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