28 November 2013

Gulliver’s Great Activities (ガリヴァー奮闘記, 1950)

The Fleischer Brothers’ Gulliver’s Travels (ガリバー旅行記), the second feature-length cel animation ever made, was a big success when it premiered just before Christmas in 1939.  Because of the war, it did not reach Japan until 1948 where it is believed to have been the inspiration behind Kindai Eiga-sha’s unusual 1950 animated short Gulliver’s Great Activities (ガリヴァー奮闘記/Gulliver Funtōki, 1950). 

Japanese companies had long before the war already cottoned on to the fact that animation was a great way to promote products.  There were the record talkies which used animation to promote popular music in the 1920s and early 1930s.  One record talkie that I know of, Chameko’s Day (1931), even additionally features Lion Toothpaste product placement.

Gulliver’s Great Activities was funded by the Japan’s National Tax Agency (国税庁) with the aim of promoting the payment of taxes by the general public.  I do not know how widely the film was distributed, nor how successful it was in motivating people to pay their taxes.  From an early 21st century perspective, the efforts seem pretty ham-fisted and they amuse me greatly.   

With the landscape, town, and character designs, the filmmakers have done a reasonable job of creating an 18th century European environment.  Almost all adaptations of Gulliver’s Travels play fast and loose with the original plot and settings – the Fleischer Brothers’ film was only very tenuously based on the opening chapter (A Voyage to Lilliput) of the original novel, and Gulliver’s Great Activities seems loosely based on the 1939 animation – an adaptation of an adaptation of sorts.  While Fleischers’ film was definitely marked with their in-house “cartoon”- style, the Kindai Eiga-sha film seems more based on European illustrations and paintings.

That being said, the anachronisms are startling. The first appears in the opening credits. The ship that presumably Gulliver is travelling on when he gets shipwrecked has a prominent iron cross on its sail.  This is indeed surprising because the iron cross has for centuries been the symbol of the German military and its antecedents.  In the original novel, Gulliver sets sail from Bristol with a Captain William Prichard, so it would be much more likely that she ship's sails bore the cross of St. George, if it had a symbol on it at all. 

The next anachronism that I spotted occurs when the townsfolk have been informed that a giant has landed on the beach.  One woman comes to her window brushing her teeth with a toothbrush. Now, Jonathan Swift was indeed obsessed with hygiene and the theme of cleanliness comes up often in Gulliver’s Travels, but not toothbrushing.  The toothbrush, which has been around in various forms since ancient times, did not really take off in England until William Addis invented the modern toothbrush in 1780. 

From here on in, the anachronisms demonstrate that there was no concern for historical accuracy – the anachronism are there in aid of the government propaganda.  Gulliver, it seems, is a metaphor for the ways in which the government -using funds raised by taxes - can aid the community.  After initially tying Gulliver up, a huge storm brings flooding and the Lilliputians decide that this giant could be useful in repairing and preventing flood damage.  They send motorized trucks with goods from the government stores to feed and revive Gulliver.  After building dykes, he then aids big industry (a smelter), followed by trade and commerce.

In his final act of heroism, Gulliver aids in putting out a fire that threatens to burn down the town.  This sequence is particularly amusing because despite all of the anachronistic imagery of modern technology, the town has only a manually operated water pump.  This is just one of several moments in the film designed to provoke laughs from the intended audience – in this case, one of the men gets hosed in the face.  I was laughing for an entirely different reason.

Directors Tokio Kuroda (黒田外喜男) and Shigeyuki Ogawa (小沢重行) have used a mix of cutouts and cel animation, which causes some continuity problems between cuts.  The film looks amateurish compared to the Fleischer Brothers’ Gulliver’s Travels, but then they only have a minuscule staff and much less experience when compared to the more technologically advanced Fleischer Studios.  It is by no means a classic, but I certainly enjoyed watching it.  This film appears on Disc 4 of Digital Meme’s Japanese Anime Classic Collection.

35mm talkie
length: 9’07”
Production Company: Kindai Eiga-sha 近代映画社
Producer: Masao Tsukimura: 月村正雄
Planning: The National Tax Agency 国税庁
Directors: Tokio Kuroda 黒田外喜男 and Shigeyuki Ogawa 小沢重行
Concept by: Shinpei Yamaguchi 山口晋平
Screenplay by: Katsushi Toba 鳥羽克始
Cinematography:  Ichiro Kimura北村一
Dialogue: Theatre Piccolo テアトルビツコロ
Music composed by: Kazuo Kojima小島和夫
Music performed by: Tokyo Symphonic Ensemble 東京シンフォニックアンサンブル

 Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

The Phantom Ship (幽霊船, 1956)

In September, the Tokyo International Film Festival unveiled digitally restored versions of 3 masterpieces by early anime pioneers Kenzō Masaoka and Noburō ŌfujiThe Spider and the Tulip (1943), Whale (1952), and The Phantom Ship (幽霊船 / Yuureisen, 1956).  They also screened a newly discovered animated short by Ōfuji: Noroma na jiji (のろまな爺, 1924) – there is not an official English title yet, but I would suggest Foolish Old Man based upon plot descriptions I have read – and a test version of his incomplete final film Princess Kayuga (竹取物語/Taketori Monogatari, 1961).  In 1924 Ōfuji (大藤 信郎, 19001961)  had joined Sumikazu Film Studios (スミカズ映画創作社) where he was being mentored by Kōuchi Junichi (幸内純一, 1886-1970).   Noroma na jiji was Ōfuji’s first attempt at animation at Sumikazu.  The film was restored by IMAGICA West who transferred the film to black and white film stock in order to do the restoration, then tinted the film to match the original film (Source:  Kobe-eiga).  The films were introduced by Kōji Yamamura, who discussed the restoration process at the event.
I am looking forward to seeing these restored and rediscovered classics – particularly Whale and The Phantom Ship.  I have both of these film on the terrific DVD Animation Pioneers: Noburō Ōfuji Lofty Genius (アニメーションの先駆者 大藤信郎 孤高の天才, 2010). Although the transfer from film to DVD is well done, the film image had darkened with age and both films have the usual scratches and flecks that 35mm develop over time.  The films are silhouette animations which use coloured cellophane to add layers and visual interest.  With digital restoration, I imagine that the improved clarity of the coloured cellophane would look stunning.  Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, 1926), which was a huge influence on Ōfuji, was digitally restored and released on Blu-ray/ DVD in the UK this past August.  Although this film is tinted rather than using coloured cellophane, the colours and detail in the digital restoration are simply spectacular.   

The Phantom Ship (幽霊船 / Yuureisen, 1956), a film both directed and written by Ōfuji, opens with tantalising glimpse at the master at work: Ōfuji’s hands cutting waves out of coloured cellophane.  The opening title sequence is written in English, which suggests that he made the film with his international audience in mind.  His films Taeisei Shakuson (大聖釈尊, 1948) and Whale screened at Cannes in 1952 and 1953 respectively in the official selection for short films.  Ōfuji’s name is Romanised as “Ohfuji” in the opening credits.  The renowned composer and professor of music Kōzaburō Hirai (平井康三郎, 1910-2002) composed the soundtrack.  There is no dialogue or narration in The Phantom Ship; instead, the story is told purely through visuals and music (choir, strings instruments, percussion).   

During the opening credits, the camera rotates over a map of East Asia coming to stop over the Yellow Sea – the northern part of the East China Sea which lies between mainland China and the Korean Peninsula.  After a closer shot of the Yellow Sea, suggesting that this is where the story takes place, the opening sequence fades to black and opens with the parting of two wavelike silhouettes.   We see a rugged seascape which, combined with the low vocalising of the choir creates a feeling of unease.  Then, the shadow of a phantom ship appears.  The ship is a ruin, with its brightly coloured sails in tatters.  It is a ghastly scene.  One crew member hangs from his feet from the ship’s bow.  Another man stands impaled to the mast by a sword.  A pirate symbol seems to have been scrawled upon one of the tattered sails.  After a montage of the corpses, the camera returns to the pirate symbol.  The wordless chorus increases in volume and pitch as the boat magically comes back to life. The sails mend themselves and the crew of noblemen, armed with swords, also magically return to their formal selves.  They thrash their swords and look ready for a fight. 

The scene shifts to a more peaceful ship filled with elegant figures.  Women dance around a smiling figure of a Buddha. Some of the dancing scenes are set against a kaleidoscope of whirling colours.  A sentry walks the deck alert to any trouble.  Just as a pair of lovers look as though they are about to embrace, the phantom ship appears and interrupts their peace. The trouble begins with the shot of a cannon and soon the phantom pirates are invading the peaceful ship attacking both men and women indiscriminately.  Although the peaceful ship seems overwhelmed, they put up a valiant fight, with even the elegantly dressed ladies picking up swords and duelling with the invaders.  The pirates toss people overboard and set the ship alight.  The phantom pirate ship then quietly sails away.

In the next scene snow is falling, then a short montage suggests a shift in time from winter into the spring.  A white phantom ship approaches the pirate phantom ship.  The pirates shoot at it in vain, then shake with fear as the white phantom sailor approaches, his rapier brandished high.  Behind him sits a white lady.  It is the ghosts of the pirates’ noble victims.  The white phantoms now seek their revenge, in a marvelous sequence that uses an experimental technique of overlaying animated swirling lines and other shapes.  There are also overlaid images of white feet stomping on the pirates and hand prints slapping at them.  It is a nightmare sequence complete with images resembling dripping blood.  Even the waves seem determined to grab the pirates and dash them into the sea.  The white phantoms do not rest until the magic is undone and the pirates return to their original state as corpses on a ruin of a pirate ship.   

It is truly a spectacular film, and one of the top animated shorts of 1957.  At the time, there were no established international film festivals for animation – the oldest such festival, Annecy, would get off the ground in 1960.  The Oscars at this time were giving awards to “cartoons” – i.e. it was mainly a competition between Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, and UPA – Norman McLaren famously won an Oscar for Neighbours (1952) in 1953, but it was for Best Documentary Short because pixilation/stop motion techniques did not qualify as “cartoon” (i.e. drawn) animation.  Thus other animation techniques at international festivals like Berlin and Cannes were lumped into vague categories such as “Culture Films and Documentary”.

Many books and articles claim that The Phantom Ship won the “Grand Prix” at the 17th Venice Film Festival in 1956 which I have always found suspicious because of its wording.  To begin with, the Venice Film Festival’s grand prix is not called “Grand Prix”, but the Golden Lion. Secondly, no Golden Lion was awarded in 1956. Jury members were divided in opinion between Kon Ichikawa’s Harp of Burma and Juan Antonio Bardem’s Calle Mayor and so in the end did not give the award to anyone. The jury president that year was John Grierson (UK) with jury members including André Bazin (France), G.B. Cavallaro (Italy), Friedrich Ermler (USSR), James Quinn (UK), Kiyohiko Ushihara (Japan), and Luchino Visconti (Italy).  This was reported in English by Fred Roos in his article “Venice Film Festival, 1956.” [The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television, 11.3 (Spring 1957)]  The Special Jury Prize and Silver Lion were also not awarded in 1956.  But then, these aforementioned  prizes are also intended for feature films.  In the 1950s, short films received less press than they do today for the prizes that they receive so it is difficult to dig up spectator's impressions of the films.  Even in the QFRV, Roos only mentions that 14 prizes were awarded to documentary and children films, but he does not give their titles.  He praises the Chinese and the Czechs as being “particularly outstanding in their use of puppets and animation” (253), but he does not mention Noburō Ōfuji at all.  Digging through French film journals in the library of the Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt, I have also been unable to find information about reaction to The Phantom Ship at Venice in 1956.

So I dug deeper and found that according to the Venice Film Festival’s digital archives, The Phantom Ship was awarded an Honorable Mention for Experimental Film (Menzione per i film sperimentali).  This is not the grand prix, but a runner-up to Peter Foldes’s animated short film, A Short Vision, which won the award for Best Experimental Film (Premio per il miglior film sperimentale).  Foldes’s anti-Atom bomb film, which the BFI calls “one of the most influential British animated films ever made, had caused a huge sensation when it screened on May 27, 1956 on the popular variety show The Ed Sullivan Show in the US.

I think that the mistaken attribution of a grand prix at Venice to Ōfuji likely came from an error of translation somewhere along the line, and the difficulty of checking the name of the award without access to physical archives.  The Biennale’s online digital archive only became available in recent years and is currently only available in Italian, so it was difficult to check without going to an archive.  Also, the multiple spellings of Ōfuji’s name in the Latin alphabet (Ofuji, Ohfuji, Oofuji, etc.) make searches of online databases challenging.  In the trailer released by the NFC in September for the screening event at TIFF (Tokyo), the award Ōfuji received as Tokubetsushō (特別賞) – lit. special award – which matches the Italian well.

The Phantom Ship is indisputably a special film – one of the best animated shorts to come out of Japan in the 1950s, and when one takes into account Ōfuji’s other silhouette animations, he ranks as one of the top silhouette animators of all time alongside Lotte Reiniger, Bruno J. Böttge, and Michel Ocelot.  While pouring through old journals in the library, I discovered a forgotten nugget of information: The Phantom Ship was screened in the UK in 1957.  According to Bernard Orna, writing in the now defunct journal Films and Filming, The Phantom Ship was one of the films that at the First International Animated Film Festival, nicknamed the “Festival of Cartoons”, at the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) in London.  He describes Ōfuji’s “open[ing] the door on an exciting variant of a kind of film known to us otherwise through the work of Lotte Reiniger.” (3.7 April 1957, p.33).  The door has indeed been opened, and I do hope that more young animators – like Aki Kono in her film Promises – choose to follow Ōfuji’s lead and experiment with the medium of silhouette animation.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

Bambi Meets Godzilla (バンビ、ゴジラに会う, 1969)

I cannot hear the lyrical melody of Rossini’s Ranz des Vaches (Call to the Dairy Cows) from William Tell (1829) without bursting into a fit of giggles.  This affliction dates back to my early childhood.  My parents were elementary school teachers in London, Ontario.  In those days, educational films were distributed to schools via a 16mm film library held by the London Board of Education.  For my birthday party one year – I believe I was turning 9 or 10 years old – my parents brought a projector home with a collection of animated shorts for my friends and me to watch.  The only film that I recall from the party is Marv Newland’s classic Bambi Meets Godzilla (バンビ、ゴジラに会う, 1969).  If you have not yet seen it, it only lasts about a minute and a half and can be viewed on Vimeo.

The film was made while Newland was still a student in California – he talks about it a little bit in an Anifest interview here – and quickly became a cult classic.  In today’s world in which the internet is patrolled by over-zealous corporations protecting their copyrights and infringing upon freedom of artistic expression, it is doubtful that such a film could be made without the threat of a lawsuit.  Newman did not ask Disney or Toho for permission for his send-up of / homage to their iconic Bambi and Godzilla characters. 

The main conceit of the film is that more than half of the less than two-minute film is taken up by hilarious opening credits and closing acknowledgements.  This is partly a commentary on the growing length of film credits (in the early days, films only credited key people, but by the 1960s the opening and closing credits were getting longer), but it is mainly a suspense technique leading up to the extremely quick “action” of the film.  The opening credits are drawn out for 50 seconds, eliciting chuckles from the audience first when they notice that Marv Newman has done everything, and second when the jobs credited become ludicrous. 

At the 50 second mark, the credits are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Godzilla’s foot flattening poor, unsuspecting Bambi like a pancake.  The “action” lasts just under 2 seconds, then after a few beats for the audience to get over their shock / laughter, the acknowledgements appear, thanking the city of Tokyo for the loan of their most infamous Kaiju.  While watching the film online recently, I got nostalgic for the old 16mm projectors because at my birthday party, in addition to re-watching the film several times, we also watched it backwards and laughed ourselves silly at the sight of Godzilla’s foot going up off-screen and Bambi popping back to life again.  Alas, such joys are not to be had with digital media.  I also miss the whir of the projector and the tactile pleasures of spooling the film into the projector.  It is sad that movie projectors are going the way of the dodo bird, for they bring much pleasure to many.

Marv Newland (マーヴ・ニューランド) is an American-Canadian filmmaker, who has had a long career making short commercials for both private and public broadcasters in the US and Canada.   In the course of his career he has done everything from drawing storyboards for Barbapapa at Toonder Studios (Netherlands) to making delightful animated shorts for the NFB.  His animated adaptation of Gary Larson’s Tales from the Far Side (1994) for TV won him the Grand Prix at Annecy in 1995.  He currently teaches Classical Animation at the Vancouver Film School.  A limited edition DVD of his collected works, The Best of International Rocketship became available earlier this year.  See Cartoon Brew for more info.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

21 November 2013

Promises (約束, 2011)

On an autumn day, a woman kneels under the scarlet leaves of trees mourning the loss of her infant son.  As she cries, the winds picks up the remains of her child and leaves only a dark shadow behind.  This dark shadow, the spirit of her dead child, whispers to her that she can take his shadow home with her.  The woman does so, looking after this transparent shadow of a child in the same way she would a living, breathing child.   She lives happily with her secret until one day, a kind of shinigami (spirit of death) in the form of an elderly man comes knocking and asks for the shadow of the child. 

After the man leaves, the woman folds the child’s shadow into the shape of a bird in order to hide him from the shinigami.  Soon, there comes another ominous knock at the door.  The shinigami has returned and asks for the shadow of the bird.  He informs her that he is a representative of kami (god) and he has been directed to collect the soul that she has been keeping in her home.  Tears run down her face, and the shinigami offers to make a deal with her.  He asks her to sew herself a doll in the shape of a child and to put the shadow in it.  At first it seems that she has made a deal with the devil as she runs fearfully holding the doll, but could it be that the shinigami is offering her child the chance of resurrection?

Promises (約束Yakusoku, 2011) is Shikoku-born animator Aki Kōno’s first silhouette animation.  Her earlier films Youth (青春 / Seishun, 2008) and A brightening life (2010) were stop motion animation using puppets and objects.  This animated short is her graduate work for the Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts) animation programme, where she was supervised by Yuichi Itō (Knyacki, Norabbits Minutes).   Promises is actually a blend of silhouette and stop motion animation techniques.  The silhouettes are not as flat as the techniques of pioneers like Lotte Reiniger and Noburō Ōfuji – though there was some texture and layering to their films as well.  Kōno’s silhouettes are constructed in three dimensional spaces with other objects being used for special effect such as liquids, string, cloth, and beads. 

The choice of silhouette animation suits the shadow theme of the film.  The figures have a roughly hewn feel to them (in contrast to the precisely cut figures of a Lotte Reiniger film) which I think adds to the emotional impact of the film.  The mood of the film is also elevated by Kōno’s striking use of bold background colours, such as flaming reds and cool blues/greens/purples, which reminded me of Ōfuji’s use of background colour in The Phantom Ship (幽霊船/ Yūreisen, 1956).   

Kōno wrote the script for Promises in addition to directing and animating it.  It has been seen at both domestic and international festivals and made the Jury Selection at the 2011 Japan Media Arts Festival.  I saw the film at Nippon Connection 2013.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

This blog post was made possible by:
#nippon13 #nc2013

20 November 2013

Twelve Months (森は生きている, 1980)

Watching autumn slowly turn into winter here in central Germany, I got to thinking about Tōei Dōga’s delightful children’s anime Twelve Months (森は生きている/ Mori wa Ikiteiru, 1980) and managed to track it down as an extra on a DVD release of The Wild Swans (白鳥の王子, 1977).  It is wonderful to watch with children under the age of 10 because it is a reasonable length (about an hour long), has beautiful depictions of the forest and its wildlife, features great music, and teaches good moral lessons (it pays to be kind / greedy people will have their comeuppance).  The strongest element of this adaptation are the character designs by Osamu Tezuka

Twelve Months tells the parallel stories of two young girls of the same age, one poor and one rich.  Anja (Shinobu Otake) is an orphaned girl who lives in near poverty in rural Russia with her nasty stepmother and her equally unpleasant stepsister.  Her family forces her to do most of the hard labour of the house such as collecting wood from the forest for their fire.  Anja’s story crosses paths with that of the spoiled young Tsarina (Ai Kanzaki) when she encounters an elderly soldier in the forest in late December.  He helps Anja collect firewood, and she returns the favour by helping the soldier find the perfect fir tree for the Tsarina, who wants to decorate it in time for New Year’s Eve. 

Next, the Tsarina, who thinks that the whole world must revolve around her desires, gets it into her head that she wants snow drops for her New Year’s decorations. Unheeding of the fact that it is the wrong season for such flowers, the Tsarina sends out a proclamation informing her subjects that if one of them can bring her a basketful of snow drops she will reward them with a basketful of gold.  Anja’s greedy stepmother and stepsister desperately want the gold, and force Anja to go out alone into a blizzard in search of snow drops.  Just as it seems that she is about to freeze to death in the forest, Anja encounters the spirits of the twelve months around a campfire.  Because they have witnessed her kindness to the forest animals, they offer to help her as long as she promises never to tell anyone where she got the snow drops.  Keeping this secret will prove very hard due to the insatiable desires of the Tsarina.  Needless to say, as it is a fairy tale, the story resolves itself with everyone getting what they deserve.

The animation belongs to a series of fairy tale adaptations made by Tōei Dōga in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The series was called Sekai Meisaku Dōwa (世界名作童話), which has been variously translated as World Children's Classics and World Masterpiece Fairy Tales in English.  The series included The Wild Swans (1977), Thumbelina (1978), Swan Lake (1981), and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp (1982).  Twelve Months, also known as “The Forest Lives” / “The Forest That Lives” (direct translation of Japanese title), was adapted from the Samuil Marshak’s Russian fairy tale of the same name by Kimio Yabuki, Ikoku Oyabu and Tomoe Takashi.   Yugo Serikawa was the chief director, with Kimio Yabuki and Tesuo Imazawa acting as co-directors.  The animation was co-produced with the Moscow studio Soyuzmultfilm, who had themselves produced an acclaimed cel animation of Twelve Months in 1956 with the legendary “Patriarch of Soviet animation” Ivan Ivanov-Vano at the helm.  

The animation was done in Japan, but the music was composed by Vladimir Krivtsov and performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of A. S. Dmitriev.  Incidental music was also provided by Shunsuke Kikuchi.  The theme song Don’t Cry (泣かないわ/Nakanaiwa) is sung by Yoshiko Mari.  The song was not composed for the film but had been a hit for Junko Sakurada in 1976 with lyrics by Yū Aku and music by Kōichi Morita

For this review, I watched the German dub of the film, Anja und die vier Jahreszeiten (Anja and the Four Seasons), which was adapted by Andrea Wagner of ZDF, who did the German text for many anime films and series of the 70s and 80s from Vicky the Viking (1974-5) to The Wonderful Tales of Nils (1980-1) and Alice in Wonderland (1983-4).  The theme song has also been beautifully adapted, but instead of singing about restraining one’s tears, the uncredited singer sings about the four seasons.  I have searched high and low to find out who sings the song but have only found German message boards of people asking in vain about where they can buy the song.  It seems it was never released on CD. If any of my German readers recognize the singer, do let me know.  Here are the lyrics of the German theme song with my translations in square brackets:

Wolken ziehen 
Die Bäume werden grün 
Blumen blühen
Es ist Frühling
[Clouds drift by / the trees become green / flowers blossom / it is springtime]

Jahreszeiten wir danken für diese schöne Zeit
Jahreszeiten wir danken für diese schöne Zeit

[Dear Seasons, we thank you for this lovely time of year x2]

Sonnenschein erhellt
Mit goldenem Licht die Welt
Wenn es heiß wird
dann ist Sommer
[The sun shines / with golden light upon the world / When the heat comes / it is summer]

Jahreszeiten wir danken für diese schöne Zeit
Jahreszeiten wir danken für diese schöne Zeit

Ohne euch wäre unsere Welt nie so zauberhaft und schön
Ohne euch hätten wir die Welt nie in voller Pracht gesehen
[Without you, our world would not be so magical and beautiful /
Without you, we would never have seen the world in all its splendour]

Wälder glühen
Im bunten Farbenkleid
Vögel ziehen
Es ist Herbstzeit
[The forest glows / in its colourful robes / birds fly by / it is autumn]

Jahreszeiten wir danken für diese schöne Zeit
Jahreszeiten wir danken für diese schöne Zeit

Leise fällt der Schnee
Und färbt die Erde weiß
Schnee und Eis
Bringt der Winter
[The snow falls softly / and colours the earth in white / snow and ice / bring the winter]

Jahreszeiten wir danken für diese schöne Zeit
Jahreszeiten wir danken für diese schöne Zeit

Ohne euch wäre unsere Welt nie so zauberhaft und schön
Ohne euch hätten wir die Welt nie in voller Pracht gesehen

Nur der Wechsel
Im Ablauf der Natur
Lässt uns glücklich sein
Und an der Welt uns freuen
[Only the changes / brought by Mother Nature / bring us such happiness / and such joy to be alive]

The German cast for Anja und die vier Jahreszeiten is not yet on Anime News Network, and were a bit tricky to find so I also cite them here:

Walter Reichelt (ältester Soldat / Elder Soldier) 
Madeleine Stolze (Anja) 
Gernot Duda (Februar / February) 
Inez Günther (Natascha /Stepsister) 
Horst Sachtleben (Professor) 
Ursula Mellin (Stiefmutter / Stepmother) 
Michaela Geuer (Zarin)

As I mentioned at the outset, this film is available in Germany as an extra on the DVD (Region 2) for The Wild Swans. This DVD has the German dub and the English dub but no subs. I have not found any other legit means of buying / viewing the film. Fans of the song “Nakanaiwa” can find it on Junko Sakura’s Golden Best album.

 Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

19 November 2013

Youth (青春 / Seishun, 2008)

Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind.  .  .

For her first stop motion animation, the young puppet animator Aki Kōno (河野亜季, b. 1985) was inspired by the famous poem “Youth” by Samuel Ullman (1840-1924).  In the tradition of Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” (1927) or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (1916), Ullman’s “Youth” teaches a kind of Horatian Carpe diem philosophy on how life should be lived.

Ullman, a German Jew who immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a boy and served in the Confederate Army, is a rare example of a poet who is not that well known in the English-speaking world but has a high degree of fame in Japan.  His poem “Youth” was brought to Japan by General Douglas MacArthur, who kept a framed copy of the poem on the wall of his Tokyo office during the Occupation of Japan and regularly quoted the poem in his speeches. 

According to Margaret England Armbrester, a Japanese businessman by the name of Yoshio Okada read about MacArthur’s love of the poem in the December 1945 issue of Reader’s Digest.  He found the poem very moving and translated it into Japanese to display in his own office.  Through word of mouth, the poem eventually gained renown in the Japanese media and became quite popular (Samuel Ullman and “Youth”: the Life, the Legacy, 1993, p. ix).  The poem remains much loved by Japanese businessmen.  In fact, co-founder of Sony Akio Morita (1921-99) and a number of other prominent Japanese executives were instrumental in saving Ullman’s Birmingham, Alabama home and turning it into a museum (See: Akio Morita Library).  The Birmingham Boys Choir even went to Japan in 2009 and performed a song version of the poem for audiences there.

There was more than one version of the poem, but the following is considered the standard:


Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.

Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity of the appetite, for adventure over the love of ease. This often exists in a man of sixty more than a boy of twenty. Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.

Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being's heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what's next, and the joy of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the infinite, so long are you young.

When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.

Source: Samuel Ullman Museum, Birmingham, Alabama

Aki Kōno’s puppet animation is set during the Second World War.  An active soldier dies (possibly kills himself?) and his comrade finds him with a letter to his mother clutched in his hand.  The injured comrade takes the letter to the man’s mother but he unknowingly just misses seeing her as she walks in her geta-clad feet in the opposite direction down the street.  He sees posters advertising a Pierrot performance for children and as the mother is not at home he decides to watch the show.  He enjoys the Pierrot performance so much that it moves him to tears, for the horror of war has meant that he had almost forgotten how to smile.  When he later calls again at the elderly mother’s house he suddenly realizes that she is the actor behind Pierrot.  The film’s poignant message is that age does not matter when one is young at heart – or in the words of Ullman: “Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind.”

The animated short has no dialogue, though Kōno does impart additional story information using occasional inter-titles.  The lack of dialogue matches well with the Pierrot theme.  The nostalgic atmosphere of the film is created subtly with two songs: a haunting rendition of the Kyūshū folk song “Itsuki Lullaby” (五木の子寺唄/Itsuki no Komoriuta) sung by Hideko Seno, and the melancholy strains of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de lune” (piano for both songs: Misaki Takada).  The expressive puppets are beautifully crafted and the puppet movements are excellent for such a young animator. 

Aki Kōno made Youth during her undergraduate studies at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto (2008).  She went on to do her graduate studies at Tokyo Univeristy of the Arts where she made a beautiful silhouette animation called Promise (約束 / Yakusoku, 2011).  Check out her website to learn more about her animation, illustration, and other art projects.  She has posted the film on Youtube:

15 November 2013

The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (わんぱく王子の大蛇退治, 1963)

The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (わんぱく王子の大蛇退治 / Wanpaku Ōji no Daija taiji, 1963) is the first feature film that I watched on my new Toshiba Satellite Ultrabook with its cinema-wide 21:9 ratio screen and it looked fantastic.  Directed by Yūgo Serikawa, Toei Dōga’s sixth animated feature film was shot using Toei’s anamorphic process Toeiscope (東映スコープ), whose slogan at the time was “Picture Size Three Times as Large; Interest One Hundred Times as Great” (Anderson/Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, p.252).  In so-doing, Toei Dōga was following in the steps of Walt Disney who had produced the first animated film in Cinemascope, Lady and the Tramp (1955), less than a decade earlier.  In terms of its unique art design and colour palette, The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon has much more in common with Disney’s spectacular Sleeping Beauty (1958) which was the first animated film shot using the Super Technirama 70 widescreen process.  The epic scope of the story is in keeping with the trend of the times.  I’m thinking of the classic Hollywood epics of the 1950s and 60s, such as The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961), which all employed widescreen technologies and spectacular colours in order to keep cinema competitive against the threat of the new medium of television.

Ichirō Ikeda and Takashi Iijima’s screenplay is an adaptation of various mythological stories surrounding Susanō (voiced by Morio Kazama, at the time going by his birth name, Tomohito Sumita), the Shintō god of the sea and storms.  Many of the key details of the stories are unchanged from how they appeared in the original sources (the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki), but others have been altered or modernized.  One of the main reason for the changes is that children were the target audience, thus many salacious and grotesque details were excised and the stories have been repackaged as the childhood exploits of Susanō.  According to legend, Susanō was the youngest child of the gods of creation, Izanagi (Setsuo Shinoda) and Izanami (Mitsuko Tomobe).  He was reputedly brave; however, his quick-temper would often get him into trouble.

Susanō’s hot-headed nature is established in the opening scenes of the film in which he plays with his friends in the form anthropomorphic animals.  Talking animals are a modern twist to the Susanō story. This may have been influenced by Disney, but certainly anthropomorphic animals appeared in early pre-war anime as well.  Susanō’s sidekick, the rabbit Akahana (literally “red nose”, voiced by Chiharu Kuri), is being chased by a tiger and Susanō comes to his rescue. The young boy almost loses his temper completely with the tiger but his mother, Izanami, intervenes.  The loving bond between mother and child is illustrated with a bathing scene where Izanami washes her son and sings a sweet song to him.  Their actions are mirrored by a tanuki mother and child.   

Susanō’s idyllic childhood comes to a sudden halt when he learns of his mother’s death.  He refuses to accept that she has passed on and in spite of his father’s protests, Susanō sets off to sea with Akahana determined to recover his mother from the Underworld.  His adventures, which are punctuated by dramatic fight sequences with a giant fish and a fire god, take Susanō to visit his brother Tsukuyomi (Hideo Kinoshita), the moon god, in his crystal palace and later to his sister Amaterasu (Noriko Shindō), the sun goddess, where the famous story of the cave takes place.   Because of the trouble Susanō causes Amaterasu, he is asked to leave her realm which leads to climax of the film:  the tale of Yamata no Orochi, the eight-headed dragonSusanō meets Kushinada-hime (Yukiko Okada) and learns of the sad fate of her sisters who have been sacrificed to Yamata no Orochi.  Susanō’s fight with the giant beast is one of the most visually dynamic fight scenes in all of anime history, which was principally animated by Yasuo Otsuka and Sadao Tsukioka (Learn more about this scene from: Anipages)

This is the first Japanese animation to formally introduce the role of animation director, who in this case was the legendary Yasuji Mori (filmography).  As animation director, Mori would have supervised all the work done by the key animators (Hideo Furusawa, Masao Kumagawa, Yasuo Ōtsuka, Daikichirō Kusube, Makoto Nagasawa, Chikao Katsui, Yōichi Kotabe, Masatake Kita) in order to correct any errors and maintain continuity.  I associate Mori with the idealised animal characters of Magic Boy (少年猿飛佐助, 1959) and Fables of the Green Forest (山ねずみロッキーチャック, 1973), but this film has a unique look that makes it stand out among other animation of this era.  The central characters (Susanō, Kushinada-hime, Akahana, the Tiger) have broad heads, except for Izanami and Amaterasu who have the more typical idealized doll-like oval heads.  The most unique character designs are the angular ones of Tsukuyomi and his people who look as though they have been hewn from blocks of ice.  (See the Ghibli Blog for original character sketches).

Romantic pastels are a rarity in the mostly high contrast colour palette of this film.  Although the choice of colours and many of the character designs are typical of early to mid-century illustration and animation art, the composition of the widescreen frames seems heavily influenced by traditional Japanese aesthetics.   Frames are not composed according to Western principles as used by Disney, but according to the Japanese aesthetic as seen in art such as sansui-ga and woodblock prints.  From a filmic perspective, the innovative variety of shots from extreme close-ups to extreme high angles keep the spectator actively engaged from start to finish. 

Another element that makes this one of the top anime of all time is the dramatic score.   It was composed and arranged by Akira Ifukube, of Godzilla fame.  He really was the ideal choice for a Shintō epic for he had both a deep knowledge of traditional Japanese and Ainu music (his father was a Shintō priest in Hokkaido) and was inspired to become a composer after hearing a radio performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (coincidentally used in Fantasia).  It is a wonderful score – which can be enjoyed on its own as an audio track as well as with the visuals.  His soundtrack would easily make my list of top ten animated feature film soundtracks of the 20th century. 

Akira Ifukube no Geijutsu / Tetsuji Honna, Japan Philharmonic Orchestra
Tetsuji Honna, Japan Philharmonic Orchestra

The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon won Toei Dōga the Noburo Ofuji Award for 1963 – the only feature length film to do so until Hayao Miyazaki won for Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979).  Among those in the anime industry in Japan, The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon is considered one of the best anime of all time.  It ranked 10th in the Laputa Top 150 Japanese and World Animation survey (2003).  It is available on DVD (JP only).
©Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

This review is part of Nishikata Film Review’s  Noburo Ofuji Award series.

14 November 2013

A Wind Egg (空の卵, 2012)

Priest: If men don't trust each other, this earth might as well be hell.
Commoner: Right. The world's a kind of hell.
Priest: No! I don't want to believe that!
Commoner: No one will hear you, no matter how loud you shout. 
Just think. Which one of these stories do you believe?
Woodcutter: None makes any sense.
Commoner: Don't worry about it. It isn't as if men were reasonable.
- scene from Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

I was reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon while watching the latest film by young CALF animator Ryo ŌkawaraA Wind Egg (空の卵 / Kara no Tamago, 2012).   Just as the plot of Rashomon circles around an act of senseless violence, so too this animation centres on violence of a most disturbing nature.  A Wind Egg also employs a Rashomon narrative structure with the story being told in fragments from five different points of view.  However, in this case the story is told purely with visuals, music, and sound effects --- no dialogue whatsoever.


The animation opens with an act of violence: we see the boy from the point-of-view of his abuser as he suddenly gets slapped hard twice across the face.  The opening credits are followed by an establishing shot of a desolate grey farm and  then a close-up of a rooster crowing.  The animation then cuts to the first of five POV vignettes.  The vignettes show fragments of the same period of time.  It is only when they have all been viewed that one can piece together the order of the events that take place.

The Father (/chichi)

A red nosed, unshaven, aggressive-looking man examines eggs in a shed. He scowls suspiciously from side to side, as if making sure that he is alone, then he furtively caresses and kisses one of the eggs.  He licks the egg lasciviously before being startled by the door opening.  The mother comes in with a box of eggs and drops them ungraciously on table.  He glares at her, quivering with resentment.  The boy’s face pops up from his hiding place under the table.

The Younger Sister (/imōto)

With her crazy smile, the younger sister spies on her family.  She grins madly upon witnessing her brother being struck by their father.  The younger sister crawls up the wall like a spider to watch her mother entering the shed.  She shivers in the window and witnesses her brother falling from the sky.

The Mother (/haha)

The mother walks from the hen house to the shed.  An egg falls from her basket in slow motion to the ground.  Reprise of the scene in shed from her perspective.  She goes outside and strips off her clothes. There is a surreal dream sequence which draws a parallel between the caressing of the egg and sex which ends with the man licking the egg and the boy jumping from the roof.

The Boy (少年/shōnen)

The boy sits in the cage with the chickens.  He watches one defecate and picks it up, puts it in his mouth, chews on it, then spits it out.  He watches geese flying overhead then sinks into the earth.  He watches his mother from the roof as she walks from the hen house to the shed.  He then witnesses his mother enter chicken coop and attack a chicken. He dives off of house.

The Family (家族/kazoku)

This final vignette brings more elements of the story together. We see the full context of the boy hiding under his father’s table, his sister tattling on him then laughing wildly as the father strikes the boy and throws him into an empty shed.  The boy has an egg with him.  The egg hatches a miniature Doppelgänger of the boy.  A final surreal montage: whispering into the ear, a scream, a crazy dinner table scene, the zipping of the mouth, a family in chaos.  .  . the boy on the rooftop in the shape of rooster with glasses on.  .  .  does he fall to his death or fly to his freedom?    


This is Ōkawara’s graduation film for the Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts) graduate animation programme and his first in which he experiments with narrative form.  His earlier animated shorts were more conceptual.  Orchestra (2008), which he co-directed with fellow students Masaki Okuda and Yutaro Ogara, and Animal Dance (2009) bring music and movement together in a way reminiscent of the works of Norman McLaren, and insomniac (2008) visually depicts the way sounds and images clutter the mind and prevent sleep.

Stylistically, A Wind Egg, has much in common with the works of his Geidai mentor Kōji Yamamura.  The grey washed backgrounds and layering of the image with paint flecks during the dream (or rather nightmare) sequence are reminiscent of the techniques used by Yamamura in films like Mt. Head (2002) and Muybridge’s Strings (2011). Colour is kept to a minimal with grey and black being the predominant hues.  

Theme of Abuse

A Wind Egg played at Nippon Connection 2013 as part of the omnibus of Geidai films presented by Prof. Mitsuko Okamoto.  The audience at Nippon Connection has been following the Japanese independent scene for the past decade and there has been much discussion in recent years about the prevalence of abuse and violence in animation by young independent filmmakers.  This trend includes the films of Saori Shiroki – particularly MAGGOT (2007) and The Woman Who Stole Fingers (2010) – and Kei Oyama (Hand Soap, 2008), and Atsushi Wada’s Gentle Whistle, Bird and Stone (2010). 

I cannot speculate on if this reflects anything about modern Japanese society; however, I do believe the personal nature of independent animation allows for artists to address these darker issues of human nature.  I have long been of the opinion that animation has the power to address subject matter that is too difficult for viewers to witness with live action – Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita’s Pica-don (1978) and Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) are two films that automatically spring to mind. 

Just as Pica-don and Grave of the Fireflies deal with the trauma of inhumane wartime violence, A Wind Egg takes on the deeply confronting issues surrounding the trauma caused by sexual perversion and domestic violence within the family unit.  The fractured nature of the narrative is indicative of the way in which abuse – be it psychological, sexual or physical – disrupts family life and traumatizes its victims.  Initially, this film appears to be full of despair, but upon further reflection there is indeed a glimmer of hope at the end.  Eggs are symbolic of birth and creation, and roosters are associated with Amaterasu, the Shintō goddess of the sun.  Perhaps the boy has indeed been reborn at the end of the film and is indeed flapping his way into a brighter future. 

A Wind Egg won the Lotte Reiniger Promotion Award for Animated Film at the Stuttgart Trickfilm Festival.  It appears on the DVD Geidai Animation 3rd Graduate Works 2012.  You can follow Ryo Okawara on Twitter.

#nippon13 #nc2013
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013


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