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