30 March 2011

Keiichi Hara’s Top Animation Picks (2003)

The list that Keiichi Hara (原 恵一, 1959) submitted for the Laputa Top 150 World and Japanese Animation (2003) is fascinating as it reveals not only the animation that influenced him during his formative years, but it also his dissatisfaction with the state of animation in Japan in the early 2000s.

At the time of the poll, Hara’s talent as an animator had recently been recognized with the Mainichi Animation Award for 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, 2001), the eighth installment in the Crayon Shin-chan film series. Although he would stay with the Crayon Shin-chan franchise for several more films, there were already signs in 2003 that he might consider taking his career in a new direction.

The animation professionals polled in 2003 were asked to list what they felt were the 20 best animated works of all time. Keiichi Hara elected to nominate only six titles: 3 feature films and 3 TV anime series from the 1970s.

 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
(風の谷のナウシカ, Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

Keiichi Hara considers Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of his own manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind the greatest animation every made in the history of world animation. During the recent Q+A with Hara in Frankfurt, he reaffirmed that he still admires Nausicaä.
Night on the Galactic Railroad
(銀河鉄道の夜, Gisaburo Sugii, 1985)

Hara also heaps praise on Gisaburo Sugii’s Night on the Galactic Railroad, which is an adaptation of a novel by Kenji Miyazawa. While chatting with Hara and Nippon Connection organizers earlier this month in Frankfurt, the subject of Miyazawa came up during a discussion about vegetarianism and Hara spoke of his admiration for Miyazawa’s writing. He mentioned particularly how much he enjoyed Miyazawa’s use of word play like onomatopoeia.
Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
(人狼, Hiroyuki Okiura, 1999)

Most of the animation on Hara’s list comes from his childhood or the early part of his career in the animation industry. Jin-Roh is the only recent work that seemed to have impressed Hara, and he even writes that he wishes more animation would be like this film.

Ganba no Bōken
(ガンバの冒険, Osamu Dezaki, TV anime, 26 eps., 1976)

This anime impressed Keiichi Hara when he was a teenager because it was clearly so very different than other TV anime of the 1970s.
Space Battleship Yamato
(宇宙戦艦ヤマト, Leiji Matsumoto, TV anime, 26 eps., 1974-75)

This was a science fiction anime series that aired on TV in Japan when Hara was a teenager. He recalls that every week he eagerly anticipated the next episode. Although the project was conceived by producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki a year before animator and manga-ka Leiji Matsumoto came on board as a director, Matsumoto shaped the TV series to such an extent that he is generally credited with the unique look of the anime.

Future Boy Conan
(未来少年コナン, Hayao Miyazaki, TV anime, 26 eps., 1978)

Hara cites this TV anime as having a profound influence on his own work. The always sharp-eyed Benjamin Ettinger over at Anipages spotted the name of Shojuro Yamauchi (山内昇寿郎, name sometimes transliterated as Toshiro Yamauchi), a key animator on Future Boy Conan (and many other Miyazaki projects) in the credits for Hara’s Colorful (2010). Yamauchi passed away last year on the same day as Satoshi Kon. It is fortunate that Hara had the chance to work with someone whose work he admired.

It is noteworthy that Hara does not mention any foreign animation in his preferences. Yet despite his clear preference for anime, Hara writes in the comments section of the survey that he has been actually finding it difficult to watch animation. Somehow, he thinks that the characters and the voice acting make him feel sick and he wonders if too much anime is being produced, or if the talent levels of the animation staff has declined over the years, or if he is simply going crazy. He says that there is simply nothing worth watching anymore and he wonders if it would be better to reduce anime production by a third.

I would speculate that Hara’s comments on this survey reflect the animator’s weariness with producing “programme pictures.” He spent the better part of the 1980s working for the Doraemon and Esper Mami series, and at the time of this survey he had spent a decade making Crayon Shin-chan films. In the short amount of time I had to speak with Keiichi Hara in person, I had the impression of a very thoughtful man with wide-ranging interests from popular culture to literature and world cinema.   In his most recent films, he has taken on challenging subject matter and tried out new animation styles.  I think we have only just begun to see what great things this talented animation is really capable of creating. 

Summer Days with Coo / Animation
Summer Days with Coo [Blu-ray]

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

22 March 2011

Masahiro Katayama’s Animation Top 20 (2003)

Norio Hikone's amusing animated commercials for "Curls"

The late Masahiro Katayama was one of more than a hundred animation professionals who took part in the 2003 Laputa poll that resulted in the Laputa Top 150 Japanese and World Animation. When I heard the news about Katayama’s passing, I looked up his picks. He chose his top 20 in random order and had so much trouble narrowing his list down to just 20 that he added some honourable mentions in the comments section of the poll.

As a teacher of animation, it is not surprising that Katayama’s list should include not only many classics of world animation like the Hedgehog in the Fog, Crac!, and Begone Dull Care but also some lesser known (outside of Japan, that is) domestic animations like Tadanari Okamoto’s Are wa dare? and Sadao Tsukioka's animated interpretation of Seiji Tanaka's Kitakaze Kozo no Kantaro (Kantaro, the Monk of the North Wind) for the acclaimed NHK series Minna no Uta (click here to see Seiji Tanaka and a children's choir perform the song  in 2000 with excerpts from the animation).

The lists in the Laputa / Comic Box publication are challenging to translate because they are quite sparse. In order to conserve space they only give the film titles in the individual lists without dates or animator names. Often the titles are only rendered in an abbreviated form and I have to make an educated guess as to which animation is being referred to. For example, it seems likely that Meiji Seika has employed animation for its “Curls” commercials on more than one occasion, but I’m pretty sure the delightful ones by Norio Hikone in the late 1980s had the greatest cultural impact. ひょうたん was perhaps the most abbreviated title, but I felt sure that Katayama must be referring to the popular NHK puppet drama Hyokkori Hyōdan-jima (1964-1969) with its opening credit sequence by experimental animation pioneer Yoji Kuri. 

There was only one mystery on the list that I have not yet been able to solve. Just before the animated classic The Spider and the Tulip was the title RODE TO WESTSIDE in all caps. The title didn't ring a bell for me and I have tried looking up variant spellings (ie. Road to Westside or ロード・トゥ・ウエストサイド) but invariably all web searches lead only to the US musical West Side Story. If anyone knows what animation Katayama was referring to, do let me know.

UPDATE (25 March 2011:  After carefully scanning the list of 900+ titles that were nominated in the Laputa poll,  I have found that "Rode to Westside" is a commercial or series of  commercials directed by Makoto Wada but I haven't found any samples on the internet yet.)

It’s a wonderfully eclectic list of some of the most delightful and unconventional animation of the past century. Above all I think it demonstrates not only Masahiro Katayama’s eye for innovative craftsmanship, but also his appreciation for art that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The Iron Giant
(アイアン・ジャイアント, Brad Bird, 1999)

Hedgehog in the Fog
(霧につつまれたハリネズミ, Yuri Norstein, 1975)
(ジャンピング, Osamu Tezuka, 1984)

Begone Dull Care/Caprice en couleurs
(色彩幻想, Evelyn Lambart/Norman McLaren, 1949)

Hamateur Night
(ハマチュアナイト, Tex Avery, Merrie Melodies, 1939)

Dojoji Temple
(道成時, Kihachiro Kawamoto, 1976)
(あれはだれ, Tadanari Okamoto, 1976)

Astro Boy
(鉄腕アトム, Osamu Tezuka, TV series, 1963-1966)

Betty Boop
(ベティ・ブープ, Max Fleischer, film series, 1932-1939)
Coffee Break
( コーヒーブレイク, Taku Furukawa, 1977)
(殺人 Murder, Makoto Wada, 1964)

The Hill Farm
(丘の農家, Mark Baker, 1988)

Uncle Torys Commercials (Suntory Whiskey)
(アンクルトリス CM, Ryohei Yanagihara, c. 1958-59)

Meiji Seika “Curls” Commercials (snack food)
(明治製菓カール CM, Norio Hikone, 1986-1990)

Rode to Westside (Shiseido, commercials)
(ロード・トゥ・ウエストサイドCM, Makoto Wada, ????)
(くもとちゅうりっぷ, Kenzo Masaoka, 1943)

Rooty Toot Toot
(ルーティ・トゥート・トゥート, John Hubley, 1951)

The Sand Castle / Le château de sable
( 砂の城, Co Hoedeman, 1977)

(クラック!, Frédéric Back, 1981)
(となりのトトロ, Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

Honourable Mentions

(おじゃる丸, Akitaro Daichi, NHK series, 1998-present)

(シレーヌ/人魚, Osamu Tezuka, 1968)

Kitakaze Kozō no Kantarō
北風小僧の寒太郎, Sadao Tsukioka, Minna no Uta Series, 1974)

Hyokkori Hyōdan-jima
(ひょっこりひょうたん島, NHK puppet drama, 1964-1969)
(opening animation by Yoji Kuri)
(puppet direction by Tadao Nagahama)

 Ugokie Kori no Tatehiki
(動絵狐狸達引, Ikuo Oishi, 1933)

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

20 March 2011

In Memory of Masahiro Katayama (片山 雅博, 1955-2011)

Last month the Japanese animation community was shocked by the passing of Professor Masahiro Katayama at the age of 56. Katayama was an animator, manga-ka, illustrator, administrator, mentor, and professor at Tama Art University. 

As a child, Katayama’s love for animation was formed by the work of Walt Disney and other popular American animation that he saw on television. When he later encountered the works of Osamu Tezuka, it was to have a deep impact on his creative career. From about the age of twenty, Katayama began working as a cartoonist and illustrator for newspapers. He was a member of Japan’s Cartoonist Association from 1978 to 1990. 

His activity in animation was quite varied from assisting on productions to organizing events and exhibitions. He directed a documentary film about the career of Osamu Tezuka called Film is Alive: A Filmography of Osamu Tezuka, 1962-1989 (1990) and has collaborated on a number of books about animators for Anido. 

Among Katayama’s greatest accomplishments was his supervision of the New Animation Animation DVD series for Geneon Universal. This invaluable series includes the works not only of key Japanese art animation figures such as Kihachiro Kawamoto, Tadanari Okamoto, Yoji Kuri, Osamu Tezuka and Koji Yamamura, but also some fine DVD collections of world animation figures including Yuri Norstein, Norman McLaren, Jiří Trnka, Frédéric Back, and Aleksandr Petrov. These DVDs and boxsets are all accompanied by informative essays about the animators written by Katayama himself.

Katayama had long been a leader in the animation community heading at one time or another such organizations as Group Ebisen, the Japan Animation Association, and Anido. He also worked with numerous film festivals over the years as either an organizer or a jury member. Festivals that he was closely associated over the years include the Japan Media Arts Festival, the Hiroshima International Animation Festival, the Hida International Animation Festival of Folktakes and Fables, the Tokyo International Anime Fair, and the Laputa International Animation Festival.

As I mentioned in my recent article on independent animation for Midnight Eye, as a professor at Tama Art University, Masahiro Katayama made a deep impact on his students. When I spoke with Akino Kondoh at the Shinsedai Festival in Toronto last year, she told me that Katayama had been the one to introduce her to the world of international art animation. Other top animators who have cited Katayama’s influence include  co-founder of CALF Mirai Mizue, and Kunio Kato who won the Annecy Cristal, the Hiroshima Prize and an Oscar for his animated short La maison en petits cubes (2008).

Masahiro Katayama had a close relationship with Kihachiro Kawamoto, who passed away last year. He collaborated with Kawamoto on a number of projects including illustrating the cover of his book Puppets for The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Anido, 1984), doing the claymation for Kihachiro Kawamoto’s Self Portrait (1988), and assisting with the production of The Book of the Dead (2005) which was shot at Tama Art University. 

I first encountered Katayama's work as an artist on Winter Days (2003), the collaborative renku poem adaptation which he co-produced with Kawamoto. Katayama took a humorous approach to his animated contribution which is an adaptation of a section of the renku poem written by Kakei. He takes the metaphorical arrow of the original renku and renders it in a literal fashion, which of course leads to comedy. 

In Katayama’s vignette, a hidden marksman takes aim at a man being carried on a kago (palanquin/litter). The man’s aim is affected by some reflected light and his arrow shoots over the heads of an array of popular figures from folk legend (William Tell’s son with the apple on his head;  Japanese folktales) and the movies (Toshiro Mifune, John Wayne) before landing in the hat of the poet writting the verse. 

Masahiro Katayama’s funeral was held on March 12th, on the day after the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Photographs of the packed service can be viewed at Anido.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011
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19 March 2011

Tokyo Anima 2011

Renewal by Shiho Hirayama

Tokyo Anima 2011’s site went live this week with some great previews of the work to be featured this year. On March 26th and 27th there will be three programs running featuring new short animated works from 30 artists. On March 26th in the evening there will be a symposium with Atsushi Wada, Osamu Sakai, Hoji Tsuchiya, and Mirai Mizue. If you are a filmmaker, check out TOCHKA's website to find out about a project they are putting together for the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Here’s this year’s line-up. Click on the links to read more about the films / the animators:

R Program

The Mechanism of Spring (Atsushi Wada)
Between Showers (Hirotoshi Iwasaki )
around (Ryu Kato)
Gathering (Akiko Omi)
Water Closet (Sonoko Yamada)
This message is boiling hot (Masanori Okamoto)
The Tender March (Wataru Uekusa)
Mr. Sakurai at a ticket counter (Donghun Kim)
Getting Dressed (Aico Kitamura)
Scripta Volant (Ryo Orikasa)

G Program
TATAMP (Mirai Mizue)
Beluga (Shin Hashimoto)
Woman Who Stole Fingers (Saori Shiroki)
SANKAKU (Manami Wakai)
From the Dolphin (Ariyoshi Tatsuhiro)
PALM (Satoshi Murai)
Bring me Up (Miki Tanaka)
The Hand (Yusuke Horiguchi)
Uncapturable Ideas (Masayuki Okuda)
hito gata (Osamu Sakai)

B Program
Tochka Steps (Tochka)
alter (Toshikazu Tamura)
Sound of Life / Renewal (Shiho Hirayama)
UFO (Suwami Nogami)
Black Longskirt (Hoji Tsuchiya)
Floating Polyphony (Keita Onishi)
Confeito (Yusuke Sakamoto)
Googurl Googurl (Yoshiko Misumi)

Keiichi Hara in Frankfurt

This week’s screenings of the award-winning animation Summer Days With Coo (2007) at Mal Seh’n cinema in Frankfurt on Tuesday and at the Japan Foundation in Cologne were cancelled in order to observe a period of mourning for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that have devastated the Tohoku region. I have been in a state of shock and sorrow at the events unfolding in Japan and I would recommend that readers of this blog support the relief effort in Tohoku by donating money to the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. This fund is being administrated by the Japan Society with 100% of proceeds going to organizations that will directly help those in need.

In spite of having experienced the earthquake first-hand in Tokyo on Friday, Keiichi Hara (原 恵一, 1959) still managed to fly to Germany on Saturday and graciously gave fans in Frankfurt an opportunity to ask him questions about his career at the Mal Seh’n cinema. The program opened with a moment’s silence for the victims of the natural disaster. Hara was then interviewed via an interpreter by German animation expert Andreas Platthaus. The following is a summary of some of the key points that arose during their discussion.

Keiichi Hara, translater, Andreas Platthaus

Early career

Although Hara studied animation at Tokyo Designer Gakuin College, he initially found it difficult to get into the animation industry. He began his career working in PR eiga before being invited to join Shin-Ei Animation in 1982. Hara said that he was really lucky to have had a mentor who helped his career advance because not all animators are so lucky. In particular, Hara’s career was influenced by animation director Tsutomu Shibayama when he was doing storyboards for the Doraemon franchise.

Creative Influences

When he was starting out, Hara was a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). He was also a big fan of 1950s Japanese cinema. As Hara came of age in the late 1970s / early 1980s, Andreas Platthaus wondered if Hara had become introduced to 1950s movies through television. Hara replied that as a young man he had been a big fan of the films of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas. He noticed that these American directors frequently cited the names of Japanese filmmakers in interviews so he decided to investigate the directors they mentioned. This was how he came to discover 1950s Japanese cinema, and Hara cited the films of Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) and Keisuke Kinoshita (1912-1998) as having been particularly influential on him. Hara’s diverse filmic interests became apparent at the end of this event when he addressed the audience and asked what Germans thought about Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo (1982). The film seemed to hold a particular fascination for him and Hara knew many details about the film’s production.

Why did Hara stop making the Crayon Shin-chan films?

During the Crayon Shin-chan phase of his career his partner asked him if there wasn’t something more that he wanted to do creatively. Eventually he had to make a decision about whether to continue in the Crayon Shin-chan franchise or to stop altogether and take his career in a new direction. The idea of making a film about a kappa (a water sprite from Japanese folklore) was something he had carried around in his heart with him for a long time and he decided to follow his heart.

Summer Days with Coo (2007)

Most animated films are adaptations of popular manga in Japan, but Hara decided to look elsewhere for inspiration for his Kappa animation. While looking through children’s literature, Hara eventually discovered a Kappa story that appealed to him by the author Yuichi Watanabe. Although he used Watanabe’s tale for inspiration, Hara said that in general he does not like to stick too closely to the source material but to make the story his own. As a result, Hara’s adaptation was aimed at a much older audience than the original tale. Hara was particularly interested in exploring the ambiguities of the Kappa fable. Everyone in Japan knows what a Kappa is, some have claimed to have seen a Kappa, while others are much more skeptical as to its existence. Andreas Platthaus asked how the film had been received outside of Japan, where few would know the folktale. Hara replied that when the film was shown in France, it received a similar response as in Japan, and he had the impression that foreign audiences actually brought even more understanding to the film.

Andreas Platthaus mentioned that some of the subject matter in Summer Days with Coo would be avoided in Western animation for fear of shocking audiences and he wondered if Japanese animators had more freedom in this regard. Hara responded that he had purposefully wanted his film to be a bit harder – it was not intended for the amusement of children, rather he wanted to take on more serious subject matters. Hara himself grew up reading manga where death and other heavy themes played an important role and he didn’t want to hold anything back when making his films.

Colorful (2010)

Nippon Connection is planning to screen Hara’s latest film Colorful as their closing night film this year. and Platthaus asked Hara to explain a bit about the film. Hara said that the themes of Colorful were even more weighty than those of Summer Days with Coo. Some of these weighty themes include bullying, a middle school student falling into prostitution, and death and the afterlife. It is based on the novel by Eto Mori

“Program Pictures” vs. Independent Animation

Platthaus noted that it took three years for Hara to produce Summer Days with Coo and another three years for Colorful to be released and asked if Hara found these films more difficult to make than the Crayon Shin-chan films. With “program pictures” like the Crayon Shin-chan films, Hara explained that one knows ahead of time how many screens it will play on and what kind of an audience will watch the film so it makes it a lot easier to get the production under way. With independent animation, these things are not as certain and as such it is much more difficult to arrange for funding. When asked about his future projects, Hara said that he is in talks with his business partners about his next project but that it is at too early a stage for him to share with us what that project will be. It seems likely that it will be at least two years before we can expect to see another film from Hara.

Although I was disappointed not to see Summer Days with Coo this week, the film fortunately came out on DVD on the 15th of March here in Germany so I should have my hands on a copy soon and will review it posthaste.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011
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