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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Category: Animator

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

09:56:00 am , 2843 words, 21191 views     Categories: OVA, Movie, Animator, Director, Short

The Twin Stars and early Ryutaro Nakamura

Ryutaro Nakamura, one of the great directors of the last 20 years, passed away earlier this year. I was a big fan, so it was a shock. He was a director of breadth and deep talent, but I don't have the energy or knowledge to do a full retrospective, so for now I thought I would start by highlighting one of his obscure early films. Serial Experiments Lain (1998) had a huge impact on me when it came out, and since then I always looked forward to his new productions, which never failed to surprise. But he produced several great films before Lain that people over here aren't familiar with.

Ryutaro Nakamura directed The Twin Stars (双子の星) in 1995 at Triangle Staff. It was part of an omnibus of Kenji Miyazawa stories called Kenji's Trunk marking the centenary of Kenji's birth, and featured two other 30-minute shorts. It's a quiet, unassuming, lovely little film. (Watch here)

The Twin Stars reveals a side of Ryutaro Nakamura that might not be familiar to most people who are used to the more hard-boiled and philosophically dense Nakamura of Lain and Kino: the creator of a lush, colorful children's fantasy. The first few films directed by Nakamura were in this mold, and most of them merit re-discovery, as they are very well made films with a big heart and excellent technique.

The Twin Stars tells the story of a pair of stars whose role is to play a silver flute to the tune of the Song of the Turning Stars / 星めぐりの歌 throughout the night to help guide the stars on their journey across the sky. One morning, the twins awaken and descend from their crystal towers to go to the river to play. There they encounter the rival stars Scorpius and the Crow, who get into a fight. The Twin Stars revive the Crow but are forced to hurriedly carry the injured Scorpius back to his home before the night returns, for they all run the risk of being banished to the sea floor as starfish if they fail to return to their appointed place in time. Scorpius and the Crow regret their thoughtless intolerance and vow to abandon violence and be more like the selfless twins. Just before time runs out, a whirlwind is sent to spirit the trio back to their appointed place at the bidding of the King, who has been watching all along and is moved by their change of heart and the generosity of the twins that brought it about.

The story is one of Kenji Miyazawa's key stories, combining as it does into a poetic and mythical package his intimate knowledge of astronomy, his pantheistic view of the world, and his sense of moral obligation to help others.

The film is eminently graphical and visual, with bright, colorful pastels and simply stylized shapes. Its pace is leisurely and measured, with long shots that let you absorb the visuals on the screen. The first three minutes are a gorgeous entryway to the story that seems perfectly conceived for this gentle, ethereal story. We are guided into this world of light and sound, where whirlwinds and stars are living beings, to the tune of the actual Song of the Turning Stars, written by Kenji himself, in a beautiful flute concerto-like arrangement by composer Yoshihiro Kanno. (Listen to the original song)

Nakamura grounds the film in our world by showing a father and son strolling by the ocean under the vast expanse of the Milky Way. We then slowly transition across hazy vistas of constellations and pastel clouds into the land of the stars where the Twins reign over the night sky from their towers as they play on their silver flutes. Stars arc across the sky until the sun peeks over the horizon and the birds begin chirping, announcing the end of the starry procession.

The film has the quality of the old Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi with its simple characters, mythical story and emphasis on creative design work. The Twin Stars even has the same solo approach, with the animation and art each respectively done entirely by one person. Takahiro Kishida animates the whole film, and Shinji Kimura does the art. Kishida does a masterful job handling the different kinds of animation, from the realistic humans, which move more fluidly, to the more limited movement and stylized designs of the Twin Stars and the Crow, to the ghostly effects of the whirlwind. Kimura, meanwhile, creates a lush fantasy land that is beautiful sight to behold, although different from his recent work painting cacophonous city backdrops. Here he creates the airy pastel firmament of the sky, lending the film the watercolor texture of a picture book. The film is thus a great showcase of the skill of a group of artists - director, animator, background painter - acting in unison like a great string trio, in the spirit of the classic Madhouse productions.

If this feels like a Madhouse film, the reason is obvious. Triangle Staff was founded by an ex-member of Madhouse, and Madhouse is where Ryutaro Nakamura got his start. His experience at Madhouse obviously laid his foundation as an artist, accounting for the Madhouse vibe of this short. In particular, The Twin Stars feels close in spirit to the one-shot Osamu Dezaki episodes of the 1970s like Fire G-Men or his episodes of Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi, which also tended to feature daring, wild backgrounds by the likes of Shichiro Kobayashi and cute but highly stylized and playful character animation by animators like Manabu Ohashi and Akio Sugino. The reason for this similarity is simple: Ryutaro Nakamura learned the ropes under Dezaki, and developed a directing style heavily influenced by the master, yet all his own. Ryutaro Nakamura was one of the best of Dezaki's students.

Ryutaro Nakamura's start in animation was almost accidental. In 1977, he went to get an autograph from Moribi Murano, the manga-ka and sometimes animator behind Unico in the Magic Island and the assassination scene in Wandering Clouds. Nakamura wound up helping Murano make a deadline on a manga he was working on, and Murano immediately spotted Nakamura's potential as an animator, advising him to give Madhouse a visit. Nakamura did so, and after only a cursory period as an inbetweener wound up setting to work as a key animator on Dezaki's "3D animation" Sans Famille. That was his start in animation. Dezaki raved about his new animator, calling him the "new Akio Sugino". But this pressure proved to be too much for Nakamura, who after working under Dezaki for a few more years eventually wound up switching to directing around 1983 after working on Dezaki's Space Cobra TV show alongside the likes of Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima. Nakamura had been drawing a manga for an in-house Madhouse fanzine, so he clearly had the inclinations of a director from the beginning.

Incidentally, Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima themselves two years earlier produced a short, Jack and the Beanstalk (1993), that, like The Twin Stars, has a tactile picture book quality that seems clearly to hearken back to the colorful and stylized 1970s shorts of Dezaki.

It's probably not that well known that Nakamura started out as an animator, but that's clearly a fact that laid the foundation for his style as a director. As a person who could draw, and who could visually conceptualize and express his intentions in the storyboard, he brought a strong visual sensibility to his productions. This shows up clearly in The Twin Stars, which is an eminently visual film despite being based on a work of literature (and a particularly ephemeral and difficult to visualize one at that). He was also influenced by Dezaki in the way he took liberties with the material to achieve his own expressive means, and brought an artistic, poetic sensibility to the craft of directing, experimenting with new ways of presentation in each production rather than falling into an certain expressive rut out of habit. It's hard to find many directors in anime with such expressive breadth. In terms of specific technique, one of Dezaki's trademarks was using tokako 透過光, or backlighting through a mask, to create a bright hazy effect on the screen, and you can see a lot of bright lighting of this kind in The Twin Stars.

It was sometime around 1985 that he went freelance and began working as a roving storyboarder/episode director on various projects, accumulating skill as a director. Not long after this, in 1987, Yoshimi Asari left Madhouse to form Triangle Staff. Nakamura was obviously invited there soon after, because he set to work on his debut directing feature in 1988, just a year after the studio's founding. That project was Tomcat's Big Adventure (ちびねこトムの大冒険).

The project was initially conceived as an educational OVA to teach children English, but after Nakamura drew the first storyboard in 1988, the project evolved into a feature length film that was finally completed in 1992.

Tomcat's Big Adventure was a massive undertaking featuring a bewildering array of talent including character designer/animation director Manabu Ohashi, music composer Kenji Kawai, art director Hiromasa Ogura and animators such as Toshiyuki Inoue, Hiroyuki Okiura, Koichi Arai and Makiko Futaki. Even Koji Morimoto was tangentially involved early on. With a remarkable 60,000 animation drawings in 82 minutes, it's a modern-day manga eiga in the spirit of the great Toei action-adventure flick Animal Treasure Island.

The tragedy is that, for some reason, it was shelved without even being released theatrically. Five years of intense work by some of the most talented faces in the industry essentially just disappeared without being seen by anyone. It's a tragedy that hopefully will get redressed soon with a DVD release. Once it finally gets a long-overdue DVD release, it will no doubt be revealed to be one of his greatest works and a bona-fide buried treasure. You can see the first five minutes here. This was a big blockbuster of a children's film clearly meant to launch Nakamura's career as a director. Who knows, had it gotten a proper release, and the world recognized his special talent for this type of material, Nakamura's career might have evolved differently.

Like Nakamura, Hiromasa Ogura in fact also got his start on Dezaki's Sans Famille, but working under art director Shichiro Kobayashi, the art director who was a staple of Dezaki's work in the 1970s, which is perhaps why Nakamura wound up coming back to Ogura for this film. The two both have deep roots in the Madhouse-Dezaki school. Another touchstone is The Golden Bird, that earlier Madhouse masterpiece that presaged Tomcat's Big Adventure not only stylistically (Ohashi was the character designer) but also in how it, too, was unjustly buried for many years before being released on home video.

Nakamura, Ohashi et al. actually very much wanted to do a continuation of Tomcat, but that never materialized. It's obvious that this is a style that is deeply ingrained in Nakamura's fibre from the fact that his last job, Adventure on Pirate Island (海賊島DE!大冒険) (hp), a children's CGI animation scheduled for release later this year, is stylistically a clear throwback to Tomcat. The film unfortunately does not look good due to the poor CG animation, but when you peruse Nakamura's storyboard you sense that this could have been a nice little film in the spirit of Tomcat if they had a good traditional animation team to bring alive the characters.

It's after this that Nakamura set to work on Kenji Miyazawa's The Life of Budori Gusko. The film was produced by Animaru-ya and released in 1994. The simple, blocky character designs of Shinichi Suzuki are in line with the feeling of Tomcat and The Twin Stars. The animation is much more spare than Tomcat, and Nakamura uses the opportunity of the story's complex themes to experiment with more expressive directing. While being aimed at children, the film has an underlying feeling of darkness and heaviness appropriate to the subject matter, and this Passion of the Budori has a romantic intensity that is irresistible, particularly combined with the emotionally intense orchestral score of Yoshihiro Kanno, who returned the year after for an encore with The Twin Stars. Other than these two productions, Kanno's only involvement in the anime industry was Angel's Egg, which boasts one of the all-time greatest anime soundtracks.

Around this time, Nakamura directed an OVA of Junkers Come Here in 1994 that preceded the film adaptation by Junichi Sato and Kazuo Komatsubara. (Watch here) Junio's Minoru Maeda is the character designer, so the style is completely different, much more lightweight and goofy, lacking the intricate acting and cinematic compositions of the film version. The story is rather ridiculous and played purely for laughs, undermining the dramatic intent. Here it's about four sisters whose mother disappeared and father died afterwards. Junkers appears one day, and they all know he can talk. The mother turns up in France, and it turns out she lost her memory and now has a new family in France. It's not one of Nakamura's best works, but it certainly shows his stylistic flexibility and innate sense for effortlessly combining comedy and drama.

The Twin Stars came after this, giving Nakamura the opportunity to explore Kenji Miyazawa's world in a very different, more playful and imaginative way.

Nakamura then veered in a very different direction for the first time with the masterful Legend of Crystania (1995), first as a movie and then as a 3-episode OVA. This is one of the great fantasy anime, using incredibly rich and creative animation to weave an epic fantasy yarn that actually feels epic. The character animation is exciting, and the effects animation is downright phenomenal. Nakamura had the great idea to give Yasunori Miyazawa free rein to design and animate the effects, and this helped define the film's visual scheme.

A constant of his early works during this period - and less so during his later works - is a 'star animator' system in which the style of one talented animator plays a primary role in defining a film's look. Manabu Ohashi defines Tomcat, Takahiro Kishida animates all of The Twin Stars in his own inimitable style, Shinichi Suzuki's characters in Gusko Budori are very distinctive and unforgettable with their graphic, hand-drawn touch. Crystania also feels more tactile and distinctively animated than most fantasy anime.

Such is the case for Nakamura's final project before his breakthrough with Lain - the cut scene animation of the game Popolo Crois (1996). (Watch here) This time Nakamura had the king of idiosyncratic animators, Satoru Utsunomiya, head the animation, assisted by other talented animators including Yasunori Miyazawa and Mitsuo Iso - each highly idiosyncratic animators who created their own completely unique styles of animation. It's clear that these choices were no coincidence, and as an animator himself, Nakamura chose the best of the best for this project. Yasunori Miyazawa of course was brought back after his stint in Crystania. Takahiro Kishida would similarly return to work with Nakamura again in Colorful. Similarly, much of the Popolo Crois team was in fact carried on from Crystania, including Utsunomiya and Miyazawa, but also Yoshio Mizumura and Katsumi Matsuda. Some of these were even holdovers from Tomcat.

The Popolo Crois animation team produced what is still one of my favorite anime ever, even though it's only short excerpts of a story adding up to just 10 minutes of animation, rather than a continuous story. Even those little shards of narrative create more of a feeling of an expansive and fully developed fantasy world than most fantasy anime, thanks in large part to the overwhelming power of Utsunomiya et al.'s nuanced full animation. The screen has a feeling of tremendous depth in each section - the flight section where the boat skips across the water by Utsumoniya, the space section where the whale files through vast expanses of space chased by the giant monster by Iso, and the final battle between the baddie and the dragon, whose vast size is well conveyed by Miyazawa's strangely timed animation. The character designs of Popolocrois have the same round simplicity as the designs of Gusko Budori and Tomcat, and Popolocrois seems to be a dense summation of the exciting children's fantasy side of Nakamura's work, perhaps having been made in part to vent his pent up ideas for more animation in the spirit of Tomcat.

The first few years of his career as a director were a period of intense creativity in which he explored many different and exciting visual styles very different from his later work. His early work is less challenging, but has a wider appeal and is visually more sumptuous. I personally wish Nakamura could have continued in this direction of intensely animated children's fantasy epics, but he seems to have wanted to force himself to try different material and styles from this point in his career, beginning with his emergence as an artist of dark commentary on net culture with Lain, and continuing with the twisted adult comedy of Colorful. But that spirit of self-challenge is just as much a defining trait of Ryutaro Nakamura. Like all great directors, he left us with much great work, but also wishing for more.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

06:14:00 pm , 676 words, 6918 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Music Video, Animator, Short

Satoshi Murai

My latest indie Japanese animator discovery is Satoshi Murai. In 2009, one year after graduating from the Graphic Design Department of Tama Art University, he animated a beautiful, dreamy music video for the song A Play by Japanese alternative electro-hop outfit ALT (ALT home page).

It's a ravishing video that doesn't scream "music video" the way most do. It comes across more like a visual poem. I didn't even realize it was a music video until after looking into it.

The video begins with a woman's voice saying, "There are an infinite number of worlds over here, over there, and inside you. But they're also nowhere. The curtain will soon fall. The journey will soon end. It's time for bed."

In a city somewhere in the world, a child is tucked into bed in. This soft, faint scene from our plane of reality then fades out, and the screen explodes into color as a bubble floats up and bursts into a dream-creature that's half television/half beetle. A male voice launches into a rambling, monotone recitation of disjointed poetic images, and the visuals echo his strange words and rhythm, morphing between abstract and identifiable forms. It's like we're witnessing the ether from which the images of dreams are created as our brain pieces together the shards of our everyday experiences into a bizarre visual collage.

Like the words, the hazy images morph quick and fast and create an intoxicating experience that evokes the fertile, poetic creativity of the brain as it cooks up dreams at night. "Nobody remembers the beginning. It's dark outside now. That day I lost something and I gained something in exchange." Sometimes the images directly mirror the words, other times go on their own trajectory: A coffee thermos hovers in mid-air pouring coffee, and morphs into the eye and beak of a bird. A fish runs with human legs. A black and white TV shows a flickering image of a pair of trousered legs walking. For just a second we catch a glimpse of a house hidden in the trees at dusk.

The video feels so unlike a regular music video because of the abstract song. Rather than a catchy pop song, it's a glitchy wash of ambient synths through which a voice swims in a monotone random-walk recitation of playfully alliterating, randomly rhyming chockablock phrases that evoke disjointed images. It's the Japanese answer to alternative hip-hop bands like Clouddead. The visuals and audio are a perfect match with one another, neither making sense but both seeming to make sense together.

The visuals occasionally remind me of Gianluigi Toccafondo, with broad splotches of paint tracing distorted renderings of familiar objects that transform into other objects by stretching and warping. But A Play is far more varied and flexible in its technique and texture. It isn't exclusively produced by painting over and transforming live-action images the way Toccafondo's work seems to be. It switches between very broad abstract painted strokes and more minutely detailed traditional animation, such as the moment where ants are meticulously drawn milling about in a grayscale pencil cross-section of the sleeping boy's head.

As it turns out, Satoshi Murai himself is part of the ALT collective, and he either did or helped with the music of this video. He also does his own solo music. Satoshi Murai's Soundcloud page features the same brand of pleasingly glitchy ambient electronica. So he's an animator-musician, like Ryu Kato. The ALT collective have a number of other visually interesting music videos available on their home page.

I don't know if Satoshi Murai is still part of ALT, but he's currently part of another collective - the Tymote collective, an 8-member group that does cutting edge creative work in motion graphics, illustration and music. You can see more work like A Play in the Palm station ID that Satoshi Murai did at Tymote for the 24-hour music station Space Shower TV. Explore Tymote's home page to see more of the outstanding visual inventiveness of this group.

Like most animators working today, Satoshi Murai has a twitter feed.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

04:19:00 pm , 1080 words, 6523 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator, Short

Ayaka Nakata

Ayaka Nakata's Cornelis (2008) is an enigma. A man dressed in a red blazer, red pants, red hat and red suit stands motionless at the center of the screen. He shushes the viewer a few times, as if to silence an unruly audience before his performance begins. His finger still to his mouth, suddenly he slides to the floor, his finger suspended in mid air above his body. A strange dance begins. His blazer seems to take on a life of its own. It peels off him, inverts itself to its white interior, and gives birth to an identical copy of Cornelis - adorned in white blazer, white pants, white hat and white suit. Cornelis and Cornelis' converse peer at each other warily across opposite shoulders, in sync, as if across a twisted mirror. Then they hug each other and begin a strange dance in which their peeled off clothes give birth to more and more Cornelis clones. The dance escalates to a swirl of bodies that finally implodes into the kernel of the orignal red Cornelis.

I was baffled at first, but then came to realize that trying to dig for some deeper meaning is probably beside point. I suspect this film is meant to be enjoyed as a pure exploration of dance and motion. It's like a beautiful modern dance piece, heightened to the fifth dimension of animation where you can contort and transform the human body in ways not possible in real life. It's like George Schwizgebel via Erica Russell - an abstract dance in celebration of the freedom of animation.

Every moment of the animation is packed with nuance. The expressions and body movements of the man at each juncture all seem to betray some unknown emotion - joy, surprise, anguish - at which has just transpired, as if he were miming out a dramatic story. The way he holds his hat above him, inverted, at just such an angle, with such an expression of conviction and purpose, seems to have some obvious meaning to him that we just don't grasp. The man's deliberate poses and expressions make the whole affair seem simultaneously amusing and deadly serious.

The film was supposedly originally conceived without sound, as a pure exercise in abstract body motion. Ayaka Nakata states in an interview that, after every action, she would ask her character Cornelis what he wanted to do next, and would animate the next movement that came to mind. Thus the film evolved in an unpredictable new direction after every juncture, purely as a way of following the inner logic of the character.

All I know is that it's an enjoyable film, and a well made one. It's a beautiful abstract dance of bodies that's never boring or predictable. At every turn you're surprised by some new way that the bodies intertwine and invert and swirl around. The animation work is strong in its spareness and deliberatness. Nothing is wasted. It does what it needs to do in 3 minutes without dragging it out, and feels like it says what it wants to say. The bodies are well drawn in all sorts of configurations, without being over-animated.

I like this film because it feels pure and assured. There's no pretense of attempting to convey a deep message or emotion, or striving for effect, like there is in a lot of films by young Japanese indies. The style is well controlled, showing an effortless ability to come up with creative new ideas that don't feel predictable. A look at the illustrations on her web site confirms that she has a fresh and rich imagination. Each illustration is completely different in its style and concept, but presents some creative new blending of concepts.

As it says in her profile, Ayaka Nakata has been working on commercial ad work since her graduation. Cornelis was the first film she made after graduating from Tokyo Zokei University. Earlier during her studies she made three films: The Day When a Tongue-Clicking Bird Appeared (2004), Grandma's Needlework Room (2005), and Kikimimi, Act 2: Mirrors (2007).

The Day When a Tongue-Clicking Bird Appeared (watch here) is her first film, and she didn't do most of the animation. It's obviously more rough around the edges, but still a pretty good execution of an interesting concept. A man wakes up one morning to find a bird on his head. The bird clicks its tongue "tsk" every time something annoying happens to the man. Every time it does so, it gets bigger and bigger. The next morning, he finds the bird gone, but finds that other people have been infected by the bird's irritated clicking, and have become irritable clicking birds themselves. The cutting is fast and controlled, and she develops the story at just the right pace for its meaning to come through loud and clear. The bird is the little demon of impatience in all of us. Urban alienation and anomie only propagates more of the same.

Grandma's Needlework Room (watch here) is completely different in style and tone, but even more assured and well executed than the previous film. It's a brief but moving remeniscence about a little girl's experience in her grandmother's needlework room. In a short span, thanks to its warm, lamplight palette, the tender images of this film make us feel the weight of emotion of the narrator's memory. The film is remarkably not schmaltzy or excessively sentimental. The film accurately conveys how magical and grand certain things seemed when we were children, that when revisited seem prosaic. The farm where I spent summers in France growing up had shrunk in both grandeur and magic when I re-visited it many years later. Through something very specific and personal she manages to tap the universal. The only problem is the sound design, which could use polishing. Cornelis has a perfect accompaniment that complements every little movement.

I haven't seen her graduation film, Kikimimi, Act 2: Mirrors, but I assume it must be worth seeing. I like that you can see the artist improving with each film. Since making Cornelis Ayaka Nakata has been working mostly on advertising animation, but she also recently did an episode of Rita et Machin, a series based on the French picture books of the same name that also featured episodes directed by an unusual assortment of indie and industry talent such as Toshio Hirata, Hideki Futamura and Hiroco Ichinose.

中田彩郁 Ayaka Nakata filmography

2004: 舌打ち鳥が鳴いた日 The Day When a Tongue-Clicking Bird Appeared
2005: おばあちゃんの作業部屋 Grandma's Needlework Room
2007: 聞耳 第2幕 鏡 Kikimimi, Act 2: Mirrors
2009: コルネリス Cornelis
2011: リタとナントカ「ナントカのおたんじょうび」Rita et Machin: L'anniversaire de Machin

Friday, October 7, 2011

05:32:00 pm , 866 words, 5250 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator, Short

Masaki Okuda

I checked out the web page of NHK's Digista program the other day to catch up on their recent programming and see if I could find any interesting films, and found that they have changed their name and their format since I first wrote about them in 2004. It's now called Digista Teens and they don't seem to do things like they used to, inviting guest hosts like Satoshi Kon. It looks kind of cheesy now, slightly watered down, and far less interesting. But I found one film that stood out to me, so at least it seems they still do feature some interesting talent.

The film was Masaki Okuda's Kuchao, made in 2010 as his first-year film at Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai). (Watch a clip here). That clip is unfortunately all I've been able to find. The full film is over 3 minutes long.

Even not having seen the full film, the powerful and appealing animation in this clip is enough to tell me Masaki Okuda is a name I'll be looking out for. Kuchao is not infected by anime influence and has an original look and feel. For a 'mere' 3 minute film, it's densely packed. There's something happening every second. It's dynamic, fun and exciting, stylistically mature and controlled, creative, constantly shifting, with shifts in speed and perspective coming quick and constant, and tells a simple story with verve and humor.

Kuchao seems vaguely influenced by Koji Yamamura and perhaps even Tadanari Okamoto (Kuchao brings to mind Okamoto's three Ningen Ijime shorts, which also featured a quick-talking narrator and fast-paced marker animation), but it's not just copying. Masaki Okuda has digested the influences well and seems to have stylistic flexibility and openness. He shows that he has a good understanding of what makes animation interesting and isn't superficially stuck on one style.

Okuda's previous film was Orchestra (watch on Youtube), a delightful 6-minute animation from 2008 made by Okuda together with Ryo Ookawara and Yutaro Ogawa earlier, I think during his third year at Tama Art University. The stylistic contrast with Kuchao is sharp - this film is black and white, all squiggly lines. But this film has the same dynamism and fire as Kuchao, the same basic interest in reaching to the roots of animation.

Yutaro Ogawa is the illustrator of the group, and it's his interesting drawings based on disconnected squiggly lines that the film is based on. It was Yutaro Okuda's idea to bring Ogawa's drawings to life in a piece of animation. They chose the fourth movement of Beethoven's 2nd symphony because of the variation it offered in tempo and mood, which would allow them to explore different ideas within a short span, and because of its playful tone that goes against the typical notion of classical as being stiff and musty museum music. The animation closely follows every up or down in Beethoven's score, the squiggly lines flying around and bending and re-configuring themselves unpredictably into different faces and shapes at every moment. The team is creative at coming up with different ideas for how to respond to the music, and the film is never boring or repetitive.

In an interview, Okuda mentions that it was an encounter with Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales many years ago as a child that got him interested in animation - not anime. And it's this that led to him getting into animation in university. Thus his influences have been indie world animation since the very beginning, which clearly accounts for the fundamental difference in his work compared with that of so many of his generation - not just in terms of how his work looks, but in his attitude towards animation. That animation isn't about superficial beauty or following trendy design ideas to cater to a wide audience. Animation shouldn't be limited to one style or one narrative mode; everyone has it in them to come up with something nobody has seen before. Indeed, it should be the animator's duty to challenge themselves to do something creative and new with each new film. He follows in the footsteps of other Japanese indies who made a virtue of constant creative renewal and experimentation like Tadanari Okamoto, Koji Yamamura and Tomoyasu Murata.

It's heartening to see that there are still young animators with a more open view of animation turning up on the scene in Japan. I enjoy seeing work from new animators like this willing to try to explore new stylistic approaches we haven't seen before, to do things with animation that can only be done with animation rather than being stylistically hidebound to naturalistic storytelling mimicking live-action. Tama Art University and Geidai in particularly seem to have done a lot to foster talented new indie animators in the last few years.

Born in Yokohama in 1985, Masaki Okuda studied at Tama Art University and then Tokyo University of the Arts. He made his first film, Garden of Pleasure (快楽の園) in 2007. He just completed his second-year film at Tama Art University, the 12-minute Uncapturable Ideas (アイデアが捕まらない。). He has already won numerous awards for Kuchao at festivals around the world. Masaki Okuda has a blog where he provides updates on his work.

Masaki Okuda 奥田昌輝 filmography

Garden of Pleasure 快楽の園 (2:30, 2007)
Orchestra (6:40, 2008)
Kuchao くちゃお (3:48, 2010)
Uncapturable ideas アイデアが捕まらない。 (11:52, 2011)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

11:24:51 pm , 620 words, 3208 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Yosuke Oomomo

I just discovered a little film called The River of Brightness made by indie animator Yosuke Oomomo, which you can watch on his Youtube channel along with most of his other films. (Yosuke Oomomo's web site)

It's a pleasantly simple, colorful cutout animation. I don't much like the film overall - it's a little too precious and earnest - but I like the creative and skilled use of cutouts shot through multiple layers of backlit colored glass to achieve the hazy underwater effect. It's sumptuous and convincing piece of animation boldly done the old school way - with stuff - considering it's from a relatively new animator.

The River of Brightness was Yosuke Oomomo's 2009 graduation project from GEIDAI. He started animating in 2006. Like Ryu Kato, this indie animator also graduated from the Tokyo University of the Arts. GEIDAI is clearly a major source of new animated talent in Japan. Yosuke Oomomo was born in 1985 and entered GEIDAI in 2005, acceding to the graduate school thereof in 2009.

The professional sound design and score back up the solid visuals well, making for a film that's unusually viewer-friendly for Japanese indie animation, which more often than not tends to be more raw and emotionally distancing. By contrast, The River of Brightness is polished and creates a nuanced emotional flow with the help of the music. It comes as no surprise that the film won numerous awards upon its release in late 2009, as well as being selected by indie animator Tomoyasu Murata on NHK's Digista.

Yosuke Oomomo made his first two trial outings in animation in 2006 with Fun is There, a simple but charming film showing a boy drawing dinosaurs and having a marvelous time of it, and M'arch, a short MTV spot.

Aya from 2007 is his first longer and more ambitious piece. It's a visual poem in which the patterns on a kimono dance in the night, set to beautiful romantic violin strains by Habuka Yuri, the musical collaborator has has worked with on every project since this one.

The same year he made the briefer Present using puppets, and does an impressive job. The film reminds of old Tadahito Mochinaga puppet animation in tone and style.

That day, that time was made next in 2008 right before The River of Brightness. It's a slightly tedious and twee exercise in vapid but cute images of kids and kittens, but it has a certain visual charm. It's the film in which he first tested out cutout animation.

I'm curiously torn about this animator's work. I'm impressed by his technique, and like that he has a unique sensibility. I like his sense of atmosphere and his naive, childlike style. He makes animation for children suffused with a rare lush and tasteful artistry, and I respect that. But his films rub me the wrong way for some reason. They have an affected daintiness that's a turn-off. It's like Sanrio via Frederic Back. It's too bad, because I like that he's trying to bridge the gap between art animation and children's filmmaking. Sanrio's Little Jumbo was a film made in the same spirit, and it's one of the anime films I most cherish. Something is just a little off for me.

Anyway, I might have some issues with Yosuke Oomomo's work, but at least he's doing work that's untainted by anime, and he's trying some pretty creative and interesting new approaches to animation rather than treading the same narrative styles and expressive tools into the ground.

I had a hard time bringing myself to write a post in the middle of the unfolding tragedy in Japan right now, but felt I should push on. I hope none of my readers or their friends or loved ones have been affected.

Monday, March 7, 2011

10:21:00 pm , 1309 words, 25070 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Ryu Kato

Add this young yet remarkably prolific indie animator the ranks of the synaesthete audiovisual creators who can make their own musical as well as video art. Despite only having been active since 2006, he's got more than 90 minutes of animation under his belt in the form of shorts of varying length plus one 25-minute mini feature, much of it scored by himself.

Ryu Kato's animation wordlessly explores a symbolically dense landscape of the mind that's by turns menacing, twisted, haunting and delicate. The animation is tactile and richly conceptualized, without superficial polish, even crude at times, but never for a moment anything less than convincing. His images speak to your subconscious rather than your rational mind. In this respect he's in good company among his peers. The emerging generation of indies seem steeped in a tone of whimsical skepticism and oneiric irony, and share the same grainy tactility and unabashed crudity of expression. There's beauty aplenty in his films, but it's not the pretty beauty of anime. Ryu Kato is a great exemplar of today's indie scene: a weaver of surreal visions of modern life.

Thankfully, Ryu Kato just started his own website and Youtube channel, so you can see many of his films online. Visit his site at

You can't go wrong wherever you decide to bite into his body of work. He got off to a running start with Recorder in 2006, an abstract cascade of random objects, charts and paint splashes without narrative or characters - an endless succession of butterflies transforming into guitars transforming into beetles. Animation in its purest form showing that right from the beginning you knew that this was an animator to look out for because he wasn't in thrall to the symbols and narrative forms that lure so many of his generation. The overload of information reminds of Powers of Ten while the whimsically menacing inky doodles and creative transformations remind of Koji Yamamura and the strobing news clippings and diagrams remind of Paul Glabicki. All of it is tied together into a pleasing audiovisual flow by catchy pulsing music presumably of his own hand.

There's a certain sensuous pleasure to be had in watching his films that I think comes out well in his next film, Calm of 2006. Some films are interesting artistically but perhaps not a pleasure to watch the way this film is, with its blurry, dreamlike images and erratic but harmonious music blending glitchy electronic tones, tinkling bells and downbeat washes of guitar. A girl with no face takes on the form of a bird, a fish and a dolphin and flies around her environment. "Have you ever seen the color of the mind?" the film asks us at one point. Less a story than a visual poem, the film is at all moments gorgeous and enrapturing, with lush animation and beautiful if deliberately muted and muddied textures, and leaves a great aftertaste. The dreamlike imagery and tone (even the timing of the animation) remind of Naoyuki Tsuji. The technique appears to be paint on glass, like Aleksanr Petrov, but much more ephemeral in execution and not as naturalistic and technically minded. There are also occasional wiry line drawings. As the title implies, it's a delightfully calming film to watch.

The shorter Around from 2007 is anything but. For his next film Kato runs at a full-tilt sprint in the opposite direction on a tour-de-force of constant movement and shifting perspectives that's a relentless onslaught of shocking and bizarre imagery. It's a thrilling ride of a film. Each of his films so far shows him to be a consummate animator. Not only does he shift to a different media with each film, the tone and form of the films are all different. Even if his drawings aren't particularly good, he puts a lot of work into making the animation rich and dynamic. This film is the best showcase of Ryu Kato as a powerhouse animator. This film perhaps more than any of his other reminds me of Koji Yamamura, in his more frenzied and wildly animated moments (more Mt. Head and less The Old Crocodile). There's even a hint of Priit Parn and Phil Mulloy, with the grotesque scrawled figures providing a darkly humorous commentary on brutality and violence in modern life. I know it's ludicrous to go on namedropping, but this film even reminds me a bit of Georges Schwizgebel in the way it relentlessly moves forward through the landscape, creating a perpetual first-person perspective metamorphosis sequence.

So far we're only two years into his career. Very early for any artist, especially as he was still in school this whole time. Ryu Kato was born in 1980 and graduated from the Tokyo University of the Arts in 2007. And yet he's created works that are genuinely compelling if rough around the edges.

Jump two years ahead to 2009 and he produced the absolutely lovely and delicate and frankly much more sophisticated (in its restraint) installation video for fashion designer Yuima Nakazato. Light glows and dances around a veiled figure as she moves her arms about delicately while ink drifts by, to a backdrop of emotional ambient washes with an understated ticking rhythm. It's consistent with his personality in that it's evocative, densely layered and ethereal, and in that it represents another shift in technique, but it's significantly more aesthetically refined than anything he's done so far. Although his previous films were cool animation, they had the hallmarks of a cultural milieu and youth, whereas this seems like a world-class piece of audiovisual art from a much more mature artist. You wouldn't be able to track the visuals back to Ryu Kato based on superficial stylistic traits the way you could his earlier films.

I skipped quite a few films between the latter and Around because most of them aren't available for viewing online, but as you can see from his filmography, he was incredibly active between 2007 and 2009 and continues to be. Notably he created a 25-minute mini-movie entitled The Clockwork City and a series of five videos for the tour of a band called Remioromen, among others. Music clearly is important to Ryu Kato, as he's a composer himself, and one of his latest creations is a great music video for the song The Old City by the rock band People in the Box. It's an epic journey through a funhouse city of the imagination packed with his usual creative imagery and dreamlike atmosphere. There's lots more to explore from this still young artist, so hopefully the rest of his filmography will become available eventually, and surely there is much more goodness to come. Ryu Kato may not be well known yet, but that may change. He's one of many talented young indies who emerged in the last few years.

Incidentally, from March 18-21 The Tokyo University of the Arts AKA GEIDAI will be holding a screening of the short animated films made this year by second year students. Who knows what new talent will emerge from the school this year. Frankly all of the films look great to me in the trailer they've put up on their home page. (You can see more images from the making of each film on their blog.) There's a great variety - stop motion, CGI, hand-drawn, abstract, for children. I particularly like the feeling of Masaki Okuda's Uncapturable Ideas. The Tender March by Wataru Uekusa looks well animated with a sharp anime/superflat style. (Check out some of the cool art up close to see the details.) Mariko Saito's Ygg's Bird looks to have a gorgeous and unique visual scheme. I'm very curious to see Writings Fly Away by Ryo Orikasa to see if he can carry that concept for 13 minutes. It's about the intersection between words and visuals, and it's dedicated to Borges, who continued to eloquently explore labyrinthine worlds made of words even after going blind.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

08:44:55 pm , 624 words, 5184 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Music Video, Animator, Art, Short

Takuya Inaba

I just discovered Takuya Inaba's Minna no Uta video from this summer for actress Juri Ueno's song Egao no Hana (The Smile Flower).

It's a delightful piece of animation, befitting an artist working at Robot, the studio that gave us Kato Kunio's Oscar-winning House of Small Cubes. They're one of the coolest new studios on the scene in Japan, doggedly going their own way in the vast shadow of the industry, making colorful, lovingly animated, creative little confections. Their films have a sense of wonder and whimsical fancy that sets them apart from every other studio in Japan.

I love this film's unique style. And it's sumptuously animated, unlike many Minna no Uta animated videos, which often aren't satisfying as animation. The characters are great - the designs are cute and appealing, and they're animated with great care. The domino sequence at the beginning is amusing and well done. The backgrounds are beautiful - early on the street looks like a child's drawing, and later on the forest is painted in bright, colorful strokes.

Then there are the little touches here and there that are unexpected and fun like the faucet in the sky that fills the ocean with water, and those little round guys walking on the fence having their own mini parade. There are strangle little characters doing things everywhere you look. And I just love the television cat with the chicken family inside.

I like the story of the film, too. The sun, the moon and a cloud come alive to help take a lost fairy back to her flower house. Behind the colorful fantasy, it's about cheering up a little girl who's feeling down in the dumps and making that 'smile' flower bloom.

Takuya Inaba was born in 1976 and graduated from the Kyoto Seika University Faculty of Design. He has been active as an animator since at least 2001, when he made an independent film called Haru-chan. He was hired by Robot in 2002, presumably on the merit of his film. Since then he's been quite active making short pieces of animation here and there on commission, as well as drawing picture books and other things.

He had already made a Minna no Uta music video in 2006 with Koi Tsubomi, which again has two layers - the song appears to sing of a girl who had to leave her boyfriend for the big city, while this is translated in the visuals into a little girl being seen off at a train station by her polar bear friend. The visuals are soft and mellow and pleasant, but it's not as creative and original as his most recent video.

The next year, in 2007, he directed a music video entitled Song of Sunrise for the band Sukima Switch. It shows a little girl and a hulking robot walking around in a desert landscape. I like the designs here much better, and the story is also quite interesting. It hints at a back story involving the robot either escaping from a robot city or being the only survivor, but doesn't make everything obvious. I like how it leaves it to your imagination to connect the dots.

Just before Egao no Hana, Takuya Inaba completed a 7-minute independent short film entitled Kuro. You can see a few shots from it on his home page. It's in black and white and appears to feature more fun creature animation like what was seen in Egao no Hana. Hopefully it's in the same vein as this film, but even more densely packed with nonsense antics from odd creatures, because this one left me wanting more of that sort of thing - something even crazier and more freewheeling, really letting loose with his unique style.

Takuya Inaba's blog and home page.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

05:26:31 pm , 9592 words, 7752 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator, Art

Kihachiro Kawamoto: An appreciation

We lost one of our great animation artists with the passing of Kihachiro Kawamoto on August 23 at age 85. He was the face of independent Japanese animation to the world for many years. His films were by far the most refined, technically accomplished and thematically dense and challenging of any indie of his generation. He not only perfected his own style of puppet animation, he was also one of the pioneers of artistic, personal animation in Japan. Many others at the time were dabbling with animation, but his work seemed to appear fully-formed and perfect. He did what artists are supposed to do: present their innermost vision, audienences be damned. He was truly in it for the love of animation.

Catherine Munroe Hotes of Nishikata Eiga has written a biography in memoriam. I'll leave the biographical details to those more in the know. I never wrote anything here about his work here up until now, but I'd like to rectify that tonight, in my own way, with some thoughts about his films.

The reason I never wrote about his work is that he was already the most recognizable Japanese indie animator, and I felt others of his generation like Tadanari Okamoto had been unjustly overlooked in his favor. And honestly, I had mixed feelings about his films. I didn't understand his single-minded obsession with Buddhist religious themes and the ancient world. I still don't. I probably am missing much of what he's saying in these films, but I feel like there's a degree of obscurantism running through his body of work, of reveling in being hard to understand. And I sensed that deep down we westerners embraced him only because of how neatly we could pigeonhole his films as being "quintessentially Japanese". They allowed us to feel intelligent by bandying about Japanese terms like mono no aware and wabi sabi, and fed our appetite for the exoticness, refined sensibility and wistful beauty of inscrutable Japan. I felt they only reinforced bad habits and stereotypes in the west, and found their forced 'artsiness' somewhat insufferable.

Today I wanted to forget all of my negative perceptions and look at his films through new eyes. I took the opportunity to go through all of his short films over the last few days. I want to write an appreciation of each of his films, as a way of honoring his work. The best thing we can all do if we want to pay tribute to his genius is simply to watch his films, take them in, and take away what you will. His films will probably come across as slow and unexciting to viewers weaned on the sort of manic and user-friendly animation that's being made today. But dislocating you to another time of mind seems precisely to be the purpose of Kawamoto's films. If you have even the remotest interest in indie Japanese animation, or good art animation period, it's your duty to seek out his films and watch them. At the very least, Kataku alone certainly ranks as one of the best animated shorts I've ever seen, the pinnacle of stop-motion filmmaking.

His films are special for one because they respect the intelligence of their audience enough not to present pat answers. Quite the opposite, every one of his films seems like a challenge and a philosophical question thrown at the viewer. Everyone will have a different answer.

His curious body of work based on ancient Buddhist tales is unique in the world. Nobody has bridged the ancient world with the modern as seamlessly as he has. Through his films it feels like we are truly stepping back in time and entering the mindset of another century, one in which these stories were not just old tales but living tradition. He updated classical theatrical forms like joruri into animated dramas that made these stories accessible to modern audiences the world over.

I can't think of many people who seemed to have as much sincere respect and love of the art of animation as Kihachiro Kawamoto. Even though he only started down the path of animation in his 40s, once he found his calling, he devoted the rest of his life to it in so many ways, not least by making amazing short films. He didn't view animation as a plaything; for him it seemed to be almost a matter of life and death. There's such a sense of urgency and sincerity in his films. He wasn't just out to make entertainment; it feels like he wanted to create films that would have a deep, almost spiritual impact, and would get us thinking about the meaning of our lives.

This doesn't have anything to do with animation, but there's one thing I have to mention that made me have immense respect for Kawamoto - his warmth. Though of course I never met him, in every interview I've seen with Kihachiro Kawamoto, he always seemed effusive and friendly and kind to everyone around him. He was always smiling. He always seemed so happy to discuss his work and animation and the work of his colleagues.

And of course, the puppets. He was a master puppet-maker, and in Japan he is perhaps just as well remembered for his puppets for the long-running puppet version of China's national epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Japan's national epic Tale of the Heike. Kawamoto was thus not only an animator, but also a master sculptor and marionette-maker, as well as having been trained in live-action directing at Toho studio. He put all of those skills to use in his films.

Breaking of Branches Is Forbidden
花折り / Hanaori
(14 min, 1968)

This is the first film Kawamoto made in his capacity as an independent animator, but the fact is that he was 43 at the time, so if the film seems remarkably assured in execution, it's because he was already a veteran puppet animator with more than 10 years' experience doing commercial work under the tutelage of puppet animation pioneer Tadahito Mochinaga. After a decade working in commercial animation, Kawamoto had become impatient with the work, and had impulsively written to his idol, Jiri Trnka, asking if he could come visit and learn at Trnka's studio. He spent a year in the Czech Republic in 1963 studying there, and this is the first film he made upon returning. Trnka had advised him to make films that reflected his country's culture, and he clearly took that advice to heart.

I admire Kawamoto for how open he was to learning from the techniques of foreign animators like Trnka who clearly had much to teach him, and his first film seems clearly aimed at an international audience in that the title screen is in English, and there is no dialogue. The characters rather mime all of their actions in an exaggerated way that makes it clear exactly what they're saying at each moment. Kawamoto doesn't even use sound effects, for the most part. The sound of sake pouring is about the only sound effect present. Entirely through the acting of the dolls he manages to convey the drunkard bonze's amusing personality.

The film uses a classical look for the backgrounds. They appear to be inspired by the naturalistic paintings on folding screens of the Edo-period such as those of Tawaraya Sotatsu, with their gold leaf backgrounds. The puppets aren't as distinctly inspired by joruri or noh as they would be later on, but they move with the same deliberate slowness. They retain the foreshortened proportions of his commercial work and foreign puppets. For the samurai's attendant, for example, he adopts the pursed lips of the traditional "hyottoko" mask, seemingly solely for the purpose of making each of the figures' faces as distinct as possible from one another.

Over these paintings he has the puppets act out a humorous story about a drunken bonze who is ordered by the abbot not to let anyone break the branches of a splendid chrysanthemum tree in the courtyard of the temple. The sneaky monk lets them in on the lure of sake, and winds up humiliated for his misdeeds. Thus his very first film involved buddhist monks, although it doesn't seem overtly based on a buddhist story or play like his later films.

This is easily his most accessible and humorous film. When I first watched it many years ago I found it slight, but rewatching it the other day I really enjoyed it. I think the humor is very well achieved and still works after all these years. The film casts a gently satirical light on the foibles of human nature, rather than being an anguished cry for redemption like most of his subsequent films. Its message is clear. It comes across as a universal fable that makes rudimentary use of the trappings of Japanese classical arts. Viewed objectively, it's a first step leading towards his more accomplished later films, but I miss the warmth and light-heartedness of this film in his more dour and straight-faced later work.

I particularly think the knavish monk is very well achieved. The carving of his head wonderfully captures his character - pseudo pious on the outside, but inside lazy and crafty. Kawamoto does a lot of fun tricks with the monk's doll to bring his character alive, such as spinning the monk's head around when he smells the sake, or having his head detach towards the sake and drag his body towards it. His nose blinks red whenever he smells sake. He even changes the expression slightly occasionally, such as inverting the monk's pious frown to a smile occasionally when he gets a sneaky idea, or having his eyes appear momentarily beneath when he sneaks a peek at something, only to quickly disappear back into the mock haughty expression of detached contemplation. This is one difference with his later work. He exercises a little bit of freedom with the expressions, in the European style.

Ironically, the only time a voice is heard is when the bonze intones the sutra and when he hiccups from the sake - clearly complementary to one another. The music appears to consist of "komagaku", namely komabue flute and percussion instruments, an ancient form of gagaku used to accompany dance. Later on during the drinking contest the music sounds like matsuri music.

An Anthropo-Cynical Farce
Farce anthropo-cynique
(8 min, 1970, B&W)

Kawamoto's second film will surprise people who thought all he did was ancient Japanese puppets. It's an abrasive, modern, black and white riddle of a film, with French dialogue for some reason. I can't quite figure out why it's in French, other than because French sounds cool and artsy. It's based on a story by Riichi Yokomitsu, so they had to translate it into French.

Watching this film is a tough slog. It's relentlessly gray and determinedly obscure. It lacks the redeeming feature of dynamism and beautiful images like his other films, rather seeming to rub your face in its harsh, abrasive black and white palette and obscure meaning. It achieves the feat of being a message film whose message is incomprehensible. It's so grimly determined to be artistic and to force its metaphor down your throat that it forgets to actually be interesting as animation or to be convincing.

You'd have forgiven a young artist for making this film as an excess of youth, as an experiment to try something new to try to find his artistic voice, but Kawamoto was in his mid-40s when me made it. This is a problem I have with much of his work: trying too hard to be artsy, and the fallacy that artistic merit is proportional to incomprehensibility.

(I'd advise watching the films before reading this because I'm going to talk about what happens.)

The film opens on a dog race in mid course. A presenter in a tux appears and proceeds to berate the spectators for their passive role as betters. The lights go out and the announcer announces that the presenter has been fired. The announcer continues to announce the race, but the presenter tells the audience in the dark that the dogs are in fact merely biting one another. The audience boos him, and he berates their complacency and warns them of some unnamed imminent danger. Suddenly a shot rings out, killing the presenter. The race finishes, the audience leaves. As they leave, we see them turning into dogs. The end.

If you squint hard enough, you can see in the film a metaphor about a revolutionary figure who tries to wake a repressed populace from its stupor.

The technique of the film is stop-motion puppets of dogs and humans superimposed over flat ink-drawn backgrounds. The use of black and white was presumably a stylistic decision to suit the more modern aesthetic of the material and to try something different. The faces of the audience members are sculpted in a very angular and modern way that is actually well suited to the more modern subject matter. It's the only time Kawamoto set to the task of sculpting something different from his usual classical puppet heads.

Tadanari Okamoto's Echo Studio is acknowledged in the credits in all of Kawamoto's films starting with this one. Whereas Okamoto had his own studio and staff to help produce his films and rarely did any of the animation himeself, Kawamoto's films were a smaller and more personal affair. He always did his own puppets and helped with their animation, although in some of the films the work of creating the puppets was shared with other people due presumably to the large number of characters. He doesn't give credit for who did the puppets in Hanaori, Farce or Oni, but they were presumably all by himself. He had collaborators helping him make the puppets in all of his short puppet films starting with Dojoji Temple.

The Demon
鬼 / Oni
(8 min, 1972)

After taking a detour with Farce, Kawamoto returned to traditional material with Oni. Though Hanaori was also set in ancient Japan, it's Oni that feels like the first real Kawamoto piece. It has all his signature elements - the basis on ancient literature, the puppets with realistic proportions and noh-based heads, the theme of suffering and redemption, and the seriousness of mood. Although Kawamoto clearly was by no means tied to only one style, it's that ancient puppet style that people have come to associate with him because it became his focus very quickly shifted to that material in exclusivity.

Oni is perhaps the simplest in terms of narrative material. It quite simply consists of two hunters going up a hill, being attacked by an oni, cutting off the oni's arm, and going back home to discover their own ailing mother with her arm chopped off.

The film has good economy of means. There are no sound effects and no dialogue. Instead, a few intertitles convey the dialogue, and the music at every moment closely mirrors the action, making up for any lack of sound effects or dialogue. The music is comprised of shakuhachi and shamisen. The shakuhachi effectively highlighting the pathos and the shamisen comes alive with rapid playing during the dramatic moments like the mother's transformation into an oni.

The characters' movement and acting is stylized specifically in the manner of a noh play, although the story doesn't come from a noh play. For example, the brothers swing their arms dramatically in unison as they climb up the mountain, and the mother transformed into an oni walks around in a 360 in a stock Noh move.

The background is for the most part black, as the setting is night, with a few leaves of vegetation rendered in the gold leaf style of the old Edo-period screen paintings. When the brothers are climbing up the mountain, a foreground layer of leaves and two back layers of bamboo trees are panned at alternating speeds to indicate their movement.

The movement is more naturalistic than in in Hanaori. This time the only non-joint movement is eye blinks and pupil movement. There are no cartoonish effects like detaching heads or blinking noses. The puppets are essentially restricted to moving in the manner of the a human body, and the proportions of the head to the body are realistic.

It's a beautiful film, but it feels brief and sketch-like, also due to the simplicity of the story. I still don't know what to think of the story. Oni shares with Farce a feeling of deliberate impenetrability, although the stories and style are different. Both films are metaphors not meant to be taken at face value. It's up to you to parse their meaning however you can. Oni at least doesn't come across as sophomoric and trying too hard the way Farce does, because it's an implicit metaphor, rather than an explicit one. It's a metaphor that sits within the skin of an old fable. The story itself is the essence of simplicity, but you're left to wonder what it's supposed to mean.

The film begins with a montage of ink images depicting the mother's past. First her body floats through Buddha's ether and enters an abandoned infant crying on the shore, apparently to indicate that she was pre-ordained for a miserable life. Her life of misery begins from the moment of birth as an orphan, and continues on through a miserable childhood with uncaring parents and bullying, an unloving husband, poverty, and years of illness.

Then after living a miserable life, apparently pre-ordained by karma, the old woman turns into an oni due to her suffering and tries to eat her children, but winds up being killed by her children instead. "They say that when parents grow too old, they become demons who will eat their own children." Oni closes with this quote from the original story, which is taken from the Konjaku Monogatari, a late-Heian era collection of folklore and Buddhist lore from India, China and Japan.

My first reaction on reading the quote was laughing at how mean it is: "What, so the moral of the story is kill your parents before they kill you??" Then I felt kind of angry about the film's depiction of the elderly as these horrible monsters. Then I just felt bad for the old woman, who'd suffered all her life only to turn out to be the bad guy.

From a modern perspective, the story seems terribly mean. I'm baffled as to why Kawamoto chose this material. Like many of Kawamoto's films, I suspect it's got to be a Buddhist fable of some sort with underlying meaning. The problem is that it's really not clear at all even when you try to figure out what it's supposed to mean. At least in his later films the underlying Buddhist message is clear.

The best I can come up with is that this is how people back then metaphorically expressed the consequences of a lifetime of suffering - we turn into demons who devour our loved ones, or literally we take out our misery on the ones we most love. The woman's suffering is all the more lamentable because it was apparently ordained by her karma. She is doomed to a life of suffering for past misdeeds, without even knowing what those misdeeds were.

Although I find the story distasteful, it is interesting for being so literal an adaptation of a world view and set of moral values so different from ours. It's interesting to see a Heian-era fable brought to life faithfully like this. It can make for a fascinating and dislocating viewing experience to see a story with an alien sensibility like this one, where you're not really sure what meaning it's trying to get across, but it does seem to be a faithful adaptation of the sensibilities of a culture from another time and place.

Although in the end the film feels incomplete and a bit lacking and doesn't leave a very good aftertaste, what the film has going for it is that it is very rigorous in presenting the old folktale without any sort of modern interpretation or slant. Not a shot is wasted. The framing and lighting is perfect and calculated to create a balanced image. The delicate puppets are well sculpted and filmed, the clothing perfectly authentic, and the combination with the music flawless. It's one of his most beautiful and austere films, and it presages the themes he would treat later on more explicitly.

The Trip
旅 / Tabi
(12 min, 1973)

What an appropriate title. This film is a trip, all right. It's a cascade of pure surrealistic imagery the likes of which I would never have expected to see from a serious fellow like Kihachiro Kawamoto. Andrei Khrjanovsky is who it reminds me of, and his films make loads of sense compared to this thing. But then again, all artists arrive at the style that fits them best only after years of experimenting to find that style. This is a wonderful little detour that shows an unexpected side of an artist we thought we knew.

Trying too hard for artistic affect is something that has bothered me about almost all of his other films, but ironically that is not a criticism I would level at this one. At least here he unabashedly discards all narrative logic and revels in delivering a chaotic onslaught of subconscious dreams and desires. This film works as an extraordinary fever dream full of bewildering images to which you simply have to surrender yourself.

The film is grounded by a female protagonist wandering around various locales of the imagination and meeting various people along the way. We start from live-action photographs of a lady on a train platform, then segue to a drawn version of the young lady. She meets an old man who takes her by the hand and leads her off through a landscape littered with destroyed landmarks, then to an Escher-like maze of staircases, then to a tower with vestibules packed with torso statuettes set against dark sky roiled with red clouds, and finally to a hill with a crucified Christ and a battleship that fades to a Parthenon with a floating glass globe in the middle flanked by two sphinxes statues standing guard over a labyrinth. I could go on describing the events and scenery, but you get the idea.

I doubt the objects and images in the film are meant to signify anything specific or literal. In my mind, they seem like dreamtime creations of the subconscious mind processing one's life experience travelling around the world.

The film invokes Buddhist themes and imagery near the end, when our wanderer, now clad in modern 60s garb and standing amidst a group of fellow hippies, runs across a guru-looking figure in whom she seems to see a soul mate from a past life. The film closes to the sound of sutra chants and the image of the wanderer in a meditative pose at the center of a mandala.

Since things hadn't been incomprehensible enough, the film closes with a poem by 11th century Chinese poet Su Dongpo translated into classical Japanese. I was curious to find out the meaning, so I searched and luckily found an explanation of the poem in Japanese. The meaning seems to be that for many years the author had longed to see Mt. Lu enshrouded in mist and the tide rushing into the Qiantang River in southeaster Zhejiang province, as these were two of China's most renowned natural wonders, but once he finally got to see them, upon returning home they struck him as kind of banal and ordinary. The Buddhist subtext of this poem is that a priest was seeking enlightenment with all of his being, but after he reached enlightenment, he found that nothing outward had changed when he went about his everyday life; only his spirit had changed.

Kawamoto himself says that the film does have significance, just not a literal one. In his mind, it's related to the Prague Spring period in 1968 that culminated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet army. The event marked Kawamoto because he was so spiritually close to the Czech animators. You can sense that this film and Farce must both have been a reaction to the repression of the people of the country he so loved. Jiri Trnka's last film, The Hand, deals with the same subject from an inside perspective.

In this film Kawamoto views the tribulations of his spiritual homeland through the lens of the Buddhist concept of the dukkha or three types of suffering, refracted through the prism of a surreal vision of a woman's journey in search of her purpose in life. Like the poem that caps the film, many of Kawamoto's films are meant to be read on two levels, a literal one and a metaphorical one related to the path towards enlightenment, but Trip pushes this to another level and feels like his film with the most layers of significance. If Kawamoto's other films are Buddhist parables, this one feels like a zen koan.

If there's one criticism I can level at it, it would be that it's not an easy film to watch, or even necessarily particularly enjoyable. It's a little slow. It's lacking in the dynamism and quick pace that made Khrjanovsky's visions so exciting and fun. Kawamoto must have sensed this, as he made a shorter version of the film, but I find the shorter version just feels like a trailer. The images can't be rushed; they need space to breathe.

A Poet’s Life
詩人の生涯 / Shijin no Shogai
(19 min, 1974)

Kawamoto returned to the territory of Farce with his next film, about a factory worker agitating to improve the conditions of his workplace. Perhaps inspired by Tadanari Okamoto, he seemed to be trying a new technique with every film around this time. Just a few years earlier in 1972 he and Okamoto had just started organizing their joint Puppet Animashow exhibition.

The technique of the film seems to be either charcoal or pencil background drawings with characters animated using cutouts drawn in the same way. The drawings of the characters are very realistic, although the movement is spare. The film feels more like a moving illustration than animation.

The story is a fairly interesting modern surrealist fable that talks about a major topical issue at the time in Japan, labor relations, and does so in a specific yet universal way.

The story is based on a short story by the famous surrealist writer Abe Kobo, best known for The Woman in the Dunes. The tone of surrealism is established right from the opening sequence, in which the protagonist's grandmother reaches out to grab the spindle she has just finished winding to sew a sweater to sell, only to get reeled up into the spindle like a thread, leaving behind only a pile of kimono.

Everything in the film can't be taken at face value, including the snow that falls and freezes everybody and the sweaters that liberate them from the freezing cold. Like every Kawamoto film, it's all about double meanings and subtexts and metaphors.

The film is interesting in concept, but as a film it's somewhat too static and slow, and lacks the aesthetic beauty of the puppets and good lighting of his other films that redeem the slowness.

Dojoji Temple
道成寺 / Dojoji
(19 min, 1976)

After working on more modern, abstract material for a few years, for his sixth film Kawamoto returned to traditional puppets acting out Buddhist parables in ancient Japan.

Adapted from one of the most famous noh plays, Dojoji tells the story of a woman who falls for an itinerant priest and is transformed into a dragon in her all-consuming passion when the priest scorns her advances. She chases him into the grounds of a temple, where the priest hides beneath a giant bell. In her rage, she wraps herself around the bell, and the fire of her passion burns the priest to a crisp.

This was Kawamoto's most sustained and serious effort in the format to date. He clearly put a lot more work into bringing the puppets alive and making their motivations believable in this film. There is just a lot more detail in every shot, and he maintains a very tight feeling of momentum throughout the duration of the film. He combined a variety of techniques, lens effects and styles of lighting to create a visually rich film.

The shots in the river, for example, are quite impressive. When the woman dives into the river, her puppet is seen swimming amidst traditionally animated waves in the style of old Japanese drawings. With hand-drawn flames and whirlwinds swirling about, her puppet sinks beneath the roiling waves, and finally a puppet of a fierce dragon emerges in her place. Shots like this must have taken a tremendous amount of work, and they go a long way towards making the scenes have the requisite impact.

The scene of the dragon wrapped around the bell is quite moving and provides a fittingly climactic finale. As the dragon coils around the bell, lovingly animated hand-drawn flames arise to engulf the bell and cook the priest inside, and a flute wails plaintively, like an embodiment of the woman's anguish.

I like that Kawamoto subtly develops character through little movements, like when the priest is walking behind his abbot and he's so preoccupied by the pretty ladies that he doesn't notice that the abbott has stopped and bumps into him. Without going overboard into comic territory it hints that the priest is not very detached from the world and has lingering attraction to specific aspects of this world like the opposite sex. Which also forbodes what's to come.

Kawamoto does a superb job of capturing the woman's evolving emotional state in various ways leading up to the climax as she chases him. There's a frontal shot of the woman after she's been running finally to catch up with the priest, who has stopped by a pond for water. She's framed head on, looking into the camera, her chest moving faintly up and down to indicate heavy breathing. The shot has a strong impact and conveys the feeling of a woman whose very soul is shorn apart at the thought of losing her heart's desire. Immediately afterwards she approaches the priest and he rebuffs her advances, terrified of her demonic mien. She looks down at her reflection in the water and sees in her reflection the face of an oni. Her head comes up slowly, as if it were just dawning on her what she's become.

I like these moments because they show a clear understanding that these stories aren't necessarily to be taken literally; the idea of transforming into an oni is a literalization of the emotions and passions that animate all humans, a metaphor for the Buddhist concept of the 'burning house' of passion and suffering that is this world. Back when these stories were in their heyday, this must have been clearly understood by the people who saw these plays, but that meaning has been obscured by the gap of centuries and drastic cultural changes.

Kawamoto changes the head of her puppet from one with a peaceful face in the first few minutes to one with an expression of horror when she discovers that the priest was attempting to flee her. Also, her hair gradually becomes more disheveled during the course of her pursuit.

I'm not sure, but this change of heads may also occur in the original noh play, as I've found an example of a noh mask of a woman with an anguished expression similar to that in this film. The expressions of the puppets' faces are static like noh masks. In noh, the expression of the mask seems to change subtly depending on the lighting and angle, and Kawamoto was an expert in carving the faces of his puppets to achieve a similar effect.

As in Hanaori, there is no dialogue in Kataku. All meaning is communicated through body language. The priest puts hands together to indicate that he can't stay and needs to go pray to buddha, and counts to three on his fingers to indicate in how many days he will supposedly return. The boatman thumps chest to indicate 'leave it to me'. Etc. Kawamoto exercises considerable ingenuity in coming up with ways of making these puppets communicate exactly what they are thinking and how they are feeling at every moment. This includes using lighting effectively and framing the shot accordingly to make the facial expression communicate a particular emotion.

One problem I had with the puppets is that he didn't make all of them. He probably made the ones for the main characters and his assistants did the rest. The ones for the passers by along the road are not really that great looking. They're not nearly as refined of expression as Kawamoto's puppets.

Finally, the score by composer Teizo Matsumura (1929-2007) deserves to be singled out. It masterfully matches the plaintiveness of the traditional Japanese harmonies to the emotions of this story.

One thing that confused me upon watching it was why the woman seemed to fall so passionately in love with the priest upon first laying eyes on him. Love at first sight couldn't possibly account for the all-consuming passion that followed. As it turns out, Kawamoto's version appears to omit certain elements of the original story that explain this: The priest had stopped by the house every year on his pilgrimage to the shrine at Kumano, and had jokingly said he would marry the girl when she grew up. She remembered, and and approached him on that visit urging him to keep his promise. It might have been a bit of a mistake to omit this, since it weakens your sense of the motivation behind the love frenzy. Anyway, even if you don't know that, the woman's passion is well enough depicted that you're convinced.

In short, this is by far the most successful of Kawamoto's dramatizations of Buddhist parables yet. With this film he finally seems to have found his voice and the format that best suited his personality: An extended dramatization of an ancient Buddhist story with realistic puppets acting naturalistically. You understand clearly what the story is saying on the surface as well as what the religious subtext is. That said, this still isn't my favorite Kawamoto film. His next film is.

House of Flames
火宅 / Kataku
(19 min, 1979)

Adapted from the noh play The Sought-for Grave (求塚 Motomezuka), this was the last film Kawamoto made during his most active period as an indie animator. He made lots more afterwards, but it was under different circumstances. This film strikes me as the culmination of those feverish ten years during which he discovered his calling as an indie animator and made one film after another.

I find the film to be his most perfect creation in every sense. The pathos of the character's predicament is genuinely affecting. The narrative is the most layered, jumping between past and present and afterlife. The puppets have delicate and refined features, and they're well dressed and beautifully photographed. The visual schemes are lush and varied, with even more effective use of lighting and coloring than before. The soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu is absolutely brilliant and perfectly complements the material.

With House of Flames, Kawamoto finally achieved greatness of the level of his idol and master Jiri Trnka, the greatest puppet animator who ever lived. His previous films were good, of course, but for some reason they didn't really bowl me over. They didn't gel into a whole greater than the sum of their parts, at least not the way this one does. The previous films were somewhat interesting, but they didn't shake you to your core. This one bowls you over with the intensity of its vision.

The visuals of the film feel more refined than any of his previous films. Every shot seems perfectly lit or framed, with just the right balance in the layout of the objects on the screen. The textural variety of the visuals is breathtaking and makes the film feel very rich. Memorable instances include the masterfully well achieved depth of image during the misty scenes in the wilderness at the beginning, presumably done with a multi-plane, and the darkly lit shots in the afterlife combining puppetry with beautiful hand-drawn flames and waves as well as drawings of demons tormenting the maiden as she plunges into the depths of hell.

An impressive moment is when the maiden tries to shake the flame off of her arm, and the hand-drawn animation of the flame jumps into the air and morphs into the puppet for the iron ducks that peck at her brain for eternity. Also moving is the moment when the maiden attempts to dive into the ocean to put out the flames that engulfs her, only for the ocean to turn into an ocean of flames. The final sequence does a remarkable job of making you feel pity for her, tormented in hell for eternity for having done what she believed to be a good deed in sacrificing herself to prevent conflict.

The conflict at the center of the story is universal and timeless, which I find raises the story beyond the level of a mere Buddhist parable. It has a broad appeal and its meaning is immediately apparent to anyone.

I don't know from what perspective Kawamoto so obsessively adapted Buddhist parables, i.e. as a believer proselytizing or merely to explore Japan's profound and complex ancient philosophical arts, but I like this film because it functions as a multi-layered dramatic construct regardless of your stake in the religion. Anyway, no ancient Japanese are alive today, so nobody viewing this would have the value system to which these plays were originally intended to speak. This was the dominant world view back then; now it's a fascinating artifact. That's how I see this film: as a vivid illustration of the value system that was Buddhism as it evolved and was elaborated upon in Japan.

Maybe another thing that makes me like the film is that it doesn't have a steep learning curve. The meaning is immediately clear, and the drama of the film doesn't feel obscure or foreign. You immediately relate to the poor maiden and feel relieved by the compassion of the priest who goes out of his way to pray for her soul, saving her from her torment.

The film's subject is one of the central concepts of Buddhism: the house of flames. The house of flames a metaphor for this world. The maiden trapped in the burning house is none other than we mortals trapped in the torment of this life. This is poignantly expressed via the animation: when the two dead suitors each grab her arm, they are transformed into the flame that burns her. It's only by seeking detachment from this world through enlightenment that we can escape the torment.

Of course, from a modern perspective, telling people to run away from the real world to escape suffering seems kind of bad advice, but you have to take this film in its cultural context. It's a pure product of that era, when Buddhism's arrival filled a spiritual hole and offered a constellation of theories about how to alleviate suffering in this life. The Japanese were always so good at expressing stories of evanescence and pathos, and this is one of the supreme examples of that humanistic aesthetic that placed so much value on empathy.

Kawamoto has brought alive this poetic/philosophical/religious concept in a way that goes beyond merely preaching to the choir. This was clearly Kawamoto's intent, since he changed the name of the play to underline the central metaphor of the house of flames.

Besides the remarkable score by Toru Takemitsu, one of his best, the narration by renowned Noh reciter Shizuo Kanze is spot on and indispensable. He communicates every line with such a sense of urgency and power. So in addition to Kawamoto's newfound mastery of his material, this film also benefited from inspired work by two brilliant practitioners of their own respective arts. Animation is a collaborative process, and it's meetings of great artists like this that produce the most memorable results.

One thing I'm unsure of is where this film was shown. This film was actually not shown at the Puppet Animashow, despite what I initially thought. There were a total of five annual Puppet Animashows between 1972 and 1976, and then there was a show called the World of Kihachiro Kawamoto in 1982 where it was shown, but this film was produced in 1979, and I can't imagine that it remained buried for 3 years before seeing the light of day.

To Shoot Without Shooting
不射之射 / Fushanosha
(25 min, 1988)

1980 seems to have signaled a shift in Kawamoto's priorities. His next film as a director was the full-length film Rennyo and His Mother in 1981, which I haven't seen as it was never released on video or DVD (you can see pictures here). Subsequently he seems to have spent much of the 80s focusing on his puppet-making work. It's only in 1988 that he completed his next film, and it's a special film produced under unique circumstances. It wasn't Kawamoto working at home in the capacity of a lone artist the way he'd done before. This one was actually produced at China's most famous studio, Shanghai Animation Film Studio.

Shanghai had been the seat of Chinese animation since the very beginning in 1926 with the Wan brothers' animation, well before the founding of Shanghai Animation Studio in 1956. Tadahito Mochinaga had been heavily involved in Shanghai animation for three years starting in 1950 before he returned to Japan to found Japanese stop-motion. Kihachiro Kawamoto in turn learned about puppet animation under Mochinaga.

The period starting in the late 70s and going through the 80s seems to have been a sort of renaissance for the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. They produced heaps of films in all sorts of formats and styles, many of them doing imaginative things with stop-motion. Kawamoto's films are pretty unique in the world, but there seems to be a spiritual kinship between his films and Shanghai Animation Film Studio's stop-motion films. Thus there were a lot of connections between the two, and it's presumably as a way to connect back with them that Kawamoto came to direct a stop-motion film at the studio in 1988.

Based on a story entitled Meijinden by Atsushi Nakajima, To Shoot Without Shooting retells the traditional Chinese tale of Ji Chang, a bowman who wanted to become the best bowman in the world. After years of work he finally surpassed his masters, and could down birds without even using the bow. In the ultimate stage of mastery he no longer recognized a bow and arrow.

The story is one of the more obviously metaphorical of all of Kawamoto's films. It just screams metaphor in every sense, unlike his other films, which tell a story and conceal a subtext. It's hard to take it literally that Ji Chang spent however many years doing nothing but staring at a louse, or that he learned not to blink even when soot entered his eyes (or why that would even be important to becoming a better archer for that matter), or that the old master was able to down a bird without even shooting it with an arrow. Forgetting what a bow and arrow are in old age, on the other hand, isn't so far-fetched.

The film's metaphor probably has to do with the path towards enlightenment. When you reach it, you become so detached from life's distractions that you no longer even recognize the implement that was your life's passion. Or perhaps it is a wry comment on the futility of all artistic endeavor: No matter how much you strive to become better and better, eventually you will become an old senile man who doesn't even recognize his own bow and arrow when he sees it. Despite clearly being a metaphor, the film has an appealing ambiguity as to what exactly that metaphor is.

One of the downsides of the film is that it isn't as tightly constructed and enthralling as Kataku or even Dojoji, which in retrospect come across as having been Kawamoto's peak. The photography is a little more simple and unostentatious, the puppets a little less refined, the pacing a little slow and unnecessarily languorous. It all feels much less polished. That's clearly also partially because the film was largely produced by the Chinese staff at Shanghai Animation Film Studio.

But you also start to wonder if Kawamoto himself wasn't feeling a bit like Ji Chang at that point in his life. Having achieved mastery and seen where it leads, he no longer felt like making the effort to impress people by creating meticulously constructed short films. Sure, he directed this film and several afterwards, but it feels like more of a gesture in a way. I don't feel that there was any sort of artistic progression beyond the achievement of Kataku. What's significant about this film and the remainder is the collaboration aspect. It's no longer just about Kawamoto showing off his incredible skills as a puppet animator; it's about him handing down those skills to others and giving others the opportunity to shine. It's the next step towards enlightenment in Kawamoto's journey as an artist.

But I don't want to knock either the film or Kawamoto, or Shanghai Animation Film Studio for that matter, because To Shoot Without Shooting is a thoroughly enjoyable film. It's a very entertaining historical piece set in ancient China that keeps you engaged throughout. The settings and outfits are vividly realized and bring alive the atmosphere of the ancient China of legend. There are numerous interesting shots that must have been a challenge to realize, such as the moving crane shot when the aged Ji Chang is reunited with his erstwhile master.

At every step along the way you have a keen sense of the intensity of Ji Chang's struggle towards mastery, and that struggle has universal appeal. Anyone who has ever struggled to become better in any art (including work) will be able to relate. The thrill of the process of learning something, applying it, and being able to go yet higher as a result, is one of the best things in life. I'd even say it's what makes life bearable - that we don't feel like we're stuck, but rather constantly improving and getting closer to some unattainable ideal. It's simultaneously inspiring about the heights we are able to reach when we try, and sobering about the limits of all human enterprise. As the opening of the Heike Monogatari depressingly reminds us, all human enterprise is transitory and impermanent as the ringing of a bell.

When Ji Chang returns to his home village, now famous, but doesn't make any attempt to show off his skills, the villagers begin to exchange extravagant tales of his accomplishments. Some saw him riding a cloud in the sky with master bowmen from earlier times. Some attest that he shot a laser beam out of his eyes. It's an ironic comment on our endearing tendency to lionize our artists, to revere them to the point of attributing to them things they never did but that we wish they could have.

During closing scenes where Ji Chang is an old man, we see a reflection of the bow in the water eradicated by a simple drop of water. In the old man's soul, the cacophony of worldly desires has been replaced by a calm serenity. It's one of the most assured expressions of a theme that Kawamoto has been preoccupied with over the decades - the ancient ideal of the pursuit of enlightenment.

A constant with this film is Kawamoto's admirable ability to make his puppets communicate exactly what they're thinking without requiring extravagant animation. When the bowmaster tells Ji Chiang that he needs to learn to see tiny things as if they were huge, Ji Chang nods his head in assent, but the way he slowly raises his head indicates his perplexity. Right afterwards, when he spots the beggar, he adopts a certain pose: his arms folded, his right shoulder angled slightly behind, his head angled. Without any movement or feature alteration, the pose alone communicates that something about the beggar intrigues him and has given him an idea.

Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty
いばら姫またはねむり姫 / Ibarahime Matawa Inemurihime
(22 min, 1990)

Kawamoto's next film was another international collaboration with Kawamoto going overseas to direct a film, this time one of particular personal significance. It was Kawamoto coming full circle. He had begun down the path of puppet animation inspired by Jiri Trnka, and in 1990, several decades into a successful career as an independent puppet animator, he returned to Czechoslovakia to make a film at Jiri Trnka's studio. To make sure nobody misses the point, Kawamoto has a puppet resembling Trnka make a cameo appearance in the film in the role of the king who marries Briar Rose's mother. Trnka died in 1969, a year after Kawamoto debuted as an independent. It's unfortunate that Trnka didn't live to see what remarkable work he inspired on the other side of the world.

The film is unusual for Kawamoto in a number of obvious ways. It's not set in ancient Japan, but in the world of European fairy tales. It's not an adaptation of a story, but an original, postmodern story that consciously references and blends and remixes the old fairy tales. The main puppets are identifiable as Kawamoto's work despite not being Japanese. The methodical pacing and the staging of scenes are also identifiable as his work.

At the same time, you sense something a little different - a European twinge. It's identifiable particularly in the puppets. Kawamoto this time acted as the 'director of puppet art', rather than being a sculptor. They were all apparently sculpted by the staff of the Trnka studio. The main puppets feel Kawamoto, but many of the extras have a more classically Czech type of stylization. Most of the staff who worked on the film were Czech. A few notable exceptions are staff who had worked with Kawamoto over almost all of his films over the decades, for example background artist Takashi Komae and animator Hirokazu Minegishi.

On the visual front, this is perhaps the most sumptuous feeling of Kawamoto's films. They create a glowing fairy tale atmosphere by means of sets of dense, fog-enshrouded virgin forests and European castles. The large cast of supporting characters are dressed in appropriate period attire, and the princess and her mother are fairy-tale-beautiful in their regal attire and long, flowing hair. The princess's fixed expression of seductive, fiery intensity seems to communicate so much thought and emotion boiling beneath the surface. The genius of using a static face with an enigmatic expression like hers is that the viewer unconsciously projects the appropriate emotion into her expression at every moment.

The ravishing soundtrack by Svatopluk Havelka heightens the atmosphere of the ball with authentic period dance music, and elsewhere creates a an appropriately mysterious mood with rich harmonies of a pleasingly Czech inflection reminiscent of Janacek's symphonic poems. Coincidentally, Havelka's life overlapped almost exactly with Kawamoto's. He was born in 1925 and died last year.

The story is a very peculiar one. It can be a little hard to follow because of its unexpected and sometimes shocking twists on the old fairy tales. It's a sexually charged, Freudian retelling of these old fairy tales that does away with the fairies and magic. The sleeping beauty thus is not literally a beauty who is put to sleep by magic, but a nickname given the princess by one of her disappointed suitors who could not get her to open her eyes while they were talking. Another crowns her briar rose as a pun on her prickly personality. The viewer approaches this film expecting a traditional fairy tale, and the story playfully upends those expectations.

When the mysterious stranger appears ominously and casts a shadow over the celebrations of the birth of the princess, the narrator relates that the fairy tale all know was actually a concoction devised to parlay the curiosity of the guests in attendance. The truth lies behind the fairy tales, and it's more sordid and earthy and sexual.

The peculiarities of this story can be attributed to Kyoko Kishida's vision. The story was devised and narrated by Kishida, a talented actress with many facets. Best known in the west perhaps for her role as the woman in the dunes in Teshigahara's 1964 film adaptation, in anime she is synonymous with the voice of Moomin. Since the 1960s she was a prolific voice actress and actress in movies and avant-garde plays, including appearing in many of Tadanari Okamoto's films.

Fairy tales have clear beginnings, middles and ends, but the structure of this strange fairy tale is amorphous and open-ended. There's no catharsis or clear happy ending. Just the opposite, the story is one of disappointed desire and resignation. There are no fairy tale endings, but if you want to believe I lived happily ever after, feel free to do so, the princess ironically says at the end.

This fairy tale is all grown up. Gone is the childlike wonder, replaced with highly charged story of sexual awakening. Objects like the spindle have a clearly phallic connotation. Instead of falling asleep when she touches the spindle, it has the tragic consequence of leading to her discovery of her mother's youthful lover. The curse is not that she falls into a magical sleep, but that she discovers lust and is forever doomed to be a sexual creature with desires that can never be fulfilled. It's a daring subject to tackle with puppets, and the taboo-busting nude puppet love scene must have taken some fortitude to film. It makes for uncomfortable and kind of embarrassing viewing, but it makes it clear that this is a fairy tale for adults.

Had the sex scene been omitted, it might have been easy for the seeming vast majority of the population out there to have their usual knee-jerk reaction of dismissing anything animated as being for kids. Oh look at the cute puppets. It's a pretty fairy tale. You can make a film with the most nuanced characterization and complexly layered theme, but most people will still seem blind to it. As soon as it's animated, it's like people suddenly abandon their critical faculty. Their eyes glaze over and their brain shuts off. The inclusion of the sexual scene can serve to snap those people awake. It says, "HEY, I'm talking to you."

Though the story could be criticized for being muddled and affected and striving a little too much for edgy, postmodern airs, it does cleverly subvert the stereotype of puppets as being the medium for playing out fairy tales. It's a film of sumptuous beauty as well as theatrical flair and subtle wit. Only in Kawamoto's hands would the princess have blossomed into such a psychologically layered character.

Kawamoto seems to have been occupied with other matters after this for some time, and only returned to animation in the early 2000s with the wonderful Winter Days omnibus. It's indicative of his devotion to animation as an art form that he would go out of his way to organize such a complex project. He heroically corralled some 40 of the world's most talented independent animation artists to provide an animated interpretation around the theme of Basho's linked verse poetry. I wrote about this film long ago here in one of my earliest entries in this blog so I won't rehash that here. It's clear that in the latter half of his career Kawamoto did much to advance the recognition of animation as an art. Winter Days was one of his most significant achievements in this regard.

He appears to have made another animated short after this film. It's called Amefutakami in the Sky, but I can't find much information about it. This must have been a lead-up to his first and last full-length animated feature, The Book of a Dead Person, which engaged him for a few years immediately afterwards. It was completed in 2006 with the aid of students of Tama Art University. It featured one of the last voice performances by Kyoko Kishida, who died in 2006. My viewing of this film was marred by the dub, and it did not leave a good impression on me, so I will wait to pass judgment on it until I have a chance to see it with Kyoko Kishida's voice. It was Kawamoto's last and grandest statements yet on the subject that had preoccupied him throughout his career.

Revisiting his films and taking the time to think about their meaning as I have for this post has definitely given me a newfound appreciation and respect for how well thought out and produced they are. A master puppet-maker and painstaking animator, he left behind some incredible films that shared with us his exceptional insight into the anguished humanism of ancient Japanese Buddhism. I wouldn't say that every one of his films works perfectly, but I'm moved by the compassion for humanity he exhibited in so earnestly exploring the subjects of suffering and oppression and other fun topics that most people shy away from. He devoted his life with intense focus on his very special area of interest and reached deeper than anyone ever has in exploring those subjects on film. Kawamoto was the kind of guy who made animation worthy of being called art.

Monday, October 26, 2009

12:54:21 pm , 366 words, 5207 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Music Video, Animator

Charles Huettner short film yay

Cool beans. Charles Huettner, the guy who made a fan-made music video for Animal Collective's awesome song Water Curses that knocks the stuffing out of the boring official music video (and a great official one for DM Stith to another awesome song - he always animates awesome songs, which is better than making an awesome video to a song that sucks), says he's working on his first ever full-fledged Animated Short. Looking forward to that. He says he's got no schooling or much experience in 2D animation. And I friggin love his two music videos. How messed up is that? So I'm looking forward to it all the more. Some of the most refreshing animation I've seen has been from the unschooled. I think schooling can be good and bad. Charles talks about the process for making his great music videos on his blog too. Worth a read. And I love all the random crazy experimentation and stuff on his Vimeo account.

I watched the second episode of Trapeze and it was way better than the first one in my opinion, or at least better. They did a great job of focusing on the guy this time and digging deep into the root causes of his problem. Very funny and psychologically probing. Original script is really funny with its suggestive phrases, and kudos to translators of fansub for doing a good job conveying those in English. Though it's interesting how the whole basis of the story - his getting a permanent hard-on supposedly as some kind of post-traumatic reaction to his wife leaving him - seems undermined by the way the real-life doctor dude felt the need to interject to point out that such a thing in fact never has psychological roots. But whatever. At least they're honest! And you know what I'm warming to the use of real-life actors. They do it much more copiously here than in Kemonozume, so it feels like a different strategy, and I find that in this case it actually serves to make you relate to the character more. Who can relate to a drawing? I like that they're doing animation that kind of rejects itself at the same time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

12:07:32 pm , 535 words, 4658 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Mirai Mizue

I just found out that indie Japanese animator Mirai Mizue has his own web site and you can see all of his films on there. That's one of the great things about indie animation today - it's quite easy for artists to share their work on their own home page if they want. Many years ago I wrote a bit about Mirai Mizue's debut film, Fantastic Cell (2003), which was shown on Digista, and wanted to see more from him in this style. But I never got around to looking to see if he'd continued to do anything in the intervening years.

I was reminded just now by a post by Amid on Cartoon Brew about his latest film, Jam (2009). Looking at his site, where Jam can be viewed online, I was delighted to discover that he'd not only continued to build on that style over the last few years, but that the films were all viewable on his home page. (Fantastic Cell is here) He's one of my favorite animators in today's indie Japanese animation scene, with a truly unique voice and sensibility.

The Carmen ~In Fantastic Cell~ (2002) is another one of the films in the patented 'cell' style that he's developed. It was actually a study for his debut film, but is quite fun and gets across what makes his films so much fun. He does a great job of bringing alive these organic yet abstract shapes of various cells and strange cellular creatures, and syncs the animation with the music in a way that makes the movement very funny and makes the film really fun and interesting from moment to moment. This particular film reminds me of Oskar Fischinger in the way the semi-abstract forms are zooming around on the screen - an abstract animated ballet set to a famous classical music piece.

Trip!-Trap! (2005) is perhaps the most impressive and broad-ranging of his films. It's a good showcase of the artist's broad range of styles and techniques, all jam-packed into a tremendously dense and fun 5 minutes and set to some great music by his constant collaborator Alice Nakamura. Devour Dinner (2008) does away with the music and goes with only funny sound effects, showcasing his ability to come up with an infinite array of those strange cellular creatures. It feels like Fantastic Planet in the way it consists of a simple sequence of shots depicting this fantastical, bizarre microscopic world in a sort of deadpan way. It's a darkly funny film where these imaginary creatures spend their entire lives eating and being eaten. Some of my favorite animation of the last few years has been work like this that treads the line between figurative and abstract in its depiction of familiar yet fantastic microscopic life, such as Robert Seidel's _grau and Erick Oh's Symphony.

His illustrations are also really cool, full of densely packed but whimsical detail. I love his sensibility and unique style. He thinks fractally, creating macroscopic forms that emerge out of seemingly repeating yet actually infinitely varied microscopic forms. He's carved out a very interesting place for himself as an artist. It's great to know there are a lot of animators in Japan working in such personal and inventive styles.

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