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Six years on since Stormy Night, after many tribulations including the closure of his studio Group Tac, Gisaburo Sugii has returned to the big screen with The Life of Gusko Budori. A gloriously beautiful if opaque and perplexing followup to his earlier masterpiece Night on the Galactic Railroad, the film is a return to form for the veteran director and poetic visionary. The vistas of Kenji Miyazawa's imaginary land of Iihatov allow Sugii to soar to his greatest heights of imagination once again after so many intervening decades in which he made many disappointing directing choices to fans of his more challenging work.
Iihatov is that place where Japan of the early 20th century meets the spiritual but scientific mind of Kenji Miyazawa: Inhospitable, primordial and supernatural, where farmers pit futuristic technology against inclement weather and exploding volcanoes while electrical poles walk when you're not looking and acorns commune in night court in the forest. It's a world where rational and mythical, west and the east, past and future, do not contend but co-exist in a glorious chaotic meeting of nature and man.
While many of Kenji's other stories read like fables, Gusko is one of his more realistic and autobiographical stories, directly addressing his own trials and tribulations as a farmer and student of science attempting to improve the lot of his fellows in Iwate Prefecture, the notoriously inclement and rugged rural northeastern fringe of Japan.
The story tells of Gusko Budori, a boy raised on a small farm in the mountains with his mother, father and little sister Nelly. When a cold snap and the resultant famine (possibly based on real events that occurred in Iwate around 1905) rends apart the family, Gusko is forced to strike out on his own. He wanders into town and finds a life purpose in the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau, the scientific body devoted to engineering the environment to benefit man.
This only begins to describe Sugii's film version of the story, however, because the director has taken considerable liberties with the material. He has incorporated elements from an earlier version of the story as well as from other stories by Kenji Miyazawa to create a vastly different impression. Notably, the fiery cat character who appears at pivotal moments to bring Gusco into the fantasy world of Iihatov populated by bizarre creatures appears to be the World Judge of the early version, although he also seems to be a stand-in for the Wildcat judge of The Wildcat and the Acorns. The interludes with him lend the film a whole new level of meaning.
He uses Hiroshi Masumura's cat characters again, but doesn't stop at that. I could be mistaken, but it appears that he is using the same exact character designs from Night, transposed onto the characters of this story. Giovanni is Gusko; the bread seller is the binocular vendor; the printer boss is the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau boss; the same blind man appears; the family drowned in the Titanic show up in the elevator; etc. It's beyond coincidence. Sugii isn't merely lazily using cats again, as I initially thought. He's using the designs as a character system a la Tezuka. This raises a whole slew of implications about how to interpret the film.
Not only this, other elements from Night recur, and sometimes even scenes seem to harken back to Night. The way Gusko runs through the night into town and into the classroom at the beginning echoes the beginning of Night. Triangles of light flash past in the fantasy world the way they did on the night train. Moths congregate into a column like the cranes in Night. Late in the film Gusco even recites wrenching, emotional vows that echo Giovanni's closing monologue to Night. The shot of Gusco dozing off in the train compartment looks lifted almost verbatim from Night, down to the shape of the chairs and the grain of the wood.
Most significantly, Sugii has chosen to interweave extended fantasy interludes into the fabric of the otherwise mundane occurrences depicted in the novel. Some of these are adapted from events in the novel, while others are invented or adapted from other stories. For example, the silkworm sequence takes place in the real world in the novel, but Sugii has interpreted it to be part of Gusko's ongoing hallucination/fever dream; and the courtroom sequence is from The Acorns and the Wildcat. The effect of these sequences is to add a narrative element to the story whereby the supernatural side of Iihatov - a colorful fantasy world inhabited by strange creatures and magical implements - seems to chase and haunt Gusko, appearing at key moments in his life like a fever dream, goading him onwards in his journey.
These fantastical sequences add depth to Budori's journey, but also seem to turn the film into something more than a mere adaptation. The film seems to render homage to the whole of Kenji's oeuvre by presenting us a dreamscape in which all of his imaginings coalesce, as if we were witnessing Kenji himself dream up the creatures that he would bring to life in his writings.
This is not the first animated adaptation of The Life of Budori Gusko. The late, great Ryutaro Nakamura adapted the story into a film in 1994. It was commissioned by Iwate Prefecture to mark the 60th anniversary of Kenji Miyazawa's death. It's an unjustly neglected film, one of Nakamura's best works. Despite having far inferior production values, and being somewhat rough around the edges in terms of the storytelling, I actually find it to be the better film.
Nakamura's version is essentially a faithful adaptation of the story. For example, in Sugii's version the silkworm sequence is rendered as part of the fever dream, but in Nakamura's version it is an actual occurrence. In Sugii's version, Budori never re-discovers his sister, whereas in Nakamura's version he finds her again in the city. ENDING SPOILER: In both versions, Gusko sacrifices himself to blow up the volcano, but in Nakamura's version this is done as part of a project with the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau, whereas Sugii turns it into a solo mystical event in which he is transported there by the godlike World Judge.
Aside from adaptation differences, the films are also very different in terms of style. Most obviously, Nakamura uses people. The real world of Iihatov is depicted in the style of 1920s Japan in Nakamura's version, rather than the Jules Verne-esque vision of the future replete with steampunk flying machines of Sugii's film. Nakamura's film has flatter and leaner visuals compared with the lush, digitally-enhanced visuals of Sugii's version.
Not knowing where the story ends and Sugii's interpolations begin renders his version a bit problematic in terms of telling Kenji's story. It's a beautiful hazy cloud rather than the lean narrative machine of Nakamura. His flourishes are beautiful and could be said to add a poetic dimension to the story, but on the other hand could be said to needlessly detract from the narrative, which is already compelling in its own right.
I've long been a champion of Nakamura's film. I wrote a review many years ago, even before beginning this blog. I hope that the appearance of this new version will not deter people from seeing Nakamura's version, because they are very different beasts, and to be honest, if I had to recommend one, I would say go with Nakamura's version, because it is an eminently beautiful and moving film that tells the story both artfully and faithfully. Stylistically, Sugii's version is very close to Night. It seems a little redundant to see another film made in the same mold. When I heard about the project, I was doubly dismayed: Why step on Nakamura's toes, and why use the same designs? Even after seeing and appreciating what Sugii has done, and remaining a huge Sugii fan, I am still dismayed by those two points.
That said, this new Gusko is an eminently beautiful film, and represents the side of Sugii I most appreciate: oddball poet of animation. I am delighted to have it to savor, and I hope we can see more from Sugii, even though under the circumstances the chances of that seem slimmer than ever. He's a precious talent. There's no other voice like his.
Like Night, the heart of the film is its beautiful, poetic images rather than in its story. In this telling, the sequence of powerful images like the World Judge on his bench judging Gusco, or the column of moths, or the monsters shuffling about in the fantasy sequences, leave a more powerful impression than the story or characters, and are all the more satisfying for not having an obvious explanation. Like the machine that churns behind the World Judge, some mysterious logic or impulse seems to drive the seeming illogic and chaos of the fantasy world, and it remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Sugii is in his element creating images that speak to the subconscious, with no immediate obvious interpretation, and yet don't come across as grandstanding or facile artsiness.
The production quality of the film is overall very nice. Sanrio veteran art director Yukio Abe returns after his stint on Stormy Night, and produces spectacular imagery of staggering lushness and density, aided in the task by a bevy of talented artists including one Nizo Yamamoto. The intricate paintings of the lush forest greenery, the byzantine streets of Ihatov city, glowing San Mutri city at night, and the craggy surface of the volcanoes are remarkable to behold.
The music by bandoneon player Ryota Komatsu is elegant, breezy, enrapturing - as unique and perfect an accompaniment as Haruomi Hosono's soundtrack to Night. Marisuke Eguchi again supervises Hiroshi Masumura's cat characters, while Tsuneo Maeda again presumably handles the digital tinkering, and Night art director and Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regular Mihoko Magoori handles the color design. The film'ss glowing, iridescent color scheme makes the images really pop. Shuichi Hirata (Noiseman, Metropolis) designed the wonderful flying machines as well as handling the art of the fantasy world scenes.
The animation is entirely satisfactory and at no point does it feel like it is lacking, despite the film having a very different animation ethos from any other animation out there. Sugii creates a meditative space that allows these characters to feel and breathe and seem incredibly alive without requiring them to engage in acting calisthenics. Yoshiyuki Hane and Shinichi Tsuji head the animators again, as in Stormy Night.
The film had a traumatic birth and I'm grateful that we have it. Initially announced in 2008, I was afraid it would not see the light of day after Tac went belly up in 2010. However, the Bunkacho stepped in to provide funding on the condition of a 2012 deadline and international collaboration. This is presumably the reason why Tezuka Productions was chosen, and most of the animation was produced by Tezuka's Chinese partners in Beijing, Shanghai and Wuxi. drop studio is also present.
I was a bit baffled by the story until, when the credits where rolling, it occurred to me that the story makes much more sense if you see what happens at the beginning as metaphorical for Budori’s parents and sister dying of the famine.
Seeing the film this way, the parents sacrificed themselves, leaving the last bit of food to their children and went to die in the woods, and Budori’s sister is not abducted but dies and is taken to the afterlife by the World Judge.
Then it starts to make sense that Budori doesn’t wait for his family at their home but instead leaves his hometown and never tries to look or inquire about his family. The only times when he looks for his sisters are in his dreams, where he passes over to the afterlife and looks for his sister there (and gets judged for the transgression later by the World Judge).
The ending also makes more sense this way: Budori makes a pact with the World Judge (or Death) to trade his life for letting the volcano erupt.
The whole fantastical part can be seen as purely metaphorical: Burdori saw his sister die and blows himself up at the volcano in the end, it’s only told this way to make it accessible to children.
I haven’t actually read Kenji’s novel and don’t know if it allows for the same interpretation or if it’s due to the changes Sugii made to the story. You seem to have read the novel, so I’d be interested to hear what you think about this interpretation.
Gisaburo Sugii actually made plans to create this sequel to Night on the Galactic Railroad not long after the first was released. Because of financial issues it was shelved and only restarted recently. It’s not so much that Sugii started a new project, stepped on Nakamura’s toes and revived the 20 year old characters, but he instead completed the project he started long before Nakamura’s film came out and which he had wanted to complete for a long time.
(I hope I remember that right from the documentary “Animation Maestro Gisaburo” that screened shortly after Gusko Budori no Denki, covering mostly Sugii’s start in the industry up to Night on the Galactic Railroad and then skips ahead to The Life of Gusko Budori at the end.)
It certainly looks beautiful.
I haven’t read any of the original source material, but I imagine I’d enjoy Miyazawa’s writing much the same as I did Tove Jansson’s, in her Moomin books. She also had a strong sense of lyricism that blended whimsy, thoughtfulness, and melancholy in a way that included kids rather than pander to them. And a love of nature imagery. I’d have hoped that’s why the concept worked so well when adapted in Japan, and not just because of the cute characters.
Either way, I enjoyed Night on the Galactic Railroad; and I still have not yet seen Stormy Night, so that’s two movies to check out!
Thanks for the clarification. That answers my nagging question about why he chose to adapt this movie after Nakamura had already made an adaptation.
As for your interpretation, I think you’re right. It’s been a long time since I read the original story, but in Nakamura’s version (which I presume to be based more closely on the original story), Kenji’s sister is actually abducted and rediscovered later working as a nurse in the city. The abduction scene is also depicted in a somewhat supernatural way, with the kidnapper literally flying off into the wind with his sister, which doesn’t jibe as well with her being re-discovered later on still alive.
As for the parents, they disappear in the same way in Nakamura’s version: The father says he’s going to the forest to play, and the mother simply leaves, telling the children to stay in the house.
I think Sugii made the wise decision to interpret a large part of the occurrences around the time of the famine as metaphorical. In the case of the sister’s abduction, it makes more sense for her to have died under the circumstances than for someone to come abduct her but leave Gusko. I was a bit baffled at first why Gusko seemed to make no effort to seek her out after leaving for the city, as that was a key part of his motivation in Nakamura’s version. When I arrived at the scene where he sees a placard of her on the door to the circus, and seems nonplussed, I realized that her abduction by the World Judge had been a metaphorical one to the land of death.
I suspect that Sugii made this change to make the story reflect Kenji Miyazawa’s own spiritual search for his own deceased sister. The use of the same character designs as Night then highlights how both stories are merely differently worded parables in which Kenji carries out his own spiritual search for his dead sister.
I’ve read Kenji Miyazawa in the original and all of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books in translation. They’re very different writers, but you’re right. I think that wistful melancholy lyricism is what made the Moomins catch on in Japan, although I think Tove Jansson’s beautifully illustrated but simply designed creatures didn’t hurt.
Neither this movie nor Stormy Night are up to the level of Night, but both are exceedingly beautiful, eccentric, dark and pensive children’s films for adults of a kind only Gisaburo Sugii could have made.
Ben, it’s interesting that you should reference Miyazawa’s search for his sister. The nonsensical dialogue in the train sequence that the “ghosts” speak is all drawn from Aomori Elegy, Miyazawa’s poem about the death of his sister. I suppose I hadn’t actually considered this as a deliberate choice - I rather thought of it as “reference porn", as with all the other callbacks to Night in particular (I’m afraid I’m not literate in Miyazawa by any means; I just looked up things that made no sense to me…)
I rather felt that the supernatural elements, amongst other things, undermined the story. The point of Ame ni mo Makezu (the poem read at the beginning and towards the end of the film), and the original Budori story, is that one should aspire to a life of asceticism and hard, self-sacrificing work. The intrusion of the supernatural feels as though it takes away Budori’s agency - it doesn’t help that his voice acting is so passive, and most of his “work” is conveyed through montage sequences, but he comes across as a total milquetoast.
I suspect I’d have fewer problems with the supernatural intrusions if it weren’t for that last scene in the court (thank you for pointing out the reference - I knew it had to have something to do with another Miyazawa story as it’s so pointless otherwise IMO). The fantasy sequences allow for the film’s more interesting visuals, but that sequence in particular feels totally superfluous; lots of repetitive dialogue ("Be quiet!” “Bring back Neri!” over and over again) and just hammering home the message over and over again that she’s died.
Perhaps I’m too prosaic a viewer, but I felt the supernatural additions weakened the film’s narrative and basically made it rather boring, a didactic story with all the didacticism taken out and not much else left. I admired the film’s technical merits and Sugii’s fearlessly deliberate pacing, but I just can’t rate it very highly.
The reasons for all the callbacks to Night still evade me and are actually one of my main beefs with the film. I think it undermines the film’s integrity to build it from elements pilfered from another film.
I also feel that this approach to pacing worked well for Night on the Galactic Railroad, but here it feels more self-indulgent than effective at creating atmosphere. The court scene near the end, though beautiful, I also felt to be incomprehensible and self-indulgent. The use of dialogue from a completely different story in a different context only confused me, not to mention being pointlessly repetitive. Everything seems to have its parallel in Night, so Ame ni mo Makezu seemed to be simply inserted out of necessity as his most famous poem and to parallel the insertion of Spring & Chaos in Night on the Galactic Railroad, though I suppose it is a poetic analogue to the stoic message of selfless sacrifice and perseverance in Budori.
There were beautiful images in Night on the Galactic railroad that don’t have an obvious meaning, like the clock in the corn field, but still feel satisfying as visual poetry, so it doesn’t feel like they need to be explained away. They work as visual storytelling.
I see your point about the supernatural elements undermining Budori’s agency. The self-sacrifice at the end hardly seems his decision in this version. Budori plays a more ‘active’ role in his fate in the Ryutaro Nakamura version and seems a more compelling character overall compared to the sleepwalker in this film.