22 November 2009

15 Must See Art Animation Shorts

Kato Kunio’s Oscar win this year for La maison en petits cubes (Tsumiki no ie, 2008) has sparked the interest of many anime fans in alternatives to mainstream Japanese animation. My review of his film last November is one of the most often read posts on this blog. If you have fallen under the spell of Kato Kunio’s green-blue colour palette, here are 15 other must see innovative animations from Japan that I highly recommend (with links to where you can find them).

1. Taku Furukawa’s Phenakistiscope (Odorokiban, 1975)

This animation was inspired by an early animation device that was a precursor of the zoetrope. It consisted of a spinning disc with the various stages of the animation painted in a circle like the numbers on a clock. When the disc was spun using a handle, the viewer would peer through a hole and see the resulting short animation. Popular subjects were human figures engaged in various activities like dancing or playing leap frog. Furukawa pays tribute to this early animation device while at the same time using the concept to create more abstract images. This film won Furukawa the special jury prize at Annecy – the second Japanese to do so after Yoji Kuri in 1962 with Ningen Doubutsuen. Available via anido.

2. Koji Yamamura’s Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor (Kafuka Inaka Isha, 2007)

This film actually ties with Atama Yama (2003) as my favourite Yamamura films. Read my reviews of these films here and here. Available to purchase here (no subtitles).

3. Yoji Kuri’s The Chair (Isu, 1964)

Kuri’s best known for his humorous line-drawing animations with their experimental soundtracks, but this early experimental film wins my heart for its ingenuity. Read my view here. Order it here.

4. Tadanari Okamoto’s The Restaurant of Many Orders (Chuumon no Ooi Ryooriten, 1991)

This was Okamoto’s final film and was completed by his friend and colleague Kawamoto The look was heavily influenced by the participation of Reiko Okuyama in my opinion, and it has been very influential on the younger generation of animators -- particularly Yamamura’s recent dark, psychological tales Atama Yama and Kafuka Inaka Isha. Available on DVD or DVD Boxset.

5. Kihachiro Kawamoto’s Dojoji Temple (Dōjōji, 1976)

All of Kawamoto’s puppet films are of an incredibly high standard of doll-making craft and storytelling skills. It is hard to choose just one to recommend. Dojoji Temple is perhaps the most quintessential Kawamoto film: a traditional story told in the bunraku tradition with lovingly crafted puppets and accomplished voice acting. Available with English subtitles, or from Geneon without.

6. Tomoyasu Murata’s Indigo Road (Ai no Michi, 2006)

Murata’s films range from screwball comedy (Sakadachikun) to the ethereally beautiful (Fuyu no Niji, 2005). He has mastered the art of a wide range of animation styles, but for me he is at his best doing puppet animaton. The My Road puppet animations tackle very difficult themes. I love them all, but I identify the most with Indigo Road. Can be ordered via Murata’s website.

7. Mami Kosemura’s Woman in the Mirror (Kyōdai no Onna, 2006)

Kosemura is an installation artist who specializes in ‘moving paintings.’ Her animations are usually displayed in galleries (though you can see some online here) in traditional Japanese settings. This is my favourite work of hers. The animation screened on a traditional kyōdai – a Japanese dresser with a low table for sitting on the floor and doing make-up with a tall full-length mirror on top. The ‘screen’ was the mirror. As the viewer watches, they hear the rustling of a kimono and catch glimpses of a female figure in her kimono. This piece is so fascinating and suggestive that I recall sitting in the Yokohama Museum of Art and watching it for at least 20 minutes even though it was only on a 8 minute loop.

8. Naoyuki Tsuji’s A Trilogy About Clouds (Mitsu no Kumo, 2005)

Tsuji has dabbled in puppet and line-drawing animation, but for me his most successful works have been his charcoal animations, inspired in part by the works of William Kentridge. A Trilogy About Clouds is a truly mesmerizing viewing experience. The films are made in a similar way to early chalkboard animations in that the artist draws an image, photographs it, then erases (or smudges in the case of charcoal) and draws the next frame. With charcoal, this means that an ‘after image’ is left of the previous frames, reminding the viewer of what has gone before. Tsuji does not storyboard before making his films, which give them a kind of stream-of-consciousness logic. Order his DVD here.

9. Osamu Tezuka’s Jumping (1984)

'Tezuka? Isn’t he mainstream?' I hear you ask. Tezuka was actually an innovator in the truest sense and participated in the early animation festivals of the 1960s and early 1970s at Sogetsu Hall. Some of his truly remarkable ‘experimental’ films include his interpretation of Mussorgy’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1966). Jumping is a remarkable short film shot from the point of view of a girl jumping down the street. The jumps get bigger and bigger, first over a car, them into a garden and over houses, and then into the most unlikely of places. What makes this film so amazing is that it was entirely done the old-school way with approximately 4,000 hand-drawn images. Such effects today have become commonplace thanks to computer animation, but this film still wows after 25 years. Available from Geneon (no subtitles) or this company in Oz (with English subtitles).

10. Maya Yonesho’s Üks Uks (2003)

Yonesho’s art is in the abstract tradition pioneered by artists like Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren. Yonesho takes abstract painted animation one step further by adding stop motion objects (books) into the mix. Her painted designs jump from book to book, with each book representing a door into a different aspect of human nature. Yonesho’s meticulous use of three dimension space is particularly striking. Her films are available via anido.

11. Takeshi Ishida’s Gestalt (Heya/Keitai, 1999)

As much as I love Ishida’s more recent installation animation projects like Wall of the Sea (2007), this early low-budget work drawn on the walls of his student dorm room over the course of a year. The varying quality of light through the window creates a beautiful , haunting effect when combined with the flowing lines and geometric patterns shifting form on the wall. Available on Thinking and Drawing.

12. Keiichi Tanaami and Nobuhiro Aihara’s Scrap Diary (2002)

Over the past 10 years, Tanaami and Aihara, who are both professors at the Kyoto Univerisity of Art and Design, have collaborated on a number of animated shorts. Some of these are known as ‘animation battles’ and others as ‘animation correspondence.’ In both cases, the artists take turns at the ‘canvas.’ Scrap Diary to me is the quintessential example of such an animation correspondence. Tanaami’s trademark goldfish-inspired figures and figures with oversized features are counterbalanced by Aihara’s full-screen, highly detailed, kaleidoscope-like designs. Tanaami and Aihara still work the old-fashioned way by hand on animation paper that they photograph on 16mm. With sound design by their frequent collaborator Takashi Inagaki. DVD available here.

13. Tabaimo’s Public Convenience (2006)

The animated installations created by Tabaimo are probably best viewed within a gallery space, but as we are not all so lucky as to be able to attend one of her exhibitions, the next best thing are her Ufer! documentaries. Anyone who has used a public restroom in an older train station or subway station in Japan will be able to relate to the setting of this piece, which Tabaimo layers with levels of symbolic meaning. The installation can be seen on imo-la and the film version on the Tokyo Loop DVD.

14. Mika Seike’s Fishing Vine (2006)

Seike’s films have a unique look created by scanning real objects (such as leaves in this film) and colouring and animating them on the computer. Her films are highly symbolic poetic films that require several screenings in order unravel all the layers of meaning. I discover a new aspect each time I watch this film. Can be seen on Tokyo Loop. For more of her films check out Thinking and Drawing.

15. Norito Iki’s Kaidan (2003)

This little ghost story was one of my favourite films on Thinking and Drawing. I love the use of black and white photographs and fish eye lens. Iki hasn’t updated his blog since 2007 and I haven’t heard of any new films being on the animation festival circuit. I do hope he hasn’t given up on art animation, because Kaidan demonstrates that he has a lot of creative potential.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

19 November 2009

Mind Game (マインド・ゲーム, 2005)

There is something fitting about the fact that Masaaki Yuasa and Studio 4°C’s Mind Game (マインド・ゲーム, 2005) made it’s debut the year before the 100th anniversary of Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906). I have no doubt that when future animation historians look back at this decade, Mind Game will stand out as an example of an animation that bridges the first and second centuries of animated films.

Upon first screening the film, I found myself overwhelmed by its technical brilliance. The sheer variety of animation techniques and styles, both traditional and modern, mean that the film could have easily had no plot at all but have still entertained. Perhaps the most stylistically intriguing moments are the scenes in which actors faces have been digitally rotoscoped onto CG-animated bodies to give characters an added emotional edge.

Mind Game’s unique look and sound is the result of the coming together of three iconoclastic artists: manga-ka Robin Nishi (ロビン西), animator Masaaki Yuasa (湯浅政明), and animator/producer Koji Morimoto (森本晃司). Morimoto is one of the creative geniuses, along with Eiko Tanaka and Yoshiharu Sato, behind independent Studio 4°C. According to the documentary footage included on the extras of my Rapid Eye DVD of Mind Game, it was Morimoto who saw the artistic potential of Robin Nishi’s abstract manga. However, he felt that he was too enthralled by the manga to have an objective director’s eye for the project and he brought Yuasa on board as director. Yuasa had previously worked on Onkyo seimeitai Noiseman (1997) with Morimoto.

Robin Nishi’s manga stands apart from the usual manga fare because of the roughness of its style and the open-ended nature of the plot. Instead of presenting his readers with a polished final product, Nishi deliberately leaves space for his readers’ to fill in the gaps with their own interpretations. This openness to multifaceted interpretations of his work also led Nishi to allow Yuasa free reign to adapt Mind Game into an animation. This combination of an abstract manga, plus a studio that encourages its artists to experiment, plus a freelance animator not creatively tied to any studio resulted in a film that quite literally blows the mind as a viewing experience.

On the surface, the film has a fairly simple plotline: an aspiring young manga-ka (Nishi) is reunited with his childhood sweetheart (Myon) and this leads to an unfortunate series of events including finding out that she is engaged to someone else and getting shot in the ass by a wayward yakuza in her family restaurant. Normally a film would be headed to disaster if its main protagonist gets killed twenty minutes in, but this is a film about second chances and Nishi refuses to go quietly into his next life and desperately races back into his old life to try again.

This catapults the film even further into the realm of the abstract. Arguably, the film has no objective plotline at all. As the main protagonist bears the name of the mangaka (or at least, his nom de plume, as is the case with most mangaka), it would seem that the journey that the animation takes us on is a subjective trip into the psyche and creative process of the mangaka himself. The psychedelic nature (though not in the drug-induced sense) of the journey is emphasized by the bright colour palette, which could be right out of a painting by Keiichi Tanaami, the jazzy music (including the brilliant pieces performed by Seiichi Yamamoto and Fushigi Robot), and the highly symbolic imagery such being swallowed by a whale – which Robin Nishi admits he borrowed from Pinocchio. The tagline of the film is “Your life is the result of your own decisions” and this message is driven home by a beautifully animated montage that projects not only the possible future narratives of the 4 characters who find themselves stuck in the belly of a whale together, but also in a matter of minutes illustrates the complex history of Osaka and the transformation of its geography over the decades. A spectacular, thought-provoking film that should not be missed.

The German release of the DVD includes a sheet of stickers and four postcards. Disc extras include some documentary footage about the animation process and interviews with key cast among other video clips that highlight some of film’s musical sequences. The Japanese releases (they seem to have released it in different guises) of Mind Game have English subtitles. The links below lead to more info at cdjapan. Unfortunately the soundtrack, which I would love to have, seems to be out of print at the current time.

MIND GAME (English Subtitles) / Animation
This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

16 November 2009

The Magic Ballad (おこんじょうるり, 1982)

Foxes appear often in Japanese folklore in a wide variety of guises. They are usually quite clever and in the possession of magical abilities. Tadanari Okamoto’s award-winning puppet animation The Magic Ballad (Okon Jyoururi, 1982) was adapted from a folktale by Akira Saneto (current book cover below). By the early 1980s, Okamoto had made numerous widely respected puppet animations, but this was his first time using puppets made using techniques from the hariko (papier-mâché) and doro-ningyo (clay dolls) styles that were common where he grew up in Osaka. In contrast to his earlier puppets, the ones in this film have a smoother, shinier surface much like that of inuhariko (papier-mâché dogs) and daruma dolls. Flashbacks within the narrative are indicated through the use of ink on paper cel animation.

The 26 minute film tells the tale of an ailing elderly woman named Itako who encounters a fox named Okon. The name ‘Itako’ is not arbitrary. Traditionally in northern Japan, girls that were born blind usually trained to become ‘Itako’ – a kind of a female shaman or spiritualist who would earn their living offering spiritual advice at Buddhist temples. The northern location of the story is emphasized through the dialect spoken by the puppets.

The story opens with Itako lying bedridden, as she has for a long time. Okon enters her home and Itako tells the fox that he is welcome to take anything that he wants, for she has no use for anything anymore. Okon is delighted and in order to return the favour (the act of ongaeshi), Okon performs a magic jyōruri (a ballad with shamisen accompaniment) that heals Itako so that she is fit enough to walk again. Everyone is surprised by Itako’s sudden recovery. She then hears of a hunter who has been badly injured and is near death. Itako hides Okon in the back of her shirt and has the fox sing the song while she plays shamisen in order to heal the man. This act of kindness is repeated for others until Itako’s good fortune leads some to be suspicious of her. Their ill will leads to the tragic climax of the story.

The Magic Ballad is a truly remarkable short film. The dolls are beautifully formed (click here to see photographs of the puppets which are in the collection of the National Film Center) and marvelously expressive. The voice acting and musical performances elevate the film to its status as perhaps one of Okamoto’s most impressive works. Mami Soga’s clear, strong, childlike (in the best sense) jyōruri performances as Okon are powerful and moving.

On a side note, I noticed that the villagers were referring to Itako as Jinzuuriki (神通力) when she was using the fox’s powers to heal. This seems to mean that they believe that she has a kind of a supernatural power granted by the gods. The way it was pronounced sounded very similar to the term Jinchuuriki (人柱力), which is used by Masashi Kishimoto in the Naruto and Naruto Shippuden manga to describe people who have a Bijuu (尾獣, tailed beast) sealed within them. As Naruto himself has a nine-tailed fox within him, it made me wonder if the term ‘jinchuuriki’ has been derived from ‘jinzuuriki.’ This seems very likely as the Naruto series is chock full of references to Japanese folklore.

The Magic Ballad appears on Volume Three of the Tadanari Okamoto collection released earlier this year by Geneon Universal.

Tadanari Okamoto Zensakuhin Shu / Animation

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

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

02 November 2009

Cube by Rinpa Eshidan

Rinpa Eshidan is an animation art collective that perform live-art events and film them on video. Their mission statement:

Instead of focusing on the finished project, we believe the process of creation itself is where art comes to life and our videos and live art aim to engage our audience in that process. Many people ask us how we can stand to erase the artwork we have worked so hard to create, but our focus is on the process of making art, not the end result. The good news is that the videos we make become a permanent record of the spontaneous artworks created during the filming.

They have just posted this new video 'Cubes' on their Youtube channel in order to promote their DVD which can be ordered by e-mailing a request to rinpaeshidan(at)me.com. The music featured on this video is by Super Samir. For more information on the group visit their website or contact them at info(at)rinpaeshidan.com


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