11 October 2013

Watakushiritori (わたくしりとり, 2013)

Kazuhiko Okushita (奥下和彦, b. 1985) first came to my attention in 2010 when his animated short The Red Thread (2009) was featured on the NHK’s Digista program.  My review of the film has actually become one of my most read posts of all time.  At first I thought this was due to people researching the East Asian belief in the “red thread of fate” aka the “red string of fate”, but then I found out that it is also the title of a bestselling novel by Ann Hood – also inspired by the same East Asian concept – which means I was likely benefitting from her popularity.  Someone also told me that “the red thread” idiom is used in Christianity to describe the belief that the Jesus Chris appears in every book of the bible either directly or indirectly. 

In his graduate film made at Geidai, Okushita continues to use his “thread” animation technique – drawing images as if they are made from one single piece of thread – but this time he uses many colours , not just red.  Watakushiritori (わたくしりとり, 2013) translates as “My Shiritori” with Shiritori (しりとり) being a word game similar to a word chain in English.  In the Japanese version of a word chain, one player says a word and the next player has to make a word using the final “kana” (syllable) of the previous word.  Koji Yamamura also used this concept in one of his early experimental shorts Japanese English Pictionary (ひゃっかずかん, 1989) – an influence which Okushita acknowledges an interview on the Geidai Animation 04Sail website. 

As I mentioned in my review of The Red Thread, Okushita’s thread concept reminds me of Osvaldo Cavandoli’s La Linea (1971-86) animations, which I loved to watch on TV as a child.  Watching Watakushiritori it occurred to me that although Okushita is employing a similar concept of a single line animation, the film has a very modern look to it.  Part of the reason for this is the thinness of the lines – which would not have been possible without computer animation technology because when shooting animation on film thin lines get washed out.  Think of the bold lines of Warner Brothers animation during its Golden Era.  I remember talking to Atsushi Wada about this at Nippon Connection 2012 when I asked him about his experience of making Concerning the Rotation of a Child (子供の廻転の事, 2004) on 8mm for his Image Forum Animation School project. This was a real challenge for Wada because he prefers to use very thin lines with drawn with a mechanical pencil (what they call a “sharp pencil” in Japan) which he then scans into the computer.  This was completely ineffective with 8mm so he had to make his lines bolder for this film.

Okushita’s work benefits from being designed on computer because he is able to achieve precise, elegantly drawn thin lines set in sharp relief against a white background. The complexity of his thread drawings – particularly in this film where he has to incorporate hiragana (Japanese cursive script) into the drawing – is really quite remarkable.  In the Geidai interview, Okushita said that trying to achieve single thread effect throughout the film was one of the three main challenges of the film.  He also had the challenge of finding words that would allow him to develop a storyline with Shiritori linked words.  This meant keeping a dictionary close at hand when writing the script. The third challenge fell to the composer Yuri Habuka and sound designer Masumi Takino, whom he asked to create a soundtrack which also incorporates a Shiritori motif.

In explaining the concept behind Watakushiritori, Okushita describes how he recalls the past in a series of connected “fragments of memory” and he wanted to recreate that reality in his animation.  The film begins as a typical day in the life, but it transforms into the tale of a relationship between a man and a woman and the rocky, unpredictable way in which it develops. The impact of the interwoven visual and thematic concepts in Okushita’s film is brilliant in its simplicity.  His animation appears uncomplicated and minimalistic, but behind the scenes it is evident that a lot of careful planning and design went into its execution.  Definitely a young animator to keep an eye on.

Watakushiritori appears on the Geidai Animation 4th Graduate Works 2013 DVDThe Red Thread is on Youtube.  Check out Okushita’s official website to see more examples of his art:  http://okushitakazuhiko.com/   

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013