22 February 2010

Fantasy (Kunio Kato, 2003)

While watching this short animation, which Kunio Katō (加藤久仁生) released on the web in 2003 I realized just how romantic Katō is as an artist. I don’t mean romantic in the Jdorama sense of the word, rather in the sense of sentimental and idealistic. While there may be some dark themes running through his films (the strange events of The Apple Incident, or the melancholy of Tsumiki no ie), on the whole his vision is optimistic and open to flights of fancy. He uses soft hues (though darker than pastel), soft, rounded edges, beautifully shaped faces, and heavy use of dissolves and fades.

The ‘fantasy’ in this film is the storybook variety. The film consists of five brief vignettes, which the title cards refer to as stories. Each vignette does not really tell a story so much as suggest one, leaving the audience to fill in the rest of the story themselves. There are several motifs that give direction to these suggestions: a storybook, butterflies, a young girl, and red shoes.

Each title card resembles a page in a storybook, with the animated stories even visually retaining the storybook frame throughout. The first story, ‘ちいさな魂/The Little Spirit’ (Chiisana Tamashii) – the only story with Japanese in its title – opens with a young girl sitting on what appears to be an oversized stool, with oversized floorboards in the background, reading an oversized storybook. Not only does the book indicate the theme of storytelling and fantasy, but the oversized mise-en-scène harkens back to Alice in Wonderland. Adding to this is the fact that the girl is the typical age of a heroine like Alice: the Studio Ghilbi heroines are all usually 12 or 13 years old, and this storybook girl’s red shoes reference Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

The next key motif for reading this short film are the small yellow butterflies that emerge from the pages of the book and flitter up into the sky. The butterfly is a common motif in Japanese literature and film because of its transformative nature. In the fantasy world of storybooks, things are not always what they seem however much they may resemble the world of reality. Sure enough, as the camera follows the butterflies up into the sky, Katō reveals that the girl is not in an oversized room but sitting on the roof of a tall building with his trademark slender buildings in the background.

This element of surprise and movement between fantasy and reality repeats in each of the vignettes. In ‘Story 2: Gypsy’, the girl has her face lifted into an autumn wind as leaves appear to transform from green into autumn colours as they float past her to the ground. In ‘Story 3: Fantasy’ the scene moves from the realm of fantasy (sleeping in a beautiful woodland scene) to reality (sleeping in one’s own bedroom), with an element of fantasy in the shape of a flower makes the leap from one realm to the other. In ‘Story 4: Melody’, we are led to believe that the pattern is repeating itself with the girl now in a dark underwater world with a goldfish, but the scene shifts to reveal that she is looking through a giant aquarium window shaped like a moon.

In the final vignette, the girl is sheltering from heavy rain under the overhang of a tall, slender building. A close up of her ruby red shoes suggests that she does not want to get them wet. However, when the rain clears, the girl forgets the puddles and skips and dances cheerfully through the landscape, her arms outstretched to greet the sunlight.

With Fantasy, Katō captures a feeling of whimsy in his exploration of the fantasy life of his young female protagonist. While on one hand, I like how he keeps it simple and encourages the audience to fill in the ‘story’, on the other hand I was left wanting more. I would enjoy seeing these ‘stories’ expanded. After the carefully crafted narrative of La maison en petits cubes, it would be wonderful to see Katō really indulge himself in his next film with another fantastic vision from the world of his sepia, sea green and teal-hued imagination. According to Gaugins, he is currently working on several animation projects for websites and TV, though there have been no recent status updates on his official website.

Related Posts:
La maison en petits cubes
The Diary of Tortov Roddle
The Apple Incident

Support this independent artist by buying his work on DVD, or viewing it on CrunchyrollLa maison en petits cubes is also available as an itunes download c/o shorts international.

pieces of love / Animation

Aru Tabibito no Nikki / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

Japanese Oscar Winners 3: Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryūichi Sakamoto (坂本 龍一, b.1952)

Sakamoto, Cong Su, and David Byrne won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1987 for Berardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (a sample of Sakamoto's contribution is here). Sakamoto is a prolific composer and performer whose work has won many awards over the years. My own personal favourite work by Sakamoto is the soundtrack to Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, 1984) which won him the Mainichi Film Concours and the BAFTA for Best Film Score. I found it disturbing while Christmas shopping in Japan to hear it playing in shopping centres. Although it has a Christmas theme, the music does not bring up visions of sugar-plums, if you know what I mean. 

Like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Sakamoto also stars in The Last Emperor playing the notorious Masahiko Amakasu (甘粕正彦, 1891-1945). Despite his obvious skills as an actor, these two films were rare occasions. He also had a cameo in Madonna’s music video for Rain playing her video director.
The Last Emperor may have been Sakamoto’s only Oscar win, but he really could have won the award for any number of soundtracks that he composed. Some of his best*  include:

Koneko monogatari (子猫物語, Masanori Hata, 1986 - nominated for a Japanese Academy Award)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Volker Sclöndorff, 1990)
Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990 - won Sakamoto a Golden Globe)
Tacones Iejanos (High Heels, Pedro Almodovar, 1991 - won Sakamoto a Golden Kikito)
Wuthering Heights (Peter Kosminsky,1992)
Little Buddha (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1993 - won Sakamoto a Grammy)
Gohatto (御法度, Nagisa Oshima, 1999)
Alexei and the Spring (アレクセイと泉, Seiichi Motohashi, 2002)
Appleseed (アップルシード, Shinji Aramaki, 2004)
Tony Takitani (トニー滝谷, Jun Ichikawa, 2004)
Silk (François Girard, 2007 - nominated for a Genie Award)

* by best, I am referring to the quality of the soundtrack irregardless of the quality of the film itself. Some of these films are not the greatest (Little Buddha), while others (Tony Takitani) are masterpieces.

21 February 2010

Japanese Oscar Winners 2: Takuo Miyagishima

Takuo Miyagishima / 宮城島卓夫
(aka Tak Miyagishima, b. 1928 in Gardena, CA)
In 2005, Miyagishima won the Gordon E. Sawyer Award at the Oscars. This award is given out semi-annually "an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry.” The award is voted upon by the Scientific and Technical Awards Committee of the Academy. It is named after Gordon E. Sawyer (1905-1980) who won 3 Oscars for Best Sound during his long career as Sound Director at Goldwyn Studios. Miyagishima worked at Panavision for over 50 years and was highly influential in the design and implementation of new technologies during his career. Under his leadership, Panavision won an Oscar in 1978 for the Panaflex Motion Picture Camera System, as well as in 1993 for the Auto Panatar anamorphic photographic lens.

 Audrey Hepburn and Sessue Hayakawa in a studio photo for Green Mansions (1959)

Carl Wakamoto wrote up a great account of the event honouring Miyagishima in Asia Pacific Arts, including an informative interview with Miyagishima himself. I particularly enjoyed Miyagishima's reaction to being presented the award by Scarlett Johansson (So [your name] didn’t get lost in translation?) and his experience growing up as a Japanese-American. There are also many terrific anecdotes on how Panavision’s reputation was once saved by Montgomery Cliff having a car crash, meeting Sessue Hayakawa on the set of Green Mansions (Mel Ferrer, 1959), and working with cinematographer Freddie Young on the lenses for Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962). Read it here.

Osamu Tezuka: Self Portrait (1988)

David Ehrlich’s Animated Self Portraits (1989), as I mentioned in the previous post, features 19 artists from 5 countries exploring their identities as artists through the medium of animation. With the entire film reportedly being only 8 minutes in length, one wonders how Ehrlich managed to fit all the artists in when Kihachirō Kawamoto’s contribution comes in at approximately a minute in length – even if you shave off the opening and closing credits. Osamu Tezuka makes space for other artists, in a 10 second film that gives just as strong an impression as Kawamoto’s.

Also in contrast to Kinoshita’s Self Portrait (セルフポートレート, 1988, 1’27”), Tezuka’s Self Portrait (自画像 / Jigazou, 1998, 12 seconds) gives a very different take on the creative process. He divides the screen into three strips. Each strip gives the section of a different section of a face. To the sound of a slot machine, the three strips appear to spin just like the gambling device itself. The fourth time is the charm (three is unlucky in Japanese culture), with three sections of Tezuka’s face lining up. In the caricature of his face he is wearing his trademark glasses and beret. His mouth is agape and gold coloured coins fall out of it.

The different faces used in this short animation strike me as either being famous faces or characters from Tezuka’s prolific career as a manga-ka and anime director. They look familiar, but I can’t quite put names to them all. Obviously, one of them is Frankenstein. One look likes a politician whose name I ought to know. Leave a comment if you recognize them from these screencaps. I particularly like the alien / swamp creature that makes an appearance in the right-hand column.

Now, there are a couple of ways to interpret this film. The first is that all these characters somehow inhabit the imagination of the artist. Or perhaps, they were influential in some way on Tezuka during his career. On the other hand, it may be about the creative process itself. Where Kawamoto depicted the creative process as a struggle, Tezuka suggests that success for him is all as a matter of chance. You pull the handle on the slot machine with your initial project idea and hope that with luck all the pieces will fall into place. Certainly, Tezuka’s career was a series of ups and downs, but when all the elements fell into place for him, the rewards were certainly very great. Something that both Kawamoto’s and Tezuka’s films have in common is their sense of humour. I may have to troll through some archives to get a hold of the original film in its entirety, because it would be interesting to compare how these very different artists (Jan Švankmajer and Tezuka on the same programme together!!) interpret the concept of ‘self portrait’.

Osamu Tezuka Jikken animation sakuhin shu / Animation

Kihachiro Kawamoto Sakuhin shu / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

20 February 2010

Kihachiro Kawamoto: Self Portrait (1988)

Some background information

In 1987, American animation artist David Ehrlich, an active member of ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d'Animation), came up with the idea of assembling a collection of very short self portraits by ASIFA members. The resulting 8 minute film opened a window into the minds of the animators and how they view the creative process. In addition to his own contribution, he assembled the work of 18 other animators representing five countries: the United States (Ehrlich, Sally Cruikshank, Candy Kugel, Bill Plympton & Maureen Selwood), Estonia (Mati Kütt, Priit Pärn, Riho Unt & Hardi Volmer) , Yugoslavia (Borivoj Dovnikovik, Nikola Majdak, Joško Marušić & Dušan Vukotić,), Czechoslovakia (Jiří Barta, Pavel Koutský & Jan Švankmajer) and Japan (Renzō Kinoshita, Kihachirō Kawamoto & Osamu Tezuka). Animated Self Portraits premiered at Annecy, the city where ASIFA was born, at their animation festival in 1989.

Renzō Kinoshita’s involvement in this project was quite logical as he and his wife Sayoko founded the Japanese branch of ASIFA in 1981. As Kinoshita’s films are quite scarce in digital format, I have not yet tracked down a copy of his contribution to Self Portraits. Like Kinoshita, Osamu Tezuka was also very involved in the animation community. Up until his death in 1989, Tezuka was the president of the Japan Animation Association (JAA), when Kawamoto took over the presidency. Tezuka’s Self Portrait (自画像 / Jigazou, 1998, 12 seconds), is available on the Geneon DVD of his Experimental Films and the Australian and U.S. versions of this collection. Kawamoto’s Self Portrait (セルフポートレート, 1988, 1’27”) is available on the Geneon DVD of his short films, but sadly did not make it onto the U.S. edition. As far as I am aware, the film in its 8 minute entirety is not yet available on DVD.

Kihachirō Kawamoto’s Self Portrait

Kawamoto’s film begins with music over the opening credits: Eiko Segawa (瀬川瑛子)’s 1986 enka classic Inochi Kurenai (命くれない) about an inseparable couple. A clay figure of Kawamoto sits at a table moulding white clay with his hands. Kawamoto is most famous for his bunraku-style puppet animation, though he has experimented with other techniques in his long career. For the design of the doll of himself, Kawamoto enlisted the help of animator and illustrator Masahiro Katayama (片山雅博). Katayama currently works as a professor at Tamabi. It is a perfect caricature of Kawamoto with his trademark spectacles and goatee.

The camera shifts to a profile view of the artist moulding the clay into the beautiful figure of a woman. Just as the details of her face are realized, the woman becomes animated and struggles angrily with the artist as if to free herself from his artistic will. She then transforms into an oni (demon). The artist squishes down the head of the clay figure, trying to regain control of his creation, but the oni reforms itself and does the same to the clay figure of the artist. When the artist reforms himself, he has acquired the fangs and horns of an oni. He shakes his face back to its natural state. The fight continues between the artist and his creation as the credits run and the screen fades to black, suggesting this is an on-going power struggle.

This film reminded me of Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author, which also played with the notion that works of art or literature take on a life on their own after the artist has created them. In the case of sculpture – part of the process when Kawamoto creates his ningyō dolls (人形) – the materials play as much of a role as the artist’s intentions themselves. Many artists can relate to Kawamoto’s notion of the creative process as a struggle between intention and its realization. The film also demonstrates the fine line between beauty and its opposite, just as tragedy and comedy are inextricably entwined together).   It may only be a minute long but this little film is intriguing in a variety of ways.

For more on Kawamoto’s creative process, Japanese and French speakers should check out this clip from an Arte documentary, or read Jasper Sharp’s interview with him in Midnight Eye.

UPDATE OCT 9, 2010:  I just got ahold of a copy of the original film Animated Self Portraits (1989) and have discovered that Kawamoto's contribution has a different soundtrack in the original version.

Kihachiro Kawamoto Sakuhin shu / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

19 February 2010

Japanese Oscar Winners 1: Best Costume Design

Japan had a great year at the Oscars last year thanks to Yōjirō Takita’s Departures (おくりびと , 2008) and Kunio Katō’s La maison en petits cubes (つみきのいえ, 2008). In fact, compared with other non-English-speaking countries, Japan has actually won many Oscars over the years rivaled only by Italy, France, Germany and Sweden. Although no Japanese films are in the running for the big awards this year, despite another great year for animation in Japan, I thought I’d celebrate past winners in the run up to the Oscars. Today’s focus is costume design.

1954 27th Academy Awards

Sanzo Wada (和田 三造, 1883-1967)

Teinosuke Kunugasa’s Gate of Hell (Jigokumon/地獄門, 1953) is famous for having won the first Palme d’Or (Cannes) and the second Oscar for a Japanese film. In addition to the Special Honorary Award (predecessor to the Best Foreign Film Category) given to Kinugasa, Sanzo Wada received an Oscar for Costume Design. Wada graduated from the Tokyo School of Fine Arts where he specialized in Western-style painting (Yōga/洋画). After studying for many years in Europe, he travelled throughout Asia eventually returning to Japan to teach at his old alma mater in 1927. Read about Wada’s career as an artist with beautiful scans of his woodblock prints at the Ohmi Gallery.

1986 58th Academy Awards

Emi Wada (ワダ・エミ / 和田惠美, b. 1937)

Kyoto-born Wada (no relation to Sanzo Wada) won the 1986 Oscar for Costume Design for Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (乱, 1985). She has also designed costumes for Dreams (Akira Kurosawa, 1990), Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway, 1991), Gohatto (Nagisa Oshima, 1999) as well as many Chinese, Hong Kong, and Korean films. In 2006, she designed costumes for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2006 staging of Tai Dun’s The First Emperor starring Placido Domingo. Wada is a graduate of Kyoto City University of Arts, where she majored in Western-style art (Yōga/洋画). Wada’s husband Ben Wada (和田勉, b. 1930) was a producer at the NHK and despite having officially retired in 1987, he still keeps active as a freelance director/producer.  You can visit Eiko Wada's official site here.

1993 65th Academy Awards

Eiko Ishioka (石岡 瑛子, b. 1939)

Ishioka won the Oscar for her costume design in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992). Along with the composer Philip Glass and the cinematographer John Bailey, Isioka was awarded for Best Artistic Contribution at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985 for their work on Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. She has also designed costumes for Broadway shows, opera, and Cirque du Soleil. Ishioka even designed costumes for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Her work is displayed in galleries around the world including MOMA in New York. She has published a book about her design aesthetic.

Ran / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie

18 February 2010

The Apple Incident (2001)

This surreal early short animation by Kunio Katō (加藤久仁生), the Oscar-winning director of La maison en petits cubes (つみきのいえ, 2008), won the prize for best film at the Laputa Animation Festival in 2001. The Apple Incident lacks the polish of Katō's The Diary of Tortov Roddle (或る旅人の日記, 2003) and La maison en petits cubes, yet there is a certain charm to its hand-drawn textures. Katō’s stylistic trademarks are already in place: tall, elongated people, trees, buildings, and other structures and objects. The colour palette is very similar to his later works, albeit much darker.

The Apple Incident depicts a modern city with tall skyscrapers, trams, and apartments whose rooftops are cluttered with chimneys and TV antennae. Giant apples inexplicably begin falling from the sky, rolling down the streets, or hovering in the sky in ways that seem to threaten the inhabitants of the city. The eerie soundtrack adds to the growing sense of uneasiness. As do the dark shadows and shots of people from very low or high angles.

The turn comes when a group of featureless people exit a train station like shadows. A group of them surrounds an apple in the street and when the camera provides a reverse shot of their faces we see clearly now that they are carrying axes, pitchforks and other farm implements. They look more like farmhands than the elegantly dressed city folk of the opening scenes.

Armed with these tools, they begin to hack away at the apples. They then eat their flesh until only the cores are left. The final images are peculiar: the city inhabitants standing against a bare landscape against a sky filled with billowing clouds and apples sprouting out from the tops of their heads.

At first this plot may seem nonsensical, but the way the apples float in the sky remind one of UFOs floating above cities in science fiction movies. Katō has taken an oft told story of people’s fear of the unknown and transformed it by exchanging the unknown (the UFO / the nuclear bomb / terror attacks / ghosts / etc.) for a commonplace object (the apple) that we normally consume. The concept bears much in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s The Birds (1963): fear of the unknown, inability to act reasonably in a time of crisis, images fraught with symbolism (the apple is after all associated with the forbidden fruit in Christian culture and is often associated with love and sexuality in secular art), and an open-ended ending to leave the audience pondering what it all means as they leave the theatre.

Related Posts:

La maison en petits cubes
The Diary of Tortov Roddle

Aru Tabibito no Nikki / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

10 February 2010

My Neighbours the Yamadas (ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん, 1999)

Joyful laughter
breaks the silence
of an autumn eve
– Bashō

It is a rare film that interweaves classical poetry with tales of modern life, but Isao Takahata (高畑 勲, b. 1935) manages it successfully in his 1999 feature length animation My Neighbours the Yamadas (ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん / Hōhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun). The haiku poems that punctuate the narrative vignettes work surprisingly well on a number of levels. The poets featured – Bashō (1644-1699), Buson (1716-1783), and Santōka (1882-1940) – represent very different epochs in Japanese culture and the film demonstrates the timelessness of this minimalistic verse form. Usually adding a flourish to the end of a scene, the haiku reminds us of the constancy of life’s little poetic ironies. The world, in all its splendor and glory, has both delighted and disappointed human beings throughout the ages. The minimalism of haiku also complements the spareness of Takahata’s animation.

My Neighbours the Yamadas is an adaptation of a yonkoma manga of the same name by Hisaishi Ishii (いしい ひさいち, b.1951) about a family of five: the easy-going young daughter Nonoko (aka Nono-chan), her older brother Noboru, her absent-minded homemaker mother Matsuko, her salaryman father Takashi, and her cranky maternal grandmother Shige. The family also has a pet dog Pochi, who has a somewhat sullen temperament. Young Nonoko was so popular as a character that the manga eventually changed its name to Nono-chan. It ran regularly in the Asahi Shimbun between 1991 and 1997.

In a nod to the manga, which is mainly told through the eyes of the daughter, Takahata’s film adaptation begins with Nonoko as the narrator introducing us to her family life. As the film progresses, all members of the family are given equal time and the narrator is replace by title cards introducing new themes or occasionally a male narrator reading aloud the interspersed haiku.

Although My Neighbours the Yamadas was critically acclaimed upon its release (it won an Excellence Award at the 1999 Japan Media Arts Festival), it was not a big box office success like most Studio Ghibli productions. There are likely several reasons for this. It is not a showy production visually like its Ghibli predecessor Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, Hayao Miyazaki, 1997). Although the film does feature children, its situational humour is likely more appreciated by an older audience - not the young women (& men too, but women make up the bulk of the cinema-going audiences in Japan) who would pack the theatres for a heroine driven spectacular like Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, 2001)

The story is also not plot driven, like Takahata’s previous film Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pom Poko, 1994)). Instead, the film mimics the episodic nature of the yonkoma manga: a four panel layout that follows a kishōtenketsu (introduction/development/twist/resolution) plot structure. Nausicaa.net has an amusing example of a Nono-chan yonkoma from July 21, 2007 with translation which you can read here. Like the haiku, the art of the yonkoma is in its simplicity. It is not a long, and rambling manga series, rather, each episode has whittled down a typical family scene to its essence.

I can see the average cinema-going audience, lulled into certain expectations by traditional flashy anime fare, become restless halfway into the film by the lack of a driving Aristotelian narrative. The plot does not build and build to a climax like say a Disney film would. Instead, it is a series of episodes with each indivisual episode following the Asian kishōtenketsu development structure. There is a kind of a climax at the end of the film with a colourful dream sequence to the strains of Matsuko and Takashi singing a karaoke version of Que Sera Sera, but this is less of a plot climax and more like the grand finale of a Hollywood musical. In fact, this scene gives a nod to two Hollywood legends: Doris Day in the choice of song (Que Sera Sera) and Gene Kelly's infamous dance sequence in Singing in the Rain for creative use of umbrellas (see photo above this paragraph).

For the patient spectator, My Neighbours the Yamadas is a true cinematic delight. I found myself laughing several times during each vignette. Some of the stories are very Japanese: such as the references to Japanese fairy tales (see photo above paragraph for Taketori Monogatari reference) and a sequence dedicated to an old wives tale about ginger in miso soup making people sleepy.

Digression: I was surprised to learn that an English dubbed version was made in that States because I can’t imagine how they would translate some very Japanese situations. The German subtitled version I was watching made some rather strange translation choices, such as translating nabe as fondue. I think Eintopf would have made more sense if they really felt viewers would be perplexed by Japanese names for dishes. (German readers, what are your feelings on this?) Translators should never underestimate the intelligence of their viewers. With the popularity of Japanese restaurants throughout Germany (if not most cities in Europe), using the Japanese names for dishes would actually be more informative for viewers. They could always put the definition in a pop-up extra on the DVD. . . or somewhere else on the screen as enterprising fansubbers do quite successfully. (End of Digression)

Watching a Takahata film is a bit like watching an Ozu film for me. Although there are many elements that seem inextricably Japanese, the story and characters have a universal appeal to them. We can all identify with the family bickering that arises between parents and children, husbands and wives, and siblings. The themes of laziness, forgetfulness, generational divides, the frustrations of sharing a family home, the pressures of life’s expectations all hit home for me as well. This film is a particularly good to watch post-Christmas / New Year’s holidays as an an
tidote to any unwelcome family squabbles.

07 February 2010

13th Japan Media Arts Festival (2009)

The Oscars may have snubbed Japanese animation this year, but fortunately the Japan Media Arts Festival does a great job of showcasing excellence in a wide range of media arts. Held annually since 1997, past winners in the Animation Division have included La maison en petits cubes (Kunio Kato, 2008), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Mamoru Hosoda, 2006), Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa, 2004), Winter Days (Kihachiro Kawamoto, 2003), Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001), The Old Man and the Sea (Alexander Petrov, 1999), and Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997).

From just this small selection of past winners, it is clear that the standards for winning the Grand Prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival are quite high. The winners this year were selected from a pool of 473 entries including many from overseas. Animator and Professor Shinichi Suzuki (who founded Studio Zero back in the 1960s and now runs the Suginami Animation Museum) heads the jury in the Animation Division. The jury this year also included Kunihiko Ikuhara, Sonoko Kifune, Tatsutoshi Nomura, and Shinji Higuchi – all of whom have extensive experience in animation as artists and directors (read their profiles here).

13th Japan Media Arts Festival (2009) Winners in the Animation Division


Summer Wars (Mamoru Hosoda)
サマーウォーズ (細田守)

This is Hosoda’s second time winning the prestigious Grand Prize. He also won in 2006 for his highly lauded sci-fi anime The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (時をかける少女). Judging from the trailer for Summer Wars, Hosoda has been equally ambitious this time around with a film that shows us the possible next step for social networking and virtual realities. Read Mark Schillings’ review of the film here. This is on my list of films that I hope will show at Nippon Connection this year.


In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? (Jiri Barta, Czech Republic)

屋根裏のポムネンカ (イジィ バルタ, チェコ共和国)

Jiri Barta is a renowned stop-motion animator who was unable to make films for many years following the collapse of communism (such like Yuri Norstein). In the Attic uncovers the secret world found in the forgotten junk of an attic. I love the old-fashioned style of the toys and sets in this feature. A friend of mine regularly sends me handmade toys and puppets from the Czech Republic – they have a unique character that China-made plastic toys simply cannot reproduce.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 (TV series, Masaki Tachibana)
東京マグニチュード8.0 (橘正紀)

As the title implies, this animation imagines what would happen when the predicted massive earthquake hits the Tokyo metropolis. The story is told from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl Mirai and her 9-year-old brother Yuuki who are spending their summer holidays in Odaiba. The 11 episode series ran on Fuji TV from July 9 to September 17, 2009. It’s quite a fascinating endeavor. When I lived in Tokyo I often wondered about what would happen if the big one finally struck, and Tachibana’s use of real settings (Odaiba’s a popular place to go shopping or hang out on the beach) really hits home with viewers. Because there is also a miniature replica of the statue of liberty at Odaiba, the image of it crumbling in a quake gives a nod to the American doomsday films that probably influenced Tachibana and writer Natsuko Takahashi in the making of this series.

The Cable Car (Die Seilbahn, Claudius Gentinetta and Frank Braun, Switzerland)

An animated short about an old man travelling by cable car into the mountains. The man indulges in some snuff on his journey which causes him to sneeze. Each sneeze causes the cable car to fall more and more apart. Technically a beautiful balance of hand-drawn and computer animated elements.

ELEMI (Hideto Nakata)
電信柱エレミの恋 (中田 秀人(ソバットシアター))

A 45-minute stop motion animation produced by Nakata in his own studio Sovat Theater. A love story whose main character is an animated electricity pole in the age before wireless communication.


ANIMAL DANCE (Ryo Ookawara)
アニマルダンス (大川原 亮)

A hand-drawn animated short (black charcoal on an orange background) synchronized with music. Ookawara is a student in the Graduate School of Film and New Media at Tokyo University of Arts. Animal Dance also featured on Digista in June of last year.

The Festival is on until next Sunday at The National Art Center. From all accounts, the installations, games, and technology on display are pretty amazing. Admission is free. See TAB for more details.

Phenakistiscope (驚き盤, 1975)

This is arguably Taku Furukawa’s greatest film. It combines his love of Norman McLaren-style experimentation, which inspired his purely experimental films like Nice To See You (1975), Motion Lumine (モーション・ルミネ, 1978), and Calligraphiti (カリグラフィティ, 1982), with his darkly humorous caricature-style characters. Furukawa’s style of drawing human figures has been influenced by the work of Saul Steinberg (ソール・スタインバーグ, 1914-1999) who worked as a cartoonist and illustrator for The New Yorker for over half a century.

Phenakistiscpe (驚き版/Odorokiban, 1975) is a clever tribute to the 19th century animation device the phenakistiscope (フェナキストスコープ/ can also be spelled phenakistoscope), a predecessor of the zoetrope (回転のぞき絵 / ゾエトロープ orゾートロープ). The device was invented in 1832 by Joesph Plateau in Belgium and Simon von Stampfer (who called his invention a stroboscope) in Austria quite independently of one another. There were many variations on the device but it was typically two large discs mounted onto the same axis. The phenakistiscope uses the persistence of motion principle to create an illusion of motion. The first disc has slots around the edge, and the second contains drawings of successive action, drawn around the disc in concentric circles. When spun like a record and viewed in a mirror through the first disc's slots, the pictures on the second disc appear to move.

The film Odorokiban is accompanied by the clacking sound associated with the phenakistiscope. Furukawa (古川タク) depicts 18 stages of successive action around the disc. The clacking is then interwoven with other electronic sounds. Normally, the phenakistiscope can only be viewed by one spectator at a time, so for fans of early animation technologies this film delights because it opens up the magic of the phenakistiscope to group viewing. Some of the images give a nod to the subject matter of the original discs. For example, the phenakistiscope disc above this paragraph was designed by Eadward Muybridge (1839-1904, whose work also inspired Furukawa’s film Motion Lumine). Furukawa also features a dancing couple in Odorokiban, but with a twist: when the dancing couple turns the woman’s bare bottom is revealed.

Whereas the original phenakistiscopes (examples can be viewed here) normally recreated real human movement (jumping, dancing, walking, hammering), Furukawa’s phenakistiscope features a series of brightly coloured flights of fantasy which are sometimes surreal and often amusing: a skyscraper with looping freeways above it transforming into a tree, a bride and groom with their bodies elongating and shrinking like an accordion, a woman drinking soda through a straw whose head turns into a bubble that floats away. The final image is a large crowd of typical Furukawa figures running. The male figure in this final sequence is later featured drinking coffee in Furukawa’s 1977 film Coffee Break.

With Odorokiban, Furukawa won the prestigious Special Jury Prize at Annecy in 1975. It is fitting that he should have been the second Japanese animator to win this prize as it had previously been won by his mentor Yōji Kuri in 1962 for Ningen Dōbutsuen (人間動物園 / Human Zoo). Odorokiban can be found on the anido DVD Takun Films (read the anipages review of the DVD here). Furukawa has also contributed 26 films to the NHK’s Minna no Uta series. In recent years, he has slowed down his animation output, but his work is featured in both Winter Days and Tokyo Loop. Fans can read his blog here.

Tokyo Loop / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010


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