20 June 2010

Tyo Story (上京物語/Jyōkyō Monogatari , 1999)

Japan-Woche Mainz 2010 gave me the opportunity to watch Taku Furukawa’s Tyo Story (Jyōkyō Monogatari, 1999) for the second time. I first saw it at Nippon Connection in 2008, but as it does not appear on Takun Films, Anido’s DVD of Furukawa’s collected works (1968-1990), one has to rely on festival screenings to see it again.

Jyōkyō’ means ‘to go to Tokyo’ and Jyōkyō Monogatari is an animated adaptation of Yasujiro Ozu’s famous Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953).   I suspect the English title "Tyo Story" is a play on Toy Story (1995).  John Lasseter was a guest at Hiroshima 1987, and is known to be a huge fan of Japanese animation - and Taku Furukawa is famous for his playful attitude towards animation.

Furukawa employs his familiar doodling style drawn animation, which is influenced by the style of his mentor in the 1960s Yōji Kuri and the New Yorker caricaturist Saul Steinberg, to depict an older couple on the train to Tokyo to visit their children. In addition to being a humorous take on an Ozu story, Furukawa also gives a nod to silent film comedies, but using a rollicking score similar to that played during silent movies and using bilingual (Japanese / English) title cards to impart story information.

During the train ride, Furukawa gives us the back story of the family through the techniques of flashback and montage. The father looks at the wedding photo of his daughter, which triggers a photo montage of her life from birth through to the present. The same is repeated with the couple’s son. The memories are bitter sweet, and Furukawa employs visual gags to elicit laughter from the audience.

Once in Tokyo, the story follows its expected path with the parents finding, as they did in Tokyo Story, that their children’s lives are too busy to fit any quality time in with their parents. The modern distraction is of course the keitai denwa (cell phone). There is an amusing sequence in which every time a keitai goes off, the character whose phone it is buzzes just like their phone. Other modern touches include the grandsons playing violent computer games and ignoring their grandparents, and instead of making a home cooked meal their daughter-in-law orders in pizza. 

Tokyo is shown to be a much noisier place than the seaside town where the couple live. The noise culprits include traffic, people, crows, and even a noisy jidouhanbaiki (vending machine) that calls out ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ after every transaction. For a laugh, Furukawa even has the Roadrunner call out ‘meep meep’ before being chased along the overpass by Wile E. Coyote.  Just as in Tokyo Story, the grandparents eventually are left to fend for themselves going on a tour of Tokyo. But then being modern grandparents they also go bowling, rock it out at a Rolling Stones concert (Furukawa’s exaggerated caricatures of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are particularly amusing), and go to Tokyo Disneyland.

On the surface, Furukawa’s film appears to be a tongue-in-cheek critique of the superficiality of modern urban lifestyles. Yet, unlike Tokyo Story, the story has a surprise twist at the end which is very amusing.

Japan-Woche Mainz 2010 is also screening Furukawa's recent work Paper Film (image above) on Wednesday evening, but unfortunately  I will not be able to attend due to scheduling conflicts. 

Taku Furukawa (古川タク, b. 1941) is one of the best known independent animators in Japan and has worked as an experimental animator, teacher, and mentor for over 40 years. His films range from an intricate tribute to the 19th century animation device the Phenakistiscope to early computer animations on the Mac, to humorous narrative shorts like his contribution to Tokyo Loop in 2006. Over the years he has contributed numerous animated shorts to the NHK’s Minna no Uta series. He won the Special Grand Jury Prize at Annecy in 1975 for Odorokiban and his manga The Takun Humor won the Bungeishunjū Manga Award for 1978. He lectures regularly at universities and art schools.


1964 Zuraw (16mm, time)
1966 Red Dragonfly (Aka tombo, 35mm, time)
1968 Oxed-Man (Gozu, 16mm, 4‘)
1970 New York Trip (16mm, 5‘)
1972 Head Spoon (16mm, 5’)
1975 Nice To See You (silent, 3’)
1975 Beautiful Planet (Utsukushii Hoshi, 35mm, 5’)
1875 Phenakistiscope (Odorokiban, 35mm, 5’)
1977 Coffee Break (35mm, 3’)
1978 Motion Lumine (Mōshon Rumine, 16mm, 3‘)
1979 Comics (Komikkusu, 16mm, 3’)
1980 Speed (35mm, 5’)
1980 Sleepy (35mm, 6’)
1982 Calligraphiti (Karigurafitii, 35mm, 5‘)
1983 Portrait (16mm, 5‘)
1985 The Bird (Tori, 16mm, 3’)
1985 Mac the Movie (16mm, 3’)
1987 Play Jazz (16mm, 5’)
1987 Direct Animation (35mm, 1’)
1990 TarZAN (35mm, 6’)
1992 From Heart to Heart (Ishidenshin, B-cam SP, 5’)
1999 Tyo Story (Jyōkyō Monogatari, 35mm, 13 min.)
2003 Winter Days, part 31 (Fuyo no hi, collaboration, 40’)
2006 Hashimoto (contribution to Tokyo Loop, 2’57”)
2009 Takuboda (video, 3’, Noriyuki Boda adaptation of a Furukawa film)
2010 Paper Work

Tokyo Loop / Animation

"Tokyo Loop" Soundtrack / Animation Soundtrack
Animation Soundtrack

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

19 June 2010

On a Wednesday Night in Tokyo (2004)

Last night at Japan-Woche Mainz 2010, I also enjoyed the short On a Wednesday Night in Tokyo (2004) by German filmmaker Jan Verbeek. The film documents the open doorway of a crowded train at Shibuya Station. During the five and a half minutes of the film, more and more people gently push their way on board the already impossibly full train. Most of the people have passively disinterested expressions on their face. Watching this with a German audience was a particularly enjoyable experience because people gasped with astonishment as more and more people appeared and push their way on board. Packing a train like sardines into a tin is commonplace during the morning and evening rush hours in Japan, but not as extreme here in Europe. 

In order to intensify the experience, Verbeek switches from the sound of the station platform to the sound of flies and then to a synthesizer soundtrack. I found that the music heightened the anticipation of seeing just how many people could possibly fit onto the train before it departed. As the train nears its capacity, Verbeek moves the camera closer to the people and captures for the first time a break in the impassive faces: a woman grimaces with discomfort as a man presses into her. Finally, one of the white-gloved station staff appears to help cram the people into the train car so that the doors can close. He is joined by some other assistants and they push the people and tug at the doors until the train is ready to depart. The audience laughed at the sight of the young uniformed men saluting at the train left the station…. another sight one does not see here in Germany. 

This documentary short was beautifully conceived and shot. I imagine that Verbeek chose the evening to shoot because in the morning the platforms are so crowded that he would not have been able to have such a clear shot of the doors. I wonder if he managed to do it all in one take or if he shot several sequences and then chose the best one of the lot. One effect that I found particularly fascinating was when the people walking by on the platform appeared to be superimposed. I’m not sure what technique Verbeek used to do this, because the people in the background stayed the same, but it looked great and contributed well to the general atmosphere of the film. It was also a nice touch that when the train left the station, the hiragana station identification sign was in frame so that the audience could identify the location where it was filmed. The film captures the essence of this moment in a Japanese commuter’s life with an artful documentarist’s eye. 

If you are interested in seeing this film, the artist has kindly uploaded the video onto his website here.

Other great documentaries about Tokyo:
Tokyo-Ga / Movie
Click above to order Wim Wender's Tokyo Ga from cdjapan, or here to order it as an extra on Criterion's Late Spring Collection.

Tokyo Olympic / Documentary
Click above to order Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad from cdjapan, or here from the the States

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

Hand Soap (ハンドソープ, 2008)

 The blemished face of the main protagonist.

I had the great pleasure of finally watching Hand Soap (2008) by Kei Ōyama (大山慶, b. 1978) last night at Japan-Woche Mainz 2010. The 16 minute short animation has been making the rounds of European festivals this spring. It showed at Oberhausen (29 April – 4 May) where the film won a prize, it was part of the official selection at Animafest in Zagreb (June 1-6) and most recently at Annecy (7-12 June).

With Hand Soap, Ōyama’s longest film to date, he presents a dark vision of adolescence and family life. The film opens with the main protagonist, an adolescent boy whose face is covered in pimples, standing against a wall with bullies throwing tomatoes at him. He trudges home from school to a bleak apartment building where life is not much better than at the school. His sister does not greet him when he enters the apartment and just gives him a malevolent stare, and at the dinner table his family watches television instead of engaging in friendly conversation. Alone in his room after dinner, he does his science homework and draws his own face on the diagram of a dissected frog. This is followed by a surreal dream sequence which includes the dissected frog with sketched on face coming to life and dancing. The film ends with the boy looking out his window as snow begins to fall on the apartment buildings and over his school. The film begins and ends with the wall of the school ground where he gets bullied by classmates.
Kei Ōyama's homepage emphasizes his use of 
fingerprint scans to create texture in his films

Although the film does have narrative elements to it, it is really a poetic film best understood through the visual and aural metaphors that Ōyama employs. The texture of surfaces is a particularly important aspect of an Ōyama film, which he creates by scanning surfaces such as his own flesh. His use of scanned fingerprints in particular takes on special meaning as the boy’s hands are frequently given close ups: the hand pausing on door knobs as if reluctant to enter rooms, hands being washed, and hands doing homework.

When a person is living in difficult circumstances with people, the senses often get heightened to an extreme extent. Thus in Hand Soap, small sounds like the buzz and flicker of the heater being turned on take a huge significance in the soundtrack. At the dinner table, the boy indicates his annoyance with the TV being on by plugging his ears with his fingers, and we hear what he hears as he plugs and unplugs his ears.

The ugliness of the setting and the characters is grey-hued and exaggerated to reflect the boy’s unease with his life. Every wrinkle on his parents’ faces is exaggerated by shadows, his father snores, his mother has an unsightly wart on her face, the boy’s own face is covered in painful-looking pimples. Ōyama engages the senses of the spectator by showing us things that will make us share the boy’s discomfort: a close-up of the father licking the mother’s wart, an extended close-up of the boy popping a pimple, a nightmarish image of his bullies with what appear to be internal organs in place of their heads.

To be sure, Kei Ōyama’s films are never easy to watch, but they are strangely compelling and are difficult to turn away from in spite of the disturbing images and often painful subject matter. His films focus on the minutiae of daily life with its little grievances made large on screen – things we notice but rarely talk about. The key metaphor of the film – hand soap and the washing of the hands – for me represents the boy’s hope that he may someday be able to wash away the currently intolerable state of his life and escape the uncomfortable miseries of adolescent life. The clean, white snow falling on the grungy grey neighbourhood also seems to carry with it the hope of change in the boy’s life.

Hand Soap will be competing at the International Animation Festival Hiroshima in August, and according to Ōyama's blog, he plans to also bring the film to Ottawa in October.

Kei Ōyama Filmography

2000 Nami (8mm, 3’), co-directed by Go Shimada, Izu Satoh, and Izumi Kojima
2003 Usual Sunday (Itsumo no Nichiyoubi, video, 7’), co-directed with Yu Hirata
2004 The Thaw (Yukidoke, video, 7’)
2005 Consultation Room (Shinsatsu Shitsu, video, 9’)
2006 Anizo (video, 30”)
2006 Yuki-chan (contribution to Tokyo Loop, 35mm, 5’)
2007 SMAP x SMAP (15”)
2008 Hand Soap (16’)

Tokyo Loop / Animation

"Tokyo Loop" Soundtrack / Animation Soundtrack
Animation Soundtrack

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

11 June 2010

Hiroshima 2010

poster art by Nobuhiro Aihara (相原信洋)

The films competing at this year’s International Animation Festival Hiroshima have been selected and the schedule is now online. The selection committee consisted of Otto Adler (Switzerland), Nicolas Jacquet (France), Wiola Sowa (Poland), Candy Kugel (USA), and Kotaro Sato (Japan).

The Japanese shorts on offer at Hiroshima include:

In a Pig’s Eye (わからないブタ/Wakatanai Buta)

dir. Atsushi Wada (和田淳)
Wada’s surreal films have been delighting and confusing Image Forum and international festival audiences for many years now. He uses symbolic imagery to comment on the pressures of modern life. In Day of Nose (Hana no Hi, 2005) sheep were used both as a symbol of comfort as well as to symbolize the pressures of following the herd on the modern salaryman. This new film uses the pig as a metaphor. The stills from the film suggest that Wada is continuing to use his usual method of hand drawing each frame on paper.


dir. Mirai Mizue (水江 未来)
Mizue’s films blend music and image in the tradition started by such innovators as Norman McLaren and Oskar Fischinger. In Jam, Mizue uses his signature cells to create a kaleidoscope of movement and surreal fantasy. The “jam” in the title may refer to the fact that the frame is jam packed with colours, shapes, and motion. This animation can be viewed on Mizue’s website

Hand Soap (ハンド・ソープ) 

dir. Kei Oyama (大山 慶)
Like Atsushi Wada, Oyama’s films have been a regular feature of Image Forum compilations and festival screenings over the past few years. His themes are often disturbing, but always engaging. His aesthetic is visually quite unique as he scans human flesh and other natural surfaces, then colours and edits them on the computer to create his images. Hand Soap won a prize at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen last month, and will be screening at Japan Woche Mainz next week. The jurors at Oberhausen described it as using “extraordinary techniques to find expressive images for the physical-psychological experience of an adolescent boy.”

Woman Who Stole Fingers 
(指を盗んだ女 /Oyubi wo Nesumenda Onna)

dir. Saori Shiroki (銀木沙織)

I am not very familiar with the work of Saori Shiroki. Her 2005 short fllm Evening Light (夜の灯/Yoru no hi) is viewable on the YokohamaArtNavi and is a dark and surreal little piece that uses a moth as a metaphor for seeing. The art is quite accomplished, but the film has the unpolished feel of a student work. The still from this new film reminds me very much of the installation art of Tabaimo, who often uses hands as metaphors in her work. By all accounts, this film is surreal representation of the bond between mother and child.

Please support these artists by purchasing their work when possible:

Tokyo Loop / Animation

09 June 2010

Experiment for Animated Graphic Score (2010)

I always keep my eyes open for new animation talent, and one of my favourite discoveries this year is the 3-minute short Experiment for Animation Graphic Score with music and animation by Haruka Yoshida (吉田悠). This film was featured on the NHK’s Digista programme in March, and is also a featured work in the Japan Animation Panorama segment at the Image Forum Festival 2010 which is currently touring around Japan.
I have thus far been unable to find any biographical information about Haruka Yoshida, which leads me to suspect that she is a student. If that is the case, then she has a very promising artistic career in front of her because she has already learned how to marry animation with music in an inventive way. I recall once hearing a CBC interview in which Glenn Gould (the pianist) interviewed Norman McLaren (the animator). Gould spoke of what he saw in his head as performed, and McLaren spoke of how he draws inspiration from music for his animation. As both composer and animator of Experiment for Animated Graphic Score, Yoshida is able to open a little window into the imaginative world of the musician / composer by animating it.
The film begins rather simply, both musically and visually, with the camera scrolling to the right along a sepia coloured musical score as we listen to the scored music being played on a keyboard. Soon some cacophonic noise can be heard in the background and the musical bars begin to quiver. As the noise, which sounds like the static of a radio being tuned gets louder, so does the disturbance of the lines and notes of the musical score. More city noises (a siren, an announcement in a station, a recorded voice speaking in English) take over and Yoshida illustrates this with abstract images in the same inky pen as the musical score. 
All the while, the camera continues at the same pace to pan towards the right as if the viewer were a musician reading the score. A synthesizer joins the cacophony, and as the music takes a funkier change of pace, the camera follows the ink as it moves downwards into new uncharted territory creating more and more elaborate designs as it goes. The motif of the bars of music are interwoven with the more abstract imagery throughout giving the image flow and continuity. The animation climaxes into an ecstasy of visual imagery, then gently returns to the original score in a visual and aural coda, ending with a copyright notice similar to that at the end of a musical score.
A truly enjoyable little film, and although I have been unable to find out anything more about the animator herself, I did discover that the pages used in the making of the film were displayed at an art gallery late last year. See the Design Festa Gallery blog here.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

Animation Scrap Diary + Live Painting Animactions!! (2004)

Although this fabulous box set only came out in 2004, it is already out of print and only available via second hand dealers. For just over a decade now the renowned psychedelic artist and experimental filmmaker Keiichi Tanaami (田名網 敬一, b. 1936) and graphic designer and animator Nobuhiro Aihara (相原信洋, b. 1944) have been collaborating together on animation projects. They both teach at Kyoto University of Arts and Design (here's a photo of Aihara teaching a course last year), and have close ties with Image Forum in Tokyo.

Disc One: Animation Scrap Diary

This disc features Tanaami and Aihara’s “animation battles”, which Benjamin Ettinger of Anipages describes as a “rather original shiritori-type collaborative process wherein each takes turns at the canvas, drawing over or erasing what the other has just drawn -- a tense artistic confrontation made possible by the trust they've built up over their long friendship. Tanaami and Aihara both make animation the old-fashioned way: hand-painting or sketching each individual frame and photographing them onto 16mm film. It is clear that Tanaami and Aihara share a passion for the surreal and the subversive, and they have bonded over their meticulous attention to the minute details of their craft. Each still frame of a Tanaami or Aihara film could easily hang on its own on the wall of a modern museum of art. 

While Tanaami and Aihara have complementary styles, spectators familiar with their work will have no problems distinguishing who did which section of the films. The motifs of Tanaami’s paintings (goldfish, figures with enlarged heads,noses, ears, eyes, sexual organs, etc.) are also present in his animations. Aihara, who began in commercial animation, prefers intricate patterns of lines and shapes. The films feature original soundtracks by experimental composers.

Films featured include:

Scrap Diary (スラップ・ダイアリー, 2002)
I would hazard an educated guess that this frame is by Aihara
and there is no mistaking Tanaami's drawing style
sound design: Takashi Inagaki (稲垣貴士)

Fetish Doll (2003)
 sound design: Agata Morio (あがた森魚)

Landscape (2004)
 sound design: Kuknacke

10 Nights‘ Dreams (夢10夜, 2004)

sound design: Kuknacke

Puzzle of Autumn (秋のパズル, 2003)

sound design: Kuknacke

The disc also features a solo work by Aihara, Memory of Red (2004), which has a dragonfly theme. The film stands out for its use of crayon/pastel  rubbing to add texture to the images.
 sound design: Aki Nagane

Disc Two: Live Painting Animations!!

This is a documentary of a live animation battle between Aihara and Tanaami that took place on the 10th of March 2004 at EX’REALM in Tokyo. The room is in darkness and each artist wears a white boiler suit and baseball cap and uses fluorescent paint on the black canvas. Shot from five different camera angles, and using dissolves and superimposition to speed up the passage of time, each of the five documentary clips lasts about half an hour. A fascinating glimpse into the artistic process of the artists.

Music: Moodman
Director: Naohiro Ukawa (宇川直弘)

The boxset includes a booklet with biographical information and details about the inspiration and making of the films. Also included are a poster designed by Aihara and a poster designed by Tanaami.

Filmography of Tanaami/Aihara Collaborations 

2000 Yami no Kokyū ・Yume no Inei
2001 Fū no Kokyū
2002 Scrap Diary
2002 Running Man
2003 Fetish Doll
2004 Landscape
2004 Yume 10-ya
2005 Trip
2005 Madonna no Yūwaku
2006 Noise
2007 Issun Bōshi (Inch-High Samurai)
2008 Chirico
2008 Paradise for Eye

Please support these artists by purchasing their work:
Tokyo Loop / Animation
TANAAMISM / Special Interest (Keiichi Tanaami)
Special Interest (Keiichi Tanaami)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

Man Eater Mountain (灰土警部の事件簿人食山, 2009)

 Man-Eater Mountain (Hitokui-Yama/人食山, 2009) is an experimental kamishibai film written, produced, and painted by Naoyuki Niiya (にいやなおゆき, b. 1963 in Okayama Prefecture). Niiya also does the benshi (narration) performance accompanied by Takeshi Tsunoda on shamisen, and with a guest singing and voice acting performance by experimental animator Tetsuji Kurashige (倉重哲二) of KTOONZ in the role of the girl Haruko. The sound editor was Takuro Kouichi.

The film advertises itself as a “kamishibai animation”, but even Niiya himself admits in the prologue that this is no animation in the truest sense of the word because there no illusion of movement is created by the images. Instead, the story is presented visually in a series of hand-painted images that have been edited on the computer where dissolves, pans, zooms, and so on were added for dramatic effect.

Kamishibai (紙芝居) is a traditional paper drama that can be traced back for centuries in Japanese cultural history. The tradition of kamishibai underwent a revival in the 1920s when gaito kamishibai (paper drama storytellers) would ride from village to village to entertain children. Traditional kamishibai stories consist of 12 to 16 sturdy cards with illustrations that face the audience and the text of the story on the back. They are quite a common way of storytelling in Japanese nursery schools and Kindergartens (read more about them here).

As the title suggests, Man-Eater Mountain is no children’s tale, but rather a gruesome tale which the prologue tells us is based on a folk legend about a police detective who is investigated a series of murders of women from a village at the foot of Hitokui-Yama (Man-Eater Mountain). Niiya’s adaptation of the tale embraces both traditional storytelling methods (the benshi-style narration, the style in which the story unfolds) with modern touches (the costumes of the main protagonists, the use of cellphones). 

Artistically there is no denying Niiya’s skill as a painter. His ink brush paintings are beautifully rendered with meticulous attention to detail. The dreamscape mushrooms and the bird soaring through the sky were moments that really captured my imagination with their beauty. The story belongs to the tradition of ghost stories and horror stories in Japan that seem to be rooted in a fear of female sexuality. The graphic horror sequence of the second half of the film features grotesque phalluses and breasts, which one also finds in the art of many contemporary male artists such as Yōji Kuri, Keiichi Tanaami, and Takashi Murakami. 

As a female spectator, I found the grotesque orgy of the second half of the film to be an excessive violation of the senses. The concept of female sacrifice to mountains, particularly volcanoes, has often been exploited in Hollywood films, but I had not seen it in a Japanese context before. In ancient Japan, there were tales of hitobashira (human pillars) in which women were buried alive at the base of a building site in order to safeguard the building in the future against enemy attacks or natural disasters, but as far as I’m aware there is no evidence for this happening in reality. Niiya’s film is rife with Freudian symbolism, and the film seems to be an expression of horror for horror’s sake.

Naoyuki Niiya creates his animated movies independently laboring over a period of several years for each film. He teaches at Musashino Art University and also works as a curator, promoter of live events, and a commentator.

Update: Making of clip can be seen here.

This film screened at Nippon Connection 2010 on a double-bill with films by Tokyo Zokei University students.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010


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