05 May 2011

On the Passing of Nobuhiro Aihara (1944-2011)

It was with great sadness on Saturday that I learned of the death of one of my favourite animators, Nobuhiro Aihara (相原信洋, 1944-2011) at the age of 66. Takeshi Nagata of Tochka, who was a former student of Aihara’s at the Kyoto University of Art and Design, told me the news during Nippon Connection.

Aihara was born in Isegahara, Kanagawa Prefecture during World War II. His family ran a traditional ryokan and as the oldest son he was expected to take over this business. The daily grind of this kind of life did not appeal to Aihara, so he left home and dove into the worlds of commercial animation and graphic design.
Obake no Q-tarō

His animation career began at the then newly formed Studio Zero in the early 1960s. Studio Zero featured an exciting meeting of minds, having been founded by a group of young artists including the renowned animator Shin’ichi Suzuki, the prolific manga-ka Shotaro Ishinomori, comical manga-ka Fujio Akatsuka, and the manga-ka duo Fujiko Fujio (Hiroshi Fujimoto + Abiko Motō). During his time at Studio Zero, Aihara worked on series like Obake no Q-tarō (1965-67) and Kaibutsu-kun (1968-69).

Gauche the Cellist
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Aihara worked as a freelance animator and inbetweener. His name is associated in particular with Mushi Pro and Oh! Pro during this period. Although his name may not always appear in the credits, he worked on many anime classics including Gauche the Cellist (Isao Takahata, 1982), Night on the Galactic Railroad (Gisaburo Sugii, 1985), and Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988).

In the mid-1960s Aihara also began to make a name for himself as an experimental animator. While commercial animation was his bread-and-butter, alternative animation was his hobby and true passion. I have never had the opportunity to see Aihara’s pre-1990s experimental work although retrospectives have been held in Japan. According to Takeshi Nagata, Aihara was notoriously protective of his works, with very few of them ever being released on DVD. He was also quite frugal and when he put on screenings of his work at Kyoto University of Art and Design, students had to pay an admission fee to watch them.
Live Painting Animactions!! (2005)
As these early films are so rarely screened abroad, Aihara is best known on the world animation scene for his collaborations with Keiichi Tanaami. They worked together on over a dozen abstract animated shorts together and even held a live Animation Battle in 2005 (see: Tanaami + Aihara: Animation Scrap Diary + Live Painting Animactions!!). Their most recent film Dreams (2011) is screening as a part of this year’s Image Forum Festval Program.
Memory of Red
A favourite film of mine by Aihara is Memory of Red (2004) which was made using a crayon rubbing technique on textured paper. From what I have read, his earlier works are even more daring and experimental in nature. His film Stone (1975), for example, was selected by the Laputa 150 committee as one of 30 treasures of world animation that had not received recognition in their original poll. Curious about Aihara’s early work, I asked Takeshi Nagata if it was similar to the work of any other animators working at that time, and Nagata-san replied that Aihara’s work was unique and incomparable.

In an interview on the Chalet Pointu/CaRTe bLaNChe/arte multilingual DVD/Book Portrait of Keiichi Tanaami (田名網敬一の肖像): 14 Films 1975-2009, Tanaami described his relationship with “Aihara-kun” (Tanaami was the more senior of the two).  Here are some extracts from this interview:

For me, working alone definitely has limits whereas working in collaboration with someone is inspiring as it exposes you to their ideas. Moreover, this leads to a synthesis of each person’s style. It’s a method I like and that’s where our partnership was born. The main reason behind our collaboration is our longtime friendship. Our ways of thinking really overlap. The other reason is that we both teach at Kyoto University of Art and Design. We meet there every week and discuss our various projects. So that’s how we first decided to work together.

Our first collaboration was called Scrap Diary. I would draw a picture for a certain scene and leave it on Aihara-kun’s desk. Then he would add to it or remove some parts or even return it to me entirely redone. On the days I came to give a lecture I would find the drawing back on my desk. I would revise it once more, cutting or pasting, drawing or erasing and once again leave it on Aihara-kun’s desk. It was like an endless correspondence. After dozens of exchanges, the storyline gradually took shape and finally we could start animating the film. This was really like an exchange of letters between two artists. . .

. . . We do not make animated films by labouring over each frame in order to achieve a polished perfection. On the contrary, we grab ideas on the spur of the moment and let our inspiration guide us in order to put it on film as soon as possible. Improvisation is a very important aspect of our work. For example, we don’t want to make films that would take a year of tedious labour to complete. A sketch is a rough picture drawn by hand in a few seconds. Our way of working is similar. We make films as if we were sketching [映像スケッチ]. If Aihara-kun needed lots of time to create while I wanted to improvise we’d never be able to work together. Fortunately, we both like this loosely sketched style of filmmaking. I think it suits us well.
- Keiichi Tanaami (source, 3 August 2009)
Scrap Diary
I have always been fascinated by the interplay of these two great artists in their films together. One can always recognize the sections drawn by Aihara because of his unique style of drawing swirls, waves and patterns. I first encountered Aihara’s work at a screening of Tokyo Loop (2006) at Image Forum in January 2007. His contribution to this omnibus was Black Fish – a film that demonstrates Aihara’s skill at drawing intricate patterns that metamorphosize continually.  The film is truly mesmerizing to watch.  It begins close up so that the movements appear random, but as we get wider and wider shots, it becomes clear that we are watching the movements of black fish swimming.

As a professor of animation, Aihara was known for being generous with his time – arranging for students to join him on trips overseas to visit the Trnka Studios in the Czech Republic or to visit his home in Nepal (one of many homes that he owned). After class (or sometimes instead of class), he was often to be found in a kissaten or bar telling stories and talking about animation with his students.  In fact, he preferred drinking beer with students to standing before them lecturing them - though because he was stingy they were also expected to foot the bill. 

He was not known for moderation. Kazue Monno of Tochka has called him a “true Edo-ko” (Tokyoite), and added that he could sometimes be quite foul-mouthed and was known to badmouth other people. He had a shrill voice that carried well, which could lead to some rather awkward situations. He also stood out in a crowd with his wild, unruly hair and colourful Nepalese shirts. In spite of his eccentricities, his students admired him for his skills as an animator, his observations about animation technique, and the life experiences he shared with them. 

Fetish Doll
The details of Aihara’s passing are not yet known. Reports (Yomiuri) say that he passed away in a hotel on the island of Bali in Indonesia. The cause of death is believed to have been heart failure (msn). Many across the animation world have been shocked by the news, with the staff at Anido writing that they hoped that it was just an internet rumour (anido). 

My thanks to Takeshi Nagata and Kazue Monno of Tochka for sharing information with me regarding their personal experiences with their sensei Aihara. Many of the details of this piece are based on the long conversation Nagata-san and I had on Saturday evening at Nippon Connection and the touching note Monno-san wrote on Facebook. Monno-san felt that it was somehow fitting that Aihara should die in Bali, because of his love of world travel.
Aihara did the poster art for Hiroshima 2010
Nobuhiro Aihara is reputed to have made over 60 independent shorts. Here is a filmography of the titles that I have managed to learn about over the years:


1968 Ame
1969 Stop
1970 Time to Kill
1970 Sakura
1970 Fūshoku
1971 Yamakagashi
1972 Oshiori Hane
1972 Akai Gyaman
1972 Mitsubachi no kisetsu wa satte
1973 Urushi
1973 Aisanka Hana
1973 Shoshun Kitsune-iro
1973 Tankyori Runner
1974 Bōdō
1975 Stone
1975 Stone No. 1
1976 Kumo no ito
1976 Light
1976 Aoi Matchi
1976 Ringo to Shojō
1977 Karuma
1978 Hikari
1980 Burnin
1980 Shelter
1980 Suiwa: Karuma 2
1982 My Shelter
1983 Balva
1984 S=13
1985 Ouma ga toki
1986 Private
1987 Eizō (Kage)
1988 Tombo
1989 Gavora
1990 Line
1991 Mask
1992 Karasu
1993 Spin
1994 Kidō
1995 Miminari
1996 Rain
1997 Memory of Cloud
1998 Yellow Fish
1999 The Third Eye
2000 Wind
2004 Memory of Red
2005 Yellow Night
2006 Yellow Snake
2006 Black Fish (Tokyo Loop)
2007 Lotus
2008 Zap Cat

Collaborations with Keiichi Tanaami
2000 Yami no Kiyoku ・Yume no Inei
2001 Kaze no Kokyū
2002 Scrap Diary
2002 Running Man
2003 Fetish Doll
2004 Landscape
2004 Yume 10-ya
2005 Trip
2005 Madonna no Yūwaku
2006 Noise
2007 Issun Bōshi (Inch-High Samurai)
2008 Chirico
2008 Paradise for Eye
2009 Shunga
2011 Dreams

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011