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I just discovered the nice little film Lizard Planet created in 2009 by Tomoyoshi Joko. Tomoyoshi Joko has uploaded Lizard Planet and a number of his other films to his Youtube account. Watch it here.
I like the film for any number of reasons: the rich coloring, the bizarre but playful imagery of lizards and octopuses and other stuff floating around in space, the densely layered texture of the visuals, and the ethereal story. It's both beautiful visually and fun to watch, warm and playful, yet it also has a sting in its tail. At the end, the lizard planets plunge into the sun in a cataclysmic orgy of self-destruction. It's a bizarre and creative allegory about how the planets like ours are actually living organisms and we need to take care of them because they can easily be killed.
It's great to see new creators popping up like this creating independent films with an artistic but approachable style. Alongside creators like Mizue Mirai and the animators of Robot's Cage studio, there's a whole generation of indie animators creating accessible and genuinely original and creative new animation in Japan today. They show by their example that it's possible to go it alone the shadow of the industry and create more free and individualistic work. There are a number of talented animators working in the industry who I wish would follow this example and go indie so that they can create films entirely in their own style and not be forced to suppress their irrepressible personalities.
Tomoyoshi Joko was born in 1984 and graduated from Tokyo Polytecnic University's Faculty of Arts in 2007. He then entered graduate school and finished his graduate studies in March 2009. While there, he studied under legendary indie animator Taku Furukawa.
He made four other films before Lizard Planet, which was his graduate school project. In 2006 he made two brief films: Afro, about a guy who suddenly grows an afro and flies off into the sky, and God's Gift, which shows how god took a piss one day and humanity sprung from the ground where his holy water landed. The second film shows considerable improvement over the first.
He made a longer film in 2007, the nearly 7-minute Mr. Cloud and Mr. Rain. This is quite a nice film, beautifully animated and genuinely interesting to watch at every moment as you follow the two curious characters and their interaction. It has a creative concept, thematic unity and strong animation. It took him a year to make and some 5000 drawings. He depicts the first meeting of Mr. Cloud and Mr. Rain. Mr. Cloud is overbearing and beats up Mr. Rain, but in the end when Mr. Rain falls to the ground, Mr. Cloud disappears too. Afterwards we realize that the two are inextricably intertwined. Again, I love the rich colors and how well he brings the characters alive, so that we understand what the two characters are feeling and thinking at every moment despite them not having any features other than a weird cyclops eye.
Next he made Buildings in 2008 as his graduation film. Again he chooses some interesting objects to bring alive - after clouds and water, this time buildings. It's hard to appreciate the film from the linked video, which is footage of the film being played to a live musical score, but it's clear that he gives each building a unique design and personality. The film tells the story of a single building that arrogantly towers above the rest but in the end saves the other buildings from a flood and reconciles with everyone by using his height to bring everyone together rather than towering above them. His films typically have rich animation and creative design work coupled with an incisive moral message or theme, be it about nurturing the living being that is our planet, about the interaction between clouds and water, or about getting along with others in society.
In April of this year, Tomoyoshi Joko formed the group Decovocal together with his partner Hiroco Ichinose (Decovocal web site, where you can see a photo of the adorable couple here). The two of them went to the same school and have been working together since Tomoyoshi Joko's very first film, Afro. As they mention on their site, the name Decovocal was devised by Taku Furukawa. It combines a number of ideas: It's a neologism from the word dekoboko 凸凹, which means uneven. The characters suggest a male-female duo. "Deco" plays on Art Deco. It evokes the notion of singing one's personality in animation with a loud, colorful voice.
Decovocal reminds me of another couple team making whimsical handmade animation - Uruma Delvi. Decovocal is close in spirit to the animators of Robot's Cage studio, creating art animation that's accessible and entertaining, soft and warm, creative visually and full of lush character animation. Decovocal has been very active doing commercial work, as witness the long list of commissions they've already accrued in their first year on their home page. These include a music video for Keiichi Suzuki and two episodes of the French Rita et Machin for NHK.
Hiroco Ichinose was born in 1985 and studied with Tomoyoshi Joko at the Tokyo Polytecnic. She has also been making short films since she started studying. First came A Sad Breakfast (2006), Ushinichi (2007) and Ha P (2008). All three won the best selection on NHK's Digital Stadium - no mean feat. Her latest films since graduating are YOKOHA-MAMAN (2009) and TWO TEA TWO (2010).
A Sad Breakfast tells the story of a dog eating breakfast while crying about a dead bird. Ha P seems to be about a couple who appear happy but in fact are in the grips of despair about not being able to have a child. They are drawn on different animation layers, so despite their closeness, an insurmountable distance separates them. Ushinichi is a bizarre slice-of-life about a group of characters filled with sardonic touches.
All of her films stand at the crossroads between happiness and grief, seeming to tell comical stories but actually being about pain and suffering. Stylistically, the influence of Taku Furukawa is much more obvious in Hiroco Ichinose's work than it is in Tomoyoshi Joko's work. She draws the same kind of spare stick figures with no backgrounds and little movement. Even the tone and storytelling style is similar. Her work also strikes me as having a sense of the surreal slightly reminiscent of Atsushi Wada's work.
What little is shown of her latest film TEA TWO TEA in her showreel (linked below) is quite impressive and shows a new level of stylistic achievement. You can see considerable improvement in each of these still young animator's successive films. Having accrued some experience now, you can see that they're both getting better technically as well as becoming more creatively flexible. Alone they make great films, but they also make a great team. They have a strong synergy. I look forward to seeing what Decovocal does in the future.