23 November 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