28 June 2012

Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below (星を追う子ども, 2011)

“.  .  .  it came in a language
Untouched by pity, in lines, lavish and dark,
Where death is reborn and sent into the world as a gift,
So the future, with no voice of its own, nor hope
Of ever becoming more than it will be, might mourn.”

- from “Orpheus Alone” by Mark Strand 
The Continuous Life: Poems
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990

For his latest anime, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below (Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo, 2011), animator Makoto Shinkai delves into legends about the underworld.  In Japanese creation mythology, it is said that the female deity Izanami dies and goes to Yomi – the “shadowy land of the dead.”  The male deity Izanagi goes after her and tries to bring her back to the land of the living.  The tale has many similarities to the ancient Greek tale of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, and Shinkai draws on the symbolism of both of these tales in this, his most complex animated film to date.

The central character is a lonely preteen girl called Asuna Watase.  Her father died when she was very young and her mother often works night shifts at the hospital which means that Asuna is frequently left to fend for herself.  In addition to her schoolwork she cleans her own clothes, makes her own meals, and does other chores around the house to help out as much as she can.  Although she is doing well in school and seems to get along well with her classmates, Asuna spends a lot of time on her own.  She often sits on the hillside listening to strange music that she can pick up on the crystal radio left to her by her father.

One day while crossing the rail bridge, she is attacked by a giant, bear-like creature.  A mysterious boy named Shun rescues her and the next day they bond with each other listening to the crystal radio.  Shun tells her that he comes from another land called Agartha and there appears to be a connection between his native land and the music Asuna listens to on her radio.  They promise to meet up again the next day, but Shun has disappeared and is rumoured to have fallen to his death into the river.

Meanwhile, Asuna’s teacher goes on pregnancy leave and is replaced by a charismatic male teacher called Morisaki.  Asuna is fascinated by Mr. Morisaki’s tales of the underworld and visits him at his house to learn more.  It turns out that both Asuna and Morisaki are destined to journey into the underworld (Agartha) together – Asuna is drawn there by her natural curiosity and her desire to be loved, whereas Morisaki has been driven mad by his grief for his late wife and he uses violence to go on his Orphean quest to resurrect his wife.

Makoto Shinkai has admitted in interviews that he has been deeply influenced by the films of Hayao Miyazaki and the influence is very strong in Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below.  Asuna has a little cat-like creature – which the medicine man in the underworld calls a yadoriko – which is very similar to the fox-like creature Teto in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).  The Quetzalcoatls resemble some of the kami from Princess Mononoke (1997) as well as the stone robots of Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1987). The use of a flying ship – the Shakuna Vimana ark – is also very Miyazaki. 

While the Miyazaki influence is undeniable, I am not one of those critics declaring Shinkai as the next Miyazaki.  First of all, I think that’s putting way too much pressure too soon on a director who has not yet fully matured as an artist.  Second of all, Shinkai’s films have a very different feeling to me than Studio Ghibli films.  Shinkai’s work takes itself much more seriously than a Studio Ghibli film.  A typical Ghibli film is full of visual gags and self referential humour, whereas there are few laughs in Shinkai.  What sets Shinkai apart from his peers is that he is the master of dreamy landscapes.  He uses such a colourful palette – and not just for landscapes.  Some of the interior sequences of the medicine man's home looked as colourful and intricate as a patchwork quilt.  One of the more interesting sequences was the flashback to all the famous world leaders from Caesar to Napolean, from Hitler to Stalin who, according to the legends of the bottom-dwellers – tried to plunder the riches of the underworld.  The sequence was painted like an elaborate wall mural.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below is on the one hand the moving story of a lonely girl’s quest to make sense of the world she is living in.  On the other hand, for the viewer it is a philosophical journey into the realms of the possible.  Although there is some influence of the Orpheus myth, the ideas in this film largely come from Shintō, Buddhist, and even some Sanskrit thought, with the medicine man reminding us that while it is normal to grieve the dead, we should not pity them for the cycle of life and death is a natural one.  Death is not to be feared but accepted.  We need to count our blessings and learn to let go of the past in order to continue on our journey into the future.  

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

This film screened at:

16 June 2012

Japan in Germany 8: Kozue Kodama

Kozue Kodama and animator Atsushi Wada at NC2012

One of the most beautiful and engaging sights at Nippon Connection 2012 was the artist Kozue Kodama (こだまこずえ)  doing live painting.  Dressed in a kimono covered with paint splatters, Kodama spent hours at her canvas every day for the duration of the festival.  At first, the canvas was just black and white, but as she progressed she added more and more layers to the canvas and it soon was awash with bright yellow, pink, and blue hues.  The central image of the painting is a majestic red-crowned crane (タンチョウ/tanchō).  After the festival, the painting was auctioned off and the money raised went to earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in the Tohoku region.

Kodama grew up in Hiroshima and studied oil painting at Hiroshima University.  She is best known for doing paintings on large canvases, but she has also dabbled in acting, animation, and at the Nippon Connection karaoke bar she demonstrated that she has an amazing set of pipes as well.

Some of Kodama’s accomplishments include showing at the Biennale in Venice in 2005, creating concert fliers for the jazz musician Naruyoshi Kikuchi, and a huge 16 meter painting on the wall of a bridge which won her the Design Art Sign Award as part of the project Revitalizing the City of Hiroshima (2008).  Her animated short Suipas Zuirapusa (スイパスズイラプサ, 2009) which she made in collaboration with Yoko Tanabe, was nominated for the NHK Digista Best Selection.  It also featured in the indie film Plum Essence (2009) which Kodama also starred in.

Since early 2011, Kodama has been based in Düsseldorf – the largest centre for Japanese culture in Germany.  Her husband, Seiichi Sato is a professional hair stylist at the chic salon Leo’s Düsseldorf.  Kodama’s next event is another Charity Live Painting.  It will be held at the Tres Chicas Bistro and Café in Düsseldorf next Friday night Friday, June 29th (note the date change!), from 18:00 – 23:00 with all money going to earthquake and tsunami relief.  Learn more about Kodama on her official website and YouTubechannel.

cmmhotes 2012

14 June 2012

Animated Bach

While writing my review of Koji Yamamura’s Muybridge’s Strings this week, I got to thinking about how many innovative animators have been inspired by the music of J.S. Bach.  In the case of Muybridge’s Strings, Bach’s Crab Canon – which is often described as a musical palindrome – complements Yamamura’s exploration of the possibilities of non-linear time. 

Just what is it about Bach’s music that inspires?  His lyricism?  His mathematical precision? (See: Noralv Pedersen’s “Music is also mathematics” and R.D. Fergusson’s “Johan Sebastian Bach: Mystic and Mathematician”). 

Here is a selection of animation films / sequences inspired by Bach.  Let me know in the comments if you think of any others.

Muybridge’s Strings
(Koji Yamamura, 2011)
music: Crab Canon

Motion Painting No. 1
(Oskar Fischinger, 1947)
music: Brandenburg Concerto no. 3, BWV 1048

(Norman McLaren and René Jodoin, 1969)
music:  Bach played by Glenn Gould

(Mary Ellen Bute, 1950)
Music: J.S. Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze." A pictorial accompaniment in abstract forms.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Fantasy in G minor
(Jan Švankmajer, 1965)

Gestalt (部屋/形態)
(Takashi Ishida, 1999)
music: one of the Great Eighteen Choale Preludes, the hauntingly ethereal BWV 659 “Nun, komm’ der Heiden Heiland” (Come now, Saviour of the heathen) performed on an organ

The Art of the Fugue
(Takashi Ishida, 2001)
-          this film was commissioned by the Aichi Culture Centre to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s passing
music: ??? 

(Walt Disney, 1940)
music: the film opens with Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D minor conducted by Leopold Stokowski.  This section of the film was directed by Samuel Armstrong with visual development credited to Oskar Fischinger

The End of Evangelion
(新世紀エヴァンゲリオン劇場版 Air/まごころを、君に)
(Kazuya Tsurumaki/Hideaki Anno, 1997)
music: the soundtrack to this film was composed by Shiro Sagasu but liberally features selections of J.S. Bach’s music throughout including “Air on the G String” (August Wilhelmj’s adapation of J.S. Bach’s “Air” from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWC 1068), “Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major”, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, and “Komm, süsser Tod”.

Tale of Tales
(Yuri Norstein, 1979)
music: the score was composed by Mikhail Meyerovich and includes excerpts from several pieces by Bach (most notably the E flat minor Prelude BWV 853 from The Well-Tempered Clavier).  In addition, the film references Mozart (the Andante second movement from Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, K41), the tango “Weary Sun” by Jerzy Petersburski, and most prominently a traditional Russian lullaby.

Man and Raven
(Olga Brio, 2010)
Music: Jascha Heifetz and J. S. Bach

The Triplets of Belleville
(Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
Music: Bach's Prelude No. 2 from The Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1) played by Glenn Gould is also featured during the bicycle scene 
 cmmhotes 2012

Muybridge’s Strings (マイブリッジの糸, 2011)

In his first collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), the animator Kōji Yamamura takes us on a journey into cinematic history.  Muybridge’s Strings (2011) is a poetic investigation of the nature of time – a concept which has occupied philosophers since ancient times.

Our relationship to time underwent a radical transformation in the 19th century with the development of photography and related technologies.  The English photographer Eadweard Muybridge was among the first to recognize the scientific potential for photography in the study of human and animal locomotion.  The most significant of these was Muybridge’s 1878 series “Sallie Gardner at a Gallop” which settled the debate over whether or not all four of a horse’s four hooves leave the ground while galloping.  Most artists of the day usually painted a horse with at least one hoof on the ground, for the action was too fast for the human eye to determine all parts of horse locomotion.

To set up this experiment, Muybridge placed 24 trip wires (strings) at equidistant intervals (27 inches/68.58cm) that would trigger cameras to take a photograph.  It is these strings that inspired Yamamura to make Muybridge’s Strings.  The motif of strings interlaces itself throughout the film in a manner reminiscent of “the red string of fate” of East Asian folklore that is said to bind us together “regardless of time, place, or circumstance / the thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break.” (see my discussion of Kazuhiko Okushita’s animated short The Red Thread to learn more.)

Two distinct storylines are woven together in Muybridge’s Strings.  The first is the remarkable life of Muybridge himself which Yamamura explores first through the man’s life's work – the film is replete with images from Muybridge’s famous photographic series (the elephant, American bison, naked man running,  mother and child, and so on) – and also through an investigation of the man himself through vignettes from his troubled marriage which ended in his murdering of his wife’s lover and being cleared on the grounds of “justifiable homicide”, through to his celebrated zoopraxiscope lectures at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

The second storyline is that of a mother and child in present day Tokyo, which was inspired by Yamamura’s observation of his own daughter growing up.  The speed with which children grow up draws attention to the passage of time – a constant reminder of how fleeting our time here on earth really is.  Visually, Yamamura distinguishes the two time periods by adding warmer hues to the Tokyo storyline, in contrast to the shades of grey of the past.  The two parallel stories are linked through the use of similar motifs: Muybridge’s stopwatch, mother and child, the clasping of hands, horses, and; of course, strings.

Strings bind the Tokyo mother and daughter together in a beautiful abstract sequence, but strings also appear as a motif in the piano that they play together.  The soundtrack of the film was arranged by the legendary NFB music director Normand Roger.  In keeping with the theme of non-linear time, they decided upon the use of J.S. Bach’s Crab Canon (1747) as a key musical motif in the film.  This is significant for the Crab Canon is a musical palindrome – an arrangement of two musical lines that are both complementary and backward.  Here you can see a video of the tune being visualized as a Möbius strip. 

The soundtrack also foregrounds the sounds of technology: from click clack of photos being taken to the and the whir and clatter of the zoopraxiscope, which is considered the first device for the projection of moving images.  Although the technologies have changed in the ensuing 125+ years, our desire to photograph and capture fleeting moments of time has only increased.  With Muybridge’s Strings Yamamura manages not only to pay tribute one of the moving images pioneers, but to also open our minds to a consideration of our own relationship to the passage of time.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

Muybridge’s Strings is available for purchase from the NFB on DVD and Bluray as part of the Animation Express 2 collection.  It will also be released on Bluray in Japan in August.

An exhibition of Koji Yamamura's works is currently on at Skip City until July 22.

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This film screened at:

07 June 2012

onedotzero: j-star 11

onedotzero is a London-based moving image and digital arts organisation which commissions, showcases and promotes innovation across all aspects of moving image, digital and interactive arts.  Founded in 1996, onedotzero has gained a reputation for representing a diverse array of artistic endeavour via the annual onedotzero: adventures in motion festival and its associated touring. Suppported by the BFI and the Arts Council England, it has a cross media and collaborative approach attuned to technological advances and fast paced change within digital arts and the contemporary culture landscape.

The Japanese portion of the festival selection j-star 11 screened at Nippon Connection 2012.  It’s an eclectic mixture of music videos, innovative commercials, and short films.  Thank You World from the Sapporo Short Fest 2011 and Blind by Yukihiro Shoda were made as a direct response to the 3/11 disaster.  I had not heard of Construction by Mirai Mizue, but it turned out to be a low res excerpt of Tatamp (2011) featuring twoth.  Some of the highlights for me were Toshiaki Hanzaki’s animated music video for Mr. Children – a popular band who have a long history of supporting alternative animation – tangefilms’ phenakistoscope inspired animated music video for Hitomi Azuma, the surreal geometric play of Shinya Sato’s video for Chateau Marmont, and Yasuda Takahiro’s two tone approach to the primal scream of Kaisoku Tokyo’s Copy.  For those of you who missed this event, a number of the films are featured on Vimeo.

cmmhotes 2012

Thank You World by Seiichi HISHIKAWA, J 2011, HDcam, 2’59 Min.
Christmas / Amazarashi by YKBX, J 2011, HDcam, 6’24 Min.
Blind by Yukihiro SHODA, J 2011, HDcam, 5’17 Min.
Construction by Mirai MIZUE, J 2011, HDcam, 3’15 Min.
Tsuchinoko / Gaka by Yuto NAKAMURA, Ayahiko SATO [rakudasan], J 2011, HDcam, 5’37 Min.
Nnet Station Op by Fantasista UTAMARO, J 2011, HDcam, 0’24 Min.
The Smell Of The Flowers / Mr. Children by Toshiaki HANZAKI, J 2009, HDcam, 5’23 Min.
Senkyou / Mergrim by Makoto YABUKI, J 2011, HDcam, 3’09 Min.
Xylophone by Seiichi HISHIKAWA, J 2011, HDcam, 3’05 Min.
Polygon Graffiti: An Uguisu Morph by QNQ/AUJIK, J 2011, HDcam, 4’32 Min.
Kira Kira / Azuma Hitomi by TANGEFILMS, J 2011, HDcam, 3’09 Min.
Assimilation by Takuya HOSOGANE, J 2011, HDcam, 1’29 Min.
Anomie / Amazarashi by YKBX, J 2011, HDcam, 4’37 Min.
Electropia / Joyz / Uk + by Noriko OKAKU, J 2011, HDcam, 4’39 Min.
One Hundred Realities / Chateau Marmont by Shinya SATO, J 2010, HDcam, 3’25 Min.
Kyu by Yyu FUJII, J 2011, HDcam, 1’29 Min.
Copy / Kaisoku Tokyo by Yasuda TAKAHIRO, J 2011, HDcam, 1’33 Min.
Damn What Ringtone / Hifana by Takashi OHASHI, J 2011, HDcam, 0’53 Min.
The TV Show / Takayuiki Manabe by Kousuke SUGIMOTO, J 2009, HDcam, 3’28 Min.
Henshin Gattai! by Shota SAKAMOTO, J 2011, HDcam, 1’33 Min.

The Great Rabbit (グレートラビット, 2012)

If you believe in the Rabbit, it means that you’ll believe anything.
If you don’t believe in the Rabbit, it means that you wouldn’t believe anything.

Ë           Ë          Ë          Ë          Ë

Once we called the noble, profound and mysterious existence The Great. 
We have moved with the time, our thought and consciousness has changed. 
And yet what makes us still keep calling it The Great?

Ë           Ë          Ë          Ë          Ë

The Great Rabbit (2012) marks a new development in the career of animator Atsushi Wada, for it is the first time that he has made an international co-production.  It is a co-production between CaRTe bLaNChe (who also represents artists like Keiichi Tanaami, Keita Kurosaka, and other CALF animators among many others) and the French production company Sacre Bleu who specialize in short films.   

At Nippon Connection 2012, Wada explained that it was also the first time that he had ever used a sound designer – in this case Masumi Takino who has also done the sound for Ryo Okawara’s latest film A Wind Egg (Kara no tamago, 2012) which is screening this week at Annecy.  Wada told us he was a bit shy initially for it turns out that for many of the sound effects in his films, he strips off and uses his own body (ie. for the sounds of slapping, etc.). 

Ë           Ë          Ë          Ë          Ë

The film opens with a cubby boy in a tight close up, panting with exertion, who carries a giant, ball-shaped egg.  When a hand stops him to push the egg, he covers it with his shirt.  He pauses to  interact with a weasel who has rubbed up against his leg like a cat.  Suddenly a bird swoops down and removes the boy’s shirt and the egg falls silently to the ground.  He looks around as if to see where the egg has fallen, sighs deeply and bends to remove his shorts, his flabby tummy bouncing gently as he does.  He then carefully wraps his shoes up in his shorts and tosses them away from himself.

A rabbit sits on an alter munching on something.  Indecipherable whispers, almost guttural in nature can be heard. 

A human-rabbit hybrid stands on a chair with a small, shirtless boy holding the chair steady as a queue of chubby boys – reminiscent of the queue of salarymen having their noses examined in Wada’s Day of Nose (2005) – with giant ball-like eggs approach to have the egg inspected by the humanoid rabbit.  Once the rabbit-man has touched the egg, the chubby boys tuck it under the shirts – the same routine that opened the film but this time in a long shot. 

The rabbit-man touches his rabbit ears and we hear a humming.   Cut to CCTV footage of a typical urban alleyway with a time code in the top left corner.  A figure can be briefly glimpsed carrying a giant egg.  A new angle of the playground shows that it is the weasel, with the giant egg tucked on his back held by his tail.  In the third shot, the weasel and his egg are captured in a net on a grassy field.  His captor is a boy sitting on a tree branch, much like the one in In a Pig’s Eye.  The boy licks his lips as though anticipating a feast.  He takes the struggling weasel out of the net, then takes his place inside the net, mimicking the weasel’s movements.

A panting boy walks by with crumbs or shards of some kind on his shorts.  A mother bird with her brood tucked in a shirt is abruptly taken from her perch by a giant boy with glasses and the chicks are made to poke at the bottom of the boy in the net.  The boy falls free of the net to land on the ground next to two small animals staring silently and one of the giant eggs.  He picks up the egg and there is a swish pan to the queue in front of the rabbit-man.

Incoherent whispering, a chubby boy a cloth wrapped over his face gestures and moves strangely, like a blind man trying to find his way through an unfamiliar room.

The rabbit sits at the altar, chews benignly.  Or is everything as it seems?  The frame is rewound and played back slowly and we see hands pushing the weasel inside of the rabbit’s mouth.  A chubby boy with a remote control looks at the TV image off camera and whispers to himself, looking around him as if concerned that someone is watching his every move as well.

Ë           Ë          Ë          Ë          Ë

There is an irony in calling a rabbit “great” for a rabbit is really such a benign creature.  As herbivores, they do not really pose a threat to anyone except for the fact that they notoriously reproduce at a rapid rate.  At Nippon Connection 2012, Atsushi Wada told us that he randomly chose the rabbit as a central symbol for this film because he started making The Great Rabbit during the year of the Rabbit.

From a Buddhist perspective; however, nothing is random and it is significant that Wada chose a rabbit as the central animal in this film.  To be sure, Wada has shown in previous films to be drawn to animals that are quiet and move in subtle ways.  Because he has often used sheep in previous films, I was reminded in The Great Rabbit of the idiom “the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” for although the rabbit appears to sit and do nothing, except perhaps be worshipped, in the slow motion playback we realize that appearances can be deceiving. 

The visual reference to Wada’s earlier film Day of Nose with the men queuing for inspection emphasizes the theme of societal pressures on people to follow the dictates of the ruling elites.  This is heightened by the suggestion that Big Brother is watching our every move through the use of CCTV footage to capture the weasel stealing an egg.  In the wake of 3/11, The Great Rabbit reads like a warning for us not to follow in the dictates of the government or to believe everything we see on the news.  We must follow Atsushi Wada’s example of looking at the subtle clues of movement and gesture, and question the validity of what the powers that be are telling us.

As Atsushi Wada explains: “A situation of disobedience stands only when there is a relationship between a person who forces somebody to obey and a personal who obeys him/her.  Nowadays, the status of relationships between superiors and inferiors, good and evil, aristocrats and commoners is less visible, and it’s becoming more difficult to judge what is right or wrong.  Sometimes we even don’t know what we are forced to obey.”  The Great Rabbit is Wada’s expression of this ambiguity.

When The Great Rabbit won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale earlier this year, the jury commented: “This dreamlike film uses a unique, surreal language to tickle our unconscious while showing us the confusion of the modern world in animated form. Using a delicate hand drawn style, Atsushi Wada decodes reality with absurd sequences of characters caught in time.” (source)

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

Ë           Ë          Ë          Ë          Ë

Production : Sacrebleu Productions, CaRTe bLaNChe
Sound Design: Masumi Takino
Colour Design: Misa Amako
Direction, Script, Editing, Voice, Animation: Atsushi Wada

To support this animator, please order his DVD: Atsushi Wada Collected Works 2002-2010.

If you live in the Tokyo area, be sure to check out the screenings of The Great Rabbit this summer at Image Forum.

This film screened at:

10 Must-See Kaneto Shindo Films

Tributes have been pouring in around the world for Kaneto Shindō (新藤 兼人, 2012-2012), who passed away last week at the age of 100.  In addition to directing 48 feature-length films, Shindo was the author of more than 200 screenplays.  I had the pleasure of seeing his final feature film, Postcard (2010), when it opened the Nippon Connection film festival last month. Read my review here.

Among the many screenplays Shindo wrote for top directors of the past century, including Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Yasuzo Masumura, Fumio Kamei, Kōzaburō Yoshimuraand Tadashi Imai, it is not so well known that he wrote a screenplay for a film directed by the great puppet master Kihachiro Kawamoto.  Released in 1981, Rennyo and his Mother (蓮如とその母/Rennyo to Sono Haha) was the first feature length puppet animation directed by Kawamoto.  It is a work that was privately commissioned by a Buddhist organization with the screenplay written by Shindo and the soundtrack composed by Toru Takemitsu.  It tells the story of the historical figure, the abbot Rennyo, who is revered as the Restorer of Shin Buddhism.  The puppet film features the voice talent of top actors such at Kyoko Kishida and Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.  It is screened rarely in Japan, and I have yet to hear of any overseas screenings. 

Via social networking, Prof. Aaron Gerow (Yale U) has pointed out that Shindo should also be praised for his contributions to the preservation of film history.  During his life he wrote many books about the craft of writing for film as well as about his observations of the Japanese film industry.  These include his tribute to his close friend and frequent collaborator the actor Taiji Tonoyama (1915-89) called Death of a Third-Rate Actor: A True Biography of Taiji Tonoyama (2000), A Life in Screenwriting (2004), and While I Live: My Personal History (2008).

Sadly, these books have not yet been translated to English, but we can get a glimpse into Shindo’s history in the cinema in his documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (1975), which he made as a tribute to his mentor.  The best place to get to know Shindo is, of course, through his films.  I have put together a list of 10 films he directed and 2 films that he wrote the screenplays for - films that are, in my humble opinion, “must see” screening for any fan of world cinema.

Children of Hiroshima
(原爆の子, 1952)

Although it screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, Children of Hiroshima did not get its official release in the U.S. until last year (see A.O. Scott’s NYTimes review).  A deeply moving tribute to the survivors of the atom bomb, it tells the story of a young woman who returns to her hometown several years after the bombing to confront the trauma and suffering of her family and friends.  The film was commissioned by the Japanese Teachers’ Union and based upon testimonies compiled by Prof. Arata Osada. 

The Naked Island
(裸の島, 1960)

One of the top Japanese movies of the 1960s, this dialogue free film tells the story of a family of four surviving against the odds on a small island in the Sekonaikai Archipelago.  A film of poetic beauty which won the top prize at the Moscow International Film Festival (1961) as well as a National Board of Review Award (USA, 1962).

Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director
(ある映画監督の生涯 溝口健二の記録, 1975)

A most delightful discovery on the Criterion release of Ugestsu (1953).  With a mixture of film clips, images of the hospital where Mizuguchi was treated in the last days of his life, and interviews of friends, colleagues, and admirers.

(鬼婆, 1964)

A classic horror film based upon a Shin Buddhist parable which Shindo transformed into a cautionary tale about sexual jealousy and unrequited lust.  This was Shindo’s first period film – with its breathtakingly composed landscapes it is much more than just a cult film.

(藪の中の黒猫, 1968)

One of the top horror films of the 1960s, Kuroneko is shot in glorious black and white.  An unsettling, highly charged film, brimming with eroticism. It had a good chance at winning an award at Cannes 1968 if the festival hadn’t been shut down for political reasons.  Shindo’s favourite leading lady, Nobuko Otowa, and his cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda won top honours at the Mainichi Film Concours.

Life of a Woman                                              Sorrow is Only for Women 
(女の一生, 1953)                                               (悲しみは女だけに, 1958)

Two of many  feminist themed films by Shindo that have suffered from lack of availability outside of Japan.  Life of a Woman is adapted from the short story “Une vie” by Guy de Maupassant.  Both Life of a Woman and Sorrow is only for Women examine poverty and the suffering of women in modern day Japan.

Lucky Dragon No. 5
 (第五福竜丸, 1959)

Based on the true story of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru – the ill-fating Japanese shipping boat that was contaminated by nuclear fallout caused by U.S. testing on the Bikini Atoll in 1954.  A devastating tale of the psychological and social consequences of nuclear testing in the Pacific.  A tragic, but politically significant film.

A Last Note
(午後の遺言状, 1995)

The final film of Shindo’s favourite leading lady – his mistress turned second wife Nobuko Otowa.  Peppered with references to the plays of Anton Chekov, A Last Note won Best Film at many Japanese Awards shows including the Japanese Oscars, the Kinema Junpo Awards, and Mainichi.  Otowa was posthumously awarded Best Supporting Actress at the J Oscars and the Kinema Junpo Awards.

Tree Without Leaves
(落葉樹, 1986)

In this film, Shindo takes a poignant autobiographical journey through the pre-war Hiroshima of his childhood.  A reflection on aging and one’s changing perspectives on one’s own life history.  One of Shindo’s most personal films.

2 Must-See Films with Screenplays by Shindo:

 (, Yasuzo Masumura, 1961)

Adaptated from the Junichiro Tanizaki novel Quicksand, Manji tells the story of two women whose close friendship develops into romance.  Read my full review here.

(刺青, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

Another Tanizaki adapation about a strong woman – this one is a hard-as-nails fighter who uses her beauty and wits to survive.  Forced into geisha work, she exacts a bloody revenge on the men who desire her.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012


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