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A Japanese-produced adaptation of the French picture book series Rita et Machin aired one year ago on NHK. It's about the adventures of an energetic little girl and her lazy pet dog. The pictures are appealingly spare and simple and the stories have an easy and genteel understated humor that makes them enjoyable even for an adult.
Considering how many good studios France has, I'm surprised they chose to do this in Japan. But they did a good job adapting it in a way that remains true to the atmosphere and look of the original, without 'animefying' it.
The 26-episode show was co-produced by Nippon Animation and French studio Planet Nemo, but it seems to have been mostly done in Japan. And many of the episodes were not done by Nippon Animation staff. That's what makes the show so good, actually. They got some surprising outside faces to do episodes. From Madhouse they got Toshio Hirata, Hirotsugu Hamazaki, Manabu Ohashi, Hideki Futamura and Hiroshi Shimizu. From Studio Live they got Kojina Hiroshi and Hiroaki Yoshikawa.
But the most interesting thing about the show is that someone on the show took the bold initiative of crossing the indie/industry divide to invite several indie animators I've talked about before on the blog to each do a solo episode. Ayaka Nakata, Yosuke Oomomo, Hiroco Ichinose and Tomoyoshi Joko of Decovocal, Oswald Kato and Hotchi Kazuhiro each did a solo episode. The show was co-directed by indie animator PON Kozutsumi, whose short Organic I just tweeted, and I suspect it may have been him who invited these people.
It's vindicating of the talent of today's new generation of indie animators, and suggests how much richer anime could be if there were more mixing between indie and industry, that their episodes are easily the best episodes in the show.
Episode 7 by Hotchi Kazuhiro has some of the most distinctive and pleasing animation in the show. Hotchi Kazuhiro also drew backgrounds for a few episodes. He's been active now for about 10 years as an independent animator. He has a unique graphic style with lush, densely drawn images. See his web site for some examples. Doudou from 2002 is probably my favorite short he's done.
Episode 9 by Tomoyoshi Joko of Decovocal has rich animation and clever ideas, with spoons competing over strawberries turning into a bear and dragon with horns locked. Episode 18 by Ayaka Nakata was perhaps the most impressive of the show, full of great compositions, lovely drawings, detailed animation and imaginative transformations. Episode 19 by Yosuke Oomomo was a delightful musical episode with toys that come alive and a couch that turns into a piano.
Even the episodes that didn't stand out like these were enjoyable to watch because the characters are fun and the humor isn't overdone. The show is for children but it's not kiddy and inane. That's perhaps what has made the original such a best-seller internationally. The humor translates in every language.
I like the 5-minute format of the show because, first of all, it's easy to watch. Many anime episodes feel needlessly long. Each episode here felt the perfect length. The short length also allows a talented creator to hone the episode more.
It's great to see anime creators set to the task of animating something so different like this. It can only help broaden their horizons and show that there are lots more styles out there to explore. They need to make more home-grown shows that are as visually unique as this. They've got picture books that are just as nice - viz The 11 Cats.
Planet Nemo offers one episode of the UK English dub up for viewing on their web site. It's episode 21 in the Japanese ordering, by Madhouse veteran Manabu Ohashi. Manabu Ohashi also happens to have headed the animation of the actual episode 1 that introduces the characters, and the episode stands out for its more nuanced and observed movement. His work in Little Twins similarly stood out in a subtle way.
Episode 10 headed by Madhouse animator/director Hirotsugu Hamazaki had some of the most expert animation in the show. It was restrained but you could sense the technical expertise with the complicated shots of the fishing. It was nice to see one of my favorite Madhouse figures, Toshio Hirata (whom I wrote about long ago) here with an episode, as this material is eminently suited to his temperament, with its languid pacing and gentle humor. The person who did episode 20, incidentally, Hiroshi Kojina, is a longtime Studio Live animator who replaced the late great Toyoo Ashida as president of the company upon his recent death. It was a nice surprise to see Hideki Futamura here, as I'm a fan of his work, but I don't know what his presence signifies; is he at Madhouse now too?
リタとナントカ Rita and Whatsit staff list
|Title||Storyboard||Director||Animation Director||Key animation|
|#1: Rita and Whatsit||Masaaki Kidokoro||Manabu Ohashi|
|#2: Rita and Whatsit go to the ocean||Jun Takagi||Yoshiyuki Ichihashi||Yasuko Sakuma||Yujiro Moriyama, Noboru Takeuchi|
|#3: Rita and Whatsit have a guest||PON Kozutsumi||Saya Takamatsu|
|#4: Whatsit's house||Yoshiyuki Ichihashi||Hiroki Fujiwara|
|#5: Rita and Whatsit play soccer||Oswald Kato (+composite)|
|#6: Rita and Whatsit go to the pool||Kazuma Fujimori||Yuki Hishinuma|
|#7: Rita and Whatsit on Sunday||Yoshiyuki Ichihashi||Yasuko Sakuma||Miho Higashi|
|#8: Rita and Whatsit go on a trip||Hotchi Kazuhiro|
|#9: Rita and Whatsit have an argument||Tomoyoshi Joko||Decovocal (+finishing & composite)|
|#10: Rita and Whatsit go fishing||Hirotsugu Hamazaki|
|#11: Rita and Whatsit's secret hiding place||Toshio Hirata|
|#12: Rita and Whatsit and the lost baby duck||Hiroco Ichinose||Decovocal (+finishing & composite)|
|#13: Rita and Whatsit go on a picnic||Kazuma Fujimori||Hideaki Uehara||Hiroki Fujiwara||Moe Usami |
|#14: Rita and Whatsit's masquerade party||Hiroaki Yoshikawa|
|#15: Rita's new bike||Hiroshi Shimizu|
|#16: Rita and Whatsit go to Paris||Kazuma Fujimori||Masaru Yasukawa||Hiroki Fujiwara|
|#17: Rita and Whatsit go shopping||Kazuma Fujimori||Yuki Hishinuma|
|#18: Whatsit's birthday||Ayaka Nakata|
|#19: Rita and Whatsit put on a concert||Yosuke Oomomo|
|#20: Rita becomes a detective||Hiroshi Kojina|
|#21: Rita and Whatsit go to school||Masaaki Kidokoro||Manabu Ohashi|
|#22: Rita and Whatsit gardening||PON Kozutsumi|
|#23: Whatsit catches a cold||Hideki Futamura||Hiroki Fujiwara|
|#24: Rita and Whatsit wish upon a star||Teppei Tani|
|#25: Rita and Whatsit go for a walk||Yuki Hishinuma||PON Kozutsumi||Saya Takamatsu|
|#26: Rita and Whatsit's Christmas||Masaaki Kidokoro||Yasuko Sakuma||Yoshiaki Fukamachi|
Tomoyoshi Joko and Hiroco Ichinose, who work together as the unit Decovocal, just put up a new short animation entitled Coffee Tadaiku on their Youtube channel in honor of their mentor Taku Furukawa, who turned 70 on September 25. Watch it here. The film is a lovingly crafted homage to what's perhaps Taku Furukawa's most iconic piece, Coffee Break from 1977.
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.
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
The only animation program at this year's VIFF was a program called Animation Nation. It featured shorts mostly from the US and Europe. It's disappointing that the VIFF hasn't continued their 'alternative anime' series. That should be a staple at the festival. Animation doesn't seem high enough on their priorities. And Animation Nation was - without exaggeration - the worst collection of animated shorts I've ever seen.
The whole affair was a failure in my opinion, even though I know from the roars of laughter in the hall and the hearty applause that most of the other theatergoers disagree with me. The selection was IMO uninteresting, lopsided (without any Asian or other films from outside the big western nations), and the unprofessional presentation was not befitting a major world festival. There was a one minute gap between each short, and boxes kept popping up on the screen throughout the show as they tinkered ceaselessly with the brightness and zoom. This all should have been handled before the screening. It was like watching a few videos at a friend's house, not a screening.
The selection felt like it was put together by someone who didn't really understand animation. The contrast with the Ottawa 'best of' selections is instructive. There, each film seemed to represent some different aspect of animation, some different approach. Each was different and valid in its own way. Many different narrative styles and techniques were represented. Films weren't selected based on superficial criteria or the extent to which they were crowd pleasing.
The most telling thing about this selection is that many of the films barely had any animation at all. They were mostly live action, with a few spare touches added in post pro. It would be fine to have one film like this in a selection, but half of the running time devoted to this kind of film? A quarter of the remaining half was uninspired CGI. One of the films, Brick Novax's Diary, wasn't animation at all; it was puppets and sets filmed without virtually any movement. It was clearly chosen solely for its MTV style sarcastically retro, pop-reference humor. And it went on for 16 minutes. It would have been fine viewed on its own, but it felt out of place.
What's left is about 20 or so minutes of decent work in a 95 minute screening. Bike Race by Tom Schroeder was more than decent. You can watch it online, and I heartily recommend doing so. It's a fine short well-deserving of being seen by more people. It's a sort of documentary animation, the visuals expounding on an audio track of two men and a woman narrating a recollection of their experiences with a bike race and the romance that budded unexpectedly. Though it looks rudimentary in style, the animation is rich and creative and very witty and meaningful in how it responds to and interprets the narration. It's essentially the only item in the whole selection that was a good animated short.
The music video Lose This Child (which obviously you can also watch online) was a very good animated music video, and it's perfectly fine to include a music video in such a selection, a good idea even, but it's not a difficult task to include a good animated music video; many are made each year. It's just weird that there was only one really good narrative animated short in the whole selection. Lose This Child is impressive technically, because supposedly it was all shot over the span of one night. It's so lushly animated and sophisticated in structure that it's almost hard to believe. I guess they must have meticulously planned out everything to the smallest detail beforehand.
The Man With the Stolen Heart was a decent film, but it was marred by a too-wordy voice-over. It would have been twice as strong without any words. It's the only other item in the selection that came close to being a good animated short. Advanced Cybernetics was the only abstract short in the selection, which underlines the populist bent of the selection. It was visually arresting, but it felt too short.
The festival will be showing two feature-length animated features. I missed seeing Tatsumi, the panel-by-panel adaptation of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Floating Life, partly because I wasn't sure it was worth seeing. I feel like I should give it a chance. I'll be seeing the Czech film Kooky tomorrow and look forward to it.
I was fooled by the catalog description into believing the film The Green Wave was an animated feature film in the style of Waltz with Bashir, but was disappointed when it turned out to be a 'mere' documentary with the occasional sequences of recollection rendered in drawings (not animation). That said, it was a good, heartbreaking documentary about the recent Iranian uprising that was mercilessly crushed by the regime.
Annoyingly, there are actually a few Asian animated shorts being screened at the festival, but they're scattered around everywhere, being shown before a live-action feature here and there, rather than together as one unit. There is even a new animation battle by Nobuhiro Aihara and Tanaami Keiichi, which I really want to see. They even have Koji Yamamura's new short Muybridge's Strings, and yet instead of having that as the highlight of an animated short collection, as it deserves, they've lumped it together with a bunch of random live-action Canadian short films. This is inept and disappointing. The small theater was pretty near full at the Animation Nation screening, so I know there's enough of a geek and/or animator community in Vancouver to have supported at least one collection of Asian shorts.
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)
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.
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 ryukato.net.
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.
Stefan Nutz is currently engaged in a very interesting one-man project. He is going around interviewing Japan's indie animators on video for the purpose of eventually putting together a documentary about Japanese indie animation.
You can see the progress of his project, and perhaps provide him support and ideas for questions, on his web page at:
Stefan is based in Austria, and has been dealing with Japanese film for about a decade now in his capacity as a director, editor and sometimes DP for the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Agency). He is hoping to put together a 60 minute documentary possibly to be supplemented with 30 minutes of animation highlighting the work of the creators he interviewed.
Stefan's purview is not limited to indies, however, as witness the latest post on his blog, in which he reveals that he will be visiting Studio 4C later this month. Great news. Studio 4C is not just the studio we all love. They act as something of a missing link between the industry and the indie scene, working within the industry but with the mentality of independence of an indie. I wouldn't have thought to include them in a documentary about indie animation in Japan, but let's face it, they've produced some of the most creative and appealing animation in Japan, and this is one of the few times they'll have been covered for a foreign audience, so it's a great idea to balance out the project and shed light on the various facets of 'being indie' in Japan.
The image above shows Naoyuki Niiya, director of the old classic indie film Squid Festival that I wrote about in 2005, whom Stefan has interviewed already. Also interviewed will be Hiroshi Harada (Midori), Keita Kurosaka (Midori-ko), Mirai Mizue, Tomoyasu Murata and Atsushi Wada, among others.
Piercing 1 is a new indie feature film from China that has been making the rounds of the world's festivals over the last year. A lot has already been written about the film's relevance and importance as an indie feature produced completely independently without any government support, so to avoid repeating what's already been said, I'll just write my thoughts about the film, which I saw in LA two weeks ago. Refer to this interview with director Liu Jian to learn about the film's background and visit the film's web site for more information.
The circumstances surrounding the making of the film have justifiably garnered as much, if not more, interest as the film itself. All made by one man, over the span of several years, on the funds earned by selling his home - truly putting his livelihood on the line. Risking everything to make the animated film of his dreams. And this without any kind of support whatsoever. Anywhere else, this might have justly inspired admiration. Doing so in China, where there's the added pressure of possible censorship and reprisal, is unprecedented and clearly brave. And Liu Jian isn't drawing funny animals. He's depicting the hard reality of life in China today without softening the edges. The whole endeavor is downright gutsy.
The first thing that popped into my head when I heard he'd sold his home to finance the film is simply that it was reckless. Short of being picked up for international distribution and becoming a cause celebre overseas, he'd wind up without anything, much less the means to make two more such films. Was such a drastic step really necessary to make the film? Obviously, it must have been. The very making of the film seems to be part of the story - a newsworthy act of self-immolation shedding light on what it takes to be an indie animator in China.
Obviously, I think the film is important and Liu Jian has achieved something incredible even if Piercing 1 isn't completely successful as a film, which I think it's not. I liked the film. But judged objectively, a lot nagged me about it. Considering the mitigating circumstances, I think most of the things that nagged me about it are eminently trivial and don't change the fact that this film a must-see to connoisseurs of Serious Animated Filmmaking. But I'm still going to put them out there, just to express my honest opinion.
You can see that it's a one-man film in a lot of ways. First of all, the animation is spare. The drawings are awkward. Even before I knew the story behind the film, the drawings immediately attracted me to the film. They're realistic and caricatural, capturing the look of Chinese nationals in a convincing way. The look reminds me slightly of what Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Yuasa did in Hamaji's Resurrection. Having seen the film, I still like the basic approach to the drawings. I'd like to see more films like this that actually draw people they way they are in reality. That's not to say I'd like to see rotoscoped animation. Liu Jian has done a good job of drawing the faces in a way that is interesting as a drawing and suited to animation. It's a much more interesting style than 'merely' rotoscoping a human face. There's thought put into how to express the defining features of each face, while at the same time it's not over-stylized the way much animation is. The problem is that a lot of the drawings don't quite work. Sometimes a chin will be foreshortened, or a pose feels a little off. It's partly because he had to do it all himself, and his skills aren't quite up to the task of drawing the bodies the right way.
I came away feeling I wish he'd had the backup of someone like Masaaki Yuasa, the way Shinya Ohira did in Hamaji. It's thanks largely to Yuasa that that Ohira was successful in that film in creating characters who felt real and yet were animated in a way that was exhilirating and groundbreaking as animation. Without those drawings and animation, Hamaji wouldn't have half its impact. I liked the realism of the drawings in Piercing 1 and their tactile, hand-drawn rendering of realistic human bodies and faces, but felt they needed to be a little better technically to achieve the right impact. They don't need to be Jin-Roh perfect or anything - I hope this doesn't come across as being anal. It's just that some of the awkward drawings threw me out of the 'zone' and made the drawings stick out in a way that I felt hindered their successfully bringing alive the characters and hence communicating the story.
Another part of me thinks the drawings are fine the way they are - rough around the edges and obviously the product of one man slaving away for a few years, doing the best he could, and doing a damn good job for the most part, considering. Involve someone else and kiss the one-man mystique goodbye. So it's a bit of a trade-off.
All of this is technical - stuff most people probably won't even think of when they see the film. What about the film itself? The story? It's essentially the story of a disaffected youth who loses his job due to the economic downturn, gets dragged into some shady business, and finds himself in over his head. The story focuses on a handful of different characters - the poor youth, a successful but unscrupulous and shady businessman, and some brutal and corrupt police officers. Their stories unfold separately until they converge in the climax to hilarious and darkly tragic effect. It's a convincing depiction of modern-day China as today's youth experience it, and at the same time it's a witty and ironic tragicomedy about the darkness and apathy and greed that animate people in China. It's a fascinating conundrum - an animated film that's a hard-hitting depiction of modern-day China. It's not an express criticism of China, but it's an uncompromising vision from a creator with a harsh view of the world he lives in. It's also an entertaining indie film in the spirit of Blood Simple. A bunch of losers with nothing to lose become embroiled in a bungled caper, and in the end, things spiral way out of their control, with bloody consequences.
The characters were each individuals. That's one area where the film excelled. They each felt like real, fully-developed people with back stories and personalities, not animation characters. The voice-acting was superb and went a long way towards bringing the characters alive as well as making the atmosphere of the film realistic and convincing. It was impressive feeling like I was seeing the real Chinese youth of today in this film - the way they talk amongst each other, the way they behave when they're just hanging out, the way the streets feel, the very specific interpersonal rules that govern social life in mainland China. The film was admirably convincing in its specific social grounding.
I usually hate it when people watch an animated film like Jin-Roh or Grave of the Fireflies and say "It would have been better as live-action". Saying this seems, if anything, to prove the high level of artistry of the film and vindicate the film's achievement. With Piercing 1, though, for once, I'm the one who felt that way. That's never occurred to me before. Not with Waking Life, not with American Pop, and certainly not with Grave of the Fireflies or Only Yesterday.
I guess I felt the animated aspect didn't contribute enough to Piercing 1 to make it absolutely crucial to its effect. Sure, the unique drawing style devised by the director, combined with the realistic backgrounds, is genuinely interesting and does contribute considerably to the film's success. It's just that the layouts, pacing and narrative style seemed somewhat based on the style of live-action indie filmmaking. There's nothing like Taeko running up an invisible staircase to express her elation in Only Yesterday or the superb, horrific detail of the gunfights in Jin-Roh, both of which could only have been done in animation and are crucial to the success of these films - animated artistry put to the task of depicting reality, and achieving an effect that couldn't be duplicated in a live-action analogue.
Piercing 1 felt essentially like an indie Chinese film that happened to be animated. Which isn't necessarily a liability, I suppose. It's certainly an interesting new kind of animated film the likes of which I've never seen, and that's a good thing. The spare, raw, realistic tone and slow pace reminded me of many indie Chinese films I've seen like Parking and Platform. The good thing about the film is that you can appreciate it as a film and don't have to lower your standards the way you usually do with Disney films or anime films. You don't have to stoop to saying, "It's a good animated film." It's a bold, fascinating creation from a fearless animator. We've already seen the emerging talent of Chinese indie animator Lei Lei. This is a great new addition to the vanguard of Chinese indie animation. Hopefully Piercing 1 is just the start of a wave of new new indie animation from China, although the odds seem stacked against animators over there more than they are in other parts of the world. That only makes the achievement of the film all the more impressive.