24 May 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