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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Monday, July 12, 2004

03:17:33 pm , 1759 words, 4550 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

Winter Days

I thought I'd talk a bit about 冬の日 (Fuyu no Hi) AKA Winter Days today. I won't go into much detail. Other sites can do that better than me (notably the official site). I'll just skim over some impressions. My apologies, but I have a strange aversion to writing summaries, which seem ridiculous to repeat more than once, so I'll just point you to one.

Winter Days is a visually rich, accessible, innovative film, but not surprisingly it seems to have pretty much disappeared without a blip, except for a number of festival screenings and awards. Just looking at it in the broadest sense, as a concept, it works. The idea that you have this ancient Japanese poetry form that would seem to be uncannily well suited to the medium of animation, a medium in which one individual typically spends a great deal of effort creating a minute or so of visuals of haiku-like compactness and craftsmanship, seems like a good idea at first, but in fact it turns out to be a very good idea.

Regardless of the quality of the individual entries, it's a moving whole, like a microcosm of the animation world in all its variety, showcasing the amazingly diverse possibilities of the medium, and the diverse motives and backgrounds that each animator brings to the table. At the most basic level, it's a pleasure to be carried along on the rich assortment of visuals that ensue with each successive stanza. As Kihachiro Kawamoto (concept, director) undoubtedly anticipated, every animator brings his or her own wildly different interpretation of the material, with no two shorts looking or feeling the same, and the stylistic differences act to mirror the alternation of poets from one stanza to the next. This was obviously a project not conceived for profit and merchandising and franchising and all that, but for no reason other than to create something of beauty, something original, for love of the art of animation. I admire Kawamoto for coming up with this deceptively simple idea and carrying it through to completion, however he did it, with all the incredible logistical challenges getting 35 animators from around the world to contribute a minute of animation must have entailed.

Obviously the idea of an animated omnibus isn't new -- there's Fantasia, for one. But the difference is obvious in terms of the content, the motive, and the production style. In any case, the timing of the appearance of an independent, hand-crafted, artist-centered film like this in Japan -- at a time when the big blockbusters of the anime industry seem to have finally become firmly ensconsed in the world mainstream -- seems laden with meaning. I find particularly poignant the fact that Isao Takahata, evicted from the director's chair at Ghibli after the eminently anti-epic Yamada-kun, is among the bunch.

Takahata received the Excellence Prize for Yamada-kun at the 3rd annual Japan Media Arts Festival in 1999, in the acceptance interview for which he emphasized his skepticism and outright distrust of the escapist tactics of contemporary anime films like Spirited Away. Alexander Petrov, who also contributed a short to Winter Days, took the Grand Prix that year for The Old Man and the Sea. In the event, Winter Days took the grand prize in 2003, and Takahata was on the judging committee. He made a damning case for the poverty of Japanese animation in his procedural summary of the year's entries. There was no film even remotely comparable to Winter Days in terms of conceptual originality and innovation last year in Japan, so it was the right decision to support that originality. Anybody who thinks Tokyo Godfathers was artistically innovative and original... well, that's you, to quote a phrase. Well crafted entertainment, yes.

On a side note, Yoshiyuki Tomino heads the committee this year, so it's intriguing to speculate how the awards will pan out. Somehow I just can't picture Tomino giving Winter Days the grand prix. Maybe I'm wrong, but he strikes me as a definite entertainment partisan. (I confess that I've always derived a sort of perverse pleasure from the bewildering, opaque comments he never fails to make whenever he talks about animation.) If there's any justice, Mind Game will win the grand prix, along with many other prizes.

As for the individual pieces, there are certainly some that stand above the rest, and some that I didn't care for, but I think they all fit perfectly within the whole. In other words, it's a healthy anarchy.

Without any hesitation the best piece comes from Norstein, the 'honored guest' in charge of the hokku, the first stanza of the poem, written by the invited guest of the original Winter Days poetry collection, Basho. Jaw-dropping is a good term to describe the amount of life Norstein is able to breathe into the landscape and the characters on the screen. It's really in another league from pretty much all of the rest of the pieces.

It was surprising to find out, in the interview section that follows the animation, that Norstein is the one who actually inspired the idea for the film many years ago when he made a passing comment to Kawamoto about how interesting it would be to animate Basho's poems, having long loved them and read them for inspiration.

Sadly, Kawamoto's own piece, which follows (he also did the final piece), is a pale shadow of his efforts of years past such as 火宅 (Kataku, The House of Flames). The animation is wooden and the dolls are sloppy-looking. But he's such a good guy that we'll forgive him. Similarly, the contribution of one of the various notable foreign guests, Bretislav Pojar, creator of the classic, hilarious Czech puppet series Pojdte pane, budeme si hrat, struck me as somewhat... lacking from a man who was an erstwhile master of his art. He comes across as a kind, weary, wizened old man in his interview. All of which meshes touchingly with the theme of his piece: life is transient, and old age catches up with all.

I know about Yoji Kuri being important as one of the members of the アニメーション三人の会 (Animation Sannin no kai, Animation Gang of Three), the seminal independent animator association formed in the 60s, but frankly his piece struck me as just plain silly - though I guess that was the point. He was rather pathetic in the interview, too, sitting there next to his "Dutch wife", looking kind of lost. Along with the Uruma Delvi piece, it gets an enthusiastic "pass" from me. I was decidedly unimpressed by the way Uruma/Derubi pouted childishly in the interview section about having been given a "hard part" just because they had to animate water.

Seiichi Hayashi struck me as just the sort of affable fellow I'd imagined judging by the nature of his creative output in various media (manga, illustration, animation, etc) over the last thirty years. His piece was one of my favorites, very stylish and restrained, with excellent use of color, visually one of the most original and appealing of all the pieces. I've been reading his The Guppy Still Lives, a poetic history of Japan since the 60s, which, for lack of adequate words, strikes me as just one of the most original manga I've ever read, with its heady mixture of pornography, high art and pop iconography.

Isao Takahata's piece was animated by none other than Osamu Tanabe, and as a whole it's one of the best in the film, with the various meanings of his stanza picked apart with the exacting care to be expected from the razor-sharp mind of Takahata, and reassembled into a seamless 60 seconds wherein the various cleverly juxtaposed incongruous elements culminate in the film's funniest punchline. One of the film's most satisfying interpretations.

Particularly gratifying for animation fans like myself was the invitation of master animator Yoichi Kotabe and his wife Reiko Okuyama to the film, both of whom were former colleagues of Takahata at Toei Doga in the 1960s, and at A Pro and then Nippon Animation in the 1970s. Kotabe is one of the truly great animators of the last 40 years, having made a number of historically significant contributions to anime, including a number of classic animated sequences in the Toei Films, and epoch-making work as the animation director/character designer of Takahata's mid-1970s TV series Heidi and Marco. But we all know that, don't we. The film itself is quite unusual for the pair, as they are not art animators like the rest of the folks in the film, and consequently their piece is a bit sedate, but nonetheless atmospheric and visually rich, and an unexpected treat. Kotabe's explanation of the animation process was great; precise and instructive about every step.

One of the greatest discoveries for me was Alexander Petrov. Yes, I know I'm only a few years behind the rest of the world. For some reason I had avoided seeing The Old Man and the Sea and his other things. Don't ask why! I really don't know. Now I can't wait to see them. He's quite obviously up there near Norstein in terms of artistic talent and vision. His technique is amazing. To think he can get such life out of paint smeared on a glass plate with his fingers...

The other big discovery for me was Keita Kurosaka, who provides the most dynamic piece in the film. Kurosaka has had numerous high-profile commissions in recent years, including Flying Daddy for Japan MTV, and seems to have found the ideal formula to survive as an independent animator. A bunch of his films are even available on VHS. I hope these are released on DVD soon so that the rest of the world can see how good he is.

I'd actually heard of Kurosaka before, as well as Koji Yamamura, because they're the two biggest independent animators of the current generation (discussed in this informative Animation World article), but only heard, and not seen, and I was equally impressed by Yamamura's piece. Of all the independent animators I've seen in Japan, he strikes me as the best craftsman. Reportedly he spent more than 7 years animating Mt. Head -- and drew every cel himself. (Read more about him on this page.)

I'm afraid I don't have enough steam left to talk about the others. I'll just mention that there's also a 9-DVD edition of the film that contains 8 DVDs worth (!) of footage documenting in minute detail the creation of each piece in the film, but it's apparently rather amateurishly shot and edited, so disappointingly slipshod as a making-of.

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8 comments

neovyruz
neovyruz [Member]  

Recently i have stumbled on an interesting article about Norshtein`s part in Fuyu no Hi.
I don`t know if you know russian but in any case here is the link (there are also some very interesting pictures in the article):
http://www.kinoart.ru/magazine/04-2004/experience/norstein0404/
http://www.kinoart.ru/magazine/04-2004/experience/norst0404/
Norshtein says that he is not pleased with his work, he believes that he could have done better, especially with the timing and the sound of the bells at the end.
So i was wondering about your opinion on this situation :)

PS> Anybody interested in a translation?

06/02/07 @ 08:59
Ben [Member]  

It’s interesting to hear what Norstein thinks about this piece. My opinion? I think he’s being very modest. :) The movement is by far the richest and most interesting of any of the shorts in the film, at least IMO. I think it just serves to show Norstein’s dedication as an animator. He’s never satisfied with his work, but is always striving to go to the next level with it. I can’t think of anybody who is more dedicated to creating the richest, densest, most nuanced animated image humanly possible.

I for one would be very interested in reading a translation of that interview. Thank you for offering.

06/02/07 @ 13:22
neovyruz
neovyruz [Member]  

Okay, i`ll try , but the article has o few poetry moments and i`ll have to skip those (everyone knows the difficulty of translating poetry,especially when it comes Japanese poetry )

06/02/07 @ 13:52
Ben [Member]  

Thank you very much for doing this for us!

06/02/07 @ 14:05
neovyruz
neovyruz [Member]  

OOOOkay, the raw translation for http://www.kinoart.ru/magazine/04-2004/experience/norstein0404/.
Now i wanted to ask if somebody would volunteer to check the transaltion’s flow and my grammar and afert a few nights without sleep delete half of it and demand for another try :)) ( i know it sounds very unprefessional, but this is my fisrt serious translation in English and I use the language on a more instinctiv level.
In the next few days i won’t heve free time for the second part, but i will certainly finish it by the end of the month, so why waste time when work like this can be done sooner ??

P.S. Probably did a lot of typing mistakes again, sorry for that.

06/13/07 @ 10:21
neovyruz
neovyruz [Member]  

Damn i really did it

“OOOOkay, the raw translation for http://www.kinoart.ru/magazine/04-2004/experience/norstein0404/ is finnaly done, sorry for the long wait.”

06/13/07 @ 10:23
Ben [Member]  

Awesome, thanks for your work! I’d be happy to do the proofreading for you. Just send it along to me. Unless there is someone out there who speaks Russian and who feels they could do a better job than me, of course.

06/13/07 @ 11:52
Oana
Oana [Visitor]

Hello!

Very inspiring posts!

Is there any way to access the translation of the article about Norstein’s involvement in Fuyu no Hi?
There is so little information about Norstein in English, it’s such a pity… I appreciate your efforts on translating into English texts about him.

Keep up the good work!

03/20/12 @ 17:30