22 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)