27 February 2009

Naked Youth

Hosozao (aka Kojirō Shishido, b. 1983) has posted an HD version of Naked Youth on Youtube. Really innovative work. Check it out below & read my post on his work here:

25 February 2009

Tricky Women: Japanese Animation Today

The Tricky Women animation festival is the first and only festival dedicated to animation by women. It began in 2001 as a biannual event in Vienna, but since 2007 it has been held annually. The best films from the event make appearances at other venues around the world and DVDs of the best films of 2007 and 2008 are available from their online shop.

Over the years, several Japanese animators have shown at Tricky Women. Most notably Maya Yonesho (read about her here & here) has been artist in residence at Tricky Women for some time and in 2005 she created the trailer for the festival.

This year, Tricky Women invited Sayoko Kinoshita, the director of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival, to put together a selection of contemporary animation by Japanese Women. Kinoshita is the widow of Renzo Kinoshita, with whom she collaborated on numerous films (read about them here) and has long been a supporter and promoter of young animators.

Here is the programme which will play on Saturday, March 7th at 10pm and Sunday, March 8th at 2pm. I really wish I could go, but it’s my daughter’s birthday that weekend and Vienna is too far away for a day trip. It would be great if Tricky Women released their special programmes on DVD as well as their contest winners.

  • Rusuban/Home Alone (Nozomi Nagasaki, 1996, 16mm, 4’)
  • Apple Colored Water (Saeko Akagi, 2003, DVD, 4’53”)
  • Straying Little Red Riding Hood (Ikue Sugidono & Miyako Nishido, 2007, DVD, 5’43”)
  • Buonomo: The Second Night (Mai Tominaga, 2000, DVD, 2’50”)
  • The Dream in the Dream (Ikue Sugidono, 2007, DVD, 7’43”)
  • Kyoto Mix (Maya Yonesho, 2006, DVD, 5’32”)
  • GAKI Biwa – Houshi (Reiko Yokosuka, 2005, DVD, 5’50”)
  • Pica Don (Sayoko & Renzo Kinoshita, 1978, Beta SP, 10”)
  • A Part of Space (Azuru Isshiki, 2006, Beta SP, 4’18”)
  • The Last Blue Sky (Atsuko Nagashima, 2008, Beta SP, 3’40”)
  • An Environment Restaurant (Moca, 2008. Beta SP, 1’40”)
  • Ryukyu Okoku – Made in Okinawa (Sayoko & Renzo Kinoshita, 2004, Beta SP, 17’43”)

Kinoshita has selected a wide range of animation artists for this programme. Pica Don, is a powerful depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima done using cel animation. Ryukyu Okoku was Renzo Kinoshita’s last film, which Sayoko Kinoshita completed after his death. Maya Yonesho’s work uses a fascinating mixture of media. Mai Tominaga is a highly innovative director who achieved critical acclaim for her feature film Wool 100% in 2006, which mixed animation with live action in very unexpected ways. Azuru Issiki is not only an animator put also a Shimai dancer of great talent. Reiko Yokosuka’s work is hauntingly beautiful and it’s a shame that her work is not yet available on DVD. Stills from her work can be found on her website. I highly recommend this event to anyone passing through Vienna the weekend after next.

23 February 2009

Kato Kunio wins Oscar!

Congratulations to Kunio Kato and all his colleagues at ROBOT on winning the Oscar for Best Animated Short for La Maison en Petits Cubes at last night's Oscars. It must have really been nerve-wracking for Kunio to give a speech in English in front of so many Hollywood celebrities, but he was smart and kept it short, sweet & very funny!

It was a big night for Japan as Okuribito, the film KineJun ranked as the best Japanese film for 2008, picked up the Oscar for best foreign film.

These films can be purchased via cdjapan:

Departures (Okuribito) Original Soundtrack / Original Soundtrack (Music by Joe Hisaishi)

Original Soundtrack (Music by Joe Hisaishi)

22 February 2009

Otto Yamaoka

This blog gives a rather lopsided depiction of my interests, because I am by no means merely a Japanophile. Among other things, I have also long been a fan of early Hollywood movies. On a whim yesterday, I picked up a cheap DVD of Libeled Lady (1936), one of Jean Harlow’s last films starring her then-lover William Powell, his frequent co-star Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy.

I was intrigued by the opening credit list, which included an actor named Otto Yamaoka in the role of “Ching.” Asian actors in early Hollywood are particularly fascinating to me. They had such odds to overcome in order to make a niche for themselves in the industry. Sessue Hayakawa (早川 雪洲, 1889-1973) remains to this day the only Asian man to sustain a Hollywood career as a leading man (and I mean 'leading man' in the Classical Hollywood sense). Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (黃柳霜, 1905-1961) fought in vain to get non-stereotyped roles. Although these days, Asian-American actors have been making great strides on American television, in the movies they still get stuck in stereotyped roles (ie. martial arts expert, restaurant staff, laundromat owner) or sidelined into the role of best friend or partner-in-crime. Many actors take the desperate step of playing stereotyped roles – often with phony ‘Engrish’ accents – then spend the rest of their careers trying to live it down. The most tragic example would be Gedde Watanabe (b. 1955) who played the infamous Long Duk Dong character in Sixteen Candles, and has incurred the wrath of a generation of American Asians who came of age in the 1980s.

Very little information on Yamaoka (b. 1904 Seattle – d. 1967 New York City), such as how he got the unfortunate Germanic given name ‘Otto’ (I hope not after Bismarck?), but from the unreferenced bits found on imdb, it seems his career followed a rather predictable trajectory. Imdb claims that Yamaoka worked as a salesman in a costume shop in Los Angeles during the 1930s, so I would imagine that it was through contact with studio staff that he landed bit parts in movies with big stars. In his short Hollywood career, Yamaoka rubbed elbows with some pretty big names including Bing Crosby, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Robert Montgomery, Katharine Hepburn, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Yamaoka’s career as an bit-part actor was cut short by the arrival of the second world war, which saw him sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Cody, Washington. This was a pretty desolate concentration camp, which you can read about and see heart-breaking images of here and here.

Life as an Asian actor in 19030s Hollywood probably had a lot more heartache than rewards. Actors would have had to choose between getting a paid job and degrading themselves onscreen. In this clip of the opening few minutes of Libeled Lady, it’s pretty clear that Yamaoka has been hired as a foil for Spencer Tracy’s comic banter. As Yamaoka was born in Seattle, Washington, I’m guessing his English was pretty standard American with no hint of an accent. However, in this scene he’s been asked to do a Hollywood ‘Asian’ accent à la Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. Not only is there a long tradition of these degrading roles for Asians throughout Hollywood history, ‘Yellow Face’ acting by white actors was practiced long after ‘Black Face’ went out of fashion with the civil rights movement. The most offensive example of ‘Yellow Face’ probably being Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffanys. Clip here and great article on ‘Yellow Face’ at Bright Lights.

Libeled Lady is one of the few films where Otto Yamaoka gets on-screen credit for his role. In most of the films listed here, he is uncredited on the film itself. In the 1930s, film credits were a much shorter affair than they are today so bit players were lucky to get credit at all. In tribute to this Japanese-American actor, born in the wrong time and place to really find success as a Hollywood actor, I am including the most complete filmography I could find of his brief time iin the limelight. Fingers crossed for the Japanese folks at the Oscars tonight. Kato Kuni’s got a real chance with La Maison en Petits Cubes and Okuribito’s been quite popular with critics in their end of year rankings.


  • “Sam” in The Benson Murder Case (1930) starring William Powell
  • “Kashimo” in The Black Camel (1931), a Charlie Chan film starring Warner Oland and Bela Lugosi
  • “Chung Ho” in The Hatchet Man (1932) starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young
  • “Bandit” in War Correspondent (1932)
  • “Togo” in The Racing Strain (1932)
  • “Servant” in Morning Glory (1933) starring Katharine Hepburn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Adolphe Menjou
  • “Kono” in Before Midnight (1933) starring Ralph Bellamy
  • “Fugi, the Page’s servant” in We’re Rich Again (1934) starring Billie Burke
  • “Chinese Waiter on Boat” in Limehouse Blues (1934), starring George Raft and Anna May Wong
  • “Japanese Chauffeur” in Death Flies East (1935)
  • “Taka” in The Wedding Night (1935), a King Vidor picture starring Gary Cooper and Ralph Bellamy
  • “Kimo” in Petticoat Fever (1936) starring Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy
  • “Houseboy” in Rhythm on the Range (1936) starring Bing Crosby, Frances Farmer and Martha Raye
  • “Thomas” in Hollywood Boulevard (1936)
  • “Ching” in The Libeled Lady (1936) starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spenser Tracy
  • “Japanese Instructor” in Easy to Take (1936)
  • “Fong, Martin’s Servant” in Night Waitress (1936)
  • “Wilbur, Paul’s Butler” in Song of the City (1937)
  • “Japanese Reporter” in Thin Ice (1937) starring Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power
  • “Quintain’s Houseboy” in Stand-In (1937) starring Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell, and Humphrey Bogart
  • “Foo Yung” in Trouble in Sundown (1939)

  • © Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

11 February 2009

Book of the Dead (死者の書, 2005)

My first screening of Kihachiro Kawamoto’s masterpiece, The Book of the Dead (死者の書, 2005) was a real disappointment. The US release of the film on DVD falsely advertises itself as having a Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles. In actual fact, the soundtrack has replaced Kyoko Kishida’s narration with an English narrator who I had never heard of before. While Alice Hackett’s narration is competently done and perhaps makes the films more accessible to English-speaking children, the complete elision of Kishida’s narration from the DVD is a crime against the artistic integrity of the film on a number of levels.

To begin with, the film was one of Kishida’s last films and is a wonderful tribute to her talents. Kishida (岸田今日子, 1930-2006) was absolutely riveting in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (砂の女, 1964). She also took on some of the most daring female roles Masumura’s Manji, Ryo Kinoshita’s School for Sex (肉体の学校,1965) and the Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (他人の顔, 1966). She is also well-loved in Japan for doing the voice of Moomintroll in the animated Moomin series (1969-1970) directed by Masaaki Osumi and Rintaro. It seems a real shame that Kino Video, which claims to represent ‘the best in world cinema’, would not find it of value to have the original version on the DVD.

Secondly, the dubbing of the narration is a crime against the artistry of Kawamoto (川本喜八郎, b. 1925) himself, as well as the original tale by Shinobu Origuchi(折口 信夫, 1887-1953). Rhythm and intonation are essential aspects of Japanese storytelling traditions, and it is extremely jarring for the listener when the soundtrack moves from an English narrator, to the Japanese chanting of the spirit of the dead. Also, as you can hear in the trailer for Book of the Dead, onomatopoeic words are very important for creating mood in Japanese drama. The “shita-shita” (from the verb 滴るshitataru), for example gets replaced by “drip drop” in the English version, which gets across the same idea of the sound of water dripping but creates a different mood. The Japanese sounds more like whispering than the English. In all his films, Kawamoto’s takes careful consideration of all elements. the doll design, backgrounds, and soundtrack are all equally important components of the whole.

Thirdly, it is disappointing for collectors. While I applaud KINO for making films by international artists like Kawamoto available to North American audiences, they should really take more pains in the future to respect the integrity of the original film. The kind of people likely to buy this DVD prefer to hear the original soundtrack, even if they do not speak the language. For someone who does understand the language, it is difficult to follow the story when there are abrupt shifts between English and Japanese on the soundtrack. I also have some concerns about the transfer, because a number of the scenes had digital artifacts that I doubt were on the 35mm screening copies of the film (though it does look like CG was used for some backgrounds, like the opening shots of the town).

It is ironic that I should watch this film just after staying up late reading a lengthy discussion about FACETS on the Criterion discussion boards. I was wondering whether or not it was worth ordering FACETS' release of Naoyuki Tsuji’s work (I already have his Japanese DVD), and was looking for reviews of the US DVD to see if it had any extras of value. Years ago, I ordered my first film from FACETS for a research project I was working on. It was The Great Sadness of Zoharra by Nina Menkes, and the FACETS video was my only option because it wasn't available anywhere else. It was a pretty rough transfer to VHS with a pretty cheaply made cover. While I appreciate that there are companies out there willing to get these rare films onto the market for connoisseurs, it seems a shame that they don't go the extra step to ensure that the film quality is at least reasonably acceptable.

It looks like I will have to order Book of the Dead from Geneon before I can give it a proper review. I’ve been quite happy with their DVDs of Koji Yuri’s Film Works, Koji Yamamura’s work, Osamu Tezuka’s Experimental Films, and so on. The only drawback or films with dialogue is that there are no subtitles, which would make the films more accessible to a wider audience.

Not wanting to disparage a distributor of international films entirely, I should add that KINO's DVD of Kawamoto’s short films, The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto, looks to be in fine condition. The original Japanese soundtracks have been retained and the subtitles are adequate. My only criticism is that there aren’t more films on the DVD. Geneon’s Japanese-only DVD has five more short films including the rarely seen Self Portrait, from a series of self portraits made by animators in 1988.

For Japanese releases (no subtitles) of Kawamoto's work:

Shisha no Sho / Puppet Show

Puppet Show

Kihachiro Kawamoto Sakuhin shu / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

10 February 2009

Furukawa's Minna no Uta animation

It is well known that many of Japan’s great independent animators, like Yuri Koji, Taku Furukawa, Sadao Tsukioka, Shinji Fukushima, and Fumio Ooi, have designed animations for the NHK’s Minna no Uta series. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to get a hold of these little treasures due to regular crackdowns on people who upload them onto filesharing sites. Occasionally one can luck out and find a few gems. Recently I tracked down a couple of Taku Furukawa (古川タク, b.1941) Minna no Uta shorts.

First, a little background on the animator himself. Furukawa started off with an interest in manga, but was inspired by the work of early animtors like Ryohei Yanagihara to go into the field of animation. He got himself an apprenticeship under Yoji Kuri at Kuri Jikken Manga Kobo, which led to his own debut at the Animation Festival in 1966 with Akatombo (The Red Dragonfly). In 1970, he founded his own studio Takun Jikken Manga Box. Over the years he has produced dozens of independent animated films. He also publishes manga and picture books for children, as well as lecturing at universities and art colleges. Furukawa is notable for his active support of young artists through his teaching and his participation in animation festivals.

On top of his independent films, which screen regularly at festivals, Furukawa has done over a dozen Minna no Uta shorts. Kitte no nai okurimono (切手のないおくりもの) first aired in June 1996. The catchy tune is sung by Kazuo Zaitsu (財津和夫, b. 1948)
Furukawa takes a fairly simple, straightforward song, and makes it visually interesting by opening up multiple frames within the TV frame and having several small animations on the screen at the same time. The illustration style is very typical of Furukawa’s work and the colourful colour palette and amusing vignettes capture the spirit of Zaitsu’s song.
Have a look for yourself here.

The above screencaps are from 1990's 東の島にコブタがいた (Higashi no Shinma ni Kobuta ga ita) featuring music by Bakufu Slump. The sense of humour of the song is a good match with Furukawa. I find it interesting how Furukawa switches between two different styles of animation. The comic scenes with the pig are done in a straightforward cel animation, but the more lyrical scenes of landscapes and forests are like a moving pastel drawing. These scenes create a particularly emotive effect during the musical bridge. Check it out here.

In case you didn’t catch my brief mention of it last August, you can also check out another favourite of mine by Furukawa: Kumo ga Hareta. Here are some screencaps of the brilliant dancing umbrella sequences. One can't help but think of Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain:

For up to date information on Furukawa, check out his blog right here. Even if you can't read Japanese, it's still worthwhile if you'd like to see images of Furukawa's recent work such as a short piece he did for the NHK show Eigo de asobou (Let's play in English--- my kids were mildly amused by that show when we lived in Tokyo, though the male host is a bit goofy). The Furukawa piece is called The Bear (Mori no Kuma-san).

Minna no Uta Best Hit Collection / V.A.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

04 February 2009

Animation at the Japan Media Arts Festival

The Japan Media Arts Festival is underway from today until the 15th of February at The National Art Center in Tokyo. Every year this influential festival presents a selection of the year’s best films, animation, games, manga, and other media art to eager audiences. This year, the festival had 2,146 entries from more than 44 countries. For more information on exhibitions, screenings, symposia, workshops, and other events, go to their bilingual website here. The festival guide is available as a pdf download.

If I were in Tokyo, I would be heading to see the festival’s picks for top animation for this year – some of which, I have seen, others I am hoping will make an appearance at Nippon Connection in the spring. Animator Shinichi Suzuki (鈴木伸一), who runs the Suginami Animation Museum, was head of the Jury that selected the winners in animation.

It comes as no surprise that the Grand Prize went to Kunio Katō’s Tsumiki no ie (つみきのいえLa maison en petits cubes) which also won Kato prizes at Hiroshima and Annecy, and is nominated for an Oscar. See my review of the film here.

Excellence prizes were awarded to:

Masaaki Yuasa Kaiba (カイバ)

Yuasa is perhaps best known for 2004’s Mindgame. Kaiba is a 12-episode animation series that he animated with Madhouse. The series aired on WOWOW last spring. Check out Emru Townsend’s review at Frames per Second.

Chie Arai Dreams (ドリームス)

I have not been able to find any reviews of Arai’s work, but I do know that she has worked as a key animator and in-betweener at Disney Japan. She quit Disney in 2002 to do freelance work (including at Disney) including on Koji Yamamura projects such as Man & Whale and Atama Yama. She has also done freelance work for the NHK (Minna no Uta, Eigo de Asobo). Here’s her homepage. I like her online Fliptheatre, but I wish she had more info about her independent film work.

Taku Kimura Kudan (クダン)

Here's the official description:

Unlike the western mythological creature, the Minotaur, a Japanese monster, Kudan, has a human head and the body of a cow. Kudan is born from a female cow. It speaks a human language, predicts war or disaster, and dies in three days. This story is about a man who is accidentally transformed into a Kudan.

For more information, go to the film’s homepage.

Kōji Yamamura A Child’s Metaphysics (こどもの形而上学)

Here is the description from his homepage:

A child whose head is numerals, a child who winds his own face and has it under his arm. What was left is his identity, a child whose eyes are provided by fishes, a child who lies down on the floor and head-butts his identity, a child who cannot say anything because of a zipper across his mouth. He undo the zipper but under it is another zipper...

Ecology and philosophy of children with sadness and humour.

An Encouragement Prize was given to Noriaki Okamoto for his short film Algol (アルゴル). A low quality download of the film can be viewed in it’s entirety on the NHK website (click here). I would have to see a higher resolution copy before making a verdict on the film, but I do like when music and animation are used in interesting ways together and I love mixed media animation. I do hope the film come to Nippon Connection.

For fans of animation, the festival also offers screenings of selections from festivals around the world including Annecy, Ars Electronica, CICDAF (China), SICAD (Seoul), Ottawa, among others. On February 7th there is also a symposia with a panel that includes Kunio Kato, Taku Kimura, Masaaki Yuasa, and Shinichi Suzuki.


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