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I thought I'd start easy with a warm-up post on a Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi episode that I discovered recently. I've written about this show often, but even after all these years I'm still going through unwatched episodes and discovering gems.
The episode entitled Kakurenbo or Hide and Seek was aired on March 12, 1983. (watch) It's written and directed by Gisaburo Sugii, with animation by longtime Mushi Pro/Tac associate Teruto Kamiguchi and art by Minoru Aoki. Teruto Kamiguchi and Minoru Aoki were the animator/art team behind The 11 Cats three years before.
This is an odd episode. It's not a folk tale like the rest of the series. Gisaburo Sugii may have made the story up himself. An old couple decide to play hide and seek in their old house. That's it. No moral, no story. Atmosphere is paramount. It's all shadowy corners and slow pans.
It seems innocuous and whimsical enough at first, but as the old man seeks his way in the dark, silence envelops him and panic sets in. The quiet of the house is overwhelming and echoes the solitude after one's life partner has died. He sees his wife being taken away by a demon and shouts at her not to go. In the end, he finds her asleep in the cauldron. Reassured, they go on playing hide and seek to while away the time, innocent as bored children on a rainy day once again.
Why is this old couple playing hide and seek? Is the old man in the grips of dementia? Are they ghosts? Or is it all innocent nonsense? In the spirit of Maeterlinck, it comes across as a dark metaphor for death and loss masquerading as a children's story about an eccentric old couple.
The episode has more in common with the shadowy realms of Night on the Galactic Railroad than the dynamic, colorful The 11 Cats. Gisaburo was the master of atmospheric directing, blending silence and minimal animation and camera movement to create a visceral sense of time's ticking clock. Gisaburo never strives to fake reality; he revels in the incongruity of using cartoons to evoke slowly dying time. He has a predilection for wide layouts, in which characters seem dwarfed by their surroundings, and compositions with either a deadpan symmetry or discomfiting obliqueness. The brooding oddity of Gisaburo's directing creates a fascinating contrast between the cartoony characters and the dark subtext.
In 1983, Gisaburo was just coming to the end of a period in his life where he was actually not working in the industry but rather traveling around the country living a wanderer's life. He subsisted mainly on selling paintings, and mailed in the occasional Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi storyboard just to help him get by. The murky, inky backgrounds here hint at his painterly disposition. I traveled around India earlier this year, and found the lifestyle and the separation from everything familiar intoxicating, so I can relate to his wanderlust. I wonder how this extended traveling changed him and led to the distinctive film language on display in his work from this period like Touch, Night and Genji.
Teruto Kamiguchi's animation is deceptively deft. Despite having forms like a cross between Shigeru Sugiura and Sazae-san, his characters move with careful timing, grace, and even elegance. The forms stay firm, with only subtle deformation and minimal expressions, but they communicate their emotions through body language. His lanky characters were distinctive and appealing. He deserves more recognition as having developed a unique style of character animation in Japan of pretty much no school.
Teruto Kamiguchi was in fact the animator (with Higuchi Masakazu) of the very first episode of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi aired January 7, 1975, Kasajizo. (watch) In later years Kamiguchi tried out different styles, as evidenced by the pleasantly stylized 1992 episode The Sky God and the Sea God, again with art by Minoru Aoki. (watch) A stellar team.
I need to remind myself to keep up with “Folktales from Japan”
“Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories” is very interesting in terms of direction. No flashy animation, but art direction feels indie.
Oh, great, another show I have to check out. :) This one sounds right up my alley.