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I was visiting China for the last two weeks, and had the chance to drop into some video stores over there. I picked up a DVD of La Prophetie Des Grenouilles for the equivalent of $1. I'd seen the tail end of the movie on TV late one night in Quebec a while back and wanted to see the whole thing. Seems to be a very good film. More interestingly, I also found a few bits of local animated fare that I'd never heard of and would probably never have been able to find outside of the country - things like Xiao Heshang (Little Priest?), a TV series from 2006 that seems rather lackluster; Grandma and her Ghosts, a 2000 movie from Taiwan that seems to have a passable script but rudimentary animation; and a movie version of Tsai Chih Chung's comic of Laozi's teachings. I remember reading a translation of his comic version of Zhuangzi a long time ago. There were also a number of other films adapted from his other classics-based comics.
I also picked up a DVD of Kon Ichikawa's Taketori Monogatari (1987), which is a retelling of the folktale about a baby girl who is found in a bamboo grove by an old farmer couple only to turn out to be a girl from the moon. The main innovation of the film is that the old folktale is re-read as an ET story, the girl really being from space. Other than that the film seems an ordinary set piece from Heian Japan. Kon Ichikawa has been a director about whom I've been interested in seeing more films for years. His films seem to straddle every conceivable genre, often at the same time. I saw the handful of his films that were available in the west many years ago, but unfortunately that's merely the tip of the iceberg, as he actually made more than 80 films, the latest being last year's remake of Inugami no Ichizoku. Not all of the films are reportedly that great, so perhaps that's reason we haven't seen more. He started working in films at age 18 in 1933 - quite a career.
What really interested me about Ichikawa, though, was the fact that he started out as an animator. I'd forgotten about this fact until watching Taketori Monogatari, which brought it back. Watching the film I couldn't help but think it felt very animation-like. The framing, the lighting, the pacing all seemed to be like something that would come from the mind of an animator. Or in other words, it felt like you could very well have taken each frame of the film and animated it and it would have worked equally well, if not better. Only after I finished watching the film and thought about this did I remember about his past as an animator. It took some digging to re-discover the name of the only one of his animated films I remember having read about - Shinsetsu Kachikachi Yama, which is often translated as The Hare Gets Revenge Over the Raccoon. It dates from 1936, so it's one of the earliest things in his filmography.
I haven't run across this anywhere on the web, but apparently Kon Ichikawa's real name is Yoshikazu Ichikawa. He started using the pen name only after he began working in live-action. So the animated films were made by Yoshikazu Ichikawa. It seems Ichikawa saw some Disney animation on the big screen and was so enamored with what he saw - because it combined all of the arts that interested him - that he immediately decided to become an animator. In 1933, at age 18, he joined the recently formed animation branch of movie studio JO Talkie. There were only 6 or 7 other employees at the studio, and after about two or three years the studio gradually lost interest in animation, so that by the end, Ichikawa, the only one still interested in animation, was the only one there to do all of the tasks.
The 8-minute Shinsetu Kachikachi Yama is presumably one of the last of their films, and Ichikawa is credited with having done almost everything on the film, including script, animation, photography and editing. Ichikawa's love of Disney apparently comes through in the film, which is closely modeled after the Silly Symphonies in terms of structure, motion and designs. The film even features a Mickey lookalike. In 1978 Ichikawa directed a live-action adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Firebird, which features some animation by Tezuka himself, and he apparently often stated that animated thinking tinged all of his storyboards for his films. That definitely comes through in Taketori Monogatari. I'd like to have the chance to see more of his less well-known films like this to see more of his fascinating animation-tinged directing. I've long been particularly curious to see Topo Gigio and the Missile War from 1967, which as far as I've been able to figure out is some kind of combination of puppetry and live action. One of Ichikawa's earliest films, Musume Dojoji (1946) - incidentally the one he considers his best - was also a puppet film. Not stop-motion puppetry, but actual puppets.
I guess one of the things that strikes me as seeming very animation-like about his thinking as a director is that he conceives of scenes that you just can't do in live-action, so often there are miniatures like the boat in a storm scene in this film, and lots of SFX. The framing and positioning of the characters on the screen also seems very artificial and theatrical rather than naturalistic. The lighting is another thing. The colors on the screen are emphasized and exaggerated, in a way that reminds me of the way colors were used in Mind Game. He controls all of the parameters of the screen in a way it seems only an animator would feel the need to. I can't help but wonder what might have happened if Ichikawa had continued working in animation instead of moving to live-action.