21 June 2008

Tomoyasu Murata's White Road (白の路, 2003)

Winter solitude
in a world of one colour

the sound of the wind

Matsuo Basho (Trans. Robert Hass)

This haiku by Basho neatly sums up the mood and themes of Tomoyasu Murata (村田朋泰)'s 2003 puppet animation White Road (白の路/Shiro no Michi). The second of five planned short films exploring the psyche of a melancholy pianist, White Road has an elegiac and nostalgic tone.

Like all of Murata’s puppet animations, White Road has no dialogue or narration. The story is told through image and sound. The melancholy mood is created through character expression, the sentimental music of composer Fumikazu Sakamaki (逆巻文和), who also did the music for Murata’s films オモヒデ and Scarlet Road), sound (wind, crunching of snow), silence, and colour. As the title suggests, the predominant colour in the film is the white blanket of snow but this colour is complemented by the use of blue light which adds to the general feeling of sadness. As ever, Murata’s attention to detail is flawless and the film is quite moving to watch.

White Road shows the nameless pianist returning to his rural childhood home in the winter. He is haunted by the memories of the young girl who had been his playmate and the puppy that they loved but died, possibly due to their unwitting neglect. The pianist’s memories are evoked through flashbacks that sometimes involve him sharing the screen with his younger self. Particularly poignant is the scene when he mourns the puppy and an adult ghost of the dog looks on as if forgiving him for his childhood mistake. We are also invited to share in the pianist’s grief for his lost childhood friend, who moved away with her family. Murata introduced his latest installment of the series Lemon Road (檸檬の路) this year and I do hope that the more cheerful colour will allow for a more uplifting side to the pianist character to be revealed.

White Road brought Murata’s work to a wider audience in Asia because it was re-edited and used as a music video for popular J-Pop band Mr. Children’s 2004 song Hero. Images from other animated films by Murata were projected onto screens during Mr. Children’s 2004 Shufuku no Oto tour.

The DVD includes a short documentary Hitori-Goto (Speaking to Oneself) which follows Murata as he heads from Prague to the 2003 Anifest animation festival in Trěboň where Scarlet Road is being screened. As with the documentary/‘making of’ extras on his other DVDs, the low quality of the footage is surprising. The handheld camerawork is sloppy, but occasionally punctuated by nicely framed scenes. Particularly surprising is the poor quality of the sound because Murata pays such particular attention to sound in his animation. He also doesn’t impart much in the way of information during the journey… though there is a teasing glimpse of him at work filming White Road at the very beginning. The documentary is worth watching however for the occasional slideshows of photography. There is also a great sequence towards the end of the film in which he records a female voice making an announcement over the public address system to the empty streets of a neighbourhood. This makes a wonderful connection between small town Czech Republic and small town Japan, where one also hears such public reminders over the P.A.

I have the limited edition DVD box set which includes postcards of pastel illustrations inspired by White Road (3) and Scarlet Road (3) and a picture book of White Road illustrated with pastel artwork based on the film. The box set is available at yesasia.com (link below) as well as Murata's webshop.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

Shiro no Michi / Original Animation (Tomoyasu Murata)

14 June 2008

Kojiro Shishido (宍戸小次郎)

One of the biggest challenges in CG animation is how to create a unique vision using a medium that encourages uniformity. The work of Kojirō Shishido (b. 1983) stands out for me because of the way he has used a wide variety of CG techniques in order create images that directly relate to the themes of his short films.

Browsing through the online examples of the work of Kojiro Shishido, aka Hosozao (his user name is a type of shamisen), it becomes apparent that he has experimented with the capacities of his software (Bauhaus Software Mirage 1.5, Corel PainterX, Adobe AfterEffects CS3, Photoshop CS3) in a variety of amusing shorts such as Deep Sea Tentacle, Drawing!!, Wakame Buildings, Collapse Zen, and Superfluid, in a manner reminiscent of Norman McLaren’s early experiments with animation on film at the NFB. Using these playful, engaging films to explore the possibilities of his tools, Shishido applies what he has learned in his more introspective films such as Doutei Kawaiya (Sweet, Sweet Virgin, 2003), Kagami no Genon (sound/phantasma/mirror aka Mirror’s Fundamental Tone, 2004) and his most recent film Naked Youth (2006).

In Doutei Kawaiya, Kagami no Genon and Naked Youth Shishido takes us on a journey through the uncertainty and excitement of young love and homoerotic love. These gentle films quiver with sexual tension, which is linked to the natural world: trees reflecting on the surface of a pond, butterflies fluttering in the breeze. Of the three films, Doutei Kawaiya is least concerned with the outside world, focusing instead on the claustrophobic world of young people discovering their sexuality. Although their faces and bodies take centre stage, nature is represented by images of flowers, a brief shot of the sky, and a striking painting of trees.

Shishido clearly enjoys the possibilities of light and shade in his films. Not only does he experiment with intensity of light, but he also plays with the patterns made by light when it encounters different objects. Moments like the graphic play of the light passing through window blinds as they flutter around in Kagami no Genon or the mesmerizing quality of the light of the summer sun pushing through dense trees demonstrate Shishido’s sensitivity to small details that create ambience.

One major theme in Shishido’s work is reflections. He shows us beautiful reflections not only in surfaces like water, mirrors, but also polished floors. Shishido renders his realistic backdrops images slightly blurry, endowing them with the hazy quality of memories or dreams. The characters are set apart from the backgrounds with their sketch-like quality that makes them seem more like cel animation than the more obviously CG settings. You can see for yourself how Shishido creates his images in stages in his ‘Making of Naked Youth’ clips: clip 1, clip 2, clip 3.

It is a delight to watch these three films in the order in which they were made because you can see Shishido’s growth as a visual storyteller with Naked Youth bringing together the best elements of his earlier films. I particularly like how he layers his images using real architecture and interiors as his inspiration. He also composes his own music for his films. Shishido uses music in a minimalist way to add to the emotional impact of the images. For a young filmmaker, he has already learned that sound effects (cicadas, hiyodori, running water, etc.) and silence are equally as important for creating ambience. I do hope that Shishido continues to make independent films so that we can see the full blossoming of his potential as an artist.


  • Undercurrent (2001)
  • Doutei Kawaiya (Sweet, Sweet Virgin, 2003)
  • Kagami no Genon (sound/phantasma/mirror, 2004)
  • Deep Sea Tentacle
  • Drawing!!
  • Wakame Buildings
  • Collapse

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

11 June 2008

Bob Kuwahara and Hashimoto-san

While continuing my research into the career of Ryohei Yanagihara of the Animation Sannin no Kai yesterday, I was watching contemporary American animator Ernie Pintoff’s short film Flebus (1959) on youtube when I spotted an animation entitled House of Hashimoto in the sidebar.

Hashimoto-san is a Japanese mouse and to me at first it seemed like the usual stereotypical depiction of Japanese characters, complete with the phony accent and the squinty eyes. The story begins with Hashimoto-san’s old American friend, G.I. Joe, coming to visit looking for stories to write for his newspaper. Hashimoto-san tells him the story of a giant cat whose attack on a mouse village was foiled by an invisible mouse.

The story is told in the tightly edited, humorous style one expects from a Terrytoon cartoon, but my ears pricked up during Hashimoto-san’s tale when I realized that the mice in the story he narrated were actually speaking in Japanese… albeit with heavy American intonation. Curious, I looked up the film and discovered that it is credited by many animation websites as being the first Asian character in an American-made cartoon with a positive, non-stereotyped image.

I would not go so far as to call Hashimoto-san ‘non-stereotyped’, but he does present a positive image of the Japanese in contrast to the propagandistic cartoons of the war effort. What stuck me about Hashimoto-san is that his character has been carefully shaped to be stereotypically ‘Japanese’ enough for American audiences to identify his ethnicity, but with authentic Japanese touches such as costume, scenery, and cultural motifs (Mount Fuji, futons, shamisen, etc.) Judging from the titles of latter Hashimoto-san shorts, it looks as though an attempt has been made to educate American audiences about Japanese cultural traditions such as Hinamatsuri and Hanami.

This awareness of both American and Japanese culture comes from the director Bob Kuwahara (1901-1964) who was born Rokuro Kuwahara in Tokyo and moved to California with his family when he was nine years old. Kuwahara began his career as a commercial artist

in New York City, but moved back to California after the stock market crash. He got his start in animation working as animator and storywriter for Walt Disney and is credited as having worked on such films as The Flying Mouse (1934), Who Killed Cock Robin (1935), Thru the Mirror (1936), and Snow White (1937).

In 1937, Kuwahara moved to MGM but his career in animation was interrupted by the war. Like other Japanese-Americans, Kuwahara and his family were locked up in internment camps for the duration of the war. He then moved his family to New York where he tried his hand at drawing comic strips. In 1950 he was hired by Terrytoons and stayed with the company up until his death in 1964.

Kuwahara is best known for the Hashimoto-san series. Originally released theatrically, further shorts in the series were featured on The Hector Heathcote Show. Apart from the Hashimoto-san series, Kuwahara is also known for his work on The Deputy Dawg Show and The Astronut Show.

Hashimoto-san Filmography

  • Hashimoto-san (1959)
  • House of Hashimoto (1960)
  • Doll Festival (1961)
  • Night Life in Tokyo (1961)
  • So Sorry, Pussycat (1961)
  • Son of Hashimoto (1961)
  • Strange Companion (1961)
  • Honorable Cat Story (1961)
  • Honorable Family Problem (1962)
  • Loyal Royalty (1962)
  • Honorable Pain in the Neck (1962)
  • Pearl Crazy (1963)
  • Cherry Blossom Festival (1963)
  • Spooky-Yaki (1963)
  • Tea House Mouse (1963)

For plot summaries, go to The Big Cartoon Database. For more on Hashimoto-san, check out Don Markstein's Toonopedia.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

10 June 2008

Shohei Imamura on A Man Vanishes

CineandStuff has posted a marvelous interview with Shohei Imamura about his rare film A Man Vanishes (Ningen Johatsu / 人間蒸発, 1967). The interviewer is Imamura's son Daisuke Tengan (né Daisuke Imamura). Tengan is a screenwriter and occasional director. Tengan is perhaps best known for his collaborations with his father (The Eel ,1998 and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, 2001) and Takashi Miike (Audition, 1999 and ).

A Man Vanishes is a powerful documentary that explores the boundaries of objectivity and subjectivity in the medium - a line that is crossed when the wife of the missing man of the title begins to fall in love with the film director. This interview is particularly insightful about how Imamura came to make the film, and some of his editorial choices about what to show and what to leave out. It is a travesty that this film is not yet available on DVD in the English speaking world or in Europe. For a wee glimpse, here is the trailer:

Ningen Johatsu / Japanese Movie

Japanese Movie

Kurosawa's Suntory Commercials

While searching for Ryohei Yanagihara's animated television spots for Suntory Whiskey from the 1950s &1960s, I happened across this video of Suntory commercials directed by Akira Kurosawa. He made them during the filming of Kagemusha (1980). Francis Ford Coppola, who was one of the co-producers on the film, also appears in some of the commercials drinking Suntory with Kurosawa while conferring over the script of Kagemusha. These commercials are believed to have served as part of the inspiration behind the Bill Murray Suntory commercial scene in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.


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