28 December 2008

Inch-High Samurai (一寸法師, 1993)

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

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

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

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

21 December 2008

Sumiko 2 ( あなたの態度が気に入らない, 2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 December 2008

Sumiko Forever (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHK Minna no Uta Oshiri Kajiri Mushi / Kids

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008


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