28 December 2008

Inch-High Samurai (一寸法師, 1993)

This version of the traditional Japanese folk tale Issun Boushi (Inch-High Samurai) was broadcast on the 12th of February 1993 on TBS. It is episode 921 of the long-running Manga Nihon Mukashi Banashi (まんが日本昔ばなし) series, which was digitally re-mastered in 2005 for rebroadcast due to popular demand.

Issun Boushi was directed by Teruhito Ueguchi (上口照人), the chief animator for the Manga Nihon Mukashi Banashi series. Other episodes of this highly influential animation series were directed by the leading animators of the time (1975-1995) including the legendary Gisaburo Sugii, Tsutomu Shibayama, Rintaro, and Tetsuo Imazawa, among others. For more information on the series itself, see this 2006 piece on anipages.
The tale of the tiny samurai, Issun Boshi, has been around for many generations. The earliest animation of it that I know of is a silent black and white version called Issun Boushi: Chibisuke Monogatari (Mitsuyo Seo/瀬尾光世, 1935). It’s a lyrical little piece that draws heavily on the character style and humour of early Disney animation (and is available on Digital Meme’s 4-DVD Japanese Anime Classic Collection). The story has been animated numerous times over the years, with the most recent (that I know of) being an edgy new interpretation animated on 16mm by Keiichi Tanaami and Nobuhiro Aihara.

Ueguchi’s Issun Boushi gives a traditional “Mukashi mukashi” (Once upon a time) interpretation of the tale. Issun Boushi is born to an older couple who live in the countryside. He is hardly as big as a regular-sized person’s finger (aside: which is how he became known in English as the Japanese Tom Thumb... in this animation his height varies by the scene). Despite his small size, Issun Boushi tries to be just like the other boys. One day, he climbs up to the top of the tallest tree and sees that the world is a much bigger place than he had realised. He asks his parents where the big river leads, and learns of the great city of Miyako. Issun Boushi is determined to go to this big city and become a samurai warrior for the royal family that rules from their palace in Miyako.
Armed with a sewing needle as a sword, Issun Boushi uses a miso soup cup for his boat and a chopstick for his oar and sets off on his long and perilous journey.
Once safely in Miyako, he offers his services to Haru no Hime-sama (the Spring Princess). The first test of his skills as a samurai comes when an oni (red demon) attacks a local village. Issun Boushi joins an expedition of samurai to confront the oni. The oni laughs at Issun Boushi’s small stature and swallows him whole, but Issun Boushi pokes at the oni’s belly with his sewing needle sword until the oni spits him out and runs away.
As the oni flees, he drops an Uchide no Kozuchi (打ち出の小槌) – the small magic hammer of Japanese lore. The princess tells Issun Boshi that the magic hammer will grant him a wish. He of course wishes to become a regular-sized boy. The princess then shakes the Uchide no Kozuchi and Issun Boushi transforms into a young man. The princess clasps hands with him and they live happily ever after as man and wife.
Stylistically, Ueguchi’s interpretation of the story is very pleasing to the eye. He uses a colourful palette suited to the illustration of a children’s story. The town of Miyako, when spoken about by Issun Boushi's father, is shown in vibrant hues to emphasize how exotic it is in contrast to the earth tones of the countryside. Issun Boushi's controntation with the oni and his subsequent romance with the princess takes place while the sakura are in full bloom. Ueguchi's character design was clearly influential enough to have been used in Kodansha’s publication of the Japanese folk tales in a bilingual edition.
Careful attention has been paid to keeping the story as traditional as possible through the use of a narrator, traditional motifs (particularly seasonal motifs like sakura and snow), and traditional framing techniques. The narrator is given a very prominent role in this ten-minute animation. Often his voice is placed over a pan of the landscape with very little action happening at all on the screen. I was reminded by the films of Yasujiro Ozu, which have puzzled many a “western” film critic with his shots of things that seemed irrelevant to the plot of the film, but clearly added to the mood.

The best example of traditional Japanese framing techniques can be seen in the final backwards tracking shot that shows the happy couple not centre stage, as in classical “western” art (Yōga 洋画), but off-centre as part of a larger scene as is typical of Nihonga (日本画) style.
The shorts of the Manga Nihon Mukashi Banashi (まんが日本昔ばなし) series are truly a delight and I hope to have the time to write about more of them in the New Year.
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

21 December 2008

Sumiko 2 ( あなたの態度が気に入らない, 2008)

In Uruma Delvi’s follow up to Sumiko Forever, Sumiko shows another aspect of her personality. The first short film had a melancholic feel to it and Sumiko’s voice was sentimental and nostalgic. In I Don’t Like Your Attitude (Anata no Taido ga Ki ni iranai/あなたの態度が気に入らない), Sumiko takes on a rather petulant tone as she rattles off five things that really annoy her.

Her first complaint is about the fact that her mother always seems to make curry for dinner on the exact same days that she gets curry for lunch at school. Sumiko wonders if her mother even bothers to look at the meal plans that the school sends home.

Next, Sumiko complains that she borrowed her best friend’s cell phone, only to discover when she inputted her own name that her spelling of ‘Sumiko’ comes up sixth on the list. This is a joke that can only be understood by those who understand the intricacies of typing Japanese names into electronic devices – which can be a particularly aggravating with common names that take obscure kanji combinations. The more often you input a certain spelling of a name, the more likely it is to come up first – thus Sumiko feels betrayed by her ‘best friend’ because name is preceded by five others!

To make matters worse, Sumiko is fed up with an elderly woman she sees regularly who mistakenly calls her “Tomiko” all the time. In the song, Sumiko can indulge her inner frustrations in a way that she couldn’t in public by shouting “I am Sumiko!”

Sumiko’s fourth frustration is her confusion about why people are always surprised when she tells them she is 8 years old. It is unclear whether or not they think she looks younger or older than she actually is. In her final act of rebellion, Sumiko complains that if she is really honest, she does even really want to be singing this song.

The song is sung in enka style – a traditional Japanese singing style that is quite popular in karaoke bars. The verses are spoken and Sumiko sings the very catchy refrain “Anata no taido ga ki ni iranai” (I don’t like your attitude) with accompanying movements (à la The Chicken Dance or The Macarena).

This film follows a slightly different graphic style to the first Sumiko film. The verses of the song are done in black and white – a graphic style Uruma Delvi played with in their earlier film Mr. Calpaccio. The black and white sequences are punctuated by the refrain sequences that set an image or images of Sumiko against a dark red background. During these sequences, Uruma Delvi indulge in graphic manipulation – such as the upside-down mirror image of Sumiko shown below, or the multiple images of her shown at the top of the page.

The general graphic design of the film reinforces the theme of Sumiko feeling unsettled, confused, and angry. This is made particularly obvious during the bridge when Sumiko sings facing a stormy sea. She sings that she realises that people don’t intend to annoy her out of bad or evil intentions, but all the same she finds it very frustrating. The scene ends with an image of her sitting in a boat in a stormy sea – visually depicting the old ‘sea of troubles’ cliché from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Something which has not come across at all in my description of this song is just how hilarious it is. The singer’s delivery has perfect comic timing and really had me laughing out loud. Although many of Sumiko’s complaints seem trivial or petty, I think that even adults can identify those feelings of frustration when it comes to the behaviour of others. In Japanese culture in particular, where voicing one’s personal frustrations openly is often seen as bad form, I can people enjoying the venting aspect of this film. As the verses are spoken word, one could easily make up one’s own list of personal grievances while singing the song in the shower…. Or in the karaoke version which apparently is included on the DVD!

Both Sumiko Forever and this film have been available in Japan on DVD since the fall, but they have not appeared on amazon.co.jp or yesasia.com yet, though one can buy other Uruma Delvi products there – I’m hoping to get a hold of Capsule Samurai soon!

NHK Minna no Uta Oshiri Kajiri Mushi / Kids
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

18 December 2008

Sumiko Forever (2008)

I take longer than the average person to warm to CG animation. My favourite animations are those that are entirely made by hand, or involve some kind of an avant-garde process. This is not to say that I am against the use of computers in animation – they have become an indispensable tool in the editing process of even traditionally made cel animation. It is only when the use of computer technology overshadows aesthetics, character development, and story that it really leaves me feeling cold. Films entirely conceived on a computer often seem to be devoid of emotional content.

For these reasons, it has taken me a long time to appreciate the work of Uruma Delvi (うるまでるび), a husband and wife animation team who specialize in Flash animation. Their brightly coloured contribution to Winter Days was startlingly prosaic in contrast to the more poetic offerings of Jacques Drouin, Raoul Servais, Noriko Morita, Yuri Norstein, and others. Uruma Delvi's bug-eyed, bobble-headed characters, like Mr. Calpaccio, seem much more suited to comedy than to the adaptation of 17th century renku. In fact, their comedy genius has shined through in the delightful Capsule Samurai series, not to mention their big hit of 2007: Oshiri Kajiri Mushi (The Bottom-Biting Bug).

This year, Uruma Delvi, have followed up on the success of the Bottom-Biting Bug with the creation of a more heartfelt, reflective character: Sumiko Yoshida. I find 8-year-old Sumiko quite delightful, and apparently I am not alone judging from the wide range of merchandise now available with this unusual little girl's face on it. Even the internet sensation Magibon has recently done a video in which she shows off her Sumiko shirt.

The short film Sumiko Forever demonstrates why this character has become a sensation so quickly. The film follows Sumiko through the average life of a young Japanese child. First her cat wakes her up by licking her face. Then her Mom waves her good-bye at the front door before heading off to her job in a ramen restaurant. Sumiko walks to school with a friend. At school, the humiliations of gym class are counterbalanced by the delights of cooking class and playing in the schoolyard with her friends. Throughout the day she thinks fondly of her father, the truck driver, who is away from home a lot. Her close relationship with her father is demonstrated through sentimental images of Sumiko doing things with him: outside his truck posing for a photo, fishing, pouring his beer for him at the dinner table, singing karaoke together.

The secret to Sumiko's success is that Uruma Delvi have finally created a character with whom people can relate. The song is sentimental without being too sad and references the key terms of kokoro (heart) and natsukashii (sentimental nostalgia) that have a special resonance with Japanese audiences. Sumiko is also not a typical super-kawaii character like Hello Kitty, rather she is a kind of flawed kawaii. She is cute, but she has a mole on her face and big bushy eyebrows. The girl singing the very catchy title song sounds like a real girl. She sings the song ably, but not perfectly in a manufactured Disney Mouseketeer kind of way. Many Japanese place much more value on a song sung imperfectly with heart than on a song sung perfectly by a perfectly perfect looking individual. For example, Sumiko reminds me of the reasons why Kyu Sakamoto became such a sensation in the 1960s: he sang with heart, he had a 100-watt smile and a generous spirit, he came from a regular hard-working family everyone could relate to, and his spotty face and occasionally flat notes reminded that he was a flawed individual just like the rest of us.

The graphic design of Sumiko Forever is clearly influenced by the graphic design of Dick Bruna, whose character Miffy has had huge success in Japan. I particularly enjoy the little personalised touches in Sumiko Forever, like the good-luck charm swinging from the mirror in the cab of Sumiko’s father’s truck and the laundry hanging on the balconies of neighbouring houses. There is also something quite sweet about the song of a young girl learning to define herself as a person and herself in relation to her family and community. Uruma Delvi has also left some mystery about the character, as it opens up more questions about her life than it answers. I’ll be reviewing the second Sumiko film, Anata no Taido ga Ki ni iranai (I don’t like your attitude/あなたの態度が気入らない) next and I hope they continue the series.

NHK Minna no Uta Oshiri Kajiri Mushi / Kids

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

07 November 2008

La maison en petits cubes (つみきのいえ, 2008)

Justify FullAfter much anticipation, my copy of Kunio Katō's latest film La maison en petits cubes (Tsumiki no ie) finally arrived in the post this week. It won the Annecy Cristal, the top prize at the prestigious Annecy International Animated Film Festival in June as well as taking two prizes at the Hiroshima International Festival in the summer. In contrast, the film seemed to controversially make no impression on the judges at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in September, so I was curious to judge the film for myself.

Kunio Katō (加藤 久仁生 b.1977) is a graduate of Tama Art University. He was already making a splash on the Japanese art animation scene as early as 2001 with his short film The Apple Incident, a rather surreal cel animation with a jarring soundtrack. With The Diary of Tortov Roddle (Aru Tabibito no Nikki, 2003), a series of six dream-like vignettes, Katō demonstrated that he had developed a strong, individual personal aesthetic. He uses a muted colour palette that complements the mood of each film. Tortov Roddle has a blue-grey-green colour palette with a watercolour feel to it, while La maison en petits cubes uses more sepia hues and saves the blue-green colour palette for the underwater sequences. The main character is easily identifiable in the flashback sequences because of the distinctive red of his shirt.
La maison en petits cubes tells the story of an elderly man living on the top level of a tall slender building (a theme extended from Tortov Roddle) whose home and village has been flooded. He has begun the onerus task of building more levels onto the house brick by brick (the 'petits cubes' of the French title). At one point, his pipe falls through a trapdoor and he buys himself a scuba diving suit in order to rescue the pipe. As he dives down through the various levels of his home, he is visited by memories from the past beginning with time spent with his elderly wife. Each time he goes down a level he enters further into the past: we see him taking a photograph of his family including a little granddaughter, greeting his daughter's beau for the first time and their marriage, morning rituals when his daughter was a little girl and his town was a Venice-like city on the sea, his daughter as an infant, and the history of his friendship and developing romance with his wife.

Perhaps the most moving scene is the one in which the young couple brick by brick begin to build their home together: a home which is now submerged both in the past as well as under the symbollically-laden water of the film. The key metaphor of the film reminded me of the Adrienne Rich poem “Diving into the Wreck,” although the diving into the past in La maison en petit cubes pertains more to a personal, spiritual journey than a political one. We do not learn whether or not the elderly man's family survived the flood, but from his solitariness as he rebuilds his house, the filmmaker suggests that he has indeed lost his family.

The melancholic and nostalgic feelings evoked by the film are complemented by the lyrical soundtrack composed by Kenji Kondo. The scenario was written by Kenya Hirata (平田研也), whom I believe is the writer who worked on the adaptation of Futaro Yamada's novel into the movie Shinobi (Ten Shimoyama, 2005). The handdrawn quality of the cel animation adds to the warmth of emotion in the film. Although Katō enjoys using a fairly sombre colour scheme, the loving attention paid to the execution of the characters and the scenery prevents his films from becoming too melancholy.

Le maison en petit cubes demonstrates that Katō has matured as an artist. Compared to The Apple Incident his technical skills an animator have become much more polished. Tortov Roddle has many delightful moments, but in terms of storyline and metaphorical meaning it is often difficult to decipher. Le maison en petits cubes, on the other hand, gives just enough story detail for the average spectator to follow, but leaves enough ambiguity for the film to resonate with a wide variety of metaphorical interpretations.

The DVD contains two versions. The first, which was clearly designed with Annecy in mind, has no narration and the credits are in French. The “Japanese” version includes a narration by the young actress Masami Nagasawa and has credits in Japanese. This narration is really superfluous, because the story is very expertly told without words. I imagine that this second version has been created in order to appeal to a wider audience on Japanese television. The DVD includes some biographical information about key staff and is accompanied by three stills from the film in postcard format. The official English title of the film is Pieces of Love, vol 1, whereas the the French and Japapanese titles literally mean 'a house of little blocks'. The English title is interesting because it suggests that this film is the first installment of a series of films. It will be interesting to see if Katō decides to elaborate on the story of the elderly man, in a manner similar to Tomoyasu Murata's My Road series. Judging from the fact that each of Katō's films so far has been stronger than the last, I look forward to seeing what this imaginative artist creates next.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 2009: Members of Crunchy Roll can now watch this film online.

If you enjoyed this film, read this post to learn about other great animation shorts by Japanese artists.

More posts about Kunio Kato:
The Diary of Tortov Roddle
The Apple Incident

Aru Tabibito no Nikki / Animation
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

03 November 2008

Bloomed Words おはなしの花


This cute little Flash animation by young animators Amica Kubo (久保亜美香 aka アミカ) and Seita Inoue (井上太) rose to acclaim in 2006 when it won the Excellence Prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival. The film has since appeared at international festivals around the world and in 2007 was one of the 7 winners (out of over 200 entries) of Studio 4°C's Next Genius competition.

The short animation features two cute little creatures discussing possible travel plans to Hong Kong. As they talk to each other, their thoughts are animated above their heads. For example, when the female speaker first brings up the idea of traveling to Hong Kong, a depiction of skyscrapers is seen above the head of the little brown creature. The blue bird-like character with a male voice, on the other hand, things of panda bears. As their conversation progresses, the playful nature of their dialogue is expressed in the ever more elaborate visual displays of their thoughts, blooming like flowers above their heads.

The dialogue sounds very unscripted and reminded me of Nick Park's early film Creature Comforts (1989) which used a documentary soundtrack of interviews conducted with real working class people to animate animals talking about living conditions in their zoo. The idea in Blooming Words is that the words only give a mere suggestion of what the speaker is thinking about. Japanese, particularly informal Japanese, suggests many more things than what are explicitly said and I think this film does a superb job of demonstrating that. As the visuals build higher, we also get to see a visual display of stream-of-consciousness thought as the female speaker begins talking about Hong Kong, then moves on to mention Hokkaido another popular holiday destination), a TV ad featuring Tsuyoshi Shinjo and so on.

Amica Kubo, a graduate of Tokyo Polytechnic University, has a new film, Go! Moo Coaster! (ゴー!モーコースター) being distributed overseas by Duck Studios. The trailer suggests that the film will feature a small animated rollercoaster on everyday objects such as the spiral binding of a sketchbook. Kubo also sat on the judging panel at this year's animation festival in Ottawa.

Kyoto-born Seita Inoue has been studying at Tama Art University under the tutilage of such animators as Taku Furukawa, Georges Schwizgabel, and Sylvain Chomet.

31 October 2008

UrumaDelvi Paint

Uruma Delvi (うるまでるび) are a husband and wife team known for their distintive CG animation style. They have done a lot of educational shorts for the NHK including Kabuseru Samurai (The Capsule Samurai), a series which ran over the space of four years from 2003-2006. They have also tried their hand at more independently minded projects such as their 2003 contribution to Kihachiro Kawamoto's collective project Fuyu no Hi and their film Mr. Calpaccio (2005) which they sent to numerous festivals around the world including Annency, Animafest Zagreb, and Ottawa.

In the past year they have enjoyed phenominal success with their humorous Minna no Uta short Oshiri Kajiri Mushi (The Bottom-Biting Bug). The film features a dancing and singing bug who travels from the countryside to the city biting people's bums. Normally Minna no Uta shorts run on the network for about two months, but due to its popularity the short ran for five months and the song rose to number 6 on the Oricon charts. The popular little bug was then offered a show of his own entitled "Oshiri Kajiri Mushi to Odorou!"

I generally have a rather lukewarm response to straight CG animation (when it is all done onscreen and nothing has been prepared by hand), but I have recently been warming up to the work of Uruma Delvi. Their recent shorts about a little girl called Sumiko are really excellently done and I am working on a review of them for the near future. Today, however, I wanted to share with you a newsclip I found on Youtube of an interview with Uruma-san as he demonstrates Uruma Delvi Paint. This is an animation software that Uruma Delvi developed with researchers from Tokyo University. It looks very user friendly and I could imagine both children and adults having a lot of fun with it. To see a demo click here and for more information about the product click here. Apparently they hope to have a Beta version ready for public use soon.

Under the clip, I have also written up a filmography of the animated work Uruma Delvi have done so far. This does not include their work in illustration and games. They designed some kind of an animation game called Bikkuri Mouse for Playstation 2 with Toshio Iwai, but I haven't read any reviews of the product yet.


  • 1992 Burutabu-chan, shikato, Kutama (Ugougoruuga)
  • 1993 Mamagauro (Koizumi no Tsukaenai Eigo)
  • 1997 Odekake Makihara-kun (Masahara Takeyuki CD)
  • 2003 Uruma Derubi GOLD (shockwave.com)
  • 2003 Fuyu no Hi (Winter Days, collaborative film directed by Kihachiro Kawamoto)
  • 2003-4 Capsule Samurai  NHK educational shorts, 15秒x8話 )
  • 2005-6 Caspule Samurai (English Version, 20秒x40話 )
  • 2005 (a long day of) Mr. Calpaccio (independent short animation, 7分32秒)
  • 2005 Uruma Delvi DELUXE (excite)
  • 2007 Tetemete (Viacom)
  • 2007 Oshiri Kajiri Mushi (The Bottom-Biting Bug, NHK, Minna no Uta, 3分30秒)
  • 2008 Sumiko Forever (independent short animation, 4分55秒)
  • 2008 Anato no Taido ga Ki ni Hairanai (I Don't Like Your Attitude, independent short animation, 4分03秒)

11 October 2008

Takashi Ishida

Artist, poet, and filmmaker Takashi Ishida will be promoting his work overseas this autumn. I first encountered his films when watching the collection Thinking and Drawing, and was quite taken by his experimentation with the relationship between time and space in animation. His training as a painter has had a big impact on his work and he belongs to the tradition of experimental art animation. One can see influences of Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren, Ken Lye, and Nobuhiro Aihara in his films and installations.


Ishida has been working in Toronto this year having won the Goto Commemorative Culture Award in 2007. A new site-specific installation by Ishida will be presented by The Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (November 12-16, 2008) and Trinity Square Video. The exhibition pairs Ishida with young Canadian artists who also combine drawing, painting, and video.

Installation Opening Reception: Friday, November 14, 5-8pm
Exhibition: November 15 - December 20, 2008
Trinity Square Video, 401 Richmond Street West, suite 376, Toronto
(416) 593-1332


Filmmaker and critic Chris Gehman has also curated a a retrospective of Ishida's work so far at Cinematheque Ontario and the event promises to include some new pieces. The 50 minute screening will be followed by a discussion with the artist himself.

December 3, 2008 7:00 PM
Jackman Hall,
Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto
(416) 968-FILM


Although he's not listed on the official programme, according to his website Ishida will also be attending part of the Aurora Festival in Norwich again this year. The multidisciplinary event promises a wide range of activities related to the manipulation of images. It runs from November 12 -16, 2008 at the Norwich Art Center. Tickets may be booked online or phone 0871 704 2053 (films and discussion events) or 01603 660352 (performance events)

Norwich Arts Centre, St. Benedicts Street, Norwich, England

Memories of Matsuko (嫌われ松子の一生, 2006)

Tetsuya Nakashima's Memories of Matsuko (Kiraware Matsuko no Isshou, 2006) bursts onto the screen like a modern day Busby Berkeley spectacular. However, unlike a Berkeley musical, which usually has a superficial plot with a dash or two of light romance, Memories of Matsuko tells the tragic life story of a woman who has been brutally murdered in a field near her squalid apartment. While most musicals try to 'normalize' their musical numbers by having their main characters be singers or dancers, the musical numbers in Memories of Matsuko products of the imagination of Matsuko or her nephew Shou. Often they provide the same kind of function as a monologue: giving us access to the subjective mind of the central protagonist.

Before we learn about the tragic life of Matsuko, we are first introduced to the chaotic life of Shou Kawajiri whose life has been on a downward spiral since breaking up with his girlfriend. His father visits him with the ashes of his deceased aunt, Matsuko Kawajiri, and asks Shou to help clean up Matsuko's apartment. From there, the story unfolds using a similar narrative technique as Orson Welles's Citizen Kane with Shou piecing together the sordid tale of his aunt's life through the stories told to him by people that knew her such as her punster next-door neighbour, an elegant porn star, a yazuka who was her former lover and one of a long line of men who abused her.

Although the flashbacks are told by others, the narrative voice changes to that of Matsuko, so that we feel her presence telling her life's story throughout the film. She undergoes several tranformations during the film from an apparently motherless young girl desperate to please her father to being a school teacher, a convict, a hair stylist, the devoted girlfriend of an abusive yazuka, and eventually her end as a mentally disturbed bag lady.

The dramatically depressing reality of Matsuko's life is counterbalanced by her colourfully imaginative internal life represented by the musical numbers. Nakayama's dynamic editing and use of CGI was honed during his time as a director of commercials and contributed to the financial and critical success of Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuma monogatari/下妻物語) in 2004. Both films are adaptations of novels by women and feature women as main protagonists. Muneki Yamada (山田宗樹)'s original novel was also adapted into a television drama on TBS in the autumn of 2006 – with a much tamer, romanticized representation of Matsuko's life.

This film has been slammed by many respected film critics, despite the fact that the film evokes for them memories of film classics like Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957), Citizen Kane (1941), not to mention the works of film legends like Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, and Douglas Sirk. The main complaint seems to be that the films visual and emotional excesses, particularly in the drawn out ending making the film come off rather cloying instead of heartfelt. This is perhaps true if the film is compared to the kind of dramas made in the States and Europe, however I think that in the context of contemporary Japanese drama traditions, which seem to revel in the outlandish and overwrought, the ending does not seem out of place. I don't think that this film is for everyone – Chris MacGee at Toronto Jfilm Pow-wow found it disturbing – but certainly is fascinating and thought-provoking.

14 September 2008

Kashiko Kawakita at the NFC

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Kashiko Kawakita (川喜多かしこ, 1908-1993). Kawakita and her husband, Nagamasa Kawakita (川喜多長政, 1903-1981), dedicated their lives to the promotion of Japanese films overseas and foreign films in Japan. Her achievements include sitting on the Cannes Film Festival jury in 1963, founding the Kawakita Film Institute (formerly the Japan Film Library Council) in 1960, as well as contributing to the establishment of the National Film Centre (NFC). She was recognised for her contributions to Japanese Cinema with a special award at the Mainichi Film Concours in 1993.

With the assistance of the Kawakita Film Institute, the NFC is hosting an exhibition of artifacts related to the life of this respected 'film ambassador' known as Madame Kawakita. The exhibition is accompanied by a sereies of screenings entitled Madame Kawakita: L'Ambassadrice cinématographique du film européen (生誕100年川喜多かしこ展). The screenings include Le Million, Alexander Nevsky, Du haut en bas, Les sept péchés capitaux, Le Doulos, Repulsion, Il Desert Rosso, among many other classics of European cinema all on 35mm.

The exhibition runs until December 12th and the screening series runs until September 28th.

02 September 2008

Tomoyasu Murata Summer Animation Course

Tomoyasu Murata (村田朋泰) taught short courses in cel animation and puppet animation this summer at TMC Nishi-Nippori Atelier. He has posted a 9 second clip of the work done by the puppet animation class on youtube. While this may seem like a very short film, it would have involved a lot of work on the part of the students. First constructing the puppets, then learning how to position them in order to take each shot. 9 seconds times 24 frames equals 216 frames that made into the final result... with a lot of trial and error along the way. My favourite for character design is the large-headed character with glasses (second from right in the screencap above). For innovation in presentation, I like the shy couple on far left - the animator of those two managed to put humour (however dark) into a very short amount of time.

Watashi no Kimochi (わたしのきもち, 2004-present)

This short animation produced for the NHK by Aiga areba daijobu is one of my kids' most favourite Japanese television shows (along with Anpanman, Pokemon, and Ichi-jo-man). The Watashi no Kimochi (My Feelings) stop motion animation shorts (usually 2-3 minutes in length) aim to encourage children to openly talk about their emotions. The shorts feature an animated paper cup character who goes by the name Kimotchi (キモッチ) who directly addresses the child spectator and asks the child to participate in games and to follow him on his impulsive adventures, both real and imagined. Kimotchi makes many silly faces and asks the child spectator to guess how he is feeling.

My children howl with delight at Kimotchi's silly antics and word play. Kimotchi particularly enjoys playing games with the Japanese language, making up tongue twisters in an apparently spontaneous manner. The success of the Kimotchi character is due in a large part to the skillful voice acting by Sadao Abe (阿部サダヲ). Abe is a well-known actor (Kamikaze Girls, Kisaru Cat's Eye, First Kiss) and lead singer of the wild & crazy rock band Group Tamashii [check out their hilarious hit song "I Want to Buy You Some Juice" 君にジュースを買ってあげる♥ - this live clip includes some amusing banter with Kotoōshū, who looks like a giant in the front row of the audience].

The animator Mitsuo Shionaga (潮永光生) is the creative force behind Watashi no Kimochi, acting as director, storywriter and character designer. Jun Sasaki (佐々木隼) and Hirofumi Oohashi (大橋弘典) of mupy animation, who regularly do animation for NHK, are responsible for the animation. The concept of an animated paper cup is clever in its simplicity, there are a number of challenges to be overcome in order to execute it as well as Sasaki and Oohashi have. For one thing, drawing on a paper cup is tricky and I wondered when watching it how in the world they managed to do the frame by frame continuity when drawing on a curved surface is so challenging. Fortunately, Sasaki's blog features wonderful entries complete with behind-the-scenes photos that answered all my questions about how they animate the paper cup. Sasaki has even posted a template of the Kimotchi (キモッチ) figure so folks at home can try making their own. He also demonstrates how they draw the character's face flat and then shape it into a cup. Here are some photos of the hundreds of drawings that they create for the character.
The fact that much of the settings for the animation are outdoors or indoors near a window or open door adds another set of challenges to the stop motion animator. Outdoors, the elements interfere with the continuity of the film such as the differentiation of light levels, wind blowing leaves, grass, and curtains, and so on. This is why most stop motion animators choose to do their 'outdoor' work on an indoor model where they can control the levels of light (example: Murata's My Road series).
Jun Sasaki's blog has photos of the team at work outside: controlling rain by using a gardening hose to create rain and covering Kimotchi with a plastic cup to keep his face from running in the rain. In the final product, they've left in some of the 'flaws' inherent in using real locations for stop motion (changes in light, jump cuts of grass moving, etc.) but I think that it gives the film an authentic, hand-made feel that only adds to the charm of its script.

Ginga no Sakana - URSA minor BLUE / Animation
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

01 September 2008

The Diary of Tortov Roddle (或る旅人の日記, 2003-4)

This year Kunio Katō (加藤 久仁生 b.1977) won the Annecy Cristal at the Annecy International Animation Festival for his latest film La maison en petits cubes (Tsumiki no Ie) as well as both the Hiroshima Prize and the Audience Prize at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival. In so doing he is following in the footsteps of Kōji Yamamura who won the Annecy Cristal (in 2003 for Atama Yama) . Yamamura took the Grand Prix at Hiroshima this year for Kafuka Inaka Isha, as well as in 2004 for Atama Yama.

While Katō may be following in Yamamura's steps in terms of winning prizes at festivals, his animation style is very different. The Diary of Tortov Roddle (Aru Tabibito no Nikki, 2003-4), which showed at Annency in 2004 under the category films for the the internet, demonstrates Katō's distinctive style, which Iwa ni Hana likens to the art of Raymond Peynet.

The Diary of Tortov Roddle seems to be the films official English title, but I prefer the more literal translation of the Japanese title: A Traveller's Diary. The film consists of a series of six dream-like vignettes, each approximately two minutes in length, in which a tall, slender man wearing a tall top hat and riding a pig with long, giraffe-life legs recounts his travels through a strange and unusual land.

1.The City of Light (Hikari no to)
2.Midnight Cafe (Mayonakan no Kouhii-ya)
3.The Little Town's Movie Gathering (Chisana Machi no Eigakai)
4.Moonlight Travellers (Tsukiyo no Tabibito)
5.The Meloncholy Rain (Yuutsu na Ame)
6.The Flower and the Lady (Hana to Onna)

Each vignette contains an element of the surreal: cities on the backs of frogs, a fish jumping out of a coffee cup to eat a butterfly, an outdoor cinema projected onto the back of a shirt-wearing bear, slender rabbit people riding off into the sky aboard a flying streetcar, and so on. Vignette #3 seemed inspired both in theme and music by Cinema Paradiso (Guiseppe Tornatore, 1988) , and the flying streetcar in #5 is reminiscent of Galaxy Express 999 (銀河鉄道999, Rintaro 1979).

Katō uses a rather dark, blue-grey-green colour palette in The Diary of Tortov Roddle. His use of clean lines with a fill that has the softness of watercolour is the same aesthetic he uses in his work as an illustrator (examples here and here). He really would make an excellent illustrator of children's picture books. The softness of the fill and the warmth of light flooding into scenes, usually from a single light source like a lamp or window, mean that the film has an atmospheric, slightly melancholy tone without becoming overly gloomy.
The film is also prevented from becoming too melancholy by the marvelous sense of humour that Katō infuses into each vignette. Even the gloomiest of vignettes, such as The Melancholy Rain, end on a positive note with a page from Tortov Roddle's journal putting an optomistic slant on the recounted events. The music also becomes less melancholy with each short film ending with an upbeat musical refrain.

The surrealism of the film is indicated not only by the unusual characters and events that inhabit the mysterious, fictional world that Tortov Roddle travels through, but is also indicated by the slightly off-kilter framing choices. Often the main action or character within a frame is off-center, as in this still taken from the opening of the first vignette.
There are many clever framing choices in Tortov Roddle that create interest on the part of the spectator. In vignette #5 there's a great unexpected shot from the ground looking up with the rain falling directly onto the camera. Another great example is the moment in vignette #3 when the movie being projected in the town square is shown from the perspective of the bear acting as the movie screen.

The music for the film was composed by Kenji Kondo. The animation was produced by Emi Matsumoto at ROBOT animation studio where Katō works alongside other young animators/directors Tatsutoshi Nomura, Takuya Inaba, and Osamu Sakai.

The DVD of this film is available at cdjapan, as is his latest award-winning film Tsumiki no Ie. I am hoping to get my hands on it sometime this month.


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