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: February 2008, 26

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

11:54:59 pm , 1097 words, 3751 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Towards the Rainbow

The greatest filmmakers can create a transcendent experience in the viewer. Few filmmakers can do that for me, but Tadanari Okamoto is one of them. I think he's one of Japan's best artists of the last few decades, and he is by far my favorite independent Japanese animator. Every element of art commingles in his work to a level of perfection that I find in very few animated films anywhere - not just technical ingenuity that makes each of his films different from one another and perpetually fascinating in terms of the technique or form, but even moreso the deep love of humanity, generosity of spirit and gentle humor that shines through in each of his simple and lovely films. I think his films are a treasure. I don't revisit his films often, but that's only because I don't want to ruin the pleasure of doing so by treading too hard on the soft and delicate ground of his universe. Whenever I do come back to one of his films, it renews my faith in animation.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, Okamoto is currently not represented on DVD anywhere in the world, not even in Japan. Many years ago a good 2-LD set of his work was released by Pioneer, including a broad selection of his shorts and full versions of several of his best longer efforts, but this has not been re-released. Testament to the size of his oeuvre is the fact that even a set of this size was only able to cover a chunk of his body of work, and several of his other longer efforts (films of almost 20 minutes in length) were conspicuously absent - meaning even viewers who had the luck to find the LD set did not have a complete picture of this major independent animator. This set forms the basis of my knowledge of Okamoto's films, so I've been longing for an expanded version of the set to be released.

Many of Okamoto's films won the coveted Noburo Ofuji award over the years (recent laureates being Mind Game and Koji Yamamura's Franz Kafka's Country Doctor), and those films were in fact released on a DVD box set that came out several years ago, covering all of the winners of the prize since its inception. So a few films were available, in a way. But the Ofuji box set itself was prohibitively expensive, so the films remained outside of the reach of most consumers. This is doubly a shame because two of the films included on the set were not included on the LD set, and had not been released on any consumer format prior to then. I held out hope that they would eventually be released as part of a newly expanded DVD re-edition of the old set, but such has not happened so far.

In the meantime, lacking any reasonable form of representation on DVD, Okamoto's name continues to be pushed further into oblivion with each passing year. I therefore do not feel in the slightest bit bad for pointing out that someone took the initiative of ripping the films from that DVD set and uploading them to Stage6. I recently discovered this fact upon scrounging around on the site for obscurities after hearing that it was going to be shutting its doors on Thursday. The four films on the site are among Okamoto's best films, and I don't think they have been viewable by audiences over here in any form prior to now, so I recommend anyone who is interested in independent animation to check them out while you have the chance, although unfortunately they are not subbed. It's the best we've got for now.

Revisiting a film by Okamoto is always a treat for me, so needless to say, finally being able to see one of his major efforts that I have never seen but have wanted to see for ages, and that turns out to be one of his best films, is sheer delight. I was lucky enough to have that experience tonight upon watching Niji ni Mukatte / Towards the Rainbow (1977), which immediately struck me as being one of his most perfect films in every way, right up there alongside Praise Be to Small Ills (1973) and The Magic Ballad (1982). What a sad thing for a film with this sort of emotional power to have remained buried for so long. But the same applies to all of Okamoto's films. These are films that have not aged at all, and that should be seen more than ever now, when this sort of honest and heartfelt filmmaking seems to have gone by the wayside. These are films that speak to people in a way few indie shorts do. Okamoto's voice was unique even during his day, and his voice remains unique today. I think it's also remarkable that he managed to produce so many relatively long films during the short span of about a decade and a half that he was active. His body of work appears to span over 5 hours.

Like the earlier film Praise Be to Small Ills, Towards the Rainbow benefits from a terrific soundtrack by folk rocker Kohei Oikawa. His voice flows like silk over the images, a lilting poetic echo of the narration by the great voice of Kyoko Kishida, while that unforgettable melody raises the experience of watching the film to another plane altogether. Yet another great example of Okamoto's unflagging devotion to creating a soundtrack that is an inseparable part of the whole yet also incredibly beautiful and moving on its own. The puppets are lovely and elegant with their simple forms, very clearly showing Okamoto's spiritual Czech heritage. The lighting is impeccably handled to create delicate, moody images of the interiors where the young girl is weaving. The images of the river are magnificently rich and lush thanks to Okamoto's wonted combination of various techniques. The ethereal mist is achieved by layering traditional animation for the water and crepe paper for the mist over 3D sets. The film uses the framework of a simple love story of two young people to evoke any number of powerful and timeless themes. Foremost, it is a universal story about how humanity, driven by love, can come together to overcome the obstacles that divide us. At the same time, it is also a fascinating culturally specific slice of historical technical ingenuity. Every element from the technique to the storytelling to the theme is effortlessly intertwined into a multilayered whole to create a deceptively simple film of transcendent beauty. This is Okamoto at his best.