30 March 2010

Tadanari Okamoto Film Works Box Set

Throughout his career as an independent animation artist Tadanari Okamoto (1932-1990) challenged himself never to do the same style of animation twice. Along with his mentor Tadahito Mochinaga (1919-1999) and his friend and colleague Kihachiro Kawamoto (b. 1925), Okamoto is considered one of the pioneers of puppet animation in Japan. Unlike Mochinaga and Kawamoto, his work is rarely shown outside of Japan. Geneon Universal's release in June 2009 of a 4-disc box set of Okamoto's complete works made his films more widely available again for the first time since the 1996 re-release of films on laserdisc. The National Film Center in Tokyo held an exhibition of artworks from his animated films (ie storyboards and the puppets and sets that he used to make his films) in 2004, but as far as I'm aware no retrospective of his works has ever been held outside of Japan. I was lucky enough to see a couple of his films at Nippon Connection in 2008 together with films by Kawamoto. .  .

Read the rest of this review at Midnight Eye.   This month's Midnight Eye also features a wonderful interview with Momoko Ando.  I am looking forward to watching Kakera at Nippon Connection!

27 March 2010

Karel Zeman Exhibition in Kariya City

On his blog last month, Kōji Yamamura reported that he is helping Kariya City Art Museum in Aichi Prefecture set up their exhibition Another Czech Anime Master: Karel Zeman (チェコ・アニメもうひとりの巨匠 カレル・ゼマン展). Karel Zeman (1910-1989) was an acclaimed animation and special effects pioneer and this will be the first time that the Japanese public will have a chance to view Zeman’s puppets, storyboards, and original art in person. Go to Yamamura’s blog and click on the images to see amazing photographs of some of the original puppets as he unpacks them from their shipping crates. I recognize the  doll in the third photo as the neglected toy in The Christmas Dream (Vánocní sen, 1946), a film which won for best animation at the Cannes Film Festival and catapulted Zeman into worldwide recognition. 

The work of Karel Zeman is historically significant to Japanese art animation history because his work, along with others of the Czech puppet animation school, inspired Tadanari Okamoto (岡本忠成, 1932-1990) to go into puppet animation. I believe that Okamoto encountered Zeman’s work while studying at Nihon University. Like Zeman, Okamoto was an innovator with the materials he used to create his animated films.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Zeman, who is particularly famous for his work combining stop motion with live actors. Yamamura seems to be planning to hold a talk and a workshop about the career of Zeman to coincide with this event. Keep an eye on his blog (Japanese only) for more information in the coming weeks. 

Earlier this week, Yamamura posted photographs of a scuba helmet used in The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958), which was an adaptation of Verne’s 1896 novel Facing the Flag (悪魔の発明).  As I won't be in Japan this spring, I do hope that Yamamura continues to post photos from this amazing exhibition.

The Karel Zeman exhibition runs from April 17th until May 30th. Screenings of Zeman’s films are also planned. Go to the announcement on Kariya City Art Museum’s website for more details and some more beautiful photographs of exhibits.

Kariya City Art Museum     
4-5 Sumiyoshi-cho,
Kariya City
Aichi 448-0852
Tel 0566-23-1636


22 March 2010

Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know

At the Japan Society in New York:

At the opposite end of the stereotype of docile Japanese women—heroic good mothers, chaste daughters and hardworking faithful wives—actresses Ayako Wakao, Mariko Okada and Meiko Kaji embodied the transgression of limits, breaking rules, flouting norms and generally upsetting everyone.

This series explores the idea of unconventional beauty that these spellbinding actresses created through an unparalleled body of films. Both Wakao and Okada were muses and inspiration for two major film directors, Yasuzo Masumura and Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, respectively, while Kaji navigated between filmmakers, a wild card of Japanese cinema at the time. Put together, their films delineate what one could call an aesthetic of “convulsive beauty” (André Breton).

Learn more at the Japan Society.  Check out the trailer for this event below:

Japanese Women Directors at Nippon Connection

Possibly due to the influence of Raindance 2009, or just the fact that there are more female directors in general than there used to be, Nippon Connection seems to have even more women directors showing films this year than last year. As usual I have been having trouble deciding which films to go to, so I may have to make animation and women directors my focus. . . even if it means missing out on Toad’s Oil (ガマの油, 2009). This would be a trial as I simply adore Kōji Yakusho, but at least his films are easy to acquire on DVD for future viewing. 

So, what are the women bringing to the table this year?

A Piece of Our Life – Kakera (Momoko Andō, 2009)
Bare Essence of Life (Satoko Yokohama, 2009)
One Million Yen Girl (Yuki Tanada, 2008)
Moon and Cherry (Yuki Tanada, 2006)

Dear Doctor (Miwa Nishikawa, 2009)
Sona – The Other Myself (Yonghi Yang, 2009)

And… this has me the most excited: Megane (Glasses, 2007) by Naoko Ogigami. I just loved Kamome Shokudo back in 2007.

Lots and lots of women are represented in the three sets of animated shorts. Here are a few names I have plucked out:

Digista Animators:

Cellphone Caprice (Hasuna Karasuda, 2008)
Ascension (Kiyomi Tajima, 2008)
Qoma (Team Qoma, 2008)
suipasu zuirpursa (Kozue Kodama & Yoko Tanabe, 2008)
The Tide (Yurika Kaneko, 2008)

DOME Animation Special:

Pattern (Miyuki Okuyama, 2008)
The Promise of a Man at the Window and the Woman on a Prairie (Miku Kogawa, 2009)
John (Mitsuo Toyama, 2008)
Scenery of Loneliness (Kuniko Shimoto, 2008)
The Source of Myself (Nanae Hishimoto, 2008)
The Last Train (Mana Fuji, 2009)

chorus (Arisa Wakami, 2008)

I can't wait! . .  . and I've already waivered... I MUST fit Toad's Oil in somehow!

17 March 2010

Kihachiro Kawamoto & Absolut Vodka (1997)

 Li Po  ( 李白) celenrating hanami with a sip of vodka

In 1996, renowned puppet animator Kihachirō Kawamoto (川本喜八郎, b. 1925) was one of twenty-four international animators to contribute to a ground-breaking internet marketing campaign by Absolut Vodka. The campaign was called Absolut Panushka, after the curator Christine Panushka, and it launched on the internet in January 1997. Today, using short animated video clips to advertise on the internet is par for the course, but in 1997 this campaign was groundbreaking.  

Li Po finds himself inspired by the vodka.
Each contributing animator was asked to design a ten second animation that featured the signature Absolut bottle shape. The animation was put into historical context with written text by historian Dr. William Moritz (1941-2004), an expert in visual music and experimental animation. Although the website has been taken down, many of the fifty short articles that Moritz wrote for the site can be viewed at The iota Center.

A screencap of the website as it looked in 1997.
The chosen animators were already well established in their careers. Notable names included Pritt Parn, Jules Engel, Ruth Hayes, and of course, Christine Panushka herself. The styles were as varied as the nationalities represented ranging from the abstract to the comic. The creative director of the project was Debra Callabresi, current president of N-Tonic, on whose website many of the video clips can viewed (warning Pritt Parn’s contribution is funny, but NSFW).

Although Kawamoto is now associated with the high art style of his puppet animations, he actually got his start in much more commercial fare. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he partnered with Tadasu Iizawa and Shigeru Hijikata to form Shiba Productions. During their peak years making puppet animation for such companies as Asahi Beer and Mitsuwa Sekken, they were making up to 12 commercials a month with Kawamoto designing and animated the puppets.
"That's me. The laureate in a bottle."
With this background, it comes as no surprise that he was able to come up with an animation for Absolut Vodka that is both visually striking and humorous. A doll of the Chinese poet Li Po(aka Li Bai aka 李白/りはく) sits under a cherry blossom tree sipping vodka, the narrator and visuals suggest that Li Po finds his poetic inspiration in a bottle of vodka. The short fulfils the brief, while at the same time maintaining Kawamoto’s reputation for exquisitely designed animated puppets. Watch it here.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

15 March 2010

The Village Festival (村祭, 1930)

Chiyogami cutout animation

Mura Matsuri (The Village Festival aka Harvest Festival (1930) by animation pioneer Noburo Ōfuji (大藤信郎, 1900-61) is a deceptively simple film depicting a typical Japanese festival. It is an early example of Japanese manga-eiga (literally ‘cartoon movies’ as animation was known in Japan pre-1960s). As Japanese artists only began to create animation for public consumption beginning in 1917, it was still a relatively novel screening experience. 

Japanese animators learned their craft through careful study of animated films imported from countries like France, England, and the United States. Some clues about Noburo Ōfuji’s screening habits can be gleaned from this short little film that runs at under 3 minutes. To begin with, I suspect that he has been watching Max Fleischer (1883-1972) films because he uses a “Follow the Bouncing Ball” technique with the kana that spells out the lyrics for the audience to read along. This gimmick is commonplace today, but it was an innovation at the time that began in September 1925 with My Bonnie (Max & Dave Fleischer) and was used extensively in the Fleisch brothers’ Ko-Ko Song Car Tunes of the 1920s and 1930s. Ōfuji puts his own creative touch onto the “Follow the Bouncing Ball” technique by having the ball interact with other objects related to the matsuri (festival) and at times substituting the head of characters in the matsuri for the ball

Innovative 'Follow the Bouncing Ball'... or Dragon head?
This type of read along song animation became a staple of Japanese television in the 1960s with programmes like the NHK’s popular Minna no Uta (Everybody’s Song) series which pairs animators with new songs. In many ways, Mura Matsuri is, along with other musical shorts from the period, a grandfather to the modern Minna no Uta classics.

It is clear that Ōfuji is primarily targeting this film primarily at an audience of children. The expectation of a child audience is indicated through the young voice of the singer Eiko Hirai, and through the use of kana in the song lyrics. Interestingly, the kana are used in a similar fashion to contemporary usage for young children: hiragana for common Japanese words and katakana for sound words like don don (ドンドン). I find this interesting because Nishikata, where I lived when I started this blog, is quite close to the Yayoi Museum & Takehisa Yumeji Museum (behind Tōdai, near Nezu Station). I saw a wonderful exhibition at the Yayoi Museum of children’s books and magazines from the 1920s and 1930s. Most of the material written for children at this time appeared to be written exclusively in katakana. 

Chiyogami + Follow-the-Bouncing-Ball
At the time that this film was made, sound film was already all the rage in North America and Europe. The technology cam much later to Japan much mainly due to the benshi wanting to hold onto their jobs. Mura Matsuri is a film that straddles the silent and sound eras. The 16mm film itself is silent because it has no optic track. Instead, it is an example of a ‘Record Talkie.’ The song was recorded onto an SP record and played simultaneously with the film. For the digital restoration of this film they took the 16mm print and added the soundtrack from the SP record. The match between character movement and the tempo of the music is quite good.

Ōfuji is generally credited with being a pioneer of chiyogami (traditional Japanese coloured paper) cutout animation. While aesthetically, this gives films like Mura Matsuri a very Japanese look, the choice of chiyogami may have been more practical than artistic. When Ōfuji began making chiyogami cutout animation in the 1920s celluloid was prohibitively expensive in Japan. The average animator really didn’t have access to celluloid until the mid-1930s. Cutout animation is also a less labour intensive method of animation that drawing on celluloid.

Even when celluloid became more widely available, Ōfuji continued to make chiyogami films. In an interview with Armen Boujikanian at Frames per second, Akira Tochiga points out that in his post-war career, Ōfuji used coloured cellophane instead of celludiod: “. . . because of the materiality of the [cellophane] paper, [he had] to find ways to economize the motion of the characters. And this seems very associative with TV animation. As you may know, when Osamu Tezuka started the program Astro Boy, thirty minutes of animation were aired on TV weekly. It was pretty hard to make original pictures for thirty minutes amount of work per week.” The economy of character movement later became a staple of TV anime in Japan, with animators like Tezuka animating only 8 pictures per second instead of 24 in order to save on time and money.

With films from the 1930s, one always looks for evidence of war propaganda. Although Mura Matsuri actively promotes Japanese culture, it is not classed as propaganda. It was produced a year before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and predates the widely acknowledged first official propaganda animation Momotaro’s Sky Adventure (空の桃太郎, Yasushi Murata, October 1931). According to the brochure for screenings at the Cinémathèque québécoise, the song was already popularly known through national school curriculum. When I watch old films I like to try to imagine the context in which they were originally screened. A light-hearted film, I imagine audiences singing and clapping along to Ōufuji’s delightful celebration of the harvest festival.

This film is available on DVDs offered by Digital Meme and Zakka Films.

France Art Anime Kessakusen / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

14 March 2010

To Shoot Without Shooting (不射之射, 1988)

When my copy of Kimstim’s The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto came in the post last year, I was deeply disappointed to find that only 7 of the 11 shorts featured on Geneon’s DVD were represented. Missing from Kimstim’s collection are the 4 minute version of The Trip (旅/Tabi, 1973 – the long version is 12 min.), Self Portrait (セルフポートレート, 1988), To Shoot Without Shooting (不射之射/Fusha no sha, 1988), and Briar Rose, or the Sleeping Beauty (いばら姫またはねむり姫/ Ibara-Hime matawa Nemuri-Hime, 1990). The strangest omission was Self Portrait, as it is only a minute long and required no subtitles. With the others, I can only think that they must have blown their budget on their unnecessary English dubbing of The Book of the Dead (死者の書/Shisha no sho, 2004), which they released at the same time.

I finally got a chance to watch a decent version of To Shoot Without Shooting this week, and it has quickly become one of my favourite Kihachirō Kawamoto (川本 喜八郎, 1925) films. Kawamoto is of course most famous for his puppet animation, though he has dabbled in other animation types, and this 25 minute film is a definitive example of his ningyō jōruri (人形浄瑠璃) style animation. The ningyō (人形) have been exquisitely made by hand, with highly detailed sets, innovative cinematography, and a tight, philosophically intriguing storyline. 
 Ji Chang with his determination to be the best written on his face
Most Kawamoto films have strong storylines inspired by folktales, traditional theatre, or literature (both ancient and modern). With very rare exceptions, his work derives from Japanese and Chinese literature. The only exceptions I can think of are Briar Rose, although it is a Japanese writer’s interpretation of a Western fairy tale, and The Trip, which is partly inspired by Western art but at the same time is heavily informed by Buddhist philosophy. To Shoot Without Shooting is an adaptation of the story Meijin-den by Atsushi Nakajima (中島敦, b. 1909-42), which itself is derived from a traditional Chinese tale.

Chinese culture plays an important role in many aspects of Kawamoto’s career. Chinese language and folktales have strongly influenced the theatrical traditions that inform Kawamoto’s films. Furthermore, Kawamoto’s mentor, Tadahito Mochinaga (持永只仁, 1919-1999), had ties to the Chinese animation community, having worked there in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I would surmise that Mochinaga’s connections with China played a role in Kawamoto’s first grand-scale puppet theatre production in the 1980s of an epic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (人形劇三国志, 1982-84) for television. The project was a joint CCTV (China Central Television) and NHK production which resulted in 68 45-minute episodes. To Shoot Without Shooting also involves Chinese crew including music by the celebrated composer Jin Fuzai (b. 1942) and animation assistance by Sun Daheng.
 Ji Chang and his wife on opposite sides of the loom

To Shoot Without Shooting tells the story of a young archer by the name of Ji Chang who aspires to become the greatest archer in the world. He seeks out the assistance of legendary archer Fei Wei, who can shoot willow leaves individually off of trees. Fei Wei first gives Ji Chang some skills he must master (sleeping with his eyes open and training the eyes to see very small details) then agrees to train him. Once trained by Fei Wei, Ji Chang is still not satisfied. His desire to become the greatest archer in the world controls him like a drug, leading him to attempt to kill his mentor in a duel. After this confrontation, Fei Wei sends Ji Chang to seek the advice of an elderly sage Gan Ying, who teaches Ji Chang that the ultimate goal for an archer is to learn to ‘shoot without shooting.’

The greatest deed is to refrain from action
The essence of speech is silence
The ultimate in archery requires no shot
Fusha no sha (To shoot without shooting)

This lesson comes from Buddhist teachings – a philosophy that informs many of Kawamoto’s films including The Book of the Dead (2005) and The Trip (1973). It occurred to me at the end of this film, that it would be rewarding to teach it together with anti-war and anti-nuclear bomb animations like Pica-don (ピカドン, Renzō & Sayoko Kinoshita, 1978) and Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓/ Hotaru no Haka, Isao Takahata, 1988). This idea that the ultimate goal is the attainment of knowledge itself, rather than acting upon it has deep implications. When Ji Chang realizes this, he reaches a kind of Buddhist enlightenment. Kawamoto registers this through character expression. In the scenes leading up to the moment of enlightenment, Ji Chang’s face is set with a stoic expression of determination. When his egocentric ambitions lead him to challenge Fei Wei, the determination on his face becomes an ugly scowl. After his enlightenment, Kawamoto softens Ji Chang’s face. Within the storyline itself, the change in Ji Chang is seen and felt by all the villagers when he returns just by their looking onto his face.
 Ji Chang with smoke obscuring his face
Ji Chang with with a serene expression of enlightenment

As always with Kawamoto, the cinematography in To Shoot Without Shooting, is masterfully executed. He uses unexpected angles and camera movement that transform the film from merely puppet theatre into a truly cinematic experience. Some striking examples include opening the film on the main protagonists back and he strides towards a gate. The shot reverse shots between Ji Chang and his wife through the loom are perhaps the most memorable visually. The play of light and shadow in this scene is beautiful and it also demonstrates Kawamoto’s penchant for using a Japanese aesthetic in his framing: the balancing of positive and negative space and slightly off-centre framings. Every detail, from the painstakingly handcrafted sets and costumes to the overlaying of drawn animation on glass to depict smoke, has been carefully considered. Each frame from this film could stand alone as a piece of art in itself.

This film is available on Geneon’s DVD of Kawamoto shorts. The Book of the Dead is also available on DVD from Geneon with documentary extras left out of Kimstim’s release of the film (including a 47 minute Making Of documentary). The only drawback to Geneon DVDs are their lack of English subtitles.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

05 March 2010

The Red Thread (赤い糸, 2010)

The Red Thread (赤い糸/Akai Ito) by Kazuhiko Okushita (奥下 和彦) was featured on the NHK’s Digista program in February. The film takes a simple idea – creating a picture using a simple thread – and transforms it into an engaging flow of animated images. The concept itself is not new. The Italian Cartoonist Osvaldo Cavandoli (aka Cava, 1920-2007) had a very famous series of shorts called La Linea (The Line, 1972-1991) that showed on television around the world. It was a comical series featuring a male figure who talked like Pingu (in fact, it’s the same voice actor: Carlo Bonomi) and interacted in a humorous way with the cartoonist himself. Okushita’s film made me nostalgic for children’s television programming on TVO in the 1970s and 80s. 
 Cavo's La Linea #215 (watch here)
 The thread brings the couple back together in Akai Ito

While the basic design concept is similar to that of La Linea, Okushita takes the concept to a whole new level both visually and in the narrative. From East Asian folklore, Okushita takes the symbol of the red string of fate. There are many variations of this ancient tale, but the main idea is that the gods tie men and women together who are destined as each other’s soul mates together with a red thread.

An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet,
regardless of time, place, or circumstance.
The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break.
- ancient Chinese belief

This image of interconnection can be seen in the image that Okushita’s college (Kanagawa College of Art ) is using for the homepage for their department of Visual Communication Design is currently featuring art from The Red Thread, demonstrating the development of the subtle narrative line in the film from childhood to falling in love and having a child.

The music accompanying the animation builds with the story coming to a climax when the couple argue and the thread, in defiance of the original myth, breaks. However, the thread reforms itself and the story eventually ties itself up nicely (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) by ending as it began with the image of a child. This short animation is a great success because of its combination of a brilliant design concept with a universal storyline. While the red thread idea is specific to East Asian folklore, threads (esp. weaving with threads) are quite a common metaphor internationally for the ties that bind us all to one another. 

A brilliant little film. Can’t wait to see what this young artist does next. On his Twitter profile, he calls himself a Live Painter.

la Linea / Original Soundtrack (Music by Franco Goddi)
Original Soundtrack (Music by Franco Goddi)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

03 March 2010

Japanese Oscar Winners 5: Steven Okazaki

Steven Okazaki (b. 1952) is a sansei Japanese-American from California and has been nominated for four Academy Awards in his extensive career as a documentary filmmaker. Although he is the third generation of his family living in the United States, Okazaki’s films have been deeply influenced by the cultural identity of his ancestors. In particular, he is committed to educating young Americans about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as sharing important tales about the experiences of Japanese-Americans. His films reveal his passion for human rights (bomb victims, victims of oppression, minority rights, drug addicts, people infected with HIV), Asian cultures (Japan, Hawaii, Cambodia), and the diversity of American culture. 

Okazaki’s first Oscar nomination was for his feature film length documentary Unfinished Business (1985) which tells the stories of three men and how they were affected by the internment of Japanese citizens in the United States during the second world war. The subjects are three men who actively tried to fight their detention: lawyer Minoru ‘Min’ Yasui (1916-1986), sociologist and Quaker Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi (b. 1918), and welder Toyosaburo Fred Korematsu (1919-2005).

Japanese internment camps in America were also the theme of the documentary that won Okazaki his Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1990. Days of Waiting: The Life & Art of Estelle Ishigo tells the story of the Causian wife of a Japanese man sent to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center for detainment. Estelle Peck Ishigo insisted on accompanying her husband to the internment camp and she documented her experience through her paintings and illustrations. Okazaki based his film on her art and her memoir Lone Heart Mountain. The film, narrated poignantly by Ishigo herself, uses documentary footage and her art work to tell the story. 

In 1982, Okazaki produced a short documentary about Hiroshima and Nagasaki hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) called simply Survivors. This film was significant as being the first English language documentary of its kind to feature interviews with actual survivors themselves. Two decades later, as the 60th anniversary of the bombings approached, Okazaki became concerned that the attacks were being forgotten so he made a follow-up The Mushroom Club (2005). This won him his third Oscar nomination. In this film, Okazaki returns to Hiroshima to interact with hibakusha and to document their heartrending tales. One particularly touching interview is with Keiji Nakazawa (中沢 啓治, b.1939), the author of Barefoot Gen, about his lucky escape from death at the age of 6 in the blast that killed his father, brother and sister.

In recent years, Okazaki received an Emmy for White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007), an HBO special in which he interviewed 14 Japanese survivors and 4 American personnel related to the atomic bombings. His short documentary The Conscience of Nhem En (2008) was nominated for an Oscar last year. It is thematically similar to Okazawa’s other films, but this time he travels elsewhere in Asia to tell the stories of three survivors of the notorious Tuol Sleng Prison where thousands of Cambodians were imprisoned and killed in the 1970s.

For more information about Steve Ozamaki, check out his website at Farallon Films. There are samples and summaries of all of his films from his feature Living on Tokyo Time (1987) to his examination of how racism affects the lives of Asian American men in American Sons (1994). Really compelling stuff. Films may be ordered on DVD directly from the website.

Japanese Oscar Winners 4: Best Animated Short

It was a big coup for Kunio Katō (加藤久仁生, b. 1977) last year when he won the Oscar for best animated short. Although La maison en petits cubes (Tsumiki no ie, 2008) had won high praise at festivals around the world including the prestigious Annecy Cristal, it is highly unlikely that Katō anticipated becoming the first Japanese animator to win an Oscar for a short film. With only a handful of nominees out of an international selection of innovative works, the competition is so tough that Katō was the first Japanese animator to ever win in this category. 

 Atama Yama (Koji Yamamura, 2002)

Six years earlier, Kōji Yamamura (山村 浩二, b. 1964) came close with his remarkable film Mt. Head (Atama Yama / 頭山, 2002). Unlike Katō, who is still in the early stages of his career, Yamamura is at the peak of his career. Having spent the 1990s honing his multi-layered animation style, the past decade has seen Yamamura producing one acclaimed work after another, each of them winning animation festivals around the world. Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor (Kafuka Inaka Isha / カフカ田舎医者, 2007) was his most brilliant work to date, but it didn’t even garner an Oscar nomination.  Technically Yamamura's films are brilliant, but his storytelling style may be too abstract and cerebral for the Academy who traditionally like crowd-pleasing fare.

I’m not sure how animated shorts have historically been eligible for nomination, but in recent years a film must first win an award at a qualifying festival to be considered by the Academy. Judging by previous nominees and winners, it is certainly a very prestigious category to find oneself in.  The Best Animated Short category was inaugurated at the 5th Academy Awards in 1932 - in contrast to the Animated Feature category which only began in 2001. In the 1930s, animated shorts were much more common that feature length films. They played before the big name Hollywood features along with newsreels and other shorts. The early years of this award are dominated by Walt Disney (who won 12 times), with Universal, MGM, and other studios occasionally slipping a nomination in. In those days, it was the production studio and not the individual artist who got the award. In the 1940s and 1950s, Warner Brothers and UPA began showing up in the nominations as often as Disney. In the 1960s, foreign films began to make their way into the nominations. Interestingly, Canada’s top animator of the century, Norman McLaren, won his first two Oscars in the Best Short Subject rather than the Animation Category – I guess pixilation was considered too avant-garde to be animation in those days (in fact, the category was called Short Subjects: Cartoons up until 1973). By the 1970s, and continuing up until the present, the category no longer represented mainstream animation but cutting edge works from around the world.

 The Magic Pear Tree (Jimmy Murakami, 1968)

Before Yamamura, only two semi-Japanese projects were nominated in this category. The first was nisei Teruaki “Jimmy” Murakami (b. 1933), the Japanese-American animator from California. Murakami, who has an animated documentary about his life called Jimmy Murakami, Non Alien making the rounds at the documentary festivals this year, was interned at the age of 8 with his family during the Second World War. He is best known for his adaptations of Raymond Brigg’s books The Snowman (1982) and When the Wind Blows (1986). Murakami was nominated for his only Oscar in 1968 for The Magic Pear Tree.

 The Old Man and the Sea (Aleksandr Petrov, 1999)

A Japanese producer also had a hand in the making of Aleksandr Petrov’s The Old Man and the Sea (老人と海, 1999), which not only won an Oscar but also won the Grand Prix at festivals around the world . It is the only animated film with a non-Japanese director to win the Noburō Ōfuji Award at the Mainichi Film Concours. This international (Canada/Russia/Japan) co-production was co-produced by Tatsuo Shimamura. Shimamura (島村達雄, b. 1934) also co-produced with Kihachirō Kawamoto the animation omnibus Winter Days (Fuyu no Hi/ 冬の日, 2003). He also has an illustrious career as an animator in his own right founding his own studio (Shirogumi) in 1974.

This year’s nominees for best animated short represent France, Ireland, the UK, and Spain. In terms of animation technique, I find the selection heavy on computer animation (apart from the Wallace & Gromit short A Matter of Loaf and Death).  As my regular readers will know, I don't mind the use of computers in animation, but I prefer a good handmade film. In terms of innovations in plot and storytelling technique, the films get high points for creativity and sense of humour. La dama y la muerte (The Lady and the Reaper, Javier Recio Gracia) gives a humorous take on the battle between death and modern medical science. The prize for pure chutzpah goes to Logorama (Nicolas Schmerkin) – I am sure it is only a matter of time before some of the big corporate logos sent up in this short go after the French animators (starting with Mickey D’s). My personal favourite of the bunch is Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (Nicky Phelan and Darragh O’Connell) because I love feminist retellings of fairy tales.

The artists featured in this piece need your support.  Jimmy Murakami has a DVD out of his films. The Old Man and the Sea is available on DVD in Japan and in the States, Canada, & France. The following films can be purchased via cdjapan:

01 March 2010

Mami Kosemura's Comb (櫛, 2006)

I first encountered the work of Mami Kosemura (小瀬村真美) at the Nihonga Painting: Six Provacative Artists exhibition in Yokohama in 2006. Both an academic scholar as well as an artist, Kosemura’s moving paintings are layered with references to art history and they open up many interesting questions about the relationship between art and reality.

Kosemura’s installation piece Comb (Kushi/櫛, 2006) is one of two pieces based upon famous works by shin hanga artist Goyō Hashiguchi (橋口五葉, 1880-1921). Hashiguchi is particularly famous for his bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) shown in very intimate situations: nude in the bath, a woman with her shoulder bared while applying make-up, a woman getting dressed. His work is valued not only for its beauty, but for its rarity. Hashiguchi made only 16 woodblock designs before his tragic early death from meningitis. 14 of the woodblocks and many copies of the prints were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake two years after Hashiguchi’s death, making his work even rarer.

This animation installation is based on the woodblock print Woman Combing Her Hair (髪梳ける女, Kami Sukeru Onna, 1920). It depicts a beautiful, idealized woman combing her long, luxurious hair. She is dressed in a loose fitting yukata (cotton dressing gown) and appears serene and relaxed. The yukata is blue with a white sakura (cherry blossom) pattern with a red sash. There is a sensuousness to the woman’s pose and there is a voyeuristic element to the scene. The artist has given us an intimate glimpse into the minutiae of a woman’s daily personal grooming routine.

Mami Kosemura’s Comb gives a feminist interpretation of Woman Combing Her Hair. In the installation at Yokohama Museum of Art, the animation was installed in a wooden picture frame giving the effect of looking into a mirror reflection of the woman combing her hair (see a photograph of the installation here). The voyeurism of the original print is emphasized by the fact that in Kosemura’s Comb, we are only shown the bottom half of the woman’s face. She is rendered anonymous by a dark shadow cast over the top half of her face.

The positioning of the woman’s body mimics that of the original print, but some details have been slightly altered. The yukata has a more generic blue striped pattern, and the sash is pink. Although Kosemura has animated the woman to show the movement of her brushing her hair, the stop motion is not fluid but jerky. Kosemura’s technique is to take digital images of a posed model in costume recreating the Hashiguchi print. She then paints over the images and edits them on the computer. The resulting image looks like a moving painting. The effect is not to duplicate Hashiguchi’s print exactly, but to create a new work inspired by it. The end result looks less like a woodblock print and more like an oil painting in motion. Fine cracks have been overlaid on the image that create the effect of an aged painting. Unlike most Kosemura installations, this animation installation is silent.

Comb is a fascinating work that somehow manages to both make the subject more intimate while encouraging the spectator to view the piece with a critical eye. By animating the woman’s movement, Kosemura emphasizes the reality of the model. At the same time, the shadows over the woman’s face grant her anonymity and the jerkiness of the animation remind us that the woman is being interpreted by an artist’s hand.

Kosemura herself has described her methods as blurring the lines between ‘documentary’ and the ‘fictional’. In viewing a moving image, one has an impression of reality, but it has been mitigated by the painting and after effects added to the original footage. I’m not sure what she wrote originally in Japanese, as I could only find the English translation of her essay on her website, but it seems to me that the line Kosemura is blurring is between the photographed image and the painted image. Kosemura’s original image is not documentary because it has been posed, but the act of photographing her model brings her animated image closer to realistic movement than if she had drawn it. By using famous art as the basis for her animated installations, Kosemura is not only creating an original piece of art, but she is also offering up an interpretation of the art that inspired her own. The Yokohama exhibition also actively encouraged spectators to compare and contrast the works, renegotiating the spectator’s viewing experience of Hashiguchi’s print. There are so many layers to viewing an animation installation by Kosemura, with each work offering up fascinating new depths of interpretation of her unique animation techniques.

For more information about this artist, visit her websiteMIACA (Moving Image Archive of Contemporary Art), or the Yuka Sasahara Gallery.

Shinshaku Yotsuya Kaidan / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010


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