Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

11:59:07 pm , 2446 words, 13784 views     Categories: Animation

The Restaurant of Many Orders and Kenji Miyazawa anime

Many of the best directors working in animation in Japan have adapted early 20th century poet Kenji Miyazawa's timeless short stories. The last film made by Japan's pre-eminent indie animator of the 70s and 80s, Tadanari Okamoto, was an adaptation of Kenji's The Restaurant of Many Orders. Okamoto died in 1990 midway through production, and the film was brought to completion the next year by his longtime friend and fellow indie animator Kihachiro Kawamoto. Yesterday I finally had the chance to see this film about which I'd wondered for many years, as it was released on the recent Tadanari Okamoto DVD box set. I was already familiar with most of Okamoto's main mid-period films, but thanks to this set I have the full picture of Okamoto - and it only makes me admire the man more. His early films show a creator with a fully developed sensibility right off the bat, while his last film makes me realize how tremendous a loss it was to lose Okamoto so early, as he was still growing as an artist, and this film shows him creating something different from everything that had come before in tone and style. This film was also intended as a study for his first full-length feature. Judging by the results, Hotarumomi - we have only the title of the would-be feature - would have been a monument to indie animated filmmaking. As it stands, The Restaurant of Many Orders is a great little film and a worthy final word from a great artist.

My first instinctive impression was: This is a gorgeous film to look at. The rich images are simply beautiful, and make the short run time fly by. There is no dialogue, which further focuses your attention on the unified beauty of the images, and the mysterious atmosphere created by the piece. The fact that the film has no dialogue is already a big departure for Okamoto. His films usually rely heavily on either lyrics, narration or dialogue. The film is remarkably engaging despite this, which is a triumph of directing. Even those beautifully dense visuals feel quite un-Okamoto and new even for an artist as renowned for his technical versatility as Okamoto was.

The film's defining trait is that it looks like a moving engraving. There is no visual disconnect between the characters and the background - they both seem carved of the same plate. This kind of visual unification is something Okamoto has tackled in the past - notably in The Soba Flower of Oni Mountain, in which he devised a special technique to give both the characters and the background the same brush ink look. Once again, Okamoto devised a specific technique to achieve the unified look of The Restaurant of Many Orders. He drew the keys onto normal animation paper, but he photocopied the sheets onto cells, and painted over the cells - on both sides - with a type of watercolor paint referred to as acrylic gouache. Unlike normal watercolor, where the layers underneath remain visible, gouache covers up the layers underneath. This is the technique that allowed him to turn a technical impossibility - animating an engraving - into a satisfying and convincing visual equivalent. He piles layer upon layer of the paint to achieve the lush, soft, dense texture that fills every nook and cranny of the screen. He also uses a multiplane camera to create a truly living and breathing image with great feeling of depth. That is one of the things I most admire about Okamoto: his knack for coming up with ingenious new technical approaches to achieve a new style of movement or to enrich the visuals.

The opening pan shot of the jeep driving across the countryside seems like perhaps the most successful and impressive expression of the particular visual concept devised for this short. The screen feels alive and rich and deep here like virtually no other indie Japanese animation I've ever seen, with its delicate gradations of light and shadow and dense but shadowy underbrush of leaves and branches flying past the jeep at different speeds on the different levels of the multiplane. The scenes immediately afterward in the forest are also gorgeously beautiful, with the many layers of subtly swaying trees and the tastefully subdued color tone creating a magical atmosphere of a living and breathing forest. There are unfortunately not very many shots later on that attempt anything so complicated, although we have to remember that this film was not completed by Okamoto, so there are undoubtedly many aspects that are not as they would have been had he lived to finish the film.

But you don't have to know any of that to appreciate The Restaurant of Many Orders. This is quite simply a film that's a pleasure to immerse yourself in. That's the most basic sign of a great animated short - that you feel good watching it. Every moment is beautiful to look at and genuinely interesting, and you're always wondering what's going to happen next. The film has a beguiling atmosphere and tone unlike anything else out there, and creates a sense of dramatic development, all without dialogue, entirely through the journey. Throughout, you find yourself transported into the mind of the two hunter protagonists. It feels like a first-person experience. You sense their fear and trepidation mounting as they penetrate ever deeper into bowels of the mad, improbable mansion. And this is done entirely through the staging and character animation. The organically expansive mansion itself, rather than the mute and doltish humans, seems like the protagonist of the film. It's a wonderfully Escher-esque fun-house that seems infinite in the variety of its waiting rooms, dining rooms, alcoves, hallways, antechambers, postchambers, etc. The film is a great achievement as animation because it takes a rudimentary story and brings it alive entirely through the interaction of the two characters with this very creatively depicted house.

There have been a number of other adaptations of Kenji Miyazawa into animation, and the amazing thing is that so many of them are so incredibly good. I can't think of an author who has been better served by anime than Kenji Miyazawa. His stories are amazing creations in themselves, and these attract the directors who know greatness. Something about Miyazawa's writing continues to speak to readers young and old today like that of few other authors. I adore his writing, personally - his prose is among the most well crafted and delectable I've ever read in any language, with an idiosyncratic diction, naive imagination and peculiar stories that are unlike anything out there - although it's beyond the scope of a mere post to get to the heart of what makes his stories speak so powerfully to people of all ages and generations.

All I know is that, by some strange turn of events, many of my favorite anime films of the 80s are Kenji anime. Not surprisingly, all of the best Kenji anime were made by Japanese studios known for their more hand-crafted, artist-centric philosophy. First came Oh Production, who released Gauche the Cellist in 1982 after 5 years of work. (They later made a nice OVA series called Little Twins.) Next came Group Tac, known for the long-running animation showcase Tales of Old Japan, with Night on the Galactic Railroad in 1985. Madhouse released the two OVAs The Acorns and the Wildcat and Matasaburo the Wind Imp in 1988. Finally came Animaru-ya with The Biography of Gusko Budori. Animaru-ya and Group Tac both released a film to commemorate the centenary of Kenji's birth in 1996: Group Tac released the imaginary biopic Kenji's Spring, and Animaru-ya released an omnibus of three stories enetitled Kenji's Trunk.

The two best Kenji anime are undoubtedly Isao Takahata's Gauche the Cellist and Gisaburo Sugii's Night on the Galactic Railroad. Two more different films you couldn't find, but both are works of unsurpassed perfection as animated films. It's striking how two films could so perfectly distill the essence of an author, but both go about doing so in such diametrically opposed ways. Something about Kenji's work seems to bring out the best in animators. There are certainly some mediocre animated adaptations that were churned out to make money, but in an unusual twist, the well-crafted adaptations far outnumber the bad.

Takahata's film translates Kenji's imaginary land of Iihatov using washes of watercolor art that depict a natural world similar to ours, but more evocative and soft, nostalgic and comfortingly rural. In this world, it's not a stretch for animals to walk right up to you and speak their mind if push comes to shove. The theater scene, concert and dinner scene at the end ground the events in a pre-war Japan that seems plausibly real, which makes the scenes with the animals all the more mystical. Takahata's strategy is to ground events with enough reality to make them plausible, and then step on the line a little with imaginatively executed flights of fancy only possible in animation. The musical scenes are choreographed very imaginatively, with the musicians being blown about during storm scene, and each animal coming across as very individual in its speech and behavior. The lush and extremely appealing designs and animation are a showcase for animator Toshitsugu Saida, who provided all keys for the film. This is undoubtedly the most laboriously crafted and multilayered of the Kenji films.

Gisaburo Sugii's Night on the Galactic Railroad, in contrast, adopts a storybook tone and visual ethos completely at odds with the previous film. The colorful backgrounds are drawn with bold strokes, like naif art, and the characters are simply drawn anthropomorphic cats, sidestepping the problems inherent in depicting the inhabitants of Iihatov as humans. The animation is completely different as well. The focus here is not on bringing the characters alive through nuanced animation, but on bringing a fantastic world alive through a procession of gorgeous images that are pure and intense. The animation is consequenly very still, but in an intentionally restrained kind of way, combining with the art to create a tone of hushed awe and heightened emotion. The art for the mazelike town is one of the film's most unforgettably beautiful images. This Iihatov may have started out informed of a vaguely rural European sensibility, but it is transformed through the art into a truly unique and compelling world the likes of which we've never seen before. Every image from this film is striking and unforgettable, from the computer CG corn field, to the pillar of cranes, to the Bos skeleton buried in the geological layers of time and space. This film seems like the most imaginative and creative of the Kenji films, and also the most spiritual and profound.

Madhouse's two best directors, Toshio Hirata and Rintaro, left behind their own interpretations of Kenji's stories in two wonderful OVAs released in 1988 that sorely deserve to be rediscovered. These are the definition of buried gems. Hirata's film looks like a living, breathing illustration, with characters by Yasuhiro Nakura of Angel's Egg and Metropolis and art by Yamako Ishikawa of Labyrinth Labyrinthos and The Golden Bird. Rintaro's film is a parade of boldly formalistic shots, and uses flat swaths of pastel color to delineate the characters, who are tastefully rendered by brilliant animator Yoshinori Kanemori. The animation alternates between pure stillness in which the beautiful layouts do their magic, and shots where the characters suddenly come alive in fluid animation. This film is one of Rintaro's greatest triumphs of visuals-centric filmmaking.

Ryutaro Nakamura's The Biography of Budori Gusko is the Kenji film most about the experiences of its characters rather than necessarily about visual storytelling, although the film abounds in beautiful images and scenes where the visuals combine with the music to sublime effect, as in all of the previous films. The world of this film is very close to ours (it's the most autobiographical of Kenji Miyazawa's short stories), but Nakamura strikes a great balance between realism and animated expressiveness with the simple and playfully designed characters of Shinichi Suzuki. As a film it is more rough around the edges and not as perfectly realized as the previous Kenji films, but in its own very different way, it still feels true to Kenji's vision of the world. The fictional autobiography of the protagonist is tremendously affecting perhaps due to the combination of naive character designs with hard-hitting events such as the famine at the beginning of the film. The film has an emotional honesty and rawness that belies the cartoonish facade.

Although I haven't seen it, the very first adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa in animation was a silhouette animation adaptation of Gauche the Cellist made a few years after the end of the war by Yoshitsugu Tanaka of Perrault the Chimney Sweep fame. I also haven't seen the most recent Kenji adaptation, Kenji's Trunk, but the films are hopefully well enough crafted and worth discovering. Ryutaro Nakamura made one of the shorts with the strong team of art director Shinji Kimura and animation director Takahiro Kishida.

A while back it was reported that Gisaburo Sugii was going to be directing a new film adaptation of The Biography of Budori Gusko at Group Tac, although the film was scheduled for completion last spring and I haven't heard any news whatsoever as to what's going on. Hopefully it is still on track. It will be great to see a new Kenji film by the same team that brought us arguably the best Kenji film, although it is somewhat strange and disappointing that they had to choose to re-make a story that has already been made into a fairly good animated film. Still, it will be interesting to see how their interpretations differ.

The range of styles on display in the Kenji films amazes me. Every film takes a different approach in the directing, animation, storytelling style, etc. It would be great to hold a screening of all these films together. These films show what true creativity is about in anime.

A selection of the best Kenji Miyazawa anime:

1949 - Gauche the Cellist (movie, 19 min, Yoshitsugu Tanaka)
1982 - Gauche the Cellist (movie, 63 min, Isao Takahata)
1985 - Night on the Galactic Railroad (movie, 90 min, Gisaburo Sugii)
1988 - The Acorns and the Wildcat (OVA, 30 min, Toshio Hirata)
1988 - Matasaburo the Wind Imp (OVA, 30 min, Rintaro)
1991 - The Restaurant of Many Orders (movie, 20 min, Tadanari Okamoto)
1994 - The Biography of Budori Gusko (movie, 85 min, Ryutaro Nakamura)
1996 - Kenji's Trunk (omnibus movie, 85 mins)
   The Twin Stars (Ryutaro Nakamura)
   The Cat's Office (Hiroshi Fukutomi; cd Toshiyuki Honda)
   The Coat of a Glacier Mouse (Setsuko Shibuichi)
1996 - Kenji's Spring (TV special, 55 min, Shoji Kawamori)



Muffin [Visitor]

Phew, so many great posts these days I can hardly keep up…

I’d love to see Hirata and Rintaro’s films. I love Rintaro but he needs the right sort of circumstances and material to really shine. Teaming him up with a unique animator on an artsy short seems just that.

Ever watched the 2002 Captain Herlock: Endless Odyssey series by Rintaro btw? I got the box set some time ago and enjoyed it a lot(more than I expected, really). The story is solid(Sadayuki Murai) and its got some of Nobuteru Yuuki’s best work as charachter designer in his rock-solid adaptation of Matsumoto’s style.

Notably, it has a lot of episodes storyboarded by Toshio Hirata. Gisaburo Sugii and Yoshiaki Kawajiri also pop up.

Animation is solid throughout with very nice explosions and effects work. Though it’s mostly about the laid-back direction and nice designs and art direction.

08/27/09 @ 11:41
Ben [Member]  

Sorry for the flood of posts… I’m trying to see how long I can keep up this sustained pace.

I agree about Rintaro. I think he’s a filmmaker who shines his best when given free rein, and when bringing to life a truly out-there visual scheme and story. He feels at his most authentic when he’s able to jam as if it were a jazz session. I’m actually about to write a post on my other favorite item from him that I think captures him at his best in this sense.

No, I never did watch Herlock. (I think I was scared away by the spelling of his name.) But you make me curious. I’ll try to give it a shot. I don’t think everything Rintaro’s done works perfectly, but whatever he does, it’s usually informed of his very unique sensibility so it’s worth a look. And it sounds like they rallied all the old-school Madhouse stars for the show, so I’m quite curious.

Toshio Hirata is an interesting director in his basic stance as a creator, but I’ll be the first to admit that not everything he does is particularly interesting. He doesn’t have a directing style that just jumps out at you like some directors. It’s curious, because that’s actually exactly what I like about him, but at the same time sometimes I feel like his work is too lacking in oomph. He’s done a lot of storyboarding work that seems quite ordinary. He’s another creator who seems to shine his best when he’s given more free rein to create animation that works as visual storytelling. He’s a great orchestrator. His laid back style really shines in films like The Golden Bird and The Acorns and the Wildcat. Like Rintaro, I find that his best films are the films where he’s orchestrating some awesome animators and art directors.


Addendum to post: Daniel over at The Ghibli Blog just posted an awesome essay on Gauche and the Galactic Railroad.

08/27/09 @ 11:55
Manuke [Visitor]  

“The Manga Biography of Kenji Miyazawa,” which is a manga itself, gives some insights into Kenji Miyazawa’s character.

06/23/10 @ 03:43