14 May 2011

Atsushi Wada Works 2002 – 2010

CALF’s latest instalment in its Japanese Independent Animators series, Atsushi Wada Works 2002-2010, reveals a great deal about the light and shade that make up this young, award-winning animator. From his earliest works, Atsushi Wada (和田淳, b. 1980) was already playing with the concept of “ma” (間) – the space between two structural parts. In the case of his animation, Wada expresses “ma” in terms of the way in which he structures movement and the absence of movement.

Wada taught himself animation for his earliest film Be Vague (夢現, 2002) and as he writes in the liner notes, the film has very little movement in it because of his desire “not to create moving images or to tell a story, but rather to create “ma”, the tension produced in the silence between movements.” Wada uses a bit too much narration – in this case verbose title cards – instead of just allowing the images to speak for themselves, but this is quite common in the work of beginner filmmakers.

With each of Wada’s early works, one can see a steady progression of his skills as an animator. Cette mayonnaise est trop liquid (This Mayonnaise is Too Runny/このマヨネーズはゆるすぎる, 2002)  reveals Wada's quirky sense of humour as the Kewpie figure on the Kewpie Mayonnaise tube escapes from the bottle along with the runny mayonnaise. As with Be Vague, there is a roughness to the illustration style and animation movement, however one can see Wada developing his eye for the absurd in the commonplace.
Dancer of the vermicular

A Whistle (笛, 2003) and Dancer of the Vermicular (蠕虫舞手, 2004) are adaptations of poems by prominent Shōwa literary figures Sakutarō Hagiwara (萩原 朔太郎, 1886- 1942) and Kenji Miyazawa (宮沢 賢治, 1896-1933). This was an illuminating discovery for like modernist verse, Wada’s films are minimalist in structure but rich in metaphor. Just as a good poem reveals new depths of meaning with each reading, Wada’s films require multiple screenings in order for all the subtle layers of meaning to be fully appreciated. A Whistle and Dancer of the Vermicular are also significant early works for the way in which Wada plays with surrealist elements such as the literal cloud of bad humour metamorphosing into little figures running around in A Whistle, and the male figure flying in the air like a parasitic worm in Dancer of the Vermicular.

My first experience with Atsushi Wada’s animation was his 2006 film Manipulated Man (声が出てきた人) which was his contribution to the Tokyo Loop omnibus. This is the only work of Wada’s not featured on this collected works (it appears on the Tokyo Loop DVD), but its theme of the pressures of society to conform to certain norms also underlies the films Yellow (キイロノヒト, 2003), Gentle Whistle, Bird, and Stone (やさしい笛、鳥、石, 2005), and Day of Nose (鼻の日, 2006). These films also demonstrate Wada’s technique of using repetition and variation, much in the way that a musical composer might, as a form of expression. Yellow suggests that adult women still resort to childish tendencies when it comes to the pressures of fashion and Gentle Whistle, Bird, and Stone tackles the issue of bullying. Like Manipulated Man, Day of Nose examines the salaryman mentality with its pressures to conform, and the subtle measures of resistance taken by individuals.

Judging from the advancement in Wada’s animation techniques between 2004 and 2005, it is clear that Image Forum’s animation school had a profound effect on shaping his craft. The one 8mm film that Wada did during his time there Concerning the Rotation of a Child (子供の廻転の事, 2004) has a dark look due to the medium, but the carefully crafted movements of the girl as she does repeated front walkovers foreshadow the smooth rotation movements that Wada will use in future films.

His film Clerk in Charge (係, 2004) features a clerk who checks the quality of elephants before having them carried off by small birds to major cities around the world. The sound effects give the impression that the elephants are being treated as if they are on a kind of industrial assembly line. In the liner notes, Wada suggests that he decided upon the elephant because he wanted to emphasize his tatami fill technique. Indeed, this is the first of Wada’s films where I feel that he confidently established the aesthetic that he is now recognizable for: the characters are drawn with very fine lines drawn with a 0.3mm mechanical pencil. Areas that are dark – such as hair, or the body of the elephants – are then shaded in using a 0.5mm mechanical pencil. This shading is done in a fashion that resembles the fine bundled straws of a tatami mat. Wada has also used this technique in some of his earlier films (A Whistle, Yellow, and Dancer of Vermicular), but this was the first time that the dark shaded areas are contrasted so starkly against a plain, minimalistic background.
The ambiguous mammal Wada designed for the CALF logo

The prominence of the form of the elephant in Clerk in Charge also draws attention to Wada’s recurring use of animals. Sometimes, these animals are vaguely drawn – like the sheep and goats being difficult to distinguish from one another (Wada also designed the ambiguous mammal used as CALF logo). Sometimes the animals have human features like the sheep-human hybrid in Well, that’s Glasses (そういう眼鏡, 2007) or the frogs in Mechanism of Spring (春のしくみ, 2010). Other popular motifs are birds, pigs, deer, turtles (often helpless flailing on their backs), frogs, and snails.

Wada’s most recent work has become more ambitious in terms of the complexity of the image and character movement and more playful in terms of subject matter. At screenings of some of his earlier films, I often sensed unease and incomprehension among fellow members of the audience. At the CALF Animation Special event at Nippon Connection two weeks ago, I found that the audience really connected with his two most recent works In a Pig’s Eye (わからないブタ, 2010) and Mechanism of Spring. In a Pig’s Eye, which has won several awards including Best Film at Fantoche last fall and an Excellence Prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival, strikes just the right balance between disturbing images of the furtive behaviour inside of the home and delightfully absurd interactions between the chubby boys and the pigs (one comically over-sized and the other just a piglet) in the yard.
Mechanism of Spring

The Mechanism of Spring is Wada’s most light-hearted film to date, capturing the delight that young children and animals take in the season. The young chubby boys examine the wildlife, take off their shirts and run about gaily, and observe a plant sprouting out of the earth, among other delights. The frogs behaving like humans recall the famous picture scrolls Chōjū-giga (鳥獣戯画, c.12th-13th centuries) which depict frolicking animals.  In fact, I have often had the impression that the colours and framing choices of Wada's films recall the aesthetics of Japanese scroll paintings.

Unlike the dynamically coloured films of his CALF colleague Mirai Mizue, Atsushi Wada has always been much more reserved in his use of colour. In his early films, he used colour quite sparingly: the necessary red of the mayonnaise tube cap in Cette mayonnaise est trop liquid or the yellow dress and red jewellery in Yellow. His more recent films use much more colour, but in very subtle hues. In the "Making of Atsushi Wada" bonus extra, Wada explains that he “paints” his films using Photoshop after scanning his drawings into the computer. The distinctive look of his colour scheme comes from his careful selection of the natural hues that the paper he draws on already has. 

Atsushi Wada Works 2002 – 2010 can be ordered directly from CALF. The DVD is fully bilingual Japanese-English. There is an accompanying booklet with descriptions of the films by the artist himself. European customers can now also purchase CALF DVDs from the British Animation Awards online shop.

To learn more about Atsushi Wada, read my interview with him last fall. To learn more about CALF, read my reviews of Mirai Mizue Works 2003-2010 and Tochka Works 2006-2010, or the piece I wrote for Midnight Eye.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011