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