19 June 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