30 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