29 October 2010

Yokohama Art Navi (ヨコハマ・アートナビ)

Yokohama Art Navi’s Youtube Channel contains a mini-treasure trove of short alternative animation by young Japanese artists. The films were selected by renowned animator Koji Yamamura (see my reviews of Kafuka Inaka Isha, Atama Yama, and Man and Whale) and were all made within the last ten years. It’s an exciting video gallery of the best of rising animation talent in Japan. Many of these films have also been featured on the NHK program Digital Stadium.

Atsushi Wada’s Day of Nose (鼻の日/Hana no hi, 2005)

Ayaka Nakata’s Cornelis (コルネリス, 2008)

Saori Shiroki’s Evening Light (夜の灯/Yoru no Hi, 2005)

Ryo Ookawara’s Animal Dance (アニマルダンス, 2009)

Masaki Okuda, Ryo Ookawara, and Yutaro Ogawa’s Orchestra (2008)

Wataru Uekusa’s Chisato Stared (向ヶ丘千里はただ見つめていたのだった, 2009)

Masashi Yokota’s Ikuemi no Zanrou ( いくえみの残像, 2007)

Takeo Shinkai’s Mountain and Man (山と人/Yama to Hito, 2007)

Takashi Kurihara’s Happy Bogeys (2000)

Takahiro Hayakawa’s Kashikokimono (2004)

Hiroco Ichinose’s The Last Breakfast (かなしい朝ごはん/Kanashii Asa-gohan, 2006)

Shiho Hirayama’s Swimming (2008)

Whisper of the Heart (耳をすませば, 1995)

Most coming-of-age stories about young teenage girls tend to revolve around the themes of popularity, overcoming self-confidence issues regarding physical appearance, and crushes on boys who tend to have only their charm and good looks to recommend them. Whisper of the Heart (耳をすませば /Mimi wo Sumaseba, 1995) refreshingly presents a young female protagonist with other things on her mind than such superficial concerns.

Shizuku Tsukishima gets along well with her fellow classmates and shows a talent for writing which she demonstrates through writing new Japanese lyrics for John Denver’s 1971 hit song Take me Home, Country Roads for her junior high school graduation. Shizuku is also an avid reader. The library is in the process of switching from the old card system to a new computer system, which saddens Shizuku because she likes to read the names of the people who have taken books out before her. She begins to notice that many of the books that she reads have been previously been checked out by a boy called Seiji Amasawa.

Whisper Of The Heart (Mimi wo Sumaseba) - Soundtrack / Animation Soundtrack
Animation Soundtrack
One day, while taking the train to the library, Shizuku notices a lone cat sitting next to her. Fascinated by the cat’s boldness as he disembarks the train at the same station as her, she decides to follow him. Climbing up the hills of Tama New Town, the cat leads her to an antique shop. She befriends the shop’s elderly owner Nishi-san and is fascinated by an unusual statue of a cat known as the The Baron. Shizuku eventually discovers that Nishi-san is the uncle of Seiji Amasawa – the boy who has been reading the same books as her. Shizuku had already had some chance encounters with Seiji, and thought him arrogant, but she soon learns of his passion for making violins and his plans to go to Cremona to become an apprentice violin craftsman.

At this point, the story could have turned into a sappy tale about long-distance, unrequited love, but it does not. Shizuku tells her best friend Yuko that she is worried that she is not good enough for Seiji because she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. Seiji’s dedication to his craft inspires Shizuku to become a writer and she decides to write the story of the cat statue The Baron. Shizuku’s imaginative story is shown to us in a series of beautiful dream sequences which were so popular with audiences that Studio Ghibli eventually made a film based upon them called The Cat Returns (猫の恩返し/ Neko no Ongaeshi, 2002) which was directed by Hiroyuki Morita (森田宏幸, 1964).
The rural-urban mix of landscape in Tama.

The main focus of Whisper of the Heart is not really whether or not Shizuku will get the guy in the end, rather it is about Shizuku finding out what she want to do with her life professionally. The secondary level of the film is about the location and the times. Tama New Town is a suburb of Tokyo that was developed on rural land which had once been as idyllic as the Sayama countryside in My Neighbour Totoro. In fact, the destruction of the Tama Hills habitat was at the heart of the plot in the Studio Ghibli film preceding Whisper of the Heart, Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ/ Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko, 1994). Shizuku’s new lyrics for Take Me Home, Country Roads expresses not only the personal journey that she is on, but it also a nostalgia for Japan’s fast-disappearing rural landscapes. The most poignant moments in the film occur when Shizuku is up on the hill looking out at the mixed rural-urban landscape of the Tama Hills.

Each frame of the film is beautifully crafted with the complexity of image and attention to detail that one has come to expect from a Studio Ghibli film. This was the first and sadly only film directed by Yoshifumi Kondō (近藤 喜文, 1950 - 1998), a long-time collaborator of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata whose untimely death brought to an end their goal of grooming him to take over directorial responsibilities at the studio. The film is jam-packed with references to earlier Ghibli works – not only in terms of characters and plots, but also visual references for the keen of eye.

Some that I spotted  include:
The international title of Hayao Miyazaki's 1992 film Porco Rosso (紅の豚/ Kurenai no Buta) inscribed in the grandfather clock that fascinates Shizuku in the antiques shop.
If you click on the above picture and then enlarge it, you can see that the blue book on the shelf in front of Shizuku's face is titled "Totoro".
In the bedroom Shizuku shares with her older sister, there is a little witch on a broom hanging from the bookshelf - an obvious reference to Kiki's Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便, Majo no Takkyūbin).

I would not be surprised if there were even more.  Whisper of the Heart is a delightful film for young and old alike.  

Japanese edition:

U.S. edition:

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

25 October 2010

VCinema Satoshi Kon/Kihachiro Kawamoto Memorial Episode

At Shinsedai in July, I had the pleasure of meeting Coffin Jon of VCinema.  As I have been doing research into the career of Kichachiro Kawamoto, he invited me to join the conversation for  Podcast 15: a memorial episode to Kawamoto and Satoshi Kon.  In addition to our conversation, the podcast includes insightful interviews with Mark Schilling of The Japan Times, Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye (where I am also an occasional contributor), and Jason Gray of Screen International.  Make sure you have a listen.

As both Kon and Kawamoto had quite extensive careers, the VCinema guys made the wise decision to focus on just two films: The Book of the Dead (2006) and Paprika (2006).  We had a great time recording the podcast and I particularly enjoyed hearing their interpretations of the Buddhist aspects of The Book of the Dead. It is not an easy film to understand.  It took Kawamoto himself 30 years to make the film, so it is not surprising that it is a film that requires multiple viewings in order to take in all the fine details.

Kawamoto's journey to make The Book of the Dead began during the production of  Dojoji Temple (1976), when he was given the complete works of Shinobu Orikuchi (折口信夫, 1887-1953) by Teizo Matsumura  (松村禎三, 1929-2007), the composer for the film.  Orikuchi's The Book of the Dead made a strong impression on Kawamoto, creating very clear images in his head as he read it.  Every time he re-read the story, he understood more aspects of it.  It wasn't until 1989 that he completed a storyboard for the film, and it took even longer to arrange for funding.  Fortunately the Sakura Eiga-sha producer Junko Fukuma (福間順子) stepped in to support and organize the project.

The more I read about Kawamoto, the more I realize what a complex, sophisticated artist he was.  His entire lifetime was dedicated to the betterment of his craft and the broadening of his knowledge through the study of the arts, literature, and religion.  In addition to being a unique puppet and animation artist, Kawamoto was also a great collaborator reaching out to animators and artists the world over in order to both learn from them and to share his own knowledge.  Although I have acquired a great deal of information about Kawamoto in the past few years, I feel that my journey of understanding his works has only just begun.  I am grateful to this great puppet master to opening up new pathways to understanding through the legacy of his animated films.

Paprika is an equally challenging film as The Book of the Dead.  I don't know if anyone has done it yet, but it seems to me that there is a lot of symbolism (especially in the parade sequences) and film references to unpack in the film (we talk about this a bit in the podcast).  Like The Book of the Dead, it is a film that I notice new things in each time I re-watch it.  I have a greater sense of sadness when I think about Satoshi Kon.  Whereas Kawamoto was in the twilight of his career having achieved his ambitions in seeing his greatest life's work made, Satoshi Kon was in the middle phase of his career and leaves behind an unfinished work The Dream Machine (夢みる機械/Yume Miru Kikai).  He has gone too soon, but left us with a treasure trove of films to remember his genius by.

My thanks to Coffin Jon, Rufus, and Josh for having me as their guest.

Historical Information Source: Animation Meister, Vol 5

Recommended viewing:

Shisha no Sho  Region Two: with English subtitles on the film (not on the extras though)
Region One:

Kinema Junpo Top 10 Animated Films (キネマ旬報ベストテン, 2010)

Celebrated Japanese movie magazine Kinema Junpo has made lists of what they consider the top 10 Japanese Animated Films and the Top 10 Non-Japanese Animated Films. The pre-2003 films all appeared in Laputa’s Top 150 Japanese and World Animation Films, but with a very different ranking order. The list seems to be limited to feature and short films (ie no TV series). Here they are, followed by my comments:

Top 10 Japanese Animated Films
Lupin III "The Castle of Cagliostro" / Animation

1. Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro
(ルパン三世 カリオストロの城, Hayao Miyazaki, 1979)
2. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
(風の谷のナウシカ, Hayao Miyazaki. 1984)
3. My Neighbour Totoro
(となりのトトロ, Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
4. Crayon Shin-chan: The Storm Called: 
The Adult Empire Strikes Back
(クレヨンしんちゃん 嵐を呼ぶ モーレツ!オトナ帝国の逆襲, Keiichi Hara, 2001)
5. Akira
(アキラ, Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)
6. Puss in Boots
(長靴をはいた猫, Kimio Yabuki, 1969)
Urusei Yatsura 2 - Beautiful Dreamer / Animation

7. Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer
(うる星やつら2 ビューティフルドリーマー, Mamoru Oshii, 1984)
Horus: Prince of the Sun
(太陽の王子 ホルスの大冒険, Isao Takahata, 1968)
The Tale of the White Serpent
(白蛇伝, Taiji Yabushita and Kazuhiko Okabe, 1958)
10. Summer Days with Coo
(河童のクゥと夏休み,Keiichi Hara, 2007)

Summer Wars / Animation

Summer Wars
(サマーウォーズ, Mamoru Hosoda, 2009)
Laputa: Castle in the Sky
(天空の城ラピュタ, Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)
Grave of the Fireflies
(火垂るの墓, Isao Takahata, 1988)

Top 10 Non-Japanese Animated Films 
Fantasia / Disney

1. Fantasia
(ファンタジア, 9 Disney Directors, USA, 1940)
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas
(ナイトメアー・ビフォア・クリスマス, Henry Selick, 1993)
3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
(白雪姫, David Hand (Disney), USA, 1937)
4. The King and the Mockingbird (Le Roi et l’Oiseau)
(やぶにらみの暴君, Paul Grimault, 1980)
Yuri Norstein Sakuhin shu (collection) / Animation
5. Hedgehog in the Fog (Ёжик в тумане)
(霧の中のハリネズミ, Yuri Norstein, Russia, 1975)
Mr. Bug Goes to Town (aka Hoppity Goes to Town)
(バッタ君町に行く, Dave Fleischer, USA, 1941)
7. Toy Story
(トイ・ストーリー, John Lasseter, 1995)
8 . Up
(カールじいさんの空飛ぶ家, Pete Docter, USA, 2009)
Frederic Back Collection: L'homme Qui Planet Ait Des Arbres / Le Fleuve aux grandes eaux / Crack! / Animation
The Man Who Planted Trees (L’Homme qui plantait des arbres)
(木を植えた男, Frédéric Back, CANADA, 1987)
10. The Iron Giant
(アイアン・ジャイアント, Brad Bird, USA, 1999)
Wallace and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers
(ウォレスとグルミット ペンギンに気をつけろ!, Nick Park, UK, 1993)

Sources: Wildgrounds, Asahi Shimbun, Kinema Junpo

It is fascinating that Cagliostro is rated higher than Totoro and Nausicaä – especially as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away do not appear on the list at all. I like Cagliostro, but it wouldn’t make my top ten anime of all time. I am not sure why they limited themselves to a “10 Best” as they clearly had to squeeze in a few more titles by awarding ties. Unless you are doing a list that excludes Studio Ghibli fare, you need to make a longer list than just 10 in order to fit in all of the amazing non-Ghibli animators who deserve equal recognition.

I am surprised to see two films by Keiichi Hara and nothing by Satoshi Kon. I can understand Summer Days with Coo making the list, but one of the Shin-chan movies? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Crayon Shin-chan and I enjoy commercial animation just as much as alternative fare, but I wouldn’t put a Shin-chan movie in a top ten anime of all time. 

If I was just rating anime (as opposed to independent animation), I would definitely include films by Rintaro (either Galaxy Express 999 or Metropolis), Satoshi Kon (my favourite is Tokyo Godfathers), and I would probably put Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell on the list instead of Beautiful Dreamer. Eiichi Yamamoto would definitely be on any list of mine as well – of course if I were to make an all time list it would list much more than 10 films just to be able to fit everything in.

It also interesting that the non-Japanese list includes artistic short films like Hedgehog in the Fog and The Man That Planted Trees, but the Japanese list omits independent animators like Kihachiro Kawamoto and Koji Yamamura – and even no sign of commercial/experimental crossover Osamu Tezuka! I would be curious to know if a lot of deep thought went into these two lists, or if they just did a straw poll in the office. Considering the randomness of it all, I suspect the latter.

Related Posts:
Laputa's Top 150 Japanese and World Animation
My Neighbour Totoro
Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro

24 October 2010

Akino Kondoh Selected for the Guggenheim's You Tube Play

The digest version of Akino Kondoh’s Ladybirds’ Requiem (てんとう虫のおとむらい/Tenshō Mushi no Otomurai) was chosen earlier this week as one of twenty-five short videos for the Guggenheim Museum’s first biennial You Tube Play celebration of creative video. With this project, the Guggenheim aims to harness the power of video-streaming sites like You Tube to promote contemporary art. Their goal was to “attract innovative, original, and surprising videos from around the world, regardless of genre, technique, background, or budget. This global online initiative is not a search for what’s “now,” but a search for what’s next.”

Here the Jury explains the selection process:

The Guggenheim’s call for entries attracted over 23,000 videos from 91 countries. In September, the Guggenheim curators drew up a short list of 125 videos. Akino Kondoh was one of only two Japanese artists to make the short list. The other was Hiroshi Takahashi with his ikebana inspired piece Wow Tenspace (2007). Takahashi is the president and founder of WOW, a design studio based in Tokyo, Sendai and Florence. Designers who worked on Wow Tenspace included Shingo Abe, Tomoyo Kimpara, Yoko Ishii, Hiroshi Ouchi, Shigeru Makino, Takuma Nakazi, Daihei Shibata, and Shi Lin. The artwork used in the animation was designed by Shun Kawakami of Artless Inc.

An international jury was selected to narrow down the short list to just twenty-five works. The jury included Nancy Spector as the chairperson, Laurie Anderson, Animal Collective, Darren Aronofsky, Douglas Gordon, Ryan McGinley, Marilyn Minter, Takashi Murakami, Shirin Neshat, Stefan Sagmeister, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Here Takashi Murakami explains what he looks for in video art:

At the core of Murakami’s expectations for the Guggenheim project is this statement: “I expect the video submissions to showcase the unique nature of video and You Tube. I hope to see the kind of work which is recognizable as art with just a single glance.” 

Akino Kondoh, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Shinsedai in July (read about our chat here), does indeed fulfill this brief. As much as I love watching animation on 16mm film it is an expensive and inconsistent medium. Computer technology has freed artists like Kondoh to be able to work affordably and efficiently as independent animators.  Kondoh draws each of the individual frames of her animations by hand with careful attention paid to every detail. These details are preserved during the scanning and editing process and the result is a mesmerizing animation experience. Each frame of Kondoh’s Ladybirds’ Requiem stands on its own as an individual piece of art. 

Kondoh embraced the digital medium early on it her career and her very first film The Evening Traveling (電車かもしれない/Densha kamoshirenai, 2002) NHK program Digital Stadium which also promotes artists via web streaming.  The Guggenheim selection will undoubtedly widen Kondoh’s international fan base even further. My congratulations to Kondoh for this great achievement and I can’t wait to see what she produces next!

The work of Akino Kondoh will be featured in a number of upcoming events:

Tokyo Designers Week 2010, October 29 – November 3 at Jingu-Gaien Kaigakanmae
PISAF, November 5-9 in Puchon Korea
Domani・明日展2010, December 11 – January 23, at The National Art Center, Tokyo

19 October 2010

Zen & Its Opposite: Essential (& Turbulent) Japanese Art House

Last Friday, the Japan Society in New York opened its Fall-Winter monthly classics series with Masaki Kobayashi’s riveting film Kwaidan (怪談/Kaidan). ‘Kwaidan’ – or ‘Kaidan’  – means “ghost story” and it is based on Lafadadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese folk tales Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904). The Japan Society could have used Hearn’s book title as an alternative title for their upcoming program of films, for they really are a strange collection of nightmarish tales.
 Kwaidan - Criterion Collection 
I found it interesting when reading the program’s synopsis that the series was designed to explore the “little-understood, paradoxical unity of zen and violence,” which the writer of the program puts into the context of Brian Daizen Victoria’s book Zen at War (1997). This relationship between Buddhism and suffering has been on my mind a lot recently because of the research I have been doing into the career of Kihachiro Kawamoto. In fact, you can hear me discussing it with Jon Jung, Rufus de Rham, and Josh Samford in their upcoming Vcinema Podcast memorial tribute to Satoshi Kon and Kawamoto.

Many people who love alternative animation – such as one of my favourite bloggers over at Anipages (read Ben Ettinger’s insightful desciptions of KK’s films here) - struggle with the works of Kawamoto because of their seeming focus on the suffering of humanity. In an interview for the Japan Media Arts Plaza, Takayuki Oguchi asked Kawamoto where this came from in his films, and he responded that he was influenced in this respect by Noh theatre – and by a book by Susuki Daisetsu called Studies on Zen (Zen no Kenkyu). Suffering and human hardship, according to Zen Buddhism should not entirely be thought of in a negative context, but as part of the process one goes through on the path to enlightenment.

The program director for the Japan Society has chosen these films because they each illustrate one or more of the“Six Planes of Existence — a Buddhist concept commonly referred to as Six Paths (Rokudō 六道 or Rokudō-rinne 六道輪廻) in Japan — within“the realm of Birth and Death” (Samsara).”

I wish that I could personally attend the screenings because I love to watch films on 35mm with an audience. I will have to content myself with watching the Criterion releases of the films. But thank you to the Japan Society for reminding me of the Zen Buddhist aspects of these films – a wider context for me to think about as I continue my own journey through Japanese visual culture.  Would love to hear from anyone who attends the screenings on their reactions.

Upcoming Screenings (click on the images for more info on the Criterion DVDs):

Onibaba - Criterion Collection 
Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (鬼婆, 1964)
Friday, November 12, 2010
Fires on the Plain - Criterion Collection 
Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (野火/Nobi, 1959)
Friday, December 10, 2010
 Jigoku - (The Criterion Collection)
Nobuo Nakagawa’s Hell (地獄/Jigoku, 1960)
Friday, January 21, 2011
The Sword of Doom - Criterion Collection 
Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom (大菩薩峠/Daibosatsu Toge, 1966)
Friday, February 18, 2011

The Japan Society
333 East 47th Street
New York, NY

Japanese Indies at the Ottawa International Animation Festival

The Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF) starts tomorrow and runs until the 24th,  OIAF will be featuring a number of spectacular Japanese screening events. If you are a fan of Japanese independent animation and live in Ontario or Québec, then hop in your car and head to Ottawa. You won’t want to miss out on these events! I have written about many of these films and artists, so click on hyperlinks to read more about these talented artists elsewhere on Nishikata Eiga.

The Genius of Osamu Tezuka 
Tales from A Street Corner
(Aru machikado no monogatari/ある街角の物語, 1962)
Mermaid (Ningyo/人魚, 1964)
Drop (Shizuku/しずく, 1965)
Push (プッシュ, 1987)
Jumping (ジャンピング, 1984)
Broken Down Film (おんぼろフィルム / Onboro Firumu, 1985)
While all the films in this selection are available on DVD in North America, Australia, and Japan, Jumping and Broken Down Film are being screened on 35mm. Jumping is one of Tezuka’s most remarkable experimental films, so this is a must see screening!

You Need to Be Alone Sometimes: The Secret World of Japanese Indies Part 1

The House of Small Cubes (Tsumiki no ie/つみきのいえ, Kunio Kato, 2008)
Cornelis (Ayaka Nakata, 2008)
Five Lost Worlds (Pentalogia del mondo perduto, Fusako Yusaki, 1963)
Introspection (Maya Yonesho, 1988)
Ladybirds' Requiem
(Tentoumushi no otomurai/てんとう虫のおとむらい, Akino Kondoh, 2006)
Gestalt (Heya / Keitai / 部屋/形態, Takashi Ishida, 1999)
Lightning Doodle Project PIKA PIKA 2007 (Tochka, 2007)
Lost Utopia (Mirai Mizue, 2008)
Granma (Baachan, Masanori Okamoto, 2007)
The Magic Ballad (Okonjoruri/おこんじょうるり, Tadanari Okamoto, 1982)

You Need to Be Alone Sometimes: The Secret World of Japanese Indies Part 2

A Gaze in Summer 1942 (Natsu no Shisen 1942, Keiichi Tanaami, 2002)
Karma (カルマ, Nobuhiro Aihara, 1977)
Demon (Oni/鬼, Kihachirō Kawamoto, 1972)
Maggot (Saori Shiroki, 2009)
Shadow (Kage, Seiichi Hayashi, 1968)
Love (Ai/愛, Yoji Kuri, 1963)
Noryo Anime Denkyu IKAMATSURI
(Metempsychosis) (Naoyuki Niiya, 1993)
Coffee Break (Taku Furukawa, 1977 )
Animal Dance (Ryo Okawara, 2009)
Dream Storage (Fumio Ooi, 2006)
Mr. Sakurai at a Ticket Counter
(Ticket counter no Sakurai-san, Dong-Hun Kim, 2009)
Looking at a Cloud (Kumo wo miteitara, Naoyuki Tsuji, 2005)
Agitated Scream of Maggots (Keita Kurosaka, 2006)
Mt. Head (Atama-yama/頭山, Koji Yamamura, 2002

Handsoaps and Fools: The Films of Atsushi Wada and Kei Oyama
Dancer of Vermicular (Annerida Tantuelin, Atsushi Wada, 2004)
A Clerk in Charge (Kakari/係, Atsushi Wada, 2004)
Day of Nose (Hana no Hi/鼻の日, Atsushi Wada, 2005)
Gentle Whistle, Bird, and Stone
(Yasashii Fue Tori Ishi / やさしい笛、鳥、石Atsushi Wada 2005
A Manipulated Man
(Koe ga detekita Hito / 声が出てきた人, Atsushi Wada, 2006)
Well, That’s Glasses
(Sou iu megane/そういう眼鏡, Atsushi Wada, 2007)
Anizo (Kei Oyama, 2006)
Nami (ナミ, Kei Oyama, 2000)
Yuki-chan (ゆきちゃん, Kei Oyama, 2006)
Consultation Room (Shinsatsu-Shitsu/診察室, Kei Oyama, 2005)
The Thaw (Yukidoke/ゆきどけ, Kei Oyama 2004

In addition to these special screening events, several Japanese animations are in the official competition including:

Keita Kurosaka’s much anticipated Midori-Ko competing in the features competition
– read more about this artist at Anipages

And competing shorts:
Akiko Omi’s Gathering (Shushuka no sampo)
Kei Oyama’s Handsoap
Tai Murayama’s Meat or Die (Yans! Gans!) ‘Linda’
Shin Hashimoto’s The Undertaker and the Dog
Hiroyasu Ishida’s Fumiko’s Confession (Fumiko no Kokuhaku)
Masaki Okuda’s A Gum Boy (Kuchao)
Atsushi Wada’s In a Pig’s Eye (Wakaranai Buta)
Mirai Mizue’s Playground

18 October 2010

Renzo Kinoshita: Self Portrait (1989)

I first heard about Animated Self Portraits (David Ehrlich, et al., 1989) with the discovery of Kihachiro Kawamoto’s contribution to the omnibus short film on Geneon’s DVD of Kawamoto’s short films. I then discovered Osamu Tezuka’s contribution on the Geneon DVD of Tezuka’s experimental films and started searching to learn more about the Animated Self Portraits.

Not only was I interested in the context of these short contributions by two of the greatest animators to come out of Japan, but I knew that pioneer experimental animator Renzō Kinoshita (木下蓮三, 1936-97) had also made an individual contribution to Animated Self Portraits. As far as I am aware, Kinoshita’s work is not yet available on DVD despite his important contributions to independent animation in Japan.

I recently managed to get a hold of a copy of Animated Self Portraits and was at last able to compare Kinoshita’s conception of the animation process with that of Kawamoto and Tezuka (links below to my reviews of those shorts). Kawamoto depicts the creative process as an on-going struggle between the artist and his medium, with the medium having just as much a say in the process as the artist himself. Tezuka compares the creative process to a game of chance, suggesting that when all the pieces line up the results can be lucrative for the animator.

Kinoshita’s Self Portrait emphasizes the importance of Japanese artistic traditions on his creative process. The short begins with an image of the Kinoshita’s own face, painted round like the sun on the Japanese flag, with the Chinese characters for the four seasons in each corner of the frame. The simple black on white looks like it has been done in the traditional brush and ink style. On the left side of the frame there are three red stamp impressions, like those that artists use to sign their work in Japan. The version of the film that I have is low resolution so they are difficult to make out, but the the oval one definitely looks like it reads Kinoshita (木下).

Kinoshita’s eyes are closed, as if he is deep in meditation or sleep. His head rotates to right and in the circle that one presumes is the back of his head, an image of some rocks jutting out of the sea appears. This is followed by an image of the animator sleeping on the ground wearing a kimono appears. It would seem that we are being invited into the world of the animator’s dreams and imagination. 

A lone butterfly, in full colour, flits about the sleeping Kinoshita’s head. The butterfly is an important symbol in Japanese culture – representing not only transformation but also the human soul. In the next moment cherry blossoms fall upon the sleeping artist. This is followed by a nude woman with long flowing hair who jumps elegantly over Kinoshita.

The caricature of Kinoshita then awakes, looks around, and raises himself to seating position while comically adjusting his kimono. His eyes seem bleary, with bags underneath them – no doubt from the long hours an animator must put in at the animation table. This miniature caricature of Kinoshita disappears and the large image of his face rotates back to centre frame.  Thus the film ends as it began. The entire short is approximately 30 seconds.

Of all the international animators represented in Animated Self Portraits, Kinoshita’s is the one that most strongly identifies itself with national identity. This is interesting because much of Kinoshita’s early work, such as Made in Japan (1972) was quite critical of contemporary Japanese culture. Renzo Kinoshita and his wife Sayoko are known in Japan for the hard work that they put in building international connections between the Japanese animation community and the international animation community. They put in a lot of time and effort into the Japanese branch of ASIFA, and later to founding the International Animation Festival Hiroshima. However, their efforts were not always appreciated and, according to an interview with David Ehrlich that he published after Kinoshita’s premature death (in John A. Lent, ed. Animation in Asia and the Pacific, 2001, pp. 51-4), the Kinoshitas actually considered moving permanently to New York city in the early 1980s. Kinoshita’s Self Portrait suggests that even if they had done so, he still at heart considered himself a Japanese artist.

I like the way the short draws the connection between dreams and animation – animation really is a medium that allows the artist to depict the world of dreams in all its sensuousness of movement and surreal connections. Water is an element heavily associated with the unconscious mind, which is why I think it is the first image that we see when Kinoshita transitions into the world of his imaginary. The film suggests that Kinoshita felt strongly influenced by the beauty of the natural world and the human form. The animation is beautiful in its simplicity, and the subtle humour in the depiction of Kinoshita in caricature tells us a lot about the modesty of the animator himself.

Credit card for the Japanese contributors to Animated Self Portraits (1989)

Related Posts:

Renzo & Sayoko Kinoshita
Pica-don (Renzo Kinoshita, 1978)
Kihachiro Kawamoto: Self Portrait
Osamu Tezuka: Self Portrait

The Self Portraits by Kawamoto and Tezuka are available on these DVDs by Geneon:

Osamu Tezuka Jikken animation sakuhin shu / Animation
Osamu Tezuka Jikken animation sakuhin shu

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010


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