29 December 2009

Top Japanese Art Animation DVDs of the Decade

For fans of art animation and experimental film, the ‘naughties’ have been an exceptional decade in terms of the wider availability of both individual films and collections. Previously, such films were only available to a lucky few privileged enough to have an animation festival, art house cinema, or cinémathèque in their community. The life story of an animated short usually went follows:

  1. the artist labours intensively for months in a studio
  2. the artist presents the film locally to great acclaim
  3. the film gets picked up by international festivals
  4. after a year of touring, the film fades into obscurity
  5. if the filmmaker is lucky, the film gets featured periodically in retrospectives at animation festivals

In the past decade, however, art animation and experimental film has become much more widely available and via video-streaming sites many filmmakers have picked up new fans who previously would not have been likely to encounter their work. Thanks to the efforts of companies like Geneon Universal and Image Forum, not to mention collectives like Anido, the complete works of significant animators have become available on DVD. Younger artists like Tomoyasu Murata, Naoyuki Tsuji, and Yasuhiro Yoshiura have worked hard to promote themselves either through self-incorporation (Murata) or coordination with other production companies. Some of the more farseeing entrepreneurs of the contemporary art animation scene like Yoshiura and Kato Kunio, have allowed their work to be made available on video streaming and downloading sites like Yahoo Japan and crunchyroll.

The order of the DVDs listed below is not a true ranking. There are too many variables to consider for such a thing. To be included in this list, the DVD merely had to contain content that I believe is of important cultural and historical content. I haven’t been able to view the recently released complete works of Takashi Ito yet, but as the other Image Forum DVDs are of such a high quality I presume that it is equally as good. Clicking on most of the images below will take you to the DVD’s listing at cdjapan.co.jp. Most of films do not require subtitles for enjoyment (exceptions: Okamoto, Kawamoto, Tezuka). Some more farseeing organizations like Ufer! do think about the international appeal of their artists (ie Tabaimo) and provide subtitles. Others, like Geneon, should really make more of an effort in this area. Some artists like Kawamoto and Tezuka can be found on DVD in English speaking countries. The exception to this is Naoyuki Tsuji, whose Facets DVD should be avoided (read why here) – his work does not require subtitles to be enjoyed.

I am looking forward to the 2010s and hoping that even more animation gems will make their way onto DVD or another digital format soon. To read about which ones, see my earlier piece here.

Complete Works of Tadanari Okamoto (Boxset, Geneon, 2009)
Tadanari Okamoto Zensakuhin Shu / Animation

Winter Days (Kihachiro Kawamoto et al., Kinokuniya Shoten, 2003)
Renku Animation "Fuyu no Hi" / Animation

Thinking and Drawing: Japanese Art of the New Millennium (Image Forum, 2005)
Thinking and Drawing / Animation

Tokyo Loop (Taku Furukawa et al., Image Forum, 2006)
Tokyo Loop / Animation

Murata Tomoyasu Selection – Ore no Michi (Tomoyasu Murata Company, 2004)
Tomoyasu Murata Sakuhinshu - Ore no Michi / Animation

Book of the Dead (Kihachirō Kawamoto, Geneon, 2007)
Shisha no Sho / Puppet Show

The Complete Works of Kihachirō Kawamoto (Geneon, 2007)
Kihachiro Kawamoto Sakuhin shu / Animation

The Complete Works of Yōji Kuri (Geneon, 2007)
Yoji Kuri Sakuhin shu / Animation

Atama Yama – The Complete Works of Kōji Yamamura (Geneon, 2006)
Atamayama - Koji yamamura Sakuhinshu / Animation

Tanaamism Boxset (Keiichi Tanaami, Broadway, 2003)
TANAAMISM / Special Interest (Keiichi Tanaami)

Trilogy About Clouds (Naoyuki Tsuji, Columbia, 2005)

Available at cdjapan

Scrap Diary + Animactions! (Keiichi Tanaami & Aihara Nobuhiro, 2004)

amazon lists this DVD as being out of print, but Tsutaya claims they have it

hatsu-imo (Tabaimo & Yasushi Kishimoto, Ufer!, 2001)

available for purchase at Ufer!

Kinomaya / Maya Yonesho Abstract Animation Works (Anido, 2008)

availabe at anido

Yume ga Shagandeiru (Tomoyasu Murata, 2008)

available for purchase at tomoyasu.net

Pale Cocoon (Yasuhiro Yoshiura, Avex Trax, 2006)
Pale Cocoon / Animation (Yasuhiro Yoshiura)

The Complete Experimental Films of Osamu Tezuka (Geneon, 2007)
Osamu Tezuka Jikken animation sakuhin shu / Animation

The Complete Works of Takashi Itō (Image Forum, 2009)

Available at cdjapan
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

28 December 2009

Murata Joint (村田関節)

Have you ever wanted to try your hand at puppet animation but didn't know where to start? Tomoyasu Murata (村田朋泰), one of Japan's most prolific independent animators, has recently introduced his own line of armatures. In puppet animation, the armature acts as the skeleton or frame upon which figures are built. Some animators make their own armature using simple tools such as wire and endnuts, as is shown in this demonstration video. Armature can also be bought at art supply shops. Murata is selling a complete set for a human figure online for ¥18,900. Pieces can also be bought individually for ¥2,000 per unit. To see Murata's own puppets in actions, check out the short trailers for his films on his website, or Mr. Children's music video for the song Hero. His films are also available on DVD. Learn more about him by reading the numerous reviews of his films on this blog or Midnight Eye.

24 December 2009

Merry Christmas

One of Keita Funamoto's animation students 'Izumi' put together this festive animation. Merry Christmas to you all. Thank you for your support throughout 2009.

20 December 2009

Tokyo Godfathers (東京ゴッドファーザーズ, 2003)

If you are looking for a good Christmas movie to watch during the holiday season but without the saccharine schmaltz that usually goes hand-in-hand with such films, then look no further than Kon Satoshi’s 2003 animated feature film Tokyo Godfathers (東京ゴッドファーザーズ). Be warned, however, that although this film is animated it is not a family Christmas film. . . unless your kids are mature enough to deal with issues of child abandonment, homelessness, acts of terrorism, and transvestite hostess bars.

The film opens with an idyllic image of a baby in a manger and a child in the role of one of the three wise men reciting lines from the nativity play. A choir then breaks out into Kiyoshi kono Yoru (きよしこの夜, the Japanese version of Silent Night), followed by a preacher giving a Christmas sermon. The audience is filled with homeless people who have come for the promised free dinner at the end of the service. Among the homeless in the audience are two of the three title characters of the film: Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic who is very cynical about the sermon, and Hana, an okama (transvestite gay man) who enjoys the elevated rhetoric. After visiting the soup kitchen, the two meet up with the third member of this unlikely trio: Miyuki. Miyuki-chan is runaway teen who is introduced spitting on strangers from the rooftop of a tall building. Together the three have formed a kind of surrogate family for themselves with Hana taking on a kind of motherly role.

While bickering in their garbage-filled adopted home they discover an abandoned baby girl. In honour of Christmas Eve, they name the baby Kiyoko which means “pure child”. After some debate about what to do, they decide to put off notifying the police in order to first try tracking down Kiyoko’s mother themselves. For each of the three this marks the beginning of personal journeys that will in the course of the film reveal the complex, painful stories of how they each ended up homeless.

To audiences today, the title of this film immediately conjures up images of Francis Ford Coppola`s Godfather films. However, while the yakuza do make a brief appearance in the film, Satoshi Kon (今敏, b. 1963: Perfect Blue, Paprika) and screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto (信本敬子, b. 1964: Wolf’s Rain, Cowboy Bebop) actually found their inspiration elsewhere. The title refers to one of John Ford’s lesser known Westerns 3 Godfathers (1948) starring John Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., and Pedro Armedáriz. The story itself has an even older provenance as a bestselling novel in 1913 by Peter B. Keyne. Before the John Wayne adaptation, the story had already been adapted five times, of which two films are considered lost. Two of the films starred Harry Carey, Jr.’s father, the legendary character actor Harry Carey (1878-1947), one of which was also directed by John Ford.

The original story told the tale of three bank robbers who become the unlikely godfathers of a newborn child at the mother’s deathbed. Kon and Nobumoto likely drew their inspiration from the 1946 John Ford adaptation. John Ford’s films have been highly influential on the style and aesthetic of many Japanese directors, most notably Akira Kurosawa. Tokyo Godfathers does not use the aesthetic of John Ford (claustrophobic Tokyo instead of wide open landscapes), but it does address some of the core themes of a Ford film: human dignity, ethical imperative and psychologically complex central characters. The film is also structured much like a Ford film with dualities of meaning throughout the text.

In essence, Kon and Nobumoto have taken an American story and transformed it into a modern Japanese story concerning the issue of child abandonment. This issue has been covered in the Japanese media for at least 30 years, with Ryu Murakami tackling the subject in his deeply troubling novel Coin Locker Babies (1980 – rumoured to be in development as a film by Michele Civetta). The problem was even recently addressed by Jikei hospital in Kumamoto who adopted a baby drop off based on European models because of the numbers of babies being abandoned in supermarkets and parks. Sometimes, such troubling stories are difficult to address in a live action feature film. If such controversial topics are developed into features, they are usually low budget because it is hard to attract an audience for such hard-hitting fare. Animation allows for such complex issues to be addressed in a way that it accessible to a wide audience.

For me, Tokyo Godfathers joins an elite group of films that use animation to tell stories that may be too painful to realize successfully in live action. Other films in this category would include Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988, children suffering in times of war), Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1998, children’s fantasy used as a way to negotiate the fear of a mother’s death), Kinoshita’s Pica-don (1978, a depiction of the morning the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima), Masaki Mori’s Barefoot Gen (1983, also depicts Hiroshima). The genius of Tokyo Godfathers is that despite the bleak subject matter, Kon was able to inject enough humour and benevolence into the film so that the audience leaves the film with a sense of the redeeming features of humanity.

09 December 2009

Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ, 2001)

Although my viewing habits of late have taken me into the territory of more artsy fare, I do occasionally indulge in a few guilty pleasures. For example, I love a good genre film now and then, no matter how predictable the plot. Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2001) falls into the category of heartfelt screwball comedy with an Esther Williams twist. I’ll bet, dear reader, that you didn’t even know that such a category exists! The premise: it is nearing the end of the school year for a group of young students at an all male school who have failed to be successful in any clubs for sports or hobbies. A young female teacher arrives on the scene with a passion for synchronized swimming and therein lies the screwball comedy: young men performing a sport which is usually done by women.

Through a sudden and unlikely series of events in which the teacher pukes one moment and the next moment is eight months pregnant and on pregnancy leave, the boys find themselves stuck with a plan to perform at the school summer festival but without anyone to train them. I could imagine a lot of cynical western viewers getting annoyed with the film at this point because of the unrealistic plot devices being thrown at them. However, I suspect that the average Japanese audience takes this as a cue to not take anything seriously and to just sit back and laugh at the gags. The plot really is besides the point. It only acts as a build up for the swimming spectacular (more a choreographed routine using a swimming pool than the actual sport of synchro) which is the centerpiece of the film.

is successful because it never takes itself too seriously. The underlying plot device could be described as a kind of ‘if you don’t succeed, try, try again’ story, but the film only expects laughs and not tears from its audience. It’s not really about winning but about going through the process of improving oneself. And of course, although there are individual stories of triumph in the plot, as this is a Japanese film succeeding as a group is what is most important. Or, as Naoto Takenaka in the role of Sea World boss Isomura-san tells Suzuki-san (Satoshi Tsumabuki): getting out there, having fun, and making a fool of yourself is much better than feeling worthless for the rest of your life.

The film is also successful because it doesn’t overdo offensive stereotypes that sometimes creep into Japanese comedies. The jokes surrounding the transvestites who fund the boys in their efforts to learn synchro are relatively tame and the uncomfortable tension surrounding the one gay character Saotome (Takatoshi Kaneko) who has a crush on one of his teammates (Sato, played by Hiroshi Tamaki) is normalized rather than mocked. The big laughs in the film come from seeing geeky guys performing amusing routines – such as when Ohta (Akifumi Miura) gets discovered doing a workout video in tight red briefs. The director even managed to reign in the performance of Naoto Takenaka as Isomura the dolphin instructor. Takenaka is known for his over-the-top characters in films like Shall We Dance? (hilarious!) and Nodame Cantabile (a dreadful performance!). My favourite cameo of his was in Twentieth Century Boys where he gets killed off moments after making his appearance (I do have a black sense of humour).

Waterboys was so successful that there was a follow-up TV series on Fuji TV (2003-4) which ran for two seasons and a sequel Waterboys 2 (Yuji Sato, 2004). It’s a fun film for the young, yet perhaps surprisingly there may actually be some food for thought for the more academically inclined. For example, I believe there may be a great academic paper in there somewhere about male bodies subverting a typically female genre film. Being a big fan of 1930s genre films, I can say without hesitation that it’s a film that would indeed make Esther Williams and Busby Berkeley proud of their legacy. Available on DVD and Blu-ray with English subtitles.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

Death By Hanging (絞死刑, 1968)

Nagisa Oshima’s 1968 film Death By Hanging (Koushike/絞死刑) belongs to a very small category of films that deal with the issue of state execution. In the States, it took the vision of Tim Robbins and the acting mettle of Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn to pull it off in Dead Man Walking (1995). While Dead Man Walking delves deep into the spiritual aspects of forgiveness and redemption and the ethicality of state execution, it steers clear from bluntly equating execution with murder.

For that, one can turn to Krzystof Kieslowski’s fifth Dekalog film A Short Film About Killing (1988), which won him the Jury Prize at Cannes. Kieslowski’s film lays bare the practice of capital punishment coldly and clinically with Jacek’s execution shown to be as ruthless and brutal and his murder of the cab driver. Like Kieslowski, in Death By Hanging Oshima uses techniques of distanciation to force the spectator to think critically about the morality and ethicality of the practice of execution. Although both films have universal appeal, they also nonetheless address issues very specific to the time and place in which they were made.

Death By Hanging begins in a documentary style, telling the audience that 71% of Japanese citizens support the death penalty, but then the title cards address this majority directly asking if those in support of the death penalty have ever witnessed an execution. The prison house where the executions take place is introduced documentary style with a voice-of-god narration (done by Oshima himself) that leads us through the ceremony up until the point at which the doctor announces that the death by hanging has been unsuccessful and the prisoner’s body seems to be refusing to die. From here, the film diverges sharply from documentary into a kind of parallel universe which Oshima uses to explore the complex issues surrounding capital punishment in Japan. The prisoner’s soul has departed, according to the Catholic priest attending the ceremony, but his body has not and the prison staff engage in elaborate proceedings in order to revive the consciousness of their prisoner so that they can re-hang him.

Like the proverbial onion, the film peels off the many layers of complex issues surrounding the hanging of the central character known as ‘R’ during the proceedings. And like Jacek in Kieslowski’s film, R comes from a disadvantaged background. Yet poverty, a disabled mother, and an alcoholic father are less of a hindrance to R than growing up as a second generation Korean in Japan. The prejudices of his jailors are revealed as they attempt to jog R’s memory about his childhood. In addition to the weight of past Japanese crimes against the Korean nation, the film dwells upon the differing views about death in different religions (Catholicism vs. Buddhist/Shinto), women as objects (or victims) of male desire, and the failings of bureaucracy.

One of the most fascinating elements of the film is the implication that the men in charge of administering or witnessing R’s death by hanging may have also been witnesses to or active participants in war crimes in Asia during the second world war. Death By Hanging should really be screened together with Oshima’s later film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Senjou no Merii Kurisumasu/戦場のメリークリスマス, 1983) which also addresses Japanese war crimes including the mistreatment of Koreans. It’s well-worth viewing for the performances of David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti, and Jack Thompson (loved him in Breaker Morant!) not to mention Beat Takeshi in his debut feature film role.

As in most of Oshima’s films, the story of Death By Hanging is inspired by the real crimes of an individual. Ri Chin’u was an ethnic Korean who confessed to the killing of two Japanese school girls in the late 1950s and even went on to write about out his crimes. Oshima took this glimpse into the psychological workings of a murderer and transformed it into a masterwork that explores issues of guilt and consciousness and questions not only the ethicality of state execution but also the veracity of human memory in acting as a witness.

With the appointment of Keiko Chiba to the position of justice minister earlier this year, capital punishment in Japan has become an issue again due to her abolitionist stance. Whether or not she will try to end the practice in the face of continuing popular support for the practice remains to be seen. It would be great to see someone from the current generation of filmmakers tackle the issue head-on as Oshima did in the 60s addressing today’s issues. Hajime Kadoi’s film Vacation (Kyuka, 2007) used the issue as a background to a drama, but as Chris MaGee noted in his TIFF’08 review, it did not politicize the issue of capital punishment. There is ample material for a brave young filmmaker to follow Oshima’s example and make a film that addresses today’s Japan and the issue of state execution.

It is also time for Criterion to tackle Oshima’s oeuvre just like they did with Ozu and Kurosawa. Or perhaps it is on the list of future plans for Yume Pictures in the UK who have been putting a lot of great films of the New Wave generation on DVD. In Japan, Death By Hanging is available on a 2008 boxset together with The Catch (飼育/Shiiku, 1961) and Tales of the Ninja (忍者武芸帳/ Ninja bugē-chō, 1967) but with no subtitles.

Bonus facts: writer Toshiro Ishido (石堂 淑朗, b. 1932, The Eel, Black Rain, The Catch, Night and Fog in Japan) stars as the Catholic priest and legendary writer/pink film director Masao Adachi (足立正生, b. 1939, read interview with Jasper Sharp) plays the chief guard.

Dekalog V / Movie

Deadman Walking / Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009

07 December 2009

Art Animation DVD Wishlist for 2010

The news that Image Forum is releasing the complete works of experimental artist Takashi Ito (伊藤高志) on DVD (preorder here) later this month has had me very excited. It also got me thinking about other artists whose films I wish Image Forum or Geneon Universal would release on DVD for the edification of us all. Particularly neglected on DVD are early innovators of animation who chose not to make animation their career, but nonetheless made significant contributions during their brief foray into art animation. There are also a number of significant young artists who deserve to have their work on DVD. Here is my DVD wishlist-- do let me know if DVDs actually DO exist for these artists. Perhaps their work has been featured on compilations that I have not yet come across.

Ryohei Yanagihara (柳原良平, b 1931)

Yanagihara’s Suntory whisky CM animations are easy enough to find on streaming video sites, but it is not enough! I would love to see the 12 experimental films he did in the 1960s before he started working full-time doing graphic design for Mitsui O.S.K. Lines. It seems a shame that only one third of the Sannin no Kai Animators (Yoji Kuri) is available on DVD. Which brings me to the third artist in this trio of innovators:

Hiroshi Manabe (真鍋博, 1932-2000)

I’ve seen his graphic design work on the front covers of old paperbacks of Shin’ichi Hoshi, Tasutaka Tsusui, and Agatha Christie, but what I’d really like to see are the 7 experimental animations he screened at Sannin no kai back in the 1960s.

Renzo Kinoshita (木下連像, 1936-1997)

Ever since 2004, when Kinoshita’s wife and creative partner Sayoko Kinoshita completed their final film Ryukyu Okoku – Made in Okinawa, I have beenhoping that she might put out a DVD of his complete works of Studio Lotus. Not only are the Kinoshitas films stylistically innovative, they are also of important educational value. A DVD out next year would be perfect timing for the biannual Hiroshima Animation Festival and the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The Kinoshitas messages of a nuclear free world and world peace are just as important today as it was when they made Pica-don in 1978.

Sadao Tsukioka (月岡貞夫, 1939)

I’ve seen a number of his Minna no Uta animations, but what I’d really like to see is his 1965 film Cigarettes and Ashes (Tabako to hai). Wouldn’t it be great if someone did a compilation DVD, like Digital Meme did with early Japanese animation, of the artists who contributed to those early animation festivals at Sogetsu Hall? Speaking of early animation:

Kine Calligraph (Kiyoji Otsuji, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Saiko Tsuji, 1955)

In an essay for the Holland Animation Film Festival 2002 Catalogue, Takashi Sawa of Image Forum said that this film is widely considered the first experimental film in Japan. This, of course, would depend upon your definition of ‘experimental’. I would place Kon Ichikawa’s puppet animation Musume Dojoji (1946) and all pre-WWII animation into the ‘experimental’ category. I am sure that many would argue that the first Japanese experimental film (in the tradition of Bunuel, Dali, Maya Deren et al.) would be Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Page of Madness (1926). But I digress. . . Kine Calligraph is clearly the precursor to the wave of experimental animation that was to follow. According to this website, which features a short tantalizing clip, the film was restored in 1986. Anyone know if it is kicking around in full somewhere? A documentary of the career of photographer Ofuji perchance?


Fusako Yusaki (湯崎夫沙子)

Yusaki has been living and working in Italy for over 30 years now. She is renowned for her unique style of claymation, made famous in the Fernet Branca ads she did in the 70s. It really is a shame that her work is not more widely known because women animators of her generation are very rare -- she is particularly unique in that she made it big independently and outside of Japan.

Takashi Ishida (石田尚志, b. 1972)

(Heya/Keitai, 1999) is on Thinking and Drawing and Aurora includes Film of the Sea (Umi no Eiga, 2007) on their Edition 2 DVD, but it is deeply dissatisfying that this important contemporary artist does not yet have a DVD of his own yet. Something like Tabaimo’s Ufer! documentaries, which feature interviews and footage of the installations and how they were made would really be ideal.

Nobuhiro Aihara (相原信洋, b. 1944)

Aihara’s collaborations with Keiichi Tanaami (田名網敬一) Scrap Diary/Animactions is out of print and it is a crying shame. Universal (now Geneon Universal) should re-release this DVD. And while they are at it, release the complete works of Aihara. His films are simply entrancing. To get an idea of how much painstaking detail work goes into his intricately hand-drawn films, check out the making of footage on the Tokyo Loop DVD.

Mika Seike (清家美佳, b. 1975)

I am a big fan of Seike’s work. While she may not have enough collected work for a DVD yet, she should at the very least set up a webpage for herself so that she can better promote her important work. Seike brings a strong feminist perspective to a medium still dominated by men in Japan.

Keita Kurosaka (黒坂圭太)

It is a mystery to me why Kurosaka’s films have not yet made their way onto DVD. According to Mistral Japan, they have at least 78min worth of his animation in their catalogue. The brief examples of his work that I saw on Winter Days (2005) and in Dir en grey’s disturbing music video ‘Agitated Screams of Maggots’ left me curious to see more.

Reiko Yokosuka (横須賀令子)

Yokosuka’s work recently featured at the Sapporo Short Fest. Check out their clips of her hauntingly beautiful charcoal animations to see why her works needs to be more widely available.

Atsushi Wada (和田淳)

Wada’s distinctive, allusive films are fascinating to watch, but like Seike’s work they require repeat viewings in order to understand them fully. The same could be said for:

Kei Ōyama (大山慶)

whose disturbing films are created using scanned images of human flesh and other surprising textures. The fact that he his following David Lynch on Twitter explains a lot. . .

Links to most of these artists homepages can be found in the sidebar. Here’s hoping that 2010 brings more delightful art animation.

Tokyo Loop / Animation



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