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: August 2009, 04

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

11:58:48 pm , 3892 words, 7276 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Taku Furukawa

A while back I mentioned that Anido was working on the English version of their web shop. Well, it's up now, and there are a number of items of interest on there, so I thought I would talk about one of them today. I bought the Taku Furukawa DVD a few months back but just got around to watching it yesterday.

I knew that Taku Furukawa was one of the main figures of the independent animation scene in Japan since its inception largely at the hands of Yoji Kuri and his abettors in the Animation Sannin no Kai, and I even wrote a blurb about him in an old post that provides a decent overview. But really, I'd only seen a handful of his films, and I didn't have an actual picture of him as an artist from first-hand experience with his work. The DVD released by Anido entitled Takun Films provides a commendably rounded overview of this artist, with no less than 18 of his films running 120 minutes in total, as well as a 40-minute interview and an amusing "biographicaricature". It also contains more than 100 stills of his posters, book covers, sketches and assorted other illustrations. The DVD was assembled by the legendary Takashi Namiki of Anido, and the whole thing exudes a playful vibe that is a perfect mesh with Taku Furukawa's whole ethos as an artist. The DVD also includes an English biography (which can be found online here) and a much-expanded Japanese version.

The DVD confirms what I suspected: Taku Furukawa is a unique figure. The animation he created over the two decades of the 1970s and the 1980s is, of course, unique enough, but it's his approach to animation that strikes me as unique to him, and also, uniquely Japanese. Simply put, Taku's films are not laborious works of art. They're playful esquisses thrown off whenever he got an amusing idea. They feel zen, aloof, casual. Of course, I don't mean to play down the considerable amount of work that obviously went into some of the more highly movemented films such as Sleepy, but overall, his films strike me as the antipode of Animation As Serious Art, which is odd since many of his films are often very experimental and abstract. With Taku, the primacy of the idea and its immediate transfer to paper seem to take precedence over any sort of superficial polishing. The human characters who appear intermittently in Taku's oeuvre, which is about equally divided between abstract films and amusing vignettes featuring his trademark doodle figures, are never laboriously rendered or animated, even in films in which he obviously spent a lot more time planning out the film.

Clearly a good deal of his constitution as an artist came from his experience working at Yoji Kuri's seminal 'Yoji Kuri Experimental Film Workshop' (Kuri Yoji Manga Jikken Kobo), which he joined in 1963 after assorted events subsequent to being born in 1941. His early films from 1968 to the early 70s, seen today, come across as experimental films that happen to use drawings, rather than animated films. It's not until the mid-70s that he begins to shake off the stylistic inculcation of the Workshop and come unto his own as an artist. After having made two short films at Kuri's studio, he quit in 1966. The first film on the set, from 1968, dates from this freelance period. He formed his own company, Takun Films, in 1970, the year of the release of his second film. His heyday as an artist strikes me as occurring in the years surrounding 1980, when his most appealing films were made. The last film on the set dates from 1990, even though this DVD was released in 1998. I'd be curious to see any other films he's made since 1990.

One of the things I like about Taku Furukawa is that it wasn't a done deal that he'd do animation. He graduated with a degree in Spanish, and his first love during the university days was playing the guitar. He came relatively late to the idea of doing illustration and animation, and how he came to animation was through the radical animation experimentation of Yoji Kuri & gang. I think the creators of this period were blessed with something that young animators today will unfortunately never be able to benefit from: a lack of history. Furukawa has a certain eclecticism of spirit that comes from having experienced a lot before coming to animation, which was undoubtedly possible because he lived in a culture that wasn't steeped in animation everywhere you looked. The slapdash, almost amateurish style that may strike newcomers to his work as decidedly lacking in animated inventiveness and technical skill is obviously the result of not having received formal training in animation. He came to animation the way many did at that period - by doing it instinctively. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in creating animation instinctively like Furukawa did, with a number of strong figures appearing in recent years on the indie scene doing this kind of loose, instinctive animation unfettered by anime (or western, for that matter) history or aesthetics.

Perhaps the most important influence that led to the style that defines his work, with its simple lines, is the work of Saul Steinberg. He discovered Steinberg's work around 1963 after moonlighting as an animator on the first few episodes of Tetsujin 28 while attending the university, and it was a revelation to him. He realized that it was that kind of work, and not stuff like Tetsujin 28, that he really wanted to do. Thus is what led him to join Yoji Kuri's studio. More specifically, he saw one of Yoji Kuri's shorts one day in the theater, and that same day, he called Kuri on the phone to tell him that he was coming to join the company tomorrow. This was while he was still in the university. Kuri was nice enough to turn him away and tell him to come back after graduating. Furukawa did so and promptly joined Kuri's studio.

During the interview, which was conducted at Furukawa's atelier in Tokyo, Furukawa and the interviewer are seated at a desk whose every inch is covered from one end to the other with hundreds upon hundreds of wind-up toys. The places feels like a fun-house, littered with lots of funny drawings and strange curiosities. Furukawa isn't just an animator - he draws illustration, picture books and manga and sculpts figures and other objects. Animation comes across as being merely one of the various outlets of an eclectic, playful creator who remains a child at heart.

The first three films on the set - Oxed-Man (1968), New York Trip (1970) and Head Spoon (1972) - are very much films of their era. They feel dated perhaps because the young artist was using contemporary pop iconography rather than creating something of his own. His later works are much less 'datable' to any particular stylistic fads of any era. Oxed-Man has the randomness, lack of polish and cascade of silly imagery that characterize most of Furuawa's work, but it doesn't have the later films' particular appeal that save the films from descending (in most cases) into sheer indulgence. It's based around the legend of the minotaur, but completely re-imagined through Furukawa's humorous and nonsensical imagery. But it is the work of a young artist testing the waters, so I don't think you could expect anything else. The film was his first real assay in a longer format. The way he came to make the film was that Kuri had a musique concrete soundtrack that avant-garde composer Toshi Ichiyanagi had made for one of Kuri's films, and Kuri gave Furukawa the soundtrack and suggested he try to make a film using the same soundtrack. There must be a lot of interesting stories like this yet to be told about Kuri's seminal studio. This is a film perhaps best enjoyed by not overthinking, and just surrendering yourself to its parade of bizarre imagery.

The campiest of his early films, quite probably deliberately, is New York Film, which is a chaotic grab-bag of psychedelic colors, 60s imagery, fat Americans and photos of New York. It feels like a foreigner's ironic travelogue through the 60s in New York. In the interview, Furukawa relates that the film was inspired by a trip he made to New York in 1969, a trip he decided to take partly inspired by viewing the film Midnight Cowboy. It was his first overseas trip, so it's understandable that the city left a strong impression on him. The film is his poetic travelogue of his first overseas trip. It's an interesting picture of this unique era in US history seen from an outsider's perspective.

Furukawa's personal style begins to emerge with Head Spoon, in which the borrowed imagery disappears and we instead begin to see the simple line drawings that characterize his later work, albeit still not fully developed and perfected.

The first film on the set that really grabbed me and I think still works after all these years is Nice to See You (1975). What's interesting with Furukawa is what I mentioned before - that he swings between making films that are really very abstract in concept and films in which fun doodles go through amusing antics in classic cartoon style. All of his early films were experimental, but mixed with doodle drawings. This is the first of his films that is purely abstract. What I like about it is that it is to the point, has a clear concept, and is elegantly executed. I won't ruin the film for people who haven't seen it (funny, the idea of spoilers in an abstract film), but he takes a very simple concept - the stipples created by the half-tone printing effect - and makes a film that evokes a number of ideas about the act of observing images.

Beautiful Planet (1974) is a music video in the vein of Minna no Uta, to which Furukawa has also contributed a good number of films over the decades. This may have been his first film in this format. It was actually made on commission for Unesco, and is among his first drawn films that works and is appealing. You could further divide his drawn films into films with a story and films that are just random doodles. There isn't a story in this film, but rather a series of pretty images riffing on the theme of the song. There is Taku Furukawa the storyteller, and then there is Taku Furukawa the artist having fun coming up with images and animated doodles. He also makes use of early rudimentary CGI for some of the images.

Phenakistiscope (1975) is one of Taku Furukawa's masterpieces, even though there is nothing more to the film than a series of phenakisticopes made by Furukawa shot rotating in sequence. Like Nice to See You, this is one of his films that are simple in concept and execution, and all the stronger for it. The actual phenakisticopes are very appealing and fun, and his particular genius as an animator of amusing transformations comes through very well in them. I don't know whether it was before or after, but one of the books for children Furukawa published includes some of these very same phenakistiscopes, which can be cut out and played with. 1975 feels like the year in which he suddenly began producing strong films, which he continued to do over the next five years.

Coffee Break (1977) is also one of his strongest films. If you were to only watch three or four of his films, this and the former film would be in there. There is very little to the film, in classic Taku Furukawa style - merely a very spare doodle of a person sitting at a desk downing a cup of coffee, to whom a surreal event occurs that again I will not spoil but to say that it is quite surprising, very odd, and yet very exciting to watch. Taku Furukawa is the king of nonsense animation, and this is one of his masterpieces in that style. It is nonsense of the highest order. It's in films like this one that I feel Taku Furukawa to be one of the spiritual fathers of the indie animation that is being made today by young independent animators like Atsushi Wada, with his crudely drawn figures, bare-bones visuals and loopy, nonsense stories.

Motion Lumiere (1977) is another splendid film from this burst of creativity that seems to have visited Furukawa in the years after 1975. It consists of what at first appears, if viewed carelessly, to be just a bunch of sparkly lights on the screen. When observed more carefully, they resolve into what appear to be a series of figures going through motions such as walking or lunging - as if Muybridge had been animated with a Lite Brite. It's just a very pretty film to watch, and one that evokes some interesting thoughts about the nature of movement and the history of animation.

Comix (1979) is a good Taku Furukawa film, although by any other standard it is quite random and without purpose. That said, I really enjoyed it. It's one of his best nonsense films. It features a human figure dangling from above, morphing subtly between different faces and slowly drooping downwards like a drop of water, the head always seeming just about to drop off, while a sort of rocky magma undulates below him like the ocean tide. There's nothing else to it, but it it works on the power of its oneiric imagery and mesmerizing repetition.

Speed (1980) is the film that won Furukawa the Noburo Ofuji prize. It is one of his most immediately accessible films, and it just plain looks the most like a Taku Furukawa film. It's also perhaps his film that feels the most like an 'animated short' in the conventional sense of having a story, characters, events and message. It tells a story about a caveman who travels to the future a number of times, experiencing the many advances in speed made by man over the centuries until he hits the full-speed modern lifestyle of racecars and city life, only to come back dissatisfied and settle for the rustic charm of the good old caveman life. It seems to be the film in which he perfected the unique visual style that I myself have always associated with him - a sort of animated doodle, somewhat similar to Don Hertzfeld, but more lighthearted and less arduously animated. Taku Furukawa is also active as an illustrator. The style that seems to define his illustrations and his Minna no Uta shorts is this style of simple line-drawn figure, and this is one of his best animated shorts in that style, combining these as it does with satire and a fun narrative. It's quintessential Taku Furukawa.

Sleepy (1980) is the most obviously 'well-animated' film Taku Furukawa has made. The animation is lush and inventive, and the visuals are tasteful and appealing in a conventional animation sense, with cute drawings and a simple color scheme used for each shot. At 6 minutes, Sleepy is also one of his longer films. A family with a pet dinosaur named Sleepy (his favorite activity is sleeping) go on a trip, and Sleepy saves the day when a fire hits a high rise apartment. It's the only film on the set aimed at children, and it works wonderfully as a children's film. I found myself wishing that Furukawa had made more films like this one. It's the only film on the set that I immediately wanted to watch again. Taku Furukawa was aided in the animation of the film by Takamitsu Yukawa, who has been the co-animator of most of Furukawa's films since Coffee Break, so credit undoubtedly needs to go to him for helping realize the appealing animation of this film. Furukawa happens to have made a picture book out of this particular story after completing the film.

Calligraphiti (1982) is one of Furukawa's more appealing films. The first thing that comes to mind watching the film is the cine-calligraph films of Norman McLaren. It appears to be a cine-calligraph film of the kind pioneered by Norman McLaren, in which the animator scratches a drawing directly onto each frame of a strip of film rather than drawing on paper and photographing each drawing, but in fact the drawings were drawn onto ordinary paper using an oil-based pen and simply inverted to give the impression of being cine-calligraph, as an homage to Norman McLaren. The film injects some welcome stylistic variety into Furukawa's oeuvre. If one hadn't seen this set, one might be forgiven for assuming that all of Furukawa's films were in the same line-drawn cartoon style for which he is best known. But Furukawa's films are truly diverse in technique, although the line-drawn figure style appears to be his default mode of expression.

I'm not sure if I understand how Portrait (1983) was made, but it appears that a series of five or six polaroids of different individuals going through a particular motion, always from a set distance so that their full figure occupies only the very center of the photo, were taken, and the polaroids were each hand-colored and placed in sequence. The entire film consists of two of these live-action polaroid loops shot side by side on the screen. It's a jarringly abstract piece coming after the kid-friendly Sleepy, but it is quite compelling in its purity of execution and a great example of the abstract-experimental side of Furukawa's Jekyll/Hyde personality. Together with Phenakistiscope, it is also exemplary of how Furukawa's creative thought isn't just limited to animation, but sort of migrates around between the interstices of different media, in this case creating art objects that he in turn uses to create animation.

The Bird (1985) is a short film in which a man attempts to capture a bird. It's done in the patented Furukawa style, and the various contrivances the man devises to capture the bird are amusing, although the film trails off suddenly without any kind of resolution, coming across as somewhat incomplete. The film provides Furukawa with the opportunity to draw some amusing visual devices and create a fun animated chase. Most interesting is perhaps the way the bird is animated using what appears to be a blue and red marker, as opposed to the lines used to animate the human figure. The bird's shape morphs constantly in a manner befitting the flat, amorphous colors used to form its shape, providing an interesting contrast with the line drawings of the human. The sharp black lines and flat colored blobs seem like they exist in a different dimension, making the chase seem like a fascinating portrait in futility, like the pursuit of the firebird. The best animation uses interesting new techniques and new approaches to visuals to express a theme, and this film is a great example of that, with the various ideas suggested by the interaction of the lines and the colored shapes.

Mac The Movie (1985) consists purely of animation doodles made by Furukawa, presumably on a Mac. The visuals are a kind of stroll down memory lane for me, as they bring back memories of one of my first computers, the Macintosh, on which I remember loving to play Lode Runner and doodling in the draw program. Other than the appeal of its antiquated early computer graphics, though, the film has little to recommend it, being merely a series of unconnected doodles without even the raw appeal of Calligraphiti. I'm sure it wasn't made with any sort of pretensions about being a film, though. It should probably just be taken at face value as a bunch of doodles drawn by Taku-san at the dawn of the PC age. Giving a bunch of crappy doodles a deceptively grandiose, epic title seems like the kind of joke the ever-playful Furukawa would play on viewers.

Play Jazz (1987) was also made using a computer drawing program, but has the redeeming quality of conceptual mooring and animated appeal lacking in Mac The Movie. The Jazz of the title and soundtrack pays homage to the title of the painting by Henri Matisse that in the film is subjected to animated transformations; in other words, Furukawa 'playing' (with the painting) 'Jazz'. The film consists of Furukawa improvising on the theme of Matisse's Jazz, making explicit the intriguing parallel improvisatiory nature of the two art forms. One of the things I found myself focusing on while watching the film was the actual lines of pixels. I found it oddly fascinating to observe how the morphing shapes were actually created by the change in length of these very low-resolution lines of lit-up pixels.

Direct Animation (1987) from the same year was made using the same technique as Calligraphiti, in that it is a pseudo-calligraph film made by drawing with a pen very small and photographing it so that it fills up the screen and looks like a caligraph film. This time the film was not inverted, and colors were used. The film is a good compliment to the previous film, in that this time it is purely abstract, making good use of colors and shapes to create a pleasing flow of transforming colors and shapes. It's only a minute long, but it's a beautiful minute, and shows how Furukawa jumps between different forms and styles almost on a whim, whenever he gets an idea for a film he'd like to make. I like his creative stance, which emphasizes spontaneity and variety.

The last film on the set is Tarzan (1990), which is one of his longest and most narratively substantial. The closest comparison is with Speed in terms of its use of drawn figures, clear narrative and satirical story. The film depicts a modern wannabe Tarzan urbanite who seeks out the thrills of the wilds of Africa to slake his hunger for something more raw and real, but finds that the strange creatures who greet him upon his return to the city don't hear the same call of the wild. Up until now, Furukawa's films were animated by him, in part or in whole, but this is the first Furukawa film that was entirely animated by another person - in this case his long-time collaborator Takamitsu Yukawa. The film moves a lot, the color schemes and visual design are pretty, and overall it is an amusing film with numerous of his very New Yorker-style sight gags that shows Furukawa at his most playful. Furukawa is apparently a travel addict, and this film is his travelogue from Kenya, much in the way New York Trip commemorated his trip to New York. He makes a lot of sly observations about the trip, such as quirks of the various nationalities of tourists, with the American flashing their Bart Simpson T-shirts like badges of national pride, and being mugged to purchase trinkets by the locals. I could very much relate to his feelings of despondency upon returning home to the concrete blahness of the city after such an adventure.

Taku Furukawa of course has his own web site and blog, where you can see a lot more art by him. You can see some more images from each of his films on Takun Films Animation Toy Box. For some further reading about Taku Furukawa, I recommend Nishikata Film Review's post on Furukawa's Minna no Uta animation.