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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.
Mind Game (2004) may be considered Masaaki Yuasa's debut as a feature film director, but in fact he had directed various short featurettes prior to that. Indeed, his first director credit came 12 years earlier in 1992 with a short film in an obscure little 6-volume direct-to-video series called Anime Rakugokan. Rakugo is a traditional Japanese live storytelling/comedy entertainment. Each volume in this series features a performance by a famous rakugo practitioner set to animation.
Back then Yuasa was at a studio called Ajia-do. Yuasa had joined the studio because it was run by two of his idols in animation - Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi, who had been the figures behind some of the series that most influenced Yuasa over the years, namely the 1970s shows produced by Tokyo Movie with animation from A Production like Dokonjo Gaeru and Tensai Bakabon.
Yuasa directed the third volume of Anime Rakugokan in a style that was an intentional homage to the style of the masters who had influenced him. As a result, the film isn't immediately recognizable as Yuasa. It feels more A Pro than anything else he's since done. But the genius of the character design and animation are something only Yuasa could have created.
The video is currently up on Youtube. (search for かぼちゃ屋) Watch it while you can. Unfortunately it doesn't have subs so you won't be able to get the humor if you don't understand Japanese, but the fact is that every second of this film is a delight to watch just for the character animation, so it's well worth watching anyway.
I'd personally been looking for this film for years, and I just got the chance to see it today for the first time, and I was excited to discover how great a film it is. I've never seen this kind of character animation from Yuasa, but it's amazing. The character designs are great, and the way they're animated is constantly interesting. There isn't a single shot that I don't love in this film.
The character drawings in particular are really out there, but they work. The floating eyebrows on the squash seller are really something. I adore the way the hands are drawn with these big blocky forms. The hands are very emotive in this film. The faces are so supple and squishy. There's some new fun expression in almost every shot. There's even a tinge of caricature in the old man who hires the squash seller that reminds me of the great Japanese caricaturist Shoji Yamafuji. And the animation has a sense of split-second timing that's unique to Yuasa. The guy with the five o'clock shadow the squash seller pisses off in the street is the most obvious throwback to the A Pro style. He looks like he could have come straight out of Dokonjo Gaeru.
I even love the very flat, simple layouts of the film. The characters are right up there in your face, filling the screen in every shot. There's no pretense of realism or perspective or other mimetic fakery. It's a proudly cartoony film. At the same time, despite the simple layouts, more effort is put into the animation than many shows nowadays that consist mostly of close-ups of characters. Every character drawing is full of life and vitality. No two drawings of the characters are the same.
What's best about it is that its 'cartooniness' has nothing to do with western cartoons, which I have a hard time appreciating. It's a cartoon aesthetic that was essentially invented by the Japanese TV animators who forged their own approach to the medium in the 1960s and 1970s. It's inspired by the work of the A Pro animators, which itself was something truly new and unlike anything ever done before, but completely re-invented through Yuasa's pen.
The impressive thing about Yuasa is that even obscure shorts like Slime Adventures and the Nanchatte Vampiyan pilot that for years remained unseen and unobtainable turned out, when I finally saw them, to be great little films exploding with just the sort of incredible animation and visual creativity you'd expect of Yuasa. The same applies to The Squash Seller, in its own unique way.
Yuasa himself has said in an interview that he's embarrased about the film and wishes people wouldn't watch it, but that's just typical Yuasa humbleness. This is an awesome little gem that looks and moves like no other anime out there. The character style is obviously inspired by the classic A Pro shows, but Yuasa creates a look and feel that is uniquely his own. He learns from and surpasses the masters. I honestly wish he would do more stuff like this. We need an A Pro-style long-running slapstick comedy TV series directed by Masaaki Yuasa in the spirit of Tensai Bakabon or Dokonjo Gaeru.
This lost gem proves once again what a unique and multifaceted talent Masaaki Yuasa is. Thanks to Charles Brubaker for pointing this video out to me.
One of the other films in the series is also up on Youtube, but the contrast is instructive. It's the first volume, directed by Osamu Kobayashi. Kobayashi's character designs are appealingly oddball in a Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi-kind of way, but the animation is totally uninteresting compared with the electric and dynamic character animation of Yuasa's outing.
The other one I'm curious to see is the second episode, because it's animated by Masaya Fujimori, who is perhaps the best animator to emerge from Ajia-Do in the 1990s after Masaaki Yuasa. The second episode also features nicely stylized designs by Tsutomu Shibayama.
Bask in the delightful character drawings of Masaaki Yuasa's The Squash Seller:
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 the nice little film Lizard Planet created in 2009 by Tomoyoshi Joko. Tomoyoshi Joko has uploaded Lizard Planet and a number of his other films to his Youtube account. Watch it here.
I like the film for any number of reasons: the rich coloring, the bizarre but playful imagery of lizards and octopuses and other stuff floating around in space, the densely layered texture of the visuals, and the ethereal story. It's both beautiful visually and fun to watch, warm and playful, yet it also has a sting in its tail. At the end, the lizard planets plunge into the sun in a cataclysmic orgy of self-destruction. It's a bizarre and creative allegory about how the planets like ours are actually living organisms and we need to take care of them because they can easily be killed.
It's great to see new creators popping up like this creating independent films with an artistic but approachable style. Alongside creators like Mizue Mirai and the animators of Robot's Cage studio, there's a whole generation of indie animators creating accessible and genuinely original and creative new animation in Japan today. They show by their example that it's possible to go it alone the shadow of the industry and create more free and individualistic work. There are a number of talented animators working in the industry who I wish would follow this example and go indie so that they can create films entirely in their own style and not be forced to suppress their irrepressible personalities.
Tomoyoshi Joko was born in 1984 and graduated from Tokyo Polytecnic University's Faculty of Arts in 2007. He then entered graduate school and finished his graduate studies in March 2009. While there, he studied under legendary indie animator Taku Furukawa.
He made four other films before Lizard Planet, which was his graduate school project. In 2006 he made two brief films: Afro, about a guy who suddenly grows an afro and flies off into the sky, and God's Gift, which shows how god took a piss one day and humanity sprung from the ground where his holy water landed. The second film shows considerable improvement over the first.
He made a longer film in 2007, the nearly 7-minute Mr. Cloud and Mr. Rain. This is quite a nice film, beautifully animated and genuinely interesting to watch at every moment as you follow the two curious characters and their interaction. It has a creative concept, thematic unity and strong animation. It took him a year to make and some 5000 drawings. He depicts the first meeting of Mr. Cloud and Mr. Rain. Mr. Cloud is overbearing and beats up Mr. Rain, but in the end when Mr. Rain falls to the ground, Mr. Cloud disappears too. Afterwards we realize that the two are inextricably intertwined. Again, I love the rich colors and how well he brings the characters alive, so that we understand what the two characters are feeling and thinking at every moment despite them not having any features other than a weird cyclops eye.
Next he made Buildings in 2008 as his graduation film. Again he chooses some interesting objects to bring alive - after clouds and water, this time buildings. It's hard to appreciate the film from the linked video, which is footage of the film being played to a live musical score, but it's clear that he gives each building a unique design and personality. The film tells the story of a single building that arrogantly towers above the rest but in the end saves the other buildings from a flood and reconciles with everyone by using his height to bring everyone together rather than towering above them. His films typically have rich animation and creative design work coupled with an incisive moral message or theme, be it about nurturing the living being that is our planet, about the interaction between clouds and water, or about getting along with others in society.
In April of this year, Tomoyoshi Joko formed the group Decovocal together with his partner Hiroco Ichinose (Decovocal web site, where you can see a photo of the adorable couple here). The two of them went to the same school and have been working together since Tomoyoshi Joko's very first film, Afro. As they mention on their site, the name Decovocal was devised by Taku Furukawa. It combines a number of ideas: It's a neologism from the word dekoboko 凸凹, which means uneven. The characters suggest a male-female duo. "Deco" plays on Art Deco. It evokes the notion of singing one's personality in animation with a loud, colorful voice.
Decovocal reminds me of another couple team making whimsical handmade animation - Uruma Delvi. Decovocal is close in spirit to the animators of Robot's Cage studio, creating art animation that's accessible and entertaining, soft and warm, creative visually and full of lush character animation. Decovocal has been very active doing commercial work, as witness the long list of commissions they've already accrued in their first year on their home page. These include a music video for Keiichi Suzuki and two episodes of the French Rita et Machin for NHK.
Hiroco Ichinose was born in 1985 and studied with Tomoyoshi Joko at the Tokyo Polytecnic. She has also been making short films since she started studying. First came A Sad Breakfast (2006), Ushinichi (2007) and Ha P (2008). All three won the best selection on NHK's Digital Stadium - no mean feat. Her latest films since graduating are YOKOHA-MAMAN (2009) and TWO TEA TWO (2010).
A Sad Breakfast tells the story of a dog eating breakfast while crying about a dead bird. Ha P seems to be about a couple who appear happy but in fact are in the grips of despair about not being able to have a child. They are drawn on different animation layers, so despite their closeness, an insurmountable distance separates them. Ushinichi is a bizarre slice-of-life about a group of characters filled with sardonic touches.
All of her films stand at the crossroads between happiness and grief, seeming to tell comical stories but actually being about pain and suffering. Stylistically, the influence of Taku Furukawa is much more obvious in Hiroco Ichinose's work than it is in Tomoyoshi Joko's work. She draws the same kind of spare stick figures with no backgrounds and little movement. Even the tone and storytelling style is similar. Her work also strikes me as having a sense of the surreal slightly reminiscent of Atsushi Wada's work.
What little is shown of her latest film TEA TWO TEA in her showreel (linked below) is quite impressive and shows a new level of stylistic achievement. You can see considerable improvement in each of these still young animator's successive films. Having accrued some experience now, you can see that they're both getting better technically as well as becoming more creatively flexible. Alone they make great films, but they also make a great team. They have a strong synergy. I look forward to seeing what Decovocal does in the future.
I just discovered Takuya Inaba's Minna no Uta video from this summer for actress Juri Ueno's song Egao no Hana (The Smile Flower).
It's a delightful piece of animation, befitting an artist working at Robot, the studio that gave us Kato Kunio's Oscar-winning House of Small Cubes. They're one of the coolest new studios on the scene in Japan, doggedly going their own way in the vast shadow of the industry, making colorful, lovingly animated, creative little confections. Their films have a sense of wonder and whimsical fancy that sets them apart from every other studio in Japan.
I love this film's unique style. And it's sumptuously animated, unlike many Minna no Uta animated videos, which often aren't satisfying as animation. The characters are great - the designs are cute and appealing, and they're animated with great care. The domino sequence at the beginning is amusing and well done. The backgrounds are beautiful - early on the street looks like a child's drawing, and later on the forest is painted in bright, colorful strokes.
Then there are the little touches here and there that are unexpected and fun like the faucet in the sky that fills the ocean with water, and those little round guys walking on the fence having their own mini parade. There are strangle little characters doing things everywhere you look. And I just love the television cat with the chicken family inside.
I like the story of the film, too. The sun, the moon and a cloud come alive to help take a lost fairy back to her flower house. Behind the colorful fantasy, it's about cheering up a little girl who's feeling down in the dumps and making that 'smile' flower bloom.
Takuya Inaba was born in 1976 and graduated from the Kyoto Seika University Faculty of Design. He has been active as an animator since at least 2001, when he made an independent film called Haru-chan. He was hired by Robot in 2002, presumably on the merit of his film. Since then he's been quite active making short pieces of animation here and there on commission, as well as drawing picture books and other things.
He had already made a Minna no Uta music video in 2006 with Koi Tsubomi, which again has two layers - the song appears to sing of a girl who had to leave her boyfriend for the big city, while this is translated in the visuals into a little girl being seen off at a train station by her polar bear friend. The visuals are soft and mellow and pleasant, but it's not as creative and original as his most recent video.
The next year, in 2007, he directed a music video entitled Song of Sunrise for the band Sukima Switch. It shows a little girl and a hulking robot walking around in a desert landscape. I like the designs here much better, and the story is also quite interesting. It hints at a back story involving the robot either escaping from a robot city or being the only survivor, but doesn't make everything obvious. I like how it leaves it to your imagination to connect the dots.
Just before Egao no Hana, Takuya Inaba completed a 7-minute independent short film entitled Kuro. You can see a few shots from it on his home page. It's in black and white and appears to feature more fun creature animation like what was seen in Egao no Hana. Hopefully it's in the same vein as this film, but even more densely packed with nonsense antics from odd creatures, because this one left me wanting more of that sort of thing - something even crazier and more freewheeling, really letting loose with his unique style.
I also saw the Best of Ottawa 2008 last night. A good selection overall with a variety of styles, striking a balance between festival award winners and films that just deserve to be seen. Here's a brief run-down.
I'd seen Please Say Something, The Black Dog's Progress and The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9 before, but they're each great films in their own way, so it was nice to see them included. The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9 seems quite accomplished for an undergraduate film.
The Bellow's March was the most fascinating film in the selection to me. It features perplexing loops of shifting transformations. I liked that, watching it, you can't really tell how it was made, i.e. is it CGI or real. I haven't looked into how it was made, but I suspect there must be some explanation out there somewhere. I saw mention of 3D printing in the credits, so I suppose this was indeed physical matter?
Chick had a great sense of style, with its black and red scheme and bizarrely designed couple going through a darkly ironic take on perennial courtship rituals. I think it was CGI, but CGI done right, effectively using the silhouette scheme by constantly playing with the forms of the characters.
The Art of Drowning was a brief but effective rendering of a poem about drowning. It had a simple style with black and white, sketchily rendered rotoscoped footage that matched the poem well.
What do you all think the best music video of 2009 was? There are a lot of strong contenders. Even I have a hard time choosing. I'm not sure the video for MGMT's Kids is it, interesting though it is. The animation starts quite a ways in, so I was scratching my head as to why it was included for a while.
Madagascar was apparently a commissioned tourist film, but it floors you with its constantly shifting, rich and sophisticated blend of different styles of imagery illustrating a first-person narrative about a visit to a village in Madagascar. Visually, at the very least, the most impressive film of the selection. A must-see.
I talked about The Face by the duo of Ray and Penny before, but I had no idea Ray (AKA Lei Lei) had done another film since then, so I was happy to discover his latest film here: Magic Cube and Ping-Pong. Though I'm not too sure about the soundtrack, it's otherwise delightful and visually very creative, fulfilling the promise I sensed in The Face.
History of the Meat-Packing District was a nice little 1-minute piece full of crazy indie-style drawings morphing constantly into one another, telling the eponymous history of the meat-packing district, apparently. I didn't quite get how the beavers and chicken-headed hookers fit into the scheme of things, but so much the better. A pleasurably enigmatic minute of crude crazy designs and transformation.
Wasn't too keen on the other films, which where either slight or too bizarre for their own good, though I still thought they were each more interesting than most of this year's Oscar short nominations.
Hrm. Seems I missed BOO 2008.
Look out for Chris Robinson's Japanese Animation: Time Out of Mind later this year. I suspect it will prove to be among the more interesting and readable publications on the subject.