27 May 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Other strange inhabitants of the building include a quartet of humanoid figures whose heads have been replaced by symbols of the five senses: a hand, an eyeball, an ear, a mouth, and a snout.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