13 January 2009

Top Japanese Animated Shorts of 2008

Midnight Eye asked its writers to contribute to their annual top ten survey. The article is due to be published in the next week or so, but here is a sneak preview of my list. As I am not living in Japan anymore, (nor a major metropolis) I have not yet seen enough of the past year's feature films to make an informed judgement on the top features of 2008. I have, however, been immersed in animated shorts, both new and old, these past months. As a result, I made up a top ten list of the best animated shorts of the past year. Some of these films have a 2007 release date, as it can take a year (or more) for short animated or experimental films to wend their way around the world on the international animation festival and art gallery circuit.

Koji Yamamura’s Kafuka Inaka Isha tops this list because of its technical brilliance – it was a big hit at all the festivals it entered (which was pretty much all of them). This year saw young animators like Kunio Katō and Yasuhiro Yoshiura reach a level of maturity in their work. Katō was rewarded with prizes at Annecy and Hiroshima and Yoshiura’s Time of Eve series (the least ‘experimental’ on my list but very innovative nonetheless) has attained a popular following on the internet. Seasoned animators like Keiichi Tanaami, Nobuhiro Aihara, Mika Seika and Atsushi Wada all produced fantastic new work, while Tomoyasu Murata wins the prize for being the most prolific animation artist of the year. Exciting newcomers on the scene this past year include the surreal work of puppet animation artist Yūsuke Sakamoto and Daisuke Hagiwara with his timely computer animation about money and globalization. Hiroyuki Mizumoto gets my diamond in the rough award. He is still struggling with the balance between artistry and message, but his willingness to take risks as a young artist deserves recognition.

Kafuka Inaka Isha (Kafka’s A Country Doctor, dir: Kōji Yamamura)
A brilliant adaptation of a surreal short story by Franz Kafka with haunting voice acting by the Shigeyama family and Hitomi Kanehara.
Omukai-san (Face to Face, dir: Mika Seike)
A feminist interpretation of a dialogue between a man and a woman done in her signature visual style (animation of scanned objects and photographs).
Tsumiki no ie (La maison en petits cubes, dir: Kunio Katō)
A beautifully rendered cel animation about an elderly man who dives down into his flooded home and encounters memories from his family’s past there.
So iu Megane (Well, That’s Glasses, dir: Atsushi Wada)
An investigation of the creative process and how one’s vision alters over time done in Wada’s trademark cel animation style.
Eve no Jikan (Time of Eve, dir: Yasuhiro Yoshiura)
A new take on a favourite theme for manga and anime artists: humanity’s ambiguous relationship with robots in the future. Yoshiura explored these themes in his earlier shorts Mizu no Kotoba and Pale Cocoon. Now he has taken his ideas and artistry to a new level of maturity in the first three episodes (more coming soon) of a six-episode series being released internationally on Crunchyroll.
Remon no Michi (Lemon Road) and the Kazoku Dekki series (dir: Tomoyasu Murata)
Murata has been very busy this past year with more than half a dozen new short animated films (puppet and cel animation) and some major exhibitions of his art in the Tokyo area. Lemon Road continues his introspective My Road series, and he has completed 6 shorts about the Dekki Family.
Issun Boushi (Inch-High Samurai, dir: Keiichi Tanaami and Nobuhiro Aihara)
A new interpretation of the traditional Japanese tales of the One-Inch Samurai. Tanaami and Aihara approach the tales with their characteristically dark senses of humour.

Tanpopo no Ane (The Dandelion Sister, dir: Yūsuke Sakamoto)
A surreal little tale of a young girl who has a complicated relationship with her elder sister who is an ailing dandelion. The attention to detail in this film is remarkable with the imagery clearly inspired by the work of Vincent van Gogh.

The Kinrakuen (dir: Daisuke Hagiwara)
A timely computer animation about money and globalization.

Maiagaru Shio (Salt Lake Screaming, dir: Hiroyuki Mizumoto)
An unusual little film about our relationship to the environment. A bit rough around the edges, but Mizumoto shows promise as an experimental animator
Special Mention (best and most hilarious non-animation, experimental short):
Jūnanako no Kūkan to Ippiki no Ujimushi de Kōsei Sareta Sakuhin (A Story Constructed of 17 Pieces of Space and 1 Maggot, dir: Isamu Hirabayashi)
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 protagonist’s 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.

Keep an eye out for Midnight Eye's new edition. I also recommend reading Mark Schilling's tribute to Jun Ichikawa (市川 準, 1948-2008), who passed away in September.

UPDATE: The lists are now published at Midnight Eye. Others featured include Tom Mes, Jasper Sharp, Nicholas Rucka, Bryan Hartzheim, Rea Armit, Dean Bowman & Jason Gray.

Tomoyasu Murata Sakuhinshu - Ore no Michi / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

KineJun Top Films of 2008

1. Okuribito
2. Gururi no koto
3. Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no michi
4. Tokyo Sonata
5. Aruitemo aruitemo
6. Yami no kodomotachi
7. Kabee
8. Climbers High
9. Seppun
10. After School
11. Hyakuman'en to nigamushi onna

Best Director: Yojiro Takita(Okuribito)
Best Screenplay: Kundo Koyama (Okuribito)
Best Actress: Kyoko Koizumi (Tokyo Sonata)
Best Actor: Masahiro Motoki (Okuribito)
Best Supporting Actress: Kirin Kiki (Aruitemo aruitemo)
Best Supporting Actor: Masato Sakai (Climbers High, After School)
Best New Actress: Haruna Amari (Kodomo no kodomo)
Best New Actor: Kai Inowaki (Tokyo Sonata)

12 January 2009

Takashi Ishida and Yuki Kawamura Exhibition

Artists Takashi Ishida (石田高志) and Yuki Kawamura (河村勇樹)are being featured as part of a Projection Series at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal from January 14th until March 15th. The Project Series seeks to feature artists who represent a wide variety of aesthetic and cultural backgrounds including video artists, photographers, playwrights, choreographers and composers. The series explores the poetic relationship these diverse artists have with images projected onto a large screen. The artists all have in common the fact that they all live outside the counties in which they were born: Mariana Vassileva was born in Bulgaria but has lived in Berlin)since 1991, Kelly Richardson is a Canadian living in England, Yuki Kawamura has been living in Paris for a number of years and Takashi Ishida is currently based in Toronto.
Here are the bios of Ishida and Kawamura excerpted from the museum's website:

Takashi Ishida and Yuki Kawamura were both born in Japan, Kawamura in Kyoto in 1979 and Ishida in Tokyo in 1972. Both steeped in Japanese culture, they each nevertheless left home to pursue their commitment to art in another country. Ishida now lives and works in Toronto; Kawamura chose to complete his studies at the École supérieure des Études cinématographiques in Paris, where he still lives.

Takashi Ishida began to paint at the age of fourteen, and his originality and artistic integrity were recognized at once. In 1995 he began to make films. He made his name with Gestalt, a 16-mm film shot in 1999 which he created by taking image-by-image photographs of his own paintings. He also used the traditional Japanese roller for painting, a method that enabled him to analyze the time required for the image. In 2001, he shot the 19-minute film

Art of Fugue with the idea of transforming sound into image. Art of Fugue reveals his entirely personal way of understanding and analyzing music. Takashi Ishida has also been presenting live painting performances since 2001.

After studying French at the Kyoto University of Languages, Yuki Kawamura continued his studies in film in Paris. A visual artist and filmmaker, Kawamura also creates performance art and is involved in the electronic music scene. Since 2005, while continuing to make numerous videos, he has produced three short films that demonstrate his interest in stories and in narrative film in general. His videos since then have become spaces of pure creation. Kawamura composes fleeting, floating images that mingle nature and dreams, elusive thoughts and poetry.

Takashi Ishida and Yuki Kawamura
January 14 to March 15, 2009
Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal,
Beverley Webster Rolph Hall (lower level)
185 rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest, Montréal (514) 847-6226

02 January 2009

Renzo & Sayoko Kinoshita

This month marks the 12th anniversary of the passing of independent animation pioneer Renzō Kinoshita (木下蓮三, 3 Sept. 1936 - 15th January 1997). Kinoshita, along with his wife and collaborator Sayoko (木下小夜子, b. 1945) made a number of internationally acclaimed films together and were the founders of the biannual Hiroshima International Animation Festival.

Kinoshita grew up in Osaka where, according to an interview with Sadao “Miyasan” Miyamoto (宮本貞雄), he did his training at a small animation studio. Later Miyamoto and Kinoshita would both work together on the Astro Boy series at Tezuka’s Mushi Productions in Tokyo. However, unlike Miyamoto, who would continue in mainstream animation (working on Gatchaman and later at Disney), Kinoshita grew weary of the constraints of commercial animation. He founded his own animation studio Studio Lotus (スタジオロータス) in 1967. I imagine that the name of the studio derives its inspiration from the kanji “ren” in his given name, which means “lotus”. In 1969 Sayako, whom Kinoshita had met at Mushi Pro, joined the production team at Studio Lotus, and they married soon after.

Kinoshita became well known in Japan in the late 1960s when he developed the character Geba Geba Ojisan (ゲバゲバおじさん) for the popular television series Kyosen x Maetake Geba-Geba 90-pun! (巨泉×前武ゲバゲバ90分!) on Nippon Terebi. This included a series of comical shorts as well as creating comedic sequences in which Geba Geba Ojisan interacts with the actors themselves. The history of using live action people in combination with animated characters dates back to the earliest animated films with Winsor McCay’s early short film Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) showing McKay interacting with Gertie. The comedic possibilities of live animation together with animation were proven by the popularity of Disney’s Alice Comedies in the 1920s. In this sequence from a Geba Geba Best Selection episode, Kinoshita has animated a dance sequence with the Geba Geba character and an actor in a style reminiscent of Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945).
Along with his work for Nippon Terebi (ie. Karikyura Machine) in the 1970s, the Kinoshitas produced commercials in order to fund their most important work: the independent films. The first film that the couple made, with Sayako taken charge of the planning, scripting, animation, and production with Renzo did the key animation and direction, was Made in Japan. The film is a tongue-in-cheek criticism of post-war Japan and it won the Grand Prize at the New York International Film Festival. The Kinoshitas were buoyed by their success with the film abroad, and thought they could continue making such independent films back in Japan, but found little support for independent filmmakers at the time. This inspired them to focus not only on their own creative initiatives but also on fostering an independent filmmaking community in Japan.
Their most powerful and influential film by far is Pica-don (ピカドン, 1978) a depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima. This film for me sums up the unique ability of animation to depict what would have been impossible to depict in a documentary film: the true horror of that fateful day in August 1945. Pica-don and Isao Takahashi’s Hotaru no Haka (火垂るの墓/Grave of the Fireflies, 1988) are the most powerful anti-war films that I have ever seen.
Miyamoto on Pica-don: “. . . I was born in Hiroshima and experienced the bombing as a child and saw the mushroom cloud. I never talked about what I saw or experienced to Renzo, but what he depicted in his film was so true to life: the bomber flying over, the blue sky, and the smoky part; I was just absolutely flabbergasted at how real Renzo's image was; it was exactly like what I actually saw. It was funny, because as fellow animators, we would always discuss what we're working on, what are our new ideas. But that was one film that we never actually talked about. If we did talk about it, I would have described it vividly, because as an animator you're able to describe things that way. But in spite of that, Renzo captured it all.”
Click here to see Pika-don in the middle of a clip from a French television documentary on Japan. This clip also features an interview with Sayoko Kinoshita.

To honour Kinoshita’s commitment to independent animation and animation as a medium for bringing awareness to social causes such as world peace and understanding, the Hiroshima festival awards the Renzō Kinoshita prize biannually. This year the prize went to Izabela Plucinska’s film Breakfast (Poland/Germany, 2’17”). Past winners of the prize include Nicolas Jacquet for L’Aren (France, 1998), Eugene Fedorenko and Rose Newlove for Village of Idiots (Canada, 2000), Rosana Liera for The Fish Hunters (France, 2002), Chris Landreth for Ryan (Canada, 2004), and Simone Massi for The Memories of Dogs (Italy, 2006).

It really is a shame that Renzō Kinoshita’s work has not yet been released on DVD in Japan or abroad as far as I have been able to deduce. His work, particularly Pica-don, should be a standard part of animation studies curriculum. In fact, information on Kinoshita is rather sparse on the internet. The filmography below has been put together from detective work on English, French, German, and Japanese websites. I am trying to make as complete a filmography as possible, so please post a message here if you know any other titles to add.


1969-71 shorts for Kyosen x Maetake Geba-Geba 90-pun
(Nippon Terebi comedy show)
1971 What on Earth is He?
1972 Made in Japan (Nippon Seizou)
1973 Invitation to Death
1973 Curricula Machine
1974-1978 Karikyuramashīn (Nippon Terebi series)
1977 Japonese
1978 Pica-don (Pika-don)
1986 Geba Geba Showtime
1989 The Morning
1990 'Frame of Mind' in Animated Self-Portraits, a collaborative work
1993 The Last Air Raid Kumagaya
1994 A Little Journey (Hiroshi ku wa sora ga suki)
1994 Kondo 55 Go "How that Happen?"
2004 Ryukyu Okaku: Made in Okinawa (finished by Sayako after his death)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009


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