31 October 2011

Minamata: The Victims and Their World (水俣 患者さんとその世界, 1971)

It is a sad irony that the Fukushima nuclear disaster should occur in the same year that Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s groundbreaking documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World (水俣 患者さんとその世界/Minamata: Kanja-san to sono sekai, 1971) got its first release on DVD with English subtitles.  For the narrative of corporations and politicians putting financial gain ahead of risks to public health and safety is not a new one in Japan.  History is repeating itself yet again – only the players and the type of poison have changed.

Minamata: The Victims and Their World is the first in a series of documentaries that Tsuchimoto made documenting the plight of the victims of Minamata disease, their families, and their fight for redress.  Minamata disease takes its name from the city in Kumamoto prefecture where the disease was identified in 1956.  The disease is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning.  The local chemical factory run by the Chisso Corporation polluted Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea with industrial waste water containing the highly poisonous chemical compound methylmercury between 1932 and 1968.

Noriaki Tshuchimoto’s documentary opens with a series of title cards that quietly lay out the bare facts of how the people of Minamata came to be poisoned by mercury.  The documentary then shifts its focus from the facts and figures to the stories of the victims and their families.  Fishermen talk of how they knew something was wrong when fish began behaving strangely in the sea and local cats that ate the fish started going insane.  Family members share the agonies endured by their loved ones before they died of the disease.  Doctors, teachers, and physiotherapists compare and contrast the illness to other known conditions such as cerebral palsy.  The most chilling legacy is the stories of the children with congenital Minamata disease, who were poisoned while in the womb.  Their physical and mental challenges are so great that there is little hope for rehabilitation.

The interviews are paced throughout the film like the ebb and flow of the tide.  Emotionally harrowing personal testimonies are book-ended by quiet sequences that give the spectator a moment to pause and reflect.  These quiet moments are often montages that capture the natural beauty of the landscape and the sea of the region.  With each new story of pain and loss, the tension slowly builds until the film’s dramatic climax in which the victims and their families go to the Chisso biannual shareholders meeting to confront the company president and demand that he publicly take responsibility for his company’s crimes against humanity and the environment.

The mainstream documentary style in Japan – even today – is one in which an authoritative, voice-of-god narrator tells the spectator how to interpret the images they are being shown.  As authority figures had betrayed the people of Minamata, Tsuchimoto wisely decided to foreground the voices and faces of the victims themselves in this documentary.  According to Sachiko Mizuno in the supplementary material for the DVD release, the victims had resisted the efforts of television documentary crew because of their deeply held suspicions about the media (p.6) It becomes apparent while watching the documentary that Tsuchimoto has won over the people with his friendly, sincere manner.  He occasionally appears in the film, usually partly or wholly off-frame, holding a microphone in his hand and gently coaxing his subjects to talk to him.

The film is particularly interesting for its use of sound.  The lack of synch between the image and the soundtrack is initially distracting.  Sound was a big problem for low budget documentary filmmakers of the day as it was recorded separately from the image.  The asynchronous sound provided Tsuchimoto with the opportunity to play with the soundtrack in innovative ways.  As his subjects tell us their stories, we are treated to montages of images of the dead, their families, and their homes.  The asynchronicity forces us to listen more closely to the words and to study the face of the speaker more carefully.  Although each family has their own individual tale of suffering and loss to tell, taken together one gets the sense of a community of simple, hardworking people who have been unjustly made into outcasts in the town where their families have lived and fished for generations.  The story of their fight for justice is not only of historical import, but their determination against all odds is also inspiring for the many people who are today suffering at the hands of an unfeeling bureaucracy in the southernmost prefecture of Tohoku.  

Minamata: The Victims and Their World is one of four documentaries by Noriaki Tsuchimoto (土本典昭, 1928-2008) released by Zakka Films on DVD this year. It has optional English language subtitles and is accompanied by an essay by Abé Mark Nornes (U of Michigan) and film commentaries by Sachiko Mizuno (Kanazawa U).   Individuals can purchase this DVD for a reasonable price from independent film distributor Film Baby. Institutions should contact Zakka Films directly for purchasing information

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

28 October 2011

Momotaro’s Sea Eagle (桃太郎の海鷲, 1942)

World War II inspired many governments around the world to sponsor animated propaganda to rally support on the home front. Some, like the films of Norman McLaren in Canada, were aimed at encouraging people to support the war financially – see V for Victory (1941), Five for Four (1942) , and Dollar Dance, 1943 (NFB Overview). Disturbingly in the United States (see Ducktators), Japan, and Germany (see Der Störenfried), propagandists decided to target children for their campaigns by using characters from popular folk tales and movies. 
In Japan, the legend of Momotaro, the Peach Boy, was commandeered by propagandists as a patriotic hero. In the original tale, Momotaro was found by an elderly couple floating down the river in a peach. When he grew up, he became unusually strong. One day, Momotaro decides to Demon Island in order to defeat the demons that are terrorizing the people there and the elderly woman who adopted him gives him millet dumplings to take with him. Along the way, he encounters a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant and he gives them millet dumplings so that they will join him on his mission. They defeat the demons and return home with wonderful treasures. 

Momotaro’s Sea Eagle (桃太郎の海鷲/Momotarō no umiwashi, 1942) reframes this story in a manner designed to encourage people to celebrate the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor as a victory against evil forces. Unlike the original tale where Momotaro actually engages in battle with the dog, monkey, and pheasant, in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, Momotaro assumes the role of a military leader who orders his troops of dogs, monkeys, and pheasants into battle while he follows the action from the battleship. “I, your captain,” Momotaro pronounces, “will await your return.” Momotaro towers above the animals who are quite childlike in both appearance and behaviour. 

The film sets up a number of gags to endear young audiences on the side of the Japanese forces. The ground crew are rabbits who use their floppy ears to make signals. On one of the planes, a dog and a monkey play with building blocks that are in danger of collapsing. The Japanese, the film suggests, are on the side of all that is good and natural in the world. At one point, they even befriend a baby sea eagle and his parent in a bizarre sequence that takes place on the wing of one of the aircraft – as if there would be no wind while in flight! 

The conceit is that Hawaii is Demon Island and that the inhabitants there are the demons of legend. When the attack commences, we are disturbingly shown events from the point of view of the people on the ground. The Americans are depicted in human, not animal form, but the horror of the event is subverted into slapstick comedy. The central American character resembles Bluto from the popular Fleischer Studio’s Popeye series. These films were well-known and loved by Japanese children in the 1930s and the character would have been immediately recognizable as Popeye’s nemesis. In the unlikely circumstance that a child did not recognize him as Bluto, he is clearly demarcated as “bad” because he has demon horns and a tail and is associated with heavy drinking. 

Apart from the fact that it is disquieting to see an event in which 2,402 Americans were killed and more than a thousand wounded depicted as if it were an extended slapstick comedy routine, there are a number of historical inaccuracies promoted by the film. Two of the most obvious are the suggestion that some Japanese troops were on the group and set airplanes on fire by hand (a chain of monkeys, like the S-shaped Barrel of Monkeys toy game, descends from an airplane window to do this with matches) and worse, the suggestion that all the Japanese returned home safely. In actuality 55 Japanese airmen and 9 submariners were killed in action that day. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor  with Americans depicted as fat demons.

A great deal of the film is taken up with showing off Japanese military might. It takes many minutes for action to get underway because the opening scenes are so concerned with instilling a sense of awe and pride in the technology of war.  The film was billed at the time as being Japan’s first feature-length animation – which was a bit of a stretch considering that the film is only 37 minutes long. The true recipient of this title was the sequel to this film Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (Mitsuyo Seo, 1944). 

Momotaro’s Sea Eagle is the centrepiece of Zakka Films’ DVD The Roots of Japanese Anime which also includes a bonus extra of posters from the time advertising the film as “A thrilling, unparalleled naval battle that makes the red and blue demons tremble!” The posters also suggest that Momotaro’s army will not only be fighting Bluto but also Popeye and Betty Boop, declaring: “Roosevelt and the American gangster Popeye are no match. They face Momotaro’s troops and end up all wet.” Popeye and Betty Boop do not appear in the film itself.  Most disturbingly, the ads proclaim that the film is not only sponsored by the Naval Ministry but recommended by the Ministry of Education “as a living textbook for your children.” From today’s perspective it is certainly a valuable film to watch in order to teach about how propaganda is produced and disseminated. 

Apart from the troubling nature of the subject matter, the film is historically significant in terms of demonstrating how sophisticated cel animation had become in Japan by the 1940s.  It is important to note that the politics of the film do not reflect that of the director, Mitsuyo Seo (瀬尾 光世, 1911-2011), who actually had left-leaning political sympathies and was pressured into making propaganda films.  Tragically, due to historical forces beyond his control, Seo was saddled with these beautifully animated but deeply propagandistic films as his legacy to animation history.  Seo does at least have the distinction of being the first Japanese animator to use multiplane camera and his work is said to have influenced Osamu Tezuka.  It was also interesting to see puppet animation pioneer Tadahito Mochinaga listed in the credits for this film.  

The Zakka Films DVD includes informative historical information by Jasper Sharp (Midnight Eye) and Aaron Gerow (Yale U) which help contextualize the film. The Roots of Japanese Anime has optional English subtitles and comes with an informative booklet featuring an historical overview by  and film notes by  Individuals can purchase this DVD for a reasonable price from independent film distributor Film Baby. Institutions should contact Zakka Films directly for purchasing information

Film Credits:
Sponsored by the Naval Ministry 
Production Company: Art Film Production (Geijutsu Eigasha) 
Producer: Einosuke Omura 
Director and DOP: Mitsuyo Seo 
Music: Noboru Ito Animation Technique and Composition: 
Tadahito Mochinaga, Toshihiko Tanabe, 
Tamako Hashimoto, Shizuyo Tsukamoto 
Special Effects: Hajime Kimura


Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

25 October 2011

Danemon Ban – The Monster Exterminator (塙団右衛門化物退治の巻, 1935)

One of the reasons that animation really took off in Japan is the wealth of Japanese folklore that lends itself well to the medium. While Japanese ghost stories adapt well to live action movies, animation is the ideal medium for bringing to life the monsters and shapeshifting animals of Japanese legend.

The animated short Danemon Ban – The Monster Exterminator (塙団右衛門化物退治の巻/Ban Danemon – Shojoji no tanuki-bayashi, 1935) brings together both folklore and historical legends. The central character, Danemon Ban (塙 団右衛門), is an historical figure from the late Sengoku / early Edo period. Born Naoyuki Ban (塙 直之, 1567-1615). He was a samurai general legendary for his enormous strength and leadership qualities. Danemon Ban – The Monster Exterminator has fun with the legend of Danemon Ban using his rumoured love of drinking and fighting to set up amusing gags. He strides confidently onto the screen on his extra-tall geta (wooden sandals) and pushes through a gaggle of men to read a sign posted at the foot of an oversized, pagoda-like castle and reads that there is a reward of 1000 ryo for the man who defeats the monster in the haunted mansion.

In order to read the sign this legend of old amusingly squints and pulls out some spectacles because it turns out that Ban is short sighted. Then he announces that he will defeat the monster not in order to be a hero, but to pay for his sake. The gags continue inside the haunted castle. Danemon Ban discovers a beautiful woman with a Betty Boop-esque face dressed in a kimono and bound with rope. When he tries to free her, she reveals herself to be a monster and her magic causes him to fall asleep. A one-eyed serpent monster descends from the ceiling and licks his head so that the woman can shave him bald. A humiliating ritual, which I suspect is a reference to the tradition of a samurai’s hair being shorn off in defeat.

In the next scene it is revealed that these two monsters haunting the mansion are actually tanuki (raccoon dogs) in disguise. In Japanese legends, tanuki are shapeshifters who are notorious for causing trouble in the human world. When Danemon Ban wakes, they transform themselves into human beings, with the head tanuki turning himself into the popular one-armed ronin Sazen Tange announcing “I am the tanuki movie star!” (read previous review of Chameko’s Day for more on Sazen Tange). Danemon Ban must defeat the tanuki in order to win the 1000 ryo reward.

Animated by Yoshitaro Kataoka (片岡芳太郎), Danemon Ban – Monster Exterminator was written by Kazumitsu Masuda and partly inspired by the song “Raccoon Dogs on a Moonlit Night” (Shojoji no tanuki-bayashi) by Ujo Nobushi and Shinpei Nakayama. Kataoka uses some wonderfully innovative techniques in this film. For example, when Danemon Ban approaches the mansion, he hears the woman crying for help and Kataoka animates her words as they travel to Ban’s ears. The way in which Ban’s horror at seeing the woman transform into a monster is depicted by using the shadow of her hand over his shocked face and the vortex depicting his dizziness as the magic puts him to sleep reminded me of the special effect techniques that Alfred Hitchcock would use many years later in films like Spellbound (1945), Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958). Simple, but highly effective ways of visually depicting extreme emotional states.  I also really liked the overhead shots of Dan taking down circle after circle of disguised tanuki with his club.  In reminded me of a phenakistoscope.  

There is a shorter benshi cut of Danemon Ban – Monster Exterminator extant and available on the Digital Meme Japanese Anime Classic Collection Box Set. The benshi performance on this version is done by  Midori Sawato. It is not as good as seeing her perform live – which I did at the First Benshi Performance that I ever attended back in 2006 – but it’s the next best thing. 

The sound version of Danemon Ban – Monster Exterminator appears on the Zakka Films DVD The Roots of Japanese Anime: Until the End of WWII. Of the 8 works appearing on this DVD, Danemon Ban is in the worst condition. The years have not been kind to early Japanese animation and cinema – with the vast majority of films produced pre-WWII being either lost or existing only in fragmentary form. Despite the heavy scratching and flashing on this extant print of Danemon Ban, the beauty and originality of Kataoka and his animation team still shines through. We are indeed lucky that the efforts of Japanese archivists have at least managed to preserve this delightful film.

The Roots of Japanese Anime has optional English subtitles and comes with an informative booklet featuring an historical overview by Jasper Sharp (Midnight Eye) and film notes by Aaron Gerow (Yale U). Individuals can purchase this DVD for a reasonable price from independent film distributor Film Baby. Institutions should contact Zakka Films directly for purchasing information.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

19 October 2011

Chameko’s Day (茶目子の一日, 1931)

Chameko's Day is a popular Japanese children's song from the pre-war period.  Written by Kōka Sassa of the Asakusa Opera it was first recorded in 1919 with Tokiko Kimura playing the role of Chameko, Kikuyo Amano as her mother and Kiyoshi Itoh as her teacher and the benshi narrator. The song was rerecorded in 1929 with child star Hideko Hirai and Asakusa Opera performers Ruby Takai and Teiichi Futamua and became a big hit for Victor Records. This popular recording of the song inspired the unusual animated short Chameko’s Day (茶目子の一日/Chameko no ichinichi, 1931).

This is not a synchronous sound film but a silent film designed to be played synchronously with a phonograph record. This was a common type of animated short at the time. Other examples include Noburo Ofuji’s chiyogami cutout animations Song of Spring (1931) and Black Cat (Kuronyago, 1931) – the latter of which also features the voice of Hideko Hirai. Chameko’s Day is also a cutout film but directed by lesser known animator Kiyoshi Nishikura. This is believed to Nishikura’s only attempt at directing a film, although he actively worked as an animator and cinematographer for Kenzo Masaoka on films such as Sakura (1946) and Tora-chan, Abandoned Kitten (1947).

Lion Toothpaste product placement / promotional material for the film / the original phonograph record of the song

As the title suggests, the story follows a day in the life of a young girl named Chameko. The song begins by setting the scene with an ode to the morning followed by observations of urban daily life: the neighbour’s laundry hanging outside, an old lady who calls out “Natto! Natto!” as she sells her wares (natto = fermented soy beans). Chameko’s mother tells her to get up and she begins her daily routine: putting on her school uniform, brushing her teeth, washing her face, eating breakfast. She then braves the city streets to walk to school. At school, Chameko is taught math and reading. After school, she convinces her mother to take her out to the movies. They watch a newsreel about Kinue Hitomi (人見 絹枝, 1907-31), the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic medal, followed by a Tange Sazen movie. For a children’s animation, the film ends on a very surprising note with Tange Sazen’s sword chopping the heads off three men. “Let’s go again next Sunday!” sings Chameko.

Nishikura’s cutout animation seems choppy in comparison to the smoothness of other cutout animation of the time like Yasuji Murata’s The Monkey Masamune (1930) and Ofuji’s The Village Festival (1930). At one point, when Chameko bends over, her body divides in two revealing that she is a cutout. I am not sure if the lack of smoothness to the animation points to a lack of skill on the part of the animator, because it may well have been intentional on the part of Nishikura. He seems to be experimenting with many different styles in this film and some scenes may be deliberately choppy in style – to the point of surrealism at times. The transitions between scenes are expertly done, which adds to my hunch that the jerkiness was a stylistic choice.  Chameko gets dressed in a flash – which may have seemed like magic to children at the time. There is a fascinating sequence in which Chameko’s breakfast comes to life including a hilarious sequence in which her dishes and chopsticks and even the stinky natto dance.  

This film contains the earliest example of product placement that I have seen in a Japanese animation. Chameko proclaims that she brushes her teeth with Lion Toothpaste every day. Lion – which continues to sell toothpaste and other products today – launched Japan’s first toothpaste in a tube in 1911 followed by a variety for children in 1913. The scene also features the Banzai Toothbrush which was designed by Lion in 1914 with the assistance of an institution known today as the Tokyo Dental College.

The film really does give us a glimpse of life in early 1930s Japan in terms of popular culture. In the cinema sequence at the end, actual newsreel footage of Kinue Hitomi (read about her here), is innovatively integrated  into the image with the cutouts acting as a frame to the live action footage. It is a rather poignant moment as Hitomi, who had won silver in the 800 meters at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, died prematurely of pneumonia in the same year in which the film was made.

Charlie Chaplin cameo / newsreel of Kinue Hitomi / CU of Tange Sazen / Tange Sazen beheading scene

The animated Tange Sazen (丹下 左膳) film that Chameko sees refers to the popular series directed by Daisuke Itō and starring Denjirō Ōkōchi in the lead role. Tange Sazen is nihilistic ronin who lost his right eye and arm due to an act of betrayal. This fictional character first appeared in a serial novel by Fubo Hayashi that ran in the Mainichi Shimbun from 1927-28 and was later adapted by several film studios into films - with the Daisuke Itō ones being the most successful. Although from today’s perspective ending a children’s film with decapitation seems pretty horrific, as most of the film is surreal with talking and singing breakfast foods, dishes, and utensils – it may well be that children of the day just saw it as a gag and laughed.  The fact that the director liked gags is suggested by my favourite moment in the film: in the traffic scene when Chameko is walking to school a daikon radish jumps about in the traffic and an image of Charlie Chaplin on the side of a truck comes to life in order to catch the daikon in his bowler hat.  

Chameko's Day appears on the Zakka Films DVD The Roots of Japanese Anime.  It is in relatively good condition considering the age of the film.  The DVD has optional English subtitles and comes with an informative booklet featuring an  historical overview by Jasper Sharp (Midnight Eye) and film notes by Aaron Gerow (Yale U). Individuals can purchase this DVD for a reasonable price from independent film distributor Film Baby. Institutions should contact Zakka Films directly for purchasing information.

Kiyoshi Nishikura (西倉喜代治)

Koka Sassa(佐々紅華, 1886-1961)

Hideko Hirai (平井英子, b. 1918)
Chameko’s Mother 
Ruby Takai (高井ルビー, 1904-unknown)
Chameko’s Teacher / the Benshi
Teiichi Futamura (二村定一, 1900-48)

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

12 October 2011

The Monkey Masamune (猿正宗, 1930)

During the late Kamakura period, there lived a famous swordsmith known as Masamune whose renown as a swordsmith was so great that even long after his passing the term “Masamune” was used to describe any fine sword. Even today, the Masamune Prize is awarded to swordsmiths of outstanding skills in their craft. In Yasuji Murata’s cutout animation The Monkey Masamune (猿正宗/Saru masamune, 1930) a humble messenger is rewarded with the gift of a Masamune sword when he saves the life of a monkey and her child.

Murata ((村田安司, 1896-1966), one of Japan’s top early animators, is renowned for his skills as a cutout animator. He learned the craft of animation from Sanae Yamamoto (山本 早苗, 1898-1981) and became a pioneer in the field of educational animation. He made films for the Yokohama Cinema company.

Although the screenplay is an original one by Chuzo Aochi, the tale follows a pattern familiar in Japanese folk tales in which a person rescues an animal and receives a reward for his good deed. In fact, in The Monkey Masamune the messenger performs two good deeds: first saving the monkeys from the wrath of the hunter and after they present him with his reward, he uses the Masamune to rescue the hunter from a wild boar.

The Monkey Masamune is a deceptively simple black and white cutout animation. The cutouts have been so meticulously drawn and move so smoothly that in some scenes they could almost be mistaken for cel animation. In the liner notes to the Zakka Films release, Aaron Gerow explains that Murata “did not just move the pieces of paper, but changed them between frames to show more complex body movements like turning around” (The Roots of Japanese Anime, p.7).

Although the opening sequence consists only of the messenger running to deliver his message, Murata – who by this time was a seasoned animator with more than a dozen animated shorts under his belt – demonstrates his sophistication as an animator by varying the camera distance and angles. In one shot, the camera appears to be tracking left over a painterly landscape that unfolds in the background like a scroll.

When the messenger pauses for a break, we have a panning shot of the landscape that suggests we are seeing it from the messenger’s point-of-view. He playfully looks at the scenery upside-down by bending over and looking between his legs. As his head wiggles amusingly from side-to-side, Murata cuts to an unusual point-of-view shot that shakes back and forth briefly before the man comically falls over and lands on his bottom. We have become inured to the use of shaky cams in POV shots, but for 1930 this was quite unusual and innovative.

Just as I noted in my recent review of Noburo Ofuji’s Chinkoroheibei and the Treasure Box, Murata also uses irises to focus in on dialogue and action.  In the messengers confrontation with the hunter, the a box-shaped matte is placed over the scene, and has the effect of intensifying the drama of the scene.

The Monkey Masamune was originally silent and likely had benshi accompaniment during screenings.  The Roots of Japanese Anime  DVD features the soundtrack that was later added to the film, but there are still the occasional title cards that point to the film’s origins as a silent film. The film is not in as good a condition as the Ofuji films on the DVD, but despite the flashing and scratching it is still watchable.

The Zakka Films DVD has optional English subtitles and comes with an informative booklet featuring an  historical overview by Jasper Sharp (Midnight Eye) and film notes by Aaron Gerow (Yale U). Individuals can purchase this DVD for a reasonable price from independent film distributor Film Baby. Institutions should contact Zakka Films directly for purchasing information.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

10 October 2011

Chinkoroheibei and the Treasure Box (ちんころ平平玉手箱, 1936)

The early anime pioneer Noburo Ofuji (大藤 信郎, 1900-1961) is best known for his kirigami (cutout) animaton and kage-e (silhouette) animation. He was also quite skilled in the art of cel animation as demonstrated by his 1936 animated short Chinkoroheibei and the Treasure Box (ちんころ平平玉手箱/Chinkoroheibei to tamatebako).

An upbeat, lively animation aimed at a young audience, Chinkoroheibei and the Treasure Box tells the tale of a young fellow named Chinkoroheibei. He is a mischievous character with a real knack for getting himself into trouble either unwittingly or due to his own heedless actions. Taking a nap under a tree, a spider falls into his mouth and when Chinkoroheibei spits it out, the poor creature has lost some of his legs causing a turtle to laugh at the spider's misery. This inspires Chinkoroheibei to poke at the turtle, causing the turtle to bite Chinkoroheibei’s finger in order to escape. Incensed, Chinkoroheibei  runs after the turtle who leads him into the sea.

Underwater, Chinkoroheibei discovers the wondrous palace of the fish king. A big celebration is underway with the large fish king surrounded by cheering smaller fish with their unusual round black heads. Initially, Chinkoroheibei is not allowed into the party but he disguises himself as a fish and enters the palace. He watches as the fish king is presented with a box that the fish and crabs use to perform magic tricks in which bubbles are transformed into various sea creatures. Chinkoroheibei recognizes the box as the “legendary treasure box” and schemes to steal it away. A comical chase sequence ensues with Chinkoroheibei receiving his comeuppance in the end.

In addition to using the kind of slapstick comedy popular in both animated and live action cinema of the day, Ofuji also uses a visual device developed in the silent period: the iris. As zoom lenses were rarity in the 1930s, irises were used in order to focus attention on one part of the screen. In the case of cel animation, it removes the need to draw a new background in order to shoot a close up. A matte is placed over the existing image and gives a similar effect as a close up.

Examples of the use of irises and mattes in Chinkoroheibei.
Ofuji uses mattes (cutout frames) not just as irises but also cut into cloud shapes to focus attention on one part of the screen. Some of the mattes even appear to be made of patterned chiyogami. At first, I thought the cloud-shaped mattes may have been used for practical reasons – covering part of the frame in a matte reduces the amount of the screen that needed to be drawn and re-drawn on celluloid, an expensive commodity at the time. Ofuji may also have been saving time on certain scenes in order to have more time to work on more complex scenes like the celebration of the fish king and the dramatic final chase scene. But, then in one of the shots of the treasure box, some of the creatures that appear out of the bubbles swim away over the chiyogami matte, suggesting that Ofuji may just have used the mattes because they simply appealed to him aesthetically.

Chinkoroheibei resembles a kind of tailless mouse with small, round ears.  He bears a striking resemblance to Mickey Mouse. Japanese animators in the 1930s (and the next generation of animators and manga-ka who were just children at the time like Osamu Tezuka, Takashi Yanase, Yoichi Kotabe, Monkey Punch, and so on) were strongly influenced by the two of biggest names in animation of the time: Walt Disney and the Fleischer brothers. This stylistic influence can be seen not only in the character design, movement, and use of physical comedy in Chinkoroheibei and the Treasure Box, but also in other cel animation by Ofui and his peers.  Kon Ichikawa’s Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama (1936), Yasuji Murata’s Private 2nd Class Norakuro (1934), and Mitsuyo Seo’s Sankichi the Monkey: The Storm Troopers (1934) are a few examples that I have seen.
Examples of complex animated sequences in Chinkoroheibei.

Ofuji uses the standard cel animation practice of using a stationary background with movement in the middle- and fore-ground. The character movement is smoother than in his cutout animation (see: The Village Festival or Song of Spring). Ofuji adds depth to the underwater scenes through the use of bubbles and swaying sea plants both in front of and behind the central action. The most impressive scene technically is the final chase scene. Water is notoriously difficult to animate and Ofuji does a stellar job of it considering the technical limitations of the time.

Chinkoroheibei and the Treasure Box  appears on the Zakka Films DVD The Roots of Japanese Anime with optional English subtitles. A striking image of Chinkoroheibei in profile is used on cover of and in promotional materials for the DVD.  The Roots of Japanese Anime comes with an informative booklet that includes historical background by Jasper Sharp (Midnight Eye) and film notes by Aaron Gerow (Yale U). Individuals can purchase this DVD for a reasonable price from independent film distributor Film Baby. Institutions should contact Zakka Films directly for purchasing information.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

Nishikata Kids: Anna on My Neighbour Totoro

An interview with Anna
Age: 6 1/2

What is your favourite anime?

What do you like about Totoro?
The cat-bus [nekobasu] and the little dust bunnies [makkuro-kurosuke].

If you could be a character in the film, which one would you be?
The big sister Satsuki because she looks after Mei and tries to cheer her up and Mei gives her hugs.

If you saw a Totoro in real life would you be scared or excited?
Excited because I would be on his belly and go to sleep like this [she curls up like a cat to demonstrate].

Where do Totoro live?
In a tree log where it’s sunny and pretty with beautiful flowers.

What is the funniest moment in the film?
When Mei sees the dust bunnies for the first time.
And when the bus cat is smiling like this [she makes a BIG GRIN].

What do you think will happen in the future for the family?
The Mommy will get better.

Are there any other anime that you like at the moment?
Lizard Planet. I like the big lizard on the planet. The other lizards are cool too.

06 October 2011

Song of Spring (春の唄, 1931)

Noburo Ofuji (大藤 信郎, 1900-1961) is one of Japan’s top animation pioneers. His innovative chiyogami films represent some of the best in pre-Toei Doga animation. Cutouts were a common animation technique in the 1920s and 1930s because of their cost effectiveness. Not only was celluloid expensive because it needed to be imported, but cutouts can be used over and over again, reducing the more time-consuming manual labour of drawing individual frames for cel animation.

Song of Spring (春の唄/Haru no uta, 1931) demonstrates how Ofuji’s films stood out from those of his contemporaries because of his use of the unique textures and shapes of chiyogami. Originating in the Edo era, chiyogami is a brightly coloured type of paper traditionally printed using woodblocks. In Song of Spring, the use of chiyogami complements the aim of the film to teach children about national symbols (cherry blossoms, the hinomaru) and traditions (kimono costume, dancing and celebrating the arriving of spring).

Like his earlier work The Village Festival (村祭, 1930), Ofuji’s Song of Spring is a sing-along animated short aimed at a young audience. Instead of the “Follow the Bouncing Ball” technique which Ofuji used in The Village Festival, Song of Spring opens with a sheet of music onto which katakana appear one by one, spelling out the lyrics to the first verse.

The land of cherry blossoms
Sakura, Sakura
Flower blossoms blow in from east and west
Covering the asphalt here as well
My step turns wild amidst whirling cherry petals

The land of cherry blossoms
Sakura, Sakura
I think of you as spring bursts forth
A chandelier shining in my dreams
A bright kimono amidst the whirling cherry petals

The song, performed by Kikuko Inoue of the Asakusa Opera, is very catchy. While the song’s themes may be very Japanese, the song has a Western flavour to the performance style. I was reminded of patriotic music invoking nature from other countries like Flower of Scotland, Canada’s The Maple Leaf Forever, or Vera Lynn’s The White Cliffs of Dover. In fact, I would describe Inoue’s singing style as a kind of high-pitched Vera Lynn. In the DVD notes, Aaron Gerow mentions that the Asakusa Opera played an influential role in introducing Western music and musical theatre to Japan (p. 5).

The complexity of Ofuji’s cutout technique is apparent during the opening credits where he has movement happening in more than one part of the frame. Each section of the film is given its own scene. The first verse and its repeat are illustrated by the music score with lyrics and a cute sequence of dancing cherry blossoms with feet. During the instrumental bridge, Ofuji has designed a lovely sequence using cherry blossom shapes that move and develop like a kaleidoscope. The complexity of the animation increases throughout the film with the pièce de résistance being the lovely final sequence where a girl in kimono dances. The sophistication of movement as the girl mimics the whirling of the cherry blossoms is as expertly done as a Lotte Reiniger silhouette animation from the same time period.

The version of Song of Spring on the Zakka Films DVD is truly remarkable as a rare example of tinting in a pre-war Japanese film. Early cinema was not only black and white but quite often tinted either by soaking the film in dye in order to stain the film emulsion or hand tinted. Notable examples include Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, 1926) and the recently restored A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune, 1902) by Georges Méliès, which premiered at Cannes in May and is screening at the BFI London Film Festival this month.

Certain colours in tinting were associated with different locations or times of day. An amber tint would be used for daylight interiors, for example, while a blue tint would suggest a moonlit night. . . or water as in the below image from The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Ofuji has gone with a pink tint in keeping with the cherry blossom theme of the song.

The opening title cards suggest that Ofuji shot the film on a Pathé Baby (パテ・ベイビー). The Pathé Baby film system used a unique 9.5mm film format introduced by Pathé Frères in 1922 and became quite popular in Europe in the 20s and 30s. The Pathé Baby did not record sound, so Song of Spring was designed to be played simultaneously with a Columbia Records phonograph record of the song. Not only does Columbia Records appear in the opening credits of the film, but the film ends on a shot of a Columbia Records phonograph record spinning amongst the cherry blossoms.

Song of Spring appears on the Zakka Films DVD The Roots of Japanese Anime with optional English subtitles. The DVD comes with an informative booklet that includes historical background by Jasper Sharp (Midnight Eye) and film notes by Aaron Gerow (Yale U). Individuals can purchase this DVD for a reasonable price from independent film distributor Film Baby. Institutions should contact Zakka Films directly for purchasing information.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

Jours d'Hiver: The French release of Kihachiro Kawamoto's Winter Days (2003)

The strong cultural ties between France and Japan means that many treasures of Japanese cinema and animation unavailable elsewhere can be found on DVD in France. Living in Europe it’s a great alternative to ordering DVDs from Japan as the prices are more reasonable than overpriced Japanese DVDs and one doesn’t need to worry about customs.

Some recent treasures that I have picked up from France include Naomi Kawase’s Shara (沙羅双樹, 2003) and The Mourning Forest (La Forêt de Mogari/殯の森, 2007). I am very excited about indie label Choses Vues picking up Shohei Imamura’s classic A Man Vanishes (L'Evaporation de l'homme/人間蒸発, 1967) for release this coming December.

This week I got my paws on the 2008 les films du paradoxe release of Winter Days (Jours d'Hiver/冬の日, 2003), a collaborative animation adaptation of a renku poem that I reviewed for Midnight Eye in 2008. It was a bittersweet experience re-watching the film and its "Making Of" footage as three of the animators, project coordinator Kihachiro Kawamoto, Prof. Masahiro Katayama, and Reiko Okuyama have passed away since the film was first released.

Apart from Jours d’Hiver the only other foreign DVD release of the film that I know of is in Korea. There were two DVD versions released in Japan – neither of which have subtitles. I have the slim line version which features "Making Of" extras and a collection of 8 postcard-sized illustrations and storyboards by Yuri Norstein and Kawamoto. There is also an insanely priced complete box set containing the film DVD plus 8 additional "Making Of" DVDs for a total of 945 minutes for hard core animation fans. Rumour has it that the box set footage is poorly shot and edited.  This knowledge, combined with prohibitive price, means that I will wait to check it out in a film library the next time I make a research trip to Japan.

Renku Animation "Fuyu no Hi" / Animation
1 disc + 8 illustrations/storyboards for 6,800 yen

The French DVD is very similar in content to the slim line Japanese release with the film in its entirety and the "Making Of" doc. With their cover art les films du paradoxe have clearly chosen to highlight Kawamoto’s role as organizer of the collaborative film using the cheerful image of Kawamoto’s Bashō puppet with his arm outstretched in friendly invitation. The cover also highlights the names of 9 of the most well known directors in Europe: Yuri Norstein, Aleksandr Petrov, Břetislav Pojar, Isao Takahata, Co Hoedeman, Raoul Servais, Mark Baker, Jacques Drouin, and Koji Yamamura.

The renku poem has been translated into French by the documentary filmmaker Catherine Cadou. Cadou is best known to fans of Japanese cinema for her work as an interpreter and assistant for Akira Kurosawa in his later years. Her documentary Kurosawa’s Way (Kurosawa, la voie, 2011) showed at Cannes to much acclaim in the spring and will be screened at TIFF Tokyo later this month (learn more about this doc at Wildgrounds).

Catherine Cadou’s translation of Winter Days is narrated by a series of voices over the Japanese title cards that appear at the beginning of each short, mimicking the style of the original Japanese voice track. The full French text also appears in the beautiful accompanying booklet (in lieu of the 8 illustrations/storyboards in the JP edition) with each stanza illustrated with full colour stills from its corresponding animated short. The booklet also contains short profiles of all the animation directors and an interview that Julien Bastide did with Kihachiro Kawamoto about the project for AnimeLand back in 2003 when the film had its premiere in France. The interview provides insights into how the project was conceived and how Kawamoto exerted creative control over the project. For example, I learned that in addition to Norstein receiving the honour of going first, that Kawamoto considered the stanzas written by Bashō himself (1st, 8th, 11th, 18th, 21st, 28th, and 31st) to be the most important. He divided the remaining six Bashō stanzas equally between Japanese (Furukawa/Okuyama and Kotabe/Takahata) and non-Japanese animators (Servais/Pojar/Baker) reserving the one he felt was the most challenging of these for the capable direction of Isao Takahata.

In my earlier screenings of Winter Days, I had not noticed that the composer for the film was Shinichiro Ikebe (池辺 晋一郎, b. 1943). Ikebe is a highly sought after composer having written the scores for many acclaimed films by  Kurosawa (Kagemusha, Madadayo, Dreams, Rhapsody in August). Other notable film scores by Ikebe include Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (1979), The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001), MacArthur's Children (Masahiro Shinoda, 1984), and the Future Boy Conan animation series (Hayao Miyazaki, 1978).

My only criticism of the French release of Winter Days is the fact that they have removed the Japanese voice track entirely. It would have been much more satisfying to have the option of watching the film in its original version with French subs. As I already have the original version it does not affect me personally, but animation collectors who do not speak French should take this into consideration. The "Making Of" documentary is subtitled not dubbed – several of the 17 animators featured in this footage speak French (Drouin, Servais, Hoedeman) and are not subtitled.

I personally delighted in Cadou’s interpretation of the renku as it gave me a fresh perspective on the poem itself as well as the animation adaptations.  It seems a shame that the film has never been picked up for English release given the prestige of the many animators who contributed to this unique project.