31 January 2014

Combustible (火要鎮, 2012)

Fires and quarrels are the flowers of Edo, yet the greater essence is the fireman

The ancient city of Edo was known as the City of Fires because of the frequency and ferocity of its fires.  This was due to a combination of factors from the high flammability of the densely built wooden nagaya (長屋/row houses) to arson.  Between 1601 and 1867 alone, the city suffered nearly 1800 fires – 49 of them considered “great fires” that killed hundreds, if not thousands of people. 

The record of these fires appears in paintings, wood cuts, and scrolls – many of which can be viewed on the Institute for Fire Safety and Disaster Preparedness website – and the popular legends surrounding many of the fires have inspired everything from kabuki plays about the arsonist Yaoya Oshichi of the Great Fire of Tenna to Laura Joh Rowland’s mystery novel The Fire Kimono, which is set during the Great Fire of Meireki.  Popular manga-ka and animator Katsuhiro Ōtomo and his design team at Sunrise used woodblock print artists the inspiration for his unique animated short Combustible (火要鎮/Hinoyōjin, 2012).

Set in the 18th century, the story begins with the unfurling of a cloth-bound emakimono (scroll painting).  The camera tracks slowly left, in the direction that one reads a scroll, over a highly detailed depiction of 18th century Edo from the busy river, over the working class Shitamachi (low city) to the more affluent Yamanote (“foot hills” – or “high city” as in Edward Seidensticker’s 1984 book).  A male chorus sings a kiyari – a ritual song which was sung by hikeshi (Edo firefighters).  Traditional kiyari would list the tools needed by the firefights but with the words all drawn out like a chant. 

During the slow tracking shot, a hinomi-yagura (fire lookout tower) appears in the foreground to foreshadow the events to come.  The camera pauses in a large garden of the affluent home of a young girl called Owaka-chan (Saori Hayama).  Bored on her own in the garden, her spirits are lifted by the appearance of the boy next door, Matsuyoshi (Masakazu Morita), on the tiled garden wall.  A lyrical sequence ensues showing their varied play together, their agile figures dissolving in and out to show the passage of time as the garden subtly changes seasons. 

The children’s cheerful voices become a memory of the past as the camera dissolves to a red room with a hanging scroll painting of the garden on the wall.  Owaka is now a young lady in a formal kimono sitting with her mother.  The women’s response is interrupted by the sound of hanshō (alarm bells) in the distance.  Owaka’s mother sends a boy up onto the roof to the lookout to discover the location of the fire.  All across the black sky of Edo, men have climbed onto their roofs to observe the fire – all except Matsuyoshi.  He surprises the women by climbing the wall, running through their garden to escape from his family. 

The next scene shows Owaka as the dutiful daughter, serving her family’s guests under their watchful eyes.  As soon as she is in the privacy of her room, she weeps.  Owaka is much more adept at hiding her displeasure from her family than Matsuyoshi whose father has become violent with rage.  Matsuyoshi kneels on the floor in front of his father, his shirt sleeve torn off to reveal a tattooed arm.  The hikeshi firefighters – who normally came from the lower classes – were as heavily tattooed as today’s yakuza with water symbols such as dragons to give them courage and bring them good luck on the job.  It seems that Matsuyoshi has run away from home to become a heroic firefighter.

We hear Owaka and Matsuyoshi talking about the contrast between their childhood and their present situation against still scenes from Owaka’s empty house and garden.  Owaka is then seen reclining in apparent misery next to her koto – the stringed instrument she has doubtless had to learn to play in part of her training to be a nobleman’s wife.  Night falls and Owaka sits in her room with a beautiful wedding kimono and her elaborate trousseau.  A voice-over of her father’s bragging tells us that they are just waiting on the final touch: the obi for her wedding kimono.  Owaka sighs in misery and throws a fan across the room.  She doesn’t notice until it is too late that the fan has landed in her lantern.  Before long, the lantern bursts into giant flames.  Owaka’s first instinct is to run for help but then she reconsiders.  Perhaps this fire can alter the inevitability of her fate?  The drums and hanshō thrum loudly as the hikeshi firefighters gather to fight the fire as it rages through the Yamanote district.  Matsuyoshi is one of the brave men who nimbly ascend tall ladders onto the rooftops to assess the situation.  Will he be able to rescue Owaka or will her foolishness lead only to tragedy and devastation?

12th Century Animation (12 seiki no animation) / Isao Takahata
Isao Takahata

Watching Ōtomo’s short but masterful film, I was reminded of Isao Takahata’s fascinating illustrated book 12th Century Animation (十二世紀のアニメーション, 1999) which examines how the composition of Heian picture scrolls prefigure the techniques used in modern animation.  It even includes examples from picture scrolls that dramatically depict Heian era fire – a scroll that Ōtomo may be referring to in an interview with Asian Beat last summer.  Using a complex mixture of traditional and CGI animation techniques, Ōtomo and his team have created a film combines the quiet beauty of 18th century emakimono (picture scrolls) with the dynamism of CGI movement.  I particularly love the added touch of the letterboxing using traditional Japanese cloth instead of black bars.

This duality is expressed in the dramatic structure of the film.  As Ōtomo explains in Asia Beat, the first half of the film represents “stillness” and the second half “movement” with its “intense fire and action sequences”.  The slow tracking camera using mostly long and extreme long shots used in the first half contrasts with the fast cutting action shot from a variety of angles in the second half.  Similarly, the quiet sounds of garden birds of the early scenes are replaced by the drums and bells of the traditional dance music employed during the fire sequence as the film rages towards its abrupt end.  My two favourite shots in Combustible employ very different techniques: the glorious slow tracking opening establishing shot of Edo and the exciting CGI sequence of Matsuyoshi and his fellow firefighters flying up onto the rooftops by ladder.  As our POV ascends the tall building like a weightless crane shot, I believe I even said “wow” out loud at the sight of the rows of houses up in flames.  Fire and water are notoriously challenging for animators to get right and this film is a tour de force in the animation of fire. 

Available on the Short Peace DVD (JP only)
Short Peace BD (JP only)

Katsuyoshi Ōtomo won the Noburō Ōfuji Award for Combustible at the Mainichi Concours last year.  The film was also shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Animated Short and was nominated for the prestigious Annecy Cristal.  Although it started making the festival rounds in 2012, Combustible was theatrically released as part of the omnibus Short Peace alongside Shuhei Morita’s Oscar-nominated animated short Possessions (九十九/Tsukumo, 2013) as well as shorts directed by Hiroaki Ando and Hajime KatokiShort Peace was released on DVD and BD in Japan this month.  No word yet on any English DVD/BD/download release dates.  For fans of animation, the special limited edition BD is well worth the investment if you don’t mind the lack of English. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Katsuhiro Ōtomo
Makoto Kubota

Masakazu Morita (Matsuyoshi)
Saori Hayama (Owaka)

Character Design:
Hidekazu Ohara

Animation Director:
Tatsuya Tomaru

CGI Director:
Shūji Shinoda

Hidetsugu Ito
Hiroyuki Horiuchi
Koji Watanabe
Kouichi Arai
Mari Tominaga
Masaaki Endou
Shuichi Kaneko
Takahiro Tanaka

Background Art:
Junichi Taniguchi
Yoshiaki Honma

Effects Animation Director:
Takashi Hashimoto

Visual Concept:
Hidekazu Ohara

30 January 2014

Possessions (九十九, 2013)

Shuhei Morita’s Oscar-nominated animated short Possessions (九十九/Tsukumo, 2013) follows in the ancient tradition of yōkai (supernatural) stories.  Traditional Japanese culture is animistic.  They believe that all things have spirits or souls.  The spirits depicted in Morita’s original tale are tsukumogami (付喪神 – the Japanese title 九十九 is a homonym for tsukumo), which folklore expert Noriko Tsunoda Reider translates as “tool specters” (see: “Animating Objects”).  In other words, they are animate everyday household objects.  In the prototypical tsukumogami story, the tools or objects have become abandoned by their owners and the spirits have become embittered or vengeful. 

In Possessions, a tall strong man voiced by legendary seiyū  Kōichi Yamadera (Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Anpanman, etc.), becomes caught in a storm while travelling through a dense forest.  Set in the 18th century, the man is dressed in typical peasant clothes including a straw hat (kasa) and a straw raincoast (mino) (see: muza-chan).  On his back, he carries a himitsu-bako tool box on a stick.  The wind blows off his conical straw hat and leads him to an abandoned shrine built into a rocky hillside.  As he enters the shrine, the man politely remembers to ask the spirits residing in the shrine to forgive his intrusion and allow him to stay the night.  The shrine is full of what appears to be abandoned junk – one pile presciently resembling a face. 

The spirits dwelling in this shrine are not so easily appeased.  As the man closes his eyes and breathes deeply to recover from his difficult journey, the interior transforms into a clean and bare floor of 8 tatami with bull’s eye parasol shapes on the fusama (sliding doors).  The man looks around him in shock like a bull trapped in a pen and pinches his face to see if he is dreaming.  Suddenly the room is filled with ancient dancing parasols led by a small Parasol Frog (Jyanome Kaeru, voiced by Takeshi Kusao, who has lots of experience voicing frogs).  To appease the spirits the man opens his himitsu-bako tool box (see: About Japanese Puzzle Boxes) and sets about repairing all the paper parasols. 

This seems to work until the man slides open one of the fusama and finds himself in trapped another 8 tatami room with an elaborate tanmono (kimono fabric) design painted on its fusama.  The man tries to escape and is forced back into the room by tanmono tsukumogami (kimono fabric specters).  A beautiful kimono-clad woman (voiced by Aoi Yūki of Puella Magi Madoka Magica) depicted on the fusama asks him if he finds her beautiful like everyone else does, and he finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of tanmono fabric. He again turns to his tool box but is comically less skilled as sewing than he was at repairing parasols.  Can he appease this taunting spirit, or is there more in store for him?  This haunted shrine has more secrets up its sleeves before the twist at the end. 

In making this animated short for Sunrise’s Short Peace (ショート・ピース, 2013) anthology, Morita worked with a small core animation team including character designer Daisuke Sajiki (Coicent, Five Numbers), CGI animator Ryūsuke Sakamoto (Coicent, Five Numbers), art director Hideki Nakamura and animation veteran Hiroyuki Horiuchi doing key animation.

Available on the Short Peace DVD (JP only)
Short Peace BD (JP only)
It takes a lot to get me excited about CGI animation.  I much prefer the warmer textures of a traditional stop motion animation to the cold plasticity of mainstream 3D CGI animation.  Possessions; however, has won me over.  It has none of the coldness I associate with CGI.  It is a warmly textured piece that at times almost looks like characters and sets cut directly out of chiyogami paper.  According to Morita’s recent interview with Dan Sarto for AWN, he was inspired one day by the chiyogami paper his child was playing with at home.  Thus the central protagonist looks as though he has been constructed of traditionally patterned chiyogami and plain washi paper (paper made from traditional fibres).  The uses of other traditional colours and textures from the Hakone yosegi-zaiku (mixed wood) pattern of the tool box to the temari (embroidered balls) eyes of the final yōkai monster, are all cleverly executed.  This animation delights at every turn with its nods to traditional art and storytelling wrapped up in the modern package of three dimensional computer animation.  Shuhei Morita is really coming into his own as a director and well deserving of his Oscar nomination nod. 
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Direction and Screenplay: Shuhei Morita
Producer: Yasumasa Tsuchiya

Music: Reiji Kitazato

Kōichi Yamadera (Otoko)
Aoi Yuki (The Kimono Fabric Beauty / Tanmono Komachi/ 反物小町)

Takeshi Kusao (Bull’s Eye Parasol Frog / Jyanome Kaeru /蛇の目蛙)

23 January 2014

Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪, 2012)

“.  .  .  The old haunts of [bears and wolves] are now turned into plowed fields, 
and where they once roamed in unmolested freedom, 
you find in their stead children playing; 
where two decades ago you heard the hungry howl of wolves 
and the angry growl of bears, you hear the sweet notes of school songs.” 
– Nitobe Inazō, May 1906

The Lost Wolves of Japan (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books)

An extended version of the above quote appears in historian Brett L. Walker’s The Lost Wolves of Japan, which explores how wolves went from being revered creatures in ancient and medieval Japan to being hunted to extinction during the modernization period of the Meiji Restoration.  Mamoru Hosoda’s 2012 anime feature film Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪/ Ōkami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki, 2012) suggests that the wolves did not become extinct; but instead survived into the modern age becoming half human. 

The story is narrated by one of the wolf children, Yuki (Haru Kuroki), who recollects how her parents met.  Her mother Hana (Aoi Miyazaki) was a university student (the buildings are recognisably based on Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo) when she found herself drawn to a mysterious fellow student (Takao Ōsawa).  The man, known only as “Kare” (he/him/boyfriend), is a reluctant suitor but Hana’s kindness and patience wins him over.  Finally he reveals to Hana that he is actually an Ōkami-otoko (wolf man) and she accepts him for who he is.    Unlike the European werewolves of legend, who transformed under the light of a full moon and attacked humans, the wolf men of this tale are merely the result of interbreeding for survival.  The Ōkami-otoko in this film has shape shifting-abilities similar to the tanuki of Studio Ghibli’s anime Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994), who take on the guise of humans when their natural habitat in the Tama Hills is destroyed by urban sprawl.  The wolf-human hybrids in Hosuda’s original tale take on the shape-shifting abilities associated with foxes and tanuki of Japanese folk legend. 

amazon instant video: Wolf Children
Japanese BD/DVD: Wolf Children

Hana and Kare move in together and have two children Yuki and Ame (Snow and Rain) without the assistance of medical care, for fear that the doctors will discover the family’s secret.  They live in domestic bliss until one fateful day when Kare does not return home.  Hana takes the children out in the heavy rain to find him and discovers that he has had an accident and died in the river.  Hana struggles on her own as a single mother, unable to seek help because the children are prone to transforming into wolves whenever emotions run high - which is often with children.   The neighbours complain about the noise the children make when they play like wild animals in the apartment and howl.  Soon, the local authorities are becoming suspicious about the fact that the children have no public records. 

Fearing that their secret will be revealed, Hana moves with the children to the countryside.  After a time, they are accepted by the community but as the children get older they each have to come to terms with their dual identities.  Can they control their wolf instincts in order to integrate into human society or will the call of the wild be too great?  Each child takes their own path with unexpected results. 

Wolf Children has a gentle pace that will seem slow to anime fans used to action-packed weekly drama.  It is a film that invites us to reflect on our role as humans in the environment and how communities can function to either include or exclude people who are different or eccentric in some way.  Some parallels could be drawn between the struggles of the wolf children in the community and the struggles of people who are biracial to fit into society.  Can one be both identities or does one have to choose?

Above all, Wolf Children is a truly beautiful animation.  The wolf children are super-cute with and fun to watch at play – thanks mainly to the work of prolific character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, etc.).  The film’s depiction of idealised rural Japanese landscapes are reminiscent of another Studio Ghibli animation:  My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988).  The film is the first that Mamoru Hosoda under the auspices of his own animation studio, Studio Chizu, which he founded in 2011 with the aim of making feature film animation (Source).  Wolf Children was successful at the box office in Japan, beating out Pixar’s Brave in its first week, and went on to win Animation of the Year at the Japanese Academy Awards and Best Animation Film at the Mainichi Film Concours.  This suggests we can look forward to more auteur fare from Hosoda in the near future.   

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

#nc2013  #nippon13

19 January 2014

Ningyōgeki Sangokushi 2: The Storm of the Yellow Turbans

Puppet Theatre Romance of the Three Kingdoms
(人形劇 三国志 / Ningyōgeki Sangokushi, 1982-4, 45’ x 68, TV)

Episode 2: The Storm of the Yellow Turbans
黄巾の嵐 / Kōkin no Arashi (9 October 1982)

Central Characters in Order of Appearance:
Liu Bei 劉備玄徳 りゅうび げんとく
Zhang Fei 張飛翌徳 ちょうひ よくとく
Guan Yu 関羽雲長 かんう うんちょう
Sūrin  淑玲 すうりん
Mei Fan 美芳 めい ふぁん
Zhang Jue  張角 ちょうかく
Ron-Ron  々 ろんろん
Shin-Shin  々 しんしん
Lu Zhi  廬植 ろしょく

Episode Plot Summary:

Part I

  • Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto introduce some historical context (see more below) for this episode and wish their puppet counterparts, Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron luck.
  • Our three heroes, Liu Bei (Gentoku), Guan Yu (Kan-u), and Zhang Fei (Chōhi), approach the gates of the encampment of the Shōgun, Liu Bei’s former sensei Lu Zhi (Roshoku).  They have come to offer their help in quelling the Yellow Turban Rebellion (黄巾の乱/Kōkin no Ran).
  • The guards do not recognize them and do not want to let them in.  Here the constrasting characters of the three heroes are demonstrated: hot-headed Zhang Fei reacts with anger and indignation, Guan Yu is a moderator who tries to apply logic to the situation, and Liu Bei takes the kid glove approach to diplomacy, apologizing to the guards for the inconvenience and trying to win them over with polite words.
  • It turns out that the Shōgun is away and the guards have never heard of Liu Bei.  They eventually allow the men to enter the soldier encampment, but only if they surrender their arms and wait in isolation in a guarded tent.  Zhang Fei is insulted, but Liu Bei thinks that this a positive demonstration that the troops are well trained and well organised – they would be fools to let in people who may be Yellow Turbans (Kōkintō) in disguise.  Zhang Fei is unhappy about being unarmed and Guan Yu tries to reason with him.  Outside the tent, the head guard tells his troops to be wary that the three may be the enemy in disguise. 
  • Dusk at the camp: Zhang Fei is still restless in the tent. He declares that if her were the Shōgun the Yellow Turbans would have already been defeated by now.  Liu Bei points out that if the Yellow Turbans were defeated then their services would not be necessary.  Guan Yu is clearly tired of Zhang Fei’s complaints and suggests that they get some rest.  Guan Yu and Zhang Fei offer Liu Bei their only blanket as they feel he is superior in status to them (they refer to him as Aniki, or "older brother”).  Liu Bei insists that they are each other’s equals and should share.  Just as they are settling down back to back around the central pole of the tent the sound of drums and horse hooves interrupt the evening quiet.
  • Zhang Fei thinks it must be the Yellow Turbans advancing on the camp, but Liu Bei preaches calm suggesting that it could be the Shōgun returning.  Zhang Fei thinks that it would be an ideal way to show their support and bursts from the tent into the arms of the guards who push him back into the tent. 
  • Zhang Fei is still irritated and Liu Bei tries to explain to him that the guards are only following orders and they need to as well if their want to impress the Shōgun.  An army needs rules of engagement in order to distinguish themselves from a band of marauders like the Yellow Turbans.  The key terms that he uses are gunritsu (軍律/martial law) and kiritsu (規律/discipline).  Zhang Fei asks, “Isn’t it enough just to win?” and Liu Bei and Guan Yu disagree.  They point out that the Yellow Turbans are destroying and pillaging the villages of innocent people and for them that is not the work of an army.  Zhang Fei’s response it to vent his frustration by banging his head on the tent pole. 
  • Meanwhile, at Zhang Fei’s home, a group of Yellow Turbans raid the property and terrorize Zhang Fei’s wife Mei Fan and their guest Sūrin
  • Mei Fan puts up a fight and begs them not to hurt them.  The Yellow Turbans are not moved by her pleas and tell her that they will take them to their leader Zhang Jue (Chōkaku).  Sūrin shocks Mei Fan by declaring to the men that she thinks Zhang Jue will help them.  As they are taken away, a fiery arrow is shot into the thatched roof of the building, setting it alight.
  • Cutaway to Zhang Jue howling like an evil spirit: “Everything must BURN!”
  • Back at the Shōgun’s encampment the next morning, the three heroes have been given chores.  Zhang Fei is, of course, offended by this but Liu Bei says that it is a necessary task.  The guards are surprised and impressed by how hardworking the three seem to be, but they remain suspicious.  A comic scene ensues that begins with Zhang Fei “accidentally” throwing horse manure at the guards.  Then Guan Yu chops wood and a piece flies “accidentally” at the guards.  The three heroes seem to be having a little fun at the guards’ expense.
  • Another comic scene in which the three heroes fight about who gets to cook.  Zhang Fei gets a little over-enthusiastic and taste-tests all the soups until there is nothing left! In the next scene, the three heroes have their heads bent in apology, but “Shin-Shin” and “Ron-Ron”, the puppet counterparts of the series hosts Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto, arrive with a large cart filled with manjū (sweet bean buns) to save the day.   Zhang Fei is, of course, the first one to have a manjū in his hand, but he gets told off by the soldiers for eating everything else.
  • Meanwhile, Sūrin is in the cave to meet the leader of the Yellow Turbans, Zhang Jue.  When he finally appears, she introduces herself and praises him as having saved her grandfather and offers her support for his cause.  Zhang Jue says that he must leave on an errand and that they can talk upon his return.  Sūrin pulls out a knife and tries to strike him.  With the use of special effects that look like they were done with mirrors to make Zhang Jue look like a spirit flying away, Zhang Jue easily escapes her attack.  It turns out that Sūrin’s kind words were a ruse.  She shouts that she will avenge her family.  The scene ends with her crying out “Ken-Ken! Ojiisan!” for her murdered little brother and grandfather.  The final title card of Part I informs us that Sūrin’s “thinking heart” (恒心/kōshin) was unable to reach the heavens.

Part II

  • We return to Sūrin and Mei Fan who are now imprisoned in the dungeon.  Ron-Ron and Shin-Shin are standing guard wearing Yellow Turbans.  They comment on the fact that standing guard is a much easier task than transporting manjū.  Mei Fan begins to moan as if she is ill.  Ron-Ron and Shin-Shin enter the prison cell to see if they can help. Sūrin screams that there is a mouse, and as Ron-Ron and Shin-Shin look for the non-existence creature, the women make their escape and lock the two fools in the cell.
  • Meanwhile, the Yellow Turban rebels are gathered on horseback.  Zhang Jue is preparing his troops for attack with a speech declaring that they have nearly defeated the Chinese army with their great strategy.  Only a handful of soldiers remain.  He declares that they will come at them from two sides and crush them.  He cries: “The Blue Era comes to an end and the Yellow will take over!”
  • Back at the Shōgun’s camp, the guards have fallen asleep on duty.  The Yellow Turbans stab them easily.  Inside their tent, our three heroes become aware that something is going on.  Unarmed, they take on the rebels.  Guan Yu takes down two rebels and commandeers a weapon to attack another on horseback.  To a modern jazzy score, Liu Bei and Zhang Fei join Guan Yu in defense of the camp.  One of the rebels goes to warn the others that there are warriors defending the camp.  Our three heroes discover that all of the guard are asleep with have eaten manjū in their hands.  It seems that Ron-Ron and Shin-Shin had delivered manjū spiked with sleeping medication.  Zhang Fei is relieved that he was prevented from eating them.
  • The next morning, the cry of a rooster wakes the camp.  Zhang Fei complains that he didn’t get a wink of sleep.  The guard tells them that the Shōgun has arrived.  The head of the soldiers is in the Shōgun’s tent taking credit for warding off the rebels.  Zhang Fei overhears and is incensed, but Guan Yu restrains him.  The Shōgun exits the tent to welcome his former student, Liu Bei.  Guan Yu and Zhang Fei introduce themselves.  Liu Bei refers to the Shōgun as sensei.  The head soldier stands behind the Shōgun with his mouth agape as he realizes that the Shōgun really does know Liu Bei and is pleased to see them.  Liu Bei has come to return a favour to his former sensei.  The Shōgun is glad of their support – Zhang Fei is delighted to finally have something useful to do.  The Shōgun says that Chōkaku’s magic is making things difficult for the regular army.  Zhang Fei is certain that they can beat the rebels. 
  • Our three heroes tour the battlefields and express their sorrow at the death and devastation caused by the Yellow Turbans.  They fear they have come too late.   
  • A crow caws from the top of a haystack.  Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron are on the trail of the escaped women.  Sūrin and Mei Fan continue to outsmart them. 
  • Our three heroes see a prison cart being drawn by a horse.  They are shocked to discover that Lu Zhi Sensei has been taken prisoner by his own men.  A general from the imperial court came to see how things were going on the battlefront.  Lu Zhi asked for more time but because he had no money to bribe the general with, a report of his failings was taken back to the emperor (Mikado).  Lu Zhi has been displaced as Shōgun and is being taken back to the capital in a cage.  It seems the corrupt official told the emperor that Lu Zhi had been hiding rather than fighting the enemy and the emperor promoted someone else to take over as Shōgun.  Lu Zhi will be taken to the capital and humiliated.  .  .  and even faces the threat of execution.  Zhang Fei wants to free Lu Zhi.  Lu Zhi feels that he has enough supporters in the capital and will try via political means to redeem himself.  The regretfully allow the party to pass. 
  • Zhang Fei throws himself on the ground in frustration.  He thinks he should have just stayed at home and drank sake.  Liu Bei thinks they should consider joining forces with the new Shōgun.  Guan Yu has heard that the man appointed Shōgun is a real wind bag.  If that is the case, then Zhang Fei threatens to fight him, but Guan Yu points out that this would hurt Liu Bei’s cause.  Zhang Fei gets fed up and leaves in a huff.  
  • Left on their own, Guan Yu wonders aloud if he should go after Zhang Fei but Liu Bei says that he’ll come back once he’s calmed himself down.  The men laugh.  Cut to Zhang Fei who is grumbling to himself as he rides.  He worries that the others will be mad at him and wonders what he can say to apologize to his comrades when he goes back.  He suddenly catches the scent of sake in the wind.
  • In the next scene, Zhang Fei is drunk and shouting about sake.  Flags that read sake () indicate that Mei Fan and Sūrin have set up the business again.  Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron, still in their Yellow Turbans, are spying on them from behind some rocks.  Sūrin asks Zhang Fei how Liu Bei is doing.  Zhang Fei drunkenly claims to have nothing more to do with Lui Bei.  Sūrin jumps to Liu Bei’s defense.  Zhang Fei compliments Sūrin and she tells him to get lost. 
  • In the next scene, night has fallen and Zhang Fei is passed out outside on his back and snoring heavily.  Mei Fan and Sūrin huddle near the open fire – they can’t sleep with all that racket.  Suddly they hear hooting sounds and see that Zhang Fei is being dragged off by his feet.  “Scary!” shouts Sūrin before both women are knocked unconscious by unseen arms. 
  • Liu Bei and Guan Yu come to the remains of the fire and wonder what’s happened.  Guan Yu spots Zhang Fei’s shoe. They realize that something has happened to Zhang Fei and go off in search of him.
  • At the camp of the Yellow Turban rebels, Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron are tying up Zhang Fei and congratulating themselves.  They hear a dog barking and fall into the same trap they played on the ladies – it’s Guan Yu to the rescue!  Guan Yu beats up Shin-Shin and Ron-Ron without the other rebels noticing and unties Zhang Fei.  Together they take on the rebels, giving Liu Bei an opportunity to sneak in and rescue the ladies.
  • Back at the sake tent, everyone is reunited.  Zhang Fei begs “aniki” ( honorable brother) Guan Yu for forgiveness.  They aren’t given much time to enjoy their reunion however as arrows begin to fly into their camp, startling their horses.  They duck behind barrels and look to their hills.  They are surrounding by the Yellow Turban Rebels.  The music here is reminiscent of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.
  • Our hosts hilariously comment of what a terrible disaster this is.  “They are in a big pinch!” (大ピンチ!Dai-Pinchi!)

Historical Context:

Part I

The comic hosts, Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto, introduce this episode using historical artifacts in the form of figurines called Kojinyō  (胡人俑/こじんよう) of men and horses.  Kojinyō are terracotta Han Dynasty figurines.  The most famous terracotta figures in China are the Terracotta Army of the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang (260-201BC) which were discovered in 1974, but he was not the only historical figure to be buried with such funerary statues.  The practice continued into the Han Dynasty – one of the most significant burial sites discovered is the Tomb of the Chu King Liu Wu (????-154BC) which was discovered in 1984.

What has always struck me as truly remarkable about the terracotta figures of ancient China is the attention to detail given to figures which were made to be buried.  For us today, these figurines are not only a physical historical record of these ancient peoples who lived more than two thousand years ago, but they are also a demonstration of how deeply the people of that time believed in the afterlife.  The horses depicted in this episode of Sangokushi are wonderfully expressive – and as this episode features horses extensively it is particularly fitting. 

They also introduce a pair of figurines that they call Manzai Figurines (漫才俑/まんざいよう).  I presume this is in reference to the Manzai comedy tradition.  I don’t know how far this tradition goes back in Japan, but my understanding of Manzai comedy is that it is similar to what we would call a comedy double act in English.  Like Abbott and Costello or George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Manzai comedy team (manzaishi) consists of a straight man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke) who talk at great speed and engage in a variety of word play.  The Manzai tradition is particularly associated with Kansai-ben (the dialect of the Osaka region) and in this adaptation of Sangokushi, the hosts Shinsuke Shimada and Ryūsuke Matsumoto are just such a pair.  Even my fluent husband struggles with their Kansai-ben banter as he learned Japanese in Tokyo and Hokkaido, so often the jokes in these historical interludes go right over our heads.  

We also became aware in this episode of the expression “Han blue”.  Through a bit of investigation I discovered that “Han purple” and “Han blue” are dyes that were developed in ancient China and were used from the Western Zhou period (1045–771 BC) until the end of the Han dynasty (c. 220 AD).  Made from barium copper silicate pigments, there apparently are no extant records of how they experimented with the raw materials (barium mineral, quartz, copper mineral, and lead salt) to make the dye.  Han purple and Han blue were used in paints on terracotta statues from the Han period.  In this episode, the soldiers of Lu Zhi’s army wear blue uniforms with red vests and red cloth draped from their helmets.   This is in contrast to the rebels with their yellow turbans and yellow vests. 

Part II

The second half of this episode introduces another type of historical record from ancient times: the iryō mokukan (医療木簡/いりょうもくかん).  Iryō refers to medical care and mokukan are long, narrow, thin pieces of wood which were strung together and written upon in ancient times.  The ancient Egyptians, the narrators explain, had used papyrus since at least 3,000 BC.  As papyrus plants are indigenous to Africa, I presume this was not an option in ancient China unless it was imported. 

Paper made from pulp had only been developed in China in the century before the Three Kingdoms period by a court eunuch by the name of Cai Lun (c. 50-121AD) and had revolutionized trade and communication.  Before the availability of paper, practitioners of medicine in China recorded their recipes for treating ailments on strips of wood – as in the recent discovery of 950 bamboo strips attributed to the physician Bian Que (c.401-310BC). 


I was really impressed by the use of the horse puppets in this episode and would love to find some behind the scenes footage of how they did it.  I wonder how many puppeteers were needed to execute the scenes in which the horses are galloping in a long shot.  It would have been much easier to use a medium shot of the men sitting upon the horses, but actually having the legs in frame required much greater planning and careful execution.  I was also amused by the frequency of shots with horse rear ends in the background and to the side of the screen – a constant reminder that this was a time when horses were essential to humans on the move.

In terms of cinematography, there are so many things that are impressive about this series from the depth of frame to the lighting of the night / cave scenes.  When Sūrin confronts Zang Jue they seem to have used mirrors and superimposition in order to make him look like a ghostly shape-shifting creature – an inventive but cost-effective way to do the special effects.   

When our three heroes walk through the devastation of the battle scene, it actually occurred to me why puppets work so well for this adaptation of The Three Kingdoms.  The puppet designer, Kihachirō Kawamoto, in speaking about his independent puppet animation films, has said that puppets are ideal for the depiction of historical and mythical figures because they inhabit their own puppet world (a concept he learned from many puppet masters he himself admired – particularly the Czech puppet animation legend Jiří Trnka).   In the case of The Three Kingdoms, because the death and destruction are in the puppet world and not the real human world, it gives us an objectivity that the emotive depiction of real corpses would not.  I would imagine that this series would be a useful tool for teaching young children Chinese history / literature because the brutality of the war scenes is only suggested rather than graphically depicted.  A live action portrayal of the violence of the Three Kingdoms period would limit the audience to over 18.  Add to this, the addition of humour to the proceedings, and I imagine it would be very successful with children indeed.

 Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014
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17 January 2014

Coicent (コイ☆セント, 2011)

The year is 2710 and the city of Nara is celebrating the 2000th anniversary of the relocation of the capital city of Japan to Nara.  A larger-than-life hologram of the legendary Queen Himiko (170-248AD) of Wa (ancient Japan) welcomes visitors in the style of a modern day tourist group leader.  Teenager Shinichi (Kensho Ono) and his buddy are enraptured by Himiko’s beauty and hope that they will meet girls as beautiful as her during their stay in Nara.  Before he can get very far, a strange white shika deer (Kappei Yamaguchi) steals his bag and Shinichi gives chase.

In a parallel story we learn that Himiko has been brought back to life by Madame President (Masako Isobe) using a mysterious robotic technology for a purpose that is equally mysterious.  But as in many a sci-fi story (Chobits, Yokohama Todaishi KikōTime of Eve), this android-human hybrid develops her own feelings and desires.  Himiko tries to escape her creator and her two henchmen sons (Aniki is voice by Testsu Inada and Otōto by Takehito Koyasu) who resemble clowns seem more powerful because they are riding on red and blue oni (demons).  Our heroine climbs out of the giant President’s building and through the bumbling of one of the henchmen brothers gets knocked falls from the tower onto the back of the white shika deer where she is inadvertently “rescued” by Shinichi.  Himiko disguises her identity by transforming herself into a teenage girl called "Toto" and Shinichi is awestruck.  They tour Nara together and begin to fall in love.  Will this teenage romance have a happy ending or will Himiko be recaptured by her creator Madame President?  It’s a wild and unpredictable, but thoroughly entertaining journey easily enjoyed at just 26 minutes.  Be sure to watch the end credits or else you will miss out on the dancing shika!!

When Sunrise animation studio announced Coicent (コイ☆セント/Koisento, 2011) back in 2010, they dubbed it a “super science-fiction romantic comedy” (ANN), and it certainly does have a smattering of each of those genres.  It’s a fantastic blend of old Japan, new Japan, and future Japan, with skyscrapers, shrines and Buddha statues cropping up close together like the layers on a pop-up storybook.  Viewers unfamiliar with the historical and mythological figures and symbols might be scratching their head at the goings on, but die-hard anime-fans are used to head-scratching.  The central character, Shinichi, scratches his own head quite a bit as he is thrown from one surprising scenario into the next and we as the audience go through a similar range of emotions from bemusement to surprise and delight. The character designs and backgrounds are all spectacular.  

Shinichi's inadvertent rescue of Toto aka Himiko

The only drawback to Coicent for me is its unfortunate official “English” title.  I would have much preferred Koisento or Koisento to this nonsense pseudo-English.  The title is a bit ambiguous in katakana, but I would presume that the “koi” is meant to be “love”.  “Sento” could be a number of things, but my educated guess from the context of the film is that it refers to the moving of the capital (遷都).  The capital city of Japan has moved many times throughout history – its location was traditionally dependent upon where the emperor was living.  Tokyo has been the capital since 1868 (the beginning of the Meiji era).  Before that it was in Kyoto for nearly 7 centuries.  Nara was the capital during the reign of many emperors, the last being during the Nara Period up until the death of Emperor Kammu in 794. 
Cast dance sequence from the closing credits

Director Shūhei Morita (森田修平, b. 1978) was nominated this week for the Oscar for Best Animated Short for Possessions (九十九/Tsukumo), his contribution to the Short Peace (2013) omnibus.  Morita grew up in Nara – which would explain the wealth of imagery from both the historical and mythological past of the region – and graduated from Kyoto University of Art and Design in 2001.  He has done animation work for MTV Japan, the NHK, and Studio 4°C.  Since forming his own studio Yamato-Works in 2003 he was been developing his own independent animation vision in collaboration with other production companies. 

Coicent can be found on Hulu in the US.  In the US it also shares a Blu-ray with the short anime Five Numbers! (ノラゲキ!, Hiroki Ando, 2011): Coicent / Five Numbers [Blu-ray]. The film has its own stand-alone DVD and Blu-ray in Japan:

Koisento / Animation
Koisento DVD or Blu-ray (JP only, no EN subs or dubs)

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014


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