22 July 2011

Japan in Germany 1: Glico's Mikado

This year, Japan and Germany have been celebrating “150 Years of Friendship” (日独交流150周年 // 150 Jahre Freundschaft Deutschland–Japan - 2011) – as 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and… well, this part of the world. They are kind of fudging it a bit because Germany did not exist as a country 150 years ago - but any reason to celebrate is good enough for me.

My connection between the two countries is that I met my German husband while teaching English in Japan in 2001. Moving to Germany from Japan in 2007 was a bit of an adjustment as there are a lot of social differences between the two countries. Yet I was delighted to find that Japanese culture has many fans here in Germany. This month is was also wonderful to see how Nadeshiko Japan – the Japanese national women’s football team – captured the hearts of German football fans despite the fact that they had dashed the home team’s chances of victory in the World Cup.

I have, of course, shared my annual experiences of Nippon Connection in Frankfurt – the biggest Japanese film festival in the world – with my loyal readers. This summer, in honour of those 150 years of ties between Japan and Germany/Prussia, I would like to start a new series called Japan in Germany where I share with you some of the quirky and delightful Japanese things I have discovered during my time here.

For my inaugural Japan in Germany blog post, I thought I would start with something humorous. When Japanese friends come to visit us, I always have a box or two of Glico’s Mikado chocolate sticks for them to take home with them as a souvenir. The look on a Japanese person’s face to see Pocky sticks – which got their name from the sound that they make when eaten “pokkin” (ポッキン) – re-branded as Mikado, which of course means “Emperor of Japan”, is absolutely priceless.

Pocky sticks are branded as “Mikado” throughout Europe because of the similarity of their shape to the sticks used in the game that I knew as a child in Canada as pick-up sticks but is called Mikado here in Europe. It is said that the game took its name from the name of the highest scoring blue-coloured stick which is called “Mikado.”
Example of Biene Maja ice cream from Eiscafe Dolce Vita
I have found Mikado sticks here in milk chocolate and dark chocolate flavours. While they are just as delicious as Pocky sticks – read a thorough comparison of the two over at Otaku News - I must admit that I miss the wider variety of flavours one can get in Japan such as matcha and almond. Mikado sticks have also made their way into German Eiscafés (Italian gelato cafés in Germany). The Biene Maja (Maya the Bee/みつばちマーヤ from the anime series by Nippon Animation in the mid-1970s – a very popular children’s series here in Germany) ice cream for kids usually uses Mikado sticks for the antennae. 

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

20 July 2011

Story of a Certain Street Corner (ある街角の物語, 1962)

Osamu Tezuka’s childhood experiences in wartime Japan indelibly shaped the themes and motifs of his manga and anime. His award-winning animation Story of a Certain Street Corner (aka Tales of the Street Corner/ ある街角の物語, 1962) is the most lyrical expression of Tezuka’s humanist, anti-war sentiments.

It is the first of Tezuka’s jikken animation – or experimental works – which Tezuka made for artistic rather than commercial purposes. Although the animation does employ some unusual techniques such as a POV shot of a plane tree seed flying to the ground, it is not “experimental” in the usual sense of the word. When I think of experimental Japanese animation, I think of Yōji Kuri, Takashi Itō, Naoyuki Tsuji, Mirai Mizue, and others – animators who actually experiment with image, narrative, and sound. Although Story of a Certain Street Corner appears more indulgent in terms of visual aesthetic than Astro Boy (1963-75), it was done using Mushi Pro’s usual practice of “limited animation”: using as few cels as possible in order to keep the budget down. Story of a Certain Street Corner took over a year to complete and was funding by Tezuka’s work as a manga-ka. It was co-directed by Eiichi Yamamoto (Cleopatra, One Thousand and One Nights) and Yusaku Sakamoto. Gisaburo Sugii (Night on the Galactic Railroad) worked as an animator on the film.

The 39-minute animation opens by introducing the central characters one-by-one using title cards – a method dating back to the earliest silent feature films. Living in the attic of a tall city apartment is a young girl with her blue teddy bear. In a hole in the wall of the same building lives a mischievous mouse named Kanku-Bōya and his enormous family. On the street below is an alley way lined by colourful posters. On the corner sits a Platanus – known as a plane tree in English – who is given a delightful sequence in which she releases her seeds. Other star turns are put in by an impish “chinpira” moth, an old street light, and the centerpiece of the film: the figures on the posters themselves.

The setting is a kind of idealized European setting – with a colour palette reminiscent of MGM musicals of the 1950s like An American in Paris (Vincente Minelli, 1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, 1952). The drama begins when a red balloon escapes from a street vendor passing down the street. It distracts the little girl who drops her teddy bear. The teddy bear gets stuck in the eaves trough, where the little mouse encounters it and mistakes it for being a real animal.

The most impressive sequences of the film begin when the mouse accidentally falls down the downspout and stares dizzily at the posters. One of male figures takes on the role of conductor and leads the others in a musical number. The posters feature romance – between a violinist on one poster and a pianist on another – and comedy. Although the setting is distinctly European in flavour, there are posters that reference Japanese culture, while others play up the comedy of using stereotypes of world cultures such as kangaroos for Australia or bull fighters for Spain. There are also references to world art such as Rodin’s The Thinker (1902) and Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous Moulin Rouge – La Goulue (1891) poster.  The comic effect of this sequence is enhanced by the delightful original music by Tatsuo Takai (who was also responsible for the Astro Boy music). 

The strongest influence aesthetically to the animation is 1950s graphic design and illustration. The vibrant colour palette is similar to that of the collage work of Ezra Jack Keats (Peter’s Chair, A Snowy Day) and both the style and colours are reminiscent of the work of Walt Peregoy. Check out examples of Walt Peregoy and other illustrators from this period at Amid Amidi’s excellent blog Cartoon Modern to see what I mean.

The delightful poster sequence comes to an abrupt halt with the arrival of a pair of military boots marching down the street. The feet stop and hands put up a poster of a decorated military official – in a style that clearly demarcates it as regime propaganda. The other posters are clearly intimidated by this poster and freeze in fear. The mood is briefly lifted again by sequences that feature the plane tree, the moth and the streetlight, and the mouse and the teddy bear in the rain. But the idyll of this romantic street corner is again interrupted by the forces of totalitarian propaganda. Some of the posters  – such as that of the girl on piano and the male violinist  – resist the totalitarian forces.  The papering of posters escalates into full scale war which ends in the destruction of the neighbourhood. Among the rubble, however, there is a fluttering of hope for both humanity and the natural world in form of the young girl being reunited with her teddy bear and the sprouting of the seeds of the plane tree.
This film won Tezuka the first ever Noburō Ōfuji Award, which the Mainichi Film Concours established the year following the death of esteemed animation pioneer Noburō Ōfuji (大藤 信郎, 1900-1961). It is an interesting choice considering the fact that Yoji Kuri had just won the Special Jury Prize at Annecy in 1962 for Clap Vocalism. Kuri would be honoured with a Noburō Ōfuji Award a few years later, but for the inaugural prize, they decided to go with a film with an uplifting social message. The Story of a Certain Street Corner is not only an antiwar film, but also a story about the importance of freedom of expression.

Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in 1950s Animation
Buy Amid Amidi's book
The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu (Sub)

Osamu Tezuka Jikken animation sakuhin shu / Animation

This review is part of Nishikata Film Review’s  2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

17 July 2011

Legend of the Forest (森の伝説, 1987)

Legend of the Forest (森の伝説/Mori no Densetsu, 1987) is Osamu Tezuka’s flawed, unfinished masterpiece. It took Tezuka and his staff more than a decade to complete the first and fourth movements of the piece. In 2008, there were rumors that Tezuka’s son Macoto Tezka (Black Jack, Akuemon) would finish the project but from what I understand, it is still a work in progress.

Emulating Disney’s Fantasia (1940), the animation was designed with a classical piece of music in mind: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony Op. 36 as performed by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra under conductor Kenichiro Kobayashi.  The story is an adaptation of a Tezuka manga called Musa the Flying Squirrel (モモンガのムサ, November 1971) which was #9 in his 1970s manga series Lion Books (ライオンブックス). Click here to see sample pages from this manga.

The film opens with the camera appearing to track forwards into a ghostly forest. The sense of depth of field and forward movement was likely accomplished by using a multi-plane animation table.  At the end of this sequence, the camera comes to a halt upon an illustration of a giant ancient camphor tree (kusu no ki). Such camphor trees are often seen in Shinto shrines throughout Japan, and the sacredness of these trees is very familiar territory to fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) where the giant Totoro lives at the foot of such a tree. In Legend of the Forest, the trees are threatened by the forces of modernity in the shape of a large, burly lumberjack. Birds cry out in protest and take flight, animals scurry down the tree in terror.

Note the human emotion of rage on the flying squirrel's face.
The emotion of the scene is increased through the camera panning over the illustrations and cuts to new illustrations and close-ups, for this sequence is not animated. It is a series of illustrations in the style of a children’s storybook (In fact, it reminded me of early to mid-20th century illustrated children's books set in nature like those of Robert McCloskey.) After the panic of the animals is established, the story focuses on a pair of flying squirrels (momonga) whose nest is in the tree that is being chain-sawed. The mother and father desperately try to rescue their tiny, hairless newborn babies one-by-one before the tree falls to the ground. The tension increases until the terrifying moment when the father squirrel loses hold of one of his infants and the baby falls to certain death.

The father’s squirrel’s rage following this moment seems to trigger the film’s transition from storybook montage to animation. Thus begins the film’s secondary layer of story: a journey through animation history beginning with a reference to the 19th century animation toys the Zoetrope and Eadweard Muybridge’s Phenakistoskope.

It is at this moment that the camphor trees come alive as well, with their bark making their faces look wizened and knots turning into eyes. It seems these benevolent trees were watching the flying squirrel family’s struggle and intervened to catch the infant squirrel, gently catching him on one of their leaves. The camphor tree holding the infant, drips some sap down to him in order to give him nourishment.

As the baby squirrel turns his head to drink, the scene moves again from illustration to animation, this time referencing the white on black of early chalk drawing animations of such animation pioneers as J. Stuart Blackton and Émile Cohl. As the baby grows up, we are treated to a wide range of references to key moments in animation history from the early animation of Winsor McKay to Fleischer Studios and; of course, Disney.

Disney was perhaps the greatest influence on Osamu Tezuka and many other Japanese animators of his generation. In addition to the Fantasia influence that I mentioned earlier, Legend of the Forest also references early works by Disney and Ub Iwerks like the Alice Comedies (1923-27), Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (c.1927-28), and Plane Crazy (1928, the first Mickey Mouse picture). When the baby squirrel flies for the first time, the animation style of his flight references Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen, 1941) – including some rapscallion crows. There are many obvious references to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, et al., 1937) such as an old crone with an apple and seven dwarfs. The romanticizing of the squirrel’s romance with a purple female squirrel is straight out of Bambi (David Hand, 1942) – a film from which Tezuka also borrowed the theme of corrupt humans destroying innocent nature.

It is this borrowing from Bambi that causes the most flawed aspect of the film. The man vs. nature motif is very heavy-handed and goes to such extremes that it seems unlikely that the film will win over anyone to the cause apart from the already converted. The two main flaws are depicting all of humanity monolithically as a force of evil and destruction and the anthropomorphization of nature. It does nothing for the cause of environmentalism to depict animals of having such human emotions as anger, outrage, and vengefulness. The moment the baby squirrel, now grown, decides to exact revenge upon the lumberjack, the environmentalist message is lost. Following this logic, the only conclusion can be an apocalyptic war between humanity and nature in which everyone loses.

Interestingly, the natural world (and its fairies and other mythological creatures) are animated in a style associated with the cinema – the Disney styled in particular, whereas the lumber town and its inhabitants are depicted in the angular style associated with 1960s and 70s television series and commercials.

The visual concept of the film is certainly ambitious and deserving of the 1987 Noburō Ōfuji Award for excellence in animation. In addition to this the film was featured in Laputa’s selection of 30 Treasures of World Animation deserving of mention that were missing from their list of the 150 Best World and Japanese Animation. I look forward to Macoto Tezka’s completion of his father’s film to see how it fills out the story. The film in its current version is weighted very heavily in favour of American animation history and it will be interesting to see if the completed version fills in some of the gaps in the history of world animation.

As there seems to be a lot of misinformation about this film being cut-and-pasted about the web, I thought I would provide the complete credits for the film as they appear in the film itself:

Scenario, Storyboard + Design: Osamu Tezuka
Art Director: Masami Saito
Sound Director: Takashi Ui
Musical Score: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony Op. 36
Tokyo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenichiro Kobayashi
Key Animation:
Masateru Yoshimura
Junji Kobayashi
Shinji Seya
Toshi Noma
Teruo Handa
Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Yoshinori Kanemori
Shinichi Suzuki
Checking: Kaoru Kano
Illustration: Masaki Katori
Colour Design: Rika Fujita
Special Effect: Takashi Maekawa
Camera: Mushi Productions
Editor: Harutoshi Ogata
Producer: Takayuki Matsutani
Assistant Producer: Minoru Kubota
Director: Osamu Tezuka
Sequence Director: Takashi Ui

The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu (Sub)

Osamu Tezuka Jikken animation sakuhin shu / Animation

This review is part of Nishikata Film Review’s  2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

text © Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

11 July 2011

Taku Furukawa “A Playful Heart” Exhibition: “From a Single Line”

A retrospective of the career of Japanese alternative animation pioneer Taku Furukawa has opened this week at the Kichijoji Art Museum in Musashino. Furukawa (古川タク, b. 1941) has worked as an animator, illustrator, teacher and mentor for over 40 years.  He has won many prestigious awards in his career including the Special Grand Jury Prize at Annecy (1975), the Bungeishunju Manga Award (1978) for his book The Takun Humor, and the Noburo Ofuji Award (1980). 

The exhibition is called Taku Furukawa “A Playful Heart” Exhibition: “From a Single Line” (古川タク展「あそびココロ」“1本の線から”). “From a Single Line” refers to his minimalistic line drawing aesthetic. Furukawa has cited the influence of renowned New Yorker illustrator Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) on his trademark style. Furukawa was also influenced early in his career by his mentor Yōji Kuri (久里洋二, b. 1928). Furukawa worked his way up at Kuri’s studio in the 1960s, eventually doing key animation on many important films such as AOS (1964) and Au Fou! (1965). In 1966, he ventured out as a freelance animator, eventually forming his own studio, Takun Box, in 1970.

The “Playful Heart” in the title of the exhibition refers not only to Furukawa’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humour in his art, but also to playful spirit with which he approaches animation. Handmade films like Nice to See You (1974) follow in the experimental traditions of animators like Norman McLaren, Len Lye, and Oskar Fischinger. In Calligraphiti (1982), Furukawa even experiments with direct animation which involves drawing directly onto the film stock itself.

Furukawa’s most notable work combines his experimental tendencies with his playful sense of humour. In Phenakistoscope (Odorokiban, 1975), the film that won him the prestigious Special Grand Jury Prize at Annecy, Furukawa drew his inspiration from the 19th century pre-cinema device of the same name. Using frame-by-frame hand drawn animation techniques, Furukawa replicates the Phenakistoscope discs, animating all 18 stages of successive action at once. Some of the images he depicts are nods to the original subjects of the Phenakistoscope discs, such as a couple dancing, but he moves away from just recreating human movement into a realm of fantasy and the colourfully abstract: a skyscraper with looping freeways above it transforming into a tree, a bride and groom with their bodies elongating and shrinking like an accordion, a woman drinking soda through a straw whose head turns into a bubble that floats away. (Read my review of Phenakistascope to learn more and see same Phenakistascope illustrations).

Not only does Furukawa adapt old technologies to modern sensibilities, but when personal computers came on the scene in the 1980s he also demonstrated a willingness to experiment with new technologies. To the contemporary spectator, the playful doodle animation Mac the Movie (1985) seems unsophisticated to us today; however, it is significant as an early example of animation on an Apple Mac personal computer. The first Macintosh, with its groundbreaking graphics painting software program MacPaint, had only just been introduced the year before in January 1984. Furukawa highlights the playful nature of this experimental film by employing an equally lighthearted soundtrack: a synthesizer interpretation of ‘Singing in the Rain’. Qualities specific to this early personal computer technology include the flicker of the screen and the extra large pixel sizes. Play Jazz (1987) offers a more sophisticated early example of computer animation (I am guessing he did this on a Macintosh II because it’s in colour – the title may be a reference to Lotus Jazz), due in part to the advances in computer technology. The improvisational nature of the Matisse-inspired animation is reflected in the jazz music soundtrack. This combination of experimentation, improvisation, music and animation inevitably reminds one of Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart’s interpretation of Oscar Peterson’s jazz music in Begone Dull Care (NFB, 1949).

To learn morea bout Taku Furukawa, you can read my reviews of his films Speed, which won the Noburo Ofuji Prize for 1980 and Jyōkyō Monogatari (aka Tyo Story, 1999) - an animated reworking of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). He also made a number of shorts for the long-running NHK series Minna no Uta.

In addition to showcasing a selection of Furukawa's animations, illustrations and drawings, this exhibition also features installations by Furukawa.  If you are not lucky enough to be in Tokyo for this event, you can support this artist by ordering a selection of Furukawa's works from Anido.  

Taku Furukawa “A Playful Heart” Exhibition: “From a Single Line”
古川タク展「あそびココロ」“1本の線から”  (English info)
July 9th – August 14th

Kichijoji Art Museum
FF Bldg. 7F, 1-8-16 Kichijoji Hommachi, Musashino-shi, Tokyo 180-0004
Phone: 0422-22-0385 Fax: 0422-22-0386

06 July 2011

Sweet Silly Love Song (あまっちょろいラブソング, 2010)

Music is Naomi’s life. She stays up late at night composing “sweet silly love songs” on her guitar. Her music distracts her from her day job as a waitress in an Italian restaurant and even from enjoying sex with her boyfriend. However, her passion has yet to transform itself into success in the music industry and during the course of Sohkichi Miyata’s Sweet Silly Love Song (あまっちょろいラブソング, 2010) we will follow Naomi on her journey to decide whether or not to continue pursuing her music or to give it up entirely to follow a more predictable working class life.

Sweet Silly Love Song is a kind of a coming of age story. . . but for thirtysomethings rather than teenagers. Naomi – or Nao-chan as her friends call her – has reached that stage in life where her peers are starting to get married and settle down. For many of her friends, that has meant giving up their passion in life for a steady, salaried income. Her boyfriend, Kobayashi-kun, has sold his camera in order to afford business suits. Her school friend Ryoko has decided to turn a blind eye to her old boyfriend Takeda’s failings in order to marry and have children. Even her most loyal musical collaborator Hisao, the bass player in her band, is quitting music in a last ditch effort to try to regain the affections of his girlfriend Miyo.

Naomi’s story unfolds at an unhurried pace, with Miyata’s camera preferring to observe from a distance in a series of long takes with very few close-ups. The soundtrack is also quiet apart from Naomi’s haunting music. Each scene reveals another layer of depth to Naomi’s character: her generous spirit, her quiet determination, her acceptance of life’s trials. Is life really just “one disappointment after another” as Naomi fears, or can one break out of this downward spiral and find happiness?

Miyata’s script has a few minor weaknesses in it – like the lack of female confidantes and family in Naomi’s life – but on the whole the film is able to stay believable thanks to the unwavering performance of musician Naomi Oroji (follow her on Twitter) in the role of “Naomi”. The supporting cast are also strong including Takashi Yamanaka (Fish Story, Air Doll) as Kobayashi-kun and Katsuya Kobayashi (Running on Empty, Linda Linda Linda) as Naomi’s high school surfer boyfriend Arai.

Perhaps the strongest element of Miyata’s script is his use of trains as metaphors for the choices we have to make in life. Visually, this motif is in the film from the very beginning. It is foregrounded by a conversation that Naomi has with Hirano – the MC from Ryoko and Takeda’s wedding. Hirano has also had to put aside his dream of becoming a successful musician in order to get by in life, but he still clings onto the hope that one day he can make a success of his music. Our journey in life is like being on a “strange train” (変な電車/hen na densha), he explains. Naomi has the choice of staying on the more predictable journey through life, or she can choose to change trains and face the strange and wonderful challenges presented by following her heart.

This film was released in Japan in 2010 and had its international premiere at the Japan FilmFest Hamburg in May.  It is director Sohkichi's Miyata's third feature film after his award-winning Baka Vacance (バカバカンス, 2008) and Sebastian (セバスチャン, 2009)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...