24 May 2012

Zakka Films: An interview with Seiko Ono

Rokkasho Rhapsody (Hitomi Kamanaka, 2006)

One of the biggest frustrations of fans of Japanese film is that we hear about a great documentary playing at international festivals and have to wait years before it is available on DVD.  Even then, the film is usually only released in Japan and without English subtitles – thus limiting the audience and making it difficult to use for teaching purposes.
All that changed earlier this year when the U.S-based company Zakka Films opened its Filmmakers’ Market with the aim of offering Japanese and Asian documentary filmmakers the opportunity to bring subtitled DVDs of their films fresh onto the market for consumption like fish at Tsukiji. 
Zakka Films is the brainchild of Seiko Ono, wife of respected Yale professor Aaron Gerow (author of Visions of Japanese Modernity and A Page of Madness).  After my dedicating the month of October last year to reviewing DVD releases by Zakka Films, I contacted Seiko Ono to learn more about how she came to start this exciting new DVD label.
Tell me about yourself and your background in the film industry.
In the late 1980s in Japan I started working at Studio 200 of the Seibu Department Stores. Things were about to decline, but Seibu still had lots of museums, movie theaters, performance theaters and galleries. Unlike the department stores in the US, they were trying to provide an entire life to customers: not just fashionable brands, but the arts as well. Studio 200 was one of the Seibu art spaces, and was sort of an all-purpose theater playing rare films, presenting dance performance, experimental music concerts, art exhibitions, etc. People working there, including me, coordinated many different kinds of events, and I had some wonderful opportunities to work with films which were not shown at commercial theaters such as Taiwan New Wave films. It was extremely exciting for me to work there, and in fact I learned so many things and met a lot of film people, which helped me later. Just before the 1990s, Seibu’s art spaces started closing one after another out of financial difficulties. People around me started leaving because no one wanted to be transferred to the shoe section or some other section of the Seibu Department Store. In 1990 I joined the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, which was preparing for the second festival in 1991 (the YIDFF takes place once every two years). After that, for nearly 20 years, my work involved programming and coordinating the YIDFF. I am no longer officially at the YIDFF, but I am still involved.
Zakka Films seems like a real labour of love.  What inspired you to start the company?
In 2004 my husband got a job at Yale in the US, and all of us moved to America. I still continued to work for the YIDFF from afar even though I was not a programmer anymore. I had more spare time to start thinking of doing something I had never done before, or something that could justify me living here in the US. Considering my long career at the YIDFF, it didn’t take a long time to get the idea to sell Japanese documentaries on DVD. I already had connections with many documentary productions and filmmakers. It was a quite natural idea to start thinking of working on Japanese documentaries. There were only a few Japanese documentaries that you could obtain in the US, and the few that existed tended to downplay the presence of the director, such as with Out of Place: A Memoir by Edward W. Said and Radiation: A Slow Death. The first is by Makoto Sato and the second by Hitomi Kamanaka, and both of them are pretty famous documentary filmmakers, but their names as directors were sometimes hard to find in publicity. Customers were not always even aware these were documentaries from Japan. I felt there was something not quite right with this situation. That was one impetus for starting Zakka Films. By the way, Zakka Films means 雑貨映画 in Japanese. It is a made up word combination, but zakka in Japanese means miscellaneous goods, so I thought I’d deal not just with documentaries, but also with other rare films which are powerful and excite fans of good cinema. As you know, the first DVD of Zakka Films was The Roots of Japanese Anime, a collection of classic animation, not documentary. You see I had no experience in running my own business in Japan, and here in the US I was a non-English speaker, so I thought I should not try something too difficult at first. Classic animation had a broader appeal and there were already many fans of Japanese animation. Starting with this, I could learn how to produce a DVD, how to promote it, and how to sell it.

Although much of pre-war animation has been lost, many great animated films by Noburo Ofuji and Kenzo Masaoka did survive until the present day.    What criteria did you use in selecting films for The Roots of Japanese Anime: Until the End of WWII? 
If you want to access classic animation films, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, is the best place to visit, but it is almost impossible for us to make a DVD from their films. Fortunately, there are some classic animation collectors in Japan. All the films on The Roots of Japanese Anime were from one collector whom I had known for a long time. At the beginning of this project, I had a longer list of films to include, but the process of working on permission and rights issues trimmed it down to eight films. For me Momotaro’s Sea Eagle (review) was the one which couldn’t be removed, since it was so historically significant. We also made a booklet that comes with the DVD which includes historical backgrounds of each film, and out customers have liked that.
Do have any plans to release more anime in the future?
Right after I released this DVD, I received requests from many customers about what they want next. Many of them were popular 1970s anime which were made for TV such as the anime of Fujio Akastuka or Go Nagai. If I won a fortune in a lottery, I might put out such DVDs, but that is a bit beyond our scale. However, if I have another chance to work on classic animation again, I would do it.
Zakka Films released four documentaries by legendary filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto who passed away in 2008.  Did Tsuchimoto know of the plans for their release?
I wish he had known of this plan. Two years after his death, my husband and I visited his office, Ciné Associé, a company which was taken over by his wife and sometimes editor of his later films, Motoko Tsuchimoto. I told her about my project before the plans were even concrete, and she was very happy to hear of it, and it was her enthusiasm that helped start the project. Of course I needed to discuss the project with Siglo, the production company for Minamata: The Victims and Their World (review). Both of them were so supportive. Motoko-san provided us tapes, documents, books and whatever was helpful for Zakka.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Tsuchimoto’s documentaries about Minamata and Hiroshima seem more important than ever – particularly his focus on the victims of these manmade catastrophes and their stories.  What can today’s documentarians learn from Tsuchimoto?
Tsuchimoto’s belief was that “If there is no record, there is no truth.” When he started making documentaries about Minamata, Minamata disease was taboo: no one wanted to talk about this disease, which is why his first attempt to make a documentary about Minamata for television totally failed. So what he did was to enter their world: he and his staff started living there, and volunteered to do things like drive a car to help them. Minamata was a poor town and cars were still rare. After building closer relationships with them—a method that wasn’t unusual in the 1960s given the Sanrizuka series by Ogawa Productions—he and his staff gradually started shooting. Their office was always open so people from Minamata could make casual visits and Tsuchimoto could show them the rushes they just shot. Building trust, people who refused to be filmed at the beginning ended up turning to ask him to film them! That’s why he could shoot so many of the victims for Minamata: The Victims and Their World
This documentary became an important document in publicizing Minimata disease so they could be officially recognized as a victims by the government of Japan at that time. Tsuchimoto’s Minamata series is not just a document, it is a record of human dignity. For cinematic beauty, I believe some of his films should be ranked among the top films of world cinema history. You cannot find in his films the terrible images of the victims that you can find by searching YouTube with the keyword “Minamata.” He patiently waited until the patients were relaxed and tried to film their most beautiful expression. I think that’s how he in the end could create works that made you think deeply about social contradictions. After the Fukushima nuclear accident, many documentary filmmakers have been to Fukushima or Miyagi to make documentaries. I think it is fine to have many different styles and methods, and not all of them need be masterpieces. But I wonder how many filmmakers think like Tsuchimoto did about how to film such tragedies, and how their work relates to the issues. The documentaries I like to see are not those that are complete when you’re finished watching, but those that start then. Tsuchimoto’s films are like that.

On the Road: A Document (1964) is a groundbreaking film for its experimentation with the form of dramatized documentary.  Can you talk a little bit about why this was such a radical film when it was released and how it was received by audiences?
This film was originally made as traffic safety film for the Metropolitan Police, but it was shelved for nearly 40 years because Tsuchimoto did not make the film that was ordered. Tsuchimoto was working with the drivers union to expose their problems and unhealthy labor conditions, while also masterfully editing the footage like a city symphony, so when a police official finally saw the film, he called it “useless—the plaything of a cinephile.” Until recently the film was not shown openly except at some film festivals, so for a long time On the Road was a kind of phantom film. The production company went bankrupt, so the rights finally reverted to Noriaki Tsuchimoto himself, and the DVD was released in 2004 in Japan.
The name “Zakka” (miscellaneous goods) suggests that you plan to expand your catalogue to include more than just classic works of animation and documentary.  What is next for Zakka Films?  
I am going to continue working on Tsuchimoto’s works, but in the spirit of my company’s name, zakka (雑貨), I would like to extend my business and move beyond the limitations imposed by our size and finances. The project I just opened is The Filmmakers’ Market (FM). FM is a new marketplace for documentaries that tries to break down the walls separating Japanese filmmakers and foreign viewers and allows filmmakers to bring their English-subtitled works in for direct sale, kind of like a farmer’s fresh produce market. When I produce and release my own DVDs, there are countless steps such as making subtitles, designing the DVD cover, making booklets, and so on; that is a big investment in time and money, so we have to limit ourselves in what we actually release. But FM is basically Zakka helping independent filmmakers sell the DVDs they have already made to a foreign market. It opens up the possibilities to obtain rare documentaries, some of which are not even commercially released in Japan. We feature not only Japanese but also other Asian documentaries. All of the DVDs are produced by the directors and producers themselves; for some, Zakka will help make an English booklet or cover, but some may have only Japanese on the package or in the booklet (we will note as such when selling it). But and all of them will have English subtitles. Please come and look at the films brought to market!

産地直送 Filmmakers’ Market (official website)

ROKKASHO RHAPSODY  Director: Hitomi Kamanaka (read review)
In 2004 the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant was completed in Rokkasho village as a facility for reprocessing spent fuel from Japan's nuclear reactors into plutonium. The film spotlights the people of the village, who hold diverse opinions regarding this huge, nearly operational national project.

ECHOES FROM THE MIIKE   Director: Hiroko Kumagai
The story of the Miike Coal Mine, the largest mine in Japan, which ceased operations on March 30, 1997. Hiroko Kumagai interviewed over 70 individuals, men and women, including Koreans who were forcibly brought to Japan. The film looks at Miike not just to explore the past, but also to think about the future: what it means to work and to live.

BREAKING THE SILENCE  Director: Toshikuni Doi
In the spring of 2002, the Israeli army surrounded and attacked the Balata refugee camp. The camera follows residents living in at state of terror and records their lives and feelings.

ARTISTS OF WONDERLAND  Director: Makoto Sato
This is a film about seven artists. It's also about seven people who are mentally handicapped. This has all the marks of a Makoto Sato film: the quirky humor and passion for everyday human life.

BINGAI  Director: Feng Yan
Bingai, a Chinese documentary by Feng Yan—a director deeply inspired by Shinsuke Ogawa—has just been added to the Filmmakers' Market at Zakka Films. Bingai won the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize (the grand prize of Asia program) at the Yamagata Film Festival.

MAPPING THE FUTURE NISHINARI  Directors: Yukio Tanaka, Tetsuo Yamada
Nishinari in Osaka is home to one of Japan's largest concentrations of day laborers, with much of the population being composed of homeless persons, buraku (a discriminated community of descendants of outcast groups), former yakuza, and Korean-Japanese. This documentary presents the people of Nishinari, not from on high, but rather from their own level.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

The Mirage Flower (あんてるさんの花, 2012)

Tonight the 13th Japan FilmFest Hamburg is hosting the world premiere of The Mirage Flower (aka The Mysterious Flower of Anteru / Anteru-san no hana, 2012) directed by up and coming young filmmaker Tadaaki Horai.  The film is set in Kichijōji, a bustling neighbourhood of Musashino city. 

Shigemitsu Ogi (Paradise Kiss, Always: Sunset on Third Street 2) plays Teruo Ando, the quiet unassuming proprietor of an izakaya (Japanese-style bar) which he has named using his own nickname “Anteru”.   While doing a guest spot on a local radio station to promote his izakaya, Anteru learns about a mysterious flower from Peru whose petals can cause realistic hallucinations for up to three days.

On his way home, Anteru spots a flower fitting the description at a florist, purchases it on a whim, and takes it back to the izakaya to show his wife Namiko (Misato Tanaka of Bride of Noto).  Namiko suggests that they test the flower’s powers out on three of their regular customers: Kusanagi, a divorcee with a young son; Chisato, a recently signed musician trying to make a name for herself; and Takayuki, a part-time security guard with a meddling little sister.

After having contact with Anteru’s flower, each of the central characters encounters an important figure in their lives – someone who has been haunting their dreams and whose relationship with them is unresolved.  Kusanagi (Hidenori Tokuyama of Slackers 2) is still suffering from the pain of his recent divorce and struggling with being a single father to Shuichi.  The sudden reappearance of his ex-wife (Megumi Sato of Happy Flight) forces him to confront his conflicting feelings towards her.

Chisato (Megumi Yanagi) now considers herself a professional musician on the up-and-up, but her new record producer is pressuring her to change her style in order to become more successful.  After coming in contact with Anteru’s flower, Chisato’s former band mate Naomi (Yukina Kasai) reappears in her life.  Naomi reminds Chisato of her roots as an artist and causes her to question whether or not she has become a sell-out.

Unlike his two friends, Takayuki (Ren Mori) doesn’t seem to have any skeletons in his closest – apart from a troubled relationship with his parents – but he does have secret fantasies about the kind of girl he’d like to meet.  One day while on the job the beautiful girl of his dreams turns up and engages him in conversation.   Remembering his encounter with Anteru’s flower, Takayuki immediately presumes that this girl must be a hallucination.  Real or not, Takayuki is happy to go with the flow for as long as this trip lasts.

The film unfolds in a dream-like fashion with some scenes shot overly bright to add to the ethereal quality.  The multiple plot lines weave in and out of one another in a manner reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy with a colour scheme similar to that of The Double Life of Véronique. The line between what is real and what is hallucination is so thin that we start to realize that even the envelope story of Anteru and his wife may not be all that it seems.  The references to Hans Christian Andersen remind us that this is not a realistic story but a more of a fable about life.   It is a film about unfinished business and second chances, not to mention love, loss and forgiveness. 

The Mirage Flower will be released in Japan on the 16th of June at the Baus Theatre.  For more information, check out the film’s official website or the website of the production company Musashino Eiga.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

19 May 2012

The Modern Films of Mirai Mizue

The innovative experimental artist Mirai Mizue often takes a scientific approach to animation.  With each new film or film series, he challenges his discipline as an artist (take his current Wonder 365 Animation Project where he aims to make animation every day for a whole year) and investigates the theoretical possibilities of his craft.

Modern (2010) and Modern No. 2 (2011) further explore the method of geometric animation which Mizue used for the first time in Metropolis (2009).  These films are made using isometric drawings planned out on graph paper, and are inspired by optical illusions such as the graphic art of M.C. Escher

In the “Making Of” extra on the DVD Mirai Mizue Works 2003-2010, Mizue explains that for Modern, he set himself the rule that he could only use three kinds of lines: one vertical and two slanting.  Thus the film consists only of the transformation of rectangular parallelepipeds.  Mizue was interested in making as interesting a film as possible using a minimal number of elements in order to prove the theory that animation can be very good when one imposes a limitation on movements.  It would be very easy, and much less time consuming, to make films like Modern and Modern No. 2 using CG software but the look and feel of the film would be very different.  There is a warmth and tactility to Mizue’s films that would be lost if the lines were computer generated. 

Modern and Modern No. 2 have a lot of visual similarities in terms of graphic style, but they are at the same time quite distinct from one another.  Modern begins completely in grey scale then the shapes take on bright colours that stand out against the foggy grey background and the whole frame outlined by a soft black outline.  The rhythm is much slower in Modern than in Modern No. 2 because Mizue asked his composer, twoth, to increase the tempo.  Modern also had a much more consistent tempo, whereas with Modern No. 2 Mizue experiments with variations in speed. 

The biggest change with Modern No. 2 is the change in colour.  For his earlier films, Mizue tended to use plain paper, but for Modern No. 2 he uses traditionally made paper with texture.  This creates a wonderful textured effect with the threads of the paper visible and jumping about from frame to frame.  The colour palette for the geometric shapes is inspired by traditional Japanese art – colourful and dynamic yet more muted than in Modern.

It is an exhilarating experience to watch Mirai Mizue’s geometric films.  The precision of movement and the way in which the animation works in together with the soundtrack is truly a wonder to behold.  Modern appears on the DVD Mirai Mizue Works 2003- 2010.  Please support his artist by ordering it today.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

Modern and Modern No. 2 screened at:

In a Pig's Eye (わからないブタ, 2010)


A giant pig lies in an ordinary garden, blocking the door to the house.  The house is occupied by a large and unusual family: wife, husband, grandmother, and six nearly identical chubby boys.  The atmosphere inside the house is dark and oppressive: the balding, middle-aged husband slices deli meat, decorating his body with the slices while the wife tries to push granny up the stairs while chewing on snacks she keeps in her apron.  Life in the garden seems more carefree: a boy embraces a piglet in the branches of a tree, another boy is blown in a series of gentle front tucks by air blown through, a boy swings like an acrobat from the tree, while another pretends to fish from the rooftop.  The repetitive activities of everyday life come to an end with the wail of the town siren.  The family makes a circle around the giant pig and do a kind of ritualized dance. Is this all real life or just a dream?  

In a Pig's Eye (Wakaranai buta, 2010) is independent animator Atsushi Wada’s graduation film from the graduate animation programme at Tokyo University of the Arts.   With In a Pig’s Eye, Wada continues his exploration of the artistic concept of “ma” or the “spaces in between.”  As with his earlier works, the animation is drawn frame by frame using pencil on paper, with subtle colours added during the computer editing process.  Compared to his earlier work, this film has a wonderful sepia hue to it that recalls traditional paintings done on scroll paper.

The film revisits many themes and motifs typical of an Atsushi Wada film: subtle character movements, domestic animals (in this case pigs and a dog), chubby boys, and repetition of movement.  The dreary everyday chores of life depicted inside the house are in stark contrast to the more carefree play outside, yet the film as a whole depicts both the tedium and absurdity of ordinary day-to-day life.  For me the giant pig in the garden symbolizes the types of inexplicable curveballs life sometimes throws at us.  You can allow it to trap you (like the boy trying and failing to leave the house), or you can make the best of it and discover something really wonderful (the boy being blown into the air by the pig).

When I have been at screenings of Atsushi Wada’s earlier films – particularly Manipulated Man (2006) and Day of Nose (2005) – audiences have tended to be quite silent either with wonder or with incredulity.  Mechanism of Spring (2010) and In a Pig’s Eye are the first Wada films where I actually felt the audiences engage in a warm way with his art.  In fact, In a Pig’s Eye has some slapstick elements (door slamming into pig; boy suddenly falling; etc.) that made me laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all.  Thus I was surprised to learn from Wada, that the films were made with only aesthetics and not comedy in mind.  At the Filmmaker's Talk that I hosted at Nippon Connection 2012, Wada revealed that he had been quite shocked the first time he attended a screening of one of his films at an international festival (it was at VIFF) to hear the audience laughing out loud at his film.

Wada reminded me that film audiences in Japan do not make any noise while watching a screening (they don’t even scream during horror films!), so he cannot tell if Japanese audiences find his films amusing or not.  Western audiences are not shy about expressing genuine emotion during a screening, and the reaction to In a Pig’s Eye at festivals has been largely positive.  The film has won several awards including Best Film at Fantoche in 2010 and the Prix DeVarti for the funniest film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival 2011.  

When Wada was speaking to me about his films I was reminded of Luigi Pirandello's absurdist meta-theatrical play Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) and theories about authorial intention.  A creator of art obviously wishes for their creation to be well received by spectators, but once an artwork is created it takes on a life of its own.  Although audiences may not be receiving the work in the way that Wada intended, it is surely a wonderful thing that the film has taken on a life of its own and delighted audiences around the world.  

Each frame of a Wada film is a work of art in itself.  During the Filmmaker's Talk I asked him about whether or not he preferred working with film or digitally (he had to use 8mm film for Concerning the Rotation of a Child (2004) when he was a student at Image Forum).  Wada prefers making his films digitally because he draws such fine lines using a mechanical pencil.  These fine lines are more difficult to capture with film, so digitally scanning the images gives him a much better result.

Wada explains more about his technique on the CALF DVD Atsushi Wada Works 2002-2010 which also includes In a Pig's Eye.
Order Now
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

17 May 2012

Animafest Zagreb 2012

Atsushi Wada's birthday card to Animafest

Animafest Zagreb is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.  The renowned festival has been held biannually since 1972, and annually since 2005.  After Annecy, Animafest is the second oldest animation festival in the world and an important cultural event in Croatia.  The guests of honour at this year’s festival, which runs from May 29th until June 3rd, are the “godfather of Animafest” Yoji Kuri and winner of three Animafest grand prizes Priit Pärn (Breakfast on the Grass, 1895, and Divers in the Rain).  Pärn will be on this year’s Grand Prize jury.

Kuri is being presented with the Animafest Lifetime Achievement Award. Most of his films will be screened at the festival including many which have never been screened before in Croatia or in Europe. There will also be a rare opportunity to see Ryo Saitani’s documentary Here We Are with Yoji Kuri (2008).  Animafest will also be hosting a Q+A with Kuri.    Events: Yoji Kuri 1, Yoji Kuri 2, Yoji Kuri 3,

Evolution (Yoji Kuri,1976)

Among the wide array of programmes on offer this year is Grand Prix 1972-2012, a nostalgic look back at past winners of the festival.  It is a wonderful cross-section of world animation from Canada to Russia.  I saw Ivan Ivanov-Vano and Yuri Norstein’s The Battle of Kerzhenets (1971), which won the first Animafest, at the Kawamoto-Norstein event in Paris and if they are  showing it on film than it is worth travelling a long way to see 14th-16th century Russian frescoes and paintings come to life.  The programme includespast Japanese winners of the grand prizeOsamu Tezuka’s Jumping and Koji Yamamura’s Mount Head.   

This festival will also feature an exhibition entitled 40 Years of Animagest Zagreb, 1972-2012 at the ULUPUH Gallery.  Historical documents and letters, documentary videos, festival trailers, awards, photographs, birthday and other cards by world-acclaimed authors, graphic identities and objects made from 1972 until present will be on display. The exhibition will also feature works by renowned artists from former Yugoslavia and Croatia, who contributed to the festival identity such as Nedeljko Dragić, Pavao Štalter, Miroslav Šutej, Zvonimir Lončarić, Borivoj Dovniković, and Zlatko Bourek.  This year’s festival logo, designed by Damir Gamulin and Tina Ivezić, is a reinterpretation of the most iconic posters from past festivals including designs by Nedeljko Dragić, Zvonimir Lončarić, Pavao Štalter, Borivoj Dovniković and Vladimir Straža (1978), Zvonimir Lončarić (1980), and Borivoj Dovniković and Mihajlo Arsovski (1998).

Koji Yamamura's birthday card to Animafest

In addition to Yoji Kuri, several Japanese animators are screening works at this year’s festival.  Mirai Mizue’s Modern No. 2 (2011), Atsushi Wada’s The Great Rabbit (2012), Shin Hashimoto’s Beluga (2011) are in the grand prize competition.  Alimo’s Island of Man (2011) and Masaki Okuda’s A Gum Boy (2011) are in the student competition.  In addition, Mizue’s music video AND AND (2011) is in the commissioned films competition.  Koji Yamamura’s Muybridge’s Strings (2011) and Isamu Hirabayashi’s 663114 (2011) are both showing as part of the Grand Panorama and Okuda’s Uncapturable Ideas (2011) and Ryo Orikasa’s Scripta Volanta (2011) will feature in the Student Panorama.  Good luck to all.

10 May 2012

The Curious Animated World of Ryo Hirano

With so many young animators coming out of art colleges these days, it is only those who have a truly unique vision or aesthetic that stand out from the crowd.  Ryō Hirano (ひらのりょう,  b.1988) is fast becoming known at home and abroad for his weirdly wonderful animated shorts.  Born in 1988 in Kasukabe, Saitama, Hirano is a graduate of the Information Design programme at Tama Art University and he is managed by Foghorn.

In 2009, Hirano was one of a group of students selected to participate in the creation of the collaborative  project “music video orchestra” for the experimental collaborative group Omodaka at the 13th Japan Media Arts Festival.  Last year, he won the Japan Media Arts Festival “New Face Award” for his animated music video for Omodaka’s latest song “Hietsuki Bushi”.    He has also recently done a music video for OvertheDogs, a young band also represented by Foghorn.

According to Yuki Harada’s interview with Hirano last year, Hirano began experimenting with animation during the summer holidays of his first year of university.  He took courses in photography and programming at Tamabi, but felt that he didn’t really excel in those areas.  He also picked up basic training in the use of animation software while at Tamabi (source: public-image.org).  The first film Hirano ever made was an amusing short-short called “Udara Udara” which features cute little hand-drawn creatures on photographs of natural habitats.  He did the sound for this film himself (read review and watch video).

His next film was Future Man which he made as a project for a university course where they were asked to 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.  One of the details that struck him as 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 evolutionary drive to maximize one’s DNA.    In Future Man, he substitutes humans for the ants.  The many drawings that he did resulted in a 7 minute animation, which gave him a great feeling of accomplishment (read review and watch video).

His third work was Midnight Zoo.  It was based on a dream he had had where he was sucked into a zoo.  In this animation, Hirano wanted to show the connection between humans and animals.  Hirano is drawn to the grotesque (guro) tradition of art in Japan and elsewhere.  The manga of Hideshi Hino has been a major influence on him.  In his interview with Harada, Hirano states that he has always been drawn to the fantastic and the grotesque. Other major artistic influences that he cites are the manga-ka Shigeru Mizuki of GeGeGe no Kitaro fame, the independent animation of Igor Kovalyov, and Garo (ガロ) manga.

Themes that interest Hirano are the transformation of the body – which is perhaps why he is drawn to the grotesque and to yōkai (supernatural creatures).  He has said that he is “interested in the fact that even if you change the body, the essence doesn’t change” and this is a theme that he explores in his works.  Another theme is “boy meets girl” love.  He has tried to express this type of romantic feeling in both Midnight Zoo and Holiday.

Interestingly, Hirano says that he wants to make things that are sugoku guroi (super-grotesque), but that it is sometimes difficult not to overdo it.  In his desire not to overdo the grotesque elements in his work, the result  often turns out more cute than grotesque. When I read this I immediately thought of Hirano’s The Kappa’s Arms which is quite grotesque – I mean a kappa has his arms torn out and bleeds all over the place – but remains quite a cute animation on the whole.

In terms of method, Hirano tends to plan just the first and last scene in his animated shorts and the in-between part just comes naturally.  As a result of this relaxed approach, things that he experiences in his everyday life during the production process often get reflected in the finished film.  For example, The Kappa’s Arms was impacted by the death of a friend during the animation process (read review and watch film).  His work is also heavily influenced by what he reads.  The Kappa’s Arms was initially based on a kappa folktale Hirano discovered in a book, and Ichigwankoku (One-Eyed Country) was based on an old rakugo tale (read review).

Hirano’s animation has a unique look because of his use of collage.  Drawn elements are mixed with photographed images and sometimes even real objects.  He apparently prefers watching documentaries to watching animation but as an artist prefers animation to live action because he can control the final results more.  Also, with animation the audience is much more willing to go on a journey into the fantastic.  In a way, animation is Hirano’s jibun no documentary – a documentary of his inner self.  He can express what he wants to say without any uneasy feeling (iwakan).

We showed Ryo Hirano’s film Holiday at Nippon Connection this year.  It is his graduate film from Tamabi and the themes are once again love and the body.  He made the film based upon memories of the summer holidays (read review and watch trailer).  Holiday has raised Hirano’s profile as an animator as the film has been picked up by many international festivals.  In order to make a living, he continues to do commercial work such as music videos and the Space Showa TV station ID.   I hope that he finds the funding to continue making indie fare because he shows a lot of promise as an artist. 

A great deal of the information for this article was gleaned from an interview with Hirano by Yuki Harada (source: public-image.org) and through correspondence with Hirano himself.  To read more click on hyperlinked the titles below.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012


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)

Ryo Hirano’s Holiday (ホリデイ, 2011)

Holiday (ホリデイ, 2011) is Ryo Hirano’s graduate film from Tama University of Art and the theme is one that he has explored before: love and the body.  Hirano has said that the concept was based on memories of the summer holidays (source: public-image.org) – and if you’ve ever experienced a swelteringly hot summer in central Japan you will understand how it might inspire a trippy, fantastical such as this one.

The film opens with an iris shot of a romantic lakeside resort with multicoloured gondolas quietly passing over the stretch of water.  It is as if we are viewing the scene through a telescope.  The idyllic scene abruptly ends with the next cut as we are suddenly confronted with an imori (an akahara imori / Japanese fire belly newt to be precise) stuck in a pipe.  The stuggle of the imori is in stark contrast to the idyllic sound of piano playing.  A rush of water sends the imori flying out of the tap and into a young woman’s drinking glass.  The woman drinks as she walks across the room and we see that she is in a Japanese room with tatami floor and the sliding doors wide open to reveal the lush landscape rising from the lake.  A naked man painted gold plays a miniature piano on his lap.  The girl chokes on the imori and falls to the floor, the idyll of the scene interrupted as she crawls to the toilet to throw up.  The imori walks out of the bathroom covered in puke – as he wipes it off himself we are treated to the revolting inducing image of a three-dimensional, realistic looking sick pile hitting a drawn tatami floor.  The girl lies prone on the floor as the gold man tries to help her recover and the imori beg her forgiveness by bowing.

Holiday Trailer:

The next scene really does say Japanese summer holiday: the imori in a hotel yukata stands smoking under a tree in front of the Lake View Hotel with a glorious view of the lake marred by a road cutting right through it.  Typical.  The naked gold man pulls up in a red car with the girl looking ill, but somewhat recovered and they take the imori on a journey with them.  The unlikely threesome put on a concert in a band shell in the forest.  Their only spectator is a naked, well-endowed cat who philosophizes about love.  The girl coughs until she collapses on stage and metamorphoses into an ear.  The imori – possibly enraged with guilt – attacks the cat.  The cat made me think of Kenji Miyazawa, but I do not know it this was Hirano’s intention.

Back in the Japanese hotel room, the ear sits on the table as the gold man cries.  He comes up with the ingenious idea of descending the imori into the ear by tying a rope to his tail.   At first, this seems to go well, until the imori gets stuck and the gold man rips off his tail in a futile effort to pull him out.  The imagery from here on out gets more and more dreamlike with piano music played from the ear like a radio, the girl running in the dark and crying, the red car floating in the air and rain falling in slow motion, and lovely landscapes.  It is a strange tale of love and loss blurred together like hazy memories of a lakeside holiday during Obon.

While working on this animation, Hirano saw a woman interviewed on TV who was upset by the suicide of the Korean actor and singer Park Yong-ha (1977-2010).  Through her tears, the woman said that the rain that fell that day was the rain of Park Yong-ha. (source: public-image.org)  This notion of a deceased person being turned into rain made a strong impression on Hirano and he incorporated it into this unusual animated tale of love and friendship between a man, a woman, and an imori.    

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012


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)

This film screened at:

The Kappa’s Arms (河童の腕, 2009)

It is said in Japanese folklore that the kappa are water sprites that, like the endangered Japanese giant salamander, inhabit streams.  Mischievous creatures, the kappa have been depicted as everything from harmless creatures who challenge those they meet to various tests of skill to threatening creatures who have been blamed for drowning and the rape of women.  In recent years, kappa have featured in everything from anime such as Keiichi Hara’s Summer Dayswith Coo (2007) to Shinji Imaoka’s pink film musical Underwater Love (2011).

The indie animator Ryo Hirano based his 2009 short film The Kappa’s Arms (河童の腕/Kappa no Ude) on a story he had a read about a kappa losing its arm.  He initially developed one page of scribbles like a manga and based on that rough sketch developed the concept further.  As Hirano was working on this animation, a friend of his passed away, and this altered the story significantly.  This is Hirano’s most personal film to date, with a letter his mother once sent him when he was an exchange student in New Zealand also influencing the plot (source: Public Image)

On a flat rock in a quiet stream, two young kappa, one green and one yellow, playfully sumo wrestle with each other.  Fun turns to horror as the green kappa loses his balance and grabs onto the yellow kappa’s arm to prevent himself from falling into the water.  He ends up tearing both arms from his friend’s body, leaving the yellow kappa with bloody stumps.  The yellow kappa seems unperturbed by this until the green kappa playfully runs away with the arms.  He tries catch up with his friend but stumbles on a stone and floats away downstream.

The yellow kappa’s arms struggle free from the green kappa and jump into the stream as well.  The green kappa then spots his friends lifeless body and dives into the stream to try to rescue him.  The tearful green kappa and his friend’s arms wash up at a seaside resort and in this new mysterious habitat with strange visitations from a rainbow coloured triangular UFO, the green kappa faces the grief of having lost his friend. 

The Kappa’s Arms is a mixed media film that mainly relies on cutouts for the character movement.  The soundtrack mainly consists of natural sounds (flowing stream, bird calls) until the dream-like sequence at the end when Hirano adds music to the mix.  It is one of Hirano’s most straightforward stories and demonstrates his love of the grotesque (guro) in manga and animation.  Friendship conquers all in this little story.  .  .  just not in the way that you might expect.

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)

09 May 2012

Takashi Iitsuka’s Super Organic Battle Action Adventure

The young filmmaker Takashi Iitsuka (飯塚貴士, b. 1985) wowed Nippon Connection 2012 with the international premiere of his short film Encounters (エンカウンターズ, 2011).  The half hour action adventure action figure drama has previously screened at festivals in Japan such as the Sendai Short Film Festival and the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Encounters uses neither stop motion animation nor any CG effects.  It is purely old school live action puppet action – a technique which Iizuka has christened “Super Organic Battle Action.”  Using handmade action figures and monster puppets, Iizuka carefully manipulates the characters either by hand or fishing wire.  The result is a loving send up of the great monster movies of Ishirō Honda (Godzilla, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla).  The campiness of the film and the use of marionette effects recalls the “supermarionation” techniques employed in the UK cult classic Thunderbirds (Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, 1965-6).

The story centers on two buddies, Max and John, who have taken a trip to the countryside to help Max get his mind off his girlfriend troubles. Just as the countryside and a chance encounter with a friendly stray dog named Kifune seem to be lifting Max’s spirits, a furry super-monster crashes into the scene and has a confrontation with some armed forces.  The story then spirals into a pastiche plot line that throws in all the elements typical in a Japanese scifi action adventure: a mad scientist, fear of robots, love and friendship conquering all, and so on.

Talking to Iitsuka at Nippon Connection, I discovered that he did indeed play alone with action figures a lot as a kid.  He was an only child and did not have the means to buy too many toys.  He had a hero figure in Ultraman but lacked monsters – a problem he remedied by creating his own monsters using PET bottles.  His aim with Encounters was to transfer the fun and spontaneity of such child’s play into the film. 

His eyes lit up with delight when I mentioned the Thunderbirds and he added that he was also a big fan of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-8), a dark scifi “supermarionation” also by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.  In terms of action films, in addition to being inspired by the Ultraman franchise, Iitsuka is also a big fan of The Delta Force movies starring Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin.  This would explain his choice of Waffen Film Studio for the name of his one man production company.  “Waffen” is German for “weapons”. 

All levels of production were done by Iizuka himself: cinematography, editing, sound, music, set building, costumes and special effects.  He made about 5 or 6 sets and manipulated the figures either marionette-style using fishing wire (which you can cheesily still see in some frames) or by hand (but without the hands being seen).  For one sequence, for example, he built the set on top of the bathtub so that he could manipulate the figures from underneath.  Some of the figures and sets were made using materials that he already had but others were built with supplies from the hobby shop.  Some of the most interesting designs were done using papercraft and based on photographs Iitsuka took himself. 

Iitsuka even does all the voices including a falsetto for Max’s girlfriend in a flashback sequence.  The subtitles are kind of odd – at times very inspired – as when a wordy curse in Japanese is translated to English simply as “Jesus!”  At other times the English subs are awkward and badly spelled  –  but that just adds to the fun. The subtitles, which were done by Naoki Suzuki of the Sendai Short Film Festival, complement the kitschiness of the film and the quirkiness of the Japanese dialogue.   Iitsuka designed the dialogue as a spoof of the unusual Japanese dub s done on Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Shazzan (1967-9) and The Fantastic Four (1967-9) when they were first imported to Japan.

See opening to Japanese dub of Shazzan here, and The Fantastic Four here:

The film was shot on a Sony Video Z5J and edited using Abobe Software, Premiere, Aftereffects, etc.  Iitsuka told me that he hopes that people will get a message of hope from the film.  He is working on his next Super Organic Battle Action Adventure and was planning to explore German hobby shops for materials after the festival.  An art school grad, Iitsuka has a natural eye for framing - doubtless honed by years of TV watching.  The concept could easily have turned out completely schlocky, but I found the result brilliant.  I hope that Iitsuka’s Encounters obtains the cult following that it deserves, and I look forward to seeing where his imagination takes him to next.  
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012
You can follow Iitsuka on Twitter (JP only)
A 20 minute cut of the film is available on imdb (JP/EN)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...