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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Sunday, January 20, 2008

10:42:02 pm , 1021 words, 1677 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Your choice

I had sort of forgotten about the Japan Media Arts Festival and the Mainichi Film Concours, but today I became curious to find out who had won the 2007 edition of both competitions, the most important in Japan for animation. I was happy to discover that Keiichi Hara's Summer Vacation with Coo the Kappa won not only the Animation Film Award at the Mainichi Film Concours, but also the Grand Prize in the animation category at the Japan Media Arts Festival. Congratulation to Keiichi Hara. Denno Coil was one of the four runners-up, and the judges comment that, had the masterful Coo not come out in 2007, Denno Coil would easily have taken the grand prize that year.

I was also happy to discover that Koji Yamamura's Country Doctor won the Mainichi's coveted Noburo Ofuji Award. I haven't yet seen the film, which played in theaters in Japan (a rarity for an independent, non-studio affair such as this), but am very eager to. Based on the exciting animation in the trailer, it appeared to be one of his strongest films yet, and this win seems to confirm that suspicion. Country Doctor was also one of the runners-up at the Japan Media Arts Festival.

I recently had a chance to watch a collection of Koji Yamamura's older works, which I amazingly hadn't seen by now, so all that remains is to see his post-Mt. Head films. The films were rather different from what I might have expected, particularly the early ones, where Yamamura seems to have gone through a period when he was very fascinated with formal elements like metamorphosis, intellectual puzzles and associative games. The early films from the late 80s seem to show him in this period. In the early 90s, he begins to move to more character-based stories, where we can begin to see the cute but bizarre creatures with which I had associated him for some reason, although deep down, his seems to remain a deeply free-associative imagination. That imagination is now channeled into a tangible narrative, which makes it all the more interesting.

The three Caro and Piyobupto shorts feature a set of appealing but odd characters going through wordless but easy-to-follow adventures in mixed-media creations that I find a bit more appealing. His approach changes considerably here, and not just in terms of the media. He is constantly changing his approach to style, media and dramatic form, which is something I greatly admire in his work. He seems to share something with Tadanari Okamoto in that respect. The film that comes afterwards, Kipling Jr. of 1995, is another stop-motion work featuring cute but odd creatures, but differs considerably in style from the earlier series, creating its own appealing atmosphere. The key acquisition in his films of this period seems to be a deft sense for creating a beguiling atmosphere that is cute and fun, but with a vague tinge of hinted menace.

While I quite enjoyed the previous films, Kids Castle of 1995 struck me as among the tightest pieces of the set so far, with a real economy of means and clarity of purpose in the visual concept, and so left perhaps the best impression on me. Using only lines and a white background, a kid's toys come alive and lead him on adventures that showcase Yamamura's highly intuitive thought-process and rich imagination. The use of simple black lines seems to free Yamamura to revel in the animated metamorphoses that come so naturally to him. Yamamura comes up with ideas and twists and turns that can never be predicted, like the imagination of a child, and uses a rich array of techniques to express his ideas, making watching his films a real adventure. Kids Castle also features a soundtrack consisting entirely of vocal onomatopoeia that is great fun and plays a big part in the onscreen action, with a funny and imaginative new vocalization bringing alive all of the crazy goings-on. This applies to all of Yamamura's films. The soundtracks of his films are always extremely well produced and closely tied to the visuals.

Your choice of 1999 is also a great showcase of Yamamura's intiuitive imagination, and is even perhaps my favorite of Yamamura's films not only for the content but for Yamamura's approach to making the film. The film was in fact a collaborative effort between Yamamura and a bunch of young students in Japan and Chicago. Yamamura met with each group and elicited a short storyboard from each student with an idea for an animated sequence. About a dozen students participated in all. Yamamura selected the storyboards that seemed usable in the narrative of a short film, and sewed the various ideas together. It's a simple idea, but the result is a wonderful, odd little film that bubbles with delightful humor and the sort of unexpected ideas you would only get from a child who doesn't know the dramatic rules that a professional does.

A documentary on the making of the film is included in the disk, and it was almost as fascinating as the film itself. It was a joy to see the pleasure each student took in coming up with an idea they could be proud of, and in seeing their ideas brought to life in the final product. Yamamura is quite active in Japan and around the world in promoting the cause of independent animation, and I find that this film serves as a perfect example of the very particular genius Yamamura brings to the field as a creator and as a didact, in the ingenious way that he found to combine the act of spreading knowledge about animation among youngsters and taking an interesting new tack as a creator himself. He deliberately goes against the image of an independent animator scribbling away night and day in the basement, throwing animation out into the light of day, getting young people involved and showing them the satisfaction of creativity. At the same time, it's a great concept for a film that raises some interesting questions about the idea of authorship. It's a film that strikes me as being richly creative from a variety of angles.

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