31 December 2011

Muybridge's Strings Flip Books (マイブリッジの糸 フリップブック, 2011)

Fans of Kōji Yamamura who live outside of Japan may not be aware that it has become a tradition for the great animator to publish a book tie-in along with his latest film releases.  For Kafuka Inaka Isha, he published a slim, hardcover illustrated storybook edition of Franz Kafka's acclaimed short story A Country Doctor in Japanese translation.  

For his latest animated masterpiece Muybridge’s Strings (マイブリッジの糸, 2011), Yamamura and his publishers came up with the ingenious idea of creating  flip book tie-ins.  According to the introduction,  Yamamura wanted to create a book that would reflect the temporal themes of the animation.  Although I have not yet seen it, I have read that Muybridge's Strings employs a parallel editing structure that interweaves a story from the past (the time of Muybridge) with a story set in the present.  

Front covers: book slipcases, flip books, info booklet 

There are two complementary flip books available: (マイブリッジの糸I and マイブリッジの糸II).  They are published in a format of 13x8cm and consist of a slipcase and flip book in full colour, accompanied by a monochrome paper booklet.  When the front covers of both slipcases are pushed together (top photograph) they form the full length poster for the film.

Back covers: book slipcases, flip books, info booklet

Each flip book features a series of images on the right-hand side pages and transcribed music from the film by Normand Roger and J.S. Bach on each facing page.  The pages are of two different alternating lengths which means that once you have flipped through one side of the book, you can turn the book over and flip through a different series of images.  This forward and backward structure is also drawn from the animated short which references J.S. Bach's Crab Canon - a clever piece of music which is the musical equivalent of a palindrome.  It is best scene and heard, so I recommend checking out this helpful explanatory video.

Info booklets

Both flip books are accompanied by the same information booklet.  It features an introduction by Yamamura as well as an interview with him about not only the flip books but also the making of this Japanese-Canadian (NFB/NHK/Polygon) co-production.  See all photos on Google Plus or Facebook.  Even if you cannot read Japanese, these books are a visual delight and a must-have for collectors of independent animation.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

ISBN 978-4-89194-909-9
ISBN 978-4-89194-910-5

Order the Flip Books today:

29 December 2011

Nishikata’s Best Japanese Animated Shorts 2011

2011 has been an exciting year in the world of Japanese independent animation.  Kōji Yamamura released his much anticipated NFB co-production Muybridge’s Strings (マイブリッジの糸, 2011) to great acclaim in Canada and Japan.  It has already won several awards including the Excellence Prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival.  Mirai Mizue was invited to the Biennale to show his latest "cell animation" Modern No. 2 (2011) in which he experiments with increasing the speed of movement and uses washi paper as a background.

There was also much sadness in 2011 as the animation community mourned the loss of Masahiro Katayama and Nobuhiro Aihara.  Both belonged to the first wave of “art animators” of the 1960s and 70s and both had been very influential teachers at art colleges in Japan.  Katayama will be best remembered for the amazing series of DVDs of world animation he put together for Geneon.  His legacy lives on in the amazing work of the students he inspired at Tamabi to give animation a try such as Oscar-winner Kunio Katō, Mirai Mizue, and Akino Kondoh.  Kondoh released her latest animated short Kiya Kiya (2006-11) this autumn – a film that took the artist five years of painstaking work to complete.

Aihara passed away during Nippon Connection 2011. One of his former students, Takeshi Nagata of TOCHKA, was a guest at the festival and I learned a great deal about this influential experimental animator’s life and career from him.  His final collaboration with Keiichi Tanaami, DREAMS (2011) was released at the Image Forum Festival, and I look forward to seeing it in the New Year.

As it takes some time for animated shorts to make their way from Japan to Germany, my criteria in selecting Nishikata’s Best Animated Shorts 2011 are as follows:  I need to have seen the films either at festivals, through artist releases online, or by artists sending me their work for consideration.  The works must have been completed at some point during the last two years and be either handmade (direct, drawn, puppet, paint-on-glass, cutouts, etc.), experimental, or avant-garde in nature.  I do consider CG animation if I feel that it is innovative in some way.  Although many amazing animators screened their works at events like Image Forum 2011 and the CALF Short Film Festival in Summer, I cannot take films into consideration that I have not viewed in their entirety with my own eyes.  That means that I am looking forward to seeing  not only the aforementioned films, but also Hiroco Ichinose’s TWO TEA TWO (2010), Takashi Ishida’s Three Rooms (三つの部屋, 2011), and Naoyuki Tsuji’s Wind Spirit (風の精, 2011) sometime in 2012. 

Here are the top films that I saw this year, in the order in which I saw them:

Getting Dressed (服を着るまで, Aico Kitamura, 2010)

Last year, Kitamura’s graduation film just barely missed my official list because I had already submitted it to Midnight Eye for their year-end round-up.  It is a highly sophisticated film for a student and makes me very excited about Kitamura’s future as an artist.  The last I heard, she was working on a new animated short which should be released sometime this year.  Read Full Review .

Timbre A-Z (Mirai Mizue, 2011)

In January, Mirai Mizue shared a series of daily shorts on Vimeo and Youtube in which he explored the relationship between music , colour, shape, and movement.  It was fascinating to see him experiment with minimalism when his  “cell” animations like Jam (2009) had been moving towards greater and greater complexity.  Read about it here.

Shunga (Keiichi Tanaami + Nobuhiro Aihara, 2009)

Eroticism has long been a theme in the animation, paintings, and illustrations of Tanaami and Aihara.   For this collaborative work they draw specifically on the tradition of Shunga () – Japanese erotic  art usually executed in the ukiyo-e woodblock print style.  As in Shunga, the film uses exaggerated genitalia and poses.  In translating Shunga to animation Tanaami and Aihara add the element of sensual movement.  They also literally translate the concept of genitalia being a “second face” by surrealistically depicting a couple with faces shaped like male and female genitalia making love.  This film appears on the DVD/Book set Portrait of Keiichi Tanaami.

Mechanism of Spring (春のしくみ, Atsushi Wada, 2010)

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 chubby youths 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.  This film is available on the CALF DVD Atsushi Wada works 2002-2010.  Wada is also expected to release a new film in 2012.

Tatamp (Mirai Mizue, 2010)

Like Timbre A-Z, Tatamp continues Mizue's exploration of the relationship between image and movement through his distinctive “cell animation” technique.  As the onomatopoeic title suggests, this animated short employs percussive sounds from keyboards to snare drums.  As with Fantastic Cells and Jam, the film begins minimalistically then builds to a fantastic crescendo of colour and movement.  The call of loons combined with the bright colours against heavy blacks reminded me of Haida and Inuit art.  Learn more about Mirai Mizue and find out how to order a DVD of his works.

A Gum Boy (くちゃお, Masaki Okuda, 2010)

This dynamic film was one of my favourites in the CALF Animation Special at Nippon Connection 2011.  Masaki Okuda has an inspired talent for using animation to poetically interpret music through moving images.  Read Review.

Steps (Tochka, 2010)

A stop motion film inspired by Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra’s A Chairy Tale (1957).  The animation team of Tochka (Takeshi Nagata and Kazue Monno) incorporate elements of their famous PiKA PiKA animation technique into the film. Read Review.

The Woman Who Stole Fingers (指を盗んだ女, Saori Shiroki, 2010)

Saori Shiroki’s graduate film from the Tokyo University of the Arts.  She creates a haunting and melancholic atmosphere using paint-on-glass to explore the psychological impact of abuse.    Read Review. 

Hana no Hanashi (はなのはなし, Taku Furukawa, 2010)

A clever little short by one of Japan’s top animators about men with giant noses from Pinocchio to Cyrano de Bergerac.  Furukawa seamlessly adapts 5 short stories by renowned international authors into a mere 6 minutes. Stories referenced in the film include “The Dragon” and “The Nose by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol, “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi, “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edward Rostand.  Catchy soundtrack composed by Toshiyuki Honda.

TAKU BODA (タクボーダ, Taku Furukawa/Noriyuki Boda, 2009)

Computer animation meets 16mm animation in this modern re-mix of Taku Furukawa's 1977 film Nice to See You (ナイス・トゥ・スィ・ユー).  Read Review. 

Coffee Tadaiku (コーヒータダイク, Tomoyoshi Joko + Hiroco Ichinose, 2011)

2011 was a truly memorable one for the young animators Tomoyoshi Joko and Hiroco Ichinose as they got married and started their own production company together called Decovocal.  This name was suggested to them by their mentor Taku Furukawa.  For Furukawa’s 70th birthday they made this inspired homage to his 1977 animated short Coffee Break (コーヒー・ブレイク).  Read Review.

SPECIAL MENTIONS (Longer than 20 minutes but not feature length) 

Elemi (電信柱エレミの恋い/Denshinbashira Eremi no Koi, 2009)

Hideto Nakata was the winner of the 2009 Noburo Ofuji Award for innovation in animation for this sentimental stop motion animation.   It also won an Excellence Prize from the Japan Media Arts Festival.  The film wasreleased on DVD by Pony Canyon in late 2010 and made its way to my post box in January.    It tells the story of an anthropomorphized utility pole who falls in love with a human being.  Read Review.  Order DVD.

Midori-ko (Keita Kurosaka, 2010)

One of the highlights of Nippon Connection this year was the screening of Keita Kurosaka’s masterpiece of the grotesque Midori-ko.  It is a complex work that is difficult to sum up in the space of a paragraph, so I refer you instead to my review of the film.  No word yet on a DVD release, but fans are hopeful that someone will pick up Kurosaka’s catalogue of films for a Takashi Ito-like boxset.


I wish to extend my thanks this year to the generosity of so many who helped make my reviews possible this year.  A big thanks to all the artists and directors who sent me samples of their work or were kind enough to answer my questions about their work: Aico Kitamura, Saori Shiroki, Mirai Mizue, Atsushi Wada, Kei Oyama, Takashi Nagata of Tochka, Taku Furukawa, and Takashi Sawa.  Marion Komflass, Petra Palmer, and Dennis Vetter of Nippon Connection very generously took my advice and invited CALF animators to the 2011 festival and I am delighted to announce that I have been asked to curate the animation programme for 2012. 

In the realm of feature film animation, I remember fondly my conversation with Keiichi Hara (Colorful, Summer Days with Coo) in Frankfurt am Main in March.  Hara-san warmly shared his views about the current state of independent anime production in Japan and was a real delight to chat with.  I very much enjoyed chatting with Yuki Iwamoto, Marie Miyayama, Julia Leser, Clarissa Seidel, and Ryō Yoshikawa at Japan Week in November.

I am very grateful to my fellow bloggers and film critics who have offered their support throughout the year.  Some people who have gone the extra mile include: Nobuaki Doi of CALF and Animations: Creators and Critics, Ben Ettinger of Anipages, Chris MaGee of Shinsedai Fest / Jfilmpowwow for allowing me to sneak an animated short by Tomoyasu Murata into World Film Locations: Tokyo, John Berra for asking me to write about Kihachiro Kawamoto for the forthcoming book Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2 (2012), Jon Jung of Vcinema, Sayoko Ono at Zakka Films, Isamu Matsue, Franco Picolo of Sonatine, Joel Neville Anderson, Negativ: Magazin für Film und Mediankultur (Ciprian David / Dennis Vetter / Elisabeth Maurer / Christian Alt), Wildgrounds, Klaus Wiesmüller of Japan Kino, and the guys at Schöner Denken.

This blog would not be possible without the inspiring work of / information provided by Anido, Animations: Creators and Critics, CALF, Image Forum, Tokyo Art Beat, Tokyo University of the Arts, and Tomoyasu Murata and Co.

The greatest thank you of all goes to my loyal readers, friends, and family whose support made this year the best ever for Nishikata Film Review.

Wishing you all Joy and Prosperity in 2012,  Cathy

24 December 2011

MOM Productions and the Making of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer

It’s the Christmas season again and my children have already watched our DVD of the 1964 stop motion animation of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) half a dozen times.  I never tire of watching this Christmas special which was something I looked forward to watching on TV every year when I was a child.  The characters have clearly been lovingly brought to life by the hand of some animator.

As I reported last year in my post Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials: Made in Japan, Rudolf and many other animated Christmas specials produced by Rankin/Bass were animated in Japan.  Rudolf is an early example of an international co-production for television.  The production, concept, and screenwriting were all done by Americans.  Apart from the star, Burl Ives, the voice acting was all done in Canada.  The stop motion “Animagic” was subcontacted to Tadahito “Tad” Mochinaga’s MOM Production studios – a place where many animators including the great Tadanari Okamoto got their start.  Rick Goldschmidt’s The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass tantalizingly offered up a few tidbits about MOM Productions, but I could not afford his book about the making of Rudolph.  Fortunately, he released The Making of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Kindle edition this year.  It gives the answers to a lot of questions I had about the production, and provides highly detailed testimonies from former MOM Productions employees.

A few of the nuggets of information about the production:

  • Arthur Rankin supervised the production in Japan while Jules Bass was responsible for the production outside of Japan.  This meant that it was rare for people working on Rudolph to see both men together.

  • There are two conflicting stories about how Rankin discovered Mochinaga.  One is that he saw Mochinaga’s Little Black Sambo at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1958 and contacted Mochinaga about making TV series The New Adventures of Pinocchio (130x5 minute episodes).  The other story Rankin tells is that he was invited to Tokyo in 1958 by a trade delegate called Minoru Kawamoto and one of the studios they visited belonged to Mochinaga. (note: date typo amended 26 Dec 2011)

  • I had long wondered about the role of Kizo Nagashima, who is listed as a director in the credits of the Rudolph.  I could not find any evidence of Nagashima as an animator or a director online.  Goldschmidt solves this mystery by reporting that Nagashima “was an elderly gentleman who supervised the business affairs of the Tokyo studio.  Perhaps due to Japanese traditions of respect, he was given a prominent creative credit.  However, the credit was entirely honorary, as Tadahito Mochinaga was undeniably in charge of the entire animation process.” 

  • Mochinaga began animation in 1938 at Geijutsu Eigasha (芸術映画社 aka GES/ゲス).  [This isn’t in Goldschmidt’s book but Mochinaga spent much of the war and the years following working for an animation studio in China].  When he returned to Japan after the war (c. 1953), Mochinaga started up his own studio.  He formed MOM Productions in 1960 with many of his old colleagues from GES in order to make puppet animation for Rankin/Bass.

  • Assistant animation director Hiroshi Tabata recalls that he and Mochinaga took the 10 hour sleeper train from Tokyo to Nara to see the famous sika deer in Nara National Park.  The spent two days observing the movements of the deer in order to prepare for the animation of Rudolph.  The animation studios were housed in a building that had previously been used to test engines for fighter planes.

  • Ichiro “Pin-chan” Komuro was the puppet maker for Rudolph.  He used the wood of the Katsura tree (カツラ/ Cercidiphyllum japonicum) for Rudolph’s head and torso.  The head was carved out to make it lighter and therefore easier to control during animation.  The joints of the puppets were made of lead and copper wire which were padded with cotton and polyurethane.  The antlers were formed using polyurethane.  Rudolph’s eyelids and irises were made using finely shaved leather.  Rudolph’s exterior was made of thick-piled white wool that they dyed themselves.  The hooves were made of wood and had 1mm holes drilled in them in order to affix the hooves to the sets using pins.

  • The biggest problem during production was the fight to keep the puppets and sets from collecting dust and dirt.  The animators all wore white gloves, and the figures were sprayed with a magnetic spray flock to diffuse reflections for the camera.  The most difficult sets and puppets to keep clean were the white ones. 

Goldschmidt’s book is a must-read for fans of stop motion animation and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Add the Kindle edition to your holiday reading:

Learn more about Rankin/Bass Productions on Goldschmidt's blog or in his book:

18 December 2011

Paradise Kiss (パラダイス・キス, 2011)

Things have been quiet here on Nishikata Film the past couple of weeks because I have been ill.  When I am under the weather and sofa-bound, I turn to what for me is the movie equivalent of chicken noodle soup: romantic melodramas.  2011 has been so jam-packed for me with work that I have not had the free time to indulge in the guilty pleasures of a cheesy romantic drama.

First on my list was the live action adaptation of Ai Yazawa’s popular manga series Paradise Kiss (パラダイス・キス, 1999-2003).  I am a huge fan of Yazawa and have been suffering from withdrawal since she abruptly stopped writing her Nana (2000 – hopefully ongoing) manga series in 2009 due to illness.  Paradise Kiss is a standalone sequel / spin off of Yazawa’s Neighbourhood Story (1995-8).  The manga tells the story of a high school student called Yukari who gets discovered by some fashion students who want her to model the designs of their studio "Paradise Kiss" at their school's end of year fashion show.  Yukari is torn between her desire to give modelling a go and pleasing her mother, who puts a lot of pressure on her to succeed academically and go on to a good university.

Like Nana, the fashion in the manga is influenced by British punk, Vivienne Westwood, and the Harajuku alternative fashion scene.  The character of George Koizumi, for example, is based on the character of Brian Slade as played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the film Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998).  In addition to the avant-guard look of the manga, the central character has a strong coming-of-age storyline.  Yukari (called Caroline by the Paradise Kiss fashionistas) does not yet know who she is as a person or what she really wants to do with her life and she is struggling not only with the intense pressure her mother puts on her, but is also having to deal with confusing feelings of sexual desire for the charismatic fashion designer George Koizumi.  The manga also has a very strong supporting cast of characters with their own subplots – Isabella, a transgender woman and childhood friend of George, and the love triangle between childhood friends Miwako (whose sister was the central character in Neighbourhood Story), Arashi, and Hiroyuki.

The live action feature film Paradise Kiss (パラダイス・キス, 2011) is adapted from the manga by Kenji Bando and directed by Takehiko Shinjo.  Shinjo is known for directing romantic TV dramas and sentimental feature films like Heavenly Forest (ただ、君を愛してる, 2006) and I Give My First Love to You (僕の初恋をキミに捧ぐ, 2009).  To put it plainly: Shinjo has basically given the story a TV-dorama makeover that guts the original story of its edginess.

To begin with, the feature film is woefully miscast.  In the manga, Yukari/Caroline is taller and more sophisticated than most girls her age and really stands out in a crowd.  While she is undoubtedly a beautiful young woman, actress Keiko Kitagawa is of average height.  Ordinarily, height would not be much of an issue except that Yukari’s height and body type are the reasons why Arashi picks her out of the crowd in the opening scene of the manga.  Kitagawa’s average height might not have stood out so much if it weren’t for the fact that Miwako, played by Aya Omasa, towers over her.  Miwako is meant to be a petite “kawaii” girly girl – so tiny in the manga and anime as to be doll-like.  Also miscast is Osamu Mukai who is much too sweet to play the charming but predatory George Koizumi.    

I knew I was going to be deeply disappointed right from the opening credits, which seemed more like an advertisement for nail polish than the engaging, up-tempo montage opening of the anime.  The music throughout is simpering J-pop ballads, which pale in contrast to the funky up-tempo music of the anime adaptation (IE Tomoko Kawase’s “Lonely in Gorgeous” and Franz Ferdinand’s “Do You Want To”).  I am no fashion expert, but the clothes looked more mainstream than avant-garde – instead of hiring Vivienne Westwood to design the costumes (which would have been a lovely tribute to Ai Yazawa), the clothes seemed calculatedly selected with an eye to fashion magazine and store tie-ins. 

Now I know that practically speaking the limitations of time for a feature film meant that much of the subplots had to be excised.  Even the TV anime adaptation with its 12 episodes found itself scrambling to fit everything in towards the end.  However, the substantial cuts to the subplots in the feature film meant that all the supporting cast were rendered one-dimensional.  Isabella’s gender identity only gets passing references – there is no depth to her relationship with George.  Speaking of which, George’s sexuality is much less ambiguous than in the manga/anime.  Even worse, Arashi comes off as a creeper and Miwako as promiscuous.  

What made Yukari special in the original manga was the fact that her story was messy and complicated.  Her friends also led messy and complicated lives.  There were no simple answers to problems and her romantic feelings towards George and Hiro-kun were confused – just as it is in real life.  By over simplifying Yukari’s story, the filmmakers have just turned it into over-polished Disneyesque schlock for teenaged girls.  I don’t mind a fluffy sentimental romance now and then, but Paradise Kiss should have been more Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink (John Hughes, 1986) and less Sandra Dee circa late 1950s.  This "happy ending" version of Paradise Kiss may have been enough to please the target audience of the film (IE adolescent girls), but to fans of the original manga it is simply lacking. 


Keiko Kitagawa as Yukari 'Caroline' Hayasaka
Osamu Mukai as Jōji 'George' Koizumi
Yusuke Yamamoto as Hiroyuki Tokumori            
Shunji Igarashi as Isabella
Kento Kaku as Arashi Nagase                   
Aya Omasa as Miwako Sakurada            
Natsuki Kato as Kaori Asō           
Hitomi Takahashi as Yukino Koizumi      
Shigemitsu Ogi as Joichi Nikaido
Michiko Hada as Yasuko Hayasaka

Available from cdjapan:

16 December 2011

Shiba Productions' The Little Tin Soldier (1968)

I have recently begun collecting the 3D “Living Storybooks” designed and manufactured by Shiba Productions in the 1960s.  They were distributed in North America by the New York-based publisher Golden Press.  Shiba Productions was a puppet animation studio that was founded in 1958 by three men: writer/editor Tadasu Iizawa (飯沢 , 1909-1994), artist/designer Shigeru Hijikata (土方 重巳, 1915-1986), and puppet maker and animator Kihachirō Kawamoto.  Kawamoto would go on to become the most famous of the three men but at the time he was an artisan and not yet a director/artist in his own right.  The studio specialized in puppet animation for television commercials.  In addition to animation, Shiba Productions also created puppets for picture books, magazines, and print advertising.

click to enlarge

Kawamoto had first worked for Iizawa during the Tōhō strikes of the 1940s.  He was hired as an assistant art director by Tōhō in 1946.  His mentor was the acclaimed art director and production designer Takashi Matsuyama (松山崇, 1908-1977).  After getting the opportunity to work on three major feature films, Kawamoto found himself on strike with his colleagues.  During the strike, Matsuyama got Kawamoto some work at Asahi Graph, a weekly pictorial magazine run by Asahi Shinbun that ran from 1923-2000.  When Kawamoto was eventually dismissed from Tōhō in 1950, he seems to have worked together with Iizawa and Hijikata on a number of commercial projects.  Iizawa was the one who introduced Kawamoto to the stop motion animation pioneer Tadahito Mochinaga (持永只仁, 1919-1993) when he returned to Japan from China in 1953.  It was from Mochinaga and his wife that Kawamoto learned the basics of puppet animation. 

click to enlarge
At Shiba Productions, it would seem that Iizawa played a kind of producer/writer role and Hijikata was the designer of the characters.  Kawamoto crafted the puppets by hand and was in charge of the animation – or in the case of the “Living Storybooks” photo shoots of the puppets.  He drew quite heavily on what he had observed as an assistant art director at Tōhō for this.  In an interview with Jasper Sharp in 2004, Kawamoto explained that he considered the dolls that he used in the storybooks “puppets” because to him “they were actors within the books.”

The first “Living Storybook” in my collection is The Little Tin Soldier (aka The Steadfast Tin Soldier)  by Hans Christian Andersen.  As these books were very popular with children, it is rare to find one in mint condition.  My copy (see image above) has well worn edges but the binding itself is intact. 

The books were called “3D” or “Living Storybooks” not only because they feature photographs of three-dimensional puppets and sets, but also because the front cover features a full colour hologram.  This novelty cover meant that the books were quite eye-catching when displayed on the shelves of bookstores and libraries.  It also made the storybooks quite memorable for children who grew up with them. 

The Little Tin Soldier has thick card pages and features 18 full colour pages and 14 black and white pages with text.  The monochromatic images of the puppets are less satisfying than the full colour pages because the images have been rather awkwardly cut out in order to have them alternate with the text.  The best monochromatic pages are the ones that have used illustrations to give the tin soldier floating down the river in his paper boat a setting. 
click to enlarge
The story is faithful to the original version of Andersen’s Steadfast Tin Soldier (Den standhaftige tinsoldat/しっかり者のスズの兵隊, c. 1838), so it does not have a happy ending.  .  .  at least not in the way most parents today would expect.  I rather like how the story ends with a random act by a child.  It seems a much more likely scenario for a tin soldier than a happily ever after ending.

The puppets and sets are all consummately designed and crafted.  The most striking image by far is that of the tin soldier and ballet dancer in the blazing fire.  Although there are certain design elements that make the book recognizable as being a product of the 1960s (ie. the title font, choice of colours, the modern looking castle and toy elephant), on the whole most of the puppets and sets have been designed in a way that references 19th century European toys and design.  It is a beautiful, highly collectable book.  

Heibonsha’s Kawamoto Kihachiro: Ningyo Kono inochi aru mono (2007)
Takayuki Oguchi’s interview with Kawamoto: Animation Meister at Japan Media Arts Plaza’s website.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

04 December 2011

Noburo Ofuji’s Whale (くじら, 1952)

Some of the most beautiful early anime from Japan are the silhouette animations of Noburo Ofuji (大藤 信郎, 1900-61) and Wagoro Arai (荒井和五郎, 1907-94).  Inspired by the films of Lotte Reiniger – whose pre-war films were shown extensively in Japan (Donald RichieA Hundred Years of Japanese Film, p.247) – and drawing on the Japanese traditions of shadow plays and 19th century utsushi-e (写し絵 / magic lantern shows), Ofuji and Arai created some of the most beautiful silhouette films of the 20th century.

In his later years, Ofuji became interested in Buddhist and ocean themes.   The animator Kōji Yamamura  cites the themes of death, eros, and the human ego as examples (Shirarezaru Animation).  Ofuji's artistic masterpiece Kujira (くじら/ Whale, 1952) is one such filmLike Kihachiro Kawamoto’s puppet films, which share Ofuji’s interest in Buddhist themes, Kujira features the themes of female suffering, natural phenomena that allude to Buddhist themes, and transformation.

Ofuji first made Kujira (/Whale) in 1927 as a silent black and white film.  Inspired by the possibilities of colour film, he remade the film in the early 1950s using not only shadow puppets (silhouettes) but also cutouts of transparent coloured cellophane (影絵とセロファン切り絵).  The cutouts were assembled on a multi-plane animation table.  The backlighting of the animation table used in combination with the transparent cellophane allowed Ofuji to create highly complex layering of forms.  It is a breathtaking experience to watch and has beautifully rendered movement and transitions.

This 8 minute short opens with foreboding music that foreshadows the dark and mysterious events to unfold.  The story begins with the creak of a mast being raised on an ancient sailing ship.  Seagulls fly overhead as the ship navigates calm seas.  Aboard the vessel, men clap and guffaw and women's voices ring with laughter as geisha entertain the men with music and dancing.  

Ofuji dissolves between camera shots of varying shot compositions which, combined with the ghostly layering of transparent waves and clouds, give the film a dream-like quality.  A storm descends upon the ship.  The wooden ship creaks and groans as the sea violently tosses it about.  A giant tail of a whale emerges from the ocean and the whale seems to be following the ship as if in anticipation of the ship’s demise.  The ship’s crew struggle in vain to regain control of their vessel, but with a series of loud cracks and women’s screams, the ship sinks into the murky waters.

When the sea calms, a number of survivors float, their heads downcast, upon the wreckage.  One of the men finds the body of a woman floating in the water who appears to be dead.  Suddenly, the mysterious female form begins to move, terrifying the men.  As the woman cries out as she stretches herself into a standing position and one of the men immediately clutches her by the hair and drags her to him.  The more the woman struggles to escape, the more desperate the men become, tearing the clothes from her body and fighting each other to be the first to claim her.  The men’s fighting, as depicted by Ofuji’s shadow cutouts, begins to resemble a dance – their arms outstretched and curved move up and down like an interpretive dance depicting the waves of the ocean. 

The tension rises, stoked on by the crescendoing orchestra of the soundtrack, to a fever pitch.  At which point the black tale of the whale rises and the woman screams out in terror.  The whale, as in the ancient tale of Jonah, swallows the woman and her tormentors whole.  This leads to the most dazzling and abstract sequence in the film as the people float around the shadowy belly of the whale, desperately trying to escape.  The men are so consumed by fear that they have forgotten their desire to rape the woman.

An exterior shot of the whale shows him to be contentedly bobbing up and down in the ocean.  He blows water out of his blowhole and with it the woman and her three tormentors.  They land on the whale’s back, but it doesn’t take the men long to recover from their shock and resume their attack on the woman.  The woman resists, screams in terror, and races up and down the whale’s back in a bid to escape.  Two of the men fall off the whale and disappear and the one remaining man continues to chance the woman until his evil plan is foiled by the whale who raises his tail and flings the man to certain death in the sea.  A female narrator concludes the story, telling us that since this incident the woman has been spotted in the form of a mermaid.

Until this final narrative voice, the story has actually been told entirely through a combination of the visuals, the music of composer Setsuo Tsukahara (romanized as Tukahara in 1952), and the sound effects.  By sound effects, I mean not just creaks of the ship and the thunder but also the gasps and laughter of the human characters.   The dialogue in Kujira is also more incidental than narrative in nature.  Although the characters are clearly meant to look like ancient Japanese people the story itself seems to be influenced by a combination of Asian and European influences.  The mermaid, for example, resembles the mermaids and sirens of European mythology more than she does the hideous ningyo of Japanese folklore.  The idea of a whale swallowing people whole also has very famous precedents in Western literature.  Yet, as with the famous tales of Jonah and Moby Dick, the whale is intended to be symbolic not realistic.    I think there are many possible readings that can be drawn from Kujira.  For me, Ofuji is exploring the dark side of human nature with the woman, who is the most virtuous character in the tale, being reborn in a new form at the end of the film.

Correcting historical facts about Kujira

In 1953, Ofuji’s Kujira (on the programme as “La Baleine”) was part of the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival (under the name Noburo Ohfuji).  Kujira is reputed to have received much praise from the Jury president Jean Cocteau and festival attendee Pablo Picasso.  Although it has been reported in many publications that the film won an award at this festival, the official Cannes website does not indicate this. Many people have claimed that Kujira won “Second Prize” at Cannes – but as Cannes has no such prize this seems odd.  I have yet to find a reliable contemporary Japanese or French source that confirms the events that took place in Cannes that year – I may have to dive into the old French film periodicals in the Frankfurt Museum archives again soon.   I will update when I do.

It has also been often reported in error that Kujira appeared at Cannes in 1952.  The Japanese Movie Database and other online Japanese sources indicate that the film had its premiere in Japan in December 1952 – much too late for it to screen at Cannes in the spring of 1952.  The case for Kujira screening at Cannes in April 1953 is backed up not only by the festival’s official website, but also by the fact that Jean Cocteau was the president of the jury in 1953.  This would give more credence to the oft-mentioned anecdote about Cocteau praising the film.  The suggestion that Picasso saw the film at Cannes is also likely true, as Picasso had a studio in the nearby commune of Vallarius – as seen in this famous photograph of Brigitte Bardot visiting Picasso in his studio during Cannes 1956.

A good transfer of Kujira is available on the Kinokuniya DVD Ōfuji Noburō: Kūkō no Tensai.  Ofuji's original films are held in the archives of the NationalFilm Center.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

01 December 2011

Mathematica (マテマテカ, 1999)

I had the rare delight recently of seeing Takashi Sawa’s experimental short Mathematica (マテマテカ, 1999).  Sawa (澤隆志, b. 1971) is perhaps best known for his work as program director at Image Forum, but along with Takashi Nakajima, Takashi Ito, Takashi Makino and Takashi Ishida, he is also one of the five great “Takeshis” of experimental filmmaking.

With his film Mathematica, Sawa trains his 8mm camera on the fine details of the world that we often take for granted.  Using the techniques of poetic montage, stop motion animation, and 3D frottage (taking a rubbing of a textured surface), Sawa explores the structures, spaces, and subtle changes over time that occur in the natural world.

In an e-mail to me, Sawa explained that he was interested in exploring the translation between timeline and depth, between 50 seconds and 2500mm, and between film and lath.  The average person usually thinks about mathematics in terms of numbers, but in actuality mathematics is study of the art and science of abstraction.  It examines how the world around us is made up of not only quantity but also structure, space, and change.   In fact, Sir Isaac Newton famously called it the language in which the universe is written (Opticks, 1704).

In Mathematica, this is expressed through a montage of images that demonstrate these mathematical concerns.  Skin making itself smooth again after an imprint of the title of the film has been pressed into it, the patterns of wrinkles and lines on the skin, the rings of a tree, the mane of a sorrel horse, a pencil frottage of the cross-section of a tree, the netting covering a scaffolding, and film deteriorating.  The stop motion sequences of the tree-rings were for me the most fascinating.  The movement of the rings created by the stop motion causes the close-ups of the tree-rings to resemble other patterns of nature that have also been the subject of mathematical conjecture: the waves of the ocean or the formation of patterns on the sands of the desert.  These sequences also draw attention not only to patterns, structure, and space, but also to the concept of time. 

In the catalogue of the Holland Animation Film Festival 2002, Sawa wrote about how the pleasure of animation is in the way that it “breathes life in between frame and frame” and how “it is precisely the continuous playback by means of intermittent movement of these gaps and flickers that captivates both the makers and the audience of animation.  In works of experimental animation, which are made outside the system of film as industry, the question is how far we can extend the magic of these gaps and afterimages.” (p. 14).  With Mathematica, Sawa shows us how these gaps and afterimages can be used to focus our awareness on the extraordinary aspects of the commonplace in the world around us.

Takashi Sawa's work regularly screens at international festivals around the world.  You can circle him on Google Plus.
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

Order experimental film via cdjapan:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...