30 March 2012

Little Black Sambo and the Twins (ちびくろのさんぼとふたごのおとうと, 1957)

One of the highlights of the Kawamoto-Norstein event at Forum des Images in Paris was the screening of the rare Tadahito Mochinaga film Little Black Sambo and the Twins (Chibikuro Sanbo to futago no otōto, 1957).  During their lecture on the life and career of Kihachirō Kawamoto, animation experts Ilan Nguyen and Serge Éric Ségura showed the opening few minutes of Little Black Sambo (ちびくろさんぼのとらたいじ, 1956) – the film that puppet animation pioneer Mochinaga showed at the first Vancouver International Film Festival and caught the eye of Arthur Rankin, Jr.  (learn more). 

Little Black Sambo and the Twins was screened in its entirety.  It is the sequel to Little Black Sambo and was screened in its entirety (17 minutes) in a programme of short films by Kihachirō Kawamoto.  Kawamoto did not animate this film, but he did make the puppets for it.

Both Little Black Sambo and Little Black Sambo and the Twins are adaptations of books written and illustrated by Scottish children’s author Helen Bannerman (1862-1946).  The Edinburgh-born author lived for much of her life in India where her husband William worked as an officer in the Indian Medical Service.  The heroes of many of her books are south Indian and Tamil children.  The original books were meant to educate and entertain English speaking children about the indigenous Indian and Tamil cultures.  From today’s perspective Bannerman’s work depicts a colonialist view of these cultures in a similar vein as Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894). 

The Story of Little Black Sambo was immensely popular in the first half of the 20th century, but unfortunately later US editions of the story replaced Bannerman’s illustrations with racist African stereotypes.  Out of cultural and geographical ignorance, these stories retain the same settings and animals, thus promoting the false notion that tigers, etc. live in Africa.  The most notorious of these is Wizard of Oz illustrator John R. Neill’s 1908 version of Little Black Sambo, which transformed Sambo into an offensive pickaninny character.  This is believed to have contributed to the use of “sambo” as a racist slur.  The poet and social activist Langston Hughes condemned Little Black Sambo in 1935 as a "pickaninny variety" of storybook, "amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at." (source)

Frank Dobias’s illustrations of the 1927 Macmillan edition of Little Black Sambo are equally as offensive as those of Neill and they are the ones that the Japanese publisher Iwanami Shoten used when they published a Japanese edition of the controversial book.  As this is the most well known version of the stories in Japan, many mistakenly believe it to be the original illustrations of the story.  Other Japanese publishers also created their own editions of the stories.  The book was discontinued in 1988 because of the racist nature of the illustrations, but was recently reprinted by a small press called Zuiunsha with Dobias’s offensive illustrations (learn more).  The quotes from the president of Zuiunsha in this Guardian article demonstrate the publishing company’s complete ignorance as to why the books are considered racist.

Knowing this background, I was somewhat trepidatious about seeing Mochinaga’s film at Forum des images.  It does indeed depict an African child in a non-African /pseudo-African setting full of animals that don’t quite fit the locale, but I was relieved that it was nowhere near as offensive as Ub Iwerks’s cringe-worthy 1935 adaptation of Little Black Sambo that portrayed the characters in “black face” complete with a Mammy caricature who uses stereotypical language such as “Now run along and play honey child, but watch out for that bad ole tiger.  That ole tiger sho’ do like dark meat!” The Iwerks version promotes terrible ignorance about black people in the name of comedy.  For example, in the opening scene, Mammy washes Sambo and it makes the water turn black.  

Ub Iwerks 1935 film poster and screencap of title card.  

Mochinaga's version of Little Black Sambo and the Twins is not without ethnic stereotyping – Sambo’s mother is a large, round woman who does fit the “Mammy” stereotype.  I am not familiar enough with African landscape and cultures to judge the authenticity of the African characters in the film, but in my estimation the approach taken towards the characters is very different from the Ub Iwerks animated short.  The Iwerks short has clearly exaggerated the black stereotypes in order to get laughs from the audience, whereas the Mochinaga film has gone for the kawaii approach to depicting the black characters.  The ethnicity of the central characters is not exaggerated for the sake of laughs, rather Sambo and his family are depicted in a loving way.  The laughs in the film are either of the pratfall variety or at the funny things that children and animals do that we recognize from our own lives.

The Kawamoto-made puppets also do not resemble the Dobias illustrations familiar to Japanese children.  The African characters do not have exaggerated lips and eyes.  At least, the eyes are not exaggerated in the tradition of the pickaninny caricature.    They are large and doe-like – the kind of Bambi eyes that we today associate with anime.  In contrast to the mother, the father is tall and slender and wears what appears to be a fez – giving him a very North African look.  This suggests that Mochinaga and Kawamoto made an effort to learn about African dress, but did not necessarily stick to one particular African culture.  The characters do have large ears, but no more so than white and Asian characters made by Mochinaga and Kawamoto in the 1950s and 1960s.  Apart from the darker skin tone and the curly hair, the children look very much like dolls and illustrations of Japanese children from the early to middle 20th century.

The story of Little Black Sambo and the Twins is quite straightforward.  Sambo’s parents have to run an errand and they leave Sambo at home to babysit his twin brothers.  Sambo is a very responsible brother, but when he takes his eyes off the twins for a moment to do a chore, an oversized vulture (at least three times larger than the toddler twins - in fact, it is so big that in the opening credits when it is flying around in the background, I thought it was a dragon) kidnaps the twins and holds them captive at the top of a tall tree.  A pair of friendly monkeys offer to help Sambo find his siblings.  They are aided by a friendly tropical bird (possibly a parrot?) who leads them to the tree where the twins are being held captive.  While the vulture is away checking on his/her own children, Sambo and the monkeys climb the tree to rescue the twins.  The vulture returns before the second twin is safely on the ground and Sambo engages in a fight with the bird.  As Sambo is fighting the vulture, his parents return to find their children missing and follow the noise of the fight to come to their children’s aid.  The story ends with the family happily reunited.  They hold a celebratory feast and thank their animal friends for their assistance.

In the original story by Helen Bannerman, the twins (unfortunately named “Woof” and “Moof”) are kidnapped by evil monkeys and an eagle aids Sambo in rescuing the young boys.  I have never read the Japanese edition of this storybook so I do not know whether or not the changes in the story were written by Mochinaga and his screenwriter Haruo Mura or by the translator of the Japanese edition of the storybook.  Whatever the case, the Mochinaga puppet animation is presenting a common storyline in children’s literature: the family unit is threatened by an outside force, the members of the family join forces to combat this threat, and the story ends with the family intact again.  The anamorphic animals add interest for children, and one can imagine children who view this film re-enacting the dramatic scenes with their own toys at home.

The film is shot in black and white – which was quite common in the 1950s due to the cost of colour film stock.  It is also possible that the film was made with television in mind, and television was in black and white in those early years.  The puppets that Kawamoto made are sweet.  The faces are very expressive and the costuming and sets have been beautifully designed – simple and straightforward so as not to distract from the expression of the character movement.  It is a first rate puppet film for the 1950s – not as complex and elaborate as the works of Jiri Trnka and other Eastern European animators of the time, but certainly very well planned and executed.

Although it is clear that Little Black Sambo and the Twins was meant for preschool aged children, it is not something I would watch with young children not only because of the inaccurate portrayal of African people but also because it could instil in them an irrational fear of large birds of prey.  That being said, it is a shame that this and Mochinaga’s other puppet animation films are not more widely available for they are invaluable to the study of animation history and to the study of the portrayal of ethnic minorities in Japanese culture.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012


Director: Tadahito Mochinaga (持永只仁
Producer: Kiichi Inamura (稲村喜一)
Original Story: Helen Bannerman (ヘレン・バンナーマン)
Screenplay: Haruo Mura (村治夫)
Music: Mitsuo Katō (加藤光男)
Cinematographer: Jirō Kishi (岸次郎)
Art director: Junji Eguchi (江口準次)
Puppets: Kihachirō Kawamoto (川本喜八郎)

29 March 2012

Kawamoto-Norstein @ Forum des Images, Day 2 (Part II)

Kawamoto-Norstein @ Forum des Images, Day 2 (Part II)
Saturday, March 24, 2012

At 19:00, Ilan Nguyen led a conversation with Yuri Norstein about his longstanding and complex relationship with Japan.  In addition to having been a friend to his fellow animator Kihachirō Kawamoto, whom he still affectionately calls “Chiro” just as he did when Kawamoto was alive, Norstein is revered as a master of animation in Japan and has visited the country on many occasions.

Norstein discovered Japanese culture at a young age.  In his mid-teens, he found a small book of haiku poetry by Bashō in the library.  The book featured one poem per page – a clever editing choice which emphasized the minimalism of the three stark lines of poetry on the plain page.  One of the poems that he recalls being in the book is the famous one about the frog:

furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
 mizu no oto

an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water

(Bashō, 1686)

This book of haiku made a very strong impression on Norstein.  He had learned in school that poems had rhythm and rhyme yet these poems had neither.  He was moved to buy himself a copy of the book and each time he looked at the poems, he was surprised anew by them.  “Can one say that this is poetry?” he would ask himself. 

Many years later he came across a book of Japanese woodcut prints at a friend’s house and he was again surprised.  The images had a different sense of perspective and volume than what he was used to seeing in Russia.  For Norstein, it was a revelation to realize that there was another way of seeing the world and these two incidents marked the beginning of his love for Japan. 

He got to know Russian translators of Japanese and began to learn more about the importance of gesture and movement in Japanese culture.  One thing that he learned from Japanese culture was that a subject that is very simple can express something very great.  He explained that he finds the same thing in the fiction of Marcel Proust.  In À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, 1913-27), Proust’s simple observations of everyday life take on great meaning.  Norstein also remarked that this was also true of Homer’s The Iliad.

While listening to Norstein talk, it occurred to me that his interest in Japanese poetry, and particularly way in which time is expressed in Japanese poetry has much in common which his fellow compatriots Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky, who were both also greatly influenced by haiku poetry and Japanese aesthetics.  The influence of Eisenstein's writings on Norstein has been written about by animation scholar Nobuaki Doi (see his ASIFA profile).  The conversation with Norstein was accompanied by a slide show by Ilan Nguyen and among the many photographs and items that were shown there was a photograph of Norstein visiting the Eisenstein Cine-club in Tokyo. 

I had presumed that Norstein and Kawamoto became friends during Kawamoto’s tour of Eastern Europe in 1963-64.  Although a photograph apparently does exist of Kawamoto with another Russian animator (it was not in the slideshow) in which Norstein can be seen working on something in the background, Norstein apparently does not recall Kawamoto’s visit at that time.  Their friendship began at the World Animation Festival Varna in Bulgaria in 1985 where they met and talked up a storm.  Their friendship developed over the coming years at animation festivals such as the second animation festival in Hiroshima in 1987 where Norstein was on jury alongside Te Wei, Paul Driessen, Nicole Salomon, Bruno Bozzetto, and Osamu Tezuka.  This festival was really a star-studded affair with Karel Zeman acting as the International  Honorary President and John Halas being the special guest.  This event is also notable as being Norstein’s first visit to Japan.

Norstein shared many amusing anecdotes.  Some of my favourites:

  • the photo from Hiroshima 1987 prompted Norstein to say  that he did not know Tezuka very well but that he thought his skill as an artist was amazing
  • there was a wonderful photograph of Norstein sitting at the foot of the Laputa robot on the rooftop of the Studio Ghibli museum.  Norstein laughed with delight at this photograph and it inspired him to even burst into a song from his childhood
  •  when discussing the Laputa International Animation Festival, Norstein talked about the fact that he was criticized for always picking the same guy for the Yuri Norstein Award (he didn’t say the name, but it was clear he was referring to Kunio Katō who won twice: in 2001 for The Apple Incident and in 2004 for The Diary of Tortov Roddle).   His response to this criticism was: “well, I don’t know this guy personally, but his stuff is great!”
  • he was quite modest when Nguyen pointed out that his films ranked #1 and #2 on the Laputa 150
  • if he had had to make Tale of Tales with the interference of producers, it would never have been made
  • “the most simple techniques in animation can result in something really spectacular”

On Winter Days:

  • Kawamoto loved Chiro’s spirit (Kawamoto): he hated things that were false and his friendship with Kawamoto was the only reason Norstein agreed to do Winter Days
  • Norstein wanted to have accurate details in his contribution but he didn’t want it to be too Japanese
  • in order to get the details right, he paid a lot of attention to how a Japanese person would move, carry a bag, wear their hat, and other gestures.
  • the Japanese loved his contribution to Winter Days, but he is critical of himself
  • the most difficult part was getting the colour palette right.  Once they (he and his wife, along with consultation with “Chiro”) got the right colours (gold, maroon, some blue and a touch of grey), everything else fell into place
  • re: Bashō meeting Chikusai: “In animation the real and the mythological can meet.”
  • ““Chiro” could make everyone laugh.  He had such a wonderful laugh.  He laughed all the time.”

The evening concluded with a screening of The Book of the Dead on 35mm.  As with Winter Days, I noticed many details about the puppets and the scenery that were not as noticeable when watching a digitized version on a TV.  The details were so vivid: the lines on the puppets’ faces indicating age or weariness, the weave of kimono and other fabrics, each thread of hair carefully placed on the puppets heads, and so on.  As I mentioned in my guest stint on Vcinema in 2010, The Book of the Dead is a film that requires multiple viewings in order to fully understand all the nuances of meaning.  One thing that never ceases to amaze me when watching The Book of the Dead is the movement of the kimonos in the wind.  It looks so effortless, but the time and energy that went into painstakingly animating those sequences frame-by-frame boggles the mind.

Order JP edition:
So ends Day 2 – I became acquainted with a number of interesting people between screenings.  Most notably,  animator Florentine Grelier (official website) and animation expert Giannalberto Bendazzi , author of Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation.  Flroentine has posted some lovely images in pixels that she made of Norstein - check it out.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

28 March 2012

Kawamoto-Norstein at Forum des Images, Day 2 (Part I)

Kawamoto-Norstein @ Forum des Images, Day 2 (Part I)
Saturday, March 24, 2012

I rose early on Saturday and hit the streets of Paris on foot to take in the sights before great swarms of tourists descended.  As a cineaste, one feels a sense of déjà vu around every corner in Paris as I recognized landmarks and architectural features from the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and many others. 

After brunch, I headed to the Centre Pompidou because I had heard from Akino Kondoh (official website) about the event Planète Manga being held there until May 27th.   The event is great for Parisians, for it means that many wonderful animated films are being screened at the Pompidou this spring from early anime like Kenzō Masaoka’s The Spider and the Tulip (read review) to Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers (read review), but unfortunately for me there was no accompanying exhibition.  I did follow the manga sound effects painted on the floor to have a peek in the Planète Manga salon where a workshop was being held for young people interested in drawing their own manga. 

My trip to the Pompidou was not in vain; however, for the bookstore there had an exciting selection of French releases of manga and anime including everything from Akino Kondoh’s Les insects en moi to a photobook tie-in for the latest Gorō Miyazaki film From Up on Poppy Hill and from Paprika to Winter Days.  There were a load of DVDs that I had to add to my wish list for my budget could not stretch to buying them on this trip.  As the Cinéma du Réel was also on in the basement of the Pompidou, the bookstore had copies of two trilingual (JP/FR/EN) DVDs of the films of Yuki Kawamura (official website), a Japanese filmmaker who is based in Paris.  Rather than buy something for myself, I decided to pick up something for the kids.  I passed on the over-priced Takashi Murakami stuffed toys and went for the Nano Blocks (official website).

In addition, the library housed in the Centre Pompidou is running a free exhibition called Art Spiegelman Co-Mix featuring original art by one of the greatest living comic artists.  There was a wide range of illustrative work on display from Maus-related materials (including a long interview Spiegelman did with his father in the 1970s) to In the Shadow of No Towers (post 9/11 theme) and his cover art for The New Yorker.  For those not able to catch this exhibition at the Pompidou library, the next best thing is to purchase the amazing books MetaMaus (includes DVD) and Art Spiegelman Co-Mix.

I skipped the first screening at Forum des Images on this day, for I have both the US and Japanese DVDs of Kawamoto’s short puppet films (see: Kawamoto's Animated Shorts on DVD).  Instead, I took a stroll around the grounds of the Louvre to do a short photo shoot with Sakadachi-kun.  As my long time readers will know, I began writing about alternative Japanese animation upon the discovery of Tomoyasu Murata’s films in late 2006.  Sakadachi-kun (aka Handstand Boy) is the central character in a series of films by Murata, and I have recently started a tumblr called The Adventures of Sakadachi-kun where I feature photographs I have taken of my figurine of Sakadachi-kun as he joins me in my travels.  The titles of each photograph are a parody of the titles of the Sakadachi-kun films. 

At 16:30, I attended the screening of Yuri Norstein’s major works:  The Heron and the Crane (1974), The Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), Tale of Tales (1979) and 30 minutes from The Overcoat (unfinished).  On more than one occasion over the weekend, Norstein voiced his delight in being able to screen his works on 35mm.  He had been told that 35mm films were being thrown in the garbage and he feels that it is the best medium for watching not only his films, but films in general.  In introducing this programme of shorts, Norstein likened our experience to having his whole life in capsule form.

Another theme that Norstein raised over the weekend was the cultural importance of art.  At this screening he said that we are living in very difficult times and that in such times art is what brings people together.  This was certainly true at the Forum des Images where the audiences were really captivated by the films.  There was applause between each film and an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end.  The audience seemed to adore Tale of Tales in particular.

It is truly a magical experience watching Norstein’s films in a cinema projected on 35mm.  It is difficult to find words to describe the different between the colours and textures on film as opposed to in a digital format – for it is a difference that one can not only see but feel.  The only drawback to seeing the works on film was of course the wear and tear of age on the film.  In The Heron and the Crane in particular the white of the background and the white of the two birds washed together as some detail had been lost due to age.  In contrast, The Hedgehog in the Fog and Tale of Tales looked amazing on film as one can see the details of the textures and layering very clearly in this format. 

Good Night, Children
Sugar ad
The main programme of short films was followed by the four commercials Norstein did for a Russian sugar company in the mid-1990s and clips from the animation that he did for the Russian television programme Good Night, Children.  Before and after the screenings, Norstein voiced his regret at having to do commercial work to make a living.  He seemed nostalgic for the USSR days when there was a higher regard for the role of an artist in society. 

After the screening, someone in the audience asked him if there is any modern animation that he likes and he replied that nothing really interests him about computer animation.  He did say that he had respect for Pixar, but he seemed to feel that computers were leading the art rather than merely being at the service of art. 

by Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

27 March 2012

Kawamoto-Norstein at Forum des Images, Day 1

Kawamoto-Norstein @ Forum des Images, Day 1

On Friday, March 23rd, I took the ICE train from Frankfurt to Paris to attend the event Kawamoto-Norstein: The Puppet Master and the Painter Animator at Forum des Images.  The opening event was an exciting affair for not only was the legendary Russian animator Yuri Norstein there as a guest, but the Canadian pinscreen animator Jacques Drouin and one half of the Brothers Quay were also in the audience.  Drouin was one of the 35 animators who contributed a stanza to Winter Days (read review), and this was a rare opportunity to see the film on 35mm. 

The event was hosted by Isabelle Vanini (Forum des Images programmer) and Ilan Nguyen (Tokyo University of the Arts).  Kihachirō Kawamoto, in whose memory this event was dedicated, had been to Forum des Images on three occasions.  On one of these occasions, he presented Winter Days.   This 2003 event was captured on video and we got to watch footage of Kawamoto introducing the film.  This was followed by Kawamoto’s Self Portrait (read review) and as part of the introduction to Winter Days, Norstein shared some of his memories and impressions of Kawamoto. 

Norstein spoke of the great pleasure that Kawamoto took in making films with friends, and he joked that he had once seen a photo of Kawamoto at aged 3 and that it struck him that Kawamoto had never aged.  He still looked exactly the same.  Norstein felt that Kawamoto never grew up.  He retained his sense of childlike joy, and this could be heard in his infectious laugh. 

As Norstein spoke, a photograph of the two men together holding a puppet from Winter Days was projected on the screen behind him.  Kawamoto apparently gave this puppet to Norstein as a gift.  The last time that Norstein and Kawamoto spoke together, Kawamoto expressed an interested in making a film about the life of the Chinese poet Li Po.  I found this interesting because Kawamoto had made a short short animation for an Absolute Vodka internet campaign in 1997 (read review) in which the poet drinks vodka under flowering cherry blossoms. 

Kawamoto came up with the idea of adapting the renku poem Winter Days after a discussion with Norstein in which Norstein expressed a wish to someday adapt the haiku poems of Bashō into animation.  This is why Norstein was honoured with the task of adapting the first stanza of Winter Days.  It was Norstein’s own idea to introduce an encounter between Chikusai and Basho in his interpretation of the first stanza.  Read more about this at Anipages.  Kawamoto was delighted with the idea, and Norstein said that his contribution was well received by Japanese audiences though he himself was not fully convinced because he is a perfectionist and always thinks he can do better.

I have watched Winter Days on DVD many times but this was my first time watching it on 35mm.  It’s a very different experience watching it on 35mm – the colours are so different, the luminosity of the image is different, my awareness of depth of frame was heightened, and I noticed many interesting textures in some of the films that I had not before. The screening was followed by the “Making Of” documentary that appears on the DVD and this was in turn followed by questions from the general public.  During the discussions, a slideshow of rare images of Kawamoto screened. 

One audience member was struck by the music that was used in Winter Days.  The composition masterfully acts not only as an accompaniment to the action of each stanza, but also aids in creating a sense of continuity between each short short.  Norstein was unable to answer this question, but Nguyen was able to identify to composer as Shinichirō Ikebe, who also did the soundtrack to Kawamoto’s short film Tabi (1973).  Ikebe is, of course, well known to fans of Japanese cinema for his work composing the soundtracks to many Akira Kurosawa films (Kagemusha, Madadayo, Dreams, etc.).  He has also worked on several Shōhei Imamura films such as Vengeance is Mine (1979), The Battle of Narayama (1983), The Eel (1997), and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001).  Hayao Miyazaki’s anime TV series Future Boy Conan (1978) was also scored by Ikebe.

One audience member seemed disgruntled that Winter Days appeared to only have had men work on it.  This false impression was given by the Making Of documentary, which only features male animators.  There was footage taken of the female animators at work among the extras on the Japanese DVD, but this didn’t make it into the edited Making Of doc which due to time constraints only included 17 animators.  There is an expensive box set edition of Winter Days available in Japan, and I have heard that it contains extended interviews with all participants.

Okuyama working on Winter Days

Several notable female animators worked on Winter Days:

Noriko Morita does a lot of collaborative dance performances, often bringing together animation, music, and dance in innovative video installation performances.  See her profile at Monstra this year.

Reiko Okuyama and her husband Yoichi Kotabe collaborated on one stanza using Okuyama’s distinctive copperplate engraving technique.  Okuyama, who sadly passed away in 2007, worked on many classic Toei Doga animated films and series.  (read more about her).

Maya Yonesho, a stop motion animator who divides her time between Europe and Japan (read more about her).

Uruma Delvi, a husband and wife team specializing in flash animation.  Check out their official website.

Azuru Ishiiki, who in addition to working as an animator is known as a Shimai dancer (see image of her dancing, see her JAA profile)

Reiko Yokosuka makes beautiful black on white brush animations (see interview)

Yuko Asano is an amazing puppet animator (see her website)

I.K.I.F. (half of which is female animator Sonoko Ishida).  I.K.I.F. have done special effects on loads of anime films from Pat Labor to Doraemon.

Stop motion animation pioneer Fusako Yusaki, who has lived and worked in Italy since the 1960s. (read more about her)

I should also mention that many male animators have women (often their partners/spouses or former students) working as assistants on their films.  Most notably, Yuri Norstein’s wife Francheska Yarbusova and Kōji Yamamura’s wife Sanae Yamamura – both of whom are very talented artists in their own rights.

Someone asked Norstein about how he overcame the language barrier in order to communicate with Kawamoto.  He explained that he had a translator, but he also joked that after drinking sake, one understands everything.  I was impressed by how spry Norstein was for someone of his age.  He became especially animated when talking about Kawamoto, and I really felt that a lot of the complements that he paid to Kawamoto (eternally youthful, full of good humour and joie de vivre) could also be applied to Norstein himself.  He deflected an impertinent question about his ongoing adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat with a joke. My French is a bit rusty, but it was something about how he is only the pilot of the plane.  The implication being, I suppose, that the pilot is not in control of the weather and turbulence he might encounter along the way.

All in all, it was a very pleasant and informative evening – followed by a wine and cheese where I got to chat a little bit with Alexis Hunot of Zewebanim and met some of his students.   I also met Marc Aguesse of  Catsuka.  More on my animation weekend in Paris in coming instalments.

by Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

19 March 2012

VGF Nippon in Motion Award

In collaboration with the Frankfurt am Main transportation authority VGF (Stadtwerke Verkehrs-gesellschaft Frankfurt am Main), Nippon Connection 2012 is awarding the Nippon in Motion Award to the best short-short film spot for the festival.  The winning film will appear on video screens in U-Bahn stations throughout Frankfurt in the run-up to and during the festival and the winner will be awarded a cash prize of 250€.  

Everyone can participate in the voting process by going to the Nippon in Motion webpage and voting for your favourite.  The eleven finalists use a variety of techniques from stop motion animation to montage editing.  Click on the images to watch the short clips in a pop-up window.  To vote, click on the Facebook "like" icon.  The voting concludes on March 31st when the winner will be announced.

18 March 2012

Nose Tale (はなのはなし, 2010)

After reading Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “The Nose” (/Hana, 1916), the great writer Natsume Sōseki is said to have written a letter to Akutagawa proclaiming: “I found your piece ["The Nose"] very interesting.  Sober and serious without trying to be funny.  It exudes humour, a sure sign of refined taste.  Furthermore, the material is fresh and eye-catching.  Your style is well-polished, admirably fitting.” (source)

One could use similar adjectives to describe Taku Furukawa’s animated short Nose Tale (はなのはなし/Hana no hanashi, 2010).  Reportedly inspired by a bout of hay fever (source – which would explain the runny noses of many of the supporting characters in this film), Nose Tale is a mash-up of five classic stories from around the world.  Four of these stories concern men with oversized noses:  “The Nose” by Akutagawa, “The Nose” (1835-36) by Nikolai Gogol, “The Adventures of Pinocchio” (1881-83) by Carlo Collodi, and “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1897) by Edward Rostand

Furukawa starts off by cutting between each of the stories, but in the climactic scene the men with giant noses all come together from their disparate times and places for a dragon viewing party – a concept adapted from another Akutagawa story “Dragon” (, 1919).  The dramatic conclusion is unexpected and delightful.

The concept is indeed fresh and eye-catching and exudes the tongue-in-cheek sense of humour one has come to expect from a Furukawa film.  In all my years studying the art of cinema, I never expected to encounter a film that makes a point of cutting between stories by matching the shape of an oversized nose.  It is so ridiculous as to be wonderful.
by Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

The stories are also tied together by the music of Toshiyuki Honda, whose compositions have also featured in the animated films  Miyuki-chan in Wonderland (Tetsuro Aoki, 1995), Metropolis (Rintaro, 2001), and Yona Yona Penguin (Rintaro, 2009).  The pieces “Spinel” and “Tellurium” from Songs of the Milky Way and “TERRA”, an étude for saxophone, were arranged and performed by Honda himself.

Nose Tale is available on the Takun Films 2 DVD, which can be purchased at Anido. ORDER NOW

17 March 2012

Sound of Life (生活の音, 2010)

How do household noises influence our bodies?  
Our daily life has its own kind of music.

When I first discovered the animation of Shiho Hirayama (平山志保), b. 1979 in 2009, I was delighted by the simplicity and humour of her works.  She has a great eye for movement and the transitions in her short line drawing film Swimming (2008) are delightful in their gracefulness and originality.

With Sound of Life (生活の音, 2010), Hirayama adds the three-dimensionality of claymation to her trademark line drawing animation style.  Sound of Life is an example of how animation can make the ordinary extraordinary and cause us to think about our lives from a new perspective.  I was reminded of Nick Park’s Creature Comforts (1989), which animated interviews with people about their daily lives, transforming ordinary people into claymation animals living in enclosures at the zoo.  Sound of Life does not use interviews or dialogue, but instead the soundtrack consists of the noises that one encounters in the course of the day.  The soundtrack blends documentary sound with musical interpretation of the soundtrack of our lives (piano, synth) which Hirayama mixed herself.

The film begins in a minimalistic way: three children kicking a ball around in an undefined public space.  A woman joins the scene and picks up the clay ball and looks at it and the scene shifts to a moving walkway (of the kind one might find in extra long corridors when changing trains in central Tokyo) complete with the soft female voice that warns you to watch your step.  Bustling crowds where the line drawn people’s hair has been replaced with colourful clay.  Blue clay fills the screen, as if replicating the slightly claustrophobic feeling of being caught up in a crowd.

There’s a lovely sequence of people boarding a train, with the clay filling the windows of the train.  The train’s departure is captured with the blurring movement of the clay, and then Hirayama transitions into a scene of motorcycles on the street.  She ease with which Hirayama changes perspective and scene recalls the great master of changing perspective, Georges Schitzgebel.

From traffic noises and road repair drilling to the more subtle sounds of the wind in the trees or the more mundane sounds of a taxi driver yawning as he waits at an intersection with his turn indicator on, Hirayama draws our attention to the sounds of everyday life that we might otherwise ignore.  The animation movement and the amount of clay used onscreen increases as the soundtrack becomes more filled with music/sound.  Soon there are no more line drawings left, but the screen fills with clay sequences depicting a bird feeding its young, a mother with an infant, and the film returns to the image it began with: children playing with a ball.  The boys remain faceless, but the screen is full of colour this time.  The closing credits are played over an abstract sequence of clay colourfully moving and shifting as if powered by the forces of nature.

It is an uplifting experience to watch Sound of Life as the film reminds us not only of how our lives are all interconnected by our shared experiences of sound, but also how the sounds that make up our everyday lives can affect our mood and general well being.  With so many people today blocking out the sounds of life by listening to music or podcasts on their portable devices, Sound of Life draws attention to the simple pleasures of listening and being aware of the environment in which we live.

Learn more about Shiho Hirayama on her official website.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

13 March 2012

Two Tea Two (2010)

Hiroco Ichinose’s quirky animated shorts have been delighting festival audiences since 2006.  The Last Breakfast (2006), HaP (2008), and Cow’s Day (2009) combine stylistic sparseness with a touch of the surreal much like the films of her mentor Taku Furukawa.

Her most recent independent work, Two Tea Two, has a very tactile feel to it, with its inky lines drawn on a textured paper.  An alarm clock rings, awakening a long-haired woman with an angular face sleeping naked in her bed.   She tilts her head and contorts herself into a round shape, as if stretching her body awake.  She rushes off-screen and we hear a door close.  She reappears again in a loose fitting dress.  The sound suggests she is now on a public street and we see her gaze in a window, her face reflecting in a window as if she were a two-headed creature as she observes a cup of tea.

Cut to the woman seated in a low chair, her body oversized and contorted, as she tries to drink from her tea cup.  She looks up and a lovely short sequence unfolds in which we see traces of the world outside the café window – black ink on yellow paper.  A shadow of another female figure appears outside the window looking in at our protagonist.  Two women or the woman’s face reflected in the window?  She tilts her head inspecting the reflection of herself.  When she straightens, her mirror image remains contorted.   She pokes the contorted mirror image of herself and the mirror image rounds into her chubby form again, knocking the lid off the sugar dish as she floats to the other side of the table.  A small insect spreads its wings and scurries past the sugar dish.

We now have two identical women – or the same woman reflected – sitting in low chairs facing each other, with the coffee table hidden under the tangle of their long legs in high-heeled shoes.  They stare at each other, steaming tea cups in their hands.  In a split screen, the mirror image appears to speak to her original.

The woman with her bare shoulders above the red dress now stands in a storm, her long black hair streaming to the side in the wind.  A second head and long neck appear – a two headed woman staring at the audience.  She then curls herself into a ball and floats away. 

Back in the café, the winged insect wanders around a stray sugar cube on the table.  It splits in half then reforms before munching on the sugar cube.  The chubby version of the woman jumps past the cashier with a chink of change hitting the counter, then sheds her clothes as she jumps off screen.  A door squeaks as it closes on the vignette.  The alarm clock rings as the end credits roll.  The animated short finishes with a reprise of the city setting and the woman jumping to the coffee table in her two-headed form.

For me, Two Tea Two captures the ambivalent relationship many women have with their bodies.  Rationally we may have come to terms with our physical selves, but first thing in the morning, pre-tea/coffee and depending on what phase of lunar cycle it is, our bodies may feel heavy and bloated.  Looking bleary eyed in the mirror or at one’s reflection in a café window first thing in the morning, it is not unusual for a woman to search her own face as if it were a stranger’s, trying to reconcile our external selves with our internal selves. 

I love the little touches in this animated short of the action of city life passing by in fragments, and I identify with the feeling of being elephantine and klutzy in a tiny café.  This is a nice film to watch together with Aico Kitamura’s Getting Dressed (2010) as both films explore the relationship between a woman’s physical self and her state of mind.
Hiroco Ichinose (瀬皓コ, b. 1984) is, together with her husband Tomoyoshi Joko, one half of the creative animation team Decovocal.  She is a graduate of the animation department of Tokyo Polytechnic University, where she has taught part time since 2009.  In addition to her independent animated shorts, Ichinose has worked on commercial animation including the Rita and Whatsit and Bee TV animated TV series.

by Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

11 March 2012

Isamu Hirabayashi’s 663114 (2011)

The artistic response to the devastation wrought by the Tohoku earthquake and the ensuing tsunami and nuclear fallout at Fukushima over the past year has been immense.  The Yamagata International Documentary festival was inundated with documentaries addressing a wide range of responses to the events of March 11, 2011.  Some artists, such as TOCHKA have become directly involved in the effort to restore a sense of normalcy to the lives of the people of the region.

One of the most profound responses to the disaster is Isamu Hirabayashi’s Noburo Ofuji Award winning animated short 663114 (2011).  The environment and the problematic nature of the relationship of human being to the environment has been a recurring theme in Hirabayashi’s experimental films from the highly allusive piece A Story Constructed of 17 Pieces of Space and 1 Maggot (2007) to the overtly political Conversations with Nature (2005).

The title looks like a code, but it is actually a collection of significant numbers.  The Fukushima disaster occurred 66 years after the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  3/11 marks the date of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and 4 are the number of reactors that were damaged at Fukushima Daiichi.

On the surface, 663114, is a simple, straightforward animation, but upon closer examination one finds that it has as many layers as a tree has rings.  An ancient cicada crawls slowly up a vertical surface, which we learn through the first person narration is representative of a tree.  The tree’s surface is decorated with inkan (印鑑), the familiar red stamps that are used in lieu of signatures in Japan.  The cicada tells us that he is 66 years old, born the film implies, at the time of the atom bomb. 

In addition to being spoken aloud in a deep, guttural, masculine voice, the narration also appears in shaky, black handwritten English:

Once every 66 years,
I emerge from the ground, leave offspring and die.
Before mating,
I shed my hard shell at the risk of my life.
Our ancestors have continued this cycle countless times.
The soil of this country is very fit for us to live in.
It is free of strong pesticides and there are no landmines.
The water is delicious so the sap is delicious as well.
I will climb as high as I can.
Aiming higher and higher.
It is our natural instinct.
To survive and leave offspring.
Since the moment of shedding skin is life risking.
We choose a tree that is tall, sturdy and won’t shake that much.
Our ancestors have continued this cycle countless times.
Through the various hardships.

Though slow, the cicada’s pace is steady and its movements repetitive.  In contrast to the reassuring movements of the cicada and its narration, the music and groaning voices of the soundtrack create a growing sense of unease.  Soon, the cicada pauses and begins to moult.  Just when he is at his most vulnerable, moments after emerging from his skin, the earthquake strikes.  The vertical surfaces representing the tree are thrown off kilter, and many of the red inkan stamps go flying. 

The cicada, resilient creature that he is, has survived this initial onslaught by clinging to his shed skin.  He says that he needs to stretch his wings as soon as possible, but before he can do so the tsunami strikes.  Black waves resembling claws reach out towards the cicada and soon the screen is awash with black undulating waves.  The terror of the tsunami is expressed on the soundtrack in guttural growls and the haunting cries of voices that are suggestive of the thousands of innocent victims of this natural catastrophe.

The waves recede and the cicada, though injured, still clings on with one remaining leg to the damaged husk of his shed skin.  “I won’t die” the cicada declares, determined to survive and leave offspring as his ancestors did before him.  A buzzing sound announces the arrival of a black, inky cloud signifying the radiation from the manmade nuclear disaster. 

Black rain and deep-voiced throat singing accompany the closing credit sequence.  When the rain has passed and the credits are complete, the screen goes black and then reprises the opening credit sequence.  However this time the inkan stamps are muddled together and blurred, and the voice is no longer deep and masculine but distorted and echoing.  We hear the approach of the cicada before we see him this time, and when he appears on screen we see that he has been altered beyond all recognition by the nuclear disaster. 

I am a 66 year cicada.
Once every 66 years,
I emerge from the ground, leave offspring and die.
66 years ago, when I was born
I’ve heard that there was a big earthquake and a big tsunami.
There was also a big accident.
I will risk my life to shed this hard shell before mating.
Our ancestors have continued this cycle countless times.
The soil of this country is very fit for us to live in.
I love this country.

It is significant that Hirabayashi chose a cicada to represent the living creatures, human and otherwise, of Japan.  Insects hold a special place in the hearts of the Japanese, and the cicadas are one of the important signifiers of summer.  One cannot imagine a summer in Japan without the song of the cicadas and children delight in discovering and examining the skins of the cicadas when they moult.  It is a symbol of reincarnation, appearing metaphorically in many significant works of literature such as The Tale of Genji.  Cicadas are also a symbol of longevity as they are one of the longest living insects who spend much of their life cycle underground (normally 2-5 years). 

The film looks like a cutout film made of washi paper and ink, but Hirabayashi made it using images and textures that he found on the internet.  The inkan stamps on the surface of the tree are metaphorically significant in the film.  In Western culture, we do still use rubber stamps to make documents official, and this tradition gave rise to the English idiom “to rubber stamp” something, which is usually used to describe a bureaucrat approving something automatically without proper consideration.  In Japan, the stamp culture runs even deeper with individuals, artists, and corporations all using stamps as their signature.

When watching 663114 the first time, I was reminded of the common hanko (判子) stamp that one would use to sign for the post, or to sign into work, and I thought that each of the stamps stood for individuals affected by the disaster.  But then I realized many of the red stamps were more complex than the kind used by individuals so I contacted Hirabayashi to ask him about their significance.  Hirabayashi told me that the inkan are a metaphor for contracts [of the kind we would call “red tape” in English].  He went on to explain that after the war in Japan contracts have been given preference over the feelings of people.  In the aftermath of Fukushima, he feels that this bad attitude has risen to the surface.  

Therefore, the red stamps in 663114 represent the negative force of bureaucracy, the rules that govern a society, in contrast to the enduring life force of the cicada, who struggles to survive at any cost.  It is a powerful film, and although it addresses a very specific Japanese historical moment, the universality of its message has not been lost on international festival audiences.  It received a warm reception at last year’s Viennale and it also got a special mention in the Generation Section at the Berlinale.  The jury in this division is made up of eleven children and seven teenagers.  They said of 663114:

Visuals and sound melded together flawlessly to create a philosophical and layered masterpiece. The director conveys his message, beyond all conventions. Through a simple metaphor he portrays the survival of a culture, even in the face of catastrophe. (source)

Hirabayashi used the platform to remind people around the world of the seriousness of the crisis in Fukushima: "Children are being exposed to dangerous radioactivity a year after the earthquake. It is our responsibility as Japanese adults to protect the children."

The soundtrack of the film is an artwork all of its own.  It was composed by Osaka-based sound producer Takashi Watanabe.  During the Viennale press conference for 663114, Watanabe explained that they approached the soundtrack as if it would be an offering to a temple.  He looked to Buddhism and Shintoism in his desire to create a new kind of sacred music.  Keitarō Iijima (Studio 301), the sound producer on 663114, explained that they used Japanese food for making the soundtrack including nattō (fermented soybeans), dried Japanese noodles and also cabbage.  He echoed Watanabe’s sentiments about the sacredness of the project for them, emphasizing that he tried to have a sense of respect for the food that they used throughout the production.

663114 will be screened at Nippon Connection in May.  Check out Hirabayashi’s website and youtubechannel to learn more about this fascinating filmmaker.

Director: Isamu Hirabayashi
Music: Takashi Watanabe
Throat: Hideo Kusumi
Voice: Midori Kurata
Sound Mix: Yusuke Toyoura
Sound Design: Keitao Iijima
Foley Assistant: Momoko
Art Director: Ken Murakami
Animation Assistant: Mina Yonezawa

This review is part of Nishikata Film Review’s ongoing series on Noburo Ofuji Award winners:

Film review by Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012


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