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: Avant-Garde

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

08:00:46 am , 1455 words, 8958 views     Categories: Avant-Garde, Movie


Patrick Bokanowski's L'Ange is one of the great masterpieces of filmmaking of the last half century. If Oscars were given out for experimental films, it would surely have taken the award in 1982, when after 5 years of filming and editing Patrick finally unleashed this magisterial visual feast upon audiences. Although I don't know how much playtime the film actually got in France. Full-length feature it may be - a rarity in true experimental filmmaking - it is, however, as far as can be from a conventional narrative film, and bears comparison to few other films of its length. Yet its power, visual beauty and conceptual ingenuity are unparalleled, and more than 25 years since its release it still shines on as a beacon of the unexplored possibilities of the cinema. For a film making copious use of the special effects technology of its time, the magical images of L'Ange don't feel dated. They feel of no time. Bokanowski's magnum opus simultaneously pays homage to the atmosphere and anticipation of the early days of cinema and points towards an unknown future. More than ever today, I feel, this film is invaluable - even if it serves merely as a shock to the system to show us something that goes against all of the notions of moviemaking to which we've grown accustomed.

It was back in 2002 when this film ravished my innocent brain. I clearly remember renting the Japanese laserdisc on one of my frequent hunting expeditions for odd and unusual films to Seattle's legendary Scarecrow Video. It was thanks to them that I discovered L'Ange. And it was, oddly enough, the Japanese who seem to have been the first to make the film available in consumer format. Famously, there was a tiny cinema in Tokyo that, out of sheer love of the film or some fierce sense of conviction of the film's importance, screened L'Ange every night for about ten years in the 1990s. I don't know how many times I've discovered a great animator through the Japanese. If they hadn't released a DVD of Florence Milhaile's films, I probably would still not know about her work.

In any case, I remember being mostly just baffled and bewildered watching the film, and even dozing off for a little bit. But unlike many experimental films I've sampled over the years, I got kind of excited every time I thought about the film. It was one of those rare experiences in the movies when you've been privy to something truly new that isn't likely to catch on and become worn into the ground as a new fad. To me at least, seeing new things has been one of my prime motivators in watching the movies, and this movie was like nothing else I'd ever seen. I think that impact is part of where the film's importance lies. The feat of having created a cohesive and hugely compelling work of art completely shunning narrative in the long format is a major achievement. And the film doesn't just feel like a string of random experimental pieces, despite being episodic in format. Continuity is conveyed in a variety of ways, primarily so thematic unity around the concept of repetition. The superb cut-up music by Patrick's wife Michele mirrors Patrick's sliced-up sequences in its subtly varying layers of spliced recordings from traditional instruments like the cello - old sounds made to sound modern.

I've been waiting for this film to be released on DVD so that I could re-experience the film in its full glory. Clips have been available on Youtube, but this is not a film that can be appreciated badly compressed. It is in fact almost meaningless to watch if it is not in a high quality transfer, the images are manipulated so precisely and the effect often so delicate. Which is why I was delighted to learn that the British Animation Awards, who prior to this released a number of DVDs featuring great short animation not only from Britain but around the world, were planning on releasing both L'Ange and Patrick's other short films. Patrick made short films both before and after, L'Ange being sort of his summum opus. The BAA have done a wonderful job with the DVD. It's affordable, contains a very nice making shot back in 78-79 as well as an enlightening interview with Michele, and is internationally accessible, as it can be ordered in both NTSC or PAL and comes on a region-free DVD. There is no longer anything preventing a viewer from appreciating L'Ange in high quality as it was intended to be seen, any time, in the comfort of his or her own home, and that is pretty incredible. All you connoisseurs of edgy cinema out there should do yourselves a favor and support the BAA's bravery by discovering L'Ange.

L'Ange is interesting from an animation standpoint, too. Patrick's genius is the all-encompassing nature of his visual creativity. He dreams up wild images, and devises never-before-seen ways of bringing his images to life. A single sequence in L'Ange, say the stairwell sequence, for example, might include a section of constructed stairs, followed by an empty section that in the studio would be filled in with a trompe-l'oeil drawing of stairs bending in an impossible direction, followed by an actor at the top waving hello, which would be shot and then be manipulated in-studio to achieve the perfect balance of light and shadow. In another sequence, we see what appears to be an engraving from the renaissance of a painter squatting before a proto-camera-like-instrument, sizing up a draped model sitting at the foot of a low-lying table. Suddenly the painter's arm inches forward, and we realize that the image is a real one, meticulously staged and painted and processed to seem like an engraving. In another sequence, beams of light fade in and out in a continuous procession, illuminating a set of stairwells on which figures stand motionless, caught in the act of ascending or descending. They could be real, or they could be puppets, or the entire thing could be animated. L'Ange blurs the boundaries between the animated and the real, creating atmospheres we've never seen before and ingeniously devised illusions that are alternately ravishingly beautiful, comical and otherworldly.

L'Ange actually strikes me as being primarily animated, in spite of most of the scenes having been filmed with live actors and sets. The reason is that the shot footage serves merely as an element that is manipulated and rearranged in the studio, much as an animator might study a sequence of live-action and pick out certain parts to use to animate a character's movement. Patrick's virtuosic editing is the vehicle that creates the film's texture. Many of the sequences have such a vast number of cuts as to seem almost subliminal in effect, approaching animation frame rates. The concepts for each of the sequences in the film have their origin in a visual idea that Patrick sketched out ahead of time, much like conceptual sketches in animation, and the final images throughout seem to exist on the plane of painting or art photography rather than that of an ordinary movie.

The variety of techniques and textures in each of the sequences give the film an illusion of heterogeneity belying its strong thematic unity. There is no narrative, but throughout you sense various themes being mulled over from various different perspectives, both literally in terms of the different camera angles and zooms and so on, and in terms of the actual nature of the repetition - sometimes a person repeating an action, sometimes light diffusing through different arrangements of lenses. The primary theme is repetition. A figure will be pictured going through a single motion, over and over again, from a sampling of the infinite number of possible angles and views from which it could be seen.

The very basic nature of the actions depicted - a character walking across a room with a jug of milk, a man lunging at a suspended doll with a sword - brings to mind Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering sequences of proto-cinema, which themselves shed light on the relationship of photography to motion with their world-changing sequences of photographs of actors going through mundane actions. When looped, they seem caught, like Patrick's characters, in some infernal warp in the time-space continuum, doomed to walk up an endless staircase for eternity. The endless procession of the staircase is one of the film's central images, and perhaps its inspiration came, albeit subconsciously, from Muybridge. Several years later Marcel Duchamp created a painterly expression of time in the nude descending the stairs. Bokanowski closes the loop by creating actual moving images that seem similar in spirit to Marcel Duchamp's artistic interpretation of Muybridge's revelation.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

09:31:18 pm , 1393 words, 2180 views     Categories: Avant-Garde, Movie

The long goodbye

Memory seems like a long goodbye. Someone or something is gone, but they live on in your memory, like a snippet of musty old faded Super 8 film repeating footage of some random moment of everyday life. It's totally mundane and meaningful only to you, but you never quite have the courage to turn it off. Watching Shinji Aoyama's Into the Alley (Roji e) today had the effect of getting me to think about memory and the impact of writing on memory in a more profound way than any film I can recall.

Alexander Sokurov's Dolce..., about Toshio Shimao, is the only other analogue that comes to mind. These two films, both of which date from 2000, are probably the two best films about a writer that I've seen. Or at least, the most personally meaningful, which is probably in large part due to the fact that subjects are two of my absolute favorite Japanese writers, and I have a pretty strong emotional attachment to their work. But more than that, both films are intensely personal and sensitive documents by a great filmmaker about a great novelist. They are 'personal' not just about the writer, but also about the filmmaker, and about the viewers watching the film who come to the film out of affection for the work of the writer in question, familiarity with whose work deepens the experience of watching the film.

Into the Alley is a very simple film. It's basically a peregrination around the southern region of Kishu, which was the setting for the entire body of novelist Kenji Nakagami's oeuvre. We follow a traveler with a simple static shot as he rides around or walks through the streets, stopping occasionally to read memorable passages from his various novels, in an attempt to retrace, physically and spiritually, some three decades on, the footsteps of the characters who populated Nakagami's epic series of novels about the poor inhabitants of the once slum-like alleyways of his birthplace.

I was tremendously moved by my viewing of the film, and undoubtedly much of that has to do with the fact that I knew the stories that were being read. Kenji Nakagami's characters, the tone of his writing, and the dark and mythical atmosphere of the world he depicted in his novels captured my imagination many years ago when I was discovering Japanese literature in the original. His writing was brutal, forceful, intense - almost too much to endure in such quantities at times - but also lyrical and unlike that of any other writer I'd read, and the epic story he weaved out of personal experience, with its almost shamanic channeling of the voice of the ancestors of his birthplace, created a space all its own in my memory. More than merely a novelist, Nakagami was like a historian and a myth-maker all rolled into one. With Nakagami I felt I had found a world-class writer, and not just a good Japanese writer.

Nakagami had declared that he wanted to become the "Japanese Faulkner", and his achievement is comparable. His early novels chronicle the incestuous travails of a fictional family living in the slum-like back-alleys of the Kumano region of the Kii Peninsula. His stories probe the dark underbelly of racism and poverty in Japan with a depth of poetic power unequaled by any other Japanese author I know.

I think at the most basic level, Into the Alley moved me the way it did because it was the first visual expression I'd seen that seemed to truly evoke Kenji Nakagami's novels. I've seen one film version, which was not bad, but something seemed off somehow. Literature can suffer in the transition to the screen because of the loss of the all-important element of the reader's imagination. This film's approach skirts that issue effectively by not trying to fool you into believing a simulacrum, to believe that the actors on the screen are the characters in his stories. It comes across as very honest and heartfelt with its simple approach. You sort of project yourself into the person on the screen, walking around the streets reading Nakagami's words. Eureka was already by far my favorite Japanese film of the last decade, and this heartfelt visual poem only increases my respect for Shinji Aoyama.

Beyond simply being delighted to see a serious film about one of my favorite writers, Kenji Nakagami's Kumano occupied a disproportionately large place in my psyche from my reading of his books, so there was something cathartic about being taken on a tour around the area and hearing his words read aloud there. His books are very specific in terms of setting, and they left me feeling as if I had an intimate knowledge of this particular locale better than any other in Japan. It didn't represent Japan to me, but rather the side of Japan that nobody wants you to hear about, which if anything made it feel even more valuable and meaningful. It felt as if I knew the place, its soil, its atmosphere, without even having been there. Watching the film was like setting foot on soil that seemed vaguely familiar somehow, like from some old memory.

What I think lends the film its strength as a film about a writer is the fact that it is one person's portrait of an author that meant a lot to him. It is not a biographical piece for the History channel. It is not an encyclopedia entry reciting a litany of facts at you. It is a calm, meditative record of a person on a pilgrimage to retrace the steps, and to relive the words, of a great writer, through the landscape he wrote about. Anyone who reads Nakagami's fiction comes away with a strong image of the landscape of Kishu. The significance of the act of creating this film, then, isn't merely that it retraces a famous person's footsteps. The landscape is closely linked to the theme of Nakagami's work. The true protagonist of Nakagami's work was the landscape itself, so the method adopted for this film transports us into the world of Kenji Nakagami's writing in a way that no dramatization of his fiction could. That seems to be what gives the film its power.

The film is interspersed with actual footage of the alleys of Kishu shot by Kenji Nakagami himself many years earlier, when in his last few years he revisited his old haunts in an attempt to locate the places he knew growing up, and to chronicle the vanishing remnants of the old world he knew so well. This is one of the elements that transports the film to its next level. Nakagami chronicled a way of life that was, for good or ill, doomed to disappear. The alleys he wrote about in his novels had, by the late 1980s, begun to be torn down and paved over to make way for shopping malls. As we walk around the area a decade later with the filmmakers, the process of the destruction of the alley or roji has advanced to such an extent that there is a perceptible rift between Nakagami's words and the streets we now see. In a quietly powerful moment, we overlook a coastal town from a nearby hill only to discover that a mountain range that once bisected the town has since been razed flat to make way for a flat sheet of suburbs.

Kenji Nakagami died in 1992 at the age of 46, barely 20 years after he first came to the attention of the literary world with his early short novel The Cape, penned while chucking luggage at Haneda and doing other odd jobs as a day-laborer. The alley was already becoming a memory by the time Kenji Nakagami returned to the site in the late 1980s, many years after having written his books about the alley, to shoot that video footage. By the time I discovered his work a few years later, Kenji Nakagami was a memory. Eight years later, as people continue to say their goodbyes to Nakagami, whose body of work still constitutes one of the most important and powerful of postwar Japanese literature, this film joins the chorus with one of the most compelling tributes I've seen to the man and his work. It's been eight years since then. I think I'll take Karekinada off the shelf for another read.

Friday, February 1, 2008

05:45:06 pm , 369 words, 3661 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde

Color Dream No. 246

Abstract animation has changed a lot since the days of Oskar Fischinger. The biggest change in recent years has been the shift to digital means of production, which seems to have had the effect of not just making it easier to produce, but also expanding the forms of expression. The internet has in turn made it easier and easier to see this work, so that the combined effect is that it feels like there has been a quantum leap in the evolutionary pace of new forms of expression in abstract animation (and other forms of animation for that matter).

The digital means available now are resulting in a lot of truly interesting new approaches to abstract animation. Much of the work that I've sampled on the internet recently straddles a philosophical line between experimental and animation, so that I often find myself wondering whether what I'm watching should be referred to as animation or experimental video. The line is much clearer when it comes to conventional forms of figurative animation, but seems to become fuzzy when dealing with pure abstraction, especially now that, with digital, the question is not as clear-cut as whether the material is hand-drawn or not. All I care about, in the end, is whether the piece provides an engaging audiovisual experience to the viewer, as opposed to functioning purely on a conceptual level.

In that sense, Michael Theodore's 2007 short film entitled Color Dream No. 246 (which can be seen in full in a nice big version on his website) is yet another great example of this recent burgeoning in abstract digital animation. It's as pure a piece of abstract animation as you'll find, consisting entirely of one long shot of undulating, scintillating, shifting washes of color, but for some mysterious reason it remains engaging at all moments, and so to me functions nicely as a piece of animation and not merely as an abstruse concept piece. The constantly changing clouds of color are imaginative and beautifully executed, and seem like something that would have been hard to achieve before digital, when forms would have to be solidly delineated. The film feels like a worthy continuation of the work of early masters of visual music like Fischinger.

1 commentPermalink

Friday, July 13, 2007

06:38:09 pm , 471 words, 1715 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde



AURORA (, the new incarnation of the festival previously known as the Norwich International Animation Festival, will be back again this autumn for four days from November 7 to 10.

The festival has dropped the traditional moniker but remains a festival devoted to animation in the broadest and deepest sense of the term. Belying this is the fact that this year's festival will feature a retrospective of a great audiovisual artist whose work straddles the notions of the animated and the purely experimental, compelling us to rethink the very idea of animation - Takashi Ishida.

The festival will also be presenting a retrospective of the work of another iconoclastic Japanese indie figure who has been seen at animation and alternative film festivals in recent years - Tsuji Naoyuki, that purveyor of oneiric charcoal visions of angels and clouds.

These retrospectives and those of various other artists such as Robert Breer and Jim Trainor will be curated by the artists in question themselves. I don't know the other artists, but it promises to be a compelling selection gravitating towards the more experimental and edgy side of things, which is a welcome change in a climate where experimental or abstract works seem increasingly sidelined among animation fans. The real possibilities of animation as it relates to us today are being explored by these people.

In addition to the compelling screening selection, the festival will again be presenting a series of forums examining a number of issues exploring the possibilities of animation, so overall it seems to be a very well conceived and appealing event that I would love to attend if I could.

Last year the festival also featured an interesting selection, including Atsushi Wada's Day of Nose (see Alt anime), Run Wrake's Rabbit, and other films from various countries, but the focus was more conspicuously on works that would fall within the conventional framework of an 'animated short'. In that sense I think this year's festival has evolved in a very interesting direction, and seems a model of its kind - forward-thinking and cross-disciplinary.

Last year's edition of the festival featured a retrospective tribute to Walerian Borowczyk, which I very much would have liked to attend. The site also has a section where they present articles from past festivals, among them a very nice memorial article on Boro by Daniel Bird and a fascinating recollection of Boro by Szymon Bojko, who worked briefly with Boro during the early 50s. I considered myself a die-hard fan of the man, but it's tribute to the extent that his oeuvre has fallen into neglect over the years, for whatever reason, that the articles mention a number of short films, both animated and live-action, that I'd never even heard of. It's a positive thing that festivals such as this can help revive works like these.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

05:41:46 pm , 667 words, 2958 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde

Lichtspiel Opus I-IV

It's been brought to my attention that Walter Ruttmann's four Lichtspiel films are available for download from Ubuweb. I'd never seen the films, and never expected to see them, so it was a surprise and a delight to be able to see them.

Who is Walter Ruttmann? Even if you've never heard of him, watching the films should at least remind you of someone: Oskar Fischinger, who saw the first film at its premiere in 1921 in Frankfurt and went on carry on the flame of these pioneering films with his own Studien and other abstract films. I first learned about the interaction between these two seminal figures of abstract animation when reading the late William Moritz's Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger, which appeared last year.

Lichtspiel Opus I was "the first abstract film to receive public performances". Ruttmann was trained in painting and music, both of which show up clearly in the Lichtspiel films. A piece of music was written for the films, and Ruttmann played the cello at screenings, but watched even completely silent the films pulse with a hypnotic, almost techno rhythm that's gripping, making music seem almost unnecessary, and making these films the earliest instances of bona-fide "visual music" that I've seen.

My first question when watching the films was: How were they made? It would seem that there was uncertainty about this until Moritz's book appeared, with one source citing Lotte Reininger saying she had seen him painting on small glass plates, which Moritz confirms. Ruttmann was already an abstract painter, so all he had to do was move his painting into the dimension of time. He painted on glass and photographed each drawing one frame at a time before modifying or adding to each drawing and photographing the new drawing, finally hand-coloring the film using various methods.

This is why, when Fischinger wanted to get started making films around the time Lichtspiel Opus II came out in 1922, he didn't go directly to painted/drawn animation, but instead invented a novel method of animation: wax. He chop-shopped a deli slicer into a machine that would cut through a ball of wax containing a molded shape. As the machine sliced through the wax, a photograph was taken one slice at a time, revealing the slowly changing outline of the shapes in the wax. Ruttmann attempted to use the machine, but he wasn't able to because the wax melted on him. Fischinger apparently made several minutes of successful tests with the curious invention.

After putting out the last two of the ever more impressive and technically accomplished Lichtspiel films in 1924 and 1925, Ruttmann went on to create some of the the landmark live-action films of the period, including his great masterpiece Berlin: Symphony of a Big City (1927), which alone would be enough to grant him a secure place in film history. He also worked on Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, notably the opening scene. His early abstract animated films add a dimension to the picture of this impressive artist of the early period of cinema who truly tested the possibilities of the new medium.

What baffles, then, is to hear about the subsequent turn to the extreme right of this artist who up until just prior to that had epitomized the avant-garde of his country. In contrast, Fischinger continued to do everything he could to make his films and get them shown. In his book Moritz describes in delightful detail the wonderful schemes Oskar came up with to get his films shown in theaters in the increasingly difficult atmosphere of Germany before he finally left for the US in 1936. I recommend the book highly.

Note that Lichtspiel Opus I is cited as being 13 minutes long everywhere I've seen, so the thirty seconds in the above clip must be just a small excerpt. The other films appear to be complete.

Related reading:

A short biography of Walter Ruttmann

A short biography of Oskar Fischinger by William Moritz

The William Moritz archive

Sunday, July 17, 2005

07:50:58 pm , 700 words, 1113 views     Categories: Indie, Avant-Garde

Eames box

There came upon the television screen as I was watching a program on the Montreal Expo 67 screens. Many screens. A cool video installation making use of lots of TV monitors. I remembered that Ray and Charles Eames had done something or other for some expo somewhere, and ran to look it up. But no. They did something for another expo. But I was reminded of the need to see every film they have ever made, and decided to take the leap for the DVDs, when lo and behold I discover that a DVD box is coming out next month. Ordered on the spot after jumping for joy and saying this will pass the time royally until the McLaren DVD set comes out.

Though I can only claim to have seen three or four of their films, I came away from them convinced that I had witnessed an approach to filmmaking that was absolutely extroardinary and like nothing I had ever seen before. What do I care about toy trains? Their film on the subject, which consists entirely of close-up shots of the various toy trains in the voracious collectors' collection running around madly, made me care a great deal, if for nothing else than for the loving way they were photographed. Thinking back on the film now, it seems to suggest that an object is just an object; it's what we feel about it that counts, and how we convey that feeling to others. The Eames were masters at picking out odd subjects that we normally would never have thought to examine, and showing us a new kind of beauty there. Filmmaking was, of course, just one of their activities, but their films seem to offer a good look into how their minds worked. They were geniuses at coming up with novel solutions to the presentation of complex information, and that shows up very clearly in their films.

The films where that aspect of their work shows up most clearly are probably those they made for museums. The most famous of those is probably Powers of Ten, where in the span of just a few minutes they manage to convey a vast amount of information about the workings of the universe both macro and micro, while keeping the audience utterly engrossed and creating a visual experience like nothing anyone has ever seen. The entire film is a single shot - a zoom out on the universe followed by a zoom in to the atomic level. The element I find indispensible to the experience, and which was removed from the final version, if I recall (or simplified, I don't remember) is the counter that acts like our time machine dashboard, indicating the passing of light years relative to earth time, which goes by faster and faster with a cold sort of pathos. It's like an intellectual version of the Ligeti sequence in 2001. Combined with the electronic soundtrack of the early version, the film turns into a sort of transcendental experience that conveys the wonder of existence in a way no other film I've ever seen manages to do. It's mind-expanding, even all these years after the idea of interconnectedness that the film relates has become more familiar than it was back then.

The Eames didn't just make films to make films. They made films when they felt there was a need to do so in order to understand a new subject. So I can anticipate the richness and variety of their oeuvre even without having seen it, and very much look forward to discovering it all.

One curiosity that came to my attention via Koji Yamamura's blog is the existence of a film made at the NFB entitled Cosmic Zoom that appears to bear great similarity to the Eames' film, at least in terms of the basic concept. A sample of the film can be viewed here. Both Cosmic Zoom and the early version of Powers of Ten reportedly date from 1968, which raises the question of whether one influenced the other, or the same idea happened by pure chance to make its way onto film the same year in both Canada and America. I'm curious if anyone knows more about this.

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Thursday, April 7, 2005

01:42:18 am , 804 words, 6019 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde, Animator

The art of Takashi Ishida

Gestalt (1999, Takashi Ishida)

On the other side of the continent today starts Toronto's 18th annual Images Festival, which is devoted to independent and experimental film, video and installations from around the world. The filmmaker who won the Best International Film Award at the festival two years ago was Takashi Ishida, who on this side of the continent picked up the Award for Excellence four years earlier at the 1999 Vancouver International Film Festival. On the other side of the ocean last Friday a retrospective of his films was shown at the Uplink Factory in Tokyo (where a 7-program Stan Brakhage retrospective starts this Saturday).

Takashi Ishida's work is an example of the sort of animation we don't see often in Japan, if only because it understandably fails to reach our eyes because it doesn't get any sort of distribution beyond the festival circuit. Even most independent animation, if Digital Stadium is anything to go by, tends to fall back on story rather than trying to go back to the fundamentals and look for new expressive possibilities that truly exploit the unique nature of animation. Takashi Ishida's work seems to be one of the best recent examples of animation that does just that. What makes it exciting is that it offers a stimulating personal stab at the question: What is animation?

Spheres(Norman McLaren & René Jodoin, 1969)The Art of the Fugue(Takashi Ishida, 2001)

The simple answer is: Pictures in time. Takashi Ishida's work is about exploring the basic notions of time and space using sequential pictures. The film that first brought Ishida to the attention of a wider audience was probably the 7-minute Gestalt, from 1999, in which Ishida set up a camera in a Tokyo University dormitory a certain distance from a wall next to a window, and over the span of one year repeated the ritual of painting a picture on the wall, going to the camera to photograph the picture bathed in the unique play of light falling onto it from the window at that moment, then going back to the wall and painting the next picture, photographing it again, and so on at a pace of several seconds of footage a day, until in the end he had in effect captured on film the texture of the space of a year's passing.

In 2001, on a commission from the Aichi Culture Center for a video to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach, Ishida created what, at 19 minutes, is his longest piece to date: The Art of the Fugue, a visual performance of Bach's late score famous for its lack of any indications about instrumentation. A white oval appears in the center of the screen, changing shape in response to the score throughout the piece, representing the cantus firmus. Around it bright lines representing the upper voices gradually creep into view from out of the darkness and go through their melodies before melting back into the darkness, converging and diverging to create a pulsating, everchanging audiovisual texture. By basing his animation closely on the actual score, he explores and bridges the space between the aural and visual dimensions and thus goes one step further than the free interpretations of Bach by famous predecessors like Norman McLaren.

Scroll (Takashi Ishida, 1995)Scroll 2 (Takashi Ishida, 1996)Darkness Scroll (Takashi Ishida, 1997)

Going opposite this procedure is the entirely improvised Darkness Scroll (1997), in which extemporaneously sketched drawings were thrown together and photographed using back-lighting and then improvised upon with music to create a linear audio-visual dimension out of randomness. Exploring the idea of the the forward march of time using the more traditional method of the animated transformation is his earliest film, Scroll (1995), which consists entirely of an upwards scrolling movement animated on the fly without a storyboard. Between these two came Scroll 2 (1996), in which he first used a procedure that would reappear in The Art of the Fugue -- namely, photocopying and then re-photographing each drawing to create a sort of reptition within progress -- and at the end of which he reversed the situation later seen in Gestalt by integrating actual photographs into the center of the two-dimensional drawing space.

In the last few years Ishida has completed a few more short films and put together a few installations and been shown at festivals around the world. Last August he held a four-day animation workshop at the Aichi Culture Center where he provided instruction in the basics of creating movement. He's the tip of the iceburg of the experimental cinema scene in Japan, but it's probably not going to get any easier to find his work or that of others of his ilk anytime soon.

~ Filmography ~

Scroll 絵巻 (1995, 8mm, 8 minutes)
Scroll 2 絵巻その2 (1996, 8mm, 5 minutes)
Darkness Scroll 闇の絵巻 (1997, video, 7 minutes)
Gestalt 部屋/形態 (1999, 16mm, 7 minutes)
The Art of the Fugue フーガの技法 (2001, 16mm, 19 minutes)
Fire/Extension 火/延長 (2002, 5 minutes)
Seat and Screen 椅子とスクリーン (2002, 8 minutes)

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

11:37:34 pm , 1294 words, 16379 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde, Movie


The Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival rolls around this year again between October 14 and 17 at the Shinjuku Milano-za. Besides the standard sci-fi and fantasy fare, they'll be showing three anime features.

Yoshiyuki Tomino is at it again. The festival will be showing part one of his Mobile Suit Z Gundam: A New Translation, a trilogy scheduled for theatrical release next year. Like the trilogy he made two decades ago from the original 1979 Gundam series, released in 1982 in theaters, this one will be a re-edited version of the followup TV series, Zeta Gundam, which aired three years after the trilogy in 1985 as a followup to the popular original. And the rest is history. I thought it was unimpressive enough for him to go on making one Gundam series after the next, but he's reached new heights of shameless self-recycling here.

Perhaps more interestingly, the festival will feature a screening of Kakurenbo, a 25-minute independent feature made by the three-man team at Yamato-Works, comprising Shuhei Morita (director), Daisuke Sajiki (designer) and Shiro Kuro (writer). The film's visual style brings to mind Studio 4°C, with 3D animation made to look and feel like 2D animation. The film had its first major screening at a festival in Stockholm last month.

But the real centerpiece of the festival for anime fans is the screening of what is surely one of the most bizarre and mystery-shrouded anime features of the last decade: Midori. The name will probably not be familiar, but the comic on which the film was based has been released here under the title Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show. Yes, this film is an adaptation of a comic by the uncontested king of ero-guro, Maruo Suehiro. It's remarkable enough that a Maruo Suehiro anime exists in the first place, but no less remarkable are the circumstances surrounding the film's origin and presentation to the public.

Where to begin? First of all, Midori is a rather hard film to classify. It's anime, but it's not. Anime is known for being rather limited, but this film takes limited to a whole new level. It's closer to a kami shibai or paper play, a type of one-man entertainment that was popular in pre-WWII Japan. Maruo's original comic is in fact an adaptation of a kami shibai, so it's an appropriate analogy. And the remarkable thing is that this anime version really is a one-man entertainment: every drawing you see in the 52 minute film was drawn by one person, thereby making it true to the spirit of the original - a modern kami shibai. Attempting such a thing is pretty much pure insanity. It wound up taking this person five years to make the film. The madman in question is one Hiroshi Harada 原田浩.

Who is this guy, and what inspired him to do such a thing? Apparently he got a regular start in the anime industry in the 70s, but became fed up with the conservatism of the establishment, in which animators are trained to be unthinking cogs in a machine who churn out whatever the TV stations and sponsors tell them to, and decided to go independent to make the sort of films that he would never have been able to make working from inside the industry. His first film was 1979's City Nocturne, and his next two came out in 1985: Eternal Paradise and Lullaby to the Big Sleep. Lullaby turned out to be his big break, because underground filmmaker Ishii Sogo, who was on the judging panel at the Pia Film Festival where the film was screened, loved it and gave it his endorsement, which got Harada instant recognition and made it possible for him to get started on his next project: Midori.

He knocked on doors everywhere conceivable looking for sponsors, but no company was willing to back the overly daring project. So he did the only thing he could: he broke open his piggy bank and threw his life savings into the project. Having been decisively refused by the establishment for the last time, he finally did the obvious, and turned to the underground, which is where his audience had been all along. By gathering support from various sectors including avant-garde theater, his film became a sort of emblem of the 80s subculture scene. The music was contributed by J. A. Caesar, who had taken over as the leading figure of the underground theater after the death of guru Shuji Terayama. He started in 1987, worked from home, and drew everything himself. Only finishing was done elsewhere. Five years later, the incredible task was done, and Midori, the sad, strange story of a young girl sold to a travelling freak circus, was premièred in 1992.

But this is where things get interesting. Harada had already shown that he wasn't satisfied with going the normal route as a creator, and perhaps it was taking inspiration from the underground theater that he now went in a really new direction. Rather than doing regular advertising to attract the public to see the film, and holding an ordinary screening somewhere, Harada instead kept things hush hush and staged the screening as a fantastic show complete with tent, strange exhibits, music and theater -- just like the freak show in the story -- with the film as the centerpiece of the event. To accentuate the mood of the film, smoke machines filled the room with an eerie fog and fans blew cherry blossom petals through the air. At another screening, people who had reserved tickets were given maps providing directions to a secret location, where people were then individually separated and sent through a series of mazes and rooms in order to arrive at the screening room. The audience, no passive spectators, had to make considerable efforts to take part in the experience.

Rather than a mere night at the movies, then, going to see the film thus became a new kind of theatrical experience, bringing together various underground arts and artists under one three ring tent. Harada has in fact refused to allow the film to be screened without a number of these theatrical devices, nor to allow it to be released on video. So the film also comes across as a statement against the behind-closed-doors consumerism represented by the video. It is an event to be experienced in public among others on a special occasion only. For all anybody knows, the screening at the FFF, which will be a full-fledged kosher screening with attractions and all, could very well be the last. Every instance thus takes on an incredible immediacy because it is (for now) shut off from this on-demand media age. In the end, all these clever theatrical ploys have only succeeded in adding to the film's eerie mystique.

Of course, there's also the fact that the film contains graphic depictions of animals being killed, pubic hair, taboo sexual acts, and discriminatory language, which would probably be enough to prevent the film from being shown in almost any regular theater without considerable cuts even if Harada hadn't taken steps that happen to keep that from becoming an issue. The film also contains direct depiction of the emperor Hirohito, which, unless I'm mistaken, was illegal while he was still alive. The complete, original film was in fact confiscated and banned from being shown in theaters in Japan by Narita Customs (though full video prints still exist), but apparently this doesn't hold any force, since the film is still being shown, albeit presumably in censored form. Even if one never gets to see the film, as is quite likely, it's still a film that fires the imagination, and it almost beckons one to try to come up with it in one's own head, which is perhaps what was intended from the start.