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 2008, 06

Sunday, July 6, 2008

01:02:16 am , 1311 words, 5557 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

A Country Doctor

My DVD of Koji Yamamura's latest film, A Country Doctor, arrived a few weeks ago, and I finally watched it yesterday. Although it left me with more question marks dangling above my head than with any sense of catharsis or dramatic closure, I am convinced that this is his richest and most powerful film in countless ways. I also think it's one of the best Japanese indie animation films to come down the pipeline, ever. It's a great achievement, and it shows just how far Yamamura has come over the years.

I respect Yamamura because he's just about the only major indie animator in Japan who can boast so much variety of style from one film to the next. He's constantly trying out something new, exploring the endless possibilities of animation. A Country Doctor couldn't be more different from The Old Crocodile, which couldn't be more different from Mt Head, although in terms of intensity of work and length the latter is probably the closest comparison to A Country Doctor. They also both used similar-sounding traditional theater styles for their narration - kyogen in the case of A Country Doctor and rakugo in the case of Mt. Head. Adopting a new approach to the animation and soundtrack for each film is something he seems to have inherited from Tadanari Okamoto. Yamamura is perhaps the only Japanese indie animator who stands up to that comparison. He's making world class films, and keeps pushing himself to go to the next level. New faces on the scene like Tomoyasu Murata and Kunio Kato are striking out on the same journey now, but he's still in that lonely place at the top in the meantime. (Although Kato Kunio is ascending the ladder at a quick clip, what with his recent win at Annecy.)

The animation aspect has always been re-invented throughout Yamamura's work, but these last few years I feel like he's been creating animation that is ever more interesting as pure movement, culminating for me in his wonderful 4-minute film Fig, which blazes with animated power. He fills the film with imaginative transformations of a kind that only he can come up with. In Country Doctor now he goes even further in that direction. Here it's like he's swung back from the stasis of The Old Crocodile to an approach focused on creating vivid, dynamic movement. He's created a film where the animation takes on the sort of primacy and primordial power that I haven't seen in any animated films from Japan apart from maybe the films of Nobuhiro Aihara or the work of Shinya Ohira. The animation in this film truly speaks louder than words. The animation slowly sears a hole in your eye one moment, and then explodes from the screen in a frenzy of motion the next, mirroring the curious, deliberately malformed ebb and flow of Kafka's storytelling.

This film has some of the best shots of animation I've seen in years - shots that are so full of vitality and energy, and communicate the situation so powerfully, that watching them was literally hair-raising. Yamamura came up with a really original style of animating the characters in this film, bending them willfully all over the screen as an external manifestation of their inner turbulence in response to each situation. The story itself is quite an enigma, and two viewings have not helped to parse the unending succession of surreal scenes that constitute A Country Doctor. Both despite this and because of this, the film leaves a very rich aftertaste. The doctor is a fascinating character, morosely pensive and hypersensitive, a typical Kafka character I saw a lot of myself in, and it was a brilliant idea of Yamamura's to adopt this style of animation as a way of expressing this peculiar character's mental state, and of expressing the specific atmosphere of ironic claustrophobia of Franz Kafka's stories.

Kafka has been adapted successfully several times in animation, but Yamamura brings his own unique look and atmosphere to Kafka's stories. Yamamura does something that people probably usually neglect to do, maybe out a fear of disrespecting the aura of seriousness of the father of angst - he reveals to us Kafka the comedian. He puts the laughter back in Kafka. It's not a belly-laughing sort of humor. It's more that Yamamura brings out the bleak humor betweens the lines of Kafka's books. I think that was a great insight that helped to make this film successful. Yamamura's films usually have an atmosphere of dark whimsy, and in that sense this film remains quintessentially Yamamura. It's a case of a perfect match of temperament to material.

Although I haven't read the original to be able to comment on how Yamamura adapted the story to the audiovisual means of animation, the film is supremely visual. It creates simple, powerful images that resonate on a number of levels with the theme of the story and show that Yamamura put effort into creating a film endowed with a kind of literary richness. It's rich in terms of the actual richness of the screen, which is constantly layered with lots of effects and animation that make for beautifully dense living paintings, and it's rich in terms of the thematic poetry of the images. At one point, the doctor grows immense and reaches out to touch the brightly shining moon, only to plunge his head into the noose of its bowl and swing high in the night sky. The film offers a feast of creative imagery to chew on that enriches the narrative. The pacing of the film is quite unique, too, with the way for a minute it will flow along in slow motion only to suddenly jerk into fast-forward. Yamamura does a brilliant job of coming up with all of these myriad ways of mirroring the schizophrenic nature of the story and the character's mind, through the deformed and wildly jagged animation, through the deranged and zig-zagging structure, and even through the eerie soundtrack with its Ondes Martenot warbling behind eerie violin strains. The deliberately halting way the story flows is an aspect Yamamura mentioned in the talk. He says that it was this halting aspect of the narrative that attracted him to the original story, and that aspect of the film is definitely one of its most distinctive features.

The surreal images and explosive animation are Yamamura's contribution to the material - Yamamura jamming to Kafka's tune. Just because it's literature doesn't mean it has to be literal. Too often people confine themselves to churning out romantic historical postcards. I'm sure that could even have been done with this story. Without even having read the story, I can tell that this is obvioulsy a case of a great literary adaptation that does justice to the material by instead re-imagining the story in another medium, rather than just rotely re-gurgitating it. Night on the Galactic Railroad is one of the few other instances that come to mind as reaching this level. Sometimes a literary adaptation has to be almost an original creation to be great.

The film seems to take on the influence of any number of figures from Parn to Norstein, but Yamamura does what few people are able to do and makes the lessons of the masters his own, rather than just doing surface mimickry. The richness of the screen seemed to be something he might have learned from Norstein, but it's folded into Yamamura's aesthetic. There's a nice video of a dialogue between Yamamura and German literature critic Osamu Ikeuchi on the DVD that was very interesting for getting into the matter of the Kafka source material, although I was a little disappointed that they didn't have any other guests on there who could have asked Yamamura some questions about the animation, of which no mention was made. What an elephant in the room.