26 December 2012

Nishikata’s Best Japanese Indie Animation 2012

The year of the dragon got off to a blazing start with the experimental filmmaker Isamu Hirabayashi winning the Noburo Ofuji Award for innovation in animation in January for his contemplative film 663114 (2011) which was inspired by the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster of March 2011.  Then in February, Atsushi Wada’s French-Japanese co-production The Great Rabbit (2012) won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale.  Wada’s Mechanism of Spring (2010) also won for best short film at Anifest 2012 .  It was a great pleasure for me to have Wada as a guest at Nippon Connection in Frankfurt in the spring.  Other notable successes in 2012 (too many to list in full here!) included Mirai Mizue’s Modern No. 2 (2011) winning the Sacem award for original music at Annecy and Yoriko Mizushiri’s Futon (2012) winning the Renzō Kinoshita Prize at Hiroshima.

There were also a number of notable international animation events involving Japanese animators this year.  I had the privilege of attending the tribute to Kihachirō Kawamoto and Yuri Norstein at the Forum des Images in Paris in March.  A number of  top Japanese animators took part in Animafest Zagreb’s celebration of its 40th anniversary this year which included a retrospective of the career of experimental animation pioneer Yōji Kuri who was honoured with the Animafest Lifetime Achievement Award.  Kōji Yamamura designed the poster for the Ottawa International Animation Festival and gave master classes in the UK and France in November (see Zewebanim’s interview with him – FR/JP only).

Things have been quieter than usual on Nishikata Film Review the past few months due to my teaching commitments and some upheavals in my personal life (I don’t recommend moving house a month before Christmas!), but the weird and wonderful world of independent animation in Japan has been stronger than ever.  Here is my list of the best independently made animation shorts that I have seen this year:

The Great Rabbit (グレートラビット, Atsushi Wada, 2012)

In addition to the Silver Bear, this film has brought Wada recognition at festivals around the world from Fantoche to Hiroshima.  Read review.

Muybridge’s Strings (マイブリッジの糸, Kōji Yamamura, 2011)

Yamamura’s Deleuzian exploration of movement and time hit the festival scene in 2011 and I finally got an opportunity to see it when it came to Nippon Connection.  Now available on DVD and bluray in Canada as part of the NFB’s Animation Express 2 and on a bluray of its own in Japan.  Read review.  Additionally in 2011, Yamamura made a watercolour animation Anthology with Cranes (鶴下絵和歌巻) which aired on NHK BSPremium.  Take a look at this beautiful image from it.

Wonder 365 Animation Project (Mirai Mizue, 2012-13)

The ever prolific Mizue has set himself a big challenge this year: a new short animated film every day for 365 days.  Check it out on Vimeo.  His film Modern No. 2 (Mirai Mizue, 2011) is also one of my favourites seen this year.  Read the review.  If that weren't enough, he also did a fascinating series called Kubrick in February where he explores geometric animation further.  See the playlist.

663114 (Isamu Hirabayashi, 2011)

A profound response to the nuclear disaster of March 2011 from the perspective of a cicada. .  .  read more.

PiKA PiKA Sunlight Doodling Project (TOCHKA, 2011-present)

In the wake of the March 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, TOCHKA started to rethink their methods of animation in terms of renewable energy.  As a result, they adapted their PiKA PiKA lightening animation (see my review of their DVD) from using battery-powered flashlights to harnessing the power of the sun.  See the trailer for their project above. 

WWF 100% Renewable Energy (Amica Kubo, 2012)

This adorable animation was sponsored by WWF Japan as part of their campaign to move Japan away from nuclear energy and towards the use of renewable energy.  Kubo first made a name for herself with her 2006 animated short with Seita Inoue called Bloomed Words.

Kiya Kiya (きやきや, Akino Kondoh, 2010-11)

Another rare animation by New York City-based painter and mangka Akino Kondoh featuring her mysterious alter ego Eiko.  Read more.

Two Tea Two (Hiroco Ichinose, 2010)

One half of the husband and wife animation team Decovocal, Ichinose's films are a wonderful blend of surrealism and humour in the tradition of her mentor Taku Furukawa --- read more about this film.

Holiday (ホリディ, Ryō Hirano, 2011)

One of my great discoveries this year was the work of young animator Hirano who has been making films for several years now.  Learn about him in my piece The Curious Animated World of Ryo Hirano and my review of Holiday.

Monotonous Purgatory (Saori Shiroki, 2012)

Shiroki brings her melancholic aesthetic to a recently released music video for the band Matsyoshka featuring trak maker Sen and female vocalist Calu. To learn more about Shiroki see my series on her films.

Futon (布団, Yoriko Mizushiri, 2012)

In a minimalistic style, Mizushiri captures the sensuality of a woman's relationship with her futon.  Mizushiri is starting to come into her own as an artist - as recognized by the jury at Hiroshima who awarded her  the Renzo Kinoshita Prize.

Beluga (ベルーガ, Shin Hashimoto, 2011)

A nightmarish tale of a young woman's suffering and abuse brought to life.  A modern interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl".  A bloody world filled with senseless violence - not for the faint of heart.

Sound of Life (生活の音, Shiho Hirayama, 2010)

Hirayama experiments with three dimensionality and claymation in this colourful short.  (A cheerful antidote to a screening of Hashimoto's Beluga.)   Read more.  


I am very excited about promising animation that I expect to see released in 2013.  Kei Oyama’s After School got crowd-sourced through CampFire in January and I know of a few other exciting projects underway at the moment.  In the world of indie anime, I was delighted that Masaaki Yuasa and Production I.P.’s Kick-Heart exceeded its funding goals.  Anime director Keiichi Hara, who has also turned to more independent work in recent years (Summer Days with Coo, Colorful), is trying out a new path altogether by directing his first live action feature film for Shochiku.  It is a biopic called Hajimari no Michi (はじまりのみち) about the life of filmmaking legend Keisuke Kinoshita (1912-98) with Ryō Kase (Letters from Iwo Jima, Like Someone in Love, Outrage) in the lead role.  Kon Ichikawa began as an animator (see: Shinsetsu Kachi Kachi Yama) and turned into one of the greatest feature film directors of the 20th century, so it will interesting to see what kind of a film Hara produces.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

28 November 2012

Hatsumi (ハツミ, 2012)

Hatsumi: One Grandmother’s Journey Through the Japanese Canadian Internment (2012)


Tonight sees the launch of the DVD of Chris Hope’s moving documentary Hatsumi: One Grandmother’s Journey Through the Japanese Canadian Internment (2012) at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC) in Toronto.  Since the official Japanese Canadian Redress in 1988 many Nikkei have come forward to tell their stories of forced relocation.  In recent years, at the prompting of their children and grandchildren, many more stories have come to light that add to our understanding of this dark chapter in British Columbia’s history.

Many of the adults who experienced the forced internment have been reluctant to speak of their experiences.  In his animated documentary Minoru: Story of Exile; for example, Michael Fukushima speaks of “those silences” which are such “a large part of [his] identity.”  In Hatsumi, Chris Hope attributes those silences to the notion of shikata ga nai (仕方がな).  This expression literally means “it cannot be helped” and is generally used to describe circumstances that our beyond one’s control.  In North America, the idiom has often been used to explain how the Japanese were able to maintain their dignity in the face of the unavoidable circumstances they found themselves in after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Chris Hope describes how he often tried over the years to get his Nisei “Nana”, Nancy Hatsumi Okura, to tell him about her wartime experiences but that she was unwilling to share the whole painful story.  On the occasion of her eightieth birthday, after her stroke and recovery, Hope decides that the time has come to try to one last time to preserve Nancy Hatsumi's story for posterity.  Okura’s decision to tell her story reveals a wealth of information about herself and her immediate family that had previously remained in photo albums, diaries, and written correspondence.

Told in a straight-forward, first person documentary style, what makes Hope’s film stand out from previous films about the internment experience is his family’s remarkable archive.  His late Issei grandfather, Kenji "Ken" Okura, was an avid photographer and documented his family and his community in remarkable photographs and home videos both before and after the war.  He even managed to smuggle his camera into internment with him and documented his experiences as a forced labourer in Jasper. 

A young, well-to-do Vancouver couple with an infant daughter, both Ken and Nancy Hatsumi kept detailed journals of their experiences from the moment they sold off their dry cleaning business to move to Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island at the beginning of the war.  Hope first tries to get his grandmother to tell her story by having her read parts of her journal out loud but she finds it too painful.  He changes tack and offers to take her to British Columbia to retrace her wartime journey.    

In the 1940s, Telegraph Cove was a quiet fishing village but today is a centre for ecotourism.  The wooden home that Ken Okura built still stands in the village and can be rented by tourists (see: Okura House).  As Nancy Hatsumi tours the house for the first time in over sixty years, the memories come flooding back as if it was yesterday.  An historical plaque dedicated to the Okuras marks the house and she is even able to meet with former neighbours who still live in the cove.  The passage of time has done nothing to dampen the feelings of both parties of the injustice done to the Okuras when they were given only three hours notice to throw together the possessions that they could carry before being shipped off to internment camps.

Hope and his grandmother also visit the unwelcoming livestock building that was used to house the women and children after they were separated from their husbands.  The building looks remarkably unchanged and brings home the inhumanity of how these Canadian citizens were treated by their own government.  Through historical documents such as NFB propaganda films and archival photographs, Hope demonstrates how a terrible combination of fear, ignorance, racism, and greed brought about this shameful injustice.

The most moving moment in the film comes when Chris Hope discovers that his grandmother’s brother, whom she always spoke of in the past tense, is still alive and living in Japan.  At the end of the war, the Japanese were still forbidden from returning to the Pacific Coast and were given two options: to move elsewhere in Canada or to return to Japan.  Nancy Hatsumi’s parents and siblings chose to return to Japan.  Eventually her parents and sisters returned to Canada, but her brother Tadao Hashimoto stayed on in the small city of Gobō in Wakayama Prefecture. 

Hashimoto suffered the most out of all of his family.  Born with childhood glaucoma, the forced internment meant that the family lost the means to pay for his medical treatment and he ended up going blind.  The blind have a special status in Japan – it has the largest Braille library in the world – and since the Tokugawa period blind people have traditionally been trained as anma masseurs.    Hashimoto received an education in Japan and had a successful career as a shiatsu masseur. 

Like his sister, Hashimoto proves reluctant to dwell on the past.  The subtle cultural differences between Canada and Japan raise their head in this sequence with confusion over what to say when entering the house and Hope’s inability to sit Japanese style.  Hope speaks only a few words of Japanese and Hashimoto has lost most of his English, so Nancy Hatsumi acts as the interpreter. In another example of shikata ga nai, Hashimoto is ambivalent towards the internment.  Although he has every right to be angry and bitter, Hashimoto seems content with how his life turned out.  Upon leaving, Nancy Hatsumi displays her “Canadianness” when they leave by embracing and kissing her brother and sister-in-law.   This moving reunion between a brother and sister after more than half a century brings home the terrible wrong done to them by the wartime government.  

With Hatsumi, Chris Hope has created an invaluable record of his grandmother and her family.  She is their last living link to traditional Japanese culture as Japanese Canadians rarely marry other Japanese (see: One Big Hapa Family).  At the same time, the film is an important contribution to the education of current and future generations of Canadians.  Not only does the film teach us about the past, Hope points out that Nancy Hatsumi’s courage in difficult times demonstrates that “the past should never limit a positive outlook for the future.”

Hatsumi is currently available to order via Amazon Canada.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

27 November 2012

Minoru: Memory of Exile (ミノル:逃亡のメモリー, 1992)

“Let our slogan be for British Columbia: No Japs from the Rockies to the sea.”

These were the words famously spoken by Ian Alistair Mackenzie the Liberal Cabinet Minister for Vancouver Centre during the 1944 federal election.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mackenzie had played a key role in the government's decision to intern Japanese-Canadians living on the Pacific coast for the duration of the war.  In the 1970s and 1980s literature and film began to surface addressing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia.  Pierre Burton addressed the subject on his television show and the materials presented were published by Janice Patton in her book The Exodus of the Japanese: Stories from the Pierre Burton Show (1973) and journalist Ken Adachi wrote The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians (1976).  Two semi-autobiographical works, Shizuye Takashima’s A Child in Prison Camp (1971) and Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1981), have become staples in the Canadian classroom because of the moving way that they tell their stories from the point of view of a child.

Since Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s official apology to the victims of this abuse of human rights in 1988, many Nisei, Sansei, and more recently Yonsei have come forward to share their family stories.  Michael Fukushima’s animated documentary Minoru: Memory of Exile (1992) was one of the first of the post-redress films.  His proposal to make an animation based upon his father Minoru Fukushima’s story landed on the desk of William Pettigrew at the NFB at about the same time that they were contacted by the Japanese Canadian Redress Secretariat (JCRS) about the possibility of funding educational films about the internment.

Fukushima did not learn of his father’s experiences until the issue of redress raised his head in the late 1980s.  According to the film’s first-person narration, in the fall of 1987, at the age of 26, Fukushima asked his father for the first time about his childhood.  Fukushima’s guiding voice is interwoven with the voice of his father and accompanied by traditional Japanese music played on the shamisen, koto, and taiko. The animation uses a variety of media including cutouts, paintings, and photographs.

The past and the present are also interwoven through Fukushima’s use of relics of the past in the form of family and archival photographs and archival documents.  As Minoru begins to tell of his happy early childhood in Vancouver, the image of Minoru as a child comes to life in a faded family photograph.  A colourful cutout of Minoru jumps out of the picture and leads us through archival photographs of Vancouver’s city streets.  Minoru looks back fondly on his childhood in Vancouver.  He describes how his parents ran their grocery store for almost 20 years from when they arrived in Canada until their internment.

Minoru speaks of how they were sheltered as children from news of the war.    Even the internment camp didn’t seem that bad to the kids: it was almost like a summer camp and he recalls learning how to swim there.  This is a sentiment shared by renowned environmentalist David Suzuki in his 2007 eponymous autobiography, who wrote that his love of nature was came from the idyllic time he spent in the interior of British Columbia – a time when he was blissfully unaware of the hardships endured by his parents until after the war.   

It is not until the end of the war that things take a turn for the worse.  The Fukushima family discovers that despite being Canadian citizens, they must make a choice of moving somewhere outside of British Columbia in Canada or be deported back to Japan.  It turns out that the internment of Japanese-Canadians ignited “long-standing anti-Japanese sentiments” and local merchants, fishermen, and farmers supported the government in the seizing of all Japanese property and liquidating it.  The funds raised from the sale of their property was used to fund the cost of their own internment.

Uncertain as to what would be best for the family Minoru’s father decides to take the Japan option although Minoru and his siblings cannot speak any Japanese and are Canadian citizens.  They return to their father’s village where they encounter poverty and resentment by the locals who see them as foreigners.  By the time Canada reverses its policy on Japanese Canadians in the late 1940s because of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, their family it too poor to be able to afford the journey back to British Columbia.  In a case of bitter irony, when the Korean War breaks out in 1950, the Canadian government tries to recruit the same Japanese-Canadians they had banished a few years earlier.  Minoru jumps at the chance along with about 40 others and thus begins his journey back to the only country that ever felt like home to him – despite the injustice and racism he experienced there. 

Minoru: Memory of Exile is an early example of an animated documentary – a medium that has become more common nowadays with great films like Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) and Ryan (Chris Landreth, 2004).  It demonstrates the unique ability of animation to express things with greater depth and poignancy than mere archival footage or interview footage could ever do.  The animation fills the “silences” that Fukushima speaks of as being a large part of his identity as a Sansei Canaidan.  Following in his footsteps, Yonsei Canadian animator/documentary filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns also used animation to bring to life his Uncle Suey Koga’s stories about the internment in his feature length documentary One Big Hapa Family (read review). 

Michael Fukushima directed at least one other animation at the NFB before beginning his transition into becoming a producer.  Over the past decade he has built a reputation over as one of Canada’s top animation producers.  Minoru: Memory of Exile shows us his roots as an artist in his own right.  It is both informative and moving in how it tells the story of Minoru.   A warm tribute from a son in recognition of the sacrifices made by both his father and his grandparents to enable him to grow up Canadian.  

Related Reading: Michael Fukushima: The Art of Producing Art

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

Michael Fukushima

Minoru Fukushima
Michael Fukushima

animation assistance/colour rendering
Faye Hamilton

William Pettigrew

additional colour rendering
Colette Brière
sound design
Normand Roger

John Endo Greenaway

Teresa Kobayashi

Takeo Yamashiro

animation camera
Jacques Avoine
Ray Dumas
Lynda Pelley

Jean-Pierre Joutel

apprentice mixer
Terry Mardini

23 November 2012

Michael Fukushima: The Art of Producing Art

As part of its Canadian Spotlight, the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival hosted an evening with renowned NFB producer Michael Fukushima on November 7, 2012 entitled Michael Fukushima: The Art of Producing Art.  The evening was moderated by Aram Siu Wai Collier and featured both conversations with Fukushima and a selection of films.  Fukushima notably worked with Koji Yamamura on Muybridge’s Strings (2011).  Other notable animated shorts that he has produced include Christopher Hinton’s Genie-award winning cNote (2005) and Ann Marie Fleming’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (2010.) The evening’s proceedings were uploaded onto YouTube.  I have summarized the proceeding below with some added context and links to related NFB content.

Original Programme:
Minoru: Memory of Exile (Michael Fukushima, 1992)
cNote (Christopher Hinton, 2011)
Flutter (Howie Shia, 2006)
Jaime Lo, small and shy (Lillian Chan, 2006)
Dimanche (Sunday, Patrick Doyon, 2011)

Due to technical difficulties they weren’t able to screen cNote (but you can watch it online here).  The evening began with Fukushima’s directorial debut Minoru: Memory of Exile.  Fukushima was very modest about his abilities as an animator, but this is a very impressive film which I have been meaning to write a review of for some time.  Fukushima’s proposal for this film is what brought him to the NFB in 1990.  His invitation was thanks to what he called “a whole series of wonderful serendipitous convergences.”  His proposal landed on producer William “Bill” Pettigrew’s desk at around the same time that he was asked to look into funding projects that addressed the internment of Japanese living on the west coast of British Columbia during the Second World War.  This followed in the wake of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s historic apology to Japanese Canadians on September 22, 1988 and the compensation offered to victims of the internment.  The redress included funds for educational materials.

Minoru: Memory of Exile by Michael Fukushima, National Film Board of Canada

Minoru: Memory of Exile is an animated documentary about Fukushima’s father Minoru and his experiences during and after the internment.  It took about two years to make this 18 minute film which was handmade and shot on film.  It won a couple of awards including Best Short Documentary at the Toronto Hot Docs festival in Toronto in its inaugural year.  At the time, the genre of animated documentary was a new form.  Fukushima himself had actually conceived of the film as a completely fictional animation but during the development process, it became clear to Fukushima and Pettigrew that in order to make the story more poignant, it needed to have more of an element of the real.  

Pettrigrew had himself started out at the NFB as a documentary filmmaker with films such as Kuralek (1967), Oskee Wee Wee (1968), Epilogue (1971), and The Vinland Mystery (1984) and recognized the potential of bringing animation and documentary together.  It had never occurred to Fukushima before that one could “marry documentary and animation” so this was a significant moment in the creative process for him.

The producer David Verrall helped Fukushima edit his film.  Verrall produced more than 240 films during his NFB career including Bob’s Birthday (Alison Snowden and David Fine, 1993), When the Day Breaks (Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, 1999), Village Idiots (Rose Newlove, 2000), Ryan (Chris Landreth, 2004), The Danish Poet (Torill Kove, 2006).  Through his experiences with Verral and Pettigrew, Fukushima “came to realize that being a producer is more than just being a manager” and said that he thought that “it was at that moment that the seed was planted” for his trajectory to becoming a producer.

I was surprised to learn that Fukushima was initially resistant to the idea of making Minoru the film more personal because “It was still raw.  I honestly didn’t think I could do it.  .  .  to give justice to the story.  .  .”  He had only just recently discovered the story of his father because of Minoru Fukushima’s receiving of a compensation package from the government.   This had prompted his father to tell him the story.  Fresh out of college and with no experience with documentary filmmaking, Fukushima was concerned about how to tackle the subject matter.  At the time there was a huge debate in the documentary community about “veracity” with people asking “Who gets to tell stories?” and it seems that Fukushima was very sensitive about this.  In the end, Pettigrew recognized the potential for how Fukushima as an artist could make the important story his father had to tell much more accessible and poignant for audiences while at the same time being “very subversive.”  Fukushima credits Pettigrew with teaching him that “animation has a way of sneaking up on audiences and catching them unawares, and having a greater impact because of that.”

After Minoru, the Reel Asian audience watched Flutter (Howie Shia, 2006) and Jamie Lo, small and shy (Lillian Chan, 2006).  Jaime Lo came out of the Talespinners Collection which was an initiative designed to encourage young, relatively inexperienced animators who reflect Canada’s ethnic diversity to make animated films for children.  First the NFB took the “safe route” of optioning a number of children’s books by non-white authors to adapt.  Fukushima produced one of this first batch of films and while he was pleased with the result felt that they could push it further and suggested putting out a call for proposals from young filmmakers about the minority experience in Canada.   It was through this they discovered great talent like Lillian Chan and Jonathon Ng.  They produced some terrific films for kids that were not necessarily about “being Asian” or “an ethnic minority” but were rather “coloured by their experience of being Asian.”

Flutter by Howie Shia, National Film Board of Canada

Fukushima was introduced to Howie Shia by the Hothouse emerging filmmakers programme for which Shia had made the great short short animation Ice Ages (2004).  Shia came to Fukushima with the idea behind Flutter: a boy that just “runs and runs and runs.”  It turned into what Fukushima calls a “beautiful, elegiac poem about search; about love; about how.   .  .  you just have to dive into life and life takes you.  .  .”  The film went on to win the Open Entries Grand Prize at the Tokyo Anime Awards in 2007 – the first animation produced outside of Asia to do so.

Asthma Tech by Jonathan Ng, National Film Board of Canada

After the films were screened Lillian Chan and Jonathan Ng – director of another great Talespinners film called Asthma Tech (2006) – joined Fukushima on the stage to discuss Fukushima as a producer.  Ng was concerned that he might end up becoming too “gushing” about Fukushima.  He praised him as behind different from other producers because he has a knack for understanding the needs of the director.  In Ng’s case, he likes to be left alone during the creative process and he was appreciative of the fact that Fukushima gave him “a lot of leeway,” which is quite remarkable as Ng did not have a lot of experience as an animator at the time.

Collier asks if this hands off approach is something Fukushima tailors to specific animators or if it is his “style” as a producer and Fukushima says that to him “getting engaged on a filmmaker’s personality and their working style is fundamental to being a good producer for me.  It’s a relationship.  With animation it can be a 2, sometimes 3 year relationship and it’s pretty intimate.” Because of the deep emotional investment that he has as a producer, it’s important to Fukushima that he find animators with whom he can foster a good working relationship.   He sees no point in badgering an artist like Ng, who prefers to be left alone, when that won’t bring any results.  He also mentioned that he enjoys picking apart films and discussing them, but finds that it isn’t always productive or useful.  It sounds like a very delicate process. 

Jaime Lo, small and shy by Lillian Chan, National Film Board of Canada

Lillian Chan said that she moved to Montreal to work on Jaime Lo, small and shy and that Fukushima warned her at the outset that production meetings can sometimes involve tempers and people walking out of the room and that that was okay and a normal part of the process.  Chan was surprised to realize that it could be “that intense of a process.”  She doesn’t recall having any shouting matches with Fukushima herself, but she remembers that initially the story for the film wasn’t fully fleshed out and she was given several months just to work on the story.  She really respects Fukushima for giving her the time that she needed to get to the right space with the film on her own.  Fukushima would give her a critique of the film that would identify very precisely what the problems were with the film, but would not tell her how to solve the problem.  She wanted definitive answers for her problems, but Fukushima instead offered suggestions, encouraging her to problem-solve issues on her own.  This forced her, Chan explained, to come to terms with her own creative process.

Chan asks Fukushima how he finds it different working with young filmmakers like her and Ng as opposed to more experienced filmmakers as she imagines that this would be a different experience.    Fukushima claims that there is often very little differences working with a veteran as opposed to an emerging filmmaker as long as the framework of the roles of producer and director have been set up clearly from the beginning.   He addresses the fact that it is not only a two way relationship but a three way relationship which includes institution of the NFB.  The NFB is “a very scary beast for veteran filmmakers and it must be terrifying for younger filmmakers.”  The most important thing for Fukushima is establishing his relationship with the filmmaker.  He sees his role as not only an advocate and champion of his artists, but also someone who will challenge them artistically.  The only difference is that veteran filmmakers tend to have greater self confidence and a greater sense of what will work and won’t work for them artistically.

The final film of the evening was Patrik Doyon’s Oscar nominated film Dimanche (2011).  Like Ng, Doyon was not classically trained as an animator, but rather had training in illustration.  He also came into contact with Fukushima through the Hothouse project.  After Hothouse, Doyon approached the NFB with a proposal about life as a child in rural Quebec .  It ended up being a co-production with the French language ONF studio (the French branch of the NFB).  Dimanche won Doyon the 2012 Jutra Award for Best Animated Film.  Many people at the NFB pushed it as a children’s film, but Fukushima obviously thinks that it is more than that.  They pushed the NFB to send it to the Berlinale where it won a prize, which led the NFB to get behind the film even more.

Unfortunately they seem to have run out of time at this point in the evening.  I had been looking forward to hearing to listening to Fukushima talk about his transition from director to producer.   He seems to have a close relationship with Reel Asian however and there was a suggestion that they would invite him back at some point in the future.  I was impressed by Aram Siu Wai Collier as the moderator for the event.  He asked very thoughtful and engaging questions.  With the online availability of these superb short films plus the video record of the event, it was the next best thing to being there in person.  

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

10 October 2012

Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン, 1983)

The popular mediums of the comics and animation sometimes get dismissed as mere amusements for children, but they can also be powerful tools for expression and education.  For the mangaka Keiji Nakazawa, his manga serial Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン/Hadashi no Gen, 1973-74) was his method of coming to terms with his experiences of the atom bomb and his continuing bitterness as a hibakusha with postwar politics in Japan (Learn more in Asai Motofumi’s interview with Nakazawa in Japan Forum).

Nakazawa’s manga has not only educated generations of post-war Japanese about the bombing of Hiroshima from a child’s perspective, but it has also inspired other artists to follow in his footsteps and harness the power of the comics format to give voice to the unspeakable.  Most notably, Art Spiegelman has cited Barefoot Gen as having had a significant impact on him during the making of Maus (1991).

Madhouse’s 1983 adaptation of Barefoot Gen under the direction of Masaki Mori remains true to the message of its source material in its unflinching portrayal of the devastation wrought by the atom bomb on the people of Hiroshima.  Like other classics of the anti-war genre – Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita’s Pica-don (ピカドン, 1978) and Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓/Hotaru no Haka, 1988) – the story is powerful because it portrays the inhumanity of war from the perspective of its most innocent victims: children. 

The iconic Genbaku Dome during the blast

Gen is a grade school boy who lives with his father, heavily pregnant mother, older sister, and bratty younger brother in the summer of 1945.  His father is a wheat farmer but despite good crops, they have fallen on hard times because no one can afford to pay them for their produce.  This is a great story for teaching students because it smashes a lot of widely held myths about the Japanese blindly following the will of their leaders during the war.  As was true of Nakazawa’s own father, Gen’s father holds dangerous left-wing views that could get him into trouble with authorities:  he is against the war and Japan’s policies and boldly prophecises to his sons that Japan will lose this war. 

Suspense is built in the lead up to the dropping of the bomb through repeated false warning trips to the air raid shelter, and the father’s growing suspicion that the fact that other major cities are being bombed more often than Hiroshima is a bad sign.  The anime intersperses the emotional personal drama of Gen, his family, and neighbours with sequences with an impersonal documentary narration that tell us the facts about the war and what the armed forces are doing.  Thus, we know that the Enola Gay is coming before the characters do themselves.  The bomb is even shown from the perspective of the Enola Gay as it falls silently onto the city.

The “pica” of the flash is depicted in black and white – as was in the Kinoshitas’ depiction of the same moment.  The “don” of the explosion is horrific in its detail, drawing on both photographic evidence of the destruction and the colours and style of the grotesque in Japanese traditional and modern art.  The  immediate devastation and its aftermath are depicted in gruesome detail: people stripped of their skins, dead and dying infants, people driven to insanity by what they have witnessed, maggots and flies feeding on both the living and the dead.  Man’s inhumanity to man is laid bare in all its horror and agony. 

Hiroshima Castle being destroyed by the blast

Gen and his mother desperately try to save their trapped family from the fire engulfing their home without success.  The two are left to struggle on their own with Gen aiding his mother as she gives birth in the ruins of their once beautiful city.  Despite suffering from malnutrition themselves, Gen and his mother never lose their own humanity.  They try – often in vain – to help others who are suffering and even adopt a young orphaned boy called Ryuta whose cheeky ways reminds them of Gen’s  lost litrle brother Shinji. 

One of the reasons that the story of Barefoot Gen is such a successful narrative is that it refuses to fall into the easy traps of anti-Americanism or over-sentimentality.  As equally as powerful as the anti-nuclear bomb message, the film also raises criticisms of the Japanese themselves which were core messages of the original manga.  The inadequate aid that was sent to Hiroshima following the attack, the suppression of survivors stories for years after the war, and the widespread discrimination against the hibakusha (被爆者/atomic bomb survivors).

Gen and Ryuta reflected in Seiji's tear

This last theme is personalized through the story of Seiji, a survivor who comes from a well-to-do family.  Gen and Ryuta take to the streets in search of work in order to get enough money for milk for the baby and they are hired by Seiji’s brother to look after him.  Seiji is covered in maggots and flies because no one in his family will touch him themselves and the family has been unable to find anyone with the stomach to handle the job of picking the maggots off of his skin.  Gen and Ryuta are desperate for money and put up not only with the stench but with the abuse of Shinji who calls them “vultures” and resents his situation.  In a remarkable scene, Gen and Ryuta are able to connect with Seiji on a human level and we learn that Seiji’s pain at being shunned by his family like a leper outweighs the physical pain of his bomb injuries.  His gratitude at these two young boys for teaching him that he can still feel real human affection is depicted movingly with an image of Gen and Ryuta reflected in a large tear falling from Seiji’s eye.

Gen recalls his father

The original Barefoot Gen manga is quite a long series – the current American English edition at Last Gasp has 10 volumes, so a feature film cannot possibly encapsulate Nakazawa’s exploration of the long term effects of the bombing of Hiroshima on its victims.  There is more tragedy before the film ends but it still manages to leave the door open to optimism for the future.  In spite of many people claiming that it will take 70 years for grass to grow again in Hiroshima, the boys discover that wheat has begun to sprout again.  Gen recalls his father once advising him and Shinji to learn from the example of the wheat (mugi):

Its life begins in the coldest season of the year.
The rain pounds it, 
the wind blows it. . .
it’s crushed beneath people’s feet
but still, the wheat spreads its roots and grows.
It survives.
Learn from it boys.
Grow big and strong and let nothing beat you down.

Hadashi no Gen / Animation
Hadashi no Gen DVD (JP only)

Barefoot Gen won Masaki Mori the coveted Noburo Ofuji Award for innovation in animation in 1983.  The success of the film led to a sequel a few years later, Barefoot Gen 2 (Toshio Hirata/Akio Sakai, 1986) which picks up Gen’s story three years after the war and examines the long-term consequences of the bomb.  Both films were rereleased on DVD with subs by Geneon in the US but are currently only available second hand.  The French box set is also out of print, but it is available here in Germany: Barfuß durch Hiroshima - Film 1 & 2 (OmU) [2 DVDs] [Deluxe Edition].  This edition has  German, French, Dutch, Polish, Swedish, Danish and Finnish subs.  The Japanese release also has no English subs.

Last year a documentary was made about Nakazawa's life called Hiroshima Through the Eyes of Barefoot Gen.  Here's an excerpt:

©cmmhotes 2012

Obāchan’s Garden (おばあちゃんのガーデン, 2001)

When sansei Canadian filmmaker Linda Ohama set out to make a film that would celebrate her grandmother’s life on the eve of her 100th birthday, she had no idea just how far her journey would take her.  On the surface, there was more than enough material to make a feature-length documentary for her obāchan (grandma) had lived an extraordinary life in Canada.  Yet during the filming of Obāchan’s Garden (2001), the Murakami family discovers that the matriarch of the family has been keeping a painful secret about her early life in Japan for over 70 years.

Asayo Murakami (1898-2002) was born in Onomichi, Hiroshima Perfecture in 1898.  Her parents had named her Asayo because she was born in early in the morning (asa).  For her Canadian family, Asayo’s story began in 1924 when she came to Canada as a “picture bride”.  A man named Murakami had selected Asayo’s photograph as a potential future wife and paid for her journey to British Columbia.  Unfortunately, upon meeting Mr. Murakami, Asayo immediately rejected the possibility of marrying this short statured man.  She worked for three years in a fish cannery and picking strawberries to pay the man back the $250 dollars he had spent on her. 

Not long after this a matchmaker introduced her to the fishing boat craftsman Otokichi Murakami (of no relation to the man she had turned down) – a tall widower with two young children.  Asayo agreed to this marriage and the couple settled in the village of Steveston, which today belongs to the city of Richmond, British Columbia.  They went on to have 8 children of their own and Asayo was known locally for her wide social circle and her beautiful flower garden.  While most women filled their gardens with more practical crops of fruit and vegetables, Asayo preferred flowers – a sentimental preference which was connected to her private sorrows.

Like the other Japanese families living in coastal British Columbia, the Murakamis were forced to leave their home during World War II and were relocated to a sugar-beet farm in Manitoba.  After the war restrictions were lifted, the couple joined their eldest daughter and her family on their potato farm in Rainier, Alberta.  These were difficult times for the family  – the grandfather missed making boats and Asayo missed her garden  –  but they were resilient folk and persevered in the face of hardship.

Linda Ohama pieces together the life of her obāchan like a quilt.  Fragments of recollections by obāchan herself, Ohama’s mother and siblings, Ohama’s daughter, and other friends and relatives are woven together with a collection of family photos, archival footage from Japan and Canada, and dramatic reenactments of the past with the filmmaker’s cousin Natsuko Ohama playing obāchan in her younger years.  Docudrama elements in documentaries are a common, and sometimes controversial, feature in Canadian documentaries and may not be to everyone’s taste – but as the Murakami family had to leave everything behind when they left Steveston, the reenacted sequences bring colour and life to the home that obāchan loved best outside of Onomichi.

The film keeps coming back to one of obāchan’s prized possessions: a beautiful photograph of two smartly dressed little girls.  The secret that obāchan has kept for all these years is that before she came to Canada she was married to a man from a prominent family called Ishibashi.  For reasons that are unclear, around the time of the Great Kantō earthquake, Asayo was divorced from her husband and he took their daughters to live on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.  Asayo has been unable to trace her children, but has always believed that they were safe because they lived near the emperor and his family.   

The discovery of obāchan’s secret changes the course from a mere celebration of Asayo’s life to a quest to find out what happened to these two long-lost daughters.  At this point, according to the director's online diary, Ohama brought the National Film Board of Canada on board to help with funding and she set off to Japan with her mother and daughter – the first time the three women have been to visit obāchan’s family there.  It is a complicated journey, with many unexpected twists and turns, but it certainly makes riveting viewing.

Also interwoven with the story of obāchan is the story of her former home in Steveson.  The Murakami home and boat works, where they lived from 1929-1942 were the only buildings belonging to the Japanese to survive into the 1990s.  As they prepare for obāchan’s birthday, the family are involved in the restoration of the property which is now a part of the Britannia Heritage Shipyard Site in Richmond.  The film also documents the family’s restoration of the garden, which they plant according to obāchan’s instructions in preparation for the opening of the Murakami Visitor Centre in May 1998.

Is Linda Ohama able to track down obāchan’s daughters and is it possible for frail obāchan to travel to British Columbia from her nursing home in Alberta to see her garden in its restored glory?  You can enjoy the emotional ending of the film yourself on the NFB website:

Since making this documentary Linda Ohama (リンダ・オオハマ/official profile) has developed strong ties between Canada and Japan.  She is currently in Japan on a lecture tour and is active in Tohoku region recovery efforts through her Canada-Tohoku-Japan Cloth Letters project.

To learn more about obāchan read:
Asayo Murakami: The Last Picture Bride and The Story of Ms. Asayo Murakami by family friend Kojiro “John” Iuchi


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...