder and you suddenly realize that he could have been a slave in Greece, a convict in Russia. He could have been a prisoner in a concentration camp, or equally well a fool at some royal court who was allowed to speak freely and remained free, like Socrates or Diogenes. It’s this situation when a man becomes invincible not because he isn’t afraid of death, but because he is so in touch with reality that nothing can move him; he has become one with reality.

I was filming the scene where Chikusai is sitting next to Basho, and was silently horrified. When we finished the scene, I just couldn’t watch it. It’s always like this. At first I just can’t watch it. Then after a while I get used to it. Not because it’s good or bad. I just get used to it and can’t evaluate its merits. The results don’t match the concept. When we finished the scene, which we shot in a silent delirium, I could barely sit still. As I watched the scene, I could see it physically, but I felt nothing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

02:13:32 pm , 114 words, 1161 views     Categories: Animation

Tekkon Kinkreet in LA & NY

Studio 4°C's latest feature film, Tekkon Kinkreet, will be having a limited engagement screening in LA and New York for one week starting this coming Friday. Anyone who missed the MoMA screening, or saw it for that matter, should grab this chance to see the film on the big screen. Help spread the word to make this screening a success and raise the chances of it hitting theaters elsewhere.

LA: Landmark West Los Angeles at The Westside Pavilion
10850 West Pico (at Westwood Blvd.)
(310) 470-0492
https://tickets.landmarktheatres.com/

NY: The Quad Cinema
34 West 13th Street (between 5th & 6th Ave.)
New York, NY 10011
(212) 255-8800
http://www.movietickets.com/house_detail.asp?house_id=216

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

04:08:01 pm , 2664 words, 1613 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Keiichi Hara interview 2

This interview done on June 25 comes from here, where you can see a shot of the director and stills from the film.

I'd like to start by asking you about the original book. At the symposium before the screening the other day, you talked about how you'd liked the book for a long time because you thought you could do a lot of things with it. What made you choose this book?

When I read the book, it felt like a story that would let me say the things I wanted to say. I don't mean it felt like I could use the story to my own ends. It was just a very stimulating story when I first read it, and that feeling never went away, ever over all those years. It's been more than 20 years since I first read the book. The main thing is that, over all that time, this strong desire to adapt this story to animation didn't change.

What was it that interested you about it, exactly? Kenichi's friendship with Coo? Kenichi's troubled adolescence?

All of those things. To me, it's not just a story about a kappa. I tried to talk about a lot of things in the film - kids, family, society. I liked the story because I thought it would let me do that.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it's rather long for an animated film. Is the reason it's so long because you had to fit in all those themes?

A lot of people have been saying that it's long. The thing is, I didn't write a script. I just dived right into the work. In other words, first I came up with the basic outline, and then I moved right onto the storyboard. I didn't have a lot of restrictions on this film, so I decided to go right through the storyboard first and see how long it turned out. Afterwards, if need be, I thought I could go through and cut whatever scenes needed to be cut. So I drew the storyboard that way, and it turned out to be 3 hours long. I knew that was too long, so I sort of resigned myself to cutting it at that point. It took a hell of a lot of work to bring it down from that length to the current length. It feels like I spend most of my time as a director resigning myself to this sort of thing.

I know 2 hours and 20 minutes is long for an animated film, but I cut away all I could. That was the best I could do.

Does the film have a message? Was conveying a message an important factor to you?

No. I tried to make sure the film didn't come across as having a strong message.

The other day there was a screening on Earth Day. It was preceded by symposium. But the movie didn't strike me as an environmental film. It seemed to be a lot more subtle than that. It just shows Japan as it is today - an environment that kappas can no longer inhabit.

I think that's the best way to look at it. I wanted to get across a number of things, about the environment and so on, but without being too overt about it.

The film takes place today, but with a few touches of fantasy. What was your approach to balancing realism and fantasy?

Most of my effort in this film went to getting that balance right. I didn't want to just make a purely realistic film. Fantasy is an important element of this film. But I didn't want it to be an alternate reality either. I want it to be a subtle touch of fantasy that takes place in a reality that we can all relate to. That's just the kind of thing I personally like.

Watching the film, I couldn't help but thinking in real life there would have been more commotion if a kappa turned up one day.

I know. I realize that this isn't quite how things would have turned out in reality. I wasn't able to do any better than that. The fact is that I already had a lot of other things I needed to do for the film, so I couldn't just spend all my energy to focus on that aspect.

The setting is Higashi Kurume, which is interesting because it's a place that's not quite urban, and not quite rural. It's kind of inbetween. What made you choose that location?

The writer of the book, Masao Kogure, he lived there. The first time I visited Masao Kogure, I had some time on my hands, so I went for a walk, and I really liked the rivers I saw there. That's why I chose it. It seemed like a good setting. It's not that I didn't have other candidates, but it had meaning to me because Masao Kogure lived there.

How many years ago was that?

About 10 years ago.

You were busy with Shin-chan at that time I think. What kind of a film did you have in mind at the time?

A certain game company was looking for anime projects at the time, and someone asked me to submit an idea. I submitted this as my idea, and the producer gave it the go ahead. I went to meet Masao Kogure for the first time to get his permission. We hadn't yet decided that we were going to be making the film.

The town of Tono turns up in the film. Did you do any location hunting?

I'd been wanting to do the film for a long time, so I'd had chances to visit Tono before any number of times, just looking for ideas. Later I also went together with the staff.

Okinawa also turns up in the film. Does Okinawa have any special significance to you?

It does, actually. I kind of re-discovered Okinawa in the process of making the film. Twenty years ago I didn't know anything about Okinawa other than the fact that it was in the news because of the US military base and that there were tourist resorts there, but finding out about their traditional ideas about spiritual things kind of opened my eyes and got me really interested in their culture. That's when I discovered the Okinawan yokai called Kijimuna.

People are starting to pay more attention to Okinawa now - not just to the beauty of the ocean there, but to Okinawan culture. Personally I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. I don't think it's good for Okinawa to take on this fantasy island, southern paradise type image.

The background art in the film was particularly beautiful. Was that something you asked the staff to focus on?

Yes and no. Some of the art that came to me was beautiful, and some of it I asked to be redone a number of times to get it right. We had a lot more time than we would for a TV series, so the background artists also put a lot more effort in.

It's been 5 years since you directed your last film. Did it benefit your new film to spend that long working on it?

In the end, yes. But really I wasn't working on it for all of those five years. It took a long time for me to finally get to the point that I could start working on it. When I finally started, I was the only one working on the film for a good while. Though this film took a lot longer to make than the Shin-chan films, it was still done in a relatively short time. The animators probably wanted to spend more time on their part. But it's hard to do that in this day and age. Good staff, and particularly animators, are hard to come by. Everyone talks about Japan as this country of anime, but the fact is that a lot of the burden of that work is shouldered by a small handful of talented animators. That's one of my biggest worries - whether I'll be able to find the staff to make the film.

Over the many years that it took you to finally get to work on the film, did your goals change any from what you had originally wanted to do?

No. They stayed the same. A lot of it is exactly as I originally set out to do at the very beginning, while there are also things I came up with along the way.

What are some of the things that didn't change?

I had come up with the climactic sequence at the very beginning. And I had wanted to focus on the growing-up aspect since the very beginning. There was nothing about that in the book.

Am I correct in assuming that you intended this as a children's film?

Absolutely not. That's not what I intended at all.

I see, then I was mistaken. I thought you had intended it as a children's film that adults could enjoy as well. So you set out to make a film that anyone could watch?

No, that's not what I set out to do either. I wanted to go beyond that sort of genre-based thinking. It's something that I learned while working on the Shin-chan films all those years ago. Movies made with that sort of mentality are no good.

With genre films, you have the people with the money on this side. They know exactly what kind of film they want to make - they want to make a film that they think this group of people over here will want to see. So they know exactly how to make it, how much to spend, and so on. Lots of movies are made with that approach, including animated movies.

Many movies these days do seem made for a predetermined audience.

Well, it occurred to me at one point that that's the problem. Or rather, my audience made me realize that - the people who came to see Adult Empire. When I made that film, I didn't think anyone would want to watch it. But I was absolutely honest in that film, really true to myself, so personally I was very satisfied with the film. I accepted that probably not everyone would like it. Some people might even hate it. Why? Because it wasn't a genre movie anymore. But much to my surprise, it became popular by word of mouth. So I didn't discover that on my own. It's people's reaction that made me realize it.

It's at that point that I realized that it was silly to make a film in a specific genre or with a specific audience in mind. I realized that, if you make a film honestly, then the film will get the recognition it deserves. Since then, that's been my basic approach.

How did it feel when you first began moving away from genre movies with Adult Empire?

It was a real struggle. I'd already done a few of the films by that time, but come time to start on the next one, I didn't have any ideas, so I actually didn't approach it very seriously. I had kind of a 'whatever' attitude. But when I started working on it, I started feeling kind of lost, on auto-pilot, so I felt like I had to do something or I'd lose my grip. That's when I started becoming more serious. It was a big change for me. Usually I would just throw together some formulaic plan, but I was sick to death of that sort of thing. All of a sudden I started taking the work deadly seriously.

Was it constricting to have to work with a situation like that where the characters are already fixed within a set framework?

Yes and no. Sometimes it was a real burden, but other times it was a real life-saver. Working on the same characters for so long makes it easier to figure out how a character would react or speak in different situations. For example, obviously Shin-chan would drop his pants and do the butt dance in this situation. So it's actually kind of helpful to deal with characters whose limits you know. Not always, but often.

The characters in this film seem to have been created very freely. How was it different working with these characters?

With this film I didn't have that intimacy with the characters, which made it considerably more difficult than I'd expected. I had to work out each of the characters' personalities right as I was drawing the storyboard, which was a real challenge. What would this character do here? What would he say here?

A moment ago you were talking about avoiding genres. Why animation then? Animation is more in thrall to preconceived notions than many genres.

Because that's all I can do. Because I've been doing it for 20 years and that's all I know. Based on my own knowledge and experience, the choice was obvious. There was no hesitation there.

What surprised me about this film was how realistic the characters were. The characters in your previous films often had very simple forms. Why did you choose more realistic forms for this film?

With this film for the first time I had the chance to create everything myself. Having worked with simply stylized characters for a long time, this time I wanted to get away from that and do something I'd wanted to do for a long time but never had the chance to do. I also wanted to place some limitations on myself by making the characters more realistic. In other words, Shin-chan could do these giant leaps, and you wouldn't think twice about it. The unrealistic design makes the audience accept it. I didn't want to be able to hide behind that sort of thing this time.

The opening sequence is a little scary. Weren't you worried about the what the children in the audience might feel?

I've been told that before. When I set out, I made a decision not to get hung up on that sort of thing for once. That scene was absolutely necessary to the film because it summarizes the relations between kappas and humans. That scene was also one of my very early ideas. I'm sorry if children find the scene difficult to watch, but I had absolutely no intention of modifying things simply to make the film kid friendly, so no, it never occurred to me.

Studio Ghibli is one of the more well known animation studios in Japan in terms of being seen by a large audience. How do you see yourself in relation to them?

I'm not under the illusion of being remotely qualified to consider them rivals or anything. I don't think it's helpful to be oversensitive about other creators like that. For a long time I've known that I could never reach their level of dedication to the act of creating animation, so I've resigned myself to going in a different direction of my own.

Many people think very highly of your work in the industry. How do you feel about that?

Not much. It's not that I don't appreciate it or anything. It's just that I'm actually a real slacker, so it doesn't ring true to me. Just ask any of the staff. (laughs) If anything, thank the staff for all the hard work they put into make these films what they are.

So your style is all about teamwork?

The thing that impresses me about Takahata and Miyazaki is how they deal with their staff. They place incredible demands on their staff. I just can't do that. I tend to prefer to let the staff do things their own way. If people like the results, then so much the better.

Do you have any new plans?

I do, but I can't talk about them yet... because I haven't done anything yet. (laughs)

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Sunday, July 8, 2007

09:01:32 pm , 443 words, 1547 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Live-action

Postmen in the Mountains

Wandering around Chinatown yesterday I wandered into a DVD shop where I picked up a DVD of a film I'd never heard of but that looked up my alley, Postmen in the Mountains. Watching it it felt like it was from the early 80s, but in fact it's a film from 1999. Its washed out color palette is a delight, and the film is a delight, one of the most moving I've seen in a while. The sort of film where nothing much happens but each moment is filled with meaning and tremendously moving. My eyes were burning the whole time. It brought back memories of crossing the Pyrenees with my dad a few years ago, which certainly helped make it more resonant to me.

One-track-minded person that I am, I couldn't help but think that this is the sort of thing I've been wanting to see done properly in animation. The film does what films rarely manage to do, convey the sensation of another human being beside you. Normally film is a medium where the medium is foregrounded and human warmth is a distant dream, but this film did what few films I've seen do - evoke that strange tingling sensation of uncertainty and tentativeness when there's someone there beside you. What it is to be alive, basically. Animation is a tool that can evoke reality by careful selection and emphasis, and for some reason I felt that would have been a good way to achieve what they did here. Hara strikes me as the closest to this I've seen in animation. Been feeling particularly sick of anime these days and wanting to see a film that goes back to something more fundamental like this.

I'm excited that I'll be able to see Tokyo Story on the big screen for the first time in over a decade in the next few days.

I saw Ratatouille and thought it was perhaps the best CGI film I've seen. I'll admit no previous CGI films did much for me, but this was a very solid and most of all tremendously entertaining and engaging film, even aside from the technical aspects, which are obviously without par in the genre. For the first time ever for me there were even moments of movement that I enjoyed as movement. I particularly liked the bit where Remy is about to run out of the restaurant at the beginning but gets lured back to fix the soup. For some reason a lot of the drama flow and humor felt slightly Miyazaki-influenced. Was shocked to realize that one of my favorite actors, Ian Holm, voiced Skinner, but I didn't even realize it.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

03:57:30 pm , 987 words, 1428 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Keiichi Hara interview

Ran across an interview with Keiichi Hara, so I thought I'd translate it, just to see if I could get a feel for his voice, though there isn't much of anything by way of new information in the interview. Original interview from here.

I hear you've been warming this project for years.

I first ran into the original story about 20 years ago, back when I was working as chief director of the TV show Esper Mami. Few projects at the time were original, instead always focusing on adapting popular comics. I didn't think it was a good thing for the industry to keep going in that direction, so I took it upon myself to buy a few books on my own tab every week and read through them to look for a potential interesting project. Kappa Uproar by Masao Kogure was the one that I found at the time that seemed to have the most potential as animation. A baby kappa born in the Edo period comes back to life and experiences life in our own times. I thought the situation had a lot of possibility. Unfortunately it took me 20 years to finally get to the point where I could actually do the project. The author, Masao Kogure, passed away earlier this year. When I'd met him before, I had mentioned that I wanted to change the story a bit to make it into a film. Instead of asking me how I was going to change it, he just said, "I'm just happy that the book will be coming back to life, so I'll leave it up to you." The film was completed at the end of last year, but sadly Masao Kogure passed away before I had a chance to show it to him. I still tremendously regret that I didn't have a chance to show it to him.

There's a gap of 5 years between this film and your last film, the Warring States Shin-Chan film.

I didn't actually do much during that time. I wrote a script someone asked me to write and gave some ideas for an SFX movie, but none of those things came to fruition. I was glad that people were asking me to do these things, but at the time I was still employed at Shinei, so I wasn't exactly free to just do as I pleased. Coo had been on my mind constantly ever since I started working on Shin-chan. Every time one of the films ended, I thought, "Now is my chance to get started on Coo." But then I'd be forced to start working on the next film - over and over again. So in the end after Warring States I just decided to put my foot down and shift to working on Coo. People who'd seen my Shin-chan work asked me if there was anything else I'd like to do, which made it a lot easier to set to work on it. In way, it's thanks to Shin-chan that I was able to do Coo.

The film touches on some environmental issues.

I look at the yokai (traditional Japanese monsters) more as minorities than monsters. Many ethnic groups have been persecuted and marginalized throughout history, but nobody has ever even seen a kappa, so thinking of kappa in terms of a minority helped me come to grips with how a kappa might have felt in Coo's situation. So in a sense there is a bit of overlap with Native Americans. People move into the area inhabited by the kappas, use the land to their own ends, and drive out the kappas. In that sense it's a parallel with what happened to the Native Americans.

The scene with the family on the Tokyo Tower is kind of similar to the scene you did in the Adult Empire Strikes Back movie.

Actually, it's the other way around. I already had the idea to use that scene in Coo when I started making Adult Empire, and I just borrowed the idea in the Adult Empire film. Then I came to Coo and was in a bit of a fix since I'd already used the scene in that film. But I decided to go ahead with it anyway. I just accepted that the Tokyo Tower would be this recurring theme in my work.

Who do you want to see this film?

20 years ago when I first came up with the idea for the film I was thinking it would be for kids, but after years of working on the Shin-chan films I changed and wanted to make films that not only kids would want to watch but also adults. So I'd like kids to watch it, but I'd also like people of my generation to watch it. I'm satisfied enough with the results to be able to say that. It's been about one full generation since the original story was written, so I'll be happy if moms and dads who read the story back then come to the film with their kids and it brings back some memories.

What's your next project?

Right now I'm feeling really empty after having finished this project I'd been working on for 20 years. I don't know what to say whenever somebody asks me what I'm doing next, because it'll take me some time to get over that feeling. It's not like I've got a spare project I can just pull out of the drawer. Coo was everything. I'm freelance now, so I'd like to try my hand at various things if people want me. I'm also interested in live action. But I'm well aware that it takes more than enthusiasm to get a project done. In any case, in the coming days I'd like to focus on creating dense drama, so I'd like to continue to direct feature films.

(Actually, I found a few more interviews, so I'll probably be translating them as well soon.)

Sunday, July 8, 2007

02:43:09 pm , 172 words, 1370 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #9

We were back to the level of quality of the early eps here, with feature AD Ei Inoue, another storyboard by Shinsaku Sasaki (ep 4), and more than anything the animation headed by Toshiyuki Inoue and Takeshi Honda again, joined by Kazutaka Ozaki and Yoshikazu Honma. They'd been absent for a while, and the difference was quite noticeable.

The ep was one of the more entertaining in a while, showing how important the storyboarder is. The wittiness of the script was nice in this ep. I liked the gag about getting drunk on chocolate liquor bottles. Watching this ep I got to thinking it would have been nice if they could have gotten Shinji Otsuka to work on the show. I'd like to see him do some TV work, and he seems a good fit with the rest of the crowd. He could have brought some good humor to the animation that would have worked to the benefit of the ep. He's probably busy at work on some feature project somewhere, as usual.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

10:20:30 am , 289 words, 1996 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #8

This episode was a nice, slow stroll through the summer night. One of the calmest episodes so far, with a few threads working their way in the background but otherwise little happening dramatically. It was nice to see more antics from Kyoko. The real star was the animation director, Koichi Arai (filmo). He had an episode in Kemonozume, so it would make sense to expect him to turn up here. He's told horror stories about his episode of Kemonozume, how they just couldn't find animators to work on it and generally had the most production difficulties of any episode in the series, and it just barely got done in time. I remember wondering why it was that the staff on that episode was so incredible, with people like Takaaki Yamashita, but the animation didn't seem to reflect the quality staff that much. That perhaps explains why.

Here it's clear that this new Madhouse production isn't going to be running into that sort of troubled waters. They've had all the time to do what they need to do, and the episode doesn't have that rushed feeling. But again it's the same thing - great staff including Masaaki Endo, Nobutake Ito, Ayako Hata, Koji Sugiura and even Takaaki Yamashita and Nobutoshi Oguro, who were in Arai's Kemonozume ep, but nothing overwhelming in terms of the animation. Instead, the animation is full of little bits of subtly nuanced animation. The real pull is Koichi Arai's drawings, which are very appealing. He uses very few lines to create a nice expression that captures the emotion well. Arai's always good at drawing interesting crowds full of people with very individuated features, and the people in the background here were nice and felt very Arai.