25 April 2008

22nd Image Forum Festival

The 22nd Image Forum Festival kicks off this Sunday with its usual feast of experimental films and videos both domestic and international. They have four different screening categories this year: New Forum Japan, Japan Tomorrow, New Forum International, and Dream Machine.

New Forum Japan features dozens of experimental shorts made in the past year by Japanese experimental filmmakers and animators. My favourite contemporary animator, Tomoyasu Murata, is screening an omnibus of his Kazoku Dekki series. Check out his website for stills from the four short films. Another exciting entry in the New Forum Japan line-up is a new 16mm film ZAP CAT from Nobuhiro Aihara.

Japan Tomorrow presents the prize-winning films for this year. They had an astonishing 455 entries into the competition from across Japan. The big prize winner was Yosuke Nakamura’s film Unconscious (2007, video, 5’). The Terayama Shūji Prize went to Naoyuki Tokumoto’s film Shiawase (Happiness, 2007, video, 22’). Other winning films included Aienkien Tashou no en koko wa Yamane yongo gumi, Line, Kaiki, and Mermaid.

Image Forum has not only been a place for the fostering of new Japanese experimental film talent, but it is also a forum for Japanese audiences to see experimental work from abroad. The New Forum International showcases a wide range of experimental work from performance art to the latest in avant-garde 3D-CG animation. I highly recommend the programme of contemporary German Experimental Animation which features the work of Max Hattler and Robert Seide. They are currently touring Japanese art galleries, colleges, and other venues. Click here to see their itinerary. The fourth category, Memory Machine features an international selection of films that explore themes of memory, dreams, and hallucination.

The festival runs until the 6th of May. Click here for information about the venue, tickets and screening schedule.

From Innocence to Impermanence

Last month Image Forum in Tokyo screened ten short animation films by cutting edge contemporary animators under the title:


Moku kara Mujou e Āto Animēshon no Tenkanten

After much contemplation, the best translation I can come up with is: “From Innocence to Impermanence: Art Animation’s Turning Point.” Moku (innocence) and Mujou (uncertainty/impermanence) are both Buddhist terms with a depth of meaning that require much more contemplation than a single blog entry allows. The simplest explanation is that one of the basic teachings of Buddhism is “shogyo mujou” meaning that all things are impermanent and that world is in a constant state of flux. My interpretation of this title is that the work of these experimental artists represents a new phase in the ever-changing world of art animation in Japan.

These ten films represented Japan in the Play Forward section of the 60th Locarno Film Festival (April 2007). Play Forward, conceived by Tiziana Finzi, provides an opportunity to present a wide selection of contemporary films that indulge in audiovisual experimentation. The works presented in Play Forward are strong, radical, and sometimes extreme in either form or content.

If you can read Japanese, Takashi Sawa’s introduction to the line-up, film summaries, and stills can be found here. One point of interest Sawa raises is how the increased use of digital technologies have affected animators. My feeling, based on my viewing of other films by these artists, is that most of them try to find a happy medium between traditional animation styles and modern technology. Much of the work in the work of these filmmakers is still done by hand, but computers speed up the editing process considerably. Mika Seike is particularly interesting for her use of scanned real objects (like leaves), collage, and digital technology (the image at top is from Seike’s film).

I have not yet seen the films on this programme, but was translating the information about these new films for my own research purposes and thought I would share them with you. Some of the films have showed separately at international festivals this past year including Aurora (Norwich, UK), VIFF, and the Toronto Japanese Short Film Festival. As this is their second time screening as a set, I am hopeful that Image Forum will produce another DVD as they did with Thinking and Drawing and Tokyo Loop.

Most of these artists have worked with Image Forum in the past. Tanaami Keiichi and Nobuhiro Aihara have made many collaborative films together which they call “animation battles.” Check out anipages for more details. They also produced films independently of each other. They both, along with Mika Seike, Atushi Wada, among others, contributed films for Tokyo Loop. Seike, Suwami Nogami, Naoyuki Tsuji also had their work featured in Thinking and Drawing. Satoshi Ono, one of the younger animators in this group, is perhaps best knowm for the documentary film Homemade Sake (Danshizake, 2001). The film was the product of his studies at Image Forum and won him an award upon graduation from their filmmaking program.

Suzie no Name (Suzu no Name wa, 2006, video, 17’)

Toru Morofuji

In international festivals, this film has screened under the name Suzie no Name, but I think the actual Japanese title would be read Suzu no Name wa, which means “What’s the bell’s name?” In it, a man and a woman from the same country encounter each other in a noodle shop in Bali. They encounter strange characters at every turn. This is the extended version of Morofuji’s earlier film 6756 HAKATA (2003).

Inch-High Samurai (Issun Boushi, 2007, 16mm, 5’)

Keiichi Tanaami and Nobuhiro Aihara

Issun Boushi is a renowned character from a series of children’s picture books published by Kodansha – similar to the story of Tom Thumb in English folklore. Tanaami and Aihara dig deep into their childhood memories of these book to create the images for this film. Not unlike the stories of the Brothers Grimm, Tanaami and Aihara highlight the fear and malice of the classic Issun Boushi tales, and well as their dark humour and unspoken eroticism.

Face to Face (Omukai-san, 2007, video, 9’)

Mika Seike

From the stills I have seen of this film, it is clear that Seike continues to use her signature visual style of scanned objects from nature coloured against a background whose texture reminds me of newspaper print. The male and female characters use the same actors (or models? I think she photographs them then animates the photographed image) as in her previous film. Seike’s films have a feminist theme about the relationship between men and women. In Fishing Vine, the man was a voyeur looking at the woman first through binoculars and then trying futilely to climb up the grape vines to her. In this film, the man and woman finally have a face to face encounter. The film shows how their conversations deepen day by day.

Day of Nose (Hana no hi, 2006, video, 10’)

Atsushi Wada

Benjamin Ettinger saw this film at VIFF in 2005, but as they give a new date it may have been re-worked in the mean while. Ettinger calls it “a surprisingly enjoyable bit of surrealism, with salarymen patiently lined up to have their noses pinched and people lunging at goats and so on. Wada is interesting because he’s mentioned that he didn’t get into animation because he cared about animation. . . It all started with the germ of simply being curious to see how a crude sketch would look if it moved. His films have the naïve freshness and unpredictability of kids’ drawings.” For his full review, click here.

Well, That’s Glasses (Sou iu Megane, 2007, video, 8’)

Atsushi Wada

This film, like Day of Nose, uses Wada’s trademark rounded pen and ink characters to explore what it means to create and how one’s vision alters over time.

3 a.m. (Younaka no Sanji, 2006, video, 6’)

Nogami Suwami

A mysterious and rather beautiful reverie in three short chapters, this film ponders the eternal question of what it means to drink coffee in the middle of the night.

Forgetting (Bou, 2006, video, 5’)

Satoshi Ōno

This film dwells on the question of forgetfulness in our modern culture of convenience and cult of the new, and ponders the value of what is thrown away.

Children of Shadows (Kage no Kodomo, 2006, 16mm, 18’)

Naoyuki Tsuji

In this strange tale depicted in Tsuji’s regonisable charcoal drawing style, a brother and sister are nearly eaten by their father. They escape their home and run away with their father’s black car. They end up in the wilderness, where they meet a giant and a witch. The soundtrack uses the sound of a bass guitar, and the Aurora programme describes it as a cross between a manga and a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

IN IN (2006, video, 2’)

Yoshino Saito

Saito takes the art of animation back to its basics by animating line drawings done on a white board. A modern take on Stuart Blackton’s pioneering chalkboard animation, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906).

BRAIN ASH (2006, video, 8’)

Tomoharu Suzuki

This film takes on the weighty themes of human consciousness and double suicide.

22 April 2008

A Gentle Breeze in the Village (天然コケッコー, 2007)

A noticeable trend at Nippon Connection this year was films that favoured atmosphere and character development over plot. Like Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest and Yosuke Fujita’s Fine, Totally Fine, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s A Gentle Breeze in the Village (天然コケッコ/Tennen Kokekko) devotes a lot of attention to setting just the right tone through his careful attention to setting and community. This results in a heartfelt picture of the life of a young woman growing up in rural southern Japan.

Yamashita is skilled at creating realistic portraits of the lives of teenagers, as he demonstrated in his hit film Linda Linda Linda (2005) which told the story of a group of girls preparing a punk-rock number for a high school talent show. Gentle Breeze moves from the more urban high school setting of Linda Linda Linda to a rural school in the mountainous prefecture of Shimane. Screenwriter Aya Watanabe adapted the award winning 1996 manga Tennen Kokekko by Fusako Kuramochi.

The central character is Soyo Migita, played charmingly by the model turned actress Kaho. Soyo is the eldest student of only six children in a combined primary and junior high school. The children have all grown up together and function like an extended family. It may seem unrealistic for a school to exist with so few students, but it is not uncommon in rural Japan. I have visited such a school at the opposite end of Japan – the town of Toyotomi in northernmost Hokkaido – which had 40 students and even had an American on staff teaching English. Like Soyo, who will have to travel by train to high school the following year, the students in Toyotomi have to become boarders in Sapporo, five hours drive away from home, in order to complete their high school education.

Yamashita introduces us to the rural school, with its roosters in the playground (the kokekko of the Japanese title is an onomatopoeia for sound of a rooster crowing), through the eyes of Soyo. Thus we see her motherly care of young Sa-chan, who is prone to not making it to the toilet in time, and her sisterly relationship with the girls closer to her age. The only boy in the school is Soyo’s brother Kotaro.

The harmony of the group of children is disrupted by the arrival of Hiromi Osawa (Masaki Okada), an attractive boy Soyo’s age who has transferred from his school in Tokyo. Hiromi has moved in with his grandfather because his parents are in the middle of a messy divorce. Thus begins the slow, awkward, but completely realistic, first romantic experience for Soyo.

Hiromi’s arrival also instigates the development of several different storylines and themes. The film ponders the contrast between urban and rural life in Japan and the difficulties for children in rural communities to have a romance without the whole town knowing about it. Soyo must learn to deal with the jealousy of her girlfriends at her budding romance with Hiromi.

I don’t want to give the impression that the film overly romanticizes country life. There are many suggestions of darker things going on behind the scenes. Soyo becomes aware of the fact that Hiromi’s mother may have been sweethearts with her father when they were younger, and she speculates that they may still have feelings for each other. Yamashita handles these subplots deftly. As we only see the world through Soyo’s perspective, these background stories are suggested but Yamashita leaves it up to the audience to fill in the details, much in the same way one would in real life. The chatty postman, who embarrasses everyone with his gossip and speculation, adds a dash of humour to the proceedings.

Films about young love often come off too stagy because the actors lack the maturity to pull off romantic scenes convincingly. At other times, comedy is used to distract from the awkwardness of young love. In A Gentle Breeze in the Village, Yamashita leaves the awkwardness in and allows the two young actors to fumble their way through the early stages of teen romance with charm, tenderness, and the real discomfiture that attends such moments. The resulting film is a real pleasure to watch. Here the trailer to give you a hint of why you should watch this film:

Filmography: Nobuhiro Yamashita (山下 敦弘)

* 1999 Hazy Life (どんてん生活/Donteneikatsu)
* 2003 No One’s Ark (ばかのハコ船/Baka no hakobune)
* 2003 Ramblers (リアリズムの宿/Riarizumu no yado)
* 2004 Cream Lemon (くりいむレモン/Kuriimu Remon)
* 2005 Linda, Linda, Linda (リンダリンダリンダ)
* 2005 Ten Nights of Dream (collaborative film; ユメ十夜/Yume juu-ya) 
* 2006 The Matsugane Potshot Affair (松ヶ根乱射事件/Matsugane ransha jiken)
* 2007 A Gentle Breeze in the Village (天然コケコー/Tennen kokekkō)

Tennen Kokekko Original Soundtrack BY REI HARAKAMI / Original Soundtrack (Rei Harakami)

Original Soundtrack (Rei Harakami)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

21 April 2008

Takashi Ishida film at Oberhausen

Takashi Ishida's latest short film, Umi no eiga (海の映画/Film of the Sea, 2007), will be competing in the international competition at Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen on May 3rd. Also in Ishida's screening group is a film called Detonation by Fumiro Sato. The programme says that directors of the short films will be on hand to answer questions following screenings.

While I am unfamiliar with the work of Fumiro Sato, Ishida has already established himself as an artist on the international scene. He has done many short films and art installations in Japan, Europe and North America. His principle preoccupation is with questioning the relationship between time, form and space in artistic representation. His 1999 film Gestalt, reminded me of the experimental work of Norman McLaren. Benjamin Ettinger suggests that Ishida's work interrogates the question of "What is cinema?" through his innovative use of showing us pictures as they develop through time. Check out Ishida's website for a glimpse at the work of this exciting contemporary artists and animator. His profile features wonder photographs and descriptions of his installation work as well as stills from his films.

Umi no eiga seems to have evolved from his art installation Wall of the Sea, which last year showed at the Yokohama Museum of Art as a part of their exhibition Views of Water: From Monet and Taikan to the Present. Wall of the Sea featured three side-by-side projected images. From what I can gather from the description on his website, Ishida has adapted the image to fit 'the film space' and again seems to be dabbling in an exploration of time and space through the motifs of repetition and silence. Music and sound are a vital part of the film. Umi no eiga features music by Tomomi Adachi.


  • 1994 Shisha-no-sho (video, 8’)
  • 1995 Scroll (Emaki, 8mm, 8’)
  • 1996 Scroll 2 (Emaki 2, 8mm, 5’)
  • 1997 The Scroll of Darkness (Yami no Emaki, video, 7’)
  • 1999 Gestalt (Heya/Keitai, 16mm, 7’)
  • 2001 The Art of the Fugue (Fūga no Gihou, 16mm, 19’)
  • 2002 Fire/Extension (Hi/Enchō, video, 5’)
  • 2002 Chair and Screen (Isu to Sukurīn, video, 8’)
  • 2002 Ema/Emaki for the Écran (Ema/Emaki Seiseisuru Ekuran no tame ni, 16mm, 3’)
  • 2005 Burning Chair (Moeru Isu, mini-DV/video, 5’)
  • 2006 Scroll/Scroll2 (Ema/Emaki2, 16mm, 6’)
  • 2007 Film of the Sea (Umi no Eiga, mini-DV, 12’)

20 April 2008

Kawamoto: The Puppet Master Film Season

If you live in the U.K. be sure to check out the Kihachiro Kawamoto season as it passes through Sheffield and London. Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye will be in Sheffield on the 25th April at 6pm to personally introduce the first of the three programmes, Demons, Poets, and Priests at the Sheffield Showroom.

The following week, the programme moves to the Barbican. The final screening of The Book of the Dead at the Barbican on the 3rd of May will be preceded by Jasper Sharp in conversation with animation expert Helen McCarthy. I had the opportunity to see these films for the first time on film (instead of DVD) at Nippon Connection earlier this month and they are truly amazing. I don't want to go off on a purist diatribe about the difference between watching movies on film or watching them on a flatscreen, but it really was like watching the films for the first time all over again. I was particularly taken by Kawamoto's attention to detail in his use of colour and puppet movement.

Not all of us have access to such rare films in the cinema, however, and distributor Kino is planning on releasing The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto on DVD this week. They are also the distributor for The Book of the Dead. The Exquisite Short Films DVD is currently available for pre-order here. Although Kino's website claims it will not be immediately available for customers outside of the U.S. and Canada, you can sign up for notification of it's availability at amazon.co.uk, where they claim it will be released April 22nd. The DVD will include:
  • The Breaking of Branches Is Forbidden (14 min / 1968 / Color)
    A monk orders a young acolyte, who happens to have a fondness for sake, to guard a beautiful cherry blossom tree.
  • The Demon (8 min / 1972 / Color)
    A pair of hunters encounter a ghastly demon in the woods. Escaping by severing the apparition’s arm, they make an even more grisly discovery on the journey home. Based on the 12th-century Japanese medieval legend Konjaku-monogatari.
  • An Anthropo-Cynical Farce (8 min / 1970 / B&W / In French with optional English subtitles)
    A dog race is interrupted by a ringmaster who attaches fish to the animals’ collars and makes them run in circles. The crowd becomes incensed and the ringmaster finds himself in a race for his life.
  • The Trip (12 min / 1973 / Color / No dialogue)
    A young girl sets off on a surreal metaphysical voyage through which she will learn all the pain and joy of life.
  • A Poet’s Life (19 min / 1974 / Color)
    A mysterious meditation on the power of poetic imagination. A worker fired from a factory for demanding higher wages is plagued by ghastly nightmares. Based on a story by novelist Kobo Abe.
  • Dojoji Temple (19 min / 1976 / Color)
    Two pilgrims, an elderly monk and his young disciple, out on a spiritual journey, encounter a mysterious woman whose frenzied passions transform her into a huge white serpent.
  • House of Flames (19 min / 1979 / Color)
    A Japanese “Drama of the Absurd.” A young village woman is torn between two suitors. Out of anguish, she decides to destroy herself. Although her intentions are pure, her death reverberates with shocking consequences.

19 April 2008

Kusama: Princess of Polka Dots

American experimental and documentary filmmaker Heather Lenz is currently in production with a documentary on the life and career of Yayoi Kusama (草間彌生). According to the official website for the film, the debut of the film will coincide with the retrospective planned by the Film Arts Foundation in celebration of Kusama's 80th birthday in 2009. The retrospective, Yayoi Kusama: An Odyssey will travel to at least four venues in the States and Europe, though the venues have not yet been announced.

Kusama’s art is shaped by her long struggle with mental illness. She herself claims that her famous polka dot motif comes from her hallucinations and dreams. Ever since I encountered the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland a decade ago, I have been fascinated by l’art brut (literally ‘rough art’, it usually means self-taught artists removed from mainstream art or mentally ill artists). Often l’art brut has a loneliness or deep melancholy about it, which can be very depressing. What makes Yayoi Kusama’s art so unique, is that her obsessions and experience with mental illness expresses itself in colourful art, that I actually find quite uplifting.

Kusama made a name for herself in1960s New York City. A friend to Andy Warhol, and other avant-garde artists of the times, she organized weird and wonderful mass events, known as ‘Kusama Happenings”, in places like Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, often in protest against the war in Vietnam. As an artist, she has dabbled in painting, sculpture, installations, performance art, fashion design, poetry, novels, and experimental films.

I am really excited at how this documentary about Kusama’s life and art will turn out. It looks as if it will take a feminist approach to Kusama’s struggles with mental illness and her career as an eccentric artist. The producers and project advisors are all women, and the promotional clip features a variety of women speaking about Kusama’s relationship with her art.

As a side note, when I went to the website of Lausanne’s Collection de l’Art Brut in order to make the hyperlink for this article, I noticed that they are featuring a special exhibition on Japanese l’art brut until September 28th. What a coincidence! The exhibition features twelve self-taught artists including Shinichi Sawada, Satoshi Nishikawa, Mitsuteru Ishino, Hidenori Motooka, Masao Obata, Yuji Tsuji, Takashi Shuji, Takanori Herai, Toshimitsu Tomizuka, Eijiro Miyama, Tohshiaki Yoshikawa, and Moriya Kishaba. They have also produced a catalogue and a DVD for purchase at the museum.

A travelling exhibition, called Crossing Spirit, is currently touring Japan and will be at the Borderless Art Museum (NO-MA) in Omihachiman until May, followed by the Shiodome Museum in Tokyo until July.

16 April 2008

Mitsuwa's Nanahon Hinoki

Nanahon Hinoki (七本ひのき/The Seven-Branched Cypress) is a wonderful short animation with an environmentalist theme. The film was made as part of TBS’s long-running Manga Nippon Mukashi-banashi (まんが日本昔はなし/ Japanese folk tale manga) series. The word ‘manga’ in English has come to mean Japanese comic books, but it is a word with a long history in Japanese culture and refers to the centuries old tradition of telling stories with pictures.

The series has been airing since 1975 on MBS (Mainichi Broadcasting System). It was later picked up by TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) who continues the weekly series. The primary aim of Manga Nippon Mukashi-banashi seems is to promote Japanese traditional forms of storytelling in a way that appeals to children. The stories also have a didactic element to them – teaching kids an important life lesson. The best things about this series and the NHK’s popular Minna no Uta (みんなのうた/ Everybody’s Song) programme is that they provide great opportunities for animators to get their work seen by millions of viewers.

The film first aired on the 1st of July, Heisei 1 (1989), but it has clearly shown more recently as copies of it with the time of airing in the corner have trickled onto the internet. It was directed by the skilled animation artist Takakeru Mitsuwa (三輪孝輝). Mitsuwa was responsible for a number of films in the Manga Nippon Mukashi-banashi series. He is perhaps best known for his contribution to Ozamu Tezuka’s work including for Pictures at an Exhibition (展覧会の絵, 1966) and Bagi, the Monster of Mighty Nature (大自然の魔獣 バギ, 1984).

Nanahon Hinoki tells the story of a great cypress tree in the mountains of Nara. An elderly man, whose vision is failing him, brings offerings to the sacred tree every day. Along comes a lumberjack who also admires the tree and sees the profit that could be made from cutting the tree down and carving it into furniture for a wealthy patron. The elderly man is appalled but helpless to do anything to stop the lumberjack. The lumberjack gathers together a group of local men who, despite knowing the tree’s sacred significance, allow greed to get the better of them and agree to help the lumberjack cut down the huge tree. They cannot finish their task in one day, but when they return the next day they discover that the tree has magically healed itself. The lumberjack refuses to give in so easily and continues to try to bring down the tree. I won’t give away the ending, but needless to say there is a moral to this story. To watch the film with English subtitles, click here. To watch it without subtitles, click here.

Watching Nanahon Hinoki, I wondered if Hayao Miyazaki had seen this animation or perhaps knew the fable before making Tonari no Totaro. Although the sacred tree in this film is a cypress (hinoki) not a camphor (kusunoki), it is still an interesting point of common ground. Of course, it is quite common to see trees revered as sacred throughout Japan. Meiji Jingu has a couple of very impressive examples such camphor trees. However, Nanahon Hinoki shares a certain kind of reverence for nature that one sees throughout the Studio Ghibli oeuvre. Particularly in Tonari no Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Pom Poko.

14 April 2008

Apple Polka

In my regular trawling of the internet for video clips by up and coming animation artists, I found this cute first claymation by Michiko Sato. Out of admiration for Czech animators, she gives it a Czech title Jablko Polka - Ringo no Poruka in Japanese or Apple Polka in English. She also uses Czech in her title cards and animation style. I hope that after this test run, she will improve the consistency of her lighting and try a more ambitious project. The world needs more women doing claymation!

It's a big hit with my young daughter (who loves apples & rabbits), so enjoy:

Neo Tokyo3

While I was in Frankfurt for Nippon Connection, I took some time out from the screenings to see the Neo Tokyo3 exhibit at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum. It is right next door to the Deutsches Filmmuseum, where I saw their corresponding exhibit Anime! High Art – Pop Culture last month.

On the main floor, the Architecture Museum features some amazing photographs of German theatres that were taken before the second World War. They also have a remarkable exhibit of models that recreate towns and villages from a wide range of historical eras, from London’s Crystal Palace as it looked in 1851 to the Forum in Pompeii. Although the museum may look very posh from the outside, it is actually a very inviting place with Lego play stations for kids to build their own architectural marvels while their parents take their time examining the art on display.

One must climb all the way to the top floor (the elevator was a bit hidden) for the Neo Tokyo3: Architeture in Manga and Anime exhibition which runs until June 8th of this year. The exhibition gets its name from the futuristic cities in the Akira (1982) manga and the Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) anime. Neo Tokyo + Tokyo3 = Neo Tokyo3. Apparently Akira was the first manga series published in full in Germany. The curators claimed that the urban structures in manga evoke a certain kind of mood in the reader which affects both the protagonists of the manga and the framework of the storyline.

One section of the exhibit featured sculptures, drawings and photographs from a wide range of international artists including Kenzo Tange, Kishi Kurokawa, Ron Herron, Ettore Sottsass, Raimund Abraham, Walter Jonas, and Peter Cook. This section of the exhibition outlined the Metabolist movement, which was established at the World Design Conference in Tokyo in 1960. The Metabolists, a group of architects, theorists, and designers, were reacting against modernism and the architecture of the 1950s and they were proponents of an architecture style that became known as Megastructures. The main argument of the exhibit seemed to be about the influence of the Metabolist movement on architecture in manga and anime. Some of the designs featured had been directly recreated in manga, while others provided inspiration for manga architecture.

Something that I learned from the exhibit was that manga publishers hire trained architectural draughtsmen and engineers to assist with the development of futuristic cityscapes in manga. There were a few examples of sketches done by architects during the planning stages of manga that were remarkable for their attention to detail. In the draughtsman section of the exhibit, the museum had made available a wide range of manga and related books for visitors to browse including Clamp X, Akira, Evangelion, and a wonderful Japanese-language art book about the making of Rintaro’s Metropolis that I really must get a hold of. I actually had thought that the exhibit would feature more about the influence of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on anime and manga, as it would have been an obvious point of contact between German and Japanese culture, but the focus was more on the international impact of Japanese architectural designs.

Accompanying the exhibition was a booklet containing an essay by two German academics and the curator (all architecture specialists) in German and English that covers all the theoretical ground of the exhibition. It includes black and white images of some of the art on display. It is a limited edition publication and unfortunately not available to buy on amazon.de. Try contacting the museum directly.

AKIRA - DTS / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

13 April 2008

The Mourning Forest (殯の森, 2007)

There is an old Japanese saying (Nihon no kotowaza) that says “Iwanu ga hana” (言わぬが花) which literally means “to not speak is a flower” and is roughly equivalent to the English proverb “silence is golden.” While a few filmmakers can get away with using a lot of dialogue in their films (Woody Allen would be a rare exception), the best films are the ones the privilege the image over dialogue. The Mourning Forest is just such a film.

Naomi Kawase’s poignant The Mourning Forest (殯の森, 2007), which won last year’s Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, tells much of its story through character expression, mise-en-scene, and its subtle use of sound. Set in the Nara countryside that Kawase grew up in, the film tells the story of Machiko (Machiko Ono), a young woman who works in a senior citizen’s home and has recently lost her young son. One of the elderly residents in the home, Shigeki (played by non-actor Shigeki Uda) is drawn to Machiko because he reminds him of his wife, Mako, whose name is only one syllable different from Machiko’s.

Their relationship is rather awkward and uncomfortable at first. Shigeki behaves in an unpredictable manner that often throws Machiko off-guard. With time, however, they grow closer and their friendship is established in a beautiful scene in which they play hide-and-go-seek among the rounded rows of tea bushes.

Machiko and Shigeki also bond over their shared grief for their loved ones. Machiko’s grief is very fresh and Shigeki’s mourning for his wife is heightened by his senility. In Japanese Buddhism, ceremonies are performed to celebrate the karma of the deceased taking on a new form. The first such ceremony takes place on the 49th day after a person’s death. The Buddhist priest in the film reminds Shigeki that the 33rd anniversary of his wife’s death is approaching which means that she will undergo her final transformation and become a Buddha.

It is with this spiritual set of circumstances that Machiko takes Shigeki out for a daytrip in the countryside. The day is going well until Machiko runs the car into a ditch. She wavers about leaving Shigeki alone with the car, and shouts out towards the neighbouring farm for help. When she receives no response, she decides to risk leaving Shigeki for a few moments in order to find assistance. When she returns, she discovers that Shigeki has run off into the woods.

Machiko follows him but he resists returning to the car and heads ever deeper into the forest. At first, Machiko pleads with him to come with her, but after a while she acquiesces to fate and follows him silently through the trees. The forest, with its looming trees and floor thick with sasa (dwarf bamboo), gives the film its emotional centre. It is mostly dark, with the sun occasionally breaking through the thick canopy of leaves. At the end of the film, a title card explains that the term ‘mogari’, or period of mourning comes from an older expression ‘mo agari’ meaning the end of mourning. Thus the forest takes on a symbolic meaning as the site for of the resolution of the mourning process.

When The Mourning Forest won the Grand Prix last year against some stiff competition from internationally established filmmakers like the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, there were grumblings from reporters that it was a compromise choice or a political decision to reassert Cannes’ reputation for honouring art films. The film also made it into the Shukan Bushan’s list of ten worst movies of 2007, where they criticized the film as being ‘boring.’

To be sure, the film does move at a slow pace and requires a spectator who is willing to open themselves up to the spiritual journey of the protagonists. Coming in at 97 minutes, it’s not nearly as slow-paced as an Andrei Tarkovsky film though it is just the kind of poetic film that Tarkovsky would have enjoyed watching. The use of a location as the site of an emotional journey reminded me of Peter Weir’s haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and a moving little film, perhaps little known to those outside Canadian film studies, The Company of Strangers (Cynthia Scott, 1990). Like The Company of Strangers, Kawase also blurs the lines between documentary and fiction modes in that the characters have the same name as the actors playing the roles. If you like the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Kieslowski, or Kenji Mizoguchi, then The Mourning Forest is most definitely for you.

11 April 2008

Kami no Shizuku (Les gouttes de Dieu)

Felicity Hughes has written up a wonderful interview she did with Tadashi Agi about their manga series Kami no Shizuku (The Drops of the Gods) in order to gauge their reaction to the manga's debut in the French language. Tadashi Agi is the pen name of the brother and sister team that writes the storyline: Shin and Yuko Kibayashi. The illustrations are done by Shu Okimoto.

The manga, which has been running in weekly installments since 2004, tells the story of Shizuku Kanzaki, a young wine connoisseur whose father, renowned wine critic Yudora Kanzaki has just passed away. Shizuku must compete against his rival and adopted brother, wine critic Itsusei Tomine to find his father's 12 most prized wines - the 'gouttes de Dieu' of the title. The person who finds them all will inherit the father's prized wine collection. The wines featured in the manga are not fictitious, and the authors describe them romantic, exaggerated language.

Kami no Shizuku has already had tremendous success in South Korea and China, so I feel sure it is only a matter of time before it gets adapted into an anime. The series has clearly already done for French wine sales in Asia what Nodame Cantabile did for popularizing classical music study for teenagers. The only false note in Hughes's otherwise delightful article, were the opinions of French wine expert Tim Johnson, who claimed "It doesn't seem to me like a serious art form, and the French are so stuffy about wine. . . I can't see it going down well with the establishment." Clearly Monsieur Johnson is ignorant about the popularity of Japanese culture, in both its high and low forms, in France. The French are avid manga and anime consumers and I feel sure that the French wine industry, which has been suffering at the hands of competition from America and Australia, won't turn their noses up at some free advertising in a work of popular fiction.

This manga sounds like a lot of fun (I've had a glimpse at illicit scans of it online), and I've been looking for something fun to read in my down time (ie when I'm not watching experimental films for my research). I'm not sure that I can wait to get a hold of a copy of the manga from Japan, so I may order the debut copy from Amazon.fr. I can add it to my order of Naomi Kawase's films Moe no suzaku (1997) and Sharasojyu (2003) which are very reasonably priced in France. If you are a Japanese film collector and can read French (or don't need subtitles), it is definitely worth looking at what's available on DVD in France. They have a wide range of Japanese cinema and anime that one cannot find in North America or the UK, and it is much cheaper than buying DVDs from Japan.

Kami no Shizuku / Japanese TV Series

Japanese TV Series

10 April 2008

The Future of Japanese Puppet Animation

Keita Funamoto of the Tokyo animation studio The Village of Marchen has posted some short puppet animations done by students taught by himself and Hifumi Shibakura. The animation class was held at Ikebukuro Community College over the course of six months. According Funamoto, the students were given armature (kinetic chains used in computer animation) kits called ArmaBenders designed by Tetsu Kawamura. They could also use cernit for the claymation. For amateurs, the quality of the image is really quite high in all five shorts. It gives one hope for the future of stop motion in Japan. Here is the clip:

The Village of Marchen
specializes in stop motion and flash animation. Some of their films are available for viewing online.

Nippon Connection

I found a great interview with Marion Klomfass at Deutsche Welle (English version) that gives an overview of the history of the Nippon Connection film festival. It includes a lot of interesting statistics and mentions some of the highlights of the festival. I have already written about some of the films I saw at the festival including the Open Art Animation, experimental animation Salt Lake Screaming, and the film that one the audience choice award at the festival Fine, Totally Fine. I am still working on reviews of other films that I saw at Nippon Connection including Ying Li's controversial Yasukuni documentary, Shinji Aramaki's Appleseed: Ex Machina, Eiji Uchida's Sisterhood, Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest, Makoto Shinkai's 5 Centimeters per Second, Nobuhiro Yamashita's touching films Linda, Linda, Linda and his latest film A Gentle Breeze in the Village, and Ichiro Kataoka's benshi performance of Kinugasa's Page of Madness. Needless to say, it may take me a wee while to get through all my notes from the festival!

For my research for a book I am writing on Japanese art animation I also watched almost all of the Nippon Retro films. This included selections of films by Yoji Kuri, Taku Furukawa, Renzo Kinoshita, Kihachiro Kawamoto, and Tadanari Okamoto. It was really great seeing these films on 16mm and 35mm as for the most part I have only watched digital copies of these works. I am really impressed by the films in available in the The Japan Foundation library.

I may have caught a lot of screenings, but I did miss out on a lot of films I really wanted to see due to problems with scheduling. Films screened at Nippon Connection that I hope to have the opportunity to watch in the near future include Osamu Tezuka's Pictures at an Exhibition, Nobuhiro Doi's Nada Sou Sou, Shinji Imaoka's The Tender Throbbing Night, Yasutomo Chikuma's Now, I..., and Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army.

My biggest regret was that I couldn't make Hirono Yamada's benshi performance. I don't think he performs overseas very often so I may have to wait until the next time I'm in Japan to catch one of his performances. Yamada has modernized the benshi practice in an exciting way. He shoots his own silent films, influenced by the aesthetic of 1970s exploitation films. I would love to hear from anyone who saw his performance at Nippon Connection or elsewhere.

If you can read German, there are some great reviews of films from the festival already posted on Janik Liebt Nachrichten. Jason Gray has also written an extensive article detailing his experience of Nippon Connection. There is some interesting debate in the comments section about Yasukuni.

Update (20 April 2008): here is the link to the Midnight Eye article Jasper mentions in the comment below giving the background to the Nippon Connection festival. Mark Nornes gives some interesting insight into the politics of film festivals in general.

09 April 2008


The excitement surrounding the next Hayao Miyazaki film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (崖の上のポニョ) is starting to build online. Studio Ghibli's official website is slowly allowing more and more information about the film to leak onto the internet. Ghilbi World has translated much of the latest information with pictures here.

The film will tell the story of a goldfish princess called Ponyo who dreams of becoming human. In the course of her story she befriends a young boy called Sosuke, who is rumoured to have been based on Miyazaki's son (of Earthsea fame) he was five years old. From what I understand, the film draws inspiration from Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid and the Japanese folktale Urashima Taro in which a fisherman rescues a turtle.

There is talk that the official Japanese trailer for the film will be available later this month, and a release date for the film will be sometime in the summer. The online production diary says that the number of animation cels numbers more that 160,000. Nausicaa.net compares this to the reported 112,000 used in Spirited Away (2001), 140,000 in Princess Mononoke (1997), and 148,000 in Howl's Moving Castle (2004). The film is being animated without CGI and will have a watercolour look, much like Isao Takahata's My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999).

For a peek check out the official soundtrack song performed by Fujioka Fujimaki (stage name of popular duo Takaaki Fujioka and Naoya Fujimaki). It was released to much fanfare in early December. I really like the song. I think it has the potential to become a children's classic in Japan just like the opening & ending songs from Tonari no Totoro.

1000 Years of Manga

I just got the German translation of Mille ans de manga (1000 Years of Manga, Flammarion, 2008) as a present. It has also been translated into English. It's a pricey book, but it's packed with colourful illustrations that trace the history of manga back through centuries of artistic tradition. The author, Brigitte Koyama-Richard, has published several books in French on Japanese culture and is a professor of comparative culture and art history at Tokyo University. This book is a must have for anyone with a passion for Japanese art and popular culture.

07 April 2008

Salt Lake Screaming (舞いあがる塩, 2007)

I always like to check out any student films or unusual collections of short films at festivals. Although one risks sitting through some pretty dire films before finding any gems, the risk is worth it. There is nothing more exciting at a film festival than the feeling of discovery when watching a film demonstrates an originality of vision and a freshness of subject matter.

Among the films on offer at the Waseda Musabi Student Film Explosion session at Nippon Connection on Saturday, an 18 minute animation by Hiroyuki Mizumoto stood out for me as a director with promise. His film, Salt Lake Screaming (Maiagaru Shio, 2007) uses a daring mixture of animation styles including stop motion and cel animation, as well as incorporating elements of experimental filmmaking. The programme synopsis gave this analysis of the film’s meaning: “All of us live with products manufactured in different countries: the familiar always holds something alien. How does this influence the reality of things?”

I am not really sure what to make of that interpretation. My own understanding of the film was that Mizumoto was trying to express something about our relationship to the environment. In Shinto, salt is used in purification rituals. Salt is, of course, essential to life, but an excess of salt can be destructive. In my view, the film explores this ambiguous relationship between people and salt, and suggests larger questions of environmentalism and community.

My only criticism of the film is that it relies too heavily on the voice-over narration. The images that Mizumoto created demonstrate that he has an amazing talent as an artist. He needs to allow his visuals to speak for themselves and to use narration only minimally. His readiness to take risks in his use of images and the experimental way in which he used montage suggest that there will be many exciting films to look forward to in the future career of this young artist. Check out Mizumoto’s webpage for stills from his earlier films and for examples of his photographic work.

Hiroyuki Mizumoto (水本博之) Filmography

* The Nightmare of the Radish (Chinurareta Daikon / 血塗られた大根, 2002)

* HAMETSU (2003)

* The Place of the End (Koura Bijyon Saihate no Henkyou / 甲羅ビジョン最果ての辺境, 2003)

* Two Trips and a Coffee(Futatsu no Tabi to Kouhii / 2つの旅とコーヒー , 2003 )

* Home, Movies, and from Outer Space (Ie to Eiga to Yūsei / 家と映画と遊星 , 2005 )

* The Destruction Sounds of the Monster from the Deep Sea (Shinkai kara kuru Oto / 深海から来る音 , 2006)

* The Long Journey (Nagai Tabi / 長い旅, 2006)

* Salt Lake Screaming (Maiagaru Shio / 舞いあがる塩, 2007)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

Fine, Totally Fine (全然大丈夫, 2008)

The funniest film at Nippon Connection this year was unquestionably Yosuke Fujita’s Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen Daijobu, 2007). The film put such a delightful spell on its spectators that the film managed to beat out some pretty stiff competition from competing films to win the top prize at the festival.

Unlike most comedies, which immerse audiences in a storyline and move from plot point to plot point, Fine, Totally Fine works its magic through character development. We are introduced to a set of quirky characters who delight with their unusual hobbies and personality quirks. Taking centre stage is Teruo Tōyama, played with comic finesse by the irrepressible Yoshiyoshi Arakawa. Teruo loves scaring his friends and complete strangers with horror gags. By day he works in parks management and in his spare time he creates elaborate horror models and gags. He also helps his father, who is experiencing a mid-life crisis, run the family second-hand bookstore.

The bookstore becomes the focal point for the eclectic cast of characters who wander in and out of the narrative. Conflict eventually arises when Teruo’s best friend Hisanobu Komori (Yoshinori Okada), a medical center manager with a soft heart, and Teruo both fall for the shy, horrifically accident-prone artist Akari Kinoshita (Yoshino Kimura). Each of the characters has a personal issue that they need to work through. Teruo dreams of creating the most spectacular haunted house in the world so that he can prove to his friends and family that his hobby is not childish. Komori finds that his staff are trying to match-make for him and needs to overcome his shyness to find the romantic relationship he desires to have. Akari also needs to overcome her shyness and connect with people instead of only connecting with the world around her through her art.

The film completely fascinated me in the way it kept me fully engaged through comic gags and character development. Yosuke Fujita, who both wrote and directed Fine, Totally Fine, has worked in theatre comedy for many years working with the Otona Keikaku comedy troupe. The impeccable timing of the 2-part gag set up was reminded me of the films of the three greats of the silent era: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. The first gag would start you laughing, then Fujita would hit you with a second, even funnier gag that would escalate the audience laughter even further. Like Chaplin, Fujita also adds sentimentality and romance through crushes that Komori and Teruo develop on the beautiful Akari. The bittersweet ending also has a Chaplinesque charm about it.

Other things to like about the film include the endearing performances of the supporting cast. Fujita’s script allows each character to shine long enough to make a solid impression on the audience. The horror dolls designed by expert movie model-maker Hiroshi Sagae are priceless. Examples of Sagae’s horror dolls done in Arakawa’s likeness can be seen at ryuganji.net. You can also see them pop-up on the official homepage for the movie, where you can also listen to a sample the relaxing soundtrack music.

Although this film hasn’t even made it onto the Internet Movie Database yet, perhaps because it is the feature film debut of Fujita, I have a feeling that it will make it onto the international art house circuit. Fine, Totally Fine is a real comic gem.

03 April 2008

Open Art Animation

Last night at Nippon Connection I watched the Open Art Animation shorts from Open Art TV. Here’s a run down of what they showed. I will definitely do follow-up pieces on a couple of these films that were real stand-outs, like Sakamoto’s The Dandelion Sister (蒲公英の姉). The films were all presented via projected DVD.

The Fisherman (Saku Sakamoto, 2002, 14 min.)

A surreal vision in which talk, thin human figures hunt oversized fish that swim through the desert. This was the first time that I have seen a CGI film in which they were able to give the effect of a hand-held camera in certain scenes.

Slide 002 (Takahiro Hirata, 2005, 4 min.)

This piece begins with the slow view from the elevator of a skyscraper of a Canadian urban scene. The view contains no hint of the natural world. The only clues to its location are a Canadian flag flying on top of the first building we see, and a Scotia bank symbol on a skyscraper. From the smogginess, I would guess this film was shot in Toronto, but it didn’t contain any famous features of the city (ie no SkyDome, harbour, or Queen Street views). It did not look like it had been shot from the CNTower, but perhaps from a building in the business district. After a couple of vertical trips up and down, the shot then moves horizontally, and soon the filmmaker begins to break up the image into different sections and plays with perspective and geometric patterns in interesting way. My only criticism of this film was that the insistent ‘thump thump thump’ of the soundtrack is quite monotonous and by the end of the film was detracting from my enjoyment of the film. I am guessing that Hirata chose such a soundtrack to create a sense of unease, instead of choosing music that might romanticize the beauty of the ‘slide show’ he was creating on the screen.

Kleenex-man, The Terrorist (Shuhei Shibue, 2005, 1:56 min.)

This film won me over from beginning with its hilarious representation of one of these girls that hand out Kleenex outside major train stations in big cities in Japan. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this (I think much of the audience didn’t get it because I was the only one laughing), in Japan they found that people are reluctant to take flyers that are handed to them on the street. So, advertisers decided to put the ads onto something useful - a small bag of portable tissues – because they found that the public was more likely to take something useful for them. In the flu and allergy seasons (cedar pollen!!!) in Japan, it really is quite a handy thing.

The girl in this film has her hair covering her face and is standing in the countryside instead of an urban setting. Business men and cars still come by, and are dealt with by her in surreal and absurd ways. I haven’t worked out the meaning of the food flying around after she trips a car with a futon (I told you it was surreal) but it is a visual delight and I always enjoy it when art films have a sense of humour.

Piece (Yusuke Koyanagi, 2006, 2:27 min.)

This film plays with digital images and seems to be making a statement about globalization.

Around (Ryu Kato, 2007, 3:12 min.)

I was quite impressed by this surreal cel animation. The way in which figures morph into one another and the soundtrack reminds me of some of the work done by Koji Yamamura and Tomoyasu Murata. This animator shows a lot of promise and I will be keeping an eye out for his future work.

Mr. Cloud and Mr. Rain (Tomoyoshi Joko, 2007, 6:34 min)

This looked like it may have been done using Flash animation. It’s a kind of a fable about the relationship between a man made of cloud and a man made of rain. A beautiful and humorous flight of fancy.

The Kinrakuen (Daisuke Hagiwara, 2007, 6:30 min.)

A very clever film that at first just seems like a graphic playing with i images taken from a wide variety of currencies, but soon transforms itself into a political statement on the relationship between money and political power, war, and imperialism.

The Dandelion Sister (Yusuke Sakamoto, 2007, 20:30 min.)

This claymation film was a delightful discovery. It tells the tale of the difficult relationship between two sisters. The younger sister struggles with her feelings for her older sister, a talented artist who is ill. By adding the surreal touch of the ailing older sister being a dandelion, Sakamoto is able to lesson the sentimentality of the story and transform it into an artistic rendering of the younger sister’s journey through sorrow that ends in her discovering herself as an artist herself. A real gem of a film.

A Story Constructed of 17 Pieces of Space and 1 Maggot
(Isamu Hirabayashi, 2007, Video, 13:32 min.)

An amusing exploration of what it means to be an artist and a human being. The witty voice-over narration leads us through the main protagonists transformation into a maggot who has retained his human consciousness from his former life. Beautifully shot and cleverly written, this film was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

02 April 2008

Namakura Gatana

The National Film Center in Tokyo has digitally restored the oldest extant animation film in Japan and will be screening the film this spring as a part of a celebration of newly found or restored films in their collection.

Namakura Gatana: Hanawa Hekonai Meitou no Maki
was made in 1917 by Junichi Kouuchi. By many it is considered to be the second animation film made in Japan after Oten Shimokawa's Imokawa Mukuzo Genkanban no Maki which was also made in 1917, but there is some debate about what film can claim the title of 'first made in Japan'. There is some evidence animation was made privately before 1917, but these were the first animation films made for public screenings.

Namakura Gatana (The Dull Sword) is a comedy with a running time of about 2 minutes. The main protagonist is a samurai who sets out to try out his new sword. There is a comical about-face which leads to the would-be victim having his revenge on the samurai. The film was quite popular with the audiences of the day.

Even more dramatic than the film's plot is the story of the film itself. Namakura Gatana and another antique animation Urashima Taro (Seitaro Kitayama, 1918) were discovered and purchased by film historican Natsuki Matsumoto at an antique fair in Osaka in July 2007. The films were in remarkably good condition because they had been stored in paper containers that allowed enough ventilation so that the films did not deteriorate.

To put this remarkable story into perspective, Japan had a flourishing film industry during the silent and pre-war periods. Donald Richie has estimated that more than 90% of Japan's pre-war films have been lost forever. The reasons for this include fires (especially the one that levelled Tokyo following the great Kanto quake of 1923), war (the fire-bombing of major cities and the American's torching 'banned' films during the Occupation), and neglect by the industry itself. Many early films were made of nitrate, which is highly combustible, and led to many films going up in flames. There was also the problem that film was seen by many as a novelty and studios did not see any profit in preserving these films for future generations.

I do hope that the Cinema: Lost and Found event that the National Film Center is holding will tour other countries and be made into a DVD for the benefit of film historians and enthusiast around the world. I find it so exciting that almost a hundred years after these films have been made, that they are still being found!

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008
Cinema: Lost and Found 2008

近年フィルムセンターが収集し、修復・復元を終えた作品を集中的に上映する「発掘された映画たち」は6回目を迎えます。海外アーカイブ機関やコレク ターの協力により発見された貴重な作品、デジタル技術を用いて復元された上映プリントなど、映画保存機関ならではの活動の成果を一堂に集めて紹介します。

01 April 2008

Behind the Pink Curtain

Fab Press has just published a new book by Jasper Sharp. Along with Tom Mes, Sharp is the co-editor of the on-line journal Midnight Eye and co-author of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (2003). Sharp's new book is the first complete history of Pink Films, or Japanese sex cinema. It includes extensive interviews with filmmakers associated with the genre. Check out the Fab Press site to read a complete breakdown of all the chapters.


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