20 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: