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 Ōkawara: A 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 (父/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 (妹/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 (母/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.
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013