27 December 2007

Spirou in Tokio

I made this great discovery this holiday season. The most recent edition of the Franco-Belgian comic book series Spirou + Fantasio, currently written by Jean-David Morvan and illustrated by José-Luis Munera, uses Tokyo (past and present) as its setting. In Germany it is book 47 of this comic that has been running since 1938, but for some reason in the original French series is is book 49. I am keeping my eyes wide open in book stores for the bonus episode 49Z which was done by guest manga-ka Hiroyuki Oshima.

This comic book fascinates me for several reasons. First of all, for those of us saturated with manga and anime images of Japan, it is very refreshing to see Japan rendered via the pen of a European comic book artist. The characters, for example, are more in the style of Tintin and Asterix, with its black eyes and snub noses. A few minor characters did exhibit characteristics of the old buck teeth, slanty-eyes stereotypes, but on the whole I found it very well researched. The artist has clearly gone to Tokyo and used real locations and objects for the mise-en-scene. I particularly enjoyed the references to Japanese pop culture such as Naruto and Cowboy Bebop.

Great reading if you can get a hold of it in a language that you can read. As no English version of Spirou + Fantasio seems to be in print, here is a video preview of Spirou in Tokio to whet your appetite:

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

11 December 2007


I made a great find on Youtube this week. In March 2006, Japanese artist Tabaimo joined forces with choreographer Ohad Naharin and the Batshava Dance Company to put on a dance-video installation at the Jewish Theatre in Stockholm. Tabaimo employed parts of her earlier animation Parts of a Japanese Bathhouse and projected them on three screens and the dancers interact with the video art.

I have been fascinated by Tabaimo for some time now. Her art is influenced by the style and colours of traditional Nihonga artists like Hokusai. Tabaimo takes a particularly interesting critical view of public and private spaces in Japan such as kitchens, public baths and restrooms. I finally got a hold of the DVD of Image Forum's Tokyo Loop and I hope to review Tabaimo's film Public Convenience soon.

To learn more about Tokyo Loop, read this article at PingMag, a terrific bilingual online design magazine.

Click here for press information for the performance shown in the Youtube video.

Tokyo Loop / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

04 December 2007

Paradise Kiss (パラダイス・キス, 2005)

This 12 episode anime is adapted from Ai Yazawa’s 5 volume shōjo manga Paradise Kiss (パラダイス・キス), known to fans as ParaKiss (パラキス). The manga was first published in serialized form in Zipper fashion magazine.

There has been much grumbling on blogs about the adaptation of Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss manga into an anime. The main complaints have been about the unusual animation style, in contrast to other mainstream anime-series, and the excising of a great deal of the original manga storyline. I personally like that the animation staff took risks by experimenting with technique in this series. As to the latter complaint, I’m afraid that cuts are inevitable when adapting a work of art from book to the big screen. Unlike the adaptations of series like Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto and Yazawa’s current hit Nana, Paradise Kiss was only funded for 12 episodes, meaning that the five-volume manga had to be stream-lined during the adaptation process.

Director Osamu Kobayashi (小林治) (along with the original manga itself) can largely be held responsible for the avant-garde look that Paradise Kiss has in contrast with other popular anime series. Kobayashi started out doing animated shorts and has made a number of music videos for Studio 4ºC. Some features of his style include irising, unusual camera angles, off-center framing, and a collage style that often features the mixing of monotone backgrounds and hyper-colourful moving figures.

The manga-ka Ai Yazawa (矢沢あい) is currently one of the top selling manga artists for young women in Japan with Nana (ナナ) spawning a hit live action movie as well as a TV anime series. Most of her manga incorporate themes of fashion and punk rock music. Yazawa began her career studying fashion design and the flamboyant style of Vivienne Westwood serves as a key influence in her work.

The central narrative of Paradise Kiss is a shōjo coming of age story. Yukari Hayasaka is in her final year at a private high school and is preparing for university exams. She nurses a secret crush on her classmate Hiroyuki Tokumori. In the first episode, Yukari is discovered on the streets of what looks like Omotesando by Arashi Nagase who along with Isabella (née Daisuke Yamamoto) a tall, blue-haired transvestite, whisk Yukari away to their fashion design studio Paradise Kiss. There she meets Arashi’s girlfriend, the pink-haired Miwako Sakurada, who welcomes Yukari as a friend by giving her the nickname Caroline.

The fashion students feel that Yukari, with her tall, slender form and long, straight black hair (a novelty in this world of fantastic hair colours) would be the perfect model for their final design project. Enter the blue-haired George Koizumi, chief designer of the group and new focus for Yukari’s unfocused teenage desires.

The series engages the audience with a clever mix of realism and fantasy. In terms of realism, Yukari’s ambivalence about whether to become a model or follow her mother’s wishes and attend university will strike a chord with young women of the same age. Yukari also struggles with her romantic feelings for George, difficulties communicating with her mother and a mostly absent father who works away from home.

At the same time, Paradise Kiss seduces with its glamorous depiction of the world of fashion and the sophisticated and exotic people who inhabit it. George fascinates Yukari with his suave good-looks and expensive lifestyle, which is given a dash of realism with his alcoholic mother and distant father. Sometimes the fantasy element of the tale strays away from credibility. For example, the idea that Isabella could live in such a castle and commute to Harajuku is highly unlikely and a bit over-the-top in my humble opinion.

The quirky, more avant-garde animation style of this anime makes it stand apart from other shoujo anime. The idea of mixing of monochrome images of real Tokyo cityscapes with bright colourfully rendered characters and clothes derives from Yazawa’s manga, but the animators have added unusual little creatures who wriggle through still images of locations. I also love the unusual wipes such as rolling flowers that transition between scenes.

The opening and closing sequences deserve special mention. The opening sequence features a montage of images from Tokyo’s fashion district along with motifs and characters from Paradise Kiss. The accompanying song is ‘Lonely in Gorgeous’ by Tomoko Kawase as her alter ego Tommy February6. The song’s theme and the persona of the singer fit well with the anime.

Experimental animation artist Hiroyuki Imaishi (今石浩之) created the closing animation. Chibi versions of the main protagonists dance to the song ‘Do You Want To’ by indie Scottish band Franz Ferdinand. The animation here is tongue-in-cheek and a lot of fun to watch. The use of chibi (rounded faces and bodies) fits well as they use chibi characters often in the series to show the internal emotions and reactions of the characters.

Paradise Kiss is a sequel to Gokinjo Monogatari (ご近所物語, Neighbourhood Story) which told the story of Miwako’s older sister Mikako Kouda, an aspiring fashion designer and her longtime friend and love interest Tsutomu Yamaguchi. Although it is not necessary to know Gokinjo Monogatari in order to enjoy Paradise Kiss, it does provide fans of the first series with a lot of inside jokes and references to spot. Not only do Mikako, now a successful fashion designer with her own label called Happy Berry, and Tsutomu makes cameo appearances, but so do other smaller characters or their offspring (Arashi and Hiroyuki).

My overall verdict on the adaptation is that it is quite a good one given the limitations the animators had to work with. I think the right choice was made in focusing mainly on the Yukari story arc. However, the sudden jump to Isabella’s story at the beginning of episode ten was awkwardly done. Every episode except for that one starts and ends with Yukari’s interior monologue. I suppose Kobayashi felt it needed to be added somewhere in order to explain the ending to those who did not read the manga, but it could have been handled more adeptly. The final episode also feels a bit rushed as they tried to put too much storyline into it at the last minute. So much so, that they had to scrap the Imaishi animation for more wrapping up of loose storylines.

For episode reviews and screencaps, check out these fantastic blogs:

Random Curiosity


27 November 2007

Nana 2

Last year’s hotly anticipated sequel, Nana 2 (Kentaro Otani, 2006) fell flat at the box office and was widely panned by critics and fans alike. These reasons explain why I kept putting off seeing it until very recently. To my relief, watching the film wasn’t a total waste of time. In fact, the film wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated.

Let me start off by pointing out the flaws so that I can end up on a more positive note. The two main reasons why this film was such a flop at the box office were the failure of the producers to secure the same cast members as in the original adaptation Nana (Kentaro Otani, 2005) and trying to fit too much of the original manga storyline into the film.

The studio no doubt rushed into the production of the sequel in order to cash in on Ai Yazawa franchise during the height of the added success of the 2006-7 anime series Nana directed by Morio Asaka. The online rumour mill has it that in their zeal, the producers announced that all the cast members would be returning before they actually had signatures on paper. This lack of etiquette meant that they weren’t able to get Aoi Miyazaki to reprise the role of Nana Komatsu (aka Hachi-ko).

In my opinion, the production of the sequel should not have gone ahead without first securing the two lead actresses. I’m guessing that the producers thought that Mika Nakashima, a big pop star outside of the Nana franchise, was their main box office draw, but the two Nanas are equally as important as the emotional centre of the narrative. As fans had already fallen in love with round-faced, moon-shaped eyed, super-kawaii Aoi Miyazaki as Hachi-ko, poor Yui Ichikawa really a big task in trying to win over the fans. In Ichikawa’s defense, I think she did a fine acting job, but she didn’t resemble Miyazaki enough to satisfy fans of the first film.

Interestingly, the actor for Ren was also switched (from Ryuhei Matsuda to Nobuo Kyou) as was the actor playing Shin (from Kenichi Matsuyama to Hongo Kanata), but so far I have found no big complaints about this, apart from minor gumblings. I think if they’d kept Aoi Miyazaki, the fans could have accepted these other minor cast changes. With all the romantic subplots of the Nana series (Hachi & Shouji, Shouji & Sachiko, Nana & Ren, Junko & Kyosuke, Shin & Leila, Hachi & Takumi, Hachi & Nobu, Takumi & Leila, Yasu & Leila, Nana & Yasu, ad infinitum), the relationship between the two Nanas is the most crucial, and the audience needs to love them both for the weepie scenes to succeed.

Which lead me to the problems with the screenplay. Otani, and screenwriter Taeko Asano, were faced with a difficult task. A long running manga series like Nana always lends itself better to adaptation to a TV series, which explains, in part, the success of the anime adaptation. Nana offers up the added dilemma that it has such a large cast of characters and so many subplots. In order for a feature film adaptation to be successful, the adapter needs to know what to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor. I think that Otani and Asano tried to balance this with trying to fit many details in so as not to disappoint the fans. Unfortunately, the plot ended up becoming too unwieldy. As a fan of the manga, I was hoping that more screen time would be given to the Shin and Leila storyline. As a film critic, I thought that they should have focused on the Hachi and Nana relationship, even if that meant sacrificing much beloved scenes.

For Nana 3 (you know it is inevitable), they should hire Koki Mitani to shoot it in the way he did The Uchoten Hotel. It would win back audiences and make a film more worthy of its subject matter. For the time being, we can only wait with bated breath for Ai Yazawa to publish enough new material so that the anime artists can get back to their drawing boards as soon as possible [aside: new manga material in January 2008 issue of Cookie!!]

I have mentioned a great deal of criticism throughout this review, but I promised to end on a positive note, so here it goes. For a shoujo melodrama, this is actually not such a bad film. It may not sweep audiences away like the first film did, but there is a lot more heartbreak and difficult decisions in this film. For a coming-of-age story it deals with a many tough issues and it doesn’t offer any easy solutions. It may not win any awards for film of the year, but for a film aimed at teenaged girls, it is a lot better than a lot of the Disney schlock being thrown their way. At the very least, it is worth watching for the fabulous performances by Mika Nakashima as Nana and Yuna Ito as Leila.
[p.s. I know that most bloggers write "Reira" which is the romanization of the katakana name, but in the manga, it is written 'Leila' when romanized.] Here is a video of Ito's song from the film:

Nana2 / Japanese Movie

Japanese Movie

Nana2 / Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

18 November 2007

Coconoe Jyot (ここのえジィョオト, 2001)

Here's a colourful animation, shot originally on 16mm, that I came across on Youtube. The animators, Kazunobu Akifusa (秋房和伸) and Asuka Hamano translate the title as '9 Jyot', but I am not sure what 'Jyot' means. Nevertheless, it makes for interesting viewing. Akifusa also does art installation and is a musician.

14 November 2007

A Memory (オモヒデ, 2001)

A Memory
(オモヒデ, 2001) is my favourite short film on Tomoyasu Murata's DVD of his early work entitled My Road (俺の路). It is much more polished than his first attempts at stop motion animation TUG TUG (1998) and An Introduction of Human Zoology (1998). These two early films have a film school feel about them with their inconsistent lighting and experimental use of editing between stop motion and cel animation not to mention the strangely cacophonic soundtracks.

Murata’s early stop motion films also display the dark humour mixed with toilet humour (literally in TUG TUG) that he tends now to reserve for his more flamboyant cel animations. In A Memory Murata (村田朋泰) demonstrates that he has mastered using a minimalist soundtrack with a wide range of camera positions and movement in order to create atmosphere. He has also learned how a few simple visual and aural motifs can create an emotional connection between the film and the spectator.

The film begins quietly, much in the manner of Nostalgia and the films of the Road Series. Murata develops the theme of memory with graphic images of the kanji for numbers and small slips of paper with the traditional names of the months: a visual reminder of the early school days when a child first learns how to recognise kanji through drills. The way the slips of paper with the names of the months flip away also gives the impression of time passing, as in the old Hollywood technique of turning the pages of a calendar. Murata then dissolves from the kanji to an older Japanese-style house, similar to the one used in Nostalgia. In the background, one hears the gentle hum of cicadas, a sound associated with memories of youth and hot summer weather in Japan.

After this establishing shot of the room, the film cuts to a medium shot of an unusual looking feather duster cleaning above a wardrobe. A reverse shot reveals the arm to belong to a robot. This simple series of opening shots, demonstrates Murata’s more sophisticated film-making technique as he sets up the motif of memory, and then plays with our expectation that the film will be about a person’s memory.

In fact, A Memory tells the story of a robot alone in a house who finds a scrap of paper on the floor which at first appears blank, but then becomes animated with a colourful cel animation ‘memory’ of a happy scene from the past of the robot with a young family. The family is depicted as a child might draw their family with crayons. As the family does not appear in the claymation ‘present’, the story is left open to speculation about the whereabouts of the family. Are they away at work or school or is the robot now alone?

Particularly fine touches in A Memory are Murata’s Ozu-inspired framing of the interior of a Japanese house (which he will repeat in Nostalgia) and the subtle manner in which Murata suggests human emotion on the face of the robot. The soundtrack by Fumikazu Sakamaki (坂巻史和) adds emotional depth in a beautifully understated manner. Sakamaki also composed the haunting music for Scarlet Road and White Road.

According to the news on Murata's website, he has had yet another productive year. He has produced several new claymation films this year, has a new book out, and will have a new exhibition opening in Hiratsuka in the spring. I hope that his new shorts will make it to Nippon Connection in Frankfurt next year so that I can report back to you soon!

The images used in this review belong to Tomoyasu Murata Company and may not be reproduced for profit. Please support this artist by checking out his webstore. You can also by the DVD with this film on it at Yesasia:

Tomoyasu Murata Sakuhinshu - Ore no Michi / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

06 November 2007

The Old Crocodile (年をとった鰐, 2005)

Koji Yamamura's The Old Crocodile (年をとった鰐/Toshi wo totta Wani, 2005) has long been a troublesome film for me. I love the minimalistic pen and ink animation on yellowed paper aesthetic but it is my least favourite of Yamamura’s films from the perspective of story and narration.

It is an adaptation of a rather antiquated fable by French author and illustrator Leopold Chauveau (1870-1940) called “Histoire du vieux crocodile”. An ancient crocodile with rheumatism is no longer able to catch his own food so he eats one of his own family members. His relatives try to kill him but cannot bite into his aged skin. The old crocodile takes matters into his own hands and banishes himself from the Nile.

The crocodile swims out into the sea, reinvigorated by the salty water, where he encounters an octopus who claims to have 12 legs. The octopus catches fish for her new friend, but the old crocodile’s hunger seems never to be sated and during the night he decides to eat one of the octopus’s legs, thinking that she won’t miss “just one”. Strangely, the octopus sleeps through this and wakes cheerfully. She does not notice that she now only has 7 legs.

The old crocodile’s exploitation of the octopus continues, with the naïve octopus catching fish for the crocodile by day and the crocodile feasting on one of the octopus’s legs per night. It is a black tale that does not end well for the octopus, but ends surprisingly well for the crocodile. He finds himself being worshipped by an island community populated by some kind of an African tribe where he is fed by female human sacrifice.

In an interview with Vertigo, Yamamura claims that he chose the story because it “contains a lot of universality about our society, and that nothing is too different from how life is in current times. A good story is timeless, like Shakespeare.” He goes on to say that this timelessness renders the story “very, very adaptable into animation, because…. it dates much less than live action.”

Is Yamamura really such a cynic as to believe that the old devour their young and take advantage of the good will of naïve friends? That is the message I took from the film. I also find the suggestion that a story that uses such a crude stereotype of indigenous people could be ‘timeless’ quite disturbing. Perhaps the “cool and bitter humour” the Japan Media Arts Festival described in their summary of this “undeniable masterpiece” which they granted an award for excellence was too cool and too bitter for my own personal sense of humour.

This story may have been amusing to the colonial French who were Chauveau’s audience, but I feel that Yamamura has taken an uncritical view of the story. For an example of what I mean, think of Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Mansfield Park (1999), which paid tribute to the irony and romance of the original novel, but added a nod to Edward Said in order to critique the society being depicted in the tale.

I felt there was no critique in Yamamura’s adaptation. The tale was made all the more creepier by Peter Barakan’s narration in the English version that I watched. Barakan, a well-known media personality in Japan, sounded just like the narrator in a BBC children’s animation. Now I know that children’s literature, especially the pre-Disney versions of Grimm, et al., can contain some disturbing stuff, but they are not known for allowing bad behaviour to be rewarded in the end.

The most interesting thing about this film for me has been the reviews. As this film has mainly been shown only on the festival circuit, most of the reviews are short and sweet, with nary a word of criticism. In fact, most just regurgitate the synopsis provided by the festival they are reviewing. Surely I am not the only one to question the plot of this film?

Ah well, I shall sit in hope that someone will leave a comment enlightening me as to what I am missing with The Old Crocodile. I have enjoyed all of Yamamura’s work apart from this one, and am hoping that his Kafka Inaka Isha comes to Nippon Connection in the New Year so that I can finally watch it!

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

30 September 2007

Fusako Yusaki (湯崎夫沙子)

I have been doing background research into the artists featured on the collaborative film Winter Days (Fuyu no hi, 2005), most of whom have rarely been written about in English (let alone in Japanese!). In my scouring of the internet for information about this diverse group of animators, I found two videos of Fusako Yusaki demonstrating how she creates figures out of clay for an Italian children's program. Yusaki lives and works in Milan where she runs workshops for aspiring animators, such as Muyuko Tazumi. I have also found some of the Fernet Branca commercials that she did in the 1970s.

No complete filmography seems to exist for Fusako Yusaki on the web, but one source that I have found claims that her complete works are included in the collection of the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. Other bits and pieces of information I have been able to collect on her:

- worked on the famous Fernet Branca commercials (1968-1980)
Anagli: Animali (1991)
Peo Gallery - Katsushika Hokusai (2006)
Peo Gallery II (2006)
- has been on the jury of many international animation festivals

Here she is on Italian television:

Judging from the style, I believe that this is one of her Fernet Branca ads from the 1970s:

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

29 September 2007

Briar Rose or The Sleeping Beauty (いばら姫またはねむり姫, 1990)

Briar Rose or The Sleeping Beauty (いばら姫または ねむり姫, 1990, 22 min.)

Kihachiro Kawamoto’s account of the well-known fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty will come as a real shock to anyone raised on the Disney version…. or even on the traditional, and slightly disturbing, Perrault or Grimm versions.

Kawamoto lulls us into a true fairy tale setting beginning with the camera moving from a ring of hazy cherry blossoms towards the idyllic castle on the hill in the background. The puppets and sets are beautifully and intricately realized, and the music is lyrical. The first hint that there will be a darker theme comes with the dark lighting of the interior of the castle and with the solemn tone of the narrator, speaking in the role of our heroine: Briar Rose. The camera continues inwards until it reaches a medium shot of Briar Rose, who tilts her head to one side and gazes directly into the camera. As the image fades into an image of her as an infant we realise that the story of the film will mimic inward movement of the film and take us deep into the psyche of our heroine.

Briar Rose begins by recounting her story in the traditional manner, with her birth, the bringing of gifts, and the curse that is put upon her. The twist in Kawamoto’s version, is that the person who brings the curse upon Briar Rose is her mother’s former lover, who went away to war, was believed to have died, and returned to find Briar Rose’s mother married to another man. The year that Briar Rose turns fifteen, she discovers not only a spinning wheel with a spindle for the first time, but also her mother’s diary recounting the tale of her first love.

Briar Rose seeks out her mother’s former lover, and soon the story turns out to be one laden with poetic metaphor. The spindle becomes a phallic image that symbolizes Briar Rose sacrificing her virginity for the sake of her ailing mother, and her long deep sleep is a metaphor for her long feeling of numbness towards suitors after being abandoned by the man. I won’t spoil the film by revealing all of the tale, but needless to say it ends on a defiant note with Briar Rose giving us the happy ending, but making it clear that it is all but a fiction.

I found the film strangely moving. The use of blurring irises gives the film a dream-like quality, and the attention to detail is stunning. Often when Japanese artists take on popular western stories and their settings, many Japanese elements sneak unbidden into the style, costumes, and settings of the piece -- for example, the characters in Takahata’s Heidi, Girl of the Alps (アルプスの少女マイジ, 1974) series are unmistakably Japanese in design. Perhaps due to the time he spent studying under Jiri Trnka in the Czech Republic, the European details are all fairly consistent.

Kawamoto could have just been content to present a visually stunning traditional version of Sleeping Beauty, but instead he presents a feminist retelling of the tale in the voice of the main protagonist herself. The result is a film that not only critiques way in which young women have been victimized by male authors of fairy tales, but also fingers us the viewers as willingly participating in this fictionalizing process that turns heroines quite literally into puppets. The question Briar Rose seems to be asking us at the end of the film really could be interpreted as: who is really pulling the strings in this story?

Kihachiro Kawamoto Selected Filmography

Breaking of Branches Is Forbidden (1968 / 14 min.)
Anthoropo-cynical Farce (1970 / 8 min.)
The Demon (1972 / 8 min.)
The Trip (1973 / 12 min.)
The Poet’s Life (1974, 19 min.)
Dojoji Temple (1976 / 19 min.)
House of Flame (1979 / 19 min.)
To Shoot without Shooting (1988 / 25 min.)
Briar-Rose or The Sleeping Beauty (1990 / 22 min.)
Winter Days (2003 / 105 min. )
The Book of the Dead (2005 / 70 min.)

This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

10 September 2007

Papa to Rusuban (パパとるすばん)

パパとるすばん (Indigo Blue, 2007)

I found this great little short animated film on Youtube yesterday. Unfortunately, it has already been taken down due to violation of copyright. The person who posted Papa to Rusuban had posted dozens of shorts from the Minna no uta (Everyone's Song) NHK series.

This particular short features a song sung by the little girl about having a day at home with her father while her mother gets a day out. The father and daughter spend a lazy day together, enjoying each other's company, making the occasional mess, and completely forgetting to do any chores. The lyrics and subtle and clever, elaborating both the great pleasure the pair take in spending some time together as well as the occasional awkwardness that arises because they are unused to spending so much uninterrupted time together.

The music was done by the group Indigo Blue. They consist of Osakan born Rina on guitar and vocals and Hokkaido native Kouichi also plays guitar and does the arrangements. The singing for Papa to Rusuban was done by cute-as a-button Yumi Endo (遠藤由実), who, at 8 years of age, already has an impressive list of television credits to her name.

The animation itself is done in warm and bright colours with oranges, reds, and blues predominating. It is really very much like a hand-painted picture book for children come to life. I do hope a Minna no uta DVD comes out with the clip on it so that I can watch it again some day. If anyone knows the name of the animator, please let me know. I can't find a mention on the Indigo Blue website and I was so taken by the animation and the song that I didn't look for credits while watching the film.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

21 August 2007

Man and Whale (校長先生とクジラ, 2007)

Koji Yamamura (山村浩二) has two new films out this year. Man and Whale, which I while talk about in a moment, and Franz Kafka’s Ein Landarzt (カフカ田舎医者/Kafuka Inaka Isha/A Country Doctor) which is currently doing the animation festival circuit. I am hoping to find a way to catch it at the Fantoche 2007 in Switzerland in September if I can swing it. Not one to take a break for too long, Yamamura has a third film slated for release later this year called A Child’s Metaphysics (こどもの形而上学). Here is a sample screenshot:

Greenpeace commissioned Yamamura to make Man and Whale (校長先生とクジラ) as a part of their campaign to end Japanese whaling. One encounters many urban myths and exaggerated stereotypes about the Japanese in the English-speaking world, but I’m afraid that it is true that whaling for commercial purposes does still take place. I had heard tales of English conversation teachers claiming to have been fed whale, but I didn’t fully believe it until last winter when I was shocked to discover a restaurant in Ueno openly specializing in whale sashimi.

Yamamura has only 2 minutes to get his message across, and he does so with great subtlety and his usual attention to detail. The Japanese film title translates literally as “The Headmaster and the Whale”. The story is told from the perspective of an elderly headmaster of an elementary school who enjoys looking out to sea through his binoculars from the desk in his office.

The headmaster recollects that as a boy, he and his peers were very poor and relied on what they could catch in the sea, particularly the meat of whales, in order to survive. The headmaster is haunted by these memories. Yamamura evokes the inner turmoil of the headmaster by transporting us back in time via that tried-and-true technique of a dissolve from colour into black and white, to the headmaster as a boy sitting at his desk in school. He then employs his signature theme of metamorphosis and has the katakana for whale (クジラ) float up off the page and transform into the shape of a whale before the boy’s startled eyes.

Emotion is also evoked via a beautifully composed score by Hitomi Shimizu. In an interview for whalelove.org, Shimizu says that Yamamura asked her to create nostalgic music similar to that used in Ozu films during the school scenes, then to increase the tempo and make the music “more thrilling” in the scenes with the whales.

The most emotional moment during the flashback comes when the schoolmaster as a boy witnesses a whale being harpooned, and the blood washes ashore to his feet. This scene owes much to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) with the use of strings on the soundtrack and a close–up on the boy’s eye as he watches the event unfold in horror.

The scene then shifts to the boy painted a picture of the whale. He looks up to see a vision of a whale skeleton floating in the night sky. The whale skeleton dissolves into modern day apartment buildings as we are brought back to the present day. This dissolve suggests that the death of the whale contributed to the present-day prosperity of the community. The headmaster’s voice-over informs use that when he was young he knew no other way, but that today his heart feels heavy.

The headmaster picks up his binoculars again and sees a whale beached on a rock. In a panic, he races to the shore to try to rescue the whale. A class of students from his school are on the beach having gym class. They call out to him and then swim out to help him rescue the whale. The film ends with the message: “They saved us. It’s our turn now.”

I think that this is a very clever message to promote. On issues such as this, non-Japanese groups wishing to change policies in Japan often take the tack of trying to argue that what the Japanese are doing is unethical. This line of argument, of course, is more likely to result in indignation than dialogue. Yamamura’s film presents the problem as one about balance, suggesting that in times of need whaling is a necessary evil, but in modern Japan it has become an indulgence that threatens to destroy something beautiful.

In his interview with whalelove.org, Yamamura says that he primary aimed to get children interested in the protection of whales and other environmental issues. That is why he chose to have the children help the teacher rescue the whale in the final scene. Of the many wonderful contemporary animators Greenpeace could have chosen to approach, I believe they made the right decision in selecting Yamamura for the task. Not only has he had a lot of experience making short films for and in collaboration with children, but he is a filmmaker who is able to strike just the right balance for this film. The film pulls at the heartstrings without being too cheesy. Yamamura’s work is engaging without being commercial, and artistic without being too ‘arty’.

The film has a warmth about it thanks to the use of traditional cel animation (they drew 1,700 sheets of cells) and the beautiful hues rendered by shooting it on 35mm.

14 August 2007

Nostalgia (睡蓮の人, 2000)

This early claymation film by Tomoyasu Murata (村田朋泰) has an English title and a Japanese title. “Nostalgia” is a theme in most of Murata’s artwork. Sometimes the nostalgia is evoked by the old-fashioned settings of the films, particularly the stop motion work. At other times, the nostalgia is more of a longing for a happier time gone by, before times of trouble, sorrow, and loss.

The Japanese title “Suiren no hito” translates as “Water Lily Person”. This image is specific to this particular film. An image of a pond with water lilies connects the central protagonist with his past. He is an elderly man who is introduced to us in his blue cotton kimono – the kind generally worn by men of a certain age in Japan. His home is a quaint Japanese-style wood house, with sliding doors and tatami. The detail Murata paid to the house is truly remarkable. From the kitchen cupboards to the string hanging from the ceiling lamp, all the details will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in older Japanese homes.

Initially, the soundtrack is quite sparing. Only the sounds of the man shuffling around his house, crickets chirping and an unusual crunching sound “karān karōn karān karōn” can be heard. It is only during the flashback sequence that we learn that it is the sound of geta-clad feet walking on the pebbled earth of a Shintō shrine. The film contains no dialogue; therefore, the sound effects take on a particularly important role in conveying meaning and mood.

As in most of his films, Murata also employs the use of sentimental music in order to heighten the emotional impact of both the scenes with music and the scenes that are silent but for the incidental sounds. The silence of the opening scenes emphasizes the loneliness of the elderly man. One evening he investigates an unusual sound in his kitchen and he discovers a turtle eating a kabu (Japanese turnip).

Interestingly, the elderly man does not disturb the turtle but leaves him to enjoy his midnight snack and goes to bed. Turtles are symbols of good fortune in Japan, and this particular turtle seems to function symbolically within the film. He keeps the man company and he acts as a link to the flashback to the man’s dead wife.

The other major symbol and link to the past are the wife’s red kimono and the off-screen sound of geta crunching in gravel. The plot of Nostalgia unravels in a meandering way, with visual (photographs, colours) and aural clues pointing us to the story of this lonely male figure.

Murata gives a nod to Ozu and his contemporaries in the end credits. They are superimposed over a close-up of a blue fabric. This was a common device during the opening credits of Ozu films. Re-watching the film with Ozu in mind, one does notice a similarity in the use of distinctly Japanese mise-en-scene, the film’s sentimentalism, and the camera does often take the low position of Ozu’s films. There are also similarities in Murata’s sparing use of dialogue, music and special effects. Unlike Ozu, Murata is fond of using camera movement and he also often disorients the viewer in terms of time and space.

Although Ozu’s films may inspire a certain kind of nostalgia in Japanese viewers today, I do not consider Ozu to be a particularly nostalgic filmmaker – particularly if comparing him to other Japanese filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki. Ozu’s characters may be wistful about time past, but there is always a note of acceptance that this is the way life unfolds. There is a hint of that in Murata’s Nostalgia as well, but on the whole I see the film as an elegy to a lost loved one.

Murata won the Excellence Prize for short animation at the 2001 Japan Media Arts Festival with Nostalgia. The film can be viewed on their website.

The film also received recognition at various other film and animation festivals. Nostalgia is available on DVD in Japan, but contains no extras on the disc. The packaging does include 3 postcard prints of artwork related to the film.

The images used in this review belong to Tomoyasu Murata Company. For more simages and samples of his animation, please support this artist by visiting his website and checking out his webshop or purchasing the DVD via yesasia.com:

Suiren no Hito / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

25 June 2007

Studio Ghibli Shorts

Everyone knows the blockbuster movies for which Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are famous – My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Spirited Away (2001) – just to name a few. What you may not know is that under the guidance of Ghibli producer and president Toshio Suzuki (鈴木敏夫), Ghibli pays the bills between the big movies by doing commercial projects.

For example, Studio Ghibli distributes foreign animation of renown within Japan. Films under the Ghibli label include Les Triplettes de Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2002), Le Roi et l’oiseau (Paul Grimault), and Moya Iyubov (Aleksandr Petrov, 2006), among others. The studio is also happy to do television commercials as well as music videos and other commercial ventures.

In 2005, Studio Ghibli released ショートショート(Short Short) as a Ghibli ga ippai special edition DVD. With a run-time of only 42 minutes, the DVD features music videos and commercials produced by the studio between 1992 and 2005.

The creative force between the featured short animation includes the usual suspects at Ghibli: Hayao Miyazaki (宮崎駿b. 1941), Yoshifumi Kondou (近藤喜史1950-1998), Yoshiyuki Momose (百瀬義行b. 1953), Osamu Tanabe (田辺修b. 1965), Shinji Hashimoto (橋本晋治b. 1967), and Takeshi Inamura (稲村武志b. 1969).

The thing that I found striking about the commercial work included on this DVD is that it gives one an opportunity to glimpse the artistic style of Ghilbi animators who usually get second billing. Momose has been an in-betweener on several major Ghibli productions, but in recent years he has formed his own studio, Studio Cajino, under the Ghibli auspices and he takes the director’s chair for the Capsule music videos. While the style in these videos is partly influenced by Capsule’s retro-chic look, the character design and futuristic look are quite distinct from the films helmed by Miyazaki and Takahata.

My favourite shorts on the DVD would have to be the nostalgic advertisements for House Shokuhin. They remind me of the nostalgia of My Neighbor Totoro, with their romanticisation of post-war Japan. The theme of the ads is that House Shokuhin’s products (ie. instant curry) will allow your family to enjoy home-cooking just like in the good old days. The warmth of colours and the details of the traditional homes are very inviting and I find the old-fashioned style of the character animation particularly appealing.

Here's what's available on the DVD (only On Your Mark has an English version)

  • そらいろのたね (The Sky-Coloured Seed, 1992)、3 TV spots for Nippon TV
  • なんだろう(Nandarou, 1992), 6 TV spots to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Nippon TV
  • On Your Mark (1995), a music video for J-pop duo Chage & Aska (includes Japanese and English versions of the song with subtitles)
  • TV spots for My Neighbor Totoro (1996) and Grave of the Fireflies (1996)
  • 金曜ロードショー(Friday Roadshow, 1997) opening sequence
  • SHOP-ONE Online Shopping Mall announcement spot (2000)
  • 旨茶 (Delicious Tea, 2001), 2 ads for Asahi beverages
  • Advertisement spots for the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka no mori (2001)
  • 3 LAWSON ticket service advertisements (2001-2)
  • 3 ハウス食品 (House Shokuhin) commercials (2002)
  • 3 りそな銀行 (Resona Bank) commercials (2003)
  • おうちでたべよう (Let’s eat at home, 2003-4), a series of commercials for House Shokuhin products (ie instant curry). One cycle for the summer season and another cycle for the winter.
  • KNB YumeDigi PR Spot (3 versions, 2004)
  • 3 Yomiuri Shimbun commercials (2004-5)
  • どれどれのう唄 (Dore dore no uta, 2005) for the Yomiuri Shimbun
  • A series of three music videos directed by Yoshiyuki Momose for the shibuya-kei pop band Capsule:
  • ポータブル空港 (Portable Airport、2004)
  • Space Station No. 9 (2004)
  • 空飛ぶ都市計画 (A Flying City Plan , 2005)
Ghibli ga Ippai Special Short Short / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

05 June 2007

The Uchoten Hotel (The 有頂天ホーテル , 2006)

I find it surprising that The Uchōten Hotel (2006) has not yet been snapped up by distributors in North America and Europe. Perhaps they were unable to see past the bad English pun in the full original title: The 有頂天ホーテル (Suite Dreams). The producers must have thought it would be cool to have three kinds of script (romanji, kanji, and katakana) in the title. Translating the title directly into English would make it sound like a bad porno flick – Ecstasy Hotel – but if they repackaged it as Hotel Avanti, the actual name of the hotel in the film, the film would appeal to the same overseas audiences who fell in love with Kōji Yakusho (役所 広司) in Shall we dance? (Shall We ダンス? Masayuki Suo, 1996).

Yakusho headlines a star-studded cast in The Uchōten Hotel: Shingo Katori (香取 慎吾)of SMAP and Shingo Mama fame, the multi-talented actress and J-pop singer/songwriter Takako Matsu (松 たか子), the voice of Anpanman Keiko Toda (戸田恵子,), J-pop singer turned actress/author/TV personality You (ゆう), yet another J-pop singer turned actress Ryoko Shinohara (篠原涼子), Koichi Sato (佐藤浩市,), Katsuhisa Namase (生瀬勝久,), Kumiko Asō (麻生久美子,), and acting legend Toshiyuki Nishida (西田 敏行). The wide array of well-known faces assured that the film was a big hit when it premiered in Japan in January 2006.

The success of the film was doubly assured by the reputation of its director Koki Mitani (三谷幸喜). Mitani has a history of producing quality television series like Furuhata Ninzaburo (古畑任三郎, 1994) and the popular and critically acclaimed chambara series Shinsegumi! (新選組!, 2004). Mitani’s biggest hit was the 1997 film Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラジオの時間) which, like The Uchōten Hotel has a large cast and a complicated storyline.

The Uchōten Hotel adopts the setting and style of Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932). The set, particularly the central lobby, resembles the set of Grand Hotel and Mitani emphasizes the allusion by having suites named after the stars of the classic talkie: Barrymore, Crawford, Garbo, and Lionel. Grand Hotel is also famous for being the first film to successfully weave a large cast with multiple storylines into an engaging picture. However, Grand Hotel was at heart a drama with comedic flourishes, whereas The Uchōten Hotel is more of a screwball comedy.

Mitani throws into the mix an homage to the witty repartee and grace of Billy Wilder’s best comedies. The hotel’s name refers to one of Wilder’s lesser known films Avanti! (1972), and the costume play and pace of the film reminded me of Some Like it Hot (1959).

There is a touch of Robert Altman in the skill with which Mitani balances his web of subplots and large cast. Mitani also shares Alfred Hitchcock’s passion for playing with filmic conventions by sticking to a one shot per scene rule à la Rope (1948). Mitani ably avoids cuts by employing a dramatically moving camera, sometimes in startlingly humorous ways.

I recommend this film to fans of screwball comedies who are prepared to watch without cynicism. It’s a film for light-hearted film fans, particularly fans of Japanese television comedy and drama.

The Uchoten Hotel Original Soundtrack / Original Soundtrack

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

28 April 2007

Thinking and Drawing (シンキング・アンド・ドローイング, 2005)

The walls of video rental shops in Japan are lined with hundreds upon hundreds of animation DVDs, but experimental and art animation on DVD are rare. To remedy this situation, Image Forum put together this showcase of the work of contemporary avant-garde animators trained in Kyoto and Tokyo. Image Forum has been the centre for the creation, exhibition, and distribution of alternative film in Tokyo for over twenty-five years. In the early days, it was known as the Underground Center but renamed itself in 1977 when they established the Institute for Moving Images, where they train students in experimental film and art animation techniques.

Released in 2005, Thinking and Drawing features a wide selection of animation styles from line drawing to CGI manipulated photographs. The subject matter ranges from feminist allegory to ghostly tales. Although each film has a short running time of between 5 and 17 minutes, the depth of meaning in each is truly astonishing. The films have shown together and separately at festivals in Europe, North America, and Australia.

Along with Tabaimo (Ayako Tabata), Maho Shimao and Atsuko Udo, Mika Seike represents a growing number of women in experimental film. Seike's films are instantly recognizable by their signature monotone backgrounds and human figures. The shades of black and white vary in texture, sometimes giving one the impression of old newsprint, while at other times having the texture of birch-bark or handmade paper. When accompanied by the sound of electronic feedback it reminded me of the static on a disconnected television.

Continue reading my review of Thinking and Drawing at Midnight Eye!.

Tokyo Loop / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007


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