25 November 2010

Sandman Episode 246: By Junk to Japan (1982)

Photo by Hans-Joachim Konang
Germany has a rich tradition of puppet animation – from the Augsburger Puppenkiste to the Fairy Tale puppet films of DEFA (the film studio run by the former Eastern European government). My favourite German puppet animation is the long-running Sandmännchen (Little Sandman) series which has been on air since 1958. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Ole Lukøje fairy tale, it is a Good Night story for children. During the years that Germany was divided, two different versions of Sandmännchen were made on either side of the wall. As many generations of children have enjoyed the series there is much nostalgia surrounding the older episodes in both the East and the West.

A modern version of the series still screens on German television daily intermingled with re-runs of the classic episodes. On KiKa (the children’s network) it airs at 6:50pm. When it finishes at 7, it is a signal to my kids that it is time to start taking a bath and getting ready for bed. In each episode, the Sandman is in a different location – real or imaginary, domestic or international. Eventually, the Sandman happens upon a small television or other screen which he turns on and invites the “dear children” viewing the show to watch with him. The audience is then treated to a short film – often animated, sometimes live action – and when the story comes to an end we return to the Sandman who says farewell and a children’s chorus sings the traditional Good Night Song.

As the series has been running for such a long time, Sandman has managed to travel to every exotic local imaginable, including a delightful episode set in Japan. In Episode 246, which first broadcast in East Germany in 1982, Sandman travels to Japan in a junk – an ancient Chinese sailing vessel – and joins a family for tea in their home. The attention to detail in the tea-drinking scene is quite remarkable – not only do they have tatami flooring and shōji, but the puppets are even sitting on tiny zabuton (floor cushions). I also like the fact that they do not push stereotypes too far. Although the mother is dressed traditionally, the children are dressed in a modern style. It does look a bit more Ozu than early 1980s, but it nevertheless demonstrates that there was an awareness on the part of the animators that Japan had entered the modern era.

According to the official Sandmännchen homepage, the theme likely had to do with the fact that Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany at the time, had travelled to Japan in 1980 where he received an honorary doctorate from Nihon University. East German interest in Japan was also piqued in 1981 by a trade agreement that resulted in the arrival of 10,000 Mazda 323 cars in the country. 

I am not sure if this episode is available on any of the multitude of Sandmännchen DVDs available in German speaking countries. I am however hoping that Santa leaves a copy of one of the books published in celebration of Sandmännchen’s 50th anniversary in my stocking this year.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

23 November 2010

Gentle Whistle, Bird and Stone (やさしい笛、鳥、石, 2005)

A predominant theme in the works of independent animator Atsushi Wada is the pressure of society for young men to conform to the will of the group. Gentle Whistle, Bird, and Stone (Yasashii Fue, Tori, Ishi /やさしい笛、鳥、石, 2005) repeats some of the salaryman imagery and carefully articulated character movement of Day of Nose (Hana no hi/鼻の日, 2005) and Manipulated Man (Koe ga dete kita hito/声が出てきた人, 2006), but in this film pressures put onto the main male protagonist by the group step over the line from manipulation into physical violence.

Wada opens the hand drawn animation on a medium shot of a young man wearing a sweater, looking bleakly straight into the camera. The sweater is significant because he clothes mark him as being different from the other young men in the group. An outsider. Cut to a close up on the upper torso and lower face of a male figure in a suit who blows into a flute, creating a dissonant whistling sound. The whistle turns out to be a kind of signal, and when the camera cuts back to the young man in the sweater, stones begin to be pelted at him from off screen, leaving welts on his face. He makes no noise at all. We only hear the ominous thud of the stones hitting flesh. The young man cringes with each impact, but then faces the camera again, his face devoid of emotion, as if this sort of punishment were a habitual one that he has resigned himself to. Wada then pulls the camera back into a longer shot which emphasizes the young man’s loneliness, with the stones gathering at his feet.

The man’s loneliness is contrasted by the togetherness of the mob that is attacking him. They are introduced first by their hands, passing a stone from clasped set of hands to another clasped set of hands. We then see a robotic line up of men in suits. As in Wada’s Day of Nose, the only differences among the men are subtle differences in their faces and hairstyles. The men attack like a automatons – the first row throws stones and fall down and the second row come en masse to pick them up and then the series of events repeats: passing of the stone between hands, wind up, throw, fall down, assisted up. The only sounds are the whoosh of the stones as they soar towards the victim and the awful thud as they hit him and fall to the ground.

The flute plays again and one of the men in a suit comes and puts an arm around the victim like an older brother or coach might do. He then says something incomprehensible to him (if it is comprehensible to any of my readers do let me know in the comments) - a phrase of some kind.  The intonation suggests that it is a demand.  Another man joins the group and does the same and this is repeated until all the men are surrounding the victim, repeating this phrase over and over again. The voice actor for all the men is the same – and it sounds as though the voice has been overlapped with itself to give an overwhelming sensation to the scene.

Indeed, the victim curls his knees up to his chest and covers his ears, his eyes tightly closed and his face grimacing as he tries to block out the mob as they surround him chanting. Eventually, it becomes too much for him and he hums in anger as he stands and forces the group to back away from him. The young man’s fist is clenched tightly and shaking with anger. He then steps to the side, reaching his hands out as if to halt someone.  His movement is so deliberate that it is like watching a Tai Chi pose being performed.

The spirit of a bird emerges from his hands and flies out of the group. All the men, including the victim, watch as the bird settles on the shoulder of the man playing the flute. The flautist looks at the bird, who snuggles into his face to distract him, then suddenly snatches the flute out of his hands and flies away. One of the bullies then picks up a stone and throws it into his own face. The other bullies soon follow suit, all of them throwing stones at their own faces like automaton gone haywire. The victim at first just looks blank, but then reaches down, picks up a stone and joins the self-flagellation.
Similar themes: the blemished face of the main protagonist in Oyama's  Hand Soap
The theme of bullying is also a topic explored by Wada’s fellow CALF animator Kei Oyama in his film Hand Soap (2008). In Hand Soap, the male protagonist is pelted with tomatoes as he stands against a wall. I am sure that this feeling of being an outsider is one shared by many independent animators who must struggle to find a place for themselves and their creative visions in an animation world that favours the popular and commercially viable over unique artistic talent. I read a moving interview David Ehrlich did with Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita (in Animation in Asia and the Pacific) before Renzō died in which they talk about the struggle they had in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s because the animation establishment were suspicious of their motivations as alternative animators.  It may have something to do with that old Japanese saying "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down" - a cliche, but unfortunately one that has a kernel of truth in it.

Where Oyama’s Hand Soap creates a full character for its main protagonist, showing his internal and external struggles at home and at school, Wada’s Gentle Whistle, Bird and Stone focuses on the act of bullying itself. The group abuse combined with the repetitive talking suggest that the scene is not just one of bullying, but also a ritualistic initiation of some kind into the group. The only glimmer of hope for the victim is the bird spirit that seems to come out of his own soul to whisk away the flute that is being used as a signal to start the group attacks. However, the whistle's disappearance does not lead to an end of violence, merely the start of a new form of suffering. As with all Wada’s films, it is not the easiest to watch, but there is something compelling about the way in which he draws and animates his short films. Like the repetitive actions of the characters in his films, I find myself watching them again and again and pondering whether or not there truly is a path to the cessation of human suffering.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

Atsushi Wada's Film Works will be released on DVD by CALF in December.

If you are in London, be sure to check out Atsushi Wada's films on Sunday at Zipangu Fest.

Related Posts:
Kei Oyama’s Hand Soap
Art of the Absurd: An Interview with Atsushi Wada
Atsushi Wada’s Day of Nose
Mirai Mizue Works 2003-2010

Art of the Absurd: An Interview with Atsushi Wada

In a Pig's Eye (Wakaranai Buta, 2010)

Atsushi Wada is an award-winning alternative animation artist. I first encountered his work at a screening of Tokyo Loop in December 2006 at Image Forum in Tokyo. When screened in the context of other surreal animations by artists like Yoji Kuri, Keiichi Tanaami and Nobuhiro Aihara, the work of Atsushi Wada stands out because of his muted colour pallet and very deliberately paced character movement.

When I have seen Wada’s work screened with other alternative animated shorts at Nippon Connection in Frankfurt, the perplexity of the audience is palpable. You can hear people asking themselves “What in the world is this all about?” His films pose a particular challenge to audiences because they feature both the surreal and the absurd, which can provoke extreme reactions.

Watching In a Pig’s Eye - which won best film at Fantoche in September - I found myself laughing out loud at the screwball comedy aspects of the boys' acrobatic interatctions with the giant pig in the garden.  Wada says that most audiences view the film silently and that my reaction may say more about my unusual sense of humour (which may indeed be true – partly attributable to the amount of Monty Python I watched growing up), but it is part of the nature of the absurd or surreal humour that it can evoke a wide range of emotions on the part of the spectator ranging from revulsion to elation, incomprehension to sudden clarity. The only illegitimate reaction to a Wada film is complete dismissal, because his films have a lot to teach us about patterns of human behaviour.

Wada’s films are for me a kind of visual surrealist poetry that require repeated screenings in order to fully appreciate them. When viewing them in a festival setting one really needs a pause before the next film begins to fully take in the ramifications of his use of symbolism and movement. Fortunately for us, CALF is releasing a DVD of his works in December so that fans can take the time to appreciate the charms of each film. Wada is an intelligent and intriguing artist, and while I often feel that I don’t quite “get” everything he is trying to say with his animation, there is something very compelling about them that always brings me back to watch them again.

Interview with Atsushi Wada

Congratulations on winning Best Film at Fantoche! What kind of feedback did you get from the audience there for In A Pig’s Eye?

Thank you very much. In A Pig’s Eye has in a way been less appreciated by audiences than my previous works. It is quieter and calmer than my other works. Furthermore, audiences seem to find the story difficult to understand. I did not really intend to make it difficult to understand though. . .

In the “Making of” section of Tokyo Loop, you explain that you use a 0.3mm “sharp pen” (mechanical pencil) for sketching. What other materials do you use?

I use a 0.3mm “sharp pen” only for sketching. To be more precise, I draw lines with the 0.3mm “sharp pen” and I use a 0.5mm “sharp pen” for shading in hair and clothes. I then scan the drawing into the computer and add colour. I don’t use cel animation paper. Instead I use regular copying paper or rough textured hanshi (Japanese calligraphy paper).

Your use of colour is usually very subtle and minimalistic. Can you talk about how you use colour?

There is a negative reason for this: I don’t like thinking about colour. I’m also not good at it. I therefore don’t increase the number of colours and I choose light colours as much as possible.

In a Pig’s Eye had a lot more laugh-out-loud screwball comedy than other films of yours that I have seen. Can you talk about your use of humour – particularly the absurd in your films.

As I mentioned earlier, I think there is not much laughter in this piece. Therefore, it could be that you have an unusual sense of humour. That being said, humour is an element that is absolutely necessary for me – not only in relation to my own work, but in any animation. Even the most serious works require a sense of humour in order to acquire depth. People who use the surreal tend to be thought of as being odd. However, it is actually just the opposite. Those who use the surreal are quite down-to-earth people. It’s not just about making something that is surreal, but about finding balance between extremes. It is through this process that one actually achieves something that is surreal.

What inspires your animation?

I think that books and documentaries have a lot of influence on me. When I hear words I imagine pictures. Subtle gestures or behaviours create a kind of flash of realization in me. Actually, the project that I am working on at the moment developed when I saw an old Japanese documentary.

Do you think about your audience when you animate, or is your main focus on the aesthetics of your art?

I consider both. I believe that I should try to balance the subjective and the objective in my work. Even when I rely on my own intuition, I think that authors who manage to take a step back and look at themselves objectively as much as that’s possible are able to create great art. It may not be that I am literally thinking of the audience, but I think that it is necessary to have an objective point-of-view.

On the CALF website, it says that you are always thinking about the concept of “ma” 間. I understand this concept in terms of use of space, but you apply it to the “tension produced between movements”. Can you explain how you apply this to animation?

When I try to explain the meaning of “ma”, I always have difficulties. So I’ll give an example: the composer Tōru Takemitsu has talked about the use of “ma” in music. It’s not just about silence, but that silence only becomes possible because there is sound. Takemitsu said that because of this, one has to think about both sound and the absence of it together. I feel the same way. If one applies this to animation, it is because there is movement that there is also “silence” (the absence of movement). I do not only mean movement and the space and time between movements, but that it is necessary to have movement in silence. Both need to be included in the concept of “ma”. It is important to think about how an animated movement affects the “silence” that follows it, and how that connects to the movement that follows the “silence”.

Are there other animators whom you feel also use “ma” in their work?

I think that there are many. Even if it’s not mentioned explicitly, it is of the upmost importance for an animation have that “ma”.

One underlying theme of your films is about the pressure on the Japanese to conform to the expectations of the group. Does this come out of your personal experiences?

I get that question a lot. For my animation to work, it is necessary to depict humans who are being moved mechanically within society. It is not something that I have strong personal feelings about. I just feel that it makes my work more interesting.
Event at Image Forum, November 20-26, 2010

The sheep with human faces in your films represent for me both being docile (hitsuji no you) and being a source of comfort – like when a man rubs his face in the sheep’s fleece. Can you explain more about your use of sheep as a motif?

I seem to somehow like not just sheep but docile animals in general – goats, turtles, elephants, and pigs. I think my interest in them has to do with their way of quietly and slowly walking around and grazing. Seeing them roaming and grazing makes me wonder what they might be thinking. One could say that I like animals that give me space for thinking. With respect to the sheep, I think you are right that they have “amae” (甘え- a Japanese concept concerning the giving / receiving of comfort). There is something about sheep that makes one want to impulsively throw oneself at them. Then again, if one really throws oneself at a sheep they are terribly stinky.

How did you become interested in animation?

Until I started creating works of animation myself, I didn’t really have much interest in animation. My first opportunity to make animation came during my university studies. I felt this urge to move a doodle that I had done. However, it wasn’t really that I was interested in the movement itself, but in the “ma” that develops by putting the drawing into a time sequence. This desire to express “ma” has continued in me unchanged ever since.

Do you remember your first experience with experimental / art animation? What was it?

My first experience with art animation was probably the work of Jan Švankmajer. I can’t recall if it was at a cinema or on video, but it was either Alice or Faust. I was strongly influenced by the tenacity of purpose in his films and I find the editing impressive.

Which animators or artists do you admire?

Igor Kovalyov, Priit Pärn, Kōji Yamamura, Kenzō Masaoka, and Nobuhiro Aihara are just few of the many that I admire.

Mechanism of Spring (Haru no shikumi, 2010)

Your latest film The Mechanism of Spring (Haru no shikumi, 2010) showed at Venice in September. Can you tell me about it?

The theme is “haru no uzu-uzu-kan” (spring fever). I drew living beings, happy about the coming of spring. Turtles, frogs, snails, and crows are frolicking about with the kind of lively movements I imagine they would make. In order to capture the lightness of the image of spring, I felt that the pace of the story should match the movement. I had not done anything with this kind of tempo or rhythm before, so I learned a lot from this film. I discovered things that I want to use again in the future.

What are your future goals as an animator?

I would ideally like to create animation in my own way and earn a decent living from it. At the moment it is very difficult to strike a balance between my artistic production and cost of living. In addition to this, I would like to create an environment in which my art can be seen by as many people as possible.

My thanks to Atsushi Wada for taking the time to answer my questions. 

Atsushi Wada’s work will be screened together with that of other CALF artists Kei Oyama, Mirai Mizue and TOCHKA at Zipangu Fest in the UK on Sunday 28 November at the Genesis Cinema in Whitechaple. Click here for more details.  

Image Forum in Tokyo is hosting a screening event in his honour called Atsushi Wada and World Animation November 20-26.  Read more about it here.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

12 November 2010

Murder (殺人, 1964)

Sherlock Holmes needs only to consider the clues to solve the crime.
Makoto Wada’s short animation Murder (殺人/Satsujin, 1964) was screened at the 1st Animation Festival at Sōgetsu Hall in September 1964 alongside films by the Animation Sannin no Kai, Osamu Tezuka, and Tadanari Yokoo. The film proved to be such a hit with his peers that he was awarded the prestigious Noburō Ōfuji Award at the 19th Mainichi Film Concours in 1965.

Makoto Wada (和田誠, b. 1936) is a graphic designer, illustrator, essayist and film director. In addition to this he belongs to the first generation of artists who made experimental animation following in the footsteps of the Sannin no Kai (Yoji Kuri, Hiroshi Manabe and Ryohei Yanagihara).

In Murder, Wada uses cutouts drawn with marker on paper to create a simple but effective comedic send-up of genre films. Wada passion for the cinema is well known and a recurring theme in his art – some of my favourite paintings by Wada are his tributes to cinema’s greats like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (See examples of his tributes to European cinema here).

Murder is divided into seven vignettes that each begin the same way: a cleaning woman walks to the door of a room and knocks on it. Cut to a close-up of her face, her mouth and eyes wide with horror, and violins screeching in imitation of a woman’s scream. Cut to an interior shot of an empty room and the camera zooming in on a man lying on his back on the floor with a dagger in his chest and blood spilling from the wound onto the floor. This is followed by a title card that reads “Murder!”, cue music. Each of the seven vignettes uses a different style of graphic design on the title card, and each has its own ndividual theme music scored by Masao Yagi (八木正生, 1932-1991 – he did the music for Ashita no Joe) to indicate which genre is being spoofed.
The first scenario is a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery (image at top of post). Recognizable by his pipe and deerstalker hat, the detective arrives on the scene and manages to deduce who the murderer is by putting together on a handful of clues.
Poirot only needs a newspaper and a cigar to solve murder mysteries.
The second scenario features a detective with a curly moustache à la Hercule Poirot. He reads about the murder in the newspaper and manages to solve the mystery just by sitting in his armchair and puffing away on his cigar. Each puff of smoke turns into a thought bubble with a clue in it, until he compiles enough clues to solve the crime.
Sam Spade doesn't even need to remove his hands from his trenchcoat pockets.
The third scenario features a Sam Spade private eye who not only examines the scenes but begins to question people beginning with the maid. Wearing a fedora and with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his trenchcoat and sporting a Humphrey Bogart demeanor, the gag in this scenario is the great lengths he goes to in order to question the most unlikeliest of people – the most vital piece of information is of course imparted by a bartender as the Spade character enjoys a tipple.
Garlic and crucifix will wrap this case up.
From here on out, the scenarios get more and more unlikely and thereby more and more hilarious. In the fourth scenario, a man in a nineteenth century style top hat appears at the murder scene to investigate. The murdered man suddenly opens his eyes and reveals that he is a vampire and the investigator destroys him with garlic and a crucifix.
Since when does 007 solve petty murder mysteries? LOL
Each scenario gets more and more outlandish - such as the sci-fi spoof.
This is followed by a James Bond spoof, where the joke is the random women who appear that do nothing to progress the plot, and then a sci-fi take on the murder mystery. The pièce de résistance for the arty film buffs  is the final scenario: “Murder for the art theatre” which is shot entirely in black and white – a kind of murder mystery à la Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961).
Murder for the art theatre involves a random, but artistically intriguing romance.
The of changing hats to indicate character types reminded of that hilarious scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1928) when Buster Keaton’s father takes him to buy a new hat – each hat that Keaton tries on is associated with silent stars of the day and he rejects them all – including the trademark porkpie hat.  Like Steamboat Bill, Jr., Murder does not tell us who each of the main protagnists are in the vignettes - we as an audience are meant to work this out ourselves by reading the genre clues given to us in the costumes and props.  Although the genres that are spoofed are not all necessarily from the silent era, the animation is presented like a silent movie, with title cards and music used to impart additional story information.  I am not sure how widely screened this film was at international festivals in the 1970s, but while watching it myself I was struck by the idea that Wada’s brilliant short film has just the sort of  toying-with-the-audience humour that would have amused Alfred Hitchcock.

The next Noburō Ōfuji Award will be awarded at the Mainichi Film Concours in February.  I am working on a retrospective look back at past winners along with some guessing as to who might win it for this year.  I am  on a personal mission to watch all the previous winners during the coming year and to report on them here. on the blog. I already have a head start having seen all the films by Tezuka, Taku Furukawa, Yoji Kuri, Tadanari Okamoto, and Kihachiro Kawamoto (but I have yet to write about them all on the blog).  I have written about some before: The Magic Ballad, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, and The Chair.  A few may be difficult to track down - like an affordable copy of Takashi Yanase's Yasashi Lion - but I've always liked a challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

Check out these feature films directed by Makoto Wada:
Mahjong Hourouki / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie
Mayonaka Made / Japanese Movie
Japanese Movie

Works featuring Wada's illustrations:
All My Loving 1966 Nen no Beatles / Naruko Iwase
Naruko Iwase
Shinya Kokontei Rakugo Zenshu / Shinya Kokontei
Shinya Kokontei

This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.


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