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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Sunday, July 6, 2008

01:02:16 am , 1311 words, 5497 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.

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9 comments

Benjamin Sanders
Benjamin Sanders [Visitor]  

A great write up, I was hoping you’d get around to covering this film.

I think it was easily the best independent animation of last year from all the festivals I managed to attend, and certainly one of the most exciting independent films for some time (seeing it on the big screen is a wonderful experience I might add). I agree with you about the echoes of Norstein (texture) and Parn (an exuberance with the power and anarchy of animation), but as you say it felt entirely unique, and distinctly Yamamura.

I was somewhat surprised that it wasn’t maybe as successful as it should have been, although it has picked up a pretty decent share of awards. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t even included on the long list for Oscar consideration, and at a few festivals it lost out to what I feel were less interesting rivals, though these were not necessarily bad films. It was a shame though, because A Country Doctor stood out as unusual and fresh, and not just in 2007.

Animation festivals sometimes seem to be more in awe of the quality of a films technique, or how new a technique is, over and above the actual quality of the film making and whether the technique is serving the ideas of the film. It’s this latter point that I feel was so refreshing about A Country Doctor, the technique was at every point expressing the ideas of the film, the mental states of its characters. It was spine tingling to see such an awesome display of the power of drawings in motion to express both the physical and emotional aspects of a story. (It’s interesting you noted similarities to Ohira, as I felt that too, I hope Wanwa will prove to be as exciting).

In that sense it felt like the film in its own unique way really served its source material well. You understood the surface of the literary adaptation, the physical reality of what happens in the story but more importantly you felt that through the way he used his animation style to move and frame his drawings he broke through this surface reality and got to the core of the material, the internal aspects of Kafka’s discourse. In a sense you didn’t feel the artifice, despite how stylised everything was, you didn’t feel like you were just watching drawings move, but rather like you were directly witnessing raw emotions laid bare on screen.

My experience of first seeing the film seems notably similar to yours, in that I had unanswered questions about what I’d just seen and a lack of resolution, but at the same time I had been floored by the intensity of the film, with how thoroughly it pulled your eyes on to the screen and engaged your mind and senses.

Anyway, thanks for a great write up it is always satisfying reading other peoples experiences of a film you enjoyed, especially when they’re so well articulated.

I’m intrigued by what you wrote about him using traditional theatre styles for the narration in his films, kyogen and rakugo. Would you mind explaining a little more about these theatre styles and what effect they have or could you point me in the direction of a good resource that I can find out more about them?

Also, where did you manage to get the DVD from and does it by any chance have subtitles included? I was hoping that one of the festivals I went to that it was screened at might have a copy of the film to buy but they never did!

Too many questions I know!

07/06/08 @ 04:47
pete
pete [Member]

I wanted to watch this movie too, preferably on cinema. But as things are now I’ll watch it online sometime.

Still Caroline Leaf’s older adaptation despite been shorter remains my favourite.

I’ve read all his works in German while I was younger but this is not something I’d repeat again. That bizarre experience will not be forgotten.

As Adorno in 1934 very accurately wrote: “Kafkas novels read like texts accompanying silent films”

Btw for the text in German visit this link

http://www.kafka.org/index.php?landarzt

but because that page is a pain to read and not all know German, I’ve uploaded the work in English. I’ll start to upload some books so this is the first

link

07/06/08 @ 13:39
LainEverliving
LainEverliving [Visitor]  

Hi Ben.

Interesting article as always. Just got back from Anime Expo, so maybe some discussion of that can be had later.

Also, this is unrelated, but any chance for reactions / thoughts on the so-called Bones animator document leak? From what I’ve read so far, even with President Minami countering things, this is shaping up to be a major disaster. I mean, how could anyone post this?

07/06/08 @ 22:59
Zenichi
Zenichi [Visitor]  

This sounds really interesting.. Does the DVD have English subtitles? I’m not quite fluent in Japanese yet, but I’m learning slowly. I know this might not be the usual sort of anime you watch, but I really recommend Shigurui. It’s a period (1629) swordplay anime, and while I’m not really familiar with japanese theater, the pacing of it is very interesting, slow and deliberate, it reminds me of some western plays. I also really have to recommend Afro Samurai, it’s directed and storyboarded by Fuminori Kizaki ( who was the animation director for Blue Gender, and did key animation for Macross Pluss), produced by GONZO, and in the English dub (which interestingly was the first to air chronologically) features Samuel L. Jackson as the main character and his sidekick.. Oh, and you might not be interested in this, but RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan did the score.. He worked on both Kill Bills, and had his start scoring for Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog.. a really interesting fim; kind of bloody but it mixes mafia and an eccentric modern, gun-wielding “samurai” in new york..

07/07/08 @ 02:08
Ben [Member]  

Benjamin:

Thanks, I’m glad to find someone who shared much of my feelings about the film. I thought you expressed it very well about how it feels like you’re “directly witnessing raw emotions laid bare on screen.” That’s exactly what it was that made this adaptation feel so great. I admit that I can sort of understand why it might not have won everywhere it was shown, because it isn’t exactly easy to understand, quite deliberately, in following with Kafka’s story, which I totally respect and even prefer, but I can understand might turn a lot of viewers off. I’m just glad the film deservedly won the two major Japanese awards and at Ottawa. Chris Robinson knows his stuff. Oh, and another influence I forgot to mention that I thought I sensed while watching the film was Igor Kovalyov of Milch etc fame. I’m pretty sure Yamamura knows his work and maybe even him, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some influence there.

I’m not an expert on rakugo or kyogen by any means, but I think I have a basic sense of what they entail. Rakugo is basically a kind of traditional Japanese sit-down (as opposed to stand-up) comedy where a person sits on a cushion on a stage and tells funny stories in a down to earth (as opposed to highly stylized) voice, though it has apparently expanded in modern day to include all sorts of material and not just comedy. Ajia-do made an anime OVA series called ANIME RAKUGOKAN, which was I assume anime adaptations set to rakugo, which would be a good introduction if it weren’t impossible to find (I remember because Yuasa did one of the episodes and I still haven’t managed to see it). You can find a few performances on Youtube, though nothing subtitled that makes it very clear. One of the more famous performers of the 20th century was Shinsho Kokintei. You can see live footage of him along with a bio here, to get some sense of what it looks like at least, and an amusing vid of one of his recordings set to quasi-animation by famous novel illustrator/charicaturist Shoji Yamafuji here.

Anyway, there’s a long repertoire of stories that’ve been told over the centuries, and Mt. Head is one of them. I just looked into it, and Yamamura’s adaptation seems to be a pretty literal retelling of the story. The difference is that, in the film, it isn’t really rakugo, I realized upon just re-watching it, which confused me. Apparently it was sung by this person Takeharu Kunimoto who was trained not in rakugo (because there isn’t shamisen in rakugo, which is what threw me) but in another traditional form called rokyoku, which is a type of naniwabushi, or basically stories alternately sung/narrated to the accompaniment of shamisen. So it’s kind of a mix - a rokyoku singer telling a rakugo story in rokyoku style.

A Country Doctor is interesting. Almost all of the voices of the characters were done by this famous family, the Shigeyamas, all of whose members have inherited the mantle of kyogen performers for about the last 200 years. In this film you can find three generations of the Shigeyama family: Sensaku, born in 1919, voicing the doctor’s spoken voice; his son, Shime, born in 1947, voicing the packhorse driver; and three of the youngest generation, Ippei (voicing the boy), Shigeru and Doji (voicing the inner voice of the doctor). Ippei has his own blog, and you can see a video of Doji performing here.

Kyogen, in contrast to rakugo, is more of a theatrical art in the sense we think of it in the west, with people acting in roles on stage (without masks), but it also tends to focus on humorous stories like rakugo, unlike its more serious and stylized cousin noh. So clearly by using these various actors, the film immediately takes on a double face, as if we’re seeing Kafka’s story unfolding, but the voices are playing out a kyogen performance. The two little figures you see throughout the film representing the doctor’s inner voice are the most obvious direct reference to kyogen, with the way they’re sitting down and narrating the events and the doctor’s thoughts as is done in kyogen.

Thank you Pete for uploading that translation of the original story. I was surprised by how short it was. It’s really just about two pages long. I don’t recommend that anyone who hasn’t watched the film read it, though, because I was surprised to find on reading it that in fact Yamamura’s adaptation is quite a literal adaptation, to the letter. I thought he had taken a lot of liberties, but it’s really almost sentence for sentence like the book. He really translated the exact feeling of reading the original story into visuals, while adding a lot of his own interpretations in the various elements. If anything, it made me more impressed how he could manage to be so faithful while making it seem natural, as if it had come out of his own language as a creator. Reading the story basically left me with the exact same feeling of ‘huh??’ that Yamamura’s film does, so it’s a perfect adaptation. He nailed each of the odd elements that makes the story so unique.

About the DVD, unfortunately it’s an R2, and it doesn’t have subtitles. I seriously doubt any company over here would have the courage to release it, even though I think a DVD release of all of his films over here is long overdue. As much as I’d like to be able to say ‘buy it’ to support Yamamura and don’t just watch it online, short of subtitles that’s unreasonable, so perhaps some fansubbing group will get around to it.

LainEverliving:

I hadn’t heard about that until you mentioned it, but I looked into it and see what you mean. It’s quite a shock if it’s true, but to be perfectly honest I’m kind of skeptical. I haven’t seen the document myself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had faked it. I don’t say that because I buy into Minami’s public denial, because he obviously had no option but to deny it even if it were true, but just because the phrases I think I’ve seen attributed to the document are idiotic, juvenile phrases it seems like only a 2ch-er would come up with. If it is true, well, I hope they catch the person who leaked it. Anyway, any juicy material from AnimeExpo would be welcome.

07/07/08 @ 11:53
starsweeper
starsweeper [Visitor]  

Thank you for restoring my excitement about getting my hands on this film. Someone left a comment on my blog saying that they thought it was rubbish which really surprised me. I am hoping to have my hands on a copy by next week!

As ever, I love your insights but I do think that Tomoyasu Murata already boasts a wider variety of styles than Yamamura. He dabbles in a wider range of media (claymation, cel, manga, painting, sculpture, etc.) and recently gone into overdrive in terms of productivity (several new shorts this past year). The main difference is that his films haven’t had the same kind of success at international festivals as Yamamura’s have.

07/13/08 @ 08:38
Ben [Member]  

Thank you for the comment, starsweeper. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying your blog, particularly your various posts about Tomoyasu Murata. You’ve seen more of his films than I have, as I’ve only seem a few of his ‘road’ series films, so you’re in a better position to know about his range of work, and I have no problem believing you’re right about Murata’s range. It was a real surprise to hear through your blog that he was exploring all of these unexpected avenues. Actually, I did get an inkling that Murata was exploring things other than puppet films after I saw, and was impressed by, the short he provided for Tokyo Loop, which I wrote about here. Hopefully some day soon I can get to see more of his films so I can get a first-hand sense of what he’s really about. In the meantime, your posts have been most illuminating.

07/13/08 @ 09:53
Benjamin Sanders
Benjamin Sanders [Visitor]  

Apologies for not replying sooner to thank you for your reply to my questions as I’ve been a bit tied up lately and didn’t have the time to properly look at and appreciate all the information you linked to. I have now done so and it’s really enlightening and certainly gives me a better understanding of the film and some of the ideas behind it than I already had, so thank you very much for that.

I agree with you about there being a feeling of Kovalyov and Milch to the work as well so there is probably some influencing going on there. They certainly must know each other (and quite possibly are friends) as they were both guests with retrospectives if I remember correctly at the 2006 Norwich Animation festival (now Aurora) and I believe were on panels together along with Prit Parn.

Speaking of that festival I’ve been meaning to ask you a favour do you mind if I send you an e-mail?

08/31/08 @ 05:12
Ben [Member]  

I know a lot of that was kind of superfluous, but I thought it might be useful to know just for reference. Hope it was of some interest. Anyway, yes, feel free to email me.

09/01/08 @ 12:31