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


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