30 May 2008

Waiting on the Weather

Yoji Yamada’s adaptation of Teruyo Nogami (野上照代)’s memoir Kaabee – Our Mother made a splash at the Berlinale earlier this year. It is wonderful that Nogami has distinguished herself as more than just an assistant to Kurosawa with her recent autobiographical writing. Many Japanese women have worked diligently behind the scenes in the Japanese filmmaking industry, but few of Nogami’s generation have received public recognition for their talents. Nogami’s Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa was published by Stone Bridge Press in 2006 and it is truly a delight to read.

Waiting on the Weather was originally published as a series of essays in Kinema Kurabu and other publications during the 1990s. It was collected and published as a book in Japanese in 2001 under the title Tenki Machi: Kantoku Kurosawa Akira totomo ni (天気待ち―監督・黒澤明とともに). As the essays were written over a period of at least six years, during which time many of Nogami’s closest friends and colleagues including Kurosawa himself passed away, there is some repetition and a lack of fluidity between chapters. However, this is more than remedied by Nogami’s warm and humorous narrative style.

In the first few chapters, Nogami tries to hide behind a polite veil of modesty claiming that it was a matter of chance that she found work as a script girl (what is now known as a script supervisor or continuity editor) first at Daiei Kyoto Studios and later at Toho Studios in Tokyo. She even goes so far as to share with her readership some of her most embarrassing continuity errors, which she fortunately caught before the final edit. Donald Richie counters Nogami’s modesty in his introduction by emphasizing what a vital member of Akira Kurosawa’s production team she was from Rashomon through to the end of his career. She even worked on Takashi Koizumi’s adaptation of Kurosawa’s screenplay Ame agaru (After the Rain, 1999). Kurosawa was notoriously difficult to work with, but as Richie points out, he “came to rely greatly on Nogami: on her care, her memory, her quickness, her probity.”

The anecdotal style of narration is reflected in the title of the book, which refers to the time film crews and cast spent waiting for the perfect weather conditions in order to shoot scenes. In the days before green screens, filmmakers had little choice but to wait on the weather. Nogami remembers these periods of waiting fondly; for these were the moments that the crew could get to know each other and indulge in gossip.

Juliet Winter Carpenter has done an admirable job of translating Nogami’s witty prose into English. Nogami has also illustrated her stories with pen and ink drawings that capture her humourous anecdotes in vivid detail. This reminded me of Agnes Newton Keith’s autobiographical writing, such as her famous memoir Three Came Home about her time as a Japanese prisoner-of-war in Northern Borneo. Newton Keith’s work was well-known in Japan before and after the war so it is possible Nogami may have emulated her style.

My favourite part about this book was the revelation that Nogami’s first contact with the Japanese filmmaking community was through the great director Mansaku Itami. As a teenager, Nogami wrote Itami a fan letter in response to his comic samurai film Akanishi Kakita (Capricious Young Man, 1936). Itami wrote back to her and they continued a correspondence throughout his illness with tuberculosis until his early death at age 46. Her connection to Itami led her not only into the film industry, but it also led to her close relationship with his family after his death. She even shared her small apartment in Kyoto with Itami’s teenaged son Yoshihiro, who would grow up to become acclaimed director Juzo Itami (Tampopo, 1985).

The Itami family anecdotes were an unexpected bonus to the wide variety of stories about making movies with Akira Kurosawa. From his legendary rages to his after-hours drinking sessions with the crew, Nogami’s memoir serves as an elegy to a remarkable time in Japanese filmmaking history.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

20 May 2008

Maya Yonesho

The work of animation artist Maya Yonesho (米正万也) jumped out at me when I first watched the collaborative film Winter Days because her unique style of combining types of handmade animation (stop motion of a book and watercolour animation on the pages of the book) reminded me of the experimental films of Norman McLaren and Oskar Fischinger. In a recent e-mail exchange with me, Yonesho added the names of Taku Furukawa, Kihachiro Kawamoto and Clive Walley to the list of filmmakers whose work has inspired her. Like McLaren, Fischinger and Walley, Yonesho’s work is abstract and she likes to synchronize her animation with music and sounds. Her work is identifiable by her use of cheerful watercolours and her mixing of media. Wiener Wuast, for instance features a hand holding up a card of paper against various outdoor Viennese locations with watercolour animation dancing across the paper synchronized to music by Norbert Trummer.

Many contemporary animation artists come to Europe in order to immerse themselves in unique animation traditions such as the Czech school, the Estonian school, the Aardman school in the UK, among many others. Kihachiro Kawamoto was the forerunner of this trend when he studied under Jiri Trnka in Prague in the 1960s. Fusako Yusaki, whom I wrote about last September, has been a central figure in the Italian animation community since the success of her Fernet Branca commercials in the 1970s. The relationship between European and Japanese animators has strengthened in recent decades through artists sharing work at animation festivals in Utrecht, Oberhausen, Hiroshima, and elsewhere.

Maya Yonesho has an MA in Conceptual and Media Arts from Kyoto City University of Arts. She has also studied in England and did a research project in Estonia in 2002. Yonesho then found herself invited to be a member of the jury at the Tricky Women International Animation Festival [note: the ‘Tricky’ in the festival name is a play on words involving the German for animation: der Trickfilm or der Zeichentrickfilm] in 2003. This has led to a long creative relationship with the city of Vienna. Yonesho currently divides her time mainly between Vienna and Kyoto. In Vienna, she teaches workshops, makes films, and does exhibitions of her art. In the autumn term she lectures at Kyoto Seika University.

Thanks to modern technology, Yonesho finds that she is quite flexible to be able to work anywhere in the world using a scanner, laptop, and he International Express Mail service to send her short animation work to the NHK (the Japanese public broadcaster). She recently completed a series of 6 one-minute films for the NHK very young children called “Dance of Circles, Triangles and Squares” and her current project “Colours of the Seasons” will have four installments, one for each of the seasons.

In describing her method of filmmaking, Yonesho says “When I create an animation, I first decide on a theme, then edit the sound, and finally I draw the images to match the sound. The theme always develops from something that has been on my mind, but rather than create a story and address the theme explicitly, I prefer to express abstractly, through sound and music, a mood or atmosphere that cannot be expressed in words. Naturally, it pleases me when a viewer can perceive and empathize with the idea I had in mind when I created the piece, but I like for each viewer to interpret it in her or his own way. One of the aspects of animation I love is simply the fact that it moves. In my work I emphasize this aspect of movement and also rhythm, so I try to keep the shapes as simple as possible, and have them move to the rhythm in pleasing ways. The reason I often make the sound before I make the image is because I see sound as an extremely important element, when I use a person's voice, I try to analyze it and make the image complement the mood of the voice” (Source: Akademischer Arbeitskreis Japan)

In Yonesho’s work, one finds a desire to use images as a form of international communication. Her first abstract animated short was synchronized with theme “we can understand each other without understanding each language” (Source). This idealitic vision is reminiscent of the ending to Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952). I was also reminded of an interview I once read with Sayako Kinoshita, who founded the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in the 1980s with her husband Renzo Kinoshita. The Kinoshitas, after enjoying a positive reception at animation festivals abroad in the 1970s decided to start a similar festival in Japan with the ideal of striving towards world peace through visual communication. Hence the decision to host the event in Hiroshima.

Yonesho’s recent film Wiener Wuast plays with notions of the tourist observing the city of Vienna. I found an interesting critical discussion of a recent screening of the film at the MASC Foundatation on Paul Sakoilsky’s blog. He also provides several high resolution stills from the film and a link to a tiny video of the film. The title translates as Vienna Mix and since 2006 Yonesho has also produced other workshop films in a simalar style including Taiwan Mix, Norway Mix, Croatia Mix, and Israel Mix.

Update: Maya Yonesho's work can now be purchased on DVD from Anido.


  • One Lonely Cactus (6’35”, Super 8, paint on cel, 1985)
  • Kitsune no mado (5’, Super 9, paster & ink on paper, 1986)
  • dance・ing (collaboration, 12'40", mixed media, 1992)
  • Cactus Boy (Saboten-kun, 3'36", claymation/stop motion, 1993)
  • Mindsaver (10’30”, mixed media, 1994)
  • Mindsaver 1995 (7’, mixed media, 1995)
  • Momoiro no Kirin (6’, puppet, 1995)
  • Good Morning News (6 TV spots, 3’ each, claymation/stop motion, 1995)
  • Chocolate Talk 1&2 (4’50”, stop motion, 1996)
  • Bisco Dance 1&2 (22” & 1’09”, stop motion, 1996)
  • a dream about cherry (1’25”, ink on paper/stop motion, 1996)
  • Kikyo no Yume: Visionary (4’09”, betacam, pencil and pastel on paper, 1996)
  • Don’t you wish you were here? (4’, betacam, ink on paper/stop motion, 1997)
  • Mindsaver 1997 (7’44”, DVD, mixed media, 1997)
  • introspection (1’30”, 16mm, ink on paper/stop motion, 1998)
  • believe in it (3’20”, DVD, ink on paper/stop motion, 1998)
  • learn to love (3’, DVD, ink on paper/stop motion, 1999)
  • Countdown (1’20”, DVD, ink on postcards, 2001)
  • Winter Days (collaboration, 1’30”, 35mm, ink on paper/stop motion, 2002)
  • Üks Uks (7’, 35mm, ink on paper/stop motion, 2003)
  • Wiener Wuast (Vienna Mix, 4’48", DVD, mixed media, 2006)
  • Niao Shan Tao (Taiwan Mix, 2’49”, DVD, mixed media, 2006)
  • Troll i Ord (Norway Mix, 3’37”, DVD, mixed media, 2007)
  • Hrvatska Gibanica (Croatia Mix, 4’23”, DVD, mixed media, 2007)
  • Dances of Circles and Squares (6 NHK TV spots, 1’ each, HiVision, 2007)
  • Tsiruf Mikrim (Israel Mix, 4’23”, DVD, mixed media, 2008)
  • Colours of Seasons (work in progress, 4 short films, 2008)

My thanks to Maya Yonesho for her correspondence with me about her work. Check out her website for more photographs of her work and her CV.

Renku Animation "Fuyu no Hi" / Animation
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

19 May 2008

More on Tomoyasu Murata

Midnight Eye has published an article I wrote about the career of Tomoyasu Murata. It includes a filmography of his work. Check it out here. I have written reviews of some of his films elsewhere on this blog. I first discovered his work when he had an exhibition at a small gallery on Hongo Dori near my home in Nishikata and I wrote about the discovery. Since then, I have been to other exhibitions of his work and have been collecting DVDs, books and other items published by Tomoyasu Murata Company. I would love to buy one of his paintings as well, but that is way out of my budget. Here are reviews I have written about Indigo Road, Scarlet Road, Nostalgia, and Omohide. I meant to write a review of White Road last year, but while still mulling it over I got distracted by other things. I really should watch it again and see if I can attack it from a new angle. I am also hoping to get a hold of some of his more recent films soon. He had DVDs of his latest films available in time for his big exhibition at Hiratsuka this past month and they can be ordered via his website to addresses in Japan.

Murata's latest exhibition at Gallery Momo near Roppongi Hills is called "With a Bronze and a Bust" and runs until May 31.

Tomoyasu Murata Sakuhinshu - Ore no Michi / Animation
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

13 May 2008

Ying Li's Yasukuni (靖国, 2007)

I was glad to hear that the first public screenings in Tokyo of Ying Li’s controversial new documentary Yasukuni went off without a hitch. In fact, according to The Japan Times, the general response from spectators was positive.

The controversy that has raged in the Japanese media over Yasukuni this past month seems highly ironic in light of the fact most of those weighing in on the debate had not yet seen the film. If they had, they would have found that the film does not make a highly polemic argument, rather Li Ying’s film offers up a range of perspectives on Yasukuni shrine without a voice-over narration.

The lack of voice-over narration has led to some interesting responses from Japanese spectators of the film. In his article “Confusion reigns after Yasukuni doesn’t tell us how to feel,” Philip Brasor quotes a Japanese friend who says that the “trouble many Japanese will have with Yasukuni is not that it brings up difficult issues, but that it doesn’t tell them how they’re supposed to feel about them.” This stands in stark contrast to most NHK documentaries which employ heavy use of voice-over narration. I think she has a good point. I have always found NHK documentaries difficult to watch, having long been weaned off the good old Lorne Greene Voice-of-God narration, as we called it when I studied film in Canada. I can imagine that to audiences used to this style, the lack of narration could be disconcerting.

On the other hand, I suspect that Japanese audiences may be more sophisticated than NHK programming may suggest, as the wide range of response to the Yasukuni documentary attests. The film may have no voice-over, but it does employ other methods to narrate its story. For one, Li uses title-cards (à la silent films) to fill in historical information. He also uses the device of a framing narrative to bring the story together. As much of his documentary material is made up of a string of filmed events at Yasukuni (veterans paying their respects, protests, nationalist demonstrations, a visit from Koizumi) and archival footage, this framing narrative of Kariya Naoji, Japan’s most senior swordsmith, serves an important function both stylistically and thematically.

In many ways Naoji’s reaction to the documentary camera says a lot about the average Japanese person’s dilemma with Yasukuni shrine. He is patriotic, but doesn’t want to give offence to others. Naoji seems uncomfortable with the camera’s presence at first, but after a while seems to get used to the filmmakers following him around. By the end of the film, he begins to reveal some of his own opinions about the political status of Yasukuni shrine.

Another important factor about these framing sequences is that it gives us a sense of the filmmaker’s presence. In these scenes and Li’s visit to the home of a man whose father was a conscripted pacifist Buddhist priest who was conscripted (he wants his father 's ashes removed from Yasukuni) - we hear the filmmaker asking questions and giving suggestions from off-camera.

One also gets a sense of the filmmaker’s point of view from the scenes shot at the shrine. I had the impression (confirmed by John Junkerman’s interview with Li) that Li is the one holding the hand-held camera following the action of events taking place at the shrine, so you do get the impression of seeing things from his POV quite a bit. Although it is not hammered home by narration (à la Michael Moore), it reminded me of Kon Ishikawa's Tokyo Olympiad in which at first glance it seems like an objective recording of an event, but then the framing, especially in the non-spontaneous scenes, is so deliberate that one becomes aware of Li trying to show us certain relationships between people and space (ie the space of the Shrine as place of worship, place of tourism, and place of protest).

I particularly enjoyed how Li chose to highlight the use of cameras in the film. The use of a handheld camera always draws attention to the recording device, but Li’s camera has to jostle with countless other cameras to get the images at Yasukuni shrine. Not only are there media from all over the world jostling to capture images of the protestors or of Koizumi’s visit, but the tourists and hobbyists are also out in force. The most amusing scene occurs when a small group of elderly war veterans have come to pay their respects at the shrine. The camera moves backwards in front of them as they approach the shrine, then does a reveal of the dozens of photographers wielding large cameras blocking the steps leading up into the shrine. The photographers easily outnumbered the elderly veterans.

On the whole, the film projects a feeling of impartiality, that we are watching a series of events and hearing the points of view of a wide range of people, but there are suggestions that we are meant to side more with those who want to change Yasukuni. The pro-Yasukuni contingent, for example, are depicted as either extremely old (there are some sweet elderly moderates), or in positions of political power (Mayor of Tokyo, Koizumi), or crazy and prone to violence. The film shows some wonderful ironies, such as the American pro-Koizumi protestor and the young Japanese anti-nationalist protestor who is mistaken as being Chinese. The audience I watched with at Nippon Connection, had the strongest aural reaction (ie. collection sharp intake of breath) to the Tawainese protestor when she lost her cool and used some pretty outrageous language to express her feelings about Shinto. It was a moment that certainly complicated my feelings of sympathy for her cause.

The most interesting things in terms of interpretation of the director's voice is the ending. The film ends with a prolonged montage of historical footage related to the shrine (mostly at the shrine, or war-related/ political incidents). The interpretation of this sequence requires historical knowledge to a certain extent as there are no title cards to put the images into historical context. It begins with aerial footage of the shrine with an operatic score accompanying it. There is a lot of archival footage of Hirohito (who was emperor throughout the war years and postwar years until his death in 1989), beginning with him as a young man all the way up to showing him as an old man. I was starting to feel as if the montage, combined with the music seemed to be romanticizing the shrine and Japanese militarism too much, but then the director throws in shocking images of Japanese war-time brutality - a couple of which the audience would recognize from earlier in the film. It's an odd little montage, and I would have to watch it again a couple of times to really interpret it.

I highly recommend this film because it will give you plenty to think about and talk about. I hope it is the first of many introspective films about Yasukuni to come out of Japan. One important thing to remember, is that this is not some film by a Chinese malcontent, as the Japanese nationalists have suggested in their fanning of the flames of controversy. Li made this film after many years of living in Japan and many of his crew, including the cinematographer Yasuhiro Hotta, are Japanese. He also had support from the Japanese filmmaking community, particularly his Japanese distributor. The inception of the controversy surrounding the film was that he got partial funding from a cultural agency funded by the Japanese government.

For a wonderful article that goes into much of the historical and political background this documentary film comes out of, as well as an interview with the filmmaker, click here.

Update: DVD now available:

Yasukuni / Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

08 May 2008

The Kyu Sakamoto Story (上を向いて歩こう〜坂本九物語〜, 2005)

I wept my way through last half of the biopic Ue wo Muite Arukou: Sakamoto Kyu Monogatari last night. The made-for-TV drama, which originally aired on Tokyo TV back in 2005 to mark the 20th anniversary of Kyu Sakamoto’s death, pushes all the usual buttons from a J-dorama. Even though it was all very predictable – his story has become a legend – hearing the songs and seeing the smiling face of Tatsuya Yamaguchi recreating the cherubic, pock-marked look of the singer lovingly known in Japan as Kyu-chan made the anticipation of waiting for the tragic end a weep-fest for me.

The film starts by giving an idyllic impression of his childhood, in spite of the hardships the family went through during the war. There is an emphasis on his mother as his moral and emotional center. His parents’ divorce is depicted with a dash of humour to lighten the mood, and the family is shown to be fairly forgiving of their often misguided father. The biopic is at its best during the performance scenes and the depiction of Kyu-chan’s relationship with his family. The name ‘Kyu’ means 9 in Japanese and indicates that he is the ninth child in his family. I always found this comical and was pleased to see (if the screenplay is an accurate portrayal of events) that his mother was against this name and preferred to call him Hisashi.

There are several scenes in which Kyu-chan’s parents explain to him why he is famous (so that he doesn’t forget to appreciate his fans and to make sure he keeps his ego in check), but the moment that really encapsulates his success for me is the scene when he is first trying out “Ue o muite aruko.” The lyricist Rokusuke Ei has misgivings about the liberties Kyu-chan is taking with his enunciation, complaining that he doesn’t even sound Japanese. Composer Hachidai Nakamura wins him over by explaining that Kyu-chan is modernizing Japanese pop music by learning from Elvis. It’s a great little scene and perhaps the only one in which Tatsuya Yamaguchi sings. Yamaguchi does also sing professionally, but they were wise to have him lip-synch this film. Kyu-chan had such a unique sound it would have detracted from the film if his voice hadn’t been central to it. To give Yamaguchi credit were it is due, I think he did a rather fine interpretation of Kyu-chan. The look and style of talking are so removed from Yamaguchi’s own star pop-star image that I didn’t recognize him at first. He was brave to take on such an iconic figure… and such iconic pimples!

I was disappointed that they didn’t stretch the budget to shooting overseas, or at least with non-Japanese actors, to show his whirlwind visit to the United States and Europe after the surprise success of Sukiyaki on the North American and European charts. For those of you who don’t know the story, Kyu-chan’s Ue o muite aruko (I walk while looking up) was released to popular success in Japan in 1961. A British music executive heard it and a cover version was released in the UK by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen under the title Sukiyaki. They thought the song name would be too difficult to remember in English so the executive chose the name of his favourite Japanese food. It became a surprise hit in the States when a Washington DJ picked it up and started playing the original by Kyu-chan. Sukiyaki had the distinction of being the first and only song sung entirely in Japanese to go to number one in the States.

They could have added some really comical, refreshing scenes to the biopic if they had added his stop in America at least. This clip of his on the Steve Allen show gives you a glimpse of what I’m talking about. I also wonder why they only hinted at his work in movies. Surely, there must have been some drama to be found there. Instead, we are given montage after montage over Kyu-chan’s greatest hits. While this was all pleasant to watch it lacked drama and didn’t satisfy my curiosity about the man behind the image and voice. I also thought they would show the final note he wrote to his wife before the plane crashed. I believe his wife wrote about it in her memoirs. Perhaps they thought it would be too much.

To end on a more cheerful note, here’s a little bit of movie trivia, related to Kyu-chan: the very last person he interviewed for television before he died was the legendary cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (ie. Rashomon). You can watch the show here – sorry no English subtitles, but it’s worth watching! The best is part three when Shintaro Katsu, of the 1960s Zatoichi series, joins the proceedings. Miyagawa also shot some of the Zatoichi films. Some hilarious stuff! Shinataro Katsu’s jokes are made all the funnier watching Miyagawa trying to restrain his laughter.

The DVD of Ue no Muite Aruko: Sakamoto Kyu Monogatari is available at cdjapan:

Kyu-chan No Uta Dai 2 Shu [Cardboard Sleeve] / Kyu Sakamoto

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008


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