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We lost one of our great animation artists with the passing of Kihachiro Kawamoto on August 23 at age 85. He was the face of independent Japanese animation to the world for many years. His films were by far the most refined, technically accomplished and thematically dense and challenging of any indie of his generation. He not only perfected his own style of puppet animation, he was also one of the pioneers of artistic, personal animation in Japan. Many others at the time were dabbling with animation, but his work seemed to appear fully-formed and perfect. He did what artists are supposed to do: present their innermost vision, audienences be damned. He was truly in it for the love of animation.
Catherine Munroe Hotes of Nishikata Eiga has written a biography in memoriam. I'll leave the biographical details to those more in the know. I never wrote anything here about his work here up until now, but I'd like to rectify that tonight, in my own way, with some thoughts about his films.
The reason I never wrote about his work is that he was already the most recognizable Japanese indie animator, and I felt others of his generation like Tadanari Okamoto had been unjustly overlooked in his favor. And honestly, I had mixed feelings about his films. I didn't understand his single-minded obsession with Buddhist religious themes and the ancient world. I still don't. I probably am missing much of what he's saying in these films, but I feel like there's a degree of obscurantism running through his body of work, of reveling in being hard to understand. And I sensed that deep down we westerners embraced him only because of how neatly we could pigeonhole his films as being "quintessentially Japanese". They allowed us to feel intelligent by bandying about Japanese terms like mono no aware and wabi sabi, and fed our appetite for the exoticness, refined sensibility and wistful beauty of inscrutable Japan. I felt they only reinforced bad habits and stereotypes in the west, and found their forced 'artsiness' somewhat insufferable.
Today I wanted to forget all of my negative perceptions and look at his films through new eyes. I took the opportunity to go through all of his short films over the last few days. I want to write an appreciation of each of his films, as a way of honoring his work. The best thing we can all do if we want to pay tribute to his genius is simply to watch his films, take them in, and take away what you will. His films will probably come across as slow and unexciting to viewers weaned on the sort of manic and user-friendly animation that's being made today. But dislocating you to another time of mind seems precisely to be the purpose of Kawamoto's films. If you have even the remotest interest in indie Japanese animation, or good art animation period, it's your duty to seek out his films and watch them. At the very least, Kataku alone certainly ranks as one of the best animated shorts I've ever seen, the pinnacle of stop-motion filmmaking.
His films are special for one because they respect the intelligence of their audience enough not to present pat answers. Quite the opposite, every one of his films seems like a challenge and a philosophical question thrown at the viewer. Everyone will have a different answer.
His curious body of work based on ancient Buddhist tales is unique in the world. Nobody has bridged the ancient world with the modern as seamlessly as he has. Through his films it feels like we are truly stepping back in time and entering the mindset of another century, one in which these stories were not just old tales but living tradition. He updated classical theatrical forms like joruri into animated dramas that made these stories accessible to modern audiences the world over.
I can't think of many people who seemed to have as much sincere respect and love of the art of animation as Kihachiro Kawamoto. Even though he only started down the path of animation in his 40s, once he found his calling, he devoted the rest of his life to it in so many ways, not least by making amazing short films. He didn't view animation as a plaything; for him it seemed to be almost a matter of life and death. There's such a sense of urgency and sincerity in his films. He wasn't just out to make entertainment; it feels like he wanted to create films that would have a deep, almost spiritual impact, and would get us thinking about the meaning of our lives.
This doesn't have anything to do with animation, but there's one thing I have to mention that made me have immense respect for Kawamoto - his warmth. Though of course I never met him, in every interview I've seen with Kihachiro Kawamoto, he always seemed effusive and friendly and kind to everyone around him. He was always smiling. He always seemed so happy to discuss his work and animation and the work of his colleagues.
And of course, the puppets. He was a master puppet-maker, and in Japan he is perhaps just as well remembered for his puppets for the long-running puppet version of China's national epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Japan's national epic Tale of the Heike. Kawamoto was thus not only an animator, but also a master sculptor and marionette-maker, as well as having been trained in live-action directing at Toho studio. He put all of those skills to use in his films.
Breaking of Branches Is Forbidden
花折り / Hanaori
(14 min, 1968)
This is the first film Kawamoto made in his capacity as an independent animator, but the fact is that he was 43 at the time, so if the film seems remarkably assured in execution, it's because he was already a veteran puppet animator with more than 10 years' experience doing commercial work under the tutelage of puppet animation pioneer Tadahito Mochinaga. After a decade working in commercial animation, Kawamoto had become impatient with the work, and had impulsively written to his idol, Jiri Trnka, asking if he could come visit and learn at Trnka's studio. He spent a year in the Czech Republic in 1963 studying there, and this is the first film he made upon returning. Trnka had advised him to make films that reflected his country's culture, and he clearly took that advice to heart.
I admire Kawamoto for how open he was to learning from the techniques of foreign animators like Trnka who clearly had much to teach him, and his first film seems clearly aimed at an international audience in that the title screen is in English, and there is no dialogue. The characters rather mime all of their actions in an exaggerated way that makes it clear exactly what they're saying at each moment. Kawamoto doesn't even use sound effects, for the most part. The sound of sake pouring is about the only sound effect present. Entirely through the acting of the dolls he manages to convey the drunkard bonze's amusing personality.
The film uses a classical look for the backgrounds. They appear to be inspired by the naturalistic paintings on folding screens of the Edo-period such as those of Tawaraya Sotatsu, with their gold leaf backgrounds. The puppets aren't as distinctly inspired by joruri or noh as they would be later on, but they move with the same deliberate slowness. They retain the foreshortened proportions of his commercial work and foreign puppets. For the samurai's attendant, for example, he adopts the pursed lips of the traditional "hyottoko" mask, seemingly solely for the purpose of making each of the figures' faces as distinct as possible from one another.
Over these paintings he has the puppets act out a humorous story about a drunken bonze who is ordered by the abbot not to let anyone break the branches of a splendid chrysanthemum tree in the courtyard of the temple. The sneaky monk lets them in on the lure of sake, and winds up humiliated for his misdeeds. Thus his very first film involved buddhist monks, although it doesn't seem overtly based on a buddhist story or play like his later films.
This is easily his most accessible and humorous film. When I first watched it many years ago I found it slight, but rewatching it the other day I really enjoyed it. I think the humor is very well achieved and still works after all these years. The film casts a gently satirical light on the foibles of human nature, rather than being an anguished cry for redemption like most of his subsequent films. Its message is clear. It comes across as a universal fable that makes rudimentary use of the trappings of Japanese classical arts. Viewed objectively, it's a first step leading towards his more accomplished later films, but I miss the warmth and light-heartedness of this film in his more dour and straight-faced later work.
I particularly think the knavish monk is very well achieved. The carving of his head wonderfully captures his character - pseudo pious on the outside, but inside lazy and crafty. Kawamoto does a lot of fun tricks with the monk's doll to bring his character alive, such as spinning the monk's head around when he smells the sake, or having his head detach towards the sake and drag his body towards it. His nose blinks red whenever he smells sake. He even changes the expression slightly occasionally, such as inverting the monk's pious frown to a smile occasionally when he gets a sneaky idea, or having his eyes appear momentarily beneath when he sneaks a peek at something, only to quickly disappear back into the mock haughty expression of detached contemplation. This is one difference with his later work. He exercises a little bit of freedom with the expressions, in the European style.
Ironically, the only time a voice is heard is when the bonze intones the sutra and when he hiccups from the sake - clearly complementary to one another. The music appears to consist of "komagaku", namely komabue flute and percussion instruments, an ancient form of gagaku used to accompany dance. Later on during the drinking contest the music sounds like matsuri music.
An Anthropo-Cynical Farce
(8 min, 1970, B&W)
Kawamoto's second film will surprise people who thought all he did was ancient Japanese puppets. It's an abrasive, modern, black and white riddle of a film, with French dialogue for some reason. I can't quite figure out why it's in French, other than because French sounds cool and artsy. It's based on a story by Riichi Yokomitsu, so they had to translate it into French.
Watching this film is a tough slog. It's relentlessly gray and determinedly obscure. It lacks the redeeming feature of dynamism and beautiful images like his other films, rather seeming to rub your face in its harsh, abrasive black and white palette and obscure meaning. It achieves the feat of being a message film whose message is incomprehensible. It's so grimly determined to be artistic and to force its metaphor down your throat that it forgets to actually be interesting as animation or to be convincing.
You'd have forgiven a young artist for making this film as an excess of youth, as an experiment to try something new to try to find his artistic voice, but Kawamoto was in his mid-40s when me made it. This is a problem I have with much of his work: trying too hard to be artsy, and the fallacy that artistic merit is proportional to incomprehensibility.
(I'd advise watching the films before reading this because I'm going to talk about what happens.)
The film opens on a dog race in mid course. A presenter in a tux appears and proceeds to berate the spectators for their passive role as betters. The lights go out and the announcer announces that the presenter has been fired. The announcer continues to announce the race, but the presenter tells the audience in the dark that the dogs are in fact merely biting one another. The audience boos him, and he berates their complacency and warns them of some unnamed imminent danger. Suddenly a shot rings out, killing the presenter. The race finishes, the audience leaves. As they leave, we see them turning into dogs. The end.
If you squint hard enough, you can see in the film a metaphor about a revolutionary figure who tries to wake a repressed populace from its stupor.
The technique of the film is stop-motion puppets of dogs and humans superimposed over flat ink-drawn backgrounds. The use of black and white was presumably a stylistic decision to suit the more modern aesthetic of the material and to try something different. The faces of the audience members are sculpted in a very angular and modern way that is actually well suited to the more modern subject matter. It's the only time Kawamoto set to the task of sculpting something different from his usual classical puppet heads.
Tadanari Okamoto's Echo Studio is acknowledged in the credits in all of Kawamoto's films starting with this one. Whereas Okamoto had his own studio and staff to help produce his films and rarely did any of the animation himeself, Kawamoto's films were a smaller and more personal affair. He always did his own puppets and helped with their animation, although in some of the films the work of creating the puppets was shared with other people due presumably to the large number of characters. He doesn't give credit for who did the puppets in Hanaori, Farce or Oni, but they were presumably all by himself. He had collaborators helping him make the puppets in all of his short puppet films starting with Dojoji Temple.
鬼 / Oni
(8 min, 1972)
After taking a detour with Farce, Kawamoto returned to traditional material with Oni. Though Hanaori was also set in ancient Japan, it's Oni that feels like the first real Kawamoto piece. It has all his signature elements - the basis on ancient literature, the puppets with realistic proportions and noh-based heads, the theme of suffering and redemption, and the seriousness of mood. Although Kawamoto clearly was by no means tied to only one style, it's that ancient puppet style that people have come to associate with him because it became his focus very quickly shifted to that material in exclusivity.
Oni is perhaps the simplest in terms of narrative material. It quite simply consists of two hunters going up a hill, being attacked by an oni, cutting off the oni's arm, and going back home to discover their own ailing mother with her arm chopped off.
The film has good economy of means. There are no sound effects and no dialogue. Instead, a few intertitles convey the dialogue, and the music at every moment closely mirrors the action, making up for any lack of sound effects or dialogue. The music is comprised of shakuhachi and shamisen. The shakuhachi effectively highlighting the pathos and the shamisen comes alive with rapid playing during the dramatic moments like the mother's transformation into an oni.
The characters' movement and acting is stylized specifically in the manner of a noh play, although the story doesn't come from a noh play. For example, the brothers swing their arms dramatically in unison as they climb up the mountain, and the mother transformed into an oni walks around in a 360 in a stock Noh move.
The background is for the most part black, as the setting is night, with a few leaves of vegetation rendered in the gold leaf style of the old Edo-period screen paintings. When the brothers are climbing up the mountain, a foreground layer of leaves and two back layers of bamboo trees are panned at alternating speeds to indicate their movement.
The movement is more naturalistic than in in Hanaori. This time the only non-joint movement is eye blinks and pupil movement. There are no cartoonish effects like detaching heads or blinking noses. The puppets are essentially restricted to moving in the manner of the a human body, and the proportions of the head to the body are realistic.
It's a beautiful film, but it feels brief and sketch-like, also due to the simplicity of the story. I still don't know what to think of the story. Oni shares with Farce a feeling of deliberate impenetrability, although the stories and style are different. Both films are metaphors not meant to be taken at face value. It's up to you to parse their meaning however you can. Oni at least doesn't come across as sophomoric and trying too hard the way Farce does, because it's an implicit metaphor, rather than an explicit one. It's a metaphor that sits within the skin of an old fable. The story itself is the essence of simplicity, but you're left to wonder what it's supposed to mean.
The film begins with a montage of ink images depicting the mother's past. First her body floats through Buddha's ether and enters an abandoned infant crying on the shore, apparently to indicate that she was pre-ordained for a miserable life. Her life of misery begins from the moment of birth as an orphan, and continues on through a miserable childhood with uncaring parents and bullying, an unloving husband, poverty, and years of illness.
Then after living a miserable life, apparently pre-ordained by karma, the old woman turns into an oni due to her suffering and tries to eat her children, but winds up being killed by her children instead. "They say that when parents grow too old, they become demons who will eat their own children." Oni closes with this quote from the original story, which is taken from the Konjaku Monogatari, a late-Heian era collection of folklore and Buddhist lore from India, China and Japan.
My first reaction on reading the quote was laughing at how mean it is: "What, so the moral of the story is kill your parents before they kill you??" Then I felt kind of angry about the film's depiction of the elderly as these horrible monsters. Then I just felt bad for the old woman, who'd suffered all her life only to turn out to be the bad guy.
From a modern perspective, the story seems terribly mean. I'm baffled as to why Kawamoto chose this material. Like many of Kawamoto's films, I suspect it's got to be a Buddhist fable of some sort with underlying meaning. The problem is that it's really not clear at all even when you try to figure out what it's supposed to mean. At least in his later films the underlying Buddhist message is clear.
The best I can come up with is that this is how people back then metaphorically expressed the consequences of a lifetime of suffering - we turn into demons who devour our loved ones, or literally we take out our misery on the ones we most love. The woman's suffering is all the more lamentable because it was apparently ordained by her karma. She is doomed to a life of suffering for past misdeeds, without even knowing what those misdeeds were.
Although I find the story distasteful, it is interesting for being so literal an adaptation of a world view and set of moral values so different from ours. It's interesting to see a Heian-era fable brought to life faithfully like this. It can make for a fascinating and dislocating viewing experience to see a story with an alien sensibility like this one, where you're not really sure what meaning it's trying to get across, but it does seem to be a faithful adaptation of the sensibilities of a culture from another time and place.
Although in the end the film feels incomplete and a bit lacking and doesn't leave a very good aftertaste, what the film has going for it is that it is very rigorous in presenting the old folktale without any sort of modern interpretation or slant. Not a shot is wasted. The framing and lighting is perfect and calculated to create a balanced image. The delicate puppets are well sculpted and filmed, the clothing perfectly authentic, and the combination with the music flawless. It's one of his most beautiful and austere films, and it presages the themes he would treat later on more explicitly.
旅 / Tabi
(12 min, 1973)
What an appropriate title. This film is a trip, all right. It's a cascade of pure surrealistic imagery the likes of which I would never have expected to see from a serious fellow like Kihachiro Kawamoto. Andrei Khrjanovsky is who it reminds me of, and his films make loads of sense compared to this thing. But then again, all artists arrive at the style that fits them best only after years of experimenting to find that style. This is a wonderful little detour that shows an unexpected side of an artist we thought we knew.
Trying too hard for artistic affect is something that has bothered me about almost all of his other films, but ironically that is not a criticism I would level at this one. At least here he unabashedly discards all narrative logic and revels in delivering a chaotic onslaught of subconscious dreams and desires. This film works as an extraordinary fever dream full of bewildering images to which you simply have to surrender yourself.
The film is grounded by a female protagonist wandering around various locales of the imagination and meeting various people along the way. We start from live-action photographs of a lady on a train platform, then segue to a drawn version of the young lady. She meets an old man who takes her by the hand and leads her off through a landscape littered with destroyed landmarks, then to an Escher-like maze of staircases, then to a tower with vestibules packed with torso statuettes set against dark sky roiled with red clouds, and finally to a hill with a crucified Christ and a battleship that fades to a Parthenon with a floating glass globe in the middle flanked by two sphinxes statues standing guard over a labyrinth. I could go on describing the events and scenery, but you get the idea.
I doubt the objects and images in the film are meant to signify anything specific or literal. In my mind, they seem like dreamtime creations of the subconscious mind processing one's life experience travelling around the world.
The film invokes Buddhist themes and imagery near the end, when our wanderer, now clad in modern 60s garb and standing amidst a group of fellow hippies, runs across a guru-looking figure in whom she seems to see a soul mate from a past life. The film closes to the sound of sutra chants and the image of the wanderer in a meditative pose at the center of a mandala.
Since things hadn't been incomprehensible enough, the film closes with a poem by 11th century Chinese poet Su Dongpo translated into classical Japanese. I was curious to find out the meaning, so I searched and luckily found an explanation of the poem in Japanese. The meaning seems to be that for many years the author had longed to see Mt. Lu enshrouded in mist and the tide rushing into the Qiantang River in southeaster Zhejiang province, as these were two of China's most renowned natural wonders, but once he finally got to see them, upon returning home they struck him as kind of banal and ordinary. The Buddhist subtext of this poem is that a priest was seeking enlightenment with all of his being, but after he reached enlightenment, he found that nothing outward had changed when he went about his everyday life; only his spirit had changed.
Kawamoto himself says that the film does have significance, just not a literal one. In his mind, it's related to the Prague Spring period in 1968 that culminated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet army. The event marked Kawamoto because he was so spiritually close to the Czech animators. You can sense that this film and Farce must both have been a reaction to the repression of the people of the country he so loved. Jiri Trnka's last film, The Hand, deals with the same subject from an inside perspective.
In this film Kawamoto views the tribulations of his spiritual homeland through the lens of the Buddhist concept of the dukkha or three types of suffering, refracted through the prism of a surreal vision of a woman's journey in search of her purpose in life. Like the poem that caps the film, many of Kawamoto's films are meant to be read on two levels, a literal one and a metaphorical one related to the path towards enlightenment, but Trip pushes this to another level and feels like his film with the most layers of significance. If Kawamoto's other films are Buddhist parables, this one feels like a zen koan.
If there's one criticism I can level at it, it would be that it's not an easy film to watch, or even necessarily particularly enjoyable. It's a little slow. It's lacking in the dynamism and quick pace that made Khrjanovsky's visions so exciting and fun. Kawamoto must have sensed this, as he made a shorter version of the film, but I find the shorter version just feels like a trailer. The images can't be rushed; they need space to breathe.
A Poet’s Life
詩人の生涯 / Shijin no Shogai
(19 min, 1974)
Kawamoto returned to the territory of Farce with his next film, about a factory worker agitating to improve the conditions of his workplace. Perhaps inspired by Tadanari Okamoto, he seemed to be trying a new technique with every film around this time. Just a few years earlier in 1972 he and Okamoto had just started organizing their joint Puppet Animashow exhibition.
The technique of the film seems to be either charcoal or pencil background drawings with characters animated using cutouts drawn in the same way. The drawings of the characters are very realistic, although the movement is spare. The film feels more like a moving illustration than animation.
The story is a fairly interesting modern surrealist fable that talks about a major topical issue at the time in Japan, labor relations, and does so in a specific yet universal way.
The story is based on a short story by the famous surrealist writer Abe Kobo, best known for The Woman in the Dunes. The tone of surrealism is established right from the opening sequence, in which the protagonist's grandmother reaches out to grab the spindle she has just finished winding to sew a sweater to sell, only to get reeled up into the spindle like a thread, leaving behind only a pile of kimono.
Everything in the film can't be taken at face value, including the snow that falls and freezes everybody and the sweaters that liberate them from the freezing cold. Like every Kawamoto film, it's all about double meanings and subtexts and metaphors.
The film is interesting in concept, but as a film it's somewhat too static and slow, and lacks the aesthetic beauty of the puppets and good lighting of his other films that redeem the slowness.
道成寺 / Dojoji
(19 min, 1976)
After working on more modern, abstract material for a few years, for his sixth film Kawamoto returned to traditional puppets acting out Buddhist parables in ancient Japan.
Adapted from one of the most famous noh plays, Dojoji tells the story of a woman who falls for an itinerant priest and is transformed into a dragon in her all-consuming passion when the priest scorns her advances. She chases him into the grounds of a temple, where the priest hides beneath a giant bell. In her rage, she wraps herself around the bell, and the fire of her passion burns the priest to a crisp.
This was Kawamoto's most sustained and serious effort in the format to date. He clearly put a lot more work into bringing the puppets alive and making their motivations believable in this film. There is just a lot more detail in every shot, and he maintains a very tight feeling of momentum throughout the duration of the film. He combined a variety of techniques, lens effects and styles of lighting to create a visually rich film.
The shots in the river, for example, are quite impressive. When the woman dives into the river, her puppet is seen swimming amidst traditionally animated waves in the style of old Japanese drawings. With hand-drawn flames and whirlwinds swirling about, her puppet sinks beneath the roiling waves, and finally a puppet of a fierce dragon emerges in her place. Shots like this must have taken a tremendous amount of work, and they go a long way towards making the scenes have the requisite impact.
The scene of the dragon wrapped around the bell is quite moving and provides a fittingly climactic finale. As the dragon coils around the bell, lovingly animated hand-drawn flames arise to engulf the bell and cook the priest inside, and a flute wails plaintively, like an embodiment of the woman's anguish.
I like that Kawamoto subtly develops character through little movements, like when the priest is walking behind his abbot and he's so preoccupied by the pretty ladies that he doesn't notice that the abbott has stopped and bumps into him. Without going overboard into comic territory it hints that the priest is not very detached from the world and has lingering attraction to specific aspects of this world like the opposite sex. Which also forbodes what's to come.
Kawamoto does a superb job of capturing the woman's evolving emotional state in various ways leading up to the climax as she chases him. There's a frontal shot of the woman after she's been running finally to catch up with the priest, who has stopped by a pond for water. She's framed head on, looking into the camera, her chest moving faintly up and down to indicate heavy breathing. The shot has a strong impact and conveys the feeling of a woman whose very soul is shorn apart at the thought of losing her heart's desire. Immediately afterwards she approaches the priest and he rebuffs her advances, terrified of her demonic mien. She looks down at her reflection in the water and sees in her reflection the face of an oni. Her head comes up slowly, as if it were just dawning on her what she's become.
I like these moments because they show a clear understanding that these stories aren't necessarily to be taken literally; the idea of transforming into an oni is a literalization of the emotions and passions that animate all humans, a metaphor for the Buddhist concept of the 'burning house' of passion and suffering that is this world. Back when these stories were in their heyday, this must have been clearly understood by the people who saw these plays, but that meaning has been obscured by the gap of centuries and drastic cultural changes.
Kawamoto changes the head of her puppet from one with a peaceful face in the first few minutes to one with an expression of horror when she discovers that the priest was attempting to flee her. Also, her hair gradually becomes more disheveled during the course of her pursuit.
I'm not sure, but this change of heads may also occur in the original noh play, as I've found an example of a noh mask of a woman with an anguished expression similar to that in this film. The expressions of the puppets' faces are static like noh masks. In noh, the expression of the mask seems to change subtly depending on the lighting and angle, and Kawamoto was an expert in carving the faces of his puppets to achieve a similar effect.
As in Hanaori, there is no dialogue in Kataku. All meaning is communicated through body language. The priest puts hands together to indicate that he can't stay and needs to go pray to buddha, and counts to three on his fingers to indicate in how many days he will supposedly return. The boatman thumps chest to indicate 'leave it to me'. Etc. Kawamoto exercises considerable ingenuity in coming up with ways of making these puppets communicate exactly what they are thinking and how they are feeling at every moment. This includes using lighting effectively and framing the shot accordingly to make the facial expression communicate a particular emotion.
One problem I had with the puppets is that he didn't make all of them. He probably made the ones for the main characters and his assistants did the rest. The ones for the passers by along the road are not really that great looking. They're not nearly as refined of expression as Kawamoto's puppets.
Finally, the score by composer Teizo Matsumura (1929-2007) deserves to be singled out. It masterfully matches the plaintiveness of the traditional Japanese harmonies to the emotions of this story.
One thing that confused me upon watching it was why the woman seemed to fall so passionately in love with the priest upon first laying eyes on him. Love at first sight couldn't possibly account for the all-consuming passion that followed. As it turns out, Kawamoto's version appears to omit certain elements of the original story that explain this: The priest had stopped by the house every year on his pilgrimage to the shrine at Kumano, and had jokingly said he would marry the girl when she grew up. She remembered, and and approached him on that visit urging him to keep his promise. It might have been a bit of a mistake to omit this, since it weakens your sense of the motivation behind the love frenzy. Anyway, even if you don't know that, the woman's passion is well enough depicted that you're convinced.
In short, this is by far the most successful of Kawamoto's dramatizations of Buddhist parables yet. With this film he finally seems to have found his voice and the format that best suited his personality: An extended dramatization of an ancient Buddhist story with realistic puppets acting naturalistically. You understand clearly what the story is saying on the surface as well as what the religious subtext is. That said, this still isn't my favorite Kawamoto film. His next film is.
House of Flames
火宅 / Kataku
(19 min, 1979)
Adapted from the noh play The Sought-for Grave (求塚 Motomezuka), this was the last film Kawamoto made during his most active period as an indie animator. He made lots more afterwards, but it was under different circumstances. This film strikes me as the culmination of those feverish ten years during which he discovered his calling as an indie animator and made one film after another.
I find the film to be his most perfect creation in every sense. The pathos of the character's predicament is genuinely affecting. The narrative is the most layered, jumping between past and present and afterlife. The puppets have delicate and refined features, and they're well dressed and beautifully photographed. The visual schemes are lush and varied, with even more effective use of lighting and coloring than before. The soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu is absolutely brilliant and perfectly complements the material.
With House of Flames, Kawamoto finally achieved greatness of the level of his idol and master Jiri Trnka, the greatest puppet animator who ever lived. His previous films were good, of course, but for some reason they didn't really bowl me over. They didn't gel into a whole greater than the sum of their parts, at least not the way this one does. The previous films were somewhat interesting, but they didn't shake you to your core. This one bowls you over with the intensity of its vision.
The visuals of the film feel more refined than any of his previous films. Every shot seems perfectly lit or framed, with just the right balance in the layout of the objects on the screen. The textural variety of the visuals is breathtaking and makes the film feel very rich. Memorable instances include the masterfully well achieved depth of image during the misty scenes in the wilderness at the beginning, presumably done with a multi-plane, and the darkly lit shots in the afterlife combining puppetry with beautiful hand-drawn flames and waves as well as drawings of demons tormenting the maiden as she plunges into the depths of hell.
An impressive moment is when the maiden tries to shake the flame off of her arm, and the hand-drawn animation of the flame jumps into the air and morphs into the puppet for the iron ducks that peck at her brain for eternity. Also moving is the moment when the maiden attempts to dive into the ocean to put out the flames that engulfs her, only for the ocean to turn into an ocean of flames. The final sequence does a remarkable job of making you feel pity for her, tormented in hell for eternity for having done what she believed to be a good deed in sacrificing herself to prevent conflict.
The conflict at the center of the story is universal and timeless, which I find raises the story beyond the level of a mere Buddhist parable. It has a broad appeal and its meaning is immediately apparent to anyone.
I don't know from what perspective Kawamoto so obsessively adapted Buddhist parables, i.e. as a believer proselytizing or merely to explore Japan's profound and complex ancient philosophical arts, but I like this film because it functions as a multi-layered dramatic construct regardless of your stake in the religion. Anyway, no ancient Japanese are alive today, so nobody viewing this would have the value system to which these plays were originally intended to speak. This was the dominant world view back then; now it's a fascinating artifact. That's how I see this film: as a vivid illustration of the value system that was Buddhism as it evolved and was elaborated upon in Japan.
Maybe another thing that makes me like the film is that it doesn't have a steep learning curve. The meaning is immediately clear, and the drama of the film doesn't feel obscure or foreign. You immediately relate to the poor maiden and feel relieved by the compassion of the priest who goes out of his way to pray for her soul, saving her from her torment.
The film's subject is one of the central concepts of Buddhism: the house of flames. The house of flames a metaphor for this world. The maiden trapped in the burning house is none other than we mortals trapped in the torment of this life. This is poignantly expressed via the animation: when the two dead suitors each grab her arm, they are transformed into the flame that burns her. It's only by seeking detachment from this world through enlightenment that we can escape the torment.
Of course, from a modern perspective, telling people to run away from the real world to escape suffering seems kind of bad advice, but you have to take this film in its cultural context. It's a pure product of that era, when Buddhism's arrival filled a spiritual hole and offered a constellation of theories about how to alleviate suffering in this life. The Japanese were always so good at expressing stories of evanescence and pathos, and this is one of the supreme examples of that humanistic aesthetic that placed so much value on empathy.
Kawamoto has brought alive this poetic/philosophical/religious concept in a way that goes beyond merely preaching to the choir. This was clearly Kawamoto's intent, since he changed the name of the play to underline the central metaphor of the house of flames.
Besides the remarkable score by Toru Takemitsu, one of his best, the narration by renowned Noh reciter Shizuo Kanze is spot on and indispensable. He communicates every line with such a sense of urgency and power. So in addition to Kawamoto's newfound mastery of his material, this film also benefited from inspired work by two brilliant practitioners of their own respective arts. Animation is a collaborative process, and it's meetings of great artists like this that produce the most memorable results.
One thing I'm unsure of is where this film was shown. This film was actually not shown at the Puppet Animashow, despite what I initially thought. There were a total of five annual Puppet Animashows between 1972 and 1976, and then there was a show called the World of Kihachiro Kawamoto in 1982 where it was shown, but this film was produced in 1979, and I can't imagine that it remained buried for 3 years before seeing the light of day.
To Shoot Without Shooting
不射之射 / Fushanosha
(25 min, 1988)
1980 seems to have signaled a shift in Kawamoto's priorities. His next film as a director was the full-length film Rennyo and His Mother in 1981, which I haven't seen as it was never released on video or DVD (you can see pictures here). Subsequently he seems to have spent much of the 80s focusing on his puppet-making work. It's only in 1988 that he completed his next film, and it's a special film produced under unique circumstances. It wasn't Kawamoto working at home in the capacity of a lone artist the way he'd done before. This one was actually produced at China's most famous studio, Shanghai Animation Film Studio.
Shanghai had been the seat of Chinese animation since the very beginning in 1926 with the Wan brothers' animation, well before the founding of Shanghai Animation Studio in 1956. Tadahito Mochinaga had been heavily involved in Shanghai animation for three years starting in 1950 before he returned to Japan to found Japanese stop-motion. Kihachiro Kawamoto in turn learned about puppet animation under Mochinaga.
The period starting in the late 70s and going through the 80s seems to have been a sort of renaissance for the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. They produced heaps of films in all sorts of formats and styles, many of them doing imaginative things with stop-motion. Kawamoto's films are pretty unique in the world, but there seems to be a spiritual kinship between his films and Shanghai Animation Film Studio's stop-motion films. Thus there were a lot of connections between the two, and it's presumably as a way to connect back with them that Kawamoto came to direct a stop-motion film at the studio in 1988.
Based on a story entitled Meijinden by Atsushi Nakajima, To Shoot Without Shooting retells the traditional Chinese tale of Ji Chang, a bowman who wanted to become the best bowman in the world. After years of work he finally surpassed his masters, and could down birds without even using the bow. In the ultimate stage of mastery he no longer recognized a bow and arrow.
The story is one of the more obviously metaphorical of all of Kawamoto's films. It just screams metaphor in every sense, unlike his other films, which tell a story and conceal a subtext. It's hard to take it literally that Ji Chang spent however many years doing nothing but staring at a louse, or that he learned not to blink even when soot entered his eyes (or why that would even be important to becoming a better archer for that matter), or that the old master was able to down a bird without even shooting it with an arrow. Forgetting what a bow and arrow are in old age, on the other hand, isn't so far-fetched.
The film's metaphor probably has to do with the path towards enlightenment. When you reach it, you become so detached from life's distractions that you no longer even recognize the implement that was your life's passion. Or perhaps it is a wry comment on the futility of all artistic endeavor: No matter how much you strive to become better and better, eventually you will become an old senile man who doesn't even recognize his own bow and arrow when he sees it. Despite clearly being a metaphor, the film has an appealing ambiguity as to what exactly that metaphor is.
One of the downsides of the film is that it isn't as tightly constructed and enthralling as Kataku or even Dojoji, which in retrospect come across as having been Kawamoto's peak. The photography is a little more simple and unostentatious, the puppets a little less refined, the pacing a little slow and unnecessarily languorous. It all feels much less polished. That's clearly also partially because the film was largely produced by the Chinese staff at Shanghai Animation Film Studio.
But you also start to wonder if Kawamoto himself wasn't feeling a bit like Ji Chang at that point in his life. Having achieved mastery and seen where it leads, he no longer felt like making the effort to impress people by creating meticulously constructed short films. Sure, he directed this film and several afterwards, but it feels like more of a gesture in a way. I don't feel that there was any sort of artistic progression beyond the achievement of Kataku. What's significant about this film and the remainder is the collaboration aspect. It's no longer just about Kawamoto showing off his incredible skills as a puppet animator; it's about him handing down those skills to others and giving others the opportunity to shine. It's the next step towards enlightenment in Kawamoto's journey as an artist.
But I don't want to knock either the film or Kawamoto, or Shanghai Animation Film Studio for that matter, because To Shoot Without Shooting is a thoroughly enjoyable film. It's a very entertaining historical piece set in ancient China that keeps you engaged throughout. The settings and outfits are vividly realized and bring alive the atmosphere of the ancient China of legend. There are numerous interesting shots that must have been a challenge to realize, such as the moving crane shot when the aged Ji Chang is reunited with his erstwhile master.
At every step along the way you have a keen sense of the intensity of Ji Chang's struggle towards mastery, and that struggle has universal appeal. Anyone who has ever struggled to become better in any art (including work) will be able to relate. The thrill of the process of learning something, applying it, and being able to go yet higher as a result, is one of the best things in life. I'd even say it's what makes life bearable - that we don't feel like we're stuck, but rather constantly improving and getting closer to some unattainable ideal. It's simultaneously inspiring about the heights we are able to reach when we try, and sobering about the limits of all human enterprise. As the opening of the Heike Monogatari depressingly reminds us, all human enterprise is transitory and impermanent as the ringing of a bell.
When Ji Chang returns to his home village, now famous, but doesn't make any attempt to show off his skills, the villagers begin to exchange extravagant tales of his accomplishments. Some saw him riding a cloud in the sky with master bowmen from earlier times. Some attest that he shot a laser beam out of his eyes. It's an ironic comment on our endearing tendency to lionize our artists, to revere them to the point of attributing to them things they never did but that we wish they could have.
During closing scenes where Ji Chang is an old man, we see a reflection of the bow in the water eradicated by a simple drop of water. In the old man's soul, the cacophony of worldly desires has been replaced by a calm serenity. It's one of the most assured expressions of a theme that Kawamoto has been preoccupied with over the decades - the ancient ideal of the pursuit of enlightenment.
A constant with this film is Kawamoto's admirable ability to make his puppets communicate exactly what they're thinking without requiring extravagant animation. When the bowmaster tells Ji Chiang that he needs to learn to see tiny things as if they were huge, Ji Chang nods his head in assent, but the way he slowly raises his head indicates his perplexity. Right afterwards, when he spots the beggar, he adopts a certain pose: his arms folded, his right shoulder angled slightly behind, his head angled. Without any movement or feature alteration, the pose alone communicates that something about the beggar intrigues him and has given him an idea.
Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty
いばら姫またはねむり姫 / Ibarahime Matawa Inemurihime
(22 min, 1990)
Kawamoto's next film was another international collaboration with Kawamoto going overseas to direct a film, this time one of particular personal significance. It was Kawamoto coming full circle. He had begun down the path of puppet animation inspired by Jiri Trnka, and in 1990, several decades into a successful career as an independent puppet animator, he returned to Czechoslovakia to make a film at Jiri Trnka's studio. To make sure nobody misses the point, Kawamoto has a puppet resembling Trnka make a cameo appearance in the film in the role of the king who marries Briar Rose's mother. Trnka died in 1969, a year after Kawamoto debuted as an independent. It's unfortunate that Trnka didn't live to see what remarkable work he inspired on the other side of the world.
The film is unusual for Kawamoto in a number of obvious ways. It's not set in ancient Japan, but in the world of European fairy tales. It's not an adaptation of a story, but an original, postmodern story that consciously references and blends and remixes the old fairy tales. The main puppets are identifiable as Kawamoto's work despite not being Japanese. The methodical pacing and the staging of scenes are also identifiable as his work.
At the same time, you sense something a little different - a European twinge. It's identifiable particularly in the puppets. Kawamoto this time acted as the 'director of puppet art', rather than being a sculptor. They were all apparently sculpted by the staff of the Trnka studio. The main puppets feel Kawamoto, but many of the extras have a more classically Czech type of stylization. Most of the staff who worked on the film were Czech. A few notable exceptions are staff who had worked with Kawamoto over almost all of his films over the decades, for example background artist Takashi Komae and animator Hirokazu Minegishi.
On the visual front, this is perhaps the most sumptuous feeling of Kawamoto's films. They create a glowing fairy tale atmosphere by means of sets of dense, fog-enshrouded virgin forests and European castles. The large cast of supporting characters are dressed in appropriate period attire, and the princess and her mother are fairy-tale-beautiful in their regal attire and long, flowing hair. The princess's fixed expression of seductive, fiery intensity seems to communicate so much thought and emotion boiling beneath the surface. The genius of using a static face with an enigmatic expression like hers is that the viewer unconsciously projects the appropriate emotion into her expression at every moment.
The ravishing soundtrack by Svatopluk Havelka heightens the atmosphere of the ball with authentic period dance music, and elsewhere creates a an appropriately mysterious mood with rich harmonies of a pleasingly Czech inflection reminiscent of Janacek's symphonic poems. Coincidentally, Havelka's life overlapped almost exactly with Kawamoto's. He was born in 1925 and died last year.
The story is a very peculiar one. It can be a little hard to follow because of its unexpected and sometimes shocking twists on the old fairy tales. It's a sexually charged, Freudian retelling of these old fairy tales that does away with the fairies and magic. The sleeping beauty thus is not literally a beauty who is put to sleep by magic, but a nickname given the princess by one of her disappointed suitors who could not get her to open her eyes while they were talking. Another crowns her briar rose as a pun on her prickly personality. The viewer approaches this film expecting a traditional fairy tale, and the story playfully upends those expectations.
When the mysterious stranger appears ominously and casts a shadow over the celebrations of the birth of the princess, the narrator relates that the fairy tale all know was actually a concoction devised to parlay the curiosity of the guests in attendance. The truth lies behind the fairy tales, and it's more sordid and earthy and sexual.
The peculiarities of this story can be attributed to Kyoko Kishida's vision. The story was devised and narrated by Kishida, a talented actress with many facets. Best known in the west perhaps for her role as the woman in the dunes in Teshigahara's 1964 film adaptation, in anime she is synonymous with the voice of Moomin. Since the 1960s she was a prolific voice actress and actress in movies and avant-garde plays, including appearing in many of Tadanari Okamoto's films.
Fairy tales have clear beginnings, middles and ends, but the structure of this strange fairy tale is amorphous and open-ended. There's no catharsis or clear happy ending. Just the opposite, the story is one of disappointed desire and resignation. There are no fairy tale endings, but if you want to believe I lived happily ever after, feel free to do so, the princess ironically says at the end.
This fairy tale is all grown up. Gone is the childlike wonder, replaced with highly charged story of sexual awakening. Objects like the spindle have a clearly phallic connotation. Instead of falling asleep when she touches the spindle, it has the tragic consequence of leading to her discovery of her mother's youthful lover. The curse is not that she falls into a magical sleep, but that she discovers lust and is forever doomed to be a sexual creature with desires that can never be fulfilled. It's a daring subject to tackle with puppets, and the taboo-busting nude puppet love scene must have taken some fortitude to film. It makes for uncomfortable and kind of embarrassing viewing, but it makes it clear that this is a fairy tale for adults.
Had the sex scene been omitted, it might have been easy for the seeming vast majority of the population out there to have their usual knee-jerk reaction of dismissing anything animated as being for kids. Oh look at the cute puppets. It's a pretty fairy tale. You can make a film with the most nuanced characterization and complexly layered theme, but most people will still seem blind to it. As soon as it's animated, it's like people suddenly abandon their critical faculty. Their eyes glaze over and their brain shuts off. The inclusion of the sexual scene can serve to snap those people awake. It says, "HEY, I'm talking to you."
Though the story could be criticized for being muddled and affected and striving a little too much for edgy, postmodern airs, it does cleverly subvert the stereotype of puppets as being the medium for playing out fairy tales. It's a film of sumptuous beauty as well as theatrical flair and subtle wit. Only in Kawamoto's hands would the princess have blossomed into such a psychologically layered character.
Thank you so much for writing this. I haven’t yet seen any of Kawamoto’s short films, which I should really rectify; only “Winter Days” and “The Book of a Dead Person". The latter I saw at Ottawa with its original soundtrack and thought it to be quite good (perhaps I enjoyed it all the more because I had such a negative opinion of the other things I watched at Ottawa that year). It did seem sort of incomprehensible and obscure, but also well-made and richly peaceful. Like a fresh wind blowing through the tall grass.
Great post. Even though you could write about him endless pages. A pity that he is not that much known to anime afficionados.
He and Kon were pillars of their respective generations
The DVD with his short films (it includes English subtitles except the Farce short, plus Briar Rose has both Czech and Japanese audio) is worth buying and watching.
I just discovered an error in my post, so I want to fix it publicly here (though I’ve edited the post accordingly) - Rennyo and His Mother was an animated film, not a puppet film. I found a page with a poster from the original release that clearly indicates this, along with a list of staff including ‘animators’. It includes a soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu(!), like his previous film House of Flames. Why hasn’t this been released on DVD yet??
“Hisakata no Amefutakami” is a documentary that provides some historical context for “Book of the Dead". It appears as an on Geneon’s DVD of Book of the Dead. Along with the bizarre dubbing of the narrator on KimStim’s release of Book of the Dead, it is also a mystery to me that they did not include this short documentary as an extra. You can see an exerpt from the doc on Geneon’s old website:
Another thing I wanted to mention - you mention in your review of Briar Rose that it is unfortunate that Trnka did not live to see “what remarkable work he inspired on the other side of the world". While it is true that he did not live to see Kawamoto’s greatest films, he did in fact get a taste of what was to come. Before completing Hana-Ori, Kawamoto showed it to Trnka. Apparently Trnka was quite critical of the film and gave Kawamoto detailed instructions on how to improve the character movements and to vary the camera placement and camera movement. In an interview, Kawamoto spoke of how grateful he was to Trnka for the critique of Hana-Ori.