The films of Atsushi Wada (和田淳) are very compelling and challenging for audiences. Even when screened with an omnibus of alternative animation as with the Animation Soup Special that I saw at Nippon Connection in 2009, there was a certain amount of audience confusion at the surreal sequence of events in Well, That’s Glasses (そういう眼鏡/Sou iu megane, 2005) with awkward laughing. The humour and the awkwardness is partly intended on the part of the artist (his work is rife with the absurd), and partly due to the fact that we are trained by popular culture to expect a narrative, and to have our hand held throughout the narrative’s development. When a film is completely abstract, like the graphic play of Maya Yonesho’s animation, I think audiences accept it as a kind of moving abstract painting. However, when a film involves human figures like those of Wada and Kei Oyama audiences are often left baffled.
The doctor examines the salarymen's noses
The films of Atsushi Wada belong to the category of poetic animation. Where a conventional narrative film like the late Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers (2003) is like a novel, a short surreal film like Wada’s Day of Nose (鼻の日/Hana no hi, 2005) should be read more like a modernist poem by someone like William Carlos Williams. Where the pleasure of Tokyo Godfathers comes from the narrative reaching its points of climax, catharsis and resolution, the pleasure of watching an Atsushi Wada film comes from the subtleties of its rhythms, imagery, and framing. Just like poems need to be read and re-read for their complexities to be revealed, so too do the films of Atsushi Wada improve upon repeat viewing.
One of the most delightful aspects of a Wada film is his use of the absurd. “How can a nose have a day?” the viewer undoubtedly asks themselves, as the film opens with two male figures sliding towards each other as if puppets on a stick and their noses meet in the middle of the frame, squishing up against each other and then backing away to reveal the title of the film between the two schnozzles (see top photo).
Similar but not identitcal salarymen.
The next scene is equally as absurd: close-ups shots of bums (in the UK sense of “bottoms”) standing up and sitting down on stools. This is followed by a close up on feet shuffling and stopping. As the frame widens, we see a queue of similarly dressed salarymen standing up and sitting down upon a row of stools as they await their turn for a doctor to give their nose a squeeze. While the men look very similar, they are not all exactly the same. They all have similar hairstyles parted on the same side, but their heads and faces and heights vary slightly. While they are all wearing the standard salaryman uniform some have jackets, some do not. Some have their ties tucked in, others have their tie fully visible. The whole scene recalls the annual medical examinations done by Japanese businesses of their employees.
When each man is finished with his examination, he walks directly to the wall facing him and peers at something before exiting the screen. Finally one man appears to break ranks by glancing to the side before he sits with the doctor/examiner (as opposite to staring blankly, sheep-like straight ahead) and we see for a moment from his point of view the man ahead of him walking forward to the wall. When he himself approaches the wall, we see the hole from his perspective. He then presses his face up to the wall and breathes “ba ba ba” with an open mouth (breathing and panting is a common motif in Wada’s films). He then uses his hands to widen the hole and crawls inside.
The womb-like bubble - note the warm colours compared to the salaryman grey.The film then leaves the realms of the possible entirely as the man finds himself in a womb-like, warm-coloured balloon and he swims around in the balloon like a fish. The balloon deflates and re-inflates and then disengages itself from the wall and floats away. It then pops and the man is hurtled through space as if skydiving. Images that follow include the man holding hands in a circle with male figures some of which resemble animals; the man tackling a sheep-like creature with a human face and rubbing his nose into his fleece; the man rolling down a hill over a long line of elderly men who rub the back of his head. Throughout these surreal sequences, we return to the queue and evently the doctor himself turns his head to look at the hole in the wall. After he does this, the doctor leaves the queue and tackles the man who had gone into the wall and gives him his glasses and before entering the hole himself. The film ends with the younger man now playing the role of doctor and examining noses. The final image is of this new doctor looking towards the hole in the wall and blinking.
Like Wada’s film A Manipulated Man (2006), which I mentioned briefly in my review of Tokyo Loop, this film seems to be a critique of the societal pressures on men in contemporary Japanese society. The theme of repetition of action in the waiting room scenes mimic the repetitiousness of the salaryman’s working life. The surreal scenes from the world inside the wall suggest deep-seated needs on the part of the salaryman for comfort (the sheep, the nose rubbing and back of head rubbing), individuality with a group (the circle of figures), and encouragement from the generation that has gone before. The sheep of course, is an important repeated metaphor in Wada’s work which I think symbolizes the herd-like mentality of the salaryman culture.
Brief cutaway to a man patting a boy on the head fondly.For me the image that had the strongest impact occurred during the surreal scene when the man rolls down a hill overtop of the line of elderly men getting the back of his head rubbed and rubbing his nose into the shirt of each elderly man. There is a brief cutaway to an elderly man patting a young boy on the head. In Japanese culture where bodily contact such as hugs and kisses come with much less frequency than in the culture that I grew up in, this patting of the head as a sign of affection and encouragement has always seemed to have a great emotional significance.
I find that during a Wada film, my senses are always heightened. In this film, obviously the nose is foregrounded as a symbol. His sparing use of sound means that what we hear makes a great impact on the senses. Sounds like breathing, panting, shuffling, all emphasize actions that would normally be very subtle in a film. The heightened awareness extends to Wada's use of space which is also sparing and uncluttered.
With each frame carefully hand drawn by Wada and a minimalist, very deliberate soundtrack, I find that each time I watch this film I notice a new detail that increases my understanding of it. It is the kind of film where I think that each spectator would bring their own experiences into their analysis of it. I would love to hear from others who have seen this film – or other films by Wada – to hear your impressions of this unique, endlessly fascinating artist.
Atsushi Wada’s works will be available on DVD from CALF (JP/EN) as of October.
Wada's official website (JP)
Wada's official website (JP)
His film A Manipulated Man is available on Tokyo Loop: