15 July 2009

Musings on Yoji Kuri & Chair (Isu, 1964)

Animator and artist Yoji Kuri (久里洋二, b. 1928) is one of the founding fathers of Japan’s art animation scene. Along with graphic designer and ad-man Ryohei Yanagihara (柳原良平, b. 1931) and renowned book cover designer Hiroshi Manabe (真鍋博, 1932-2000) Kuri formed the Animation Sannin no Kai (Animation Group of Three) in 1960. In doing so, the three animators were following in the footsteps of the Sannin no Kai composers of the 1950s (Yasushi Akutagawa, Ikuma Dan & Toshiro Mayuzumi), who had banded together in order to stage performances of their avant-garde style of music together. The Animation Sannin no Kai put on three events in which they showcased their work in November 1960, December 1962, and April 1963. From 1964 this event was expanded into a wider Animation Festival, which during its annual run until 1971 showcased the experimental fare of such artists as Taku Furukawa, Sadao Tsukioka, Goro Sugimoto, Keiichi Tanaami, and even Osamu Tezuka. (for more on these events see anipages)

Of the original Animation Sannin no Kai, Kuri was the only artist to make a career out of animation. Throughout the 1960s, his films appeared at international festivals throughout Europe and North America. His 1962 film Clap Vocalism (Ningen Doubutsuen, 3’), with a score by Toru Takemitsu (famed for his work on Akira Kurosawa’s films), won the Special Jury Prize at Annecy and the bronze medal at Venice. Over the years he has been celebrated around the world both as an animator and as an artist, having dabbled in a wide range of arts including sculpture, painting, illustration, and flip books.

Even now in his 80s, he is still very active as an artist and contributed a humourous short film Funkorogashi to Image Forum’s omnibus collection Tokyo Loop in 2006. Funkorogashi (see image at top of page), which poked fun at dog owners who resemble their pooches and allow the dogs to poop all over town, was in Kuri’s signature style: minimalistic line drawing animation (black on a white background) with some sections coloured in with bold reds, greens, yellows, and blues. It also demonstrated that he has retained his school boy humour after all these years.

It has taken me some time to warm up to Kuri’s work as an experimental animator. Normally, I am rather fond of black humour (Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and Ealing Studios’ Kind Hearts and Coronets rate as 2 of my favourite comedies of all time) and, as a big fan of Buster Keaton, I do appreciate a good visual gag. But, the often sexist representation of women in Kuri’s films more often than not leaves me feeling cold.

On a purely aesthetic level, I appreciate the truly innovative use of the soundtrack in Kuri’s films. In an interview on his Takun Films DVD (sold by Anido), Taku Furukawa (古川タク) says that he and Kuri often did all the voices themselves. . . even the female ones such as the male and female Olympic athletes comically chanting “Chu Chu Chu Chu” in Au Fou! (Satsujin Kyōjidai, 1965, 13’). He also used the skills of cutting edge avant-garde composers of the day including not only Toru Takemitsu but also Akiyama Kunihara (1929-1996), Hayashi Hikaru (b.1933), Yoko Ono (b. 1933, yes, John Lennon’s wife), and also Ono’s first husband, the brilliant composer Toshi Ichiyanagi (b. 1933). The soundtracks interact in fascinating and unexpected ways with the animation.

Kuri makes a cameo appearance in 'Chair'

The film that brought me to a greater appreciation of Yoji Kuri as an experimental animator was Chair (Isu/ 椅子, 1964). My first thought upon seeing this film was that it must have been at least in part inspired by Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra’s stop motion film A Chairy Tale (1957). McLaren’s films were brought to Japan in the late 1950s and as Kuri had been attending international festivals throughout the early 1960s, I would be surprised if he had not seen the film.

The premise of Chair is this: Kuri asked a number of people from a wide variety of walks of life to sit on a chair for 15 minutes in front of his single camera set-up. In the opening title card he asks the spectator to imagine what they would do with the time and says that the film is about the unease that modern people feel when they don’t have anything to do. The regular people (a school teacher, a young girl, a university student, a salaryman, a Buddhist priest, a cop, among many others) were paid a fee for their time, while the celebrity figures such as artist Taro Okamoto (岡本太郎), singer George Ai (アイ・ジョジ), the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa (谷川俊太郎), and the aforementioned composer Ishiyangi (一柳慧) did not receive any payment for their services.

I don’t know if Kuri actually edited out frames of the film by hand or if he used a time-lapse camera technique of shooting a frame every so many seconds (This is the most likely case: time-lapse as a technique does date back to the silent films of Georges Méliès and Arnold Fanck ), but the end result is that the 15 minutes are reduced to a matter of seconds. The result is mesmerising. The most impatient people are made comical by the jerky movements that result from the time-lapse effect.

I wondered when watching if all the participants were aware of the camera, because most seemed to pay it no heed at all. Some, like Kuri himself (see screencaps above) who is the last subject before the camera, clearly did know and probably plan what he would do. Many of the subjects are very patient at waiting (surprisingly one young child does the best job of doing absolutely nothing) while others fidget and move about. Some seem to have come prepared with things to occupy themselves with, while others only have the chair to interact with. The junior high school teacher inexplicably takes off his clothes down almost to his skivvies then gets dressed again.

This kind of film is, in my opinion, experimental film at its best: when an everyday situation is turned made extraordinary and the spectator has to re-evaluate something that they take for granted. Although the film is over 40 years old now, it still seems very contemporary. Some would say that people find waiting even more difficult now than at any time before because the young generation with their keitais (mobile phones) and iphones don’t know how to ‘do nothing’. It would be interesting to do this same experiment with today’s generation. Would all the subjects just text message their time away? To answer the question in the title card “What would you do?” I just thought about what I do in waiting rooms or on trains: I always have a book with me so I would be reading and crossing and re-crossing my legs.

What would YOU do with your 15 minutes?

Yoji Kuri Sakuhin shu / Animation
Yoji Kuri Sakuhin shu

This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

06 July 2009

Noriaki Tsuchimoto: The Life of a Documentary Filmmaker

June 24th of this year marked the first anniversary of the death of leading documentary filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto (土本典昭, 1928-2008) . Tsuchimoto’s career was marked by a willingness to take risks with politically sensitive causes. He was best known for his series of films examining the impact of Minamata disease: the notorious mercury poisoning scandal that rocked post-war Japan.

Born in Gifu prefecture in 1928 but raised in Tokyo, Tsuchimoto joined the Japanese Communist Party while studying at Waseda University in 1946. He began working at Iwanami Film Studios in 1956 where he learnt filmmaking and got to know other documentary filmmakers such as Kazuo Kuroki and Shinsuke Ogawa. His career was shaped in part by the cinematographer Seiji Yoshino who served on the board at Iwanami. Initially, Tsuchimoto worked on promotional films, but then made his first foray as a director with his film Aru Kikanjoshi (An Engineer’s Assistant, 1963). Important works in his career included Chua Swee-Lin (Exchange Student, 1965) about the prejudice felt by a Malaysian-Chinese student at a Japanese university, Paruchizan Zenshi (Prehistory of the Partisans, 1969) about student extremists, Minamata: Kanja-san to sono sekai (Minamata: The Victims and Their World, 1972), and Umi-tori shimokita hanto hamasekine (Stolen Sea: Shimokita Peninsula, 1984) about a traditional community threatened by commercial interests.

In 1989, Tsuchimoto went outside of Japan to make the film Afghan Spring (1989) in collaboration with Hiroko Kumagai and the Afghan filmmaker Abdul Latif. This film looked at society and politics in Afghanistan as the Soviets were withdrawing from the region. The film has become an invaluable artifact of a culture and community later destroyed by the Taliban.
In his later years, Tsuchimoto devoted much of his time to writing and political activism. He continued to bring awareness to the victims of Minamata with a 1996 exhibition called Minamata-Tokyo which gathered over a thousand photographed of the suffering victims of this dreadful disease. Tsuchimoto’s works shocked audiences with their subject matter and his compassion for the people he profiled was self-evident.

A documentary about his career entitled Cinema is About Documenting Lives (映画は生きものの記録である 土本典昭の仕事) was produced by Toshi Fujiwara in 2007. Here is the trailer:

The National Film Center’s exhibition includes photographs and mementos owned by his family, friends, and peers. A documentary on his life will be screened in the small auditorium. Throughout the summer Tsuchimoto’s films will be screened at NFC, and there will also be three events with guest speakers discussing his life and career. The exhibition opened on June 30th and will run until the 30th of August. For more information, visit the NFC's website.


Date: Saturday, July 11th
Guests: Motoko Tsuchimoto (Noriaki Tsuchimoto's wife), Kenji Ishizaka (film scholar)

Date: Saturday, August 1st
Guests: Hideyuki Nakamura (Professor, Faculty of Psychology, Rikkyo University)

Date: Saturday, August 22nd
Guest: Ryutaro Takagi (Film producer, former President of Seirinsha)

Mo Hitotsu no Afghanistan- Kabul Nikki 1985 nen (Another Afghanistan: Kabul Diary 1985) / Japanese Movie

03 July 2009

Anime Alice in Wonderland

There’s a lot of hype in the blogosphere at the moment over Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (see recently leaked images) despite the fact that the film won’t be released until spring 2010. It got me thinking about the prevalence of Alice in Wonderland-type themes in Japanese animation.

The first one that comes to mind is the classic anime series Alice in Wonderland (ふしぎの国のアリス/Fushigi no Kuni no Arisu, 1983-1984) directed by Shigeo Koshi and Taku Sugiyama. The series was a German-Japanese co-production involving Nippon Animation which aired on in Japan on the NHK and in West Germany on ZDF. Nippon Animation (formerly Zuiyo Eizo) has a long history of producing classics from world children’s literature. They were the studio responsible for the World Masterpiece Theatre (世界名作劇場/ Sekai Meisaku Gekijō) anime series, which ran from 1969 to 1997. It’s a beautifully animated little series. I don’t know if it has ever shown on TV in English – I would imagine that there might be copyright problems with Disney - but it’s widely available on DVD here in Germany and repeats were shown on the children’s broadcaster KiKa earlier this year.

The popular series InuYasha (戦国御伽草子 犬夜叉, 1996-2008) has an Alice in Wonderland theme. It follows the adventures of a young girl who is drawn into a fantasy world when she falls down an old well. Viz, the company who translated the series into English, gave nods to the influence of Lewis Carroll in their translations of some of the titles. For example, of the third episode in the first series as "Down the Rabbit Hole and Back Again." (骨喰いの井戸からただいまっ!) The second movie was called The Castle Beyond the Looking Glass (映画犬夜叉 鏡の中の夢幻城, 2002). The use of the archaic term ‘looking glass’ instead of ‘mirror’ as a translation for ‘kagami’ (鏡) makes the Lewis Carroll reference clear.

The Clamp manga Miyuki-chan in Wonderland (不思議の国の美幸ちゃん) puts an erotic, lesbian spin on the Lewis Carroll tale. It was adapted into a 30-minute OVA anime by Kiyoko Sayama in 1995. This anime was not really my cup of tea, but its fansub is pretty popular viewing on youtube. The screenshot above features a female embodiment of the Cheshire cat seducing Miyuki-chan.

Ouran High School Host Club (桜蘭高校ホスト部) takes on Alice in episode 13. Entitled "Haruhi in Wonderland"(不思議の国のハルヒ), the episode features Haruhi having a fantastical Alice in Wonderland dream about the day of her admission into Ouran High School.

Nagisa Miyazaki’s adaptation of the Kaishaku Kagihime Monogatari Eikyū Alice Rondo manga (鍵姫物語 永久アリス輪舞曲, 2006) was also inspired by the Alice in Wonderland story.

My favourite, however, is Atsuko Ishizuka’s contribution to the NHK’s Minna no Uta series: Tsuki no Waltz (Waltz of the Moon, 2004). After making a big splash with her independently produced animation shorts, Madhouse snapped Ishizuka up as an in-house animator. However, the studio was kind enough to let Ishizuka do one short animation for the NHK. Tsuki no Waltz is easily in my top ten Minna no Uta animations of all time because the dream-like animation is just stunning. It fits with the romantic Mio Isayama song perfectly, and each frame of the animation could be printed, framed, and hung on the wall as art. You can check out the video here.  (Update Sept. 2010: More on Tsuki no Waltz)

Can anyone think of one that I've missed?  Leave a message in the comments.

Related Posts:
Tsuki no Waltz

Tsuki no Waltz is available on:

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

01 July 2009

Shiho Hirayama (平山志保)

© Shiho Hirayama

The week always brightens considerably upon the discovery of an exciting young animation talent. This week, I stumbled upon the work of Shiho Hirayama (平山志保). Her minimalistic style and sense of humour (epitomized in the cute little animation of herself at work in the About Me section of her website – see screenshot above) are very appealing.

Born in 1979 in Saitama Prefecture, Hirayama has been working since 2006 as a freelance animator and illustrator. She uses computer animation (Flash, Photoshop, AfterEffects, Premiere) to create simple (in the sense of uncluttered) line drawing-style animations with a creative spirit reminiscent of early animators.

Hirayama’s recent short animation, Hiragana-gao (Hiragana Face), reminded me of Norman McLaren’s V for Victory (1941, 2’). Just as McLaren’s propaganda film to sell war bonds (watch it on the NFB site) features the metamorphosis of the letter V, Hirayama does the same thing with hiragana (the cursive Japanese syllabary). The symbol む(mu), for example transforms into this face:
© Shiho Hirayama

And the symbolふ (fu) transforms into this face© Shiho Hirayama

I am hoping that this film is a work in progress, because if she were to lengthen it a little bit and add music, it could be a truly wonderful film.

© Shiho Hirayama

The extent of Hirayama’s talent can be seen in her 2008 film swimming, which won her a Special Prize at the 8th Laputa International Animation Festival. It also received a special mention at the 12th Japan Media Arts Festival. The short animation evokes all the awkwardness of a school swimming class. A chubby young boy, steps up reluctantly for his turn, after watching the sporty prowess of his peers. After clumsily jumping into the pool, however, his imagination turns the negative experience into a positive one. A beautifully animated little film. The changing of perspective (above water to underwater; variety of camera distances) is expertly handled and makes the film a joy to watch from beginning to end.

To see Hirayama’s films for herself visit her website. All three films can be viewed in full there.

© Shiho Hirayama

2006 まる (Maru, 25”)
2008 swimming (4’17”)
2009 ひらがな顔 (Hiragana Face, 1’30”)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...