30 May 2011

The Ghibli Museum Library

As collectors of animation on DVD well know, Japan is one of the best countries in the world to find beautiful editions of rare world treasures. In fact, you are more likely to find more Eastern European animation on DVD in Japan than in the home countries of the artists themselves, let alone elsewhere in Europe or North America. The down side is that the Japanese releases tend to only have only Japanese subs or dubs, yet many fans of animation are simply so grateful just to be able to see these great classics at all that they collect these editions anyway.

One company that has been instrumental in giving new life to world animation classics is Studio Ghilbi. The animators at Studio Ghibli are known for their admiration of American, Canadian and European animators – in particular Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata are known to be big fans of the work of German-Canadian animator Frédéric Back (b. 1924) who won the Academy Award for Animated Short film in 1982 for Crac! and again in 1987 for The Man Who Planted Trees. You can read about Miyazaki’s views on other animators in my recent post Hayao Miyazaki’s Taste in Animation.

A number of years ago Studio Ghibli began a partnership with Disney and Cinema Angelica to create the Ghibli Museum Library (三鷹の森ジブリ美術館ライブラリー /Mitaka no Mori Jiburi Bijutsukan Raiburarī). They have used this label to release subbed/dubbed DVDs of world animation classics from Dave Fleischer’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town (USA, 1941) to John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s Animal Farm (UK, 1954). The label also represents modern animation classics including the works of Nick Park and Michel Ochelot. They event support theatrical releases of great world animation in Japan – most recently Sylvain Comet’s The Illusionist (UK/France, 2010).

Studio Ghibli has also acquired the distribution rights to anime classics that Miyazaki, Takahata and other Ghibli animators worked on before the formation of Studio Ghibli. Some of these feature on their Ghibli Classics label, but the Ghibli Museum Library umbrella includes the theatrical feature of  Anne of Green Gables and the first TV series of Lupin III.

Here are the highlights of the collection. Clicking on the images will take you to cdjapan where these titles are available for international purchase:

Japanese Animation

Anne of Green Gables - the Path to Green Gables
Theatrical Feature "Akage no Anne (Anne of Green Gables) - Green Gables e no Michi -" / Animation
(赤毛のアン~Green Gables no Michi~, Isao Takahata, 2010)

American Animation

Mr. Bug Goes to Town
Mr. Bug Goes to Town / Disney
(aka Hoppity Goes to Town / バッタ君町に行く,Dave Fleischer, USA, 1941)

Russian Animation

My Love
Haru no Mezame / Animation
(春のめざめ, Aleksandr Petrov, Russia, 2006)

The Little Grey Neck
(灰色くびの野がも, Leonid Amalrik/Vladimir Polovnikov, Russia, 1948)
Konyok-gorbunok & Seraya Sheika / Animation
The Humpbacked Horse
(イワンと仔馬, Ivan Ivanov-Vano, Russia, 1947/1975)

The Snow Queen
The Snow Queen (Yuki no Joo) / Animation
(雪の女王, Lev Atamov et al., Russia, 1957) 

Cheburashka / Movie
(チェブラーシカ, Roman Kachanov, 1969-83)

British Animation

Halas and Batchelor

Animal Farm
Animal Farm / Movie
(動物農場, John Halas/Joy Batchelor, UK, 1954)

Nick Park

Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death
Wallace and Gromit A Matter Of Loaf And Death / Claymation
(ウォレスとグルミット ベーカリー街の悪夢, Nick Park, UK, 2008)

Wallace and Gromit: 3 Grand Adventures
(ウォレスとグルミット 3 クラッキング・アドベンチャーズ)
  •  A Grand Day Out ( チーズ・ホリデー, 1989)
  • The Wrong Trousers (ペンギンに気をつけろ!, 1990)
  • A Close Shave (危機一髪!, 1994)
Shaun the Sheep  
Shaun the Sheep / Animation
(ひつじのショーン, TV series 2007-2010)

French Animation

Paul Grimault

The King and the Mockingbird
The King and the Mockingbird / Animation
(王と鳥 やぶにらみの暴君, France, 1948)

Sylvain Chomet

The Triplettes of Belleville
Les Triplettes De Belleville / Animation
(ベルヴィル・ランデブー, France/Canada/UK/US/Belgium, 2003)

(イリュージョニスト, UK/France, 2010)

Michel Ochelot

Kirikou and the Sorceress
Kirikou et la sorciere / Animation
(キリクと魔女, France/Belgium, 1998)

Princes and Princesses
Princes Et Princesses / Animation
(プリンス&プリンセス, France, 1999)

Azur and Asmar
Azur et Asmar / Movie 
(アズールとアスマール, France, 2006)

Hayao Miyazaki’s Taste in Animation

Over the past couple of months I have been reading Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point, 1979-1996 (VIZ Media, 2009). It is the English translation of Miyazaki’s collected writings from this period. It includes magazine articles, speeches, production planning notes and memoranda, sketch diaries, and other items sure to delight Studio Ghibli fans.

I was surprised to discover how decidedly Miyazaki gives his opinions on animation and animators. Occasionally, his remarks are downright gossipy – such as when he relates the embarrassing drunken escapades of animator Yasuo Otsuka (The Castle of Cagliostro, Panda Kopanda) or calling Isao Takahata (whom he affectionately calls Paku-san) the "descendent of a giant sloth". In the afterword, Takahata admits to his slothful tendencies, especially when compared to Miyazaki who lives up to the meaning of his given name (ie. “fast”). Miyazaki’s criticism of others is counterbalanced by his acknowledgement of his own weakness, such as admitting that he left his wife to her own devices when it came to raising their children and that as a young apprentice under Yasuji Mori he could be “confrontational, impudent, and insolent.” (205)

Part of the reason for Miyazaki’s initial impudence towards Mori was that he felt that his style of animating was out of date. Mori, who was also a mentor to Otsuka, Norio Hikone, Reiko Okuyama, and Yoichi Kotabe, was a famed illustrator and during his time at Toei Doga he was responsible for many popular characters and beautiful animation sequences in films like The Legend of the White Snake (1958) and The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963). Miyazaki writes that it took him many years to really appreciate what Mori had taught him and that his epiphany came during a screening of the final cut of Hols: Prince of the Sun (1968) – a film which moved him to tears.
Most startling are Miyazaki’s negative remarks about Osamu Tezuka which were published in Comic Box shortly after Tezuka’s death in 1989. Anticipating that the magazine would be full of praise for the “father of manga” and “godfather of anime”, Miyazaki voices his dissatisfaction with many of Tezuka’s animated works. While Miyazaki knows that Tezuka’s style – particularly his manga from the period 1945-1955 – influenced him greatly when he was a young artist starting out, he was not a fan of Tezuka’s animation. He found it too pessimistic and even expresses having felt disgust when he watched films like Mermaid (1964), The Drop (1965), Tales of a Street Corner (1962), Pictures at an Exhibition (1966), and Cleopatra (1970). Miyazaki even bemoans the fact that Astro Boy set the bar so very low in terms of cost – meaning that anime productions ever since have suffered from low budgets. He believes that TV anime was destined to start in Japan with or without Tezuka: “Without Tezuka, the industry might have started two or three years later. And then I could have relaxed a bit and spent a little longer working in the field of feature animation, using more traditional techniques. But that’s all irrelevant now” (196). I think Miyazaki’s main gripe is that the lower budgets meant artistic sacrifices and lowered the quality of the animation.

Osamu Tezuka was not the only animator to be criticized by Miyazaki. Here are some of the highlights of Miyazaki’s animation likes and dislikes:

On the endings of The Snow Queen (Lev Atamov, et al., 1957), La Bergère et le Ramoneur (Paul Grimault, 1952), and The Tale of the White Serpent (Taiji Yabushita/Kazuhiko Okabe, 1958):
I know I shouldn’t criticize others, but why do the final scenes of cartoon movies always have to be so ridiculous? This was true of The Snow Queen; its ending was that film’s greatest flaw. And the ending of La Bergère et le Ramoneur makes it look like the production staff went out to have a wrap party. Not only that, at the ending of The Tale of the White Serpent, Bai-Niang looks truly stupid. . . (118)
Mr. Bug Goes to Town / Disney
Studio Ghibli/Disney release

On Mr. Bug Goes to Town (Dave Fleischer, 1941)
“I like Fleischer works. And when I say “Fleischer”, I do not mean Dave Fleischer the individual, but the whole animation staff. . . In fact, I had a strong sense that Mr. Bug Goes to Town was a work that might not have even been created or animated by Dave Fleischer. This was the first of the problems that I had.”
“Several of the Popeye films are absolutely first-rate, whereas Mr. Bug Goes to Town is only second rate”
 “. . . Mr. Bug Goes to Town is both wonderful and incredibly stupid. People say Dave Fleischer created it, but I would like to extend my heartfelt greetings and congratulations to the nameless staff members who managed to crawl their way out of his control. . . I do wonder where they went. They probably scattered throughout the industry, lost their powers, and either went through a masturbatory period of creating Fleischer’s Superman, or disappeared into doing work on not particularly memorable films.” (115-19)

On Frédéric Back’s The Man Who Planted Trees:
“Even were I not involved in animation, I still would have thought I had seen something wonderful when I saw this film. This is a powerful work that couldn’t have been made halfheartedly. . . My hat goes off to Back for giving such a wonderful form to this motif by using such an expressive medium as animation. Even more, I offer my deepest admiration to those at the SRC/CBC who funded such an obviously non-commercial work.” (143)
“The first film that I saw was Crac! Isao Takahata. . . and I saw it on a double bill. . . It was a shock to both of us. As we trudged home, I remember saying to Takahata-san: ‘So, I guess we are failures, aren’t we. . .’” (144)
“In the cel animation production we are currently working on, we’ve found drawing plants to be very difficult. If we draw just the plants waving in the breeze, it looks so formulaic. Plants exist in the weather and light rays that surround them – wavering in the wind, shimmering in the sunlight. I am always puzzling over how to draw such things. I’ve given up and resigned myself to realizing that we can’t draw plants with our usual techniques. But Back has taken this problem head on and mastered it. . . His imagery is beautiful.” (144-45)
“I was moved when I watched this film. In the same way that I feel about Yuri Norstein.” (146)
On pessimism in Tezuka’s work:
I found myself disgusted by the cheap pessimism of works like [Mermaid] or [The Drop], which showed a drop of water falling on a thirsty man adrift at sea. I felt that this pessimism was qualitatively different from the pessimism Tezuka used to have in the odl days, as in the early days of [Astro Boy], for example – but it also could have been that in the early days I felt great tragedy and trembled with excitement at Tezuka’s cheap pessimism precisely because I was so young. (194)

. . . I felt the same thing with Tezuka’s Tales of a Street Corner – the animated film which Muschi Pro poured everything into making. There’s a scene in the film where posters of a ballerina and a violinist of some such things are trampled and scattered by soldiers’ boots during an air raid and then waft into the flames like moths. I remember that when I saw this, I was so disgusted that chills ran down my spine. (194-5)

Now I’ll refrain from going into too much detail because I don’t want to belabour the point, but when I saw [Pictures at an Exhibition], I really wondered what the heck the film was all about. And in the last scene in Cleopatra, at the line, “Go home, Rome,” I felt disgust. They had spent so much effort trying to develop so many sexy love scenes that the final “Go home, Rome,” line was just oo much for me to take. that was around the time I really sensed the bankruptcy of Tezuka’s vanity. (195)

On his first encounter with The Tale of the White Serpent (Hakujaden) when he was a secondary school student:
At the time I dreamed of becoming a manga artist, and I was trying to draw in the absurd style then popular, but Hakujaden made me realize how stupid I was. It made me realize that, behind a façade of cynical pronouncements, in actuality I was in love with the pure, earnest world of the film, even if it were only another cheap melodrama. I was no longer able to deny the fact that there was another me – a me that yearned desperately to affirm the world rather than negate it.

After that, I have always given a great deal of thought to what I should create. And at the very least, I can say that no matter how self-conscious and embarrassed I might feel, I also feel compelled to create something that I truly believe in. (70)

The Snow Queen (Yuki no Joo) / Animation
Studio Ghibli/Disney release

On The Snow Queen (Snedronningen) and The Tale of the White Serpent (Hakujaden):
Snedronningen is proof of how much love can be invested in the act of making drawings move, and how much the movement of drawings can be sublimated into the process of acting. It proves that when it comes to depicting simple yet strong, powerful, piercing emotions in an earnest and pure fashion, animation can fully hold its own with the best of what other media genres can offer, moving us powerfully. While Hakujaden might have its weaknesses, I honestly believe that it has this same quality. (71)

On the short-comings of live action models in animation in Cinderella (Disney, 1950) and The Lord of the Rings (Ralph Bakshi, 1978):
When using human actors as models, skilled teams of animators required a broad type of acting that mainly showed the human form in silhouette. They came to the conclusion that, rather than the style of acting developed for dramatic films, stage acting was more suitable for animated films. This is precisely the reason that the gestures used by characters in Disney’s animated films look like they come from a musical, and that [The Snow Queen] depends on movements like those in a girls’ ballet. there are many examples where using live-action models can result in disaster. Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings. . . was doomed to failure because it relied on clumsy live-action sequences. Disney’s Cinderella. . . is living proof that modeling live-action images in the pursuit of realistic movement is a double-edged sword. In trying to achieve a sense of realism by using an average American young woman as a model, they lost even more of the inherent symbolism of the original Cinderella story than they did with their version of Snow White. (74-5)
This is just a small taste of Hayao Miyazaki’s thoughts on animation. To learn more, pick up a copy of Starting Point, 1979-1996.  To learn more about films loved by the animator's at Studio Ghibli, read about the Studio Ghilbi Museum Library.

Catherine Munroe Hotes

27 May 2011

Ashes to Honey (ミツバチの羽音と地球の回転, 2010)

On the isolated heart-shaped island of Iwai-shima in Yamaguchi prefecture, the residents – the majority of whom are elderly – have been fighting the construction of a nuclear power plant for close to 30 years. Long before the disaster in Fukushima brought the danger posed by nuclear power facilities in Japan to the world's attention, director Hitomi Kamanaka has been documenting the grassroots efforts to put local communities and the environment ahead of political and corporate interests. Her documentary film Ashes to Honey (Mitsubachi no Haoto to Chikyū no Kaiten, 2010) is currently in hot demand around the world because of the issues it raises about Japan’s nuclear industry.

What is the issue?

The electricity company Chugoku Denryoku, with the support of government officials, has planned the building of a nuclear power plant on the shores of Tanoura, one of many islands in the Seto Inland Sea. This is a relatively poor area with an aging population and the power plant would bring jobs to the area. The residents of the other islands in the region have been coerced into agreeing to the building of the plant, but the people of Iwai-shima have refused to be paid off and are standing their ground in the face of immense political pressure. They argue that the nuclear power plant will destroy the unique local ecosystems and ruin the environment in a way that would make it impossible for them to continue in their traditional ways. This would not only be because pollution from the plant would destroy their organic farming status, but also because the land reclamation plans would destroy the bay and hot water that the plant would emit into the sea would destroy fragile sea life.

Who are the protestors?

The core group of protestors are local people who carry on family traditions of fishing and farming. Their efforts have been supported by environmental activists from around the country such as the Rainbow Kayak Squadron.

In Kamanaka’s previous film Rokkasho Rhapsody (2006), I was particularly struck by the apathy of a late middle-aged couple. When they were asked about their opinion on the building of a nuclear reprocessing facility in their community, they said that they didn’t care because they were old. Meaning that they would be long gone from this earth when the effects of the facility would be noticed.

In Ashes to Honey, the loudest and most dedicated voices in the anti-nuclear movement are those of elderly women. Like most rural communities in Japan, most of the young people have left their ancestral villages for urban areas leaving behind the elderly. The average age of the islanders on Iwai-shima is 75, and the vast majority of these are women. These are no ordinary women. They are a tenacious bunch who have carried on the fight against the nuclear plant for decades. It has been a difficult battle, but they have come together to support one another in their “Happy Grandmas Café”.

The younger generation is represented in the film by Takeshi Yamato, a young man who has returned to the community in order to carry on the traditions of living off the land and the sea. He is a reluctant hero in the documentary. He and his family did not ask for this attention, they are having enough trouble just trying to get by as it is. It is inspiring to see his commitment to his community and how this camera-shy man bravely stands up for what he believes in.

Why are their voices not being heard?

The better question is “Why is no one listening?” The simple answer is corruption and greed. For decades in Japan, government bodies at both a local and a national level have been coming up with radical schemes in order to stem the tide of young people abandoning the countryside for urban areas. Some have enjoyed a moderate success, while others have been doomed to failure. The most risky of these schemes have been the construction of nuclear power plants in remote coastal areas.

There are two really powerful scenes in the film that really shine the spot line on the corruption at work behind the scenes. The first is when the Kaminoseki town council meeting where they are to vote on whether or not the land reclamation for the plant should go ahead. More than 200 people come to participate in the process and are informed that only 20 of them can enter. The select few are chosen by a drawing of straws. They shout their protest, but their voices go unheard and the vote goes ahead with an 8-4 decision to approve the filling in of the bay.

The most powerful image in the film; however, is the sight of those elderly women sitting in boats in a stand-off with officials trying to start filling in the bay. The plan is to sit in the boats for 50 days.  At which point, the land reclamation permission granted to Chugoku will expire and they will have succeed in at least delaying the inevitable. A young man with a megaphone tries to make the protestors feel guilty (Why are you against something that will bring jobs to the region?) and false promises. The grandmas are not having any of it shouting back that they will never give up:  “We know what we are doing is right!”

What are the solutions?

For a glimpse of what life could be like in Japan if a concerted effort were made to support sustainable energies, Hitomi Kamanaka goes to Sweden to learn about their plans to become to first oil-free economy. Through the use of wind power, solar power, biofuels, and other inventive methods, Sweden has become a world leader in the movement towards a sustainable future. The biggest move that they made was to break up the electricity companies’ monopoly on the market. Swedish citizens can now choose the source of their electricity. By allowing consumers to decide the cheapest and most ethical energy company for them, companies have had to become more innovative in their approaches to energy.

The most amusing scenes in the film come when the Swedish interviewees express shock when they learn from Kamanaka about the more restricted situation in Japan. “You don’t have a deregulated market?” says one astonished man. Another says that there were warning signs many years ago and that even Sweden should have taken action sooner. He then looks straight into the camera and proclaims: “Japan! Start Now!”

The directness of the Swedes in the film is an amusing contrast to the Japanese politicians who avoid answering questions directly. Not only does this excursion to Sweden provide alternative solutions to Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy and foreign oil, it’s a stark reminder that the problem Japan is facing is not local, but global. My native country of Canada is also well behind when it comes to renewable energy because we have relied for so long on the exploitation of our natural resources and have allowed electricity providers to enjoy a monopoly on the market for too long.

What can you do?

Follow the Ashes to Honey page on Facebook to learn updates on the situation in Iwai-shima or to find out about upcoming screenings near you. (EN)

Follow the Ashes to Honey blog (JP)

Write to your local television broadcaster to recommend that they air this film.

I will update when the film becomes available on DVD on cdjapan. In the meanwhile, Hitomi Kamanaka’s other DVDs are available to order now:

Rokkasho Mura Rhapsody (English Subtitles) / Japanese Movie

Hibakusha Sekai no Owari ni / Japanese Movie
(May be Japanese only)

Nippon Connection 2011

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

Midori-ko (緑子, 2010)

The grotesque, painterly animated works of Keita Kurosaka (黒坂圭太, b. 1956) unfold in surprising and unusual ways. The first surprise in Kurosaka’s long awaited film Midori-ko (緑子, 2010) is the cute, brightly coloured style of the opening scene. As if watching an NHK children’s animation, we are introduced to young kawaii Midori-chan and learn that she loves to eat vegetables. Meat repulses her, for she cannot bear to think of the suffering of animals.

Midori-chan wishes on a star to be transported to a land of vegetables, and soon the watercolour blue sky with yellow blotchy stars transition into a more ominous land of shadows. We are introduced into a kind of post-apocalyptic Japanese city where a now grown Midori sells vegetables from a stall and lives in a strange ramshackle residence inhabited by mutant people – some seem more human than others. Under her building runs a river of waste where manure is manufactured. The building also contains a sentō (public bath) which promises cleanliness and relaxation but often contains surprise visitors of an old man and a fish.

Other strange inhabitants of the building include a quartet of humanoid figures whose heads have been replaced by symbols of the five senses: a hand, an eyeball, an ear, a mouth, and a snout. They first emerge from their laboratory and are involved in the creation of an unusual vegetable shaped like nasu (Japanese eggplant).  In unusual circumstances, the nasu ends up being thrown through the window into Midori’s room. When she tries to examine it with a scalpel, it resists as if it were more animal than vegetable. She soon discovers that it has a face that resembles an infant, and soon it transforms into her nasu-baby: Midori-ko. Midori becomes quite protective of Midori-ko as it becomes clear that it is under threat from other residents of the building.

In terms of the storyline, the film suggests a theme of exploring the reasons for human existence. Humanity has long struggled with the question of what separates us from other forms of life on this earth. Now more than ever, we are re-examining our role of consumers of the wondrous bounty the planet earth has to offer us. Midori-ko offers a bleak perspective of human existence in a world in which one needs to consume or be consumed.

Midori-ko is much longer than Kurosaka’s earlier films, which is due in large part to the fact that the film has much more narrative and dialogue than these works. As Jan Švankmajer, who who was an early role model for Kurosaka, explained when speaking of his 132 min. long feature film Little Otik (Otesánek, 2000): 

Storytelling, whatever the story, has its own laws. It differs from recounting a dream (as in Něco z Alenky). Similarly, when you start using conventional dialogue, you've got to realise that the film will be longer. A film told through dialogue (without a narrator) always works in a roundabout way, which requires time; figurative speech—the language of pictures and symbols—is more direct and consequently shorter.” (Source: Kinoeye)

Concentrating too closely on the storyline while watching Midori-ko is a mistake for Kurosaka considers himself more of a painter than an animator. He studied figure and still life painting at Musashino in the late 1970s and upon graduation in 1979 spent two years in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts studying oil painting. For Kurosaka, animation has been a tool of adding motion to his paintings.
My biggest problem as an artist was finding a form of artistic expression that would have the same effect as music, but in the realm of painting - the impact of sharing the same time space and physical space among a large number of people. That just happened to turn out to be video, and in terms of specific technique within that framework, animation, but for me animation has never been anything but an extension of my painting work. My films started out abstract, but after a few films they began to evolve in a more concrete direction, until eventually there were even what you'd call dialogue and stories starting to appear in the films, and eventually even characters. So on the surface, my films began to look more and more like what you'd typically call 'animation films', but it feels really off and wrong when I hear people call me an animation artist.  (Kurosaka interviewed by Kiroki Kawa, 2006, Source: Anipages)

The grotesque recurs as a theme throughout Kurosaka’s work. In Midori-ko these takes the form not only of fleshy, unusually shaped characters, but also in surprising and often downright disgusting incidents. For example, after a choking incident, Midori comforts the nasu-baby, but the tender scene suddenly turns horrific as Midori-ko lets loose a torrential bowl movement. In interviews, Kurosaka has said that when he depicts something grotesque, that he doesn’t want the audience to be disgusting. The more revolting the image, the more beautifully he tries to render it (Source: Anipages). Depending on the scene, I found Kurosaka’s use of the grotesque by turns beautiful, horrible, and amusing.

Midori's face compared with a cropped image of  Girl at a Window (Rembrandt, 1645)
Some of the more beautiful moments in Midori-ko reminded me of famous works of art. When Midori is flying down the hill on a motorized contraption in an early scene, the close up profile of her cherubic face reminded me of a Rembrandt portrait, it was so finely rendered. In reading up on his career, I chanced to discover that one of Kurosaka’s early films Metamorphosis Works No. 5 (1986) is actually an exploration of the inner world of Rembrandt. (Source: AWN)

There are times in the film when Midori seems unsure of herself, but on the whole she is presented as a strong, assured female presence. Her strong, direct stare into the camera in one scene reminded me of the wary gaze of the painter Berthe Morisot in Édouard Manet’s portrait of her. The delicate use of shade and light on her face and her full lips only strengthened this impression.  While I do not know that these two portraits directly influenced Kurosaka, I believe that his education as a painter has strongly impacted his style as an artist.
Midori's face compared with a cropped image of  Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (Manet, 1872)

Some of the most humorous moments in the film came when the 5 senses without their masks on, or the 5 senses with old man (Neptune?) and the fish wrestle orgiastically together. In each instance, there comes a moment when they stop suddenly and strike a pose reminiscent of the twisted tangle of limbs and snakes in the famous statue of Laocoön and His Sons.
Laocoön and His Sons comparison
Midori-ko is a multilayered film that requires multiple viewings to truly appreciate the details that has gone into it. After all, Kurosaka spend 10 years creating this masterpiece, one screening of the film can hardly do it justice. I've now watched it twice and feel like I am only scratching the surface of the depths of meaning in the film.  I do hope that Mistral Japan will take this opportunity to release a box set of Kurosaka’s complete works on DVD so that his fans can truly savour his oeuvre as a whole.

For more information, see the official website.  The only animation by Kurosaka that I know of on DVD is his contribution to Winter Days.
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011
Selected Filmography

1984 Metamorphosis Works No. 2 (変形作品第2番, 23’)
1985 Metamorphosis Works No. 3 (変形作品第3番)
1986 Metamorphosis Works No. 5 (変形作品第5番, 28’)
1988 Sea Roar (海の唄, 30’)
1989 Worm Story (みみず物語, 15’)
1990 Personal City (個人都市, 25’)
1991 Haruko Adventure (春子の冒険, 15’)
1992 Box Age (箱の時代, 26’)
1994 ATAMA
1997 Flying Daddy (パパが飛んだ朝)
Renku Animation "Fuyu no Hi" / Animation

2003 Winter Days (冬の日, Section 23)
2006 Agitated Screams of Maggots (Dir en grey music video)
2010 Midori-ko (緑子, 55’)

Nippon Connection 2011

24 May 2011

Steps (Tochka, 2010)

The animation team Tochka (Takeshi Nagata and Kazue Monno) are famous for their PiKA PiKA or “lightning doodle” animation technique. In the course of their career they have actually practiced a wide range of stop motion animation techniques. In my review of their CALF DVD Tochka Works 2001-2010, I pointed out that the “Jumping” section of their film PiKA PiKA in Yamagata (2008) uses a pixilation technique similar to that used in Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952). It was with great delight that I discovered during the CALF Animation Special at Nippon Connection that Tochka was continuing to experiment with this technique.

Pixilation, a term attributed to NFB animator Grant Munro, is a technique in which live actors are animated frame-by-frame together with inanimate objects. Takeshi Nagata told me that for Steps (2010), they took their inspiration from the Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra film A Chairy Tale (1957) in which Jutra has an encounter with a chair that refuses to be sat upon.

Jutra and the chair in a stand off in A Chairy Tale
a similar stand off in Steps
In Steps, we are presented with an empty room with a checkerboard floor pattern and a lone bulb hanging from a cord on the ceiling. Slabs in the formation of steps slide out of the walls, through the room, and back out the opposite wall. The opening sequence ends with the door opening, the steps sliding in with PiKA PiKA lights spelling out the title in the air and a PiKA PiKA stick figure running through the frame.

A salaryman sleeping in his pajamas slides in through the open door and is soon resting on a bed of slabs, with his clothes on a rack nearby. The PiKA PiKA stick figure jumps on his face and soon the man and the stick figure are engaged in a slap stick routine in which the man’s clothes slide out of his reach, and the stick figure taunts him and they fight with each other.
In the next scene, the man returns, as if from work, into the empty room. The PiKA PiKA stick figure slides in slabs and shapes them into steps that the man climbs until he has to duck his head because he is too close to the ceiling. The stick figure first tries to knock him down, then shoves the man – still atop a pile of slabs – out the door.

Tochka’s Steps not only borrows the A Chairy Tale’s pixilation technique but also matches it in its playfulness and innovative design. There are some key differences between the films. In A Chairy Tale, the chair itself was given human attributes: provoking Jutra then later trying to win his affection back again. In Steps, the interplay is between the actor and an animated human stick figure drawn in the air with light. The inanimate objects such as the coat rack and the steps do not acquire any human attributes. Instead, it is suggested that their movement is manipulated by the playful, scalawag PiKA PiKA figure.
Ghostly form of an animator briefly visible

Another big difference is that in A Chairy Tale, the way in which the chair has been animated remains invisible to the naked eye. No matter how much the viewer strains to see if there are strings attached to the chair, the illusion of movement is so complete that it really does appear as if the chair has indeed come to life and is moving of its own volition.

Not so in Steps, where the careful spectator can see the ghostly black figures of the animators in some of the frames. This is characteristic of the PiKA PiKA films, which seek to demystify the art of stop motion animation. It’s a postmodern twist on the NFB style pixilation in which it is not just about the illusion of movement but about our awareness of the hand of the animator(s) in the making of a stop motion film.

This added dimension would have been much clearer in the original presentation of the film which was as part of a video installation.  Exhibition visitors would have watched the film standing in the same room and looking through peep holes on the wall.  See Tochka's Flickr stream to get an idea of the exhibition space at Aichi Triennale 2010.

A brilliant little film, which makes me excited to see what new projects Tochka have up their sleeves. To learn more about Tochka and their PiKA PiKA workshops read about my observations of their Nippon Connection workshop in Frankfurt. The Tochka Works 2001-2010 DVD can be purchased from CALF or within Europe via BAA.
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011
Nippon Connection 2011

Masaki Okuda’s A Gum Boy (くちゃお, 2010)

“Kucha kucha, kucha kucha. . .”, the opening credits of Masaki Okuda’s latest animated short A Gum Boy (Kuchao, 2010), begin with the sound of someone chewing gum loudly and vigorously. The words on the screen themselves quiver and pulse to the rhythm, stretching out long like a wad of gum being pulled out from the mouth and snapping back into shape like an elastic band.

The screen flickers like an old silent movie as a young boy’s voice begins to narrate his story. Sitting in the school cafeteria, the boy talks spiritedly about how he has no friends because he irritates the other children when he chews his food with his mouth agape. Even his teacher tells him off for his rude table manners. Changing his chewing habit is impossible for him, the boy declares, for how can he change the way he is? The grey palette reflects the boy’s foul mood as he waits impatiently for school to end so that he can chew his beloved gum.

The children are now outside releasing helium balloons into the sky, but the boy refuses to let his red balloon go. He imagines the balloon flying up into the sky encountering numerous flying objects along the way. The school bell rings and the scene changes from grey to warm tones as the boy races outside to finally chew the gum that awaits him in his pocket. As he chews his gum, he smiles for the first time and sings about chewing his gum.

Suddenly, holding on tightly to the balloon, he is swept away into a sea of cars, through the sights and smells of the city, and an imaginative montage of other locales. The boy’s chanted story gets progressively faster and louder as he is swept up into a raging storm and the balloon pops and he is catapulted back into reality. Alone and bewildered on the road home from school, he watches regretfully as his balloon floats away into the sky.

Note the grey of the school scenes vs the colour of the after school scenes

I first encountered Masaki Okuda’s work in 2009 when the short that he co-directed with Ryo Ookawara and Yutaro Ogawa Orchestra (オーケストラ, 2008) was featured on the Yokohama Art Navi by Koji Yamamura. Orchestra is a very sophisticated film for student filmmakers, capturing with a minimalistic,  abstract black-and-white drawn animation the dynamism of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra performing a symphony by Beethoven. Last year, I was blown away by Oogawa’s Animal Dance (アニマルダンス, 2009) – it even made my list of the Best Japanese Animated Shorts of 2010. As with Orchestra, Animal Dance reminded me of the way in which animation pioneer Norman McLaren paired music and animated movement together in his hand painted films.

A Gum Boy has much in common with Animal Dance in that they both exploit the ability of animation to poetically interpret music through moving images. A Gum Boy adds the dimension of words to his soundtrack, but this is no ordinary dialogue. The story is recited in the sing-songy way of children’s rhyme punctuated by a dozens of onomatopoetic phrases. Recited in the voice of a young boy, it has the energy of a rakugo performance and is accompanied by a shamisen. The story tears along at a rapid pace and in a whirlwind journey through a child's imagination.

The style of storytelling combined with the layered textures of each individual frame reminded me of Koji Yamamura’s animated rakugo classic Mt. Head (頭山, 2002) and his exploration of the imagination of children in Babel's Book (バベルの本, 1996). In fact, Masaki Okuda (奥田昌輝, b.1985), a native of Yokohama and a Tamabi graduate, pursued his graduate degree at Tokyo University of the Arts where Yamamura teaches. Yamamura’s influence can also be felt in Okuda’s use of abstract elements and depth of frame, but these his influence merely adds polish to Okuda’s very distinctive storytelling style. The text was written by Okuda himself and uses a repeat and variation style common in oral storytelling and in music. The music was composed by Daisuke Matsuoka. The song is by Yushiro Kuramochi and the shamisen is played by Kohdai Minoda.

I saw this film during the CALF Animation Special at Nippon Connection. Of the new films that I saw at the festival, A Gum Boy stood out as one of the best of the bunch. Visit Masaki Okuda’s official blog here (JP) to find out which festival A Gum Boy will be playing at next.
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

2007 The Garden of Pleasure (快楽の園)
2008 Orchestra (オーケストラ)
2010 A Gum Boy (くちゃお)
Nippon Connection 2011


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