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There's an enigmatic figure in Japanese independent animation. One who's always lurking there in the background, ready to pounce, or so it seems. It's Keita Kurosaka. Since the beginning of time, if time is measured according to when I started writing this blog, I've been wondering about the full-length feature that Kurosaka has been reported to be working on entitled Midori-ko. I mentioned it in the blog five years ago. I apparently thought its release was imminent back then! Well, five years later, and no word.
But I have hope that we'll be seeing what purports to be the major statement by one of Japan's most important indie animators - and heck, really the only major thing he's made in the last ten years - either this year or next. I found on the web page of young audiovisual artist Ayumi Kawamura mention that she is working as an assistant on Keita Kurosaka's Midori-ko, and that it is due for release in 2010. April already and I haven't seen word anywhere. Same deal?
Keita Kurosaka teaches at the Musashino Art University, and on his home page for the university, it states that Midori-ko was in the final production stages as of March 2009 and due for completion within the year. Whether it was finished last year or is still in the finishing stage, that at least leaves no doubt that it is imminent. We even know that the production company is Mistral Japan, the company that released a 3-VHS set of his work, and the producer is Akira Mizuyoshi, who is an audiovisual artist himself. (filmography on his blog)
You can see compelling stills from Keita Kurosaka's films on his Musashino page. At the top of the page the images are from his 2005 film My Face, and below it you can see images from Agitated Screams of Maggots and Midori-ko. You can see Agitated Screams of Maggots, an awesome little music video for the alt metal band Dir en Grey, in full, and it being his most recent film, I think it gives a sense of what to expect, stylistically, from Midori-ko. It's very painterly and grotesque and surreal, but utterly engrossing despite being, well, gross. It also features little people-like creatures, which Midori-ko is purported to feature, so maybe it seems to be an esquisse of the larger work. Imagine 60 minutes like Agitated Screams of Maggots. (What a lovely title. Just makes you want to repeat it. Agitated Screams of Maggots.) Midori-ko is going to kick ass. Keita Kurosaka is like Bill Plympton via Jan Svankmajer via Francisco Goya via Francis Bacon. I think this film has the potential to be a new landmark in Japanese indie animation, beyond the mere fact of its length and laborious 10-year production mostly by a single man.
It's time for his work to be better known over here, though inevitably it'll probably be too experimental for the animation crowd and too animated for the experimental crowd. Hopefully this film will get him better known and maybe see a release of his work in the west. I've been struggling to obtain copies of those three tapes for years but never been able to.
Below that are some image sketches, which are really neat and showcase his very peculiar style that is like nothing else out there - classical in their painterly aesthetic, but warped and disturbing. I like that Kurosaka is unlike most animators in Japan, even the indie kind. He's closer in spirit to someone like Florence Milhaile. Below those sketches you can see images from some live animation events Kurosaka did in 2008. Animation for him, like Milhaile, is just an extension in time of his painting work, as you will discover reading the interview with him dating from 2006 that I've just translated below, very roughly and quickly.
I'm asked that a lot, but it's a tough question to answer. For one, I don't really think of myself as an 'animation artist'. I originally got my start in the contemporary art world. I was always trying to come up with a way of injecting the dimension of time into my work. Once I embedded an actual motor into a painting to try to add some motion. It took me a while to realize that a form more suited to achieving my artistic goals would be video. But even then, the thought of doing animation never crossed my mind.
My biggest problem as an artist was finding a form of artistic expression that would have the same effect as music, but in the realm of painting - the impact of sharing the same time space and physical space among a large number of people. That just happened to turn out to be video, and in terms of specific technique within that framework, animation, but for me animation has never been anything but an extension of my painting work. My films started out abstract, but after a few films they began to evolve in a more concrete direction, until eventually there were even what you'd call dialogue and stories starting to appear in the films, and eventually even characters. So on the surface, my films began to look more and more like what you'd typically call 'animation films', but it feels really off and wrong when I hear people call me an animation artist.
I don't see myself as inhabiting any particular genre, and I don't even have any particular stance on my work - like I'm an indie versus an industry animator. What drives me a artist is an amorphous motivation, or inspiration, and my biggest problem is finding a vessel for that inspiration to inhabit that will best bring it to life.
Kurosaka Keita and the notion of the grotesque
What exactly qualifies as 'grotesque'? Generally not hard things or dry things, right? Usually when people think of something grotesque, they think of things that are soft and wet and gooey. And to be perfectly honest, that's the sort of thing that interests me most. It's a matter of personal preference. It's like a kid who enjoys playing in mud - I enjoy playing with the philosophical notion of the moist and squishy.
The way I see it, there are two basic meanings behind the notion of the grotesque. One is the common notion of something fleshy and tactile. The other harbors political nuances. The fleshy aspect would be spilled guts and blood stains, the stuff you see in a splatter film. But you find another kind of grotesque in European films, grotesque with a sociopolitical undertone - for example, showing an actual dog getting killed, or someone breaking the neck of a chicken.
So you can divide the concept of the grotesque into two sub-concepts, roughly speaking - the brutal, and the revolting. Personally I'm not a big fan of brutality - I wouldn't hurt a fly, literally. Some movies show animals being killed, for example, but personally I can't take that, I can't watch a movie that does that. My work exists purely on the conceptual level, it has to be pure fiction, and that's something that's never changed.
When I depict something grotesque, I take pains to ensure that it isn't disgusting. The more revolting the image, the more beautifully I render it. It has to be aesthetically refined. I think when people see my work they have a hard time seeing beyond the grotesque images on the surface below to that aesthetic beauty, because I think there's an ingrained bias amongst general viewers against any depiction of things grotesque. There are many films out there that are far more grotesque on a fundamental level, without even having grotesque visuals like in my films. Apart from the purely visual aspect, my films really aren't that grotesque at all. To borrow the words of a mangaka who reviewed my works once, "Keita Kurosaka approaches the act of creating visuals like a kid playing with a box of toys spilled over the floor. The word grotesque is leveled at him by adults disturbed by a display of pure playfulness that they can no longer hope to relive." I thought he captured it really well.
Are you dissatisfied about how people view your work?
Not so much dissatisfied as disappointed at the thought that this is all my work is capable of. In other words, I wonder if there's even any point in me working in a genre in which there are people far more talented than me who are specialized in that genre. It's an interesting position to be in in many ways, but I suspect that what I have to say isn't enough for viewers, that they want to see other worlds.
To put it another way, there are some things that are meant for the broad daylight, and some things that are better appreciated by being glimpsed under the moonlight rather than seen fully, face on. Not to put too self-deprecating a spin on it, but I feel like my work falls more into the latter category. It's not necessarily a negative thing. Like two sides of the same coin, or the wheels on a car, you have to have both. Without the dark side, the world would be out of balance.
I'll leave the bright side to the folks who specialize in that sort of thing. I see myself as one of the last remaining guardians of the dark side of the coin, you might say. I'm kind of an unsung hero, actually. (laughs)
Surrealism is at the core of your and Svankmajer's work. What is surrealism?
Again, the way I see it, there are two types of surrealism. One is surrealism as a means of conveying a sort of parody of the world that goes beyond the real word and brings life to things that lurk just beneath the surface. This type of surrealism can be used as a means to convey political meaning by way of metaphor. In Svankmajer's case, that was part of it - there are times when an artist is unable to produce certain films due to political pressure. Surrealism was once used as a cover of sorts in times like this when you could get hung for saying certain things directly, like a tool in the arsenal of the resistance, but you didn't want to compromise by merely saying things indirectly. You speak by way of images that could be interpreted differently depending on how you look at them. I think that historically this was one of the major components of classical surrealism.
I grew up in the first nonpolitical generation in Japan, so for us, rather than using surrealism to talk about the outside world, surrealism was aimed inwards. In other words, we use surrealism to talk about the self. Underpinning this approach to surrealism are often basic aspects of identity such as our dreams and our formative experiences as children. I've got an interesting story related to this subject. The first time Svankmajer visited Japan, someone from a museum set up a meeting between Svankmajer and I, so that he could critique my work. Both the museum person and I were convinced that Svankmajer would be happy to find someone in Japan who was aiming for something similar, so we were both surprised when, instead, Svankmajer said that as artists he and I were aiming for something completely different at a fundamental level beyond the question of technique, so he was unable to critique my work. I think that experience underscores the decisive difference between the two types of surrealism.
Svankmajer is probably the single artist I most respect, and I view him as my 'master' deep down, but there's one thing I dislike about his work. It's the fact that you can categorically pin down what it is that he's trying to say. I think this becomes particularly noticeable in his later work. In other words, his work is like a translation of his political or philosophical ideals about how things should be. Of course, some people think that's precisely what makes his work good, so in the end it's a question of personal preference, but whenever I encounter something like that in his work, I find it to be a real turn-off. What really excites me is when he creates something that has no obvious interpretation, something completely insane and unhinged, when he goes crazy and creates a world that can't be explained, that's filled with contractions and refuses easy translation. I can't stand it when some meaning you're trying to express is clearly visible when you shine a light on it from the back. We humans aren't built in such a tidy package. But I suspect most viewers don't enjoy things that are excessively ambiguous, because they are legitimately difficult to assess. That's probably the reason why nobody's heard of my favorite films. (laughs)
When a film isn't completely rooted in the individual, it allows viewers to be more objective, which I think is what makes such films easier for most viewers to appreciate. I suspect that the reason Svankmajer is able to go on creating films with images that are so astounding on the surface and still reach a large audience is because, underneath, they convey a meaning that is clearly understood. I find that he tends to hide what's deep inside him and create work aimed towards the outside world. This is only bolstered by his intensely private gaze and his very exacting approach as an artist.
The sun and the moon
In other words, what I was trying to get across with the metaphor about the wheels on a car is that, insofar as you live in today's world, it's impossible to remain completely aloof from the world. Whether you view the outside world according to secondary sources like the newspapers and television, or you come up with your own interpretation of the world from the perspective of a lone member of that society, that society remains the same.
For example, child abuse is a major problem today in Japan. If you wanted to tackle that issue, you could adopt two different approaches. On the one hand, you could take inspiration from the way the issue is reported in the media. On the other, you could take a more individual perspective and look at it from the perspective of the parent or the child. I this this applies not only to surrealism but to any creative activity.
November 15, 2006 at Keita Kurosaka's office
Interviewer: Hiroki Kawai