27 April 2012

Help Jeff Chiba Stearns complete his documentary Mixed Match

The Canadian animator Jeff Chiba Stearns, director of the inventive documentary One Big Hapa Family (see my review) is raising funds on IndieGoGo to complete his latest film Mixed Match - a documentary designed to raise awareness about the need for more mixed race bone marrow and cord blood donors.  The sooner this documentary can get the message out to the wider community, the more lives will be saved.  The IndieGoGo campaign ends in 33 hours and your help is desperately needed.  Go to IndieGoGo to learn more and DONATE NOW!!

If you cannot donate money, you can help by getting the word out.  I also recommend putting yourself on the national bone marrow registry so that you can help save lives.  See the bottom of this post for information on how to do this for Canadians and Americans.

In the words of the filmmakers:

The Story

Mixed Match is an inspirational, emotional, and evocative feature-length documentary that explores the need to find mixed ethnicity bone marrow and cord blood donors to donate to multiethnic patients suffering from life threatening blood diseases such as leukemia.  This live action and animated film is a dramatic journey focusing on the main characters’ struggles to survive against incredible odds. 

The documentary will lead the viewer through the lives of young patients and families struggling to overcome life-threatening blood diseases.  While presenting medical concerns, Mixed Match will be a character-driven documentary that will highlight a number of exceptional, courageous, and inspiring participants. The film will follow recently diagnosed multiethnic patients in search of donors, some of whom must struggle to hold on to hope through countless rounds of excruciating chemotherapy as they spend months searching for a match.  A patient who is in remission after a successful stem cell/marrow donation will also be documented.  Another patient’s story is told through his surviving family members, as he was not able to find a suitable marrow match and, as a result, ultimately succumbed to his illness.  Lastly, the documentary will feature a joyous and heartfelt reunion between a donor and patient after a successful transplant, as the two meet for the very first time.  
Mixed Match is an important human story told from the perspective of youth who are forced to discover their identities through their deadly illnesses and how their mixed backgrounds threaten their chance at survival, thus highlighting why in this day and age, knowing our history and cultural heritage still matters.
The film is being produced by Meditating Bunny Studio Inc. (www.meditatingbunny.com), working very closely with Mixed Marrow (www.mixedmarrow.org).

The Impact

Race and ethnicity play a critical role in finding a marrow match for those suffering from fatal blood diseases. It is a lesser-known fact that in order for a marrow or stem cell match to occur between a patient and a donor, genetic markers on cells must line up.  Because these markers are inherited from parents, their children are a blend both of their parents’ markers.  Thus, for mixed patients, their mono-racial parents and relatives will not likely be a match, and their siblings only hold about a 1 in 4 chance of being a match. Many markers on the cells are specific to certain ethnic groups so multiethnic people have a difficult time when their tissue typing has unusual or uncommon combinations.  To put this in perspective, if your background is Egyptian, Japanese, and Russian, there is a likely chance that only another person with a similar ethnic blend could be a possible donor if you are diagnosed with leukemia.

Mixed Match addresses the fact that every year over 30,000 people in North America are diagnosed with life threatening blood diseases. For many patients, a bone marrow transplant is their only chance at survival. Currently, in the US, of the 7 million registered bone marrow donors and 100,000 cord blood donors, less than 3% are multiethnic.  This statistic, although proportionate to the population of mixed people in the country, poses a substantial challenge to a mixed patient given the endless variety of possible genetic combinations in the registry.  Finding a multiethnic marrow match in the public registry has been compared at times to “finding a needle in a haystack” or “winning the lottery.”  Therefore, this is a very timely and important issue. 

According to the 2010 US Census, the number of people who associate with having more than one ethnic background has increased by almost 50% since 2000.  Despite the rapid growth of the multiracial population in almost all reaches of the world, many people do not realize the risks that lie ahead for mixed people with blood diseases, and the hardship that comes with an almost endless search for a donor match.  
In Canada, there are only 1,694 searchable registrants identifying as multiethnic out of the over 277,000 that are currently on Canada's stem cell Network according to OneMatch.  We need to increase this number to help save lives. 

With this film, we are setting out to achieve two goals:
Spread awareness of the challenges and complexities faced by mixed people with blood diseases.
Encourage all people from all backgrounds to join the bone marrow registry and donate core blood to increase the likelihood of finding multiethnic marrow matches.  There are some rare cases where mixed people find matches from monoracial or people of different mixes so it's important to have everyone's support!

Other Ways You Can Help

Another great way to help us complete this movie would be to spread the word about this fundraising to your friends and acquaintances, as well as visiting the Mixed Match page (www.facebook.com/mixedmatch) and clicking the like button so we can keep you updated on our progress.  Of course we encourage you to join your national bone marrow registry and hopefully help save a life.  Please check out www.blood.ca (OneMatch) in Canada andwww.marrow.org (Be The Match) in the US for more info on how to register.  
Check out a CBC radio interview where Jeff, the director, talks about the importance of making Mixed Match at this link: http://www.cbc.ca/nxnw/featured-guests/2012/03/29/jeff-chiba-stearns-documentary-mixed-match/ 

26 April 2012

Nippon Connection 2012

Nippon Connection starts next week in Frankfurt am Main and once again has put together an impressive programme of events.  I put together the animated shorts screening Spaces In Between: Indie Animated Shorts from Japan (Thursday, May 3, 20:00).  The title of the programme is a nod to animation guest this year Atsushi Wada.  Wada won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlinale for his latest film The Great Rabbit (2012).  The programme features work by top indie animators from Akino Kondoh to Kōji Yamamura.  This event will be followed by a filmmaker’s talk with Wada at 22:30.  I will write more about the animated shorts later this week.

I will also be giving a lecture called Kihachirō Kawamoto’s Quest for the Ultimate Expression of Puppets  where I look at the diverse influences on him as an animator (Friday, May 4, 18:00). This presentation is based in part on the chapter I wrote for the Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2 (Intellect Books, 2012) edited by John Berra, but will feature images and film clips that could not be included in the book.  It will be a kind of a visual journey through the early part of Kawamoto’s career.

I have also organized one of the children’s events this year.  There will be a book reading (in Japanese and German) of the first of the popular children’s books Rita and Whatsit (Rita to Nantoka/Rita und Dingsda) followed by five episodes of the children’s animation series.  The books were originally written in French by Jean-Philippe Arrou-Vignod and illustrated by Olivier Tallec.  They were adapted into animation through a co-production between Planet Nemo and Nippon Animation.   The series is not only great entertainment for kids, but fascinating for animation fans because Nippon Animation employed not only in-house animators but also indie animators to direct individual episodes (see Anipages).   Planet Nemo is currently working on the English release of the 26 episode series.

Other events sure to delight animation fans are screenings of Makoto Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below (2011) and the digital shorts series Onedotzero: J-Star 11 which features Mirai Mizue’s Construction (2011).  Mizue’s Modern and Modern No. 2 will also be screening as part of the Wada event mentioned above.

On the opening night of Nippon Connection, I am planning on attending Kaneto Shindo’s Postcard (2010).  Shindo (b. 1912) is one of the oldest working filmmakers in the world, having celebrated his hundredth birthday last Sunday.  I believe the oldest, still actively working film director is Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira (b. 1908).

One must-see event on the programme is the rare chance to catch a live Benshi performance.  Beshi Ichiro Kataoka and the musical group Otowaza are presenting Jirokichi the Rat (1931).  The film is one of only about 20 silent films made by the celebrated trio of director Daisuke Itō (1898-1981), actor Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962) and cinematographer Karasawa Hiromitsu (1900-80) to survive in its entirety.  It was groundbreaking in its day for its use of close-ups and exciting action scenes.    

Yonghi Yang’s feature film debut Our Homeland (2012) will also screening at the festival.   I was deeply moved by her documentary Sona, the Other Myself (2010) at Nippon Connection 2010 and am excited that Yang will also be a guest at the festival this year.  I am also looking forward to seeing Nobuhiro Yamashita’s latest film My Back Page (2011).  Yamashita is a festival favourite with his films Linda, Linda, Linda (2005) and A Gentle Breeze in the Village (2007) having been warmly received at the festival in past years. 

Nippon Retro this year celebrates protest culture in Japanese documentary films.  Rare documentaries from the sixties including Shinsuke Ogawa’s The Oppressed Students (1967) and Summer in Narita (1968), Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s Prehistory of the Partisans (1969) and Minamata: The Victims and their World (1971), and Keiya Ouchida’s Underground Square (1969) will be playing along contemporary fare like Yuki Nakamura’s Amateur Riot (2010) and Ying Li’s Yasukuni (2007).

There are a number of events dedicated to the events of March 11, 2011.  Isamu Hirabayashi’s 663114 (2011) will screen as part of the animation event I mentioned above.  There will also be a screenings of 3.11 Tomorrow, the Sendai Short Film Festival Project, Yojyu Matsubayashi’s  Fukushima: Memories of a Lost Landscape (2011),  Toshi Fujiwara’s documentary No Man’s Zone (2011), Masaki Kobayashi’s Fukushima Hula Girls (2011), and much more. The Japanology department of Frankfurt’s Goethe University will also be giving a number of papers examining the current state of things one year after the disaster in Fukushima.

I am looking forward to seeing Shinya Tsukamoto’s critically acclaimed film Kotoko (2011).  In addition, Nippon Connection will see the international premiere of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2011).  Other intriguing films being screening this year include Hitoshi Matsumoto’s latest film Saya Zamurai (2011), Takashi Miike's Ichimei (Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai, 2011), Kei Umezawa’s documentary Coming Out Story (2011) examines the hard realities of the life of a transsexual, Phillipe Grandrieux’s documentary about legendary screenwriter and filmmaker Masao Adachi It May Be that Beauty has Strengthened our Resolve (2011), and Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham’s KanZeOn (2011).  

This is only a taste of the films and events on offer at Nippon Connection 2012.  Head on over to their website to learn more.  I look forward to seeing you all there!

24 April 2012

Help Save the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden

One of the finest examples of a Japanese garden in North America is under threat in California.  The Hannah Carter Japanese Garden  was designed by Nagao Sakurai in collaboration with Kyoto garden designer Kazuo Nakamura in 1959 and constructed between 1959 and 1961.  Nagao Sakurai is considered one of the top Japanese landscape designers of the twentieth century and designed several notable gardens in the United States including the Japanese Tea Garden in Central Park in San Mateo, the Zen Garden in the Japanese Tea Garden of Golden Gate Park (San Francisco), the Japanese Rock Garden in Micke Grove Regional Park (Lodi, CA) and the Nishinomiya Japanese Garden (Manito Park in Spokane, WA).

The Hannah Carter Japanese Garden was modelled on the gardens of Kyoto and is a considered a rare place of natural beauty and quiet retreat in the Los Angeles community of Bel-Air.  It is named after the wife of Edward Carter, who donated it to the University of California in 1964.  Through a series of agreements, UCLA accepted the donation and agreed to keep and maintain the garden in perpetuity.  UCLA went back on its word in 2010 when it secured a court decision to allow them to remove the “in perpetuity” requirement

In November 2011, UCLA announced plans to sell the garden, citing rising maintenance costs, deferred maintenance, and the lack of attendance due to limited parking.  Funds from the sale of the garden would be used to support UCLA's academic programs.   The university listed both the house and garden for sale in early March 2012, after removing several valuable art objects that are integral to the design of the garden earlier this year.  There are no protective covenants or requirements calling for the garden to be maintained or preserved.  As a public institution, UCLA is required to accept the highest bid in the sale.

UCLA’s decision to sell this important piece of cultural heritage garden seems to me to be disrespectful to the family of Hannah Carter and insensitive to the historical, cultural, and environmental value of the garden.  It is very short-sighted of UCLA not to have considered reaching out to garden, conservation, and Japanese studies organizations to look at possible partnerships for maintaining this unique piece of cultural heritage for future generations.    Learn more about the garden and its history on The Garden Conservancy website.

According to the Terra Luma Design website, the garden features a stone carved over a thousand years ago with the Buuddha seated in 16 different positions of worship.  They also include a dead link to the garden’s UCLA webpage and quote the Garden Guide as describing the garden’s cultural significance thusly:

The complex aesthetic values of traditional Japanese gardens stem mainly from Zen Buddhism.  Among Zen concepts expressed in garden design are asymmetry and a preference for the imperfect and for odd numbers;  naturalness and an avoidance of the forced and artificial; hiding part of the whole to achieve profundity with mystery; a quality of maturity and mellowness that comes with age and time; tranquility, simplicity, and austerity.

You can show your support for by signing the petition and forwarding it to others who are interested in saving this cultural landmark.  The Coalition to Save the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden is also urging people to write individual letters to each of the UC Regents by May 4thClick here to learn more.  

22 April 2012

Image Forum Festival 2012

This year marks the 26th edition of the Image Forum Festival (April 29 - May 6, 2012) – the annual celebration of experimental film and video in Tokyo.  The line-up is diverse and features 35 programmes for a total of 206 works including short films, feature length films and installations.  I will just mention a couple of the events that I would go and see if I could. 

The animated short programme is as strong as ever.  Programme A is called JAPAN ANIMATION PANORAMA and features works by Nobuhiro Aihara, who passed away last spring, as well as Atsushi Wada’s Silver Bear winning film The Great Rabbit.  I am most excited to see that there's a a new work from one of my favourite women animators Mika Seike!  The full line up for Programme A is:

Longing for Venus (金星の夢) by Mitsuo TOYAMA (2011)       
Michiyuki Onsen-hen (みちゆき温泉編) by Ryo TANIGUCHI (2011)
GIGI-GAGA by Nobuhiro AIHARA (2011)        
SKY by Nobuhiro AIHARA (2011)            
Red colored bridge by Keiichi TANAAMI (2012)               
Moth Pattern (蛾鑑) by Mika SEIKE by (2012)
gala gala by Yoshihisa NAKANISHI (2012)         
Akerata asobi, Wasureru manako (開かれた遊び、忘れる眼) by ALIMO (2012)
Hito no Shima (人の島) by ALIMO (2011)
The Great Rabbit (グレートラビット) by Atsushi WADA (2012)
MODERN No.2 by Mirai MIZUE (2011) 
AND AND by Mirai MIZUE (2011)           

In addition, Isamu Hirabayashi’s Noburo Ofuji Award-winning animated short 63114 (read review) is playing in programme G which is a screening dedicated films that are responses to the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011.  

Programme J has an intriguing line up of shorts from Europe:

On the Water’s Edge by Tommaso de Sanctis (England, 2010)
Sleep by Claudius Gentinetta + Frank Braun (Switzerland, 2010)
Spoken Film 1 by Wojciech Bąkowski (Poland, 2007)
Journey to Cape Verde by José Miguel Ribeiro (Portugal, 2010)
544/544 (up/down) by Thomas Mohr (Netherlands, 2011)
ich fahre mit dem fahrrad in einer halben stunde an den rand der atmosphäre
(i go with my bicycle within half an hour on the edge of the atmosphere)
by Michel Klöfkorn (Germany, 2011)
The Eagleman Stag by Michael Please (England, 2010)

Thomas Mohr’s film, which interprets The Requiem of Hanne Darboven, can be viewed on Vimeo.

Programme K features a selection of recent films by Chinese animators and experimentalists – I am afraid I don’t have time this week to figure out all the names and titles in English but here is the screening list for those who can read Japanese:

影夢人生 ツァオ・フェイ / 中国 / ビデオ /10  /2011
穀物配給切符 チェン・シー + アン・シュン / 中国 / ビデオ /19  /2011
兎通り フォン・ウェイ / 中国 / ビデオ /8  /2007
蕨採り ジァオ・イェ + ホアン・ヤン / 中国 / ビデオ /9  /2003
水滴 ホアン・ヤン / 中国 / ビデオ /3  /2005
私の、私の レイ・レイ / 中国 / ビデオ /5  /2011
ダブル・フィクレット ワン・ハイヤン / 中国 / ビデオ /4  /2012
あなたに会えたら リュウ・ジャーミン / 中国 / ビデオ /6  /2010
唖 ルオ・ハイミン / 中国 / ビデオ /5  /2008
臼 スン・ハン / 中国 / ビデオ /3  /2007
鼓動 シー・レイ / 中国 / ビデオ /8  /2011
若者と地球の神秘 ワン・ウェイスー / 中国 / ビデオ /8  /2011 

To learn more, check out the full Image Forum Festival programme (JP only).  

21 April 2012

Ichi-gwankoku: The One-Eyed Country (一眼国, 2009)

Children watch the freak show.

The animator Ryo Hirano has a love of the grotesque and the absurd, from the yōkai manga of Shigeru Mizuki to the independent animation of Igor Kovalyov (see his interview with Public Image)  Hirano’s animated short Ichi-gwankoku (The One-Eyed Country, 2009) was inspired by the rakugo story of the same name Ichigankoku (一眼国 --- Hirano just chose a different Romanization method for the title). 

Rakugo (落語) is a traditional art of comic storytelling which dates back many centuries.  Many of the classic rakugo tales contain elements of the grotesque.  One well known example to fans of indie animation is Atama Yama (Mt. Head), which Kōji Yamamura adapted in 2002 and tells the tale of a stingy man who has a cherry tree grow out of his head. In the popular story Ichigankoku, the owner of a freak show hears from a travelling priest about the existence of a country of one-eyed people.  He sets out immediately for this land in the hope of capturing a one-eyed child to bring back and use in his show.  However, the tables are turned against him when he comes to the land of one-eyed people, for he himself is captured because he has two-eyeds and is caged and put on display as a freak himself.

Hirano captures the absurdity of the story right from the get-go with a one-eyed chicken who is almost run over by the freak show vehicle and the stampede of children that follow in its wake.  The caged two-eyed man is humiliated even further in his cage because he is naked and shivering.  Not only do the one-eyed children stare at the man in shock, but they also cruelly throw things at him and laugh at his plight.  In a further act of violence, the freak show owner whips the naked man

Collage of drawn and photographic elements
In contrast to this dark, violent scene, a priest and a caged tanuki are sleeping at a roadside shrine.  The tanuki –creatures famed for their powers of transformation – delightedly captures a falling ginkgo leaf and uses his magic to escape from the cage.  From his covered cage, the two-eyed man peaks through a crack in the curtain to observe the one-eyed world around him and spots the tanuki walking by with a leaf on his forehead.   

The man’s view abruptly comes to an end when he is further abused by passersby.  He is knocked unconscious by a can to the head and has a vision of a terrifying giant three-eyed creature.  He runs from this giant but is easily captured and the giant pulls one of his eyes out of its socket.  When the man awakes, he discovers that he now has only one eye.  His eye, with an odd tail wiggling like a fish out of water, stares at him from the other side of his cage.  He tries to capture the eye, but it escapes.  He looks out the window and sees the tanuki with the gingko leaf has captured his wayward eye on stick and is licking it like a lollypop.  The poor naked man sits in disbelief at his fate, scratching his head.

A mix of European and Japanese cultural influences - but they somehow seem to fit this strange land.

If it weren’t for the Japanese elements to this story (tanuki, the Jizō bodhisattva statues, etc.), I might have thought it was by an Eastern European animator because of the look and feel of the piece.  What really makes Hirano’s work stand out from other young animators is his fearless use of collage and mixed media.  Photographic images are layered with drawn images in unexpected and interesting ways. 

Whereas the original rakugo story is amusing because of the irony of the fate of the freak show owner, Hirano shows a different side to the story that shows the value of the story to modern audiences.  We as an audience can scratch our own heads along with the old man and wonder if it is better to be one-eyed and fit in with the others or to remain oneself in the face of violence and cruelty. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

Watch the film for yourself on Hirano's official Youtube channel.

Learn more about Ryo Hirano on his official website.


2007  udara udara (うだらうだら)
2008  Future Man (蟻人間物語/Ari Ningen Monogatari)
2008  Midnight Zoo (深夜動物園/Shinya Dōbutsuen)
2009  music video orchestra (collaborative work for Omodaka)
2009  The Kappa’s Arms (河童の腕/Kappa no Ude)
2009  Ichigwankoku / One-Eyed Country (一眼国/Ichigankoku)
2009  Guitar (ギター)
2010  Kensaku Shōnen (検索少年, Tabito Nanao music video)
2011  Hietsuki Bushi (ひえつき節/Omodaka music video)
2011  Space Shower TV Station ID
2011  Holiday (ホリデイ)

Future Man (蟻人間物語/Ari Ningen Monogatari, 2008)

Future Man (蟻人間物語/Ari Ningen Monogatari, 2008) is Ryo Hirano’s second animated short.  The Japanese title literally translates as “Ant-Human Story”.  While a student at Tama Art University, his class was assigned a project in which they should make something about living beings.    In preparation for this film, he read up on ant ecology and used this knowledge as the basis of his film.  According to Yuki Harada’s interview with Hirano on his website Public Image last summer, one of the details that struck Hirano as being remarkable was that scientists who study ants found that their behaviour is not driven by sympathy or love for the ant queen but that it is the drive to maximize one’s DNA.   My biologist husband tells me that this is the evolutionary theory that Richard Dawkins famously put forward in his book The Selfish Gene (1976).

In Future Man, Hirano substitutes humans for the ants.  Naked male figures with Frankenstein-esque square-shaped heads gather supplies for the colony to the strains of Strauss’s The Blue Danube.  They need to defend their food stores from himizu (Japanese Shrew Moles) whom they also kill and consume.  Inside the colony, Hirano depicts drones caring for infants, and small children fighting over himizu meat like dogs.  At the centre of it all is the corpulent body of the queen ant-human who smiles benevolently at her drones. 

The tranquil scene takes a dramatic shift when a monster with sharp teeth at the end of long tentacles attacks the colony.  The drones react in a panic, but the queen ant-human remains tranquil until she is directly attacked.   At the end of the film, the colony lays in ruins, with bodies strewn everywhere.  The only glimmer of hope is an infant who crawls into a beam of sunshine and stares up at birds flying in a peaceful blue sky.  The image then expands upwards out of the colony all the way into the universe where decaying relics of satellites and spaceship circle the planet earth.  If one looks at the planet earth from outer space, the human race is really not so unlike a colony of ants.  Although we do fancy ourselves the greatest species on the planet, we are really just small specks of dust in the vastness of the universe.

Watch the film for yourself:

Learn more about Ryo Hirano on his official website.


2007  udara udara (うだらうだら)
2008  Future Man (蟻人間物語/Ari Ningen Monogatari)
2008  Midnight Zoo (深夜動物園/Shinya Dōbutsuen)
2009  music video orchestra (collaborative work for Omodaka)
2009  The Kappa’s Arms (河童の腕/Kappa no Ude)
2009  Ichigwankoku / One-Eyed Country (一眼国/Ichigankoku)
2009  Guitar (ギター)
2010  Kensaku Shōnen (検索少年, Tabito Nanao music video)
2011  Hietsuki Bushi (ひえつき節/Omodaka music video)
2011  Space Shower TV Station ID
2011  Holiday (ホリデイ)

Another Glimpse at the Yayoi Kusama documentary Princess of Polka Dots

Filmmakers Heather Lenz and Karen Jonson are sharing another glimpse at their documentary in progress Kusama: Princess of Polka Dots which examines the life and career of the extraordinary artist Yayoi Kusama.  Today they posted a new video on Youtube:

This 7-minute clip was put together for the Kusama retrospective at the Tate Modern in London (9 February – 5 June 2012).  I have been impatient to see this film since I first discovered their 2007 trailer:

However, it would seem that they are still trying to raise enough tax-deductible donations to cover the costs of archival image licensing and the cost of post-production.  You can support this promising documentary by donating money here.  If they can secure financing they hope to get the film out to festivals sometime this year.

I also learned this week through a posting on Brainpickings that Kusama has illustrated Alice in Wonderland.  A brilliant pairing of art and fiction which has gone directly onto my birthday wishlist for this year:

udara udara (うだらうだら, 2007)

The short-short udara udara (うだらうだら, 2007) is young animator Ryo Hirano’s first foray into animation.  Photographs of natural settings are overlaid with cute, hand drawn creatures who sigh, hum, fart, buzz, and sneeze along to a percussive beat.  Hirano did both the animation and the soundtrack himself. 

It’s a simple, straightforward scenario, but it already demonstrates themes and motifs that one sees throughout Hirano’s animation career so far: a fondness for mixed media, an awareness of the relationship between the rhythms of the soundtrack and the rhythm of editing and animation movement, and the use of creatures that are part human, part animal, part pure fantasy.  Most importantly, the film foregrounds the sense of humour that has made Hirano’s films stand out among the films of his young peers.

Watch the film for yourself:

Learn more about Ryo Hirano on his official website.


2007  udara udara (うだらうだら)
2008  Future Man (蟻人間物語/Ari Ningen Monogatari)
2008  Midnight Zoo (深夜動物園/Shinya Dōbutsuen)
2009  music video orchestra (collaborative work for Omodaka)
2009  The Kappa’s Arms (河童の腕/Kappa no Ude)
2009  Ichigwankoku / One-Eyed Country (一眼国/Ichigankoku)
2009  Guitar (ギター)
2010  Kensaku Shōnen (検索少年, Tabito Nanao music video)
2011  Hietsuki Bushi (ひえつき節/Omodaka music video)
2011  Space Shower TV Station ID
2011  Holiday (ホリデイ)

03 April 2012

Kawamoto-Norstein @ Forum des Images, Day 3

Kawamoto-Norstein @ Forum des Images, Day 3
Sunday, March 25, 2012

On this day I rose early and went for a stroll around the Eiffel Tower and along the Seine with Sakadachi-kun (see tumblr). I then hopped on the Métro Line 6 and headed to the Cinémathèque Française at Bercy.  There was a long queue to get into the Tim Burton Exposition – the one that first appeared at the MOMA in 2009.  Even though they only allowed so many people in per hour, the exhibition was still overcrowded and hot.  I was surprised at the number of parents who had brought very young children to the exhibition.  I witnessed one young girl’s innocent childhood being blemished with nightmarish imagery as she stared as if transfixed at a figure of an infant with nails in it.  It was worth putting up with the crowds to see Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) costume, as well as a long row of Jack Skellington heads from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) in a lit display box.  Each head had a slightly different expression on it to give spectators an idea of the process of stop motion.

The regular museum of the Cinémathèque Française had free admission on this day.  It was smaller than I had expected, knowing what treasures are in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française, but there were indeed many delightful things on display.  Martin Scorcese has already donated some set pieces from Hugo (2011), but I was much more impressed to see the original magician’s coat from Georges Méliès’  A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune, 1920) in full colour and with hand-embroidered shapes on it.    Some of my favourite things on display at the museum:  a self portrait of Asta Nelson  (here it is on flickr, but it not as vibrantly coloured or as textured in postcard form), Mrs. Bates' head donated by Alfred Hitchcock shortly after the release of Psycho (1960), Mae West’s serpent turban from Leo Macarey’s Belle of the Nineties (1934), original poster art from Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), and Nikolai Cherkasov’s costume from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944-6).

For fans of animation, there are many wonderful things to discover in the Cinémathèque Française.  On the walls just before one goes upstairs there is original art from Hans Richter’s Rythmus 23 (1923) and Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale (1924).  The Cinémathèque also hold the collection of the pinscreen animation pioneers Alexandre Alexeieff and his wife Claire Parker.  On the upper level of the museum there are two pinscreens on display.  A tableau from 1930 – presumably the one used for the groundbreaking film Night on Bald Mountain (Une nuit sur le mont chauve, 1933)  and a larger screen from 1943.  The large screen holds approximately 1,140,000 pins and was restored for the Cinémathèque by NFB pinscreen animator Jacques Drouin.  The smaller tableau had the image of Bébé Nicolas on it – a character invented by Alexeieff to amuse his daughter when she was young.

There was great excitement at the Forum des images on Day 3, for Raoul Servais (official website) had come from Belgium to see his old friend Yuri Norstein.  I was drinking coffee in the Forum’s café when he entered and witnessed the warm embrace between the two men.  Norstein was delighted to see Servais and introduced him to the audience at the screening of Norstein’s early works and collaborations.  It was wonderful seeing Roman Kachanov’s enchanting The Mitten (1967) on 35mm.  Many of the films in this programme did not have subtitles, but this did not bother me because I had seen the ones with dialogue before.  The highlights of this programme were Ivan Ivanov-Vano and Norstein’s The Battle of Kerzhenets (1971) The Seasons (1969) on 35mm in their full widescreen glory.  They were truly a wonder to behold.

In the evening, Ilan Nguyen  and Serge Éric Ségura did a long presentation on the career of Kihachirō Kawamoto.  This included many rare photographs and video clips of Kawamoto and projects that he worked on throughout his career.  Nguyen teaches animation at Tokyo University of the Arts and is a well known animation expert in France.  He very kindly gave me programmes from the Nouvelles Images du Japon festivals that he assisted in organizing at the Forum des images in past years which have included showcase of the works of Osamu Tezuka, Yōji Kuri, Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, Kōji Yamamura, and many others.  The French premiere of Kawamoto’s Winter Days occurred at the 2003 festival.  According to his profile on the website of the French periodical éclipses (revue de cinéma), Ségura is working on two books: one about the career of Servais and one about Kawamoto. 

The presentation opened with a clip of Kawamoto singing a Russian song on Japanese TV – which thoroughly delighted Norstein.  The main thrust of the presentation was to demonstrate the way in which Kawamoto had to wear many different hats during his life in order to make a living.  It is very difficult for independent animators to make a living on animation alone. 

There were photographs from Kawamoto’s early childhood – many of which were not in the two Japanese books profiling his life such as those of his mother Fuku (1891-1940) and his father Kinzaburō.  Kawamoto was born and raised in Sendagaya – the neighbourhood in which he was to live for the rest of his life.  His family dealt in porcelain.  There was a photograph of Kawamoto’s paternal grandmother Suzu Kawamoto (1861-1937) who was a major influence on the path his life was to take: teaching him how to make dolls and taking him to the theatre with her.

In the chapter I wrote on Kawamoto for Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2 (ed. John Berra, 2012), I mention the fact that Kawamoto was a big fan of Hollywood and European film of  the 1930s – even making dolls of Greta Garbo and Danielle Darrieux.  Nguyen and Ségura presented a pastel that Kawamoto had made of Swedish film star Zarah Leander next to the original photograph that he had used for inspiration as well as dolls he made of Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot.

For me the highlights of the presentation were photographs I had never seen before such as Kawamoto on the  set of productions at Toho including Senkichi Taniguchi’s Escape at Dawn (1950) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Actress (1947).  We saw clips of a Horoniga (character with a beer stein for a head used in advertisements for Asahi Beer in the 1940s and 50s) animated short directed by either Tadasu Iizawa (1909-94) or Tadahito Mochinaga (1919-99), as well as the first few minutes of Mochinaga’s Little Black Sambo (1956) – which I would have loved to have seen in its entirety.

They also had on hand first editions of the Toppan storybooks, which Shiba Pro later published internationally – such as the Golden Press Living Storybooks series.  I have written about my copy of The Little Tin Soldier (1968) – click here.  There were also clips from other animation Kawamoto had done for the NHK such as the opening credit sequence of Okaasan Ishō and Boo Foo Woo (1960-7).  There was a series of Asahi Beer commercials with the slogan “Watashi no biru” (My beer) which were hilarious send-ups of westerns – Kawamoto had apparently been a huge fan of westerns as a teen, particularly John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). 

There was one bit of information that took me totally by surprise: I leaned that Kawamoto had elaborate tattoos on his back and upper arms.  Today in the west it has become quite commonplace for people to have tattoos, but in Japan such tattoos are associated with the yakuza.  Many sentō (public bath) have signs declaring that people with tattoos are not welcome to bathe there.  Kawamoto had his tattoos done between 1956 and 1963 apparently as a kind of act of rebellion; a way of marking himself as an individual.  Ségura and Nguyen even showed us a photograph of Kawamoto’s tattoos taken from the rear with him only wearing a fundoshi (traditional male underwear).  This was followed by a series of photographs from Kawamoto’s trip to Eastern Europe.  I looked at the famous photograph of Kawamoto with Jiří Trnka (1912-69) with new eyes.  Kawamoto looks very conservative in his suit: a small, unassuming man in contrast to the hulking form of Trnka.  To think that under that smart suit, Kawamoto was hiding an elaborate work of tattoo art!

One of the questions that had been niggling at me for some time was the mystery of Kawamoto’s first feature film: Rennyo and his Mother (1981).  This 93 min. puppet animation never plays at retrospectives of Kawamoto’s career and has never been made available on video or DVD.  They showed a clip from the film and it looks absolutely stunning.   After the presentation, I asked Nguyen about the availability of the film and he said that it also screens rarely in Japan as the rights are held by the religious organization who commissioned it.  The scenario for the film was written by Kaneto Shindō (Kuroneko, Onibaba) and it features voice acting by Kyōko Kishida and Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.  Although it was not a personal project of Kawamoto's, rather a commissioned work to order, I still feel the work is significant and would love to see it some day.

During the overview of the latter half of Kawamoto’s career there were photographs of him at festivals and other events around the world.  Notable photographs included one of him with Yuri Norstein at 1985 animation festival in Varna – which is the occasion on which the two of them became friends, with Jim Henson in 1986, with Břetislav Pojar at Annecy in 1987, in Shangai in 1987 signing the contact to make To Shoot Without Shooting (1988), and with Karel Zeman and Nicole Saloman at Hiroshima in 1987.  The presentation concluded with footage from the Kawamoto memorial service in 2010 which featured a very moving march of the large puppets from his NHK special series Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The presentation was followed by Takashi Namiki’s documentary Living With Puppets: The World of Kihachirō Kawamoto (1999) – read my review here.  The weekend concluded with a screening of Kawamoto shorts including a rare screening of Tadahito Mochinaga’s Little Black Sambo and the Twins (1957), for which Kawamoto had crafted puppets.  Read about this film here.  I slipped out of the final screening event after this film, for I had seen all the other films many times before.
with the illustrious Alexis Hunot

I had a chance on the final day of the Kawamoto-Norstein event to get to know animation expert Alexis Hunot a bit better.  I am a longtime fan of his blog Zewebanim and was pleased to find that he is also a fan of this blog.  It turns out that the review that I wrote about Takashi Namiki’s book Animated People in Photo, struck a personal chord with Alexis because his uncle Jean-Luc Xiberras (April 1, 1941- December 26, 1998) is featured in the book.  My blog post apparently triggered Alexis to track down a copy of the photograph for his mother.  Xiberras was the director of Annecy from 1982 until his passing in December 1998.  It was under Xiberras’ direction that Annecy moved from being a biennale to an annual event in 1998.  There is an interview with Xiberras from 1997 on AWN as well as a touching homage to him from 1999 in English and French with tributes written by Frédéric Back, Bruno Edera, and many others. 

Alexis Hunot did his studies in cinema, but his love of animation began when he discovered the works of Back, Norstein, and Jan Švankmajer at Annecy 1987 where he worked as an assistant.  He teaches at Gobelins  and has a monthly radio programme with Florentine Grelier about animation with called Bulles de rêves.   You can see a video of him giving a lecture here, and here is the interview he did with Yuri Norstein.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

FIRST ENTRY IN THIS SERIES: Kawamoto-Norstein @ Forum des Images, Day 1

01 April 2012

Living With Puppets: The World of Kihachirō Kawamoto (1999)

Takashi Namiki (なみきたかし, b. 1952) of Anido has been documenting the world of animation both at home and abroad since the 1970s through his writings, photographs, and by collecting materials for his private archive.  Last fall, I wrote about his book Animated People in Photo, which is a photo essay of his encounters with animators and animation festivals over the years.  His 1999 documentary film Living With Puppets: The World of Kihachirō Kawamoto (人形と生きる〜川本喜八郎の世界) screened on Day 3 of the Kawamoto-Norsteinevent at Forum des Images in Paris.  It was introduced by Ilan Nguyen (Tokyo University of the Arts), who said that he believed that it was the first time for the film to screen outside of Japan.

The subject of the documentary is not Kawamoto the puppet animator, but Kawamoto the puppet maker and puppet theatre director.  Starting in 1972, Kawamoto joined forces with his good friend Tadanari Okamoto to host a number of puppet animation festivals known as the Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Shows.  As they did not produce enough animated shorts to fill a full programme, Kawamoto came up with the idea of including live puppet theatre performances.  Not only would this lengthen the programme, but live shows could also incorporate the humorous aspects of puppet performances.  Apart from his first independent animation The Breaking of Branches is Forbidden (1968), Kawamoto’s animated works tend to be more serious and contemplative.  Yet everyone who knew Kawamoto personally speaks of his warm sense of humour.  The live puppet shows demonstrate this other side to his personality.

The Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Shows ceased in 1980, and with Okamoto passing away in 1990, a revival of the event seemed unlikely.  However, 27 years after the first Kawamoto + Okamoto event, Kawamoto decided to put on the puppet show one more time.  Namiki’s film documents the event from the cramped rehearsals in Kawamoto’s tiny Sendagaya studio to the one night only performance at the Mitsukoshi Theatre in September 1999.  The show featured a parade of the puppets from the NHK drama Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国志/Sangokushi) as well as performances of four original theatrical works written by Kawamoto:

Hito mo Migakite no Chi ni Koso (人も磨き手後にこそ)

This puppet play was performed at the first Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Show in 1972.  It features an old, tattooed man in a sentō (communal bath house).  When bathing in Japan, one first squats with a shower or water in a basin.  One must wash oneself thoroughly before entering the communal hot bath.  The tattooed man sits with the wash basin blocking the view of his penis from the theatre audience.  This is a wordless drama in which the comedy comes from the fact that the man’s movements are in time with the accompanying classical music.  As the tempo increases, so too do his movements with dramatic pauses being made comical by him tipping the wash basin towards his private parts.  At one point, the increase in tempo and volume results in him quite vigorously scrubbing his penis which caused a great deal of laughter.  Another uproarious moment occurs when he stretches out his arm and plays it like a fiddle – in the style of an air guitar performance. 

There is also the humour of familiarity in this piece, as public bathing is an important cultural tradition with etiquette that all of the audience members would recognize.  Thus another funny sequence involves the old man trying to get from the wash basin to the hot bath in a dignified manner by trying to hold the small white towel over his private parts.   He then sticks his toe into the bath and jumps back in shock at how hot the water is, before easing himself in.

If I had seen this puppet play before hearing Ilan Nguyen and Serge Éric Ségura’s lecture on the life and career of Kawamoto, I would have presumed that the old man was a yakuza because of his ornately tattooed body.  Nguyen and Ségura revealed that Kawamoto himself had elaborate tattoos on his back and upper arms that he acquired in the late 1950s / early 1960s in order to mark himself as an individual.  With this in mind, it is likely that there is an element of autobiography to this amusing piece.

Kurui toki no Kami da no mi (くるしいときのカミだのみ)

This puppet play was performed at the first Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Show in 1972.  Like
Hito mo Migakite no Chi ni Koso, this puppet play is a wordless physical comedy set to music.  It features a salaryman going to the toilet – quite literally “toilet humour”!  The title suggests that the struggle that one sometimes has on the toilet can be a religious experience.
Good Night, I said!  (おやすみなさいったら!/Oyasumi-nasaittara!)

This comic puppet play was performed at the first Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Show in 1972.  It is also set to music.  All parents struggle with getting their kids to bed at night.  In this puppet drama the struggle is multiplied as a mother tries to convince four babies to go to sleep.  The piece is performed to the German lullaby “Schlafe, mein Prinzchen, schlaf’ ein” by Mozart.  The mother dozes off herself while waiting for her little ones to sleep and the babies crawl around under the blankets.  The large bed is vertical on the stage and leaning slightly backward so as to accommodate both the spectators watching the action and the puppeteers.

Scheming World from Inside and Out (世間胸算用近頃腹裏表/ Seken Munazanyou Chikagoro to Tatemae)

This puppet play was performed at the fifth Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Show in 1976 and was also a part of the reprise event in 1979.  In an  introductory interview Kawamoto explains that audiences found the subject matter of this play quite shocking when it was first performed.  Times have changed in the ensuing quarter century and he thinks that the audience in 1999 will find it fairly tame.

This puppet play does have dialogue and concerns the inner workings of a Japanese home.  Traditionally in a Japanese family, when the eldest son marries he becomes the head of the family.  This usually means that three generations of a family will live together under one roof.  Unsurprisingly, this often results in the new wife and her mother-in-law butting heads on the way in which the household is run.  Mother-in-laws tend to have very fixed ideas about how to manage the home having been in charge of their own homes for at least two decades.  The young wife may bring modern ways or even different ways of doing things learned from her own mother into the home.  No matter what one's cultural background, we can all recognize that this is a recipe for trouble.

This puppet play reenacts the strife that results from his scenario with the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law being sweet to each other’s faces but saying things to each other that are either sarcastic or have a double-meaning.  Behind each other’s backs they complain about each other and take out their frustrations with having to live together on the chores.  The mother-in-law takes out her frustration on the laundry.  She even goes so far as to spit on her daughter-in-law’s shirt before ironing it.  Her main complaint is that she things her daughter-in-law is lazy and unskilled in housework. 

The daughter-in-law is mainly upset at the restrictions her mother-in-law imposes on her life.  On this day,  her mother-in-law has chosen not to go out, and this means that the daughter-in-law must also stay at home at do chores when she would rather be gossiping with her friends.  She cannot allow the mother-in-law does not do all the chores and take all the credit for the housekeeping.  The daughter-in-law takes out her frustration on preparing supper.  She attacks the fish with all her pent up rage.  At the end of the play, the mother-in-law pretends to enjoy the food her daughter-in-law has prepared and the daughter-in-law feigns delight with her neatly shirt.  The masks of domestic harmony are back up again and the women continue in their struggle to live together for the sake of the family.

One only gets a taste of these puppet plays for the original theatrical performance lasted 3 hours and the documentary is a comfortable 40 minutes.  The puppeteers, in the tradition of Bunraku, perform entirely in black with the faces also masked in black.  It was hard to tell if they were also using 3 puppeteers for each puppet as I was so wrapped up in the performance that I forgot to pay attention.  The puppets were large and did have a minimum of 2 puppeteers – as you can see in the screencaps of the performances. 

Kawamoto wrote, directed, produced, and performed in the puppet dramas.  He talks at some length about the craft of the puppet theatre and the challenge of preparing the puppeteers for the performance – they were quite young and many were new to puppeteering.  Most of Kawamoto’s original collaborators had either passed away or had moved on to other things in their lives since the 1970s.  He mentioned one puppet master in particular named Koga who had passed away and whom he greatly missed.  They spent two months rehearsing for the performance.  In order to bring the puppet convincing to life, Kawamoto explained that the performers need to have mutual respect for each other and work towards being in harmony with one another.  Although they made a few errors during the live show, Kawamoto seemed content with the final result.

The documentary is a very low resolution video with amateur English subtitles.  However, the singularity of the subject matter makes the film must-see viewing for fans of Kawamoto and scholars of Japanese puppet theatre.  It reveals a very different side of Kawamoto as not only a puppet designer and creator, but also a comic writer, theatrical director, and media personality.  It is impossible to recreate the Kawamoto + Okamoto Puppet Anime-Shows of the 70s now that the key figures have passed away, but this documentary gives us a glimpse of what the theatrical portion of these shows must have been like.  There is also footage from a TV talk show that shows Kawamoto having a comical exchange with his good friend the actress and TV personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.  She teases him about how tiny his studio is and wonders how he could possibly work in such a cramped space.  Kuroyanagi did voice acting for several Kawamoto puppet animations: The Breaking of Branches is Forbidden (1968), Rennyo and his Mother (1981), and The Book of the Dead (2005).

Living With Puppets: The World of Kihachirō Kawamoto is available for loan from AnidoClick here for more information.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012


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