29 December 2013

Best Japanese Indie Animation Shorts 2013

Nishikata’s Best Japanese Indie Animation Shorts 2013

2013 did not disappoint when it came to indie animation fare.  Due to the vagaries of short film distribution, to qualify for this list films either had to be released in Japan in 2013 or be a 2012 Japanese release that screened at European festivals in 2013.  There are so many talented animators working in Japan at the moment that it was nigh on impossible for me to narrow my list down to just 10, but I somehow managed a short list of 15.  Without further ado, here are my screening highlights from the past year ordered randomly. 

Kick-Heart (Yuasa Masaaki, 2013)
I am a long-time fan of Yuasa Masaaki (Mind Game, Tatami Galaxy), travelling to Dortmund in 2011 to see him at the Japan Media Arts Festival (read about his film talk there), so I was delighted to be able to put my money where my mouth is and support him in his latest project Kick-Heart.  It is, indeed, a kick-ass film and I hope to review my copy of the Blu-ray/DVD set soon.  Kudos to Production I.G. for going the extra mile for innovative animation.

Combustible (火要鎮 / Hi no Yōjin, 2012)
This short film by legendary manga-ka and animator Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Memories) won the Animation Grand Prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival 2012 and then went on to win the Noburō Ōfuji Award at the 2012 Mainichi Concours.  Combustible is an adaptation of Otomo’s 1994 one-shot manga of the same name and is set during the time of the great fires in Edo.   This film appears as part of the anthology anime Short Peace (ショート・ピース, 2013) alongside animated shorts by Shuhei Morita, Hiraki Ando and Hajime Katoki.  I will be reviewing Short Peace when the Blu-ray is released mid-January 2014.  Although Otomo isn't exactly "indie", one can't argue that he takes risks with his animation, going beyond the mainstream in his choice of subject matter and style of animation.

Futon (布団, 2012)
This minimalist short by Yoriko Mizushiri explores the sensual aspects of being sleepily wrapped up in a warm duvet.   It won a number of prizes in Japan including the prestigious Renzo Kinoshita Prize at Hiroshima and the New Face Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival. It has also been a big hit at international festivals, making the short list for Cartoon Brew’s most well liked animated short of 2013.  It appears on the new DVD/Blu-ray L'Animation Indépendante Japonaise, Volume 1.   Mizushiri’s most recent film, Snow Hut (かまくら, 2013), made the Jury Selection at this year’s Japan Media Arts Festival.

Ninja and Soldier (2012)
Experimental animator Isamu Hirabayashi has followed up the success of his animated short 663114 (2011) with another computer animation, Ninja and Soldier.  The central characters, two eight-year-old boys, are drawn in a child-like crayon scrawl on an elegant background straight out of traditional Japanese art.  The film explores human nature through the eyes of children.  Ninja and Soldier screened at the 2013 Berlinale and at Image Forum Festival 2013.

Recruit Rhapsody (就活狂想曲, 2012)
It was hard to choose my favourites from among the strong works from Geidai animation grads, but Maho Yoshida’s clever depiction of the annual Shūkatsu Kyōsōkyoku job hunt certainly tops my list of Geidai faves.  Read my review here.

Red Colored Bridge (2012)
In his characteristic brightly coloured style, the renowned pop artist Keiichi Tanaami uses the symbolic red bridge to heaven found in traditional Japanese gardens to take us on a psychedelic, erotic, and spiritual journey into his imagination.  This film can be found on L'Animation Indépendante Japonaise, Volume 1.

Maze (2012)
With their latest film TOCHKA (Takeshi Nagata and Kazue Monno) have come up with yet another innovative new way to showcase their PiKA PiKA animation: on a grid pattern of 12x4 squares.  A team of assistants with different coloured lights act like pixilated Bunraku performers colouring in and around the blocks with light.  This film required meticulous planning and choreography. My favourite moment is the Pac-Man inspired sequence where a yellow arrow and a couple of stars negotiate a maze.   This film can be found on the recently released DVD/Blu-ray L'Animation Indépendante Japonaise, Volume 1.  

Columbos (Kawai + Okamura, 2012)
Hiroki Okamura and Takumi Kawai, better known as Kawai + Okamura (カワイオカムラ), are a creative duo who both teach at the Kyoto University of Art and Design.  Columbos is a reimagining of the legendary television detective Columbo with puppets.  It is a unique puppet animation unlike anything I have ever seen before with unbelievable use of lighting, special effects, and choreography of figures.  This film appears on the new DVD/Blu-ray L'Animation Indépendante Japonaise, Volume 1.  

While the Crow Weeps (カラスの涙, 2013)
Sukimaki Animation (Makiko Sukikara and Kohei Matsumura) were awarded the New Face Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival for their atmospheric short While the Crow Weeps.   This hauntingly beautiful depiction of crows is like an Edgar Allan Poe poem come to life.

Airy Me (2013)
 Dream-pop singer Cuushe (have a listen on soundcloud) has some of the coolest tie-in art and videos around and Airy Me is my current favourite.  Animated by Yoko Kuno, the same artist who designed the cover art for Cuushe’s latest album Butterfly Case, the music video takes us on a dizzying journey into psychosis.  Watch it for yourself on Vimeo.

Anomalies (Atsushi Wada, 2013)
 Award-winning CALF animator Atsushi Wada’s latest film was funded by Animate Projects, the UK’s “only arts charity in the UK dedicated to championing experiments in animation” via its online exhibition space and screenings on Channel 4’s Random Acts.  Anomalies is part of the group commission Secret Monsters.  Drawn in Wada’s characteristic style, Anomalies has a faster pace than his earlier films but long-time Wada fans will recognize the characters and themes.  Watch it here.

Yamasuki Yamazaki (やますき、やまざき, 2013)
A joyous celebration of the female form, Shishi Yamazaki’s Yamasuki Yamazaki is a sensual delight.  Inspired by female curves, cherry blossoms, and the music of Jean Kluger and Daniel Vangarde (father of Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter), it is the only film I have ever seen that succeeds in making the act of defecation look almost lovely.   Watch for yourself on Vimeo.

Little Ojisan (aka Mini Oyajiちいさなおじさん, 2012-present)
This minimalist short-short animated series was adapted by Noi Asano from his manga series The Diary of Little Ojisan (ちいさいおやじ日記 / Chiisai Oyaji Nikki, 2008-present) and airs on Chiba TV.  The series stars a Tom Thumb-esque character in the form of a middle-aged businessman.  His adventures begin when a young girl finds him under a leaf on a rainy day and adopts him.  The comic vignettes play on the absurd role reversal of the mini-businessman and the girl.  Odd but strangely engaging, I like the simplicity of the pencil on white drawings.  Sample episodes can be found on Little Ojisan’s official Youtube Channel.

Wonder (ワンダー, 2013)
 I gave CALF animator Mirai Mizue my financial support when he crowdfunded the completion of Wonder, a short film that developed out of his Wonder 365 Animation Project (Mirai Mizue, 2012-13).  The film is now complete and heading out to festivals.  The film has already been given a Special Jury mention at the Japan Media Arts Festival, and I expect it will do well on the festival circuit in 2014. 

A Wind Egg (空の卵, 2012)
Ryo Ōkawara is another Geidai animation programme graduate whose work is improving with each new film.  His deeply disturbing but captivating short A Wind Egg won the Lotte Reiniger Promotion Award for Animated Film at the Stuttgart Trickfilm Festival in 2013.  Read my review here

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

A Look Back at 2013 in Japanese Animation

2013 was a wonderful year for feature-length animation in Japan.  Studio Ghibli released new films from their great masters Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.  The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ, 2013) gave Miyazaki a chance to indulge in his love of aviation and Shōwa nostalgia, while Takahata has adapted the much-loved folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” in his first feature film in over a decade, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語, 2013). 

The usual franchise suspects did well at the Japanese box office this year with Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea (2013) becoming the Conan franchise’s highest grossing film ever.  Crayon Shin-chan starred in his 21st feature film: Crayon Shin-chan: Very Tasty! B-class Gourmet Survival (2013) and did well at the box office, as did Doraemon: Nobita's Secret Gadget Museum (2013).  Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods (2013) shot to number one at the box office showing at all 16 of Japan’s IMAX Digital Theaters.  Variety also reported that the film ranked number 5 overseas, making it the top-ranking non-Hollywood film on the chart.  Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Patema Inverted (サカサマのパテマ, 2013) and Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion: 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo (ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版:Q) received the Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival 2013, while Ghost in the Shell Arise - Border 1: Ghost Pain (2013), Blue Exorcist (青の祓魔師2012), and Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (2013) all got special mentions.

As I do not live in Japan, J-films usually come to a screen near me via festivals the following year. This year, I was particularly lucky that Nippon Connection 2013  had a strong programme of animation.   I was delighted to finally see legendary animator Gisaburo Sugii’s Kenji Miyazawa-inspired The Life of Budori Gusuko (グスコーブドリの伝記, 2012) on the big screen featuring the same Hiroshi Masumura anthropomorphic cat characters that he used in his earlier classic Night on the Galactic Railroad (銀河鉄道の夜, 1985).  One of the most under-rated animated feature films of 2012, The Life of Budori Gusuko has a timely environmental message, likely inspired by Kenji Miyazawa’s love for the countryside of his native Iwate Prefecture.

Also at Nippon Connection, Mamoru Hosoda’s bittersweet tale Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪, 2012).  After successful stints at Toei (Digimon Adventure, One Piece) and Madhouse (Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars), Hosoda has entered a new stage in his career by establishing his own studio: Studio Chizu.  Thematically, the film has much in common with Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ, 1994) except instead of a species under threat of human development, the central characters are a species who are extinct in Japan – the Honshū wolf – and have only managed to survive into the modern era by becoming half human. 

Nippon Connection also presented a collection of Toho animated shorts under the title Kami Usagi Ropé: The Last Day of Summer Vacation (映画「紙兎ロぺ」 つか、夏休みラスイチってマジっすか!?, 2012), a retrospective of Sci-Fi Anime (1966-2011) and Hiroyuki Okiura’s well-received 2011 film A Letter to Momo (ももへの手紙 / Momo e no tegami).  However, the most innovative films on the programme were Keiichi Sato’s disturbing tale of the feral child Asura (アシュラ, 2012), which you can read about here, and Uchija’s grotesque The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, 2012) – which actually is not really an animation but an elaborate puppet film using highly detailed cut-outs.  There was also an excellent selection of shorts from Geidai university – a couple of which made my Best JapaneseIndie Animation Shorts of 2013.

I had been concerned from early on in his career that Makoto Shinkai might buckle under the unnecessary pressure of people calling him the “new Miyazaki” – unnecessary because I think his style of animation is very different from the man he admires.  The Garden of Words (言の葉の庭, 2013), which I picked up the day it was released on DVD/Blu-ray in Canada in August, is a lovely 45-minute film that explores a May-December romance between a young man from a broken home and an older woman he meets at the park.  The highlight of the film for me is the scenery which is based on photographs of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – natsukashii!

A heavy teaching schedule meant that I did not get into any anime series this year, but there are enough anime bloggers out there to cover this genre.  Check out the lists by haruhichan, kotaku, lostinanime, not to mention a terrific overview of the whole cultural year in Japan by Néojaponism.

The highlights of 2013 were, of course, the indie shorts that came my way.  Check out my top 15 in the following post:  Best Japanese Indie Animation Shorts 2013.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

Kitty's Graffiti (こねこのらくがき, 1957)

This delightful early anime is the first animated short by Toei Dōga (now known as Toei Animation)  Most of the animators who worked on the film – Taiji Yabushita, Yasuji Mori, Akira Daikubara, et al. – had previously worked at the animation studio Nichidō (Nihon Dōga-sha/日本動画株式会社, 1948-56) which was acquired by Toei in 1956.  Although Yabushita, the co-founder of Nichidō, is the director of Kitty's Graffiti (こねこのらくがき/Koneko no Rakugaki, 1957), the character design and general look of the 13-minute animation often gets attributed to Yasuji Mori. 

Shot on black-and-white film stock, and the film has no dialogue – much in the style of a Tom and Jerry cartoon – and like Tom and Jerry, there is a cat chasing mouse gag, but it is executed in an entirely different manner.  A kitten is busy scribbling pictures on a bare external wall of a house.  His line drawings are images typically drawn by a child: a horse in the sun, fish and a crab blowing bubbles, a cat mother and kitten, a streetcar, traffic, a horse and carriage, and a train on a long railway track with a tunnel at the end.  At the sound of a whistle blowing, the drawing of a train comes to life and starts to rumble down the track.  The kitty stops the train then notices a terrible traffic jam of cars pushing and shoving each other on the portion of wall where he had randomly drawn an assortment of vehicles.  He quickly draws in a traffic police bear to direct the cars more safely.

Pleased with his results, the cat smiles as he observes the scene then turns upon hearing a smattering of applause behind him.  There he discovers a pair of mice who are equally pleased with the kitty’s drawings.  One of the mice is tall and slender and dressed slacks, the other is small and round dressed only in a long-sleeved shirt.  The shorter of the two mice stands on a tin of fish to get a better view.  For his audience, Kitty draws a parade of mouse figures on the wall.   The mice celebrate by jumping up and down causing the little one to lose his balance and clatter into hiding with the tin attached to his tale.  A large bear, presumably the owner of the house, peers around the corner and admonishes kitty for defacing the wall.  He is given a bucket and cloth to clean up the mess, but he gets distracted by the laughing mice who take Kitty’s pencil and board the train and take off with it.  Kitty chases after them and jumps aboard and they enter the tunnel and are transported into a wonderfully imaginative cat chasing mice sequence through a land of child-like drawings.  The chase continues with many delightful slapstick moments until the mice turn the tables around and start chasing the cat instead.  It is all just a bit of fun and ends with the cat doing what is right and cleaning up after himself.  .  .  leaving only the drawing of the police bear as a reminder of the day’s events.

This type of cartoon that enters the imaginative world of children, and actively encourages children to think creatively beyond the realms of the “real” is my favourite.  It transported me back the one of the cartoons of my childhood such as Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings (Ivor Wood, ITV, 1976), which aired on TVO when I was as kid.  I much prefer these kinds of absurdist jaunts through the realms of the imaginary to didactic / moralistic tales for children.  They seek not only to entertain children, but encourage them to pick up their pencils and entertain themselves after the film has concluded. The enjoyment of the film is elevated by Senji Itō’s playful score.  Itō is best known in film studies for his dramatic scores for the films of Yasujirō Ozu (The Only Son, The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, Late Spring, A Hen in the Wind, Early Summer) and Hiroshi Shimizu (The Masseurs and a Woman, Four Seasons of Children, Children of the Beehive, Notes of an Itinerant Performer, A Star Athlete, etc.).  Here his music drives the tempo of the animation (lilting, marching) with interruptions timed to heighten the comedic moments.  The score is so expressive that one hardly notices the lack of actual dialogue.

The central characters in Kitty's Graffiti (the cat, the bear homeowner, the mice duo) are beautifully realized, with round, expressive faces – much like the animal characters of Disney’s Bambi.  The kitty has some design similarities to the kittens of Kenzō Masaoka’s Tora-chan films – on which Mori also worked.  However, that being said, these are only minor similarities and the kitty is certainly recognizable as a distinct character with its own cheeky personality.   This film gives us a glimpse of what wonderful cartoon shorts Taiji Yabushita, Yasuji Mori, Akira Daikuhara and co. could have made if they had had a Disney budget.  Kitty's Graffiti is a film treasure that serves as a testament to the great skill in particular of Yasuji Mori, who is remembered as a mentor to many animators who learned their craft in the 60s and 70s, from Hayao Miyazaki to Gisaburo Sugii.   Mori is revered by those he mentored not only for his skills as an animator but for his incomparable character design.  Books of his art can be ordered from Anido.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

Taiji Yabushita 藪下泰司
Kōichi Akagawa  赤川孝一, Zenjirō Yamashita  山本善次郎
Akio Kinoshita  木下秋夫
Original Music:
Senji Itō  伊藤宣二
Mitsuaki Ishikawa  石川光明

Yasuji Mori  森やすじ
Akira Daikuhara  大工原章
Shōji Ichino  市野正二
Sumiko Naganuma  長沼寿美子
Takashi Uchiyama  内山孝
Chikao Katsui  寺千賀雄
Makoto Nakashima  田島実
Kiyoshi Nakajima 中島清
Mitsuko Shindō  進藤みつ子
Junji Yamada山田順治
and others

Production Company:

Toei Kyōiku Eiga-bu  東映教育映画部

20 December 2013

Why is the Sea Water Salty? (海の水はなぜからい, 1935)

Most pre-war Japanese animation is derived from Japanese fairy tales and mythologies. However, the origins of the story behind Yasuji Murata’s animated folktale adaptation Why is the Sea Water Salty? (海の水はなぜからい / Umi no Mizu wa Naze Karai, 1935) are very complicated.  Long before science could explain why oceans are salty, myths and legends were developed to fill the knowledge gap.  Murata’s film seems to have been influenced by a tangled web of European and Japanese folktales.

This retelling by one of the great pioneers of anime appears on Disc 3 of Digital Meme’s Japanese Anime Classic Collection 4 DVD Box Set.  The film has not been digitally remastered and shows the wear and tear of time: flecks, scratches, and even small tears.  It begins in the typical manner of a Japanese folk tale with “Mukashi mukashi.  .  .” (Once upon a time. . .). As Why is the Sea Water Salty? is a silent film, the text appears on title cards and the Digital Meme features the added bonus of narration by benshi Midori Sawato and soft background music. 

Plot Summary

Two brothers, one rich and one poor, are introduced on title cards.  New Year’s is approaching and the younger brother is lacking supplies.  He goes to ask his older brother for help.  He finds him pounding mochi (glutinous rice). The older brother looks down on the younger one and dismisses his request saying that his younger brother is undeserving of his rice cakes.  Disappointed, the younger brother heads home with his head hanging low.   Along the way, he encounters an elderly man who almost falls off a footbridge.  He rescues the man and to thank him for his kindness, the elderly man gives him some manjū (sweet bean cakes).  He tells him that he should take the manjū to the dwarves in the forest to exchange for their quern (stone mill/ /usu).

Led by a dwarf waving a hinomaru flag enthusiastically, the dwarves are hard at work in the forest building a house.  However, they run into troubles dragging the heavy wood uphill.  The younger brother laughs are their dilemma and offers to help them.  They offer him a meal in thanks but the younger brother shows them his manjū.  The dwarves begin salivating at the sight of the sweet manjū and beg him to share them.  They even offer him money for the manjū and he refuses, asking instead for their quern.  After some discussion, they agree to this deal and they explain the secret of how to use the magic quern.  When he turns it right and makes a wish, what he wishes for appears.  To reverse the magic he must turn it to the left.

The younger brother wishes himself a house, a warehouse, and rice fields, and before long his wealth exceeds all the others in his village including his older brother.  The older brother is overwhelmed by jealousy and asks his younger brother if he can borrow the quern.  The younger brother says it would be useless to the older brother because he is already a wealthy man.  So the older brother steals the quern and leaves the village by sea.  As he double-checks that he has brought everything he needs, the older brother notices that he forgot to bring salt with him.  He then uses the quern for the first time and wishes for salt.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to tell the quern to stop and the growing pile of salt causes the boat to sink.  The older brother is eaten by a shark and the quern falls to the bottom of the sea where it continues to dispense salt into the ocean for eternity. 


Chūzō Aoji (青地忠三, 1885-1970) wrote the screenplay for Why is the Sea Water Salty?  Aoji worked with Murata (村田安司, 1896-1966) at Yokohama Cinema Shokai where they collaborated on many animated shorts in the 20s and 30s such as Taro’s Toy Train (太郎さんの汽車, 1929) and Momotaro of the Sea (海の桃太郎, 1932).  Although versions of this folktale have been recorded in many counties (see: D.L. Ashliman’s Folktexts for some examples), the origins of the tale adapted by Aoji and Murata appears to have roots in both Norway and Japan.

The Norwegian folktale “The Mill That Grinds at the Bottom of the Sea” (Kvernen som maler på havsens bunn) is one of the most well-known salt folktales. It was first published by 19th century folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe in Norwegian Folktales (Norske Folkeeventyr) which appeared in various formats starting with a slim pamphlet in 1852.  The tale was translated into English by Sir George Webbe Dasent and can be found in his 1888 publication Popular Tales from the Norse (Project Gutenberg) under the title: “Why the Sea is Salt” (sic).  It is believed that this tale likely found its way to Japan in the late Meiji or early Taishō period, sometime after its publication in English.  There has also been some evidence that in Taishō 12 (1923), a similar story to the Norwegian one was brought to Japan by people who arrived by boat from Russia (Source).  The Norwegian tale is set on Christmas Eve, but the Japanese version changes this to Oshōgatsu (Japanese New Year), as this was (and remains) the most important holiday in Japan.

Another major difference between the Norwegian tale and the Japanese is the addition of dwarves.  In the Norwegian tale, the old man gives the brother the quern and there is no bartering with dwarves.  The dwarf element is likely derived from a similar story may have already existed in Japan before the arrival of the Norwegian tale.  According to the Japanese folklorist Misako Kobayashi (小林美佐子), most Japanese tales about dwarves like “Why the Sea is Salty” (臼を交換し海の水の塩辛いわけ) originate in the Tohoku region.  Other such dwarf tales include “The Year’s End” (年の暮れ) “Tabemono no Mushin shi” (食べ物を無心し), “Ōzei no Kodomo ” (大勢の小人) and “Manjū-nado” (饅頭等). (Source)

Animation Style

Stylistically, Murata has gone with cut-out animation. This was common practice in pre-war Japanese anime because it saved money for both in materials (celluloid was expensive) and labour (moving cut-outs is faster than drawing successive images).  The cut-out technique used is fairly straight-forward.  The animator has used as few set-ups as possible, with mostly establishing shots and medium-long shots being used.  Interestingly, Murata chooses to shoot dialogues in two separate spaces linked by a pan rather than having the characters occupy the same frame.  I don’t really see any aesthetic benefit from this so can only presume that this was done in order to simplify the animation process.  In the sequence that narrates about the wealth the younger brother acquired with the magic quern, I had the impression that the quern might have been done using stop motion of a real quern.  The other interesting stylistic note is the edit that introduces the dwarf forest.  It is a fan-shaped wipe opening from the top the screen – and matches to the use of a fan by one of the dwarves in the scene that follows.

On the whole, the film itself is a straight-forward retelling of a story that has a complicated oral history.  In terms of originality, for me the best scenes are the one where the dwarves are trying to get the wood up the hill, and the final scene when the sea creatures are startled by the arrival of the quern at the sea bottom. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

L'Animation Indépendante Japonaise, Volume 1 (DVD/Blu-Ray release, FR/EN/JP, 2013)

L'Animation Indépendante Japonaise, Volume1 (DVD/Blu-Ray release, FR/EN/JP, 2013)

The French indie label Les Films du Paradoxe, who have a terrific catalogue of animation DVDs from Te Wei to Paul Driessen, have collaborated with CaRTe bLaNChe to release a combination DVD/Blu-Ray of Japanese independent animated shorts made between 2006 and 2012.  The selection features a wide range of experimental techniques from drawn animation to pixilation. 

The selection opens with two films by Shin Hashimoto (橋本新, b. 1978) of CALF, an up-and-coming Tama Art University graduate who has become known for the dark, atmospheric nature of his works.  Beluga (ベルーガ, 2011) is a nightmarish take on the story of the little match girl which, won a special mention at Zagreb 2012.  This is followed by his earlier film The Undertaker and the Dog (葬儀屋と犬/Sougiya to Inu, 2010), a deeply disturbing yet beautifully painted film that was widely praised by critics when it screened at international festivals.

The unique aesthetic of experimental filmmaker Isamu Hirabayashi (平林勇, b.1972) became known to a wider audience in 2011/12 when his animated short 663114 (2011) received high honours from being invited to the Biennale in Venice to winning the Noburo Ofuji Award.  As I wrote in my review of the film last year, it is one of the most profound responses to Tohoku disaster, and it is worth buying this selection just to see it on Blu-ray.

Hiroki Okamura (岡村寛生, b. 1968) and Takumi Kawai (川合匠, b. 1968), better known as Kawai + Okamura (カワイオカムラ, since 1993), are a creative duo who both teach at the Kyoto University of Art and Design.  As students at Kyoto City University, Okamura majored in oil painting and Kawai in sculptor, but today they are best known for their innovative films and installations that combine a number of different techniques from CGI to stop motion.  Columbos (コロンボス, 2012) is a reimagining of the legendary television detective Columbo with puppets.  It is a unique puppet animation unlike anything I have ever seen before with unbelievable use of lighting, special effects, and choreography of figures. 

Acclaimed CALF animator, Mirai Mizue (水江未来, b. 1981), has contributed two of his recent films Tatamp (2011) and Modern No. 2 (2011).  Tatamp is an example of Mizue’s distinctive “cell animation” style that feature a chorus of little amoeba-like, colourful cells whose movements and shapes are inextricable from the soundtrack (read my full review).   Modern No. 2 is an example of Mizue’s experiments with geometric animation.  Learn more about this style of animation in my post The Modern Films of Mirai Mizue.

Yoriko Mizushiri (水尻自子, 1984) is a graduate of the Joshibi University of Art and Design in Kanagawa.  Her trademark animation style is to focus on individual parts of the body from an original perspective.  Her 2012 animated short Futon (布団) won a number of prizes in Japan including the prestigious Renzo Kinoshita Prize at Hiroshima and the New Face Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival. It has also been a big hit at international festivals, making the short list for Cartoon Brew’s most well liked animated short of 2013.  The second film of hers featured on this DVD, Kappo (かっぽ, 2006), demonstrates that Mizushiri established her unique style early on in her career.

Another CALF animator, Kei Oyama (大山慶, 1978), also features on this DVD.  His fleshy, disturbing, yet strangely poignant film Hand Soap (ハンドルソープ, 2008) won prizes at Oberhausen, Holland, and Hiroshima. Read my review here.    The animation community is anxiously awaiting the release of his latest work After School, which crowdsourced funding on Camp-fire in 2012.  He’s taking a risk by trying out a totally new style – can’t wait to see the results. 

Dreams (2011) is the last collaborative film by long-time friends and colleagues Keiichi Tanaami (田名網敬一, b.1933) and Nobuhiro Aihara (相原信洋, 1944-2011).  Up until Aihara’s sudden death in 2011, the two well-established artists made 15 films together in just over a decade – many of which can be found on the 2011 Chalet Pointu/CaRTe bLaNChe/ARTE DVD  Portrait of Keiichi Tanaami.  The films came out of the fact that both artists were teaching at Kyoto University of Art and Design.  The collaborative process consisted of one of the artists drawing a picture for a scene and leaving it on the other’s desk.  The other artist would add to it or remove some parts and put it on the first artist’s desk, and so on back and forth until the film developed.  This kind of artistic “correspondence” was unique in the art world and it is a mesmeric experience to watch their complementary styles on screen together. Dreams is followed by the prolific Tanaami’s latest offering: Red-Colored Bridge (2012).  In his characteristic brightly coloured style, Tanaami uses the symbolic red bridge to heaven found in traditional Japanese gardens to take us on a psychedelic, erotic, and spiritual journey into his imagination.

There are few animators today who truly embody the creative spirit of my favourite animator, Norman McLaren, and TOCHKA (トーチカ, since 1998) is one of them.  TOCHKA is the husband-wife animation team Takeshi Nagata (ナガタタケシ, b.1978) and Kazue Monno (モンノカヅエ, b.1978) who are known for their innovative PiKA PiKA light animation films (read more about them and learn how you can order a DVD of their works).  This DVD features their original 2006 film PiKA PiKA and their latest film MAZE (2012).  In MAZE, Nagata and Monno have come up with yet another innovative new way to showcase their PiKA PiKA animation: on a grid pattern of 12x4 squares.  A team of assistants with different coloured lights act like pixilated Bunraku performers colouring in and around the blocks with light.  This film required meticulous planning and choreography. My favourite moment is the Pac-Man inspired sequence where a yellow arrow and a couple of stars negotiate a maze.   

The DVD/Blu-ray concludes with two recent films by acclaimed CALF animator Atsushi Wada (和田淳, 1980).  The Great Rabbit (グレートラビット, 2012) is Wada’s most successful film to date winning him the Silver Bear at the 62nd Berlinale among other honours – read my review here.  And finally, as I wrote in 2010, I consider The Mechanism of Spring (春のしくみ, 2010) to be “Wada’s most light-hearted film to date, capturing the delight that young children and animals take in the season. The young chubby boys examine the wildlife, take off their shirts and run about gaily, and observe a plant sprouting out of the earth, among other delights.”  I like that they chose to end the DVD with this uplifting film. 

On the whole, this is a terrific selection of recent independent animation from Japan --- the best collection since Image Forum’s Thinking and Drawing: Japanese Art Animation in the New Millennium (2005) and Tokyo Loop (2006). The greatest thing about this DVD/Blu-ray is that it is called Volume 1, suggesting that we can expect more DVDs in the future.  It has French and English subtitles and can be ordered via Amazon France.  For those of you in Tokyo, Koji Yamamura’s new animation museum/shop Au Praxinoscope in Setagaya has the film on their list. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

16 December 2013

Recruit Rhapsody (就活狂想曲, 2012)

The final year of university in Japan is quite fraught because of a tradition known as Shūkatsu Kyōsōkyoku: an intense recruiting process by corporations keen to scoop up the top graduates.  The pressure to find a job upon graduation is much greater in Japan than anywhere else I have lived because there is a general consensus that if you don’t get hired straight out of college, you will have spoiled your chances for climbing the corporate ladder and may find yourself becoming a freeter (underemployed/freelancer).

Another major difference that I noticed between Canada and Japan in particular was that whereas Canadian companies highly value creativity, individuality, and a “go-getter” attitude in new recruits, in Japan the emphasis is much more on academic performance and the recruit’s ability to fit in with the corporate identity.  It’s more than just the “team player” mentality promoted by many Canadian corporations because you are having to demonstrate that you are prepared to obsequiously toe the line of corporate hierarchy.  Up-and-coming young animator Maho Yoshida (吉田まほ, b.1986) depicts this recruitment process beautifully in her graduate film for Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai)’s animation programme: Recruit Rhapsody (就活狂想曲/Shūkatsu Kyōsōkyoku, 2012).

A young modern woman – who we find out in the end credits is the animator herself – is fiddling on her smartphone during a lecture.  She is so preoccupied with her smartphone that she doesn’t notice her friends checking their watches.  As they leave the building together, her friends check their watches again and turn their backs on the bubbly young woman.  Before her incredulous eyes, the woman’s friends transform from unique individuals into wannabe office workers in suits.  There is a wonderful moment in which they strike poses against a yellow background as if they are about to break into a dance number from West Side Story.

The young woman reluctantly sheds her long blonde hair, make-up, and colourful clothes for a dowdy corporate look and rushes off to join the crowds of recruits trying to get onto the corporate ladder.  They slither into a job fair like a festival dragon and applaud the corporate recruiters and bow their heads in a manner reminiscent of a totalitarian regime cowing the masses.  It is a terrific animated short, which any job hunter can identify with: from the companies overselling their images to the phoneys vying for the same job as you to the interminably long hours waiting by your smartphone for that job offer that never comes.  We all recognize that feeling of selling your soul to the devil just to get your foot in the door.

What transforms this film from great to pure genius is the use of music.  Composed by Yukiko Yoden from Geidai’s music programme, the music is reminded me of George Geshwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) in its spirit and liveliness.  .   .  and of course, in its use of piano with an ensemble.  Kudos to Shizuka Shimoyama on piano, Makiko Umchara on violin and Saeko Tominaga on violoncello for their engaging performances. Maho Yoshida has clearly composed her images with the intended music in mind for the movement and music work very much in harmony with each other.  It never ceases to amaze me how the graduates of the Geidai programme have attained such a high level of skill at such a young age:  Yoshida’s scene transitions and changes in perspective are innovative and beautifully done.

The film was produced by Kōji Yamamura and it made the Jury Selection in the Animation Division of the 2012 Japan Media Arts Festival and has appeared at other festivals.  I saw the film as part of the Geidai screening at Nippon Connection 2013. You can see a lower resolution release of the film (no subs - but they are not really needed) on Youtube --- be sure to wait until after the end credits to catch the true end of the film.  It became a viral hit when it came online and I suspect that every spring when the recruitment season heats up loads of young recruits will be sharing this video again.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

12 December 2013

Floating Sun (幻日, 2013)

Floating Sun (幻日, 2013) is a bit of a departure for Tokyo-based Malaysian director Edmund Yeo into the horror genre.  This short film is his contribution to Hungry Ghost Festival: 3 Doors of Horrors (鬼節:三重門, 2013), a 45-minute horror omnibus film produced by prolific Malaysian filmmaker James Lee for his indie production company Doghouse 73 Pictures.  The film premiered on Youtube on the 17th of August.  The omnibus, which was designed to showcase young Malaysian directors, also includes Leroy Low’s I Miss You Two and Ng Ken Kin’s Horror Mission.  This review is of the 20 minute director’s cut of Floating Sun considered independently of the omnibus as a standalone short film.

The plot of Floating Sun comes from a short story by author and poet Kanai Mieko (金井美恵子, b. 1947).  According to Yeo’s blog Swifty, Writing, he happened upon Mieko’s collection of short stories The Word Book at the Aoyama Book Center in Roppongi.  Her story “The Moon” was the inspiration behind his beautiful short Last Fragments of Winter (2011), while Floating Sun is based on the story “The Boundary Line”, about the corpse of a woman who drowned.  

As with many Edmund Yeo films, Floating Sun blurs the lines between past and present, real and imagined.  A young novelist, Fiona Yang (Emily Lim), is writing a story based upon the unusual circumstances surrounding the death of her teenaged classmate Chen Xiao Hui (Candy Lee) many years ago. Chen Xiao Hui was found floating on her back in the river by a security officer (Azman Hassan), and the events continue to affect all those involved.  Since beginning to write the story, Fiona has been haunted by images of Chen Xiao Hui’s corpse floating in the river.  A series of strange events also begin to disturb her and her young daughter Teng (Regina Wong) in the apartment that they share.  The disquieting events seem to be connected not only to the haunting presence of the spirit of Chen Xiao Hui but also to possible guilt surrounding Fiona’s affair with married man Wai Loon (Steve Yap) – but this interpretation is my own as the circumstances are deliberately left vague.


It turns out that Fiona was the last person to see Chen Xiao Hui alive, a fact that she downplays as being unimportant because they were merely classmates not close friends.  A flashback reveals that Fiona recalls sitting with Chen Xiao Hui at the river and saying: “Do you know, if you look at the sun from underneath the water, it is as if the sun is floating.  It’s a lovely sight, but sad at the same time.”  These comments suggest that Chen Xiao Hui’s death may have been an accident. 

The location for the river scenes really makes the film.  Chen Xiao Hui lies in the water as if being embraced by the root of a giant tree.  This tree was truly a great find for the film for its numerous roots are not only poetically beautiful, but add symbolic weight to the film: the roots behind the events in this vignette are many, but Edmund Yeo leaves us only a few tantalizing clues and leaves it to our imaginations to fill in the blanks.   It’s an atmospheric and suspenseful tale that leaves us wanting to know more about these characters.    

You can watch Floating Sun as part of the Hungry Ghost Festival: 3 Doors of Horrors (鬼節:三重門, 2013) on Youtube.

Written, directed, and edited by:
Edmund Yeo

Executive producer: 
James Lee

Director of photography:
Lesly Leon Lee

Wong Woan Foon

Emily Lim as Fiona Yang
Candy Lee as Chen Xiao Hui
Daphne Lee as Fiona (teenager)
Steve Yap as Wai Loon
Candy Ice as Wai Loon’s wife
Azman Hassan as the security guard
Regina Wong as Teng

 Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013


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