29 August 2010

10 More Things About Natto Wada

Shunji Iwai’s 2006 documentary The Kon Ichikawa Story (Ichikawa Kon Monogatari) arrived in the post yesterday afternoon. As connoisseurs of Japanese film will know, Japanese DVDs are usually very overpriced compared to prices in other countries. The price for this 2 disc box set is well worth it for the beautifully designed packaging and glorious black and white photographs of the director and his screenwriter wife Natto Wada (和田 夏十, 1920-1983). 

The documentary was its flaws (more on that another time), but from it I have gleaned a few more things about Natto Wada than I knew when I wrote 10 Things I Know About Natto Wada:

1. When Ichikawa met his wife, she was working as an interpreter at Toho.

2.  When Ichikawa fell in love with Wada, he decided he would marry her after he became a full-fledged director. She chose the novel for him to use for his first screenplay: Machiko by Yaeko Nogami. This novel became his first feature film A Flower Blooms (Hana Hiraku, 1948) 

3.  On April 10, 1948, Ichikawa and Wada married quietly in a local shrine and invited a few close friends from Toho to celebrate with them.

4.  The name Natto Wada initially was their pen name as co-writers, but it soon became her name. In private, she called him “Danna” (often translated at “master”, it is a traditional way for a wife to refer to her husband)  and he called her “Natto-san”. 

5.  Ichikawa and Wada could have intense creative arguments with each other that could lead to them eating dinner together in silence. But, Ichikawa admitted that when they argued he would always end up being the first to give in because he had to admit that her ideas were always right.

 Ichikawa in the foreground at his desk.  
Wada in the background working at the coffee table.

6.  Wada had never set out to be a screenwriter. She wanted to be a good wife and saw her writing work as an extension of her support for her husband. In a very Jane Austen kind of way, she didn’t have her own study but would write in communal family spaces like the dining table, the coffee table, or in the kitchen.
 Tanizaki (center) and Ichikawa (right)

7.  In order to acquire the rights from Junichiro Tanizaki for his 1956 novel The Key (Kagi), Wada told Ichikawa that he should prepare a wad of cash and drive a Mercedes to visit the great writer. Apparently, she was right about the cash and the Mercedes because Ichikawa did get the rights to make the film Odd Obsession (Kagi, 1960) and Wada’s adaptation met with Tanizaki’s approval.
Tokyo Olympiad - Criterion Collection 
7.  After Tokyo Olympiad, Wada told Ichikawa that it was time for him to do it by himself. After her retirement, she showed no interest in screenplays any longer and Ichikawa was left to his own devices.  However, before he passed away, Ichikawa told Shunji Iwai that he still had screenplays by Wada that he had not yet had a chance to film.

8.  While Ichikawa was away working on films, Wada rarely called to interrupt his work. One exception was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She called him in Osaka where he was editing a television drama.

9.  Shortly before she died, Ichikawa convinced Wada to write the ending to his Makioka Sisters screenplay. She died before the film was released.
E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (Widescreen Edition)

10.  The last film that Natto Wada saw was E.T. (1982) at a theatre in Ginza.  She and Ichikawa agreed was Steven Spielberg’s best film to date. Ichikawa recalls her saying: “I’m glad I saw such a good movie in the end.”  She died in the New Year.
    Odd Obsession (Kagi) / Movie

    © Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

    28 August 2010

    Interview with Akino Kondoh

    I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with artist, manga-ka, and animator Akino Kondoh at Shinsedai this year. Her 2004 painting Red Fishes was used as the eye-catching poster art for the festival, and her 2006 animation Ladybirds’ Requiem (Tentou Mushi no Otomurai, 2006) preceded Momoko Ando’s Kakera (2009) at the opening event.

    Childhood influences

    Kondoh was born into an artistic family. Her father and brother are both architects and her homemaker mother studied design at university. Kondoh was never particularly interested in television. Instead, she recalls enjoying having picture books read to her by her parents and being taken to museums. Kondoh also had little interest in popular manga as a child.  She did; however, discover Garo (ガロ, a monthly anthology magazine for avant-garde manga which ran from 1964-2002) when she was a junior high school student. Kondoh’s own manga art has been featured in alternative manga magazines and one of her striking images adorns the cover of the debut English language edition of AX: A Collection of Alternative Manga. This cover art had previously been used for volume 42 (2004) of the Japanese edition of AX (アックス).

    Garo cover art

    Kondoh cover art - order here

    I have long been interested in the prevalence of insects in Japanese art and culture. Cicadas, for example, are always used as signifiers in movies to indicate that the setting is late summer. When my children were in hoikuen (nursery school) in Bunkyo-ku, they had a pet kabuto-mushi (Japanese rhinoceros beetle) in the same way that a Canadian Kindergarten might have a hamster. In Kondoh’s art insects like ladybirds (ladybugs in Canadian vernacular), butterflies, and insect larvae play an essential role. When I asked Kondoh about this she told me that insects have long been an object of fascination for her. She recalls playing with insects as a child, so it has been only natural that they have become a source of artistic inspiration in her work.

    Introduction to art animation

    While a student of graphic design at Tama Art University, Kondoh was introduced to animation in her second year of studies through assignment work. Her professor was Masashiro Katayama (b. 1955), who has enjoyed a long and successful career as an animator and illustrator (see my review of Winter Days, and Kawamoto’s Self Portrait). In her third year at Tamabi, Kondoh made The Evening Traveling (Densha kamoshiranai, 2002), her first animation short. The Evening Traveling won her awards at the Japan Media Arts Festival (2002), the Digista Awards (2002), and the third Yuri Norstein Grand Prix / Audience Award at Laputa Animation Festival.

    The use of music in her animation

    Kondoh and her brother became big fans of the band TAMA when they were teenagers. Through a fortunate series of events, Kondoh was able to develop a professional relationship with band member Toshiaku Chiku. Prof. Katayama often invited animator Tatautoshi Nomura of ROBOT (the company that employs Oscar-winner Kunio Kato) to guest lecture his class. Nomura is also a fan of TAMA and has often worked with the band for the soundtracks to his animations both as musicians and as seiyū (voice actors). Kondoh was able to get permission from Toshiaku Chiku to use his song Densha kamo shirenai for her film of the same name. (English title The Evening Traveling)  At first, Kondoh explained, Chiku was not really sure about her project, but when the film was a success and won awards at festivals, he agreed to compose an original score for Ladybirds’ Requiem.

    Elaborate vision, minimalist style

    Akino Kondoh’s art carries us into a complex, dream-like world. Yet while the images she creates are highly detailed, at the same time she employs a very minimalist aesthetic. When creating the images for her animation films, she uses plain art paper. Her tools are graphite and marker. Her colour palette is predominantly black against a white background – as in The Evening Traveling which was entirely monochrome. Filler colours like grey or the brilliant reds of Ladybirds’ Requiem are done with markers. The images are then scanned and edited using Adobe Photoshop and After Effects for Macs.

    Prolific artist with an eye for detail

    Kondoh’s passion for her craft drives her to put in long hours at the canvas. While some artists prefer to work in the morning hours, or well into the night, Kondoh’s entire day revolves around her desire to keep on creating new work. At the same time, Kondoh is a perfectionist with very high standards. There are actually two versions of Ladybirds’ Requiem. The one that is floating around on various video streaming sites was done as a student work in 2003 and has a running time of 2’50”. Kondoh expressed a deep dissatisfaction with this work and so in 2005 she set out to remake the film. She started from scratch, drawing entirely new images for the animation which was eventually completed in 2006 with a running time of 5’38”. A limited edition DVD of the film (only 12 copies!) was released for sale to her representatives Mizuma Art Gallery and snapped up by high end art connoisseurs. It is this version of the film that played at Shinsedai and at Naomi Hocura’s Seconds Under the Sun screenings.

    Kondoh’s fascination with contemporary art

    Funding from Bunka-cho (the Agency for Cultural Affairs) allowed Kondoh to do a residency in New York City from November 2008 until October 2009. For that first year in New York she lived in Chelsea. She has now moved to Astoria and is supporting herself through her art. When I asked her “Why New York?”, she responded that she wanted to immerse herself in contemporary art and get exposure to the art community outside of Japan.

    Kondoh’s depiction of Eiko, the young woman protagonist at the center of her work, has often reminded me of art deco influenced illustrations that I saw at the Yayoi Museum when I lived in Nishikata. I was also reminded of the unusual world of girls I had once seen at the Collection de l’art brut many years ago in Lausanne, Switzerland. When I described the work to Kondoh, she immediately put a name to the artist – Henry Darger. It turns out that Kondoh shares my interest in l’art brut or Outsider Art and she spoke enthusiastically about the Henry Darger collection at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which is located near the MOMA.
    Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum
    Future Plans

    I was impressed by Kondoh’s high ambitions and passion for her work. She dreams of showing her work all over the world. Among other projects she has currently on the go are collaborations with the New York avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn, for whom she designed the cover art for his CD The Goddess: Music for the Ancient of Days. She does plan to do more animation in the future, and is working constantly on her art. She expressed her enthusiasm by saying: “I want to keep creating” 

    © Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

    27 August 2010

    The Passing of a Puppet Master: Kihachiro Kawamoto (1925-2010)

    I was devastated to hear the news of Kihachiro Kawamoto’s death today. Although I never met him personally, I have been intensively researching his career for quite some time and have come to admire him greatly. The thing that stands out for me the most about Kawamoto was his dedication to his craft as a puppet artist. His career can be roughly divided into two main phases. Up until about the age of 40 he was a puppet craftsman. After travelling to Europe to learn the art of puppet animation, Kawamoto blossomed into a true artist.
    Kawamoto during the production of The Book of the Dead

    The first half of Kawamoto’s career was led by a fortunate series of circumstances. Although he had long nurtured a passion for dolls and puppets, he did not think that he could earn a living from his hobby and so studied architecture at university. He had been a real eiga shōnen (film buff) as a young man and upon graduating he got himself a job at Toho Studios where he worked as an assistant to the great production designer and art director Takashi Matsuyama (Rashomon, Seven Samurai).

    While at Toho, Kawamoto learned a lot about set design and the process of filmmaking; however, his career there was stalled by the Toho Strikes. Even though he officially spent a total of four years at Toho, for at least half of the time he was on strike. To keep him occupied, Matsuyama arranged for Kawamoto to do some work creating puppets for the magazine Asahigraph.
    A Shiba Productions puppet book

    At Asahigraph Kawamoto met the editor, producer, and writer Tadasu Iizawa (1909-1994). Together with Iizawa and graphic designer Shigeru Hijikata (1915-1986), Kawamoto founded the company Shiba Productions which made puppets animation for television commercials and chlidren’s storybooks. Iizawa did the writing and producing, Hijikata designed the puppets, and Kawamoto made the puppets and did the animation. Clients included Asahi Beer, Mitsuwa Soap, Mitsuwa Cider, and Sato Pharmaceutical.

    Some examples of puppet animation CM from the early 1960s:

    It was Iizawa who introduced Kawamoto to the work of Jiri Trnka (1912-1969) in 1951 when he arranged a private screening of The Emperor’s Nightingale. At this point in his life, Kawamoto had been seriously considering giving up puppets altogether and moving onto a different line of work, but seeing Trnka’s animation made Kawamoto realize the greatness one could achieve with animation. Iizawa was also instrumental in introducing Kawamoto to the puppet animation pioneer Tadahito Mochinaga upon his return from China in 1953.

    After slogging away for about a decade in commercial puppet animation, Kawamoto woke up one day in his mid-30s to realize that he had not spent any time learning about the techniques of the foreign animators he so admired. So at the age of 38, Kawamoto dramatically shifted directions and began to follow his heart artistically. He contacted Trnka in what was then Czechoslovakia and after a bureaucratic nightmare that I won’t go into here, traveled to the USSR to learn from their puppet studios. His self-funded journey included stops in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Moscow, and Central Asia. Not only did he learn from Trnka, but he was welcomed with open arms at the studio of Bretislav Pojar (b. 1923), and became good friends with Roman Kachanov (1821-1993).
    Yuri Norstein comes to set of The Book of the Dead

    When he returned to Japan, Kawamoto had to return to commercial work for a spell in order to recover the funds he had used up during his travels. He eventually got enough money together for his debut independent work Hana-Ori (1968), but after that he never looked back. In Japan he is most famous for his epic television series Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1982-84) and The Tale of Heike (1993-1994), but outside of Japan he made a reputation with his short puppet and cutout animations. In recent years, Jasper Sharp has put together screening events of is work across the UK and most recently at Shinsedai Cinema Festival in Toronto.
    Kawamoto during the production of The Book of the Dead

    While Kawamoto controlled all aspects of the filmmaking process from the storyboards to handcrafting the dolls and sets and directing the shoots, he was also a strong believer in collaboration. In the 1970s he teamed up with Tadanari Okamoto (1932-1990) to promote their puppet animation in a series of joint screening events known as Kawamoto x Okamoto Puppet Animeshow (川本・岡本 パペットアニメーショウ). When Okamoto passed away in the middle of The Restaurant of Many Orders (1991), Kawamoto stepped in to help Reiko Okuyama finish the film. He also participated in David Ehrlich’s collaborative work Animated Self Portaits (1989) and himself organized the collaborative film poem Winter Days (2003) which I reviewed for Midnight Eye. In the Making of documentary for The Book of the Dead (Shisha no sho, 2005), Kawamoto is shown working both with longtime collaborators and mentoring young animators from Tamabi.

    For me, the career of Kihachiro Kawamoto represents an artistic and philosophical journey on the part of the artist. Using both Japanese and Western literature, film, animation and puppet traditions as his muses, each project explores issues related to human suffering. At the pinnacle of this artistic and philosophical journey is The Book of the Dead, a film about the struggle to reach the Buddhist concepts of satori or ‘enlightenment’. Kawamoto’s legacy to future generations of animators is that the artistic process should be this constant quest for knowledge and understanding.

    Historical information in this blog post is sourced from Heibonsha’s Kawamoto Kihachiro: Ningyo Kono inochi aru mono (2007) and Takayuki Oguchi’s interview with Kawamoto: Animation Meister at Japan Media Arts Plaza’s website.

    1968 The Breaking of Branches is Forbidden (Hana-Ori, 16mm, 14‘)
    1970 Farce anthropo-cynique (Kenju Giga, 35mm, 8‘)
    1972 The Demon (Oni, 35mm, 8‘)
    1973 Travel (Tabi, silent, 35mm, 12‘)
    1974 A Poet’s Life (Shijin no Shōgai, 35mm, 19‘)
    1976 Dojoji Temple (Dōjōji, 35mm, 19‘)
    1979 House of Flame (Kataku, 35mm, 19‘)
    1981 Rennyo and his Mother (Rennyo to sono Haha, 92‘)
    1982-4 Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sangokushi, 45’ x 68話, TV)
    1988 Self Portrait (1‘)
    1988 To Shoot without Shooting (Fusha no Sha, 25‘)
    1990 Briar Rose, or The Sleeping Beauty (Ibara-Hime matawa Nemuri-Hime, 35mm, 22‘)
    1991 The Restaurant of Many Orders (Chūmon no Ooi Ryōriten, 19’)
    1993-4 Historical Doll Spectacular: The Story of Heike
    (Ningyō Rekishi Supekutakuru: Heike Monogatari, 20’x48話, TV)
    1996 Rihaku (10’)
    2003 Winter Days (Fuyu no hi, collaborative, 35mm, 40‘)
    2005 The Book of the Dead (Shisha no Sho, 70’)

    © Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

    19 August 2010

    Ten Things I Know About Takao Saito (斎藤孝雄)

    Along with Teruyo Nogami, cinematographer Takao Saitō (斎藤孝雄, b. 1920) is one of the few surviving members of Akira Kurosawa’s core group of regular collaborators. 

    1.  Toho Studios
    A native of Kyoto, Saito entered Toho Studios as a camera assistant in 1946. His first film at the studios was Kurosawa’s One Wonderful Sunday.

    2.  Not a Manga-ka
     Golgo 13, Vol. 4
    He is sometimes confused with the manga-ka Takao Saitō (斎藤隆夫 aka さいとう・たかを, b. 1936) – same name when Romanized, different spelling in Japanese. The manga-ka does have a cinema connection however, as films like King Kong (Merian C. Cooper/ Ernest B. Shoedeck, 1933) and The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953) were highly influential on his artistic development.

    3.  Asakazu Nakai

    Saito began as an assistant to Asakazu Nakai (1901-1988), a cinematographer who worked on more Kurosawa films than any other. They worked together for over 40 years beginning with No Regrets for Our Youth (1946).

    4.  Camera B in Kurosawa’s 3 Camera Set-Up

    Starting with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa used multiple cameras and more than one cinematographer. Saito was always assigned camera B, and given free rein to film as he pleased. “Whenever Kurosawa looked at the dailies”, recalls Teruyo Nogami in Waiting on the Weather, “he would murmur, ‘Interesting,’ and linger with pleasure over what the B camera had turned out. Today, Saito is the last cameraman to enjoy Kurosawa’s full confidence.” (Nogami, p.111)

    5.  Teruyo Nogami
    Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa 
    Nogami has described Saito’s role on set as being “wifely. . . crucial, yet inconspicuous. He was proficient at both panning shots and dolly shots, using a telephoto lens of 500 or 800mm so that the picture had speed and the rough, protruding quality that Kurosawa liked.” (Nogami, p. 111)

    6.  Toshiro Mifune

    Saito was the cinematographer on the only film ever directed by Toshiro Mifune: The Legacy of the 500,000 (Gojuman-nin no isan, 1963).

    7.  Chris Marker

    During this close-up of Saito’s face in AK, Chris Marker reflects: “those were the eyes which saw Mifune being riddled with arrows in Throne of Blood, or stabbing youthful Nakadai in Sanjuro.”

    8.  Alex Cox

    Speaking in  Alex Cox’s documentary about Kurosawa’s later years, Saito said that “when he wrote a script, he already had a picture of every scene in his mind. So when he showed me the actual storyboards, they were all very practical showing exactly what to do. He was very easy for a cameraman to work with.” (Kurosawa: The Last Emperor, 1999)

    9.  Albert Pyun

    Saito acted as a mentor to the Hawaiian-American cult film director Albert Pyun. Toshiro Mifune had seen one of Pyun’s films at a festival and invited him to come to Japan to do an internship. Pyun cites his time working as an assistant under Saito as a transformative moment in his career (see Planet Origo).

    10.  Awards

    Saito was nominated for an Oscar for Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). Together with his co-cinematographer Shōji Ueda, he won Japanese Academy Awards for Best Cinematography for Madadayo (Kurosawa, 1993) and Rhapsody in August (1993). 

    Takao Saito Filmography 

    With Kurosawa on the set of Ran (1985)

    As a camera assistant:

    1947 One Wonderful Sunday (Akira Kurosawa)
    1952 Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)
    1954 Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)
    1955 I Live in Fear (Akira Kurosawa)
    1957 The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa)
    1958 The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa)
    1961 Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)
    1962 Kurenai no sora (aerial photography) (Senkichi Taniguchi)
    1962 My Daughter and I (aerial photography) (Hiromichi Horikawa)
    1999 After the Rain (photography consultant) (Takashi Koizumi)

    Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (The Criterion Collection) (Sanshiro Sugata / The Most Beautiful / Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two / The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail)

    Eclipse Series 7 - Post-War Kurosawa Box - Eclipse from Criterion (No Regrets for Our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Scandal, The Idiot, I Live in Fear) (1980) (Criterion Collection) 
    As a cinematographer:

    1962 Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa)
    1962 Nippon musekinin jidai (Kengo Furusawa)
    1963 Attack Squadron (Shue Matsubayashi)
    1963 High and Low (Akira Kurosawa)
    1963 The Legacy of the 500,000 (Toshiro Mifune)
    1963 The Lost World of Sinbad (Senkichi Taniguchi)
    1965 Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa)
    1965 Nippon ichi no goma suri otoko (Kengo Furusawa)
    1965 Tameki no taisho (Kajiro Yamamoto)
    1966 Doto ichiman kairi (Jun Fukuda)
    1967 The Killing Bottle (Senkichi Taniguchi)
    1967 Kojiro (Hiroshi Inagaki)
    1967 Go! Go! Wakadaisho (Katsumi Iwauchi)
    1968 Rio no wakadaisho (Katsumi Iwauchi)
    1968 Aniki no koibito (Shiro Moritani)
    1969 Bullet Wound (Shioro Moritani)
    1969 Akage (Akira Kurosawa)
    1970 Dodes’ka-den (Akira Kurosawa)
    1971 Futari dake no asa (Takeshi ‘Ken’ Matsumori)
    1978 Mitsuyaku: Gaimusho kimitsu roei jiken (Koji Chino)
    1978 Shag (Sadao Nakajima)
    1980 Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa)
    1982 Lake of Illusions (Shinobu Hashimoto)
    1985 Ran (Akira Kurosawa)
    1988 Oracion (Shigemichi Sugita)
    1990 Dreams (Akira Kurosawa)
    1991 Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa)
    1993 Madadayo (Akira Kurosawa)
    1993 Rainbow Bridge (Zenzo Matsuyama)

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    © Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010